Reed, Ishmael

views updated

Reed, Ishmael

February 22, 1938

The author Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but was raised and educated in Buffalo, New York. In high school he discovered the writings of Nathanael West, whose black comedy influenced his own distinctive expressionistic style. Later, while at the University of Buffalo (19561960), he discovered the works of William Butler Yeats and William Blake, who taught him the importance of creating personal mythological systems. In 1962 he moved to New York City to become a writer. While living on the Lower East Side he encountered a group of young black writers, including Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, and Askia Muhammad Toure, from the Umbra Workshop, who convinced him of the importance of black literature. His first novel, Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), a parody of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, is a savage satire of the United States during the Vietnam War years, personified by the president, Harry Sam, who literally eats American children.

In 1967 Reed moved to Berkeley, California, where he cofounded and published The Yardbird Reader (19721976), which reflected his new multiethnic spirit, engendered by his move to the multicultural West Coast. His second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), a surreal western, introduces the theme of the repressive forces of Western culture embattled against the lifeaffirming forces of black culture, which have survived the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World. In this novel Reed presents voodoo religion as a source of authentic black folk culture and values. In his next novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), he initiated his countermythology. He argues that there is a conspiracy at the core of the Western tradition: Its mythology preaches the glory of the West at the expense of all other cultures. It therefore became imperative, for Reed, to revise this mythology in order to expose the lies of the Western tradition and affirm the virtues of African civilizations, including Egypt. In his later creative works, his countermythology, which he usually calls Neo-HooDooism, he has drawn on many non-European cultures, including Haitian, black American, and Native American. In 1976 Reed cofounded the Before Columbus Foundation, devoted to the dissemination of multicultural literature. Flight to Canada (1976), his fifth novel, is a modern slave narrative, in which he defines freedom as the ability to tell one's own story instead of allowing it to be appropriated by alien and hostile cultures. With Reckless Eyeballing (1986), Reed continues his exploration of freedom in the explosive area of sexual politics, where he argues against white feminist hegemony. In 1993 he published his ninth novel, Japanese by Spring, which parodies black neoconservatism and multiethnic abuse of power by the powerful, whether they are white, black, or yellow.

Even though Reed is known primarily as a novelist, he has produced a number of books of poetry and essays. He also has had several plays produced, including Mother Hubbard (1981) and Savage Wilds (1989). Among his poetry collections are Conjure (1972), Chattanooga (1974), A Secretary to the Spirits (1978), and New and Collected Poems (1988). Mostly in free verse, these poems are experimental, humorous, and satiric. In his poetry, as in his fiction, he creates a countermythology, drawing on many non-European cultures for its symbolism. Reed's books of essays include Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982), Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988), Airing Dirty Laundry (1993), The Reed Reader (2000), Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War (2002), and Blues City: A Walk in Oakland (2003). In his essays he tries to refute false and pernicious myths about black people. In recent years he has focused more on black men than on African Americans in general, arguing that they are in a particularly precarious position in American society: that, indeed, they are everybody's scapegoat for the evils of civilization. Reed's impassioned polemics in defense of black men have catapulted him into the center of many heated debates with both black and white feminists. Since all of Reed's works spring from the same individual vision, both his poems and essays help the reader clarify the more significant novels.

Reed is a major innovative writer who relentlessly uses comedy and satire to show the myopia, egotism, and brutality of eurocentric culture. Yet he does not let black culture off scot-free: he criticizes individual blacks when they do not live up to the ideals of freedom and creativity that he finds inherent in the African-American tradition. His critique of the West is often more subtle and penetrating than that of many scholars, and it is always much more amusing.

See also Black Arts Movement; Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Literature of the United States


Boyer, Jay. Ishmael Reed. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1993.

Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1987.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

william j. harris (1996)
Updated bibliography