Saturday, January 16, 2010

New Book Examines Contradictions and Warring Mythologies of 'American History' and its Narrative Conceits


Renowned Detroit poet, playwright, and cultural critic Bill Harris has written a dynamic new book that through a creative synthesis of various literary and musical forms and structures (rooted in the folk and narrative traditions of the quintessential U.S. aesthetic expressions Jazz and Blues), confronts and critically examines the complex dimensions and nuances of the confluences and often warring conceptions of myth and history governing our dubious, conflicted, and authentic notions of 'truth and reality'. These conflicts and challenges take place in a country conceived in and largely controlled by the stark and heinous historical legacies of slavery, genocide, racial, class, and gender oppression and exploitation, imperial hubris, and an equally pathological desire to ignore, dismiss, or avoid the profound and painful implications and consequences of this extremely vexed and destructive history/mythology. This bizarre tradition of course continues its fervent and self immolating direction today as we all well know--or at least those of us in the contentious 'American vein' who still wish to recognize these truths, take social and spiritual responsibility for their existence and critically act upon what they represent and reveal to us...


Excerpt from Birth of a Notion; Or, The Half Ain’t Never Been Told: A Narrative Account with entertaining Passages of the State of Minstrelsy & of America & the True Relation Thereof (From the Ha Ha Dark Side)

by Bill Harris

Wayne State University Press 2010


Close up: Frederick Douglass (1818?-

1895) Orator. Abolitionist,

former slave sits for his portrait.

The photographer, under the velvet drape,

hides from the inverted eyes, agate-hard &

looking through the boxes’ lens, seeing,

through the shutter & plate, down the bellows & through him & the hand

writing on the wall, & beyond. He does not implore the negro to smile.

Hand trembling, releases the shutter. Snap. Douglass holds, does not blink.

Bushfire mane. Plow rutted brow. Broad nostril’d.

Lips a thin gash through his beard.

Montage: British friends purchase his freedom.

Founds the abolitionist paper The North Star.

North Star. Celestial point for northward navigation.

End jewel in Little Dipper "handle";

in ancient times Ursa Minor was the Dragon's wing.

Fly away! Fly away! Follow the North Star, Fly away!

The North Star. "Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color —

God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren,"

is its motto.

Douglass exits the Orpheum having seen his

first minstrel show. The laughter a wasp in his ear.

He holds the programme rolled like a switch.

Strides rapidly toward the Assembly Hall.

A passerby speaks. He does not hear them but he nods.

We see him now in slow motion. Like he is wading,

knee deep against the current, eyes keen, fixed.



Lecture to commence at ½ past 7

The North Star is a stick. A big stick assault

on slavery’s aspects & forms. Swagger stick.

Carrot & stick of promised recompense & threat.

A goad, prod & pike to hasten the day

of universal emancipation for the 3 million still in slavery.

A jackstraw, a wand.

Each edition, column & line is a crabstick,

linstock, a staff promoting the moral &

intellectual improvement of (faceless) colored people.

It is a bail, a baton, a single stick. A switch.

Raising welts on Jim Crow’s buttocks.

Leaning forward, arms straight as rails; fingers talons

on the oak podium, he reads them, sitting stern, earnest,

clinch mouthed, foreheads rucked like washboards. Solemn as stele.

Trying to summon up a song, gurgle & hock it up

like phlegm, a spirit-song—of the harmony of their labor—

so he can spit it out at them—a jigging song—

a song of gladness in the task—of the depth of the evil

& foolishness flaming all around them—

with a high stepping melody for strides with a kick

at the end of each one—for crossing all lines & boundaries.

His fist about to clinch, rise, elbow bent, to beat,

like a drumstick against the Meeting Hall air,

thick as cotton lint,

2, 3, 4!

Douglass, essayist, autobiographer, is proof

coloreds ought have more than aught voice in their emancipation.

He, future counselor to Lincoln, & ambassador to Haiti,

in a last minute change announces minstrelsy as his topic.

He brands it an entertainment which holds “up to ridicule

an already too much oppressed people . . .” Its perpetrators

he nails as, “filthy scum,” who pretend their foolish representations

“are the characteristics of the whole people.”

Psalms 92:3-7 his text, its cadence is its context.

Not for their lack of loving kindness,

but their failure of acknowledgement or penance

he hews into them like a chorus of whet-edged axes into punk wood.

The collection plates brimmed to overflowing.

Bill Harris is a playwright, poet, and professor of English at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His numerous New York productions include Stories About the Old Days, starring S. Epatha Merkerson and Denzel Washington; and Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, with Guy Davis. His books of poems include Yardbird Suite: Side One, a bio poem of jazz musician Charlie Parker (Michigan State University Press), and The Ringmaster's Array (Past Tents Press). There are two novels in progress.

Birth of a Notion; Or, The Half Ain't Never Been Told
A Narrative Account with Entertaining Passages of the State of Minstrelsy & of America & the True Relation Thereof
(From the Ha Ha Dark Side)
By Bill Harris

Available May 2010
Size: 5.5 x 8.5, Pages: 228, Illustrations: 45
Subjects: Fiction and Poetry
Series: Made in Michigan Writers Series
Paper - 9780814334089
Price: $18.95t


In Birth of a Notion, poet and playwright Bill Harris confronts contemporary stereotypes and prejudices by looking back to their roots in early American history. In a hybrid work of prose and poetry that takes its cues from nineteenth-century minstrelsy, Harris speaks back to preconceived notions about “blackness” through many different characters and voices. His narrative is at turns sarcastic, serious, wry, and lyrical, as he investigates the source of pervasive racist images and their incorporation into American culture.

Harris takes readers on a tour of nineteenth-century American history, from the 1830s and the rise of the abolitionist movement, to Reconstruction and the Industrial Revolution in the 1860s, and to the beginning of the twentieth century. He considers cultural productions that gave rise to America’s idea of the “new Negro,” including the development of minstrelsy as popular entertainment, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the museum curios of P. T. Barnum, and the exhibitions of “exotic” people at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Along the way, Harris interjects a range of symbols, word-play, and famous personalities into his narrative, referring to everyone from Karl Marx, Uncle Sam, Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, and Walt Whitman. He ends with the development of jazz and the blues as cultural products that would become important vehicles for self-representation in the new century.

Harris’s fast-paced narrative interspersed with graphic elements shows the importance of point-of-view in creating history, which always contains some elements of fiction as a result. Anyone interested in poetry, American history, and African American studies will appreciate Birth of a Notion.

Published by Wayne State University Press