The Essays of Ishmael Reed Critical Essays

Ishmael Reed

A Provocative Essayist

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Though he is one of the best-known contemporary American writers of both poetry and fiction, Ishmael Reed has created the greatest level of controversy with his efforts in the genre of the essay. Beginning with his first published collection of essays, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), which contains pieces from the early and mid-1970’s, Reed displays a talent for both satire and humor that led one writer in The Nation to compare him to Mark Twain. Refusing to argue from any one limited cultural or political paradigm, Reed has criticized, and been criticized by, all sides of the political spectrum. His conflict with what he calls right-wing “ethnic chauvinists” motivates much of his nonfiction. His even more famous feud with feminists such as the African American novelist Alice Walker (who refers to herself as a “womanist”) has also drawn considerable publicity. Whether commenting on racism, religion, writing, or popular culture, Reed maintains one constant in his nonfiction: He wittily and strenuously argues the merits of turning a multicultural perspective on all areas of American culture.

Reed is most eloquent on the need for multicultural education and publishing. He comments on this topic in the title essay of his first volume of nonfiction, “Shrovetide in Old New Orleans,” and multiculturalsim is a constant theme throughout many of his collected essays. The resistance to multiculturalism is, in Reed’s opinion, one of the many legacies of racism. While in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Reed is struck by the many African and Caribbean African components of the celebration. In particular, he is impressed by the many elements of the African religion of Vodoun, or Voodoo, in the midst of a nominally Christian celebration. Not surprising, Mardi Gras becomes for Reed an emblem of the unacknowledged contributions of African Americans to American culture, ranging from the jazz music that accompanies many parades to the costumes and disguises that are of obvious African or African American origin.

Reed also finds that there are many African Americans eager to capitalize on the reputation of Mardi Gras; one native Louisianan, the...

(The entire section is 896 words.)