Japanese Dismantles the Ivory Tower

Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reec Atheneum Press, $20.00

Just when it seems he has run out of people to lampoon, Ismael Reed addresses his newest novel to the university, pointing the finger at political correctness, Old School traditionalists, Black-male-bashing feminists and every conceivable brand of -centrism in existance.

Set in Oakland, Japanese by Spring casts Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt as an ambitious Black junior professor at predominately white Jack London College, where he kowtows to white colleagues and a neo-nazi student body as a means of courting a tenured appointment in the Humanities department. When the news breaks that the coveted position has been granted to radical feminist April Jokujoku, Puttbutt reconsiders his politics, digging out paraphernalia from his Blank Panther days at the Air Force Academy. Puttbutt's shift in perspective coincides with the buying out of Jack London College by Japanese investors who rewrite the cirriculum and appoint Puttbutt's Japanese tutor as the school's new president.

Reed's irony swings into full force as Japanese administrators entrust Puttbutt with increasing power, which he promptly (ab)uses to get even with his arrogant colleagues. The Humanities are consolidated into one department which is reduced to the size and budget of ethnic studies, and Classicists who haven't published work in years are terminated unless they agree to teach freshman composition in Yoruba. Puttbutt's progression sheds light on issues of inconsistency which confront Blacks in positions of nominal authority as he begins to realize the destructiveness of alighning himself with any of Jack London's nationalist camps--Black, white or Japanese.

The novel poses a challenge to Black neo-conservatives--not because there is no role for conservatism in African-American politics, but because such conservatism has thus far succeeded only in addressing a clicheed set of 'problems' within the Black community. Reed offers incisive commentary on white establishments such as the media and publishing which have managed to present only one side of issues like the Los Angeles riots or the debate of Afocentrism. More importantly, Reed questions the manner in which Black conservatives contribute to such practices by constricting their own views to fit the popular mold. "One of the jobs of the media," writes Reed, "was to protect white America, its customers, from their devils...Though 12 percent of those arrested for looting--including Santa Monica yuppies--during the Great Los Angeles Uprising of 1992 were white, the pictures of whites were associated with cleaning the streets after the chaos."

Reed also manages to write himself into the text, often using the novel as a sounding board for opinions that wouldn't otherwise be published. Early on he clarifies his stancwe toward feminism, referring to allegations from Ms. magazine that he was the first to label Black feminist writers traitors to the race, stating that "Ringleader Ismael Reed has never called anybody a traitor to anybody's race and not only hasn't opposed black women writing about black male misogyny but has published some of it." The test abounds with similar interjections which add to the anti-novel effect of Reed's characteristic mingling of fiction with opinion with fact. As American race relations grow increasingly splintered--with opposition to ethnic studies programs nationwide, and Blacks in and out of the academy under pressure to choose sides, as it were, between mainstream and margin--Reed's satire could come at no more fitting at time.