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Reed, Ishmael 1938–

Ishmael Reed 1938

Journalist, editor, author, poet, essayist

At a Glance

Earned Wide Critical Notice

Professor, Newspaperman, Essayist

Selected Writings


Ishmael Reed is a bearded, paunchy but powerful-looking man whose activism extends beyond his writings. He is a tireless yet realistic promoter of Oakland, California as an integrated city, where blacks hold positions of power. He is also president of the Before Columbus Foundation, which promotes the work of unknown ethnic writers. And he is an outspoken critic of the way blacks are treated on television, leading boycotts of network news programs and producing a series of videocassettes as an alternative to network TV viewing. In the New York Times and elsewhere he has criticized the networks unfair reportage on black crime. The networks reasoning seems to be, he wrote, that if blacks werent here, the United States would be a paradise where people would work 24 hours a day, drink milk, go to church, and be virgins until marriage.

Few writers have provoked more controversy than Ishmael Reed. His books have been attacked by other black writers, feminists, and Establishment critics, who have accused him of being overly cynical and of harboring a hatred of women. Other literary critics have risen to his defense, however, praising his work for its innovative use of language and its deft construction of an alternate history and tradition for African Americans. New York Times reviewer Gerald Early noted that Reeds satirical novels work because they reveal the interlocking grids of culture and describe the narrative of culture as a quest for its hidden intelligibility.

As a long-time newspaperman and one of the countrys foremost black novelists, Ishmael Reed is often invited to write numerous opinion pieces for magazines and newspapers. Much of this work has taken the form of hard-hitting, idiosyncratic social commentary, not necessarily reflective of mainstream black opinion.

Ishmael Reeds novels have been described by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times as a nasty, idiosyncratic blend of invective, satire and social criticism, served up with lots of narrative pratfalls and jokes. Reed, an author of more than a dozen books of fiction, poetry, and essays, is best known for his biting assaults on aspects of Western religion, politics, and technology. He has devoted himself, in his work, to the exploration of an alternative black aesthetic which he terms Neo-HooDooism. As he puts it in the Los Angeles Times, his various works are part of a trickster tradition that exposes pomposity and hypocrisy, prods sacred cows, [and] shows the absurdity of positions and theories people cherish.

At a Glance

Born February 22, 1938, in Chattanooga, TN; son of Henry Lenoir and Thelma (Coleman) Reed; married Priscilla Rose, 1960 (divorced, 1970), married Carla Blank (a dancer); children: (first marriage) Timothy Brett, (second marriage) Tennessee Maria. Education: Attended State University of New York at Buffalo, 1956-60.

Newark Advance, Newark, NJ, reporter, 1962-65, editor, 1965; cofounder fast Village Other 1965; St. Marks in the Bowery prose workshop, teacher, 1966; guest lecturer various universities 1969. Writer/publisher and cofounder, Yardbird Publishing Co., Inc., 1971, editorial director, 1971-75; cofounder, Reed, Cannon & Johnson Communications Co. (a publisher and producer of video cassettes), 1973; cofounder, Before Columbus Foundation (a producer and distributor of work of unknown ethnic writers), 1976; cofounder, Ishmael Reed and Al Youngs Quilt, 1980. Guest lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1968.

Selected awards: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation award for fiction, 1974; Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation award, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975; Poetry in Public Places winner (New York City), 1976; Lewis Michaux Award, 1978; American Civil Liberties Award, 1978; Pushcart Prize, 1979; Wisconsin Arts Board fellowship, 1982; associate fellow of Calhoun College, Yale University, 1982; American Civil Liberties Union publishing fellowships; New York State publishing grants for merit; National Endowment for the Arts publishing grants; California Arts Council grants; Harvard Signet Society, 1987.

Addresses: Agent Ellis J. Freedman, 415 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017.

Explaining his methods in the Daily Californian, Reed wrote: As I learn more and more about different cultures in this country, the gap between my work and the viewpoint of some criticsespecially those in the northeastwidens, and the critics become very frustrated. They call my style idiosyncratic; yet my style is older than the European tradition.

Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 22, 1938. His mother, Thelma Coleman, never married his natural father, Henry Lenoir. Instead she wed an auto worker named Bennie Reed and gave her son that surname. When Ishmael was four, his family moved to Buffalo, New York, where he evidenced a talent for writing. He became interested in newspaper reporting, and by the time he was 14 he had a regular jazz column in the Empire State Weekly, a local black newspaper.

Reed began experimenting with fiction after reading the work of novelist Nathaniel West. In 1956, while studying nights at the University of Buffalo, he showed his own first short storyabout an alienated young black manto one of his teachers, impressing the professor so much that he arranged for Reed to attend day classes. But by 1960, Reed tired of college, dropped out, and returned to his job at the Empire State Weekly. Two years later, at the age of 22, he moved to New York City.

In Manhattan, Reed joined the innovative black poetry collective, the Umbra Workshop. At Umbra he wrote visionary poems influenced by poets William Blake and William Butler Yeats and began to construct the African-American mythology that would later become central to his work. During this period, he supported himself by writing for the weekly Newark Advance in New Jersey. In 1965, he was made editor of that paper and, in the same year he cofounded the East-Village Other, one of the original underground newspapers.

Earned Wide Critical Notice

In 1967 Reed published his first novel, a satire of Newark politics called Free-Lance Pallbearers. Among other things, Free-Lance Pallbearers was an attack on the extremist rhetoric of the Black Muslims, a denunciation of assimilated blacks, an assault on the stress-filled Western European/Christian tradition, a lampoon of classic novels of black self-discovery such as Richard Wrights Black Boy and Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man, and a denunciation of blacks and white liberals who hypocritically allow their leaders to be killed but then mourn and carry their coffinsthe pallbearers of the title.

In constructing the narrative of Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed used African-American folktales and adopted such African-American rhetorical techniques as capitalization for emphasis and phonetic spellings. Reed also satirized the popular black literature of the 1960s to make the point that black writersno matter how rebellious their intentions might bewere still at the mercy of the white-run publishing houses.

In his next book, Yellow Black Radio Broke-Down, Reed introduced the world view he called Neo-HooDoo. He defined his concept as an African-American alternative to the Western intellectual tradition. Like the Western tradition, which has roots in ancient Greece and grew through Renaissance Europe, Reed traced Neo-HooDoo from ancient Egypt through the slave passage to African-American art forms such as blues, jazz, and rock and roll. For Reed, Neo-HooDoo is the prism through which African-Americans see the world. It has its own sense of timesynchronicity and it draws freely from all other religious and cultural traditions while remaining true to its African rootsthe concept of syncretism).

Reed continued his exploration of Neo-HooDoo in his first two books of poems, catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church, published in 1970, and Conjure, printed in 1972. In the first book, he compared Neo-HooDoo to Osiris, the Egyptian god of creativity and likened white culture to Set, Osiriss twin brother and murderer. In Conjure he explored the differences between HooDoo and Christianity, sometimes playfully, and wrote may the best church win/Shake hands now and come out conjuring.

Reed let Neo-HooDoo break out into a full fledged epidemic in his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. In that book, both black and white characters are beset by a disease called Jes Grew which throws them into dancing fits and makes them unable to function in American society. The novels hero, a HooDoo detective named Papa LaBas, investigates the plague and in the process constructs the HooDoo aesthetic that became Reeds manifesto. Mumbo Jumbos villain, Hinkle Von Vampton, uses assimilated blacks to destroy Jes Grew, triumphing for the moment. Reed makes plain, however, that some manifestation of Jes Grew would be revived by future generations of artists. The controversial novel served notice through its subtext, that Reeds new aesthetic was just as goodand maybe betterthan anything it replaced, and certainly was founded on no more ridiculous premises.

Reed followed Mumbo Jumbo with two other Neo-HooDoo novelsThe Last Days of Louisiana Red, a meditation on the emasculation of black men in which Papa LaBas tries to stamp out the stress that destroys poor blacks, and Flight to Canada, where Raven Quickskill, a runaway slave and poet, draws strength from Neo-HooDoo to persevere in his hope to escape slavery. Canada in the latter novel serves not only as the goal of runaways but more profoundly as a metaphor for all happiness. New York Review of Books contributor Darryl Pinckney noted Reeds fascination with oral tradition in both works, concluding: Reeds Neo-HooDoo tales are not as tall as the ones blacks used to tell. Still theres much to say for his own tales: after all, not to make fun of racist absurdities is to be still afraid of them.

Professor, Newspaperman, Essayist

Reed had spent much of his time on the West Coast since the late 1960s. After becoming disenchanted with the East Coast literary establishment, he settled in Oakland, California, and got a job lecturing at the University of California at Berkeley. He was invited to apply for tenure, but then was then turned down, a fact that irked him for quite some time.

Meanwhile, Reed saw the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency as a turning point, marking a new era in which Americans would demand instant gratification of all their excessive whims. Reed wrote about this concern in his 1982 novel, The Terrible Twos. He used the legend of Santa Claus and his assistant/boss Black Peter to lampoon Americas consumer mentality, a state of affairs he found particularly threatening to black people.

In 1986, Reed wrote Reckless Eyeballing, perhaps his most controversial novel. Reeds hero in Reckless Eyeballing is Ian Ball, an ambitious and hypocritical black playwright. After being condemned for the sexism of his play Suzanna, Ball tries to appeal to feminists by writing Reckless Eyeballing, a play about a lynched black man who is posthumously tried for raping a woman with his lecherous stares. As the narrative progresses, Ball finds himself sympathizing with the Flower Phantom who captures, ties up, and rebukes feminists.

Reeds satirical barbs spared no one in Reckless Eyeballing. According to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, he lambasted both sexes, as well as practically every ethnic and religious group. Some feminists were especially outraged by the work because one of the Flower Phantoms victims, Tremonisha Smarts, bears a striking resemblance to Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple.

Reeds method in Reckless Eyeballing, as in his other novels, was to deepen and clarify his narrative by making connections between his story and American history. For instance, he gave Tremonisha Smarts the same name as an assimilated black character in a Scott Joplin opera. Similarly, Reckless Eyeballings title refers not only to Balls play and Reeds wildly satirical view of American life, but also recalls one of the accusations against Emmett Till, the young Chicago black who was murdered in Mississippi in 1953, for looking and whistling at a white woman.

Reed followed Reckless Eyeballing with two savagely comic plays about black manhood on the run. His 1988 theater piece, Savage Wildsin which wildlife game-show hosts Vanessa Bare and Sheena Queene hunt down and kill the comedian Uncle Sanfordwas described by the Los Angeles Times as depicting the derisive treatment of black men at the hands of feminists. In 1990, Reed fictionalized the drug trial of former Washington, D.C. mayor, Marion Barry in Savage Wilds II. Without excusing Barrys misdeeds Reed used the play to question the motives and practices of Barrys accuser, the Washington, D.C. district attorney.

Between the two plays, Reed wrote The Terrible Threes, a sequel to his novel The Terrible Twos, Less a narrative than what the New York Times called a series of addenda about such things as toleration, epiphany, self-acceptance, and all manner of pop culture throwaway, The Terrible Threes stopped short of making the cultural connections of Reeds other novels and demonstrated that the culture that he had been trying to make sense of for much of his career, perhaps did not actually make sense after all.

In 1993 Reed turned to a spoof of academia and Japan-bashing in a work called Japanese by Spring. The novel concerns Benjamin Chappie Puttbutt, an ultra-conservative black college professor struggling for tenure at the very Berkeley-like Jack London College. Puttbutt, who is universally hated, fears being passed over in favor of a radical feminist and begins taking Japanese lessons in the hope that the acquisitive Japanese will provide him with a power base. When the Japanese buy the university, Puttbutts teacher, Dr. Yamamoto, becomes the new president and makes Puttbutt his assistant. Puttbutt, now powerful, takes revenge on his enemies.

As the situation intensifies, Puttbutt sees his own hypocrisy and leads a revolt under the name Black Fang. A New York Times reporter, who called Japanese by Spring funny and explosive commented that in borrowing from vivid African-American slang and turning academic jargon inside out, Mr. Reed constructed] brilliant verbal fusillades that reduce his targets to their most ridiculous components.

In his essay collection Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, Reed commented on his aims in his creative writing. Many people have called my fiction muddled, crazy, [and] incoherent, because Ive attempted in fiction the techniques and forms painters, dancers, filmmakers, [and] musicians in the West have taken for granted for at least 50 years, and the artists of many other cultures, for thousands of years, he concluded. Maybe I should hang my fiction in a gallery, or play it on the piano. However his work is transmitted, Reed has earned a place among the most prominent black American writers of the modern era and a reputation for fearless exploration of black contributions to world culture.

Selected Writings


The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Doubleday, 1967, Avon 1985.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Doubleday 1969, reprinted Bantam, 1987.

Mumbo Jumbo, Doubleday, 1972, reprinted, Bantam, 1987.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Random House, 1974.

Flight to Canada, Random House, 1976.

The Terrible Twos, St. Martins/Marek, 1982.

Reckless Eyeballing, St. Martins, 1986.

The Terrible Threes, Atheneum, 1989.

Japanese By Spring, Atheneum, 1993.


Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, Doubleday, 1978.

God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays, Garland, 1982.

Writiri Is Fightin: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper, Atheneum, 1988.


catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church, Broadside Press, 1971.

Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

Chattanooga: Poems, Random House, 1973.

A Secretary to the Spirits, NOK Publishers, 1978.

New and Collected Poetry, Atheneum, 1988.


(With Carla Blank and Suzushi Hanayagi) The Lost State of Franklin, 1976.

Savage Wilds, 1988.

Savage Wilds II, 1990.


Ishmael Reed Reading His Poetry (cassette), Temple of Zeus, Cornell University, 1976.



Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, volume 25.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, volume 2, 1974, volume 3, 1975, volume 5, 1976, volume 6, 1976, volume 8, 1980, volume 32, 1985, volume 60, 1991.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, volume 5: American Poets since World WarII, 1980, volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, 1984.

Reed, Ishmael, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, Doubleday, 1978.


AsianWeek, April 30, 1993, p. 22.

Daily Californian, April 18, 1986.

Los Angeles Times August 19, 1990.

New York Times April 5, 1986, section 1, p. 12; May 7, 1989, section 7, p. 34; April 9, 1991; March 7, 1993, section 7, p. 11.

Time, November 18, 1991, p. 70.

Jordan Wankoff

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Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed

A novelist, journalist, and playwright, American writer Ishmael Reed (born 1938) has been cited by critics as among the greatest contemporary African American literary figures of his generation.

According to Lee Hubbard in American Visions, Ishmael Reed is "an unorthodox writer who has taken on the media, the writing establishment, feminists, politicians, blacks, whites and [the] American institution of higher learning." Reed's satire has been controversial, to say the least, but he has nonetheless joined novelists Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany as among the most important forces in the distinct African American culture that developed during the 20th century.

Early Years in New York

Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a working-class neighborhood. He graduated from Buffalo public schools in 1956 and enrolled as a night student at Millard Fillmore College. While there, Reed wrote a short story about a young African American man and showed it to his English professor. Impressed with Reed's abilities, the professor aided Reed in enrolling for day school at the University of Buffalo, where he attended classes from 1956 to 1960. Financially unable to remain in college, however, Reed dropped out before graduating but continued to write. While in Buffalo he wrote a jazz column for the Empire Star Weekly, an African American community newspaper, and co-hosted a Buffalo radio program that was canceled after Reed interviewed controversial black leader Malcolm X.

Reed moved to New York City in 1962, where he worked as an editor for a Newark, New Jersey, weekly and organized the American Festival of Negro Art. Reed established himself as a founder of the East Village Other, a respected underground newspaper, and as a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop. The workshop, in the words of Robert Elliot Fox in The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, was "one of the organizations instrumental in the creation of the Black Arts movement and its efforts to establish a Black Aesthetic." The goals of the workshop—especially the establishment of a black aesthetic—would stay with Reed for the rest of his career. While in New York City, Reed befriended Langston Hughes, a major influence in African American poetry who became a major influence in Reed's work. Hughes was also instrumental in getting Reed's first novel published.

Established Neohoodism

Unhappy with the African American literary movement on the east coast, Reed relocated to Oakland, California, where he settled permanently, living at least part of the time in the city's so-called black ghetto. That same year, 1967, his first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was published. With his first novel, Reed established the various themes and styles that would become his trademark. The Freelance Pallbearers was a satire heavily critical of the Western European Christian tradition, the formal literature of that tradition, and African Americans within different black communities. It was Reed's second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, published in 1969, that established his usage of "HooDoo" and folklore.

"Neohoodism is the name Reed gave to the philosophy and aesthetic processes he employs to take care of business on behalf of the maligned and mishandled," explained Fox. This African American version of voodoo appealed to Reed because of its mystery and especially its eclectic nature. It became a way for Reed to avoid using Western literary traditions while creating a new multi-ethnic voice. Reed respects voodoo as a world view due to its ease of adaptation, its flexibility, and its way of eating and dissolving into itself other ways of living. His written work is known for satirizing and challenging existing social and literary conventions, According to Hubbard, Reed is a "self-proclaimed multiculturalist who consistently incorporates different aspects of other people's cultures into his work."

Multi-faceted Career in Oakland

With his stints in Buffalo and New York City in radio, his editing work, and the publication of his first novel, Reed set his sights on building a multifaceted career. He has since become known not just for his novels, but for his extensive collections of essays, his poetry, his journalism, his editing, publishing, play-writing, song-writing, television producing, lecturing, teaching, and founding of various organizations. In most of these fields, Reed has been honored for his accomplishments and talents, making him a one-man tour de force.

In 1970 Reed's first collection of poetry, Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church, was published. Around this time he also started teaching at the University of California in Berkeley, where he remained on staff for upwards of 20 years (even without tenure). In 1971 Reed started the Yardbird Publishing Co., which published, among other things, the magazine Y'Bird.

Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, a novel published in 1972, was his first book to achieve widespread notoriety. It has also been considered by many to be his best work, along with Neo-HooDoo Manifesto, a collection of essays published the same year. Manifesto was nominated for a National Book Award along with Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, also published in 1972. In 1973 Reed published another collection titled Chattanooga: Poems. Meanwhile, he co-founded another publishing enterprise, Reed, Cannon & Johnson Communications. This new publishing company published Quilt magazine, which was designed for students, minorities, and writers living and working on the West Coast of the United States.

A Voice for Many Causes

The year 1974 saw the publication of another novel by Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red. In 1976 the novel Flight to Canada was published to critical acclaim and was praised as among his best works. Also in 1976, Reed co-founded the Before Columbus Foundation, a multiethnic organization promoting a cross-cultural America. The Before Columbus Foundation has often been cited as Reed's most important contribution to U.S. society.

In 1978 Reed published a volume of poetry titled Secretary to the Spirits as well as a volume of essays titled Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. By 1980 he was involved in the world of theater and wrote and produced the play The Ace Boons. He published two more plays in 1982: Hell Hath No Fury and Mother Hubbard.

The novel Reckless Eyeballing, published in 1986, reveals Reed's feelings about slavery in the United States and the Jim Crow era that followed abolition. In the novel the practice of "reckless eyeballing"—a black man looking at a white woman—is dealt with directly in Reed's satire. Reckless Eyeballing was followed by New and Collected Poetry and the 1988 essay collection Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper. In 1989 Reed published a sequel to his 1982 novel The Terrible Twos titled The Terrible Threes, a criticism of throwaway pop culture. He also edited the Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards 1980-1990.

In 1990 Reed published Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, in which he presents an account of Haiti as the country of origination for Voodoo. Reed also notes that Voodoo—or Hoodoo—because of its flexible qualities, has existed throughout history in many subversive forms. He told Reginald Martin in a Review of Contemporary Fiction interview: "I've decided that gospel music is just a front for Voodoo… . I think when they're praising Jesus, they're really singing about Legba or something like that."

Battled Mainstream Media

In 1992 Reed organized a boycott of major television networks that was led by the Oakland chapter of the international writers' organization PEN. The boycott was only one step in the author's ongoing battle against mainstream media. Reed has claimed that the media systematically undermines and unfavorably portrays minorities in the United States, and these inaccurate portrayals have been detrimental to the production of a healthy, multiethnic society and a healthy African American self-view. He spent years monitoring the media's portrayal of people and wrote letters whenever necessary. He has also attacked the media in his essays, novels, and poems. "The state of American journalism in its portrayal of minorities is horrible," Reed commented to Holland, and further expanded on his views of the media in his 1993 essay collection Airing Dirty Laundry.

In 1993 Reed published the novel Japanese by Spring and four years later edited the anthology Multi America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace, which showcases writers communicating about race relations in the United States.

Life and Time of Reed

Besides having taught at the University of California at Berkeley since the late 1960s, Reed has held visiting appointments at such places as Harvard University, Yale University, and Dartmouth College. In Germany and Switzerland he has lectured to standing-room-only crowds. Among his continuing projects is a musical titled Gethsemane Park and a novel about the O. J. Simpson trial. He has received a Pulitzer Prize nomination to accompany his two National Book Award nominations, as well as many other awards, grants, and fellowships. He founded I. Reed Books as well as the journal Konch and wrote a libretto for the San Francisco Opera Company. Reed is married to Carla Blank, a dancer and choreographer. The couple has one daughter, Tennessee, and Reed has another daughter from a previous marriage.

Hubbard called Reed "the establishment agitator who has been called a conservative, a radical, a black nationalist, a sexist and a crazed fool;" he has also been called America's best satirist since Mark Twain. Reed's work, known for its principle of collage and cited as having its roots in the Yoruba tradition of West Africa, has been criticized for incoherence. It has also been praised for its multi-cultural-ness, revolutionary-ness, and Reed's awareness of mythic archetypes. In his own defense against such criticism, Reed told Martin, "I don't think there is any standard English. I think there is such a thing as protocol English." Reed writes with neither. His English is a "HooDoo" English, full of an awareness of multiethnicity and concerned with a multi-race—and a distinctly African American race—of writers.


Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1997.


American Visions, April-May, 1998.

Callaloo, Fall 1994.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1984.


"Ishmael Reed," (February 10, 2003).

"Ishmael Reed," (February 10, 2003).

Martin, Reginald, "An Interview with Ishmael Reed," (February 10, 2003). □

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Reed, Ishmael (Scott)

REED, Ishmael (Scott)

Nationality: American. Born: Chattanooga, Tennessee, 22 February 1938. Education: Buffalo Technical High School; East High School, Buffalo, graduated 1956; University of Buffalo, 1956-60. Family: Married 1) Priscilla Rose in 1960 (separated 1963, divorced 1970), one daughter; 2) Carla Blank-Reed in 1970, one daughter. Career: Staff writer, Empire Star Weekly, Buffalo, 1960-62; freelance writer, New York, 1962-67; co-founder, East Village Other, New York, and Advance, Newark, New Jersey, 1965; teacher, St. Mark's in the Bowery prose workshop, New York, 1966. Since 1971 chair and president, Yardbird Publishing Company, editor, Yardbird Reader, 1972-76, since 1973 director, Reed Cannon and Johnson Communications, and since 1981 editor and publisher, with Al Young, Quilt magazine, all Berkeley, California. Since 1967 lecturer, University of California, Berkeley. Lecturer, University of Washington, Seattle, 1969-70, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1975, 1979, Sitka Community Association, Summer 1982, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1982, Columbia University, New York, 1983, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987, and University of California, Santa Barbara, 1988. Visiting professor, Fall 1979, and since 1983 Associate Fellow of Calhoun House, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; visiting professor, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1980; since 1987 Associate Fellow, Harvard University Signet Society. Since 1976 president, Before Columbus Foundation. Chair, Berkeley Arts Commission, 1980, 1981. Associate editor, American Book Review. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Rosenthal Foundation award, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; American Academy award, 1975; Michaux award, 1978; MacArthur fellow, 1998. Agent: Ellis J. Freedman, 415 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.



The Free-Lance Pallbearers. New York, Doubleday, 1967; London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. New York, Doubleday, 1969;London, Allison and Busby, 1971.

Mumbo-Jumbo. New York, Doubleday, 1972; London, Allison andBusby, 1989.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red. New York, Random House, 1974.

Flight to Canada. New York, Random House, 1976.

The Terrible Twos. New York, St. Martin's Press-Marek, 1982;London, Allison and Busby, 1990.

Reckless Eyeballing. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986; London, Allison and Busby, 1989.

The Terrible Threes. New York, Atheneum, 1989.

Japanese by Spring. New York, Atheneum, 1993.


Catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church. London, Paul Breman, 1970.

Conjure: Selected Poems 1963-1970. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

Chattanooga. New York, Random House, 1973.

A Secretary to the Spirits. New York, NOK, 1978.

New and Collected Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1988.


The Rise, Fall and ? of Adam Clayton Powell (as EmmettColeman), with others. New York, Bee-Line, 1967.

Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (essays). New York, Doubleday, 1978.

God Made Alaska for the Indians. New York, Garland, 1982.

Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon. Flint, Michigan, Bamberger, 1986.

Airing Dirty Laundry. Reading, Addison-Wesley, 1993.

The Reed Reader. New York, Basic Books, 2000.

Editor, 19 Necromancers from Now. New York, Doubleday, 1970.

Editor, Yardbird Reader (annual). Berkeley, California, Yardbird, 5 vols., 1971-77.

Editor, with Al Young, Yardbird Lives! New York, Grove Press, 1978.

Editor, Calafia: The California Poetry. Berkeley, California, Yardbird, 1979.

Editor, with Al Young, Quilt 2-3. Berkeley, California, Reed andYoung's Quilt, 2 vols., 1981-82.

Editor, Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York, Atheneum, 1988.

Editor, with Kathryn Trueblood and Shawn Wong, The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980-1990. New York, Norton, 1992.

Editor, MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace. New York, Viking, 1997.



"Mapping Out the Gumbo Works: An Ishmael Reed Bibliography" by Joe Weixlmann, Robert Fikes, Jr., and Ishmael Reed, in Black American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Spring 1978.

Critical Studies:

"Ishmael Reed Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), vol. 4, no. 2, 1984; Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics by Reginald Martin, New York, Macmillan, 1988; Ishmael Reed by Jay Boyer, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1993; Conversations with Ishmael Reed, edited by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1995; Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race by Patrick McGee, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997; The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed, edited by Bruce Allen Dick with the Assistance of Pavel Zemliansky, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.

* * *

In an introduction to an essay collection, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, Ishmael Reed says: "Many people here called my fiction muddled, crazy, incoherent, because I've attempted in fiction the techniques and forms painters, dancers, film makers, musicians in the West have taken for granted for at least fifty years, and the artists of many other cultures, for thousands of years." Reed's strengths are enunciated here: flexible, vivid language ranging from street argot to lofty estheticism, experimentation with materials and means, and a deep awareness of the mythic roots of all cultures. Reed is an Afro-American ironist, but his gifts and insights are multicultural, multimedia.

Reed's early novels, The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, are musical and mythical in conception and development. Using "hoodoo" as a system both of ideas and of language, Reed describes our world in terms of the hero and the prison of society. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers Bukka Doopeyduk is the epigonous hero fighting against HARRY SAM , which is the nation-state transformed into a monstrous personification, a dragon. In similar fashion, the Loop Garoo Kid of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a shaman-hero (Loupe Garou=werewolf in Creole-French folklore) of a cowboy saga, in which the town of Yellow Back Radio is threatened by Drag Gibson, the stultifying force of the square world. The vaudevillian jokes, surrealism, and wordplays flow at allegro tempo.

In Mumbo Jumbo Reed concentrates on a mythic time (the 1920s) and magic places (New Orleans and Harlem) in U.S. culture. The ideas of hoodoo/voodoo and other Afro-American magic-religious cults figure in Reed's tapestry of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Reed describes the epic struggle between Jes Grew, the black cultural impulse, and the Atonists, i.e., the monotheistic Western tradition. In the narrative, Reed incorporates drawings, photographs, collages, and handwritten texts, along with many scholarly references.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red extends this mythology, bringing many of the same characters and ideas to Berkeley in the 1970s. "Louisiana Red" is the plague of modern technocratic-industrial culture:

Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another, carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like the Merv Griffin show set.

In Flight to Canada Reed moves back to the mythos of slavery and the Civil War, applying the same wild, anachronistic expressionism to the central tragedy of the black American culture. In ironic, dramatic terms, Reed answers the "cliometric" revisers of history: "Revisionists. Quantitative historians. What does a computer know? Can a computer feel? Make love? Can a computer feel passion?" Quickskill tears off his shirt. "Look at these scars. Look at them! All you see is their fruit, but their roots run deep. The roots are in my soul."

The Terrible Twos is a comic-mythological tour de force, uniting elements of our culture's Christmas storyDicken's "A Christmas Carol," the legend of St. Nicholas, the commercial street-corner Santa Clausinto a bizarre satire on greed, racism and inhumanity. Reed chides the U.S. of the 1980s as a mindless, grasping two-yearold, an infant-giant draining the world of resources, hope, and compassion, hiding behind a phony costume of charity and concern. The Terrible Threes updates the sociopolitical allegory to summarize the hedonism, egocentricity, and fatuous self-satisfaction of the Reagan years. It focuses on the impact of TV evangelism, TV political advertising, paranoid militarism, and the all-pervasive role of sales pitches in contemporary America.

With Reckless Eyeballing, Reed returns to the elaborate mythology of racism in the idea of "reckless eyeballing" (i.e., ogling of white women by black men) as a "crime." In his usual high-energy mix of history, folkore, contemporary observation and mythopoeic imagination, Reed investigates the way sexual mores and folklore have colluded with political expediency to stifle U.S. culture.

Reed's brilliant comic vision of American history brings together the basic ingredients of black culture in a rich musical-dramatic form. His expansion of language into a radically personal style points to the richness of that culture as a storytelling source. Reed's wide interests in traditions outside the received mainstream of "Western Culture" courses, in magic, myth, and ritual, make him one of the most forceful and persuasive novelists of the past twenty years.

William J. Schafer

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"Reed, Ishmael (Scott)." Contemporary Novelists. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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