First of all, I read this book along while listening to the live improvisational reading, available on Bandcamp here. I think it’s absolutely possible to enjoy this collection without it — there are a few poems in the book that weren’t in the reading — but Harmony Holiday’s low, steady reading and the improvisational jazz accompaniment enhanced the experience for me. (There’s also a soundtrack for it on Spotify here.)
A Jazz Funeral For Uncle Tom takes work to read. It seemed sparse at first: 60 pages, many of them fragments pasted as if in a scrapbook next to photos of grinning lips, a hand holding a knife, someone fixing their hair. But the poems themselves are dripping with images, with winding, wending sentences that pivot on certain words to twirl around fear, love, hate, and loss. Holiday wheels from Jim Crow to Justin Bieber, drawing from centuries of Black experience for her lyric and prose fragments.
The character Uncle Tom is most vividly seen in those fragments, where a voice speaks to him in short exchanges that range from concrete to surreal. But the Uncle Tom that has roamed Black America for centuries is given new life in interrogations of modern consumerism, of the consumption of Black bodies that hunger to be eaten whole. Holiday digs into toxic masculinity, too — Uncle Tom (the character) earned his freedom from slavery “dancing as a stripper for his white slave mistresses,” and as a freeman continues to serve white women while beating his Black wife. Uncle Tom (the concept) offers himself and a microphone to be swallowed by eager milky mouths, only to go home and tear apart a woman who loves him.
Through it all, Harmony Holiday plays with language by, among other things, code-switching within her work: “so much time wasted trying to prove that hell exists it’d be faster if you’d just up and go there with yo eclectic taste having nirvana meets sade loving ass”. Seeing such a close approximation of the way I speak — jazz references and poetic turns of phrase included — was both a shock and a delight. Holiday paints elaborate images of front porches and church pews with nuance and grace, her voice shining through to highlight not only her experience, but those of so many Black women today.
A Jazz Funeral For Uncle Tom is still not entirely accessible to me, however. There are references to historical events, to musicians, to people and places I have never heard of before. But the allure of Harmony Holiday’s intricate prose and poetry has me hungry for a deeper understanding that I fully intend to gain. This is certainly not a book for everyone: if you do not have the patience for this dense, at times obscure, poetry, maybe this is not a good fit for you. But if you’re into jazz, Black womanhood, and lines that go for the throat like “In what season do we decide that being eaten is a better fate than being craved,” then I think it’s time you read this book.