Call Me Ishmael
ISHMAEL REED'S OFFICE IS completely bare. None of the cliched paraphernalia of a prolific writer can be found in this immaculate room. Not a single crumpled wad of paper, not one disjointed scribbled phrase nor even a teetering pile of books. The white walls are blank, the metal bookshelves are empty, neither a scrap of paper nor a mote of dust disturbs the woodgrain desk.
The only evidence of life in this room is Ishmael Reed himself, who sits casually behind the desk, a blue-and-white scarf wrapped around his neck. His iconoclastic modesty makes it obvious he is not comfortable at the center of this empty office; he talks as though he would rather be writing--alone and somewhere else.
Ishmael Reed, who is a visiting professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard this semester, is the author of seven novels, four books of poems, two collections of essays and editor and publisher of several anthologies. He has been hailed as a dominant voice in a new era of the Afro-American tradition. Literary critics describe him as the man who has overcome the conventions that limited Afro-American literature, as one who has successfully combined seemingly unrelated elements of Black written and oral expression to redefine the possibilities of the novel as a literary form.
Commentators call him bold, original, experimental, difficult, exciting and funny. He has been praised as a pioneering post-modernist, shouted down as a strident sexist, dismissed as a mere satirist, but he insists that he eludes all simple labels and rejects the legitimacy of categorization.
As he rejects simple characterization of his own work, he also refuses to accept the common vision of the world as divided into neat little oppositional packages like male/female, black/white, good/bad. While this attitude might be expected to result in nihilism, Reed's refusal to compartmentalize offers the possibility of an alternative system of connections not recognized by current society.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor of English at Cornell University, says, "Reed names things for us, out loud, both that which we often do not even admit to ourselves--the private emotions--as well as those economic and racial relations by which this society seeks to regulate our lives, the invisible network within which we are bound, and which few will admit exists. Reed has the prophet's gift of vision. He tells us not only who we are, and where we as a society are, but why."
ISHMAEL SCOTT REED WAS BORN in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 22, 1938, to Henry Lenoir, a fundraiser for the YMCA and Thelma Coleman, a homemaker and sales clerk. Later, his mother married Bennie Reed, an auto worker. In 1942, Reed moved with his mother to Buffalo, New York, where his mother worked in various wartime industries. As a teenager, he half-heartedly attended Buffalo public schools, he wrote a jazz column for a local newspaper in his spare time.
He began his college education at the University of Buffalo's night school, supporting himself as a clerk in the public library during the day. Reed had begun creative writing at the age of 14, and one of his short stories turned out to be his ticket out of night school and into the bachelor of arts curriculum at the University of Buffalo.
His satirical story, "Something Pure," in which the Second Coming is incarnated in an advertising agent whose unorthodox sales techniques earn him hatred and ridicule, alerted an English professor to Reed's gifts as a storyteller and parodist.
While a student at the university from 1956 to 1960, Reed developed his pastiche style, he says, as a result of the contradictory influences of traditional canonical English professors and linguists who helped him understand the potential of Afro-American vernacular in literature.
Reed withdrew from the college for financial reasons and moved into Buffalo's low-income Black housing projects to define himself "against the artificial social and class distinctions associated with American university education," he says. Life there was "a horrible experience" because of his growing awareness that no individual, no matter how well-intentioned, could change these basic conditions of poverty. This experience led Reed to a period of intense political activism during the late civil rights movement and the early stages of the Black power movement.
Currently, Reed chooses not to be involved in any overtly political activity, but his novels continue to wrestle with social problems. "`Political' doesn't mean anything anymore," he says. "When a novelist takes on social issues, his work is dismissed as a diatribe, not taken seriously." More than American apathy, Reed criticizes the "white elitist media" for being overly "under-class happy."
"The presence of Black people in America is a blessing, because it lets Americans escape responsibility for themselves by saying that Blacks have all the problems, like crack and welfare and teenage pregnancy," he says.
REED BEGAN HIS PROFESSIONAL career as a staff correspondent with the Buffalo Empire Star Weekly. During the summer of 1961, Reed and the Star's editor co-hosted a controversial radio roundtable which presented political opinions and personalities even further left than the civil rights activists. The radio station cancelled the program after Reed interviewed Malcolm X, the leader of Nation of Islam, the Black nationalist movement.
In 1962, Reed moved from Buffalo to New York City and became actively involved in the birth of the Black arts and Black power movements as well as various underground integrated political-cultural organizations. He served as editor of Advance, a Newark, New Jersey weekly and then moved on to found the East Village Other, the first non-conventional newspaper to achieve national circulation. He also participated in the Umbra Workshop, a Black writers' group which "began the influorescene of Black Poetry as well as other recent styles of Afro-American writing," he says. In 1966, he published his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers to enthusiastic critical reception.
Reed left New York in 1967 to move to Berkeley, California and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley ever since as well as a variety of other institutions across the country.
In the 70s, Reed established publishing companies intended to expand the idea of what texts and which authors make up the canon of American literature, a national literature which includes "Chicano and Chinese, Yiddish and Native American, Anglo-Saxon and Afro-American, multicolored and multivocal," says Reed.
Reed wages constant war against what Northrop Frye calls "the lumber of stereotypes, fossilized beliefs, superstitious terrors, crank theories, pedantic dogmatisms, oppressive fashions and all other things that impede the free movement of society." He refuses to use buzz-words or catch-phrases with the easy eloquence of a critic. He refuses to label himself as part of any tradition, be it post-modernist, anti-feminist, even Afro-American. He refuses to talk in categories--when asked about Black writing, he talks about Native Americans, Italian-Americans and any
other hyphenated group he can think of.
Erskin Peters, chairman of the Afro-American
Studies department at the University of California
at Berkeley, describes Reed as a "gadfly" when it
comes to getting books published. "He is very good
at getting publishers to address issues of
neglected groups and writers. He will call them or
visit them and ask them why they neglect certain
groups. If they say they don't have any of this
material, he will present them with some of his on
the spot," says Peters.
REED'S AGGRESSIVE STREAK appears throughout his
writing--his attack on everything Americans hold
dear has made him one of the most controversial
Afro-American writers. He has established his
presence as an artist not by repeating and
revising the great Black literary tradition of
writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright,
but "by challenging the formal conventions that
these texts share through the arts of satire and
parody," says Gates.
Gates describes the works of Black writers as
occupying space simultaneously in two
traditions--the European or American literary
tradition and a distinct Black tradition. The
result is that "every Black text is two-toned or
double-voiced," he says. "Its visual tones are
white and Black and its aural tones are standard
Early Afro-American writing functioned
primarily as a way for Blacks to prove their
intelligence and equality by imitating white
literary forms, such as the work of Milton,
Shelley and Keats. The first indigenous
Afro-American writing was the slave narrative
which served to reveal the horrifying truths of
life on a plantation. Ever since, Black literature
has always been seen in the context of political
struggles. Readers have been concerned with the
relationship of the Black text to its world and
its author more than with its language and its
Afro-American literature began to work itself
into university curricula with multi-cultural,
often student-run educational experiments in the
60s. Now that some of these students are
professors, they demand more Afro-American
courses, and more students are studying the field
than ever before. With the institutionalization of
Black writing, there has been more focus on its
literary elements as well as its socio-political
Reed, says Gates, is a "genius" precisely
because he not only satirizes social and political
institutions, but extends his criticism to the
linguistic and structural conventions of literary
texts as well.
As the protagonist of Reed's third novel
Mumbo Jumbo says: "No one says a novel has
to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to
be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the
mumblings of wild men saddled by demons." Reed's
outlandish conglomeration of literary devices,
film narrative techniques, American pop culture
icons and African folktales demonstrates exactly
that, critiquing and simultaneously extending the
Black literary tradition.
Although Reed breaks every literary rule and
attacks every convention in the book, his work
follows the guidelines of a his own philosophical
framework, Neo-Hoodoo--based on Hoodoo or
Voudun, a system of African religions. "My
art form has its own laws," he says. He is
determined to force the American public to
rediscover the largely untold role of Blacks as
creators of American culture or as "word sorcerers
who maintain a secret culture which, from time to
time, pervades all of American life," says Gates.
Reed's work continues a Black tradition of
perceiving the individual as inseparable from his
collective community. Peters says he is afraid
that this tradition is disappearing as some newer
Black writers place more emphasis on the
individual. "Some feel that maybe Afro-Americans
have evolved to a point where some need not worry
so much about the collective. But, people still
tend to take the individual as representative of
the race, and there are not enough positive images
or enough variety of images to negate the
pervasive stereotypes," he says.
beware : do not read this poem
tonite, thriller was
abt an ol woman, so vain she
surrounded herself w/
it got so bad that finally she
locked herself indoors & her
whole life became the mirrors
one day the villagers broke
into her house, but she was too
swift for them, she disappeared
into a mirror
such tennant who bought the house
after that, lost a loved one to
the ol woman in the mirror:
first a little girl
then a young woman
then the young woman/s husband
the hunger of this poem is legendary
it has taken in many victims
back of from this poem
it has drawn in yr feet
back off from his poem
it has drawn in yr legs
back off from this poem
it is a greedy mirror
you are into this poem, from
the waist down
nobody can hear you can they?
this poem has had you up to here belch
this poem aint got no manners
you cant call out frm this poem
relax now & go w/ this poem
move & roll on to this poem
do not resist this poem
this poem has yr eyes
this poem has his head
this poem has his arms
this poem has this fingers
this poem has his fingertips
this poem is the reader& the
reader this poem
statistics : the us bureau of missing persons reports that in 1968 over 100,000 people disappeared leaving no solid clues nor trace only a space in the lives of their friends.
Another central conflict arising in the area of
Black writing today is the debate over Black women
writers' portrayal of Black men. A group of Black
male writers, including Reed, attacked Alice
Walker's novel The Color Purple, accusing
her of portraying men as brutal and oppressive.
When the book was made into a movie, these
negative stereotypes reached an even greater
audience than Walker's best-selling novel, and the
outrage of the Black male intellectual community
increased proportionately. This hostility directed
at Black men, they argued, divided the movement
for racial equality along sexual lines, thus
limiting the movement's success.
Reed's most recent novel, Reckless
Eyeballing was in turn attacked by feminists
for what they called its antagonistic portrayal of
women as petty, materialistic and power-hungry.
Feminists object to the central character of
Reed's novel, the playwright Ian Ball, a sexist
womanizer who gives in to feminist pressure to
adapt his plays to glorify women at the expense of
men. But, according to one Black feminist, this
reading of the novel ignores the character's
complexity and his double-facedness at the novel's
"Some women call Reed an incredible misogynist,
but I think he's been misread," says Carolivia O.
Herron, assistant professor of Afro-American
Studies at Harvard. "I don't think he's against
Black women. Reckless Eyeballing's
conclusion contradicts any anti-feminist reading."
Reed denies feeling any antagonism towards
Black women writers, explaining that he was the
first to publish many Black women who are now
successful writers. Reed complains that the Black
man vs. Black woman issue has been exaggerated by
the white intellectual media and that Black
neighborhoods have no contact with the issues
affecting the Black artistic community.
Mary Helen Washington, professor of English at
the University of Massachusetts at Boston, asserts
that this battle is completely a media creation.
"This conflict does not exist in the Black
literary community in any real way. The problem is
allowing Hollywood to create Black literary
Reed explains his next venture into the
feminist arena with a mischievous grin. He is
working on a project for Berkeley television
called Mother Hubbard about Mother Hubbard
who goes to her cupboard, finds no food in it for
her dog and becomes a feminist terrorist.
No matter how strange this sounds, Reed seems
to have a knack for creating zany plots that
somehow ring true. Reed recalls with a smirk that
his 1982 novel The Terrible Twos, set in a
futuristic America, was initially dismissed as an
absurd polemic. The plot involved a fashion model
who was elected President and a government which
hatched an elaborate plot of which the President
was completely ignorant--in light of recent
events, the book has received renewed attention.