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About Ishmael Reed's Life and Work

Robert Elliot Fox

Ishmael Reed is one of the most original and controversial figures in the field of African American letters.

Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 22 February 1938, but he grew up in Buffalo, New York. After graduating from high school in 1956, he enrolled as a night student at Millard Fillmore College but transferred to the University of Buffalo as a day student with the assistance of an English teacher who was impressed with a story Reed had written. For financial reasons, however, Reed eventually withdrew without taking a degree. He remained in Buffalo for some time, working as a correspondent for the Empire Star Weekly, a black community newspaper, and serving as cohost of a local radio program that was canceled after Reed conducted an interview with Malcolm X.

Moving to New York City in 1962, Reed served as editor of a Newark, New Jersey, weekly and helped establish the legendary East Village Other, one of the first and best-known of the so-called underground newspapers. Reed also was a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop, one of the organizations instrumental in the creation of the Black Arts movement and its efforts to establish a Black Aesthetic.

Reed's first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was published in 1967. That same year he moved to Berkeley, California, later relocating to the adjacent city of Oakland, where he currently resides with his wife, Carla Blank, a dancer and choreographer. They have a daughter, Tennessee. Reed also has a daughter, Timothy Brett, from a previous marriage.

Reed has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since the late 1960s, even though he was denied tenure in 1977 (a circumstance he wrote about in his first collection of essays, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978). He also has held visiting appointments at many other academic institutions, including Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Washington University in St. Louis, and SUNY Buffalo. In addition to winning several awards for his writing, Reed has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and was twice a finalist for the National Book Award (once in poetry and once in fiction).

As of 1995, Reed had published nine novels, five books of poems, and four collections of essays; he also had authored four plays, three television productions, and two librettos, and edited four anthologies. His publishing and editing enterprises have included Reed, Cannon and Johnson Publications, I. Reed Books, and the journals Yardbird Reader Y’Bird, Quilt, and Konch.

In 1976, Reed cofounded what is--outside of his writing--perhaps his most significant venture, the Before Columbus Foundation, a multiethnic organization dedicated to promoting a pan-cultural view of America. One of Reed's outstanding attributes is his consistent advocacy of powerful, innovative, and neglected writing--not just by people of color but by white people as well. This might seem surprising to those who associate Reed with the combative, antiwhite aesthetics and politics of the cultural nationalist program, but it is important to understand that Reed's involvement with the Black Arts movement, through his membership in the Umbra Workshop, was a complex one that can be described as both participatory and adversarial. True, Reed is a vigorous promoter of African-originated modes of being and performance, which he uses to challenge established canons of judgment and achievement, but a careful assessment of his work over three decades reveals that his pro-black position never was a dogmatic one. If much of Reed's work constitutes an intertext through which "the blackness of blackness" can be read, he nevertheless insists that this "blackness of blackness" cannot be categorized or prescribed. For Reed, as his masterpiece Mumbo Jumbo (1972) signifies, this indefinable but irresistible something "jes grew." It may indeed be "mumbo jumbo"--an enigma to the ignorant, a function of "soul" to those who know--but it is not reducible to skin color alone or to a militant creed.

In Reed's view, the black element reveals the permeable nature of American experience and identity, but he also acknowledges the permeable nature of blackness; thus Reed actually belongs in the company of those for whom notions of "mainstream" and "margins" are falsely dichotomous. Reed insists, for example, that a black writer steeped in tradition is a "classical" writer. At the same time, Reed's postmodernism enables him to take in everything at once, so to speak, so that conventional ideas of form and genre are contested, as well as canonical considerations.

Neohoodooism is the name Reed gave to the philosophy and aesthetic processes he employs to take care of business on behalf of the maligned and the mishandled. Hoodoo--the African American version of voodoo, a misunderstood term that actually refers to traditional African religious practices as they have reasserted themselves in the diaspora--appeals to Reed because of its "mystery" and its eclectic nature, thus providing him with an appropriate metaphor for his understanding and realization of art. Reed's best statements concerning the workings of neohoodooism can be found in his first book of poetry, Conjure (1972)--especially "Neo-HooDoo Manifesto," "The Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic," and "catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church"--while the most successful actualizations of neohoodooism as a practice are his novels Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), the aforementioned Mumbo Jumbo, and Flight to Canada (1976).

Neohoodooism is, in many ways, a truly "black" art, but at the same time, due to the undeniable mix of ingredients in the New World, it is also "something else." Unlike those who argue for a black essentialism, Reed sees this hybridity as a virtue, rather than a defect or betrayal. A deep immersion in blackness is simultaneously an immersion in Americanness, given the extent to which, as a result of slavery and its aftermath, Africa helped to make America; and, considering the give-and-take of many other cultural influences, an immersion in Americanness is also an experience of the unfolding of multiculturalism.

Leaving aside for a moment his contributions as an author to American literature, it seems safe to say that when the history of multiculturalism in the late twentieth century is written, Ishmael Reed's entrepreneurial and promotional efforts will be seen to have played a meaningful role in demonstrating the degree to which we are--artistically as well as demographically--a nation of nations.

In his writing, Reed is a great improviser, a master of collage with an amazing ability to syncretize seemingly disparate and divergent materials into coherent "edutainments"--forms of surprise, revelation, and frequent hilarity. However, those who focus primarily on how funny or unfunny his works are miss the point of Reed's rollicking revisions, his apparently loony "toons"--which is to employ humor as a weapon in the very serious enterprise of exposing human excesses and absurdities, and, at the same time, to remind us of the dangers of taking ourselves and our cherished opinions too seriously. (One of Reed's consistent gripes about militants of all persuasions is that they lack a sense of humor.)

From the start, Reed's iconoclasm has been aimed not only at the Western tradition, which has attempted to monopolize the world at the expense of other versions of experience, but at the black tradition as well. Reed's first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, parodied Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man--for many critics, the masterwork of African American fiction and black autobiography in general--at a moment when black studies was just being established and the principal critical approach was a documentary one that emphasized black art's sociopolitical aspects. For Reed to be seen as satirizing the black literary tradition in a period of Black Power and the long overdue recuperation and reassessment of that very tradition was not likely to endear him to either white liberals or black cultural nationalists.

The risk of censure and ridicule notwithstanding, Reed always has gone against the grain of the prevailing critical-polemical fashion--a sign of his fierce independence as an artist and thinker. He has insisted continually on his right to do things his own way, and possesses an uncanny skill at pinpointing the follies and inconsistencies of many aspects of our consensus reality. Although Reed prefers to ride ahead of the herd, he is viewed in certain quarters as conservative, even reactionary--a judgment of his own position that he satirized in "The Reactionary Poet" in his third collection of poems, Secretary to the Spirits (1978).

Using analogies from comedy and music, one could argue that Ishmael Reed is much closer to Richard Pryor and In Living Color than he is to Bill Cosby, more akin to George Clinton or Sun Ra than to Wynton Marsalis. Does this help us to place him within the black tradition? At the least, it forces us to relinquish any notion of "the" black tradition; there are, and always have been, several black traditions, sometimes conflicting, sometimes intersecting, but nonetheless coexistent. One of the reasons Reed's reputation has suffered over the years is that he has steadfastly refused to toe any party line with regard to African American authenticity, aspiration, and achievement. Moreover, as the title of his 1993 essay collection, Airing Dirty Laundry, indicates, Reed believes in "outing" what others wish to keep closeted. Rather than working toward closure, he vigorously engages in disclosure. Some critics have interpreted the openness (and occasional open-endedness) of Reed's works as indeterminacy. For example, Michael G. Cooke, in Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century (1984), while emphasizing Reed's importance based upon the distinctiveness of his vision, style, and scope, believes nonetheless that his work is "affected by an instinct of irresolution." Reed's target, however, is the overdetermined, which he combats by accentuating chance, spontaneity, and instinct, deliberately embracing what amounts to an uncertainty principle that acknowledges "other" positions, myriad possibilities.

Given Reed's chosen task of providing revelatory "readings" of, and putting operative "writings" on, both black and white mischief and miscreants, it would have been impossible for him to have received only praise for his efforts. Reed does, in fact, have his share of enemies and detractors, who, in a real sense, are as much of a defining presence for his career as the endorsements of his many admirers. Indeed, Reed made the negative pronouncements of some of his critics part of the "problem" to be solved by the proper decoding of Mumbo Jumbo when he included them on the back of the dust jacket of the original hardcover edition of the novel.

The impressive commercial success attained by some African American authors has eluded Reed; yet, over the course of a distinguished and turbulent career, he has received numerous, frequently potent, critical accolades. Musician Max Roach is said to have called Reed the Charlie Parker of American fiction, while Fredric Jameson has judged him to be one of the principal postmodernists. Nick Aaron Ford, in Studies in the Novel (vol. 3, 1971), referred to him as the "most revolutionary" African American novelist to have appeared thus far, and Addison Gayle, Jr., in The Way of the New World (1975), called Reed the best satirist in the black tradition since George S. Schuyler. Acknowledging that his satire does derive in part from Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, and Rudolph Fisher, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s essay on Reed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (vol. 33), argues that he really has "no true predecessor or counterpart." For Gates, Reed’s situation in the African American literary tradition is both "unique" and "ironic" because the conventions and canonical texts of the tradition itself are the principal targets of Reed’s satire. It is crucial to insist, however, that Reed is in no way indulging in a gratuitous put-down of black writers and writings; rather, he is engaged in a project of emancipating an artistic heritage from predictable or predetermined forms and norms imposed by those who fail to fully comprehend the depth and complexity of that heritage, including its folkish inventiveness, hilarious undercurrents, and seasoned extravagances. Reed, in short, uses tradition to illuminate and reinvigorate tradition, combining continuity and improvisation in a cultural dynamic that Amiri Baraka has astutely dubbed "the changing same."

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.

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