Ishmael Reed Essay - Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 3)

Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 3)

Reed, Ishmael 1938–

Reed is a distinguished Black American poet, novelist, and critic. (See also, Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Vols. 2, 5, 6, 13 and 174.)

In 1971 Ishmael Reed published the "Neo-hoodoo Manifesto" in Confrontation, a journal of third world literature. This statement serves as the esthetic foundation for Reed's last two novels, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), a "neo-hoodoo western," and most recently, Mumbo Jumbo, a "neo-hoodoo detective novel." In his manifesto Reed suggests that neo-hoodoo is the rebirth of a spiritual-mythic quality that has been distorted and suppressed by Judeo-Christian influences. In Mumbo Jumbo Reed untangles the black mythic past from the negative symbology of Western religions and relocates the integrity of black magic and hoodoo in the artistic function of the Afro-American artist—the neo-hoodoo priest. In a turn-of-the-century American society that outlaws dance, Reed posits the thriving under-ground existence of a neo-hoodoo culture which seeks identity and a medium of expression through the resurrection of hoodoo forms, loa and rites.

Within this broad historical framework the novel develops a social-political struggle between two antagonistic forces. The Atonists dedicate themselves to the preservation of sacred Western civilization and enforce their tyranny through the militant Wallflower Order. Opposed to them is "Jes Grew," the anti-plague of new racial consciousness which bumps and grinds to life in New Orleans, the "Home of Mystery," and sweeps across the country enjoining everyone it infects to "shake that thing." The plague is a "psychic epidemic" which threatens the established order of Atonism.

This confrontation allows Reed both to satirize America and Christianity and to develop the complex exigencies of neo-hoodooism. Reed's satire is uneven…. However, the important feature of Mumbo Jumbo is Reed's establishment of a black esthetic. He restores a mutilated religious heritage, reveals the creative possibilities of magic, Satan, witchcraft, evil and the unknown, and initiates a new priesthood of Afro-American artists into the mysteries of their own past.

Thomas Hoeksema, in Books Abroad, Spring, 1973, pp. 367-68.

Ishmael Reed is a prolific writer who … works in more than one medium. His novels ("Free-Lance Pallbearers," "Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down," "Mumbo Jumbo") have already consolidated his reputation as one of those black writers who refuse to be categorized according to the relevance of his theme. He asks no favors of any orthodoxy, but lets his imagination make its bid for the creation of new forms. Yet one cannot fail to notice the craft and discipline with which he controls the natural swing and bounce of his verse.

In his latest collection, "Conjure," … Reed's tone and rhythm derive from the militant tradition of the black underground. But his is an unusual brand of militancy; it is much concerned with the politics of language. He argues for a clean, free struggle between the liberating anarchism of the black tongue and the frozen esthetic of a conventional White Power…. His verse is distinguished by a fine critical intelligence, and his stance before the wide variety of American life is supremely confident. He can evoke with poetic realism the savagery which shaped the pioneering spirit as well as crystallize the fraudulence at the heart of the "civilizing" mission.

George Lamming, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1973, p. 37.

[It] does appear that Reed, if not in content, in motive at least, attempts to approximate [in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down] a spirit and certain form characteristic of Charles Chesnutt—that is, just as Chesnutt in Conjure Woman uses the form of the traditional frame-tale to structure his novel, that is almost completely related in Afro-American dialect, Reed combines the qualities of Afro-American dialect and slang and western jargon; and while, in the process of raising the former to the level of literary language, he intensifies the poetic and/or rhythmic nature of his prose. And if not a justification, Reed's self-proclaimed anarchism serves at least as an indication of the "theoretical considerations" underlying his method….

Reed's desire to explore the Afro-American tradition, as well as his act of rebellion, is reflected in the language he employs. An intriguing and complex combination of western jargon and Black American slang, the language of his fictional world is interesting for the pure comic effect it frequently achieves. In repeatedly using unorthodox spellings, but spellings which somehow do manage to represent the phonetic value of the "correctly" spelled word, Reed creates not only a greater rhythmic and/or poetic force in his prose but maintains a kind of linguistic consistency which often forces us to question the value and logicality of standard American English (e.g., "nekkid" for naked, "hoss" for horse, "furriner" for foreigner, etc.). But that his diction is anything but facile becomes readily apparent. For although most of Reed's unorthodox language derives from Afro-American slang, a great many of the terms' meanings are not immediately clear, having been obscured by time (and/or education). So that understanding necessitates some awareness of the historical development of Black language in America. Words such as "woodshed" (in Jazz, when a musician practices his instrument in privacy), "trucking" (a dance introduced in Harlem's famous Cotton Club), "mitt man" (a religious imposter who capitalizes on the devoutly religious people who are his victims: cf. Rinehart in Ellison's Invisible Man) are all terms which came into existence during the Twenties and Thirties and Forties and, like "funky" or "funk" (the "soul" quality in Black music, the melancholy mood of the blues, etc.) have undergone modifications of usage and meaning with the passage of time.

What this use of language does, of course, is to point to Reed's concern with history, and indeed it does assume an important role in the course of Reed's narrative….

Reed goes even further than the immediate American past in his historical sources. The ancient Athenian statesman, Alcibiades, who betrayed his own city in its critical hour, lends his name to one of Loop Garoo's fellow artists who betrays him to Drag. This, and similar historical parallels, suggests Reed's consciousness of the contemporaneity of earlier events, or, in Eliot's words, "a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence." And in the process of demonstrating this phenomenon, Reed juxtaposes artifacts from separate periods, eliminating the artificial division of time….

In a statement which strongly suggests Reed's rationale for Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Loop scowls and shouts to Bo:

What's your beef with me, Bo Shmo, what if I write circuses? No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons. (p. 36)

So Reed's only rule becomes the absolute absence of rules. And as a result, all becomes possible in the art of the poet-creator. History becomes susceptible to manipulation and merges with myth. Loop Garoo, who becomes the mythic hero in western garb, seeks the sources of his cultural past.

Roland E. Bush, in Black World (© January, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Roland E. Bush), January, 1974, pp. 51, 52, 64-6.