The Novella As A Medley

Being as old as art itself, the concept of appropriation expounds and challenges crucial topics in the art world such as authorship, originality and intellectual property. With the development of digital media, new forms of communication have emerged, and sharing, exchanging and copying became an everyday operation. Akademie Schloss Solitude is taking up the controversial debate about the concepts of plagiarism and appropriation in a two-year project on the status of the author in the 21st century. Starting point will be the workshop »Quotes & Appropriation«, February 19 and 20, 2015, which will be opened by a reading/performance by former fellow Theodore Wheeler. The writer from Omaha/NE, USA will be showing his way of exercising appropriation: The presentation of his latest book On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown (Edition Solitude 2015, available as an e-book will include historical photographs of Omaha and popular American film and music from the World War I era, illustrating the production of a novella as a combination of primary historical sources, literary influences, and original prose, »suggesting that a book is as much as about the process of its creation as it is about its content.«

Read a first extract of Wheeler’s book On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown.

Willy Brown lived in the Gibson neighborhood of South Omaha, not far from the stockyards where he worked when he could find work. He didn’t have a job, though, not in 1919. It was hard enough for whites and wouldn’t have been any easier for a black man. When he wasn’t working he would have stayed in the neighborhood during the day and looked for a newspaper on a park bench. He wasn’t far from Deer Park, and right next to Riverview Park, you shouldn’t forget. He’d spend his days looking in dailies to puzzle together meaning from what he could read and from the pictures. It was the Red Summer. There were riots, labor strikes, women raped all the time, hundreds of blacks lynched. The dailies ran so many of those articles, whipping up a frenzy. Willy Brown would have known it wasn’t true what the Bee said was true. No black men were responsible for twenty rapes that summer. Twenty rapes of white girls in Omaha alone, in just the first half of 1919. It was happening all over the country, America’s blood lust, that Red Summer. Even if he couldn’t read every word in the Bee, Willy Brown still had ears. He would have known what was going on in Tennessee, in Washington DC. The bad stuff in Harlem and Chicago. In this city too, in Omaha. Willy Brown would have heard about it.

He was forty years old. Pock-marked with a small mustache. He came from Cairo, Illinois. Most black folks in Omaha were from the South, or displaced from East Saint Louis by the riots there in 1917. They didn’t have to worry about the boll weevil in Nebraska. They didn’t have to worry about Mississippi River floods or Jim Crow, not like they did down there. Some people said Willy Brown got a girl pregnant and a judge in Cairo said they had to marry. That’s how he ended up in Omaha, running out on that girl. It might have been true. Men like Willy moved around so much it was hard to say what made them go from one place to the next. Maybe Willy Brown didn’t even know where he was born exactly. Maybe he didn’t know who his parents were.

Not many blacks were in Omaha before the Great War. A couple thousand maybe, who worked as cooks, maids, coachmen or drivers. They could work for the Postal Service. That was a good job. There were a few doctors, lawyers, preachers, musicians—up in their own neighborhood. It was different during the war and after. The ones who got here later mostly worked the stockyards. A lot of them were scabs or took the jobs of white doughboys who fought in the war.

All of them were supposed to live in the Near North, but not all did. If they lived on the river or near the animal stench of the stockyards nobody would care. Those weren’t nice places, but in some cases it was better living south of the city, by the river and the slaughterhouses, so you wouldn’t have far to go for work.

On our street, it was Germans. Our fathers were warehouse workers, pig lead smelters, mutton slaughterers, tenement intellectuals, one guy who played the tuba in the brass band at the Omaha Musik Verein. The big shots we knew were men who made foreman at a creamery.

There were six of us boys who ran together. We were in charge on our street among those too young to work. We were twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old, at the end of boyhood. Rudi, Ingo, Jakob, Albert, Charlie Pfister and his half-brother Joe Meinhof. When we talk about it now, the street we grew up on seems unreal. Playful noises came from most houses, the cheery clatter of domestic chores. On the walkways, sweethearts, arm-in-arm, struggled to find privacy as clans of excited kids escaped their houses before the sun set. Dogs let their tongues wag in the heat, bellies bulging in the dirt, full of table scraps, chicken intestines and pork rib bones. We swarmed any truck as soon as it splashed into our muddy alley, or shimmied out on the white limbs of sycamores to see what was in back, hoping it was watermelons. Both kids and grownups devised ways to savor the evening. Charlie knew an Irish girl a few blocks over who, for a penny, would let us see but not touch the orange hair that grew among the freckles of her pubis. There was violence on our street too. People drank a lot. They fought. Bad things happened sometimes. But enough good things happened to remember it as good, and that’s how we talked about it, if we did talk about it, once we were older.

Text by Theodor Wheeler