Ishmael Reed Essay - Critical Essays

Ishmael Reed American Literature Analysis

An understanding of Reed’s fiction must begin with his concept of “Neo-HooDoo.” The term “hoo doo,” sometimes spelled and pronounced “voodoo,” is derived from the East African religion of vodun. In his fiction and poetry, Reed traces the influence of this religion, brought to America by the slave trade, in American popular culture. Reed’s Neo-HooDoo seeks to capture the spirit of this African religion and integrate it with the concerns of modern America.

Reed’s first expression of his theory was “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” published in the Los Angeles Free Press on September 18-24, 1970, and reprinted several times. “Neo-HooDoo is a ’Lost American Church’ updated,” the manifesto begins. Reed describes the integration of African and Western cultures in Neo-HooDoo:Africa is the home of the loa (Spirits) of Neo-HooDoo although we are building our own American “pantheon.” Thousands of “Spirits” (Ka) who would laugh at Jehovah’s fury concerning “false idols” (translated everybody else’s religion) or “fetishes.” Moses, Jehovah’s messenger and zombie swiped the secrets of VooDoo from old Jethro but nevertheless ended up with a curse.

Western culture’s “swiping” of African culture through Judaism during the Egyptian exile is a common theme in Reed’s fiction, which is an important vehicle for popularizing the discoveries of anthropologists in this area.

Reed’s fiction is sharp-edged satire, and the gift for it seems to have found him early. In his junior year at East High, he was sent to the principal for writing a lampoon about his teacher called “A Strange Profession.” In his first college English class, he wrote a satire called “Something Pure,” in which Christ returns to earth as an advertising agent. The focus of his satires is wide: All the follies of American culture, right or left, black or white, are ridiculed in his fiction.

Just as important as the cultural criticism in his books is the formal criticism: His novels parody various forms of writing. His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, parodies African American “confessional” novels; critic Henry Louis Gates identifies Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as particular targets, although the content is drawn mostly from Reed’s own experience. His second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, parodies the Western, pulp fiction, and old radio adventures. Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red lampoon the detective story and Flight to Canada, the slave narrative.

Time in Reed’s fiction is fluid; while set in another time (the Jefferson era in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the 1920’s in Mumbo Jumbo, the Civil War in Flight to Canada, and the near future in The Terrible Twos and the 1989 novel The Terrible Threes), his novels refer to all points in American history, especially the second half of the twentieth century. In a 1974 interview in Black World, he called this process “necromancy”: “I wanted to write about a time like the present or to use the past to prophesy about the future—a process our ancestors called necromancy.”

Necromancy is an important word for Reed. He titled his first anthology of black poets 19 Necromancers from Now and called the reader’s attention to the word’s etymology in the preface. It means “black magic,” and writing is magic for Reed.

“A man’s story is his gris-gris,” he says in the first chapter of Flight to Canada, using another black magic term. In Haitian voodoo, a gris-gris is a sacred object, a charm that gives a magician power as long as it is kept. Creole voodoo terms are never used to obscure or decorate Reed’s fiction. They are always precisely the right words, and the meaning can usually be found in context.

If writing is magic, it is also a way to strike back, to define one’s self against oppressors. In the opening of his 1974 interview in Black World, Reed quotes Muhammad Ali’s dictum, “writing is fighting,” and he made that phrase the title of his book about boxing literature. Reed does not limit his sparring to his critical essays: It shows up in his fiction as well. His novels usually have at least one scene of confrontation between two literary points of view.

In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the scene is Bo Shmo’s meeting with Loop Garoo in the desert, where Shmo tries to get Loop to conform to Marxist realist ideas of what the African American novel should be. The scene is repeated in Mumbo Jumbo, in which the Marxist realist is Abdul Sufi Hamid, and Reed’s point-of-view character is PaPa LaBas. In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, the conflict is embedded in the character of Chorus, who objects to her disappearance in modern literature. Reed’s appearance in a Buffalo production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1944) in 1960 may have led to his interest in the Antigone myth in which Chorus appears in his novel.

In Flight to Canada, Raven Quickskill has literary arguments with his lover Qua Qua and presents post-Civil War literature as a continuation of the struggle: “What the American Arthurians couldn’t win on the battlefield will now be fought out on the poetry field.” In Reckless Eyeballing, Ian Ball objects not only to feminist attacks on his writing but also to the critiques of fellow black playwright Jack Brashford.

The feminist critique reflects attacks on Reed’s own works, as do the other literary arguments in his fiction. Reed has been labeled sexist by feminist critics for his portrayal of women and for what is perceived as his ratification of black “macho” stereotypes. In a 1981 essay in Playgirl, Reed reiterated a thesis that the black male was victimized by feminist gains in the 1970’s and that popular images of middle-aged males, black or white, are invariably villainous. The thesis is central to Reckless Eyeballing, where it is developed more fully. The biggest irony of Reed’s status in American letters is that this radical black writer seems to have more enemies on the Left (Marxist and feminist) than on the Right.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

The Loop Garoo Kid, a HooDoo cowboy, fights the powers of evil in their current manifestation: a powerful Old West rancher.

In a self-interview in the journal Black World, Reed explained the title of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down word by word. “Yellow back” refers to the pulp-novel fiction that created the myth of the Old West at the end of the nineteenth century; “radio” continued it; “broke-down” means stripped to its essence. The novel, then, is a dissection of the popular culture images of the Old West and an indictment of the way they portray minorities.

Reed’s first HooDoo hero, the Loop Garoo Kid, is the black cowboy who runs the circus at the opening of the novel; clues to a larger identity begin to accumulate as the novel progresses, and Loop is revealed as an eternal, the trickster figure from African myth, mistakenly identified by Western rationalists as the power of evil. Loop Garoo (whose name means “werewolf” in Haitian Creole) is the eternal good guy of Western fantasy.

The bad guy is Drag Gibson, a powerful rancher who jealously protects his way of life by trying to kill Loop and his circus people. He is hired by the people of Yellow Back Radio to return their town to them; it has been taken over by their children—an allegory of what seemed to be happening to the United States when the novel was written in 1969. Drag’s men attack and defeat the circus train, and Loop is stranded in the desert. He is picked up, however, by Chief Showcase, “the only surviving injun,” in a high-technology helicopter, one of the many examples of anachronism in the novel. Showcase, as another exploited minority, identifies with Loop and offers clandestine aid. Loop returns to haunt Drag’s men on the desert.

When Loop continues on the loose, the secretary of defense, General Theda Doompussy Blackwell, is called in. With Congressman Pete the Peek providing military appropriations, Blackwell hires the scientists Harold Rateater and Dr. Coult to develop weapons to subdue Loop. Here the satire is aimed at the military development of the Vietnam War era, contemporary with the novel.

In the final section of the novel, Pope Innocent arrives from Europe, giving an idea of the cosmic scope the conflict is about to assume. The pope, representing Western orthodoxy and authority, is upset that his American minions, the likes of Blackwell and Gibson, have been unable to subdue Loop Garoo. He has not always been Loop’s foe, however: His discussion with Drag reveals that Loop had originally been a member of the divine family of the Christian mythos. Put off by Jehovah’s demand of exclusive worship, Loop left him. Jehovah, however, now dominated by the feminine principle represented by Mary, needs Loop’s help. Only Loop could keep the feminine force under control: He knew her as his lover, Black Diane (the Greek Artemis). One of her followers appears as Mustache Sal, another former lover of Loop, now Drag’s wife.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down may be enjoyed on a number of levels. A parody of Western thrillers, it is as exciting and quick-paced as any of the horse operas it parodies. One index of its success as a story is a laudatory review in Western Roundup, a rodeo magazine written by and for modern-day cowboys. On another level, the novel functions, as does all Reed’s fiction, as a critique of American culture. Because the Western as a genre illustrates the errors of American culture—looking on the resources of the American West, including the human resources of its aboriginal people, as sources of wealth to be exploited—Reed...

(The entire section is 4113 words.)