Religion and Multiculturalism

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Reed’s views on religion reflect his multicultural concerns. He often writes on the topic of Vodoun, an African religion that is known in the Americas as Hoodoo or Voodoo. Unlike Christianity, which is monotheistic, Vodoun is pantheistic and even animistic in its various forms. Reed offers some commentary on the influence of Vodoun in the New Orleans Mardi Gras in “Shrovetide in Old New Orleans,” but his most extended analysis and exposition on African-originated religions is found in the essays “I Hear You, Doc,” in the same volume, and “Soyinka Among the Monoculturalists,” in Writin’ Is Fightin’.

“I Hear You, Doc,” is the chronicle of Reed’s trip to Haiti, where Vodoun is practiced extensively. Reed finds Haiti to be a country of contradictions but not the grisly place many Americans believe it to be. The political situation, according to Reed, is no different from that of many U.S. allies. Reed discovers Haitian culture and religion to be refreshingly energetic, contrary to the stereotypes disseminated by U.S. media. He first encounters relics of Vodoun shortly after his arrival at the Port-au-Prince airport, which is decorated with a huge mural of a Voodoo ceremony. Prepared for all eventualities, Reed travels with a “Watson Cross,” which allegedly melts when it comes in contact with the evil eye (Haitian president Joseph Nemurs Pierre-Louis is said to have been brought down by the evil eye). Reed sees evidence of...

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Reed and the Critics

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Just as Reed finds evidence of intolerance and monocultural bias in religion, he finds no end of bigotry in his relations with critics and fellow writers. Reed has written a number of laudatory essays about fellow writers, founded his own publishing company, and served as the president of the Before Columbus Foundation, which is dedicated to recognizing the achievements of writers from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. He continues, however, to answer criticism that he is bigoted and intolerant in his views concerning writing and American culture.

One of Reed’s most provocative essays on contemporary writing, “American Poetry: Is There a Center?” is featured in God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982). Reed wrote the essay after attending a benefit poetry reading in 1977. Many of the writers present at the reading had connections with the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, proclaimed to be the center for American poetry by an article in Time magazine, although in this case, as Reed notes, the Buddhists were primarily transplanted Easterners. Reed deconstructs the idea of a center for American poetry by pointing to the multicultural flowering of the arts taking place on the West Coast and in many other areas in the United States. The atmosphere and hype concerning Boulder finally bears out Reed’s thesis that poetry includes many of the components of modern urban civilization: “competition, greed, sexism, and racism.”

Reed’s decentering of American poetry is balanced by his lauding of those writers who he feels best represent the multicultural tradition. Among African American writers, he is especially complimentary of the works of Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Chester Himes, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara. Reed has written several essays on the works of Richard Wright, the most detailed being “Native Son Lives!” included in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. Wright, in Reed’s opinion, is an exemplary writer who went beyond mastery of his art to question the taboos that lie at the center of black-white relations. Hurston, whose revival was occasioned by admirers such as Reed, is noted not only for her fiction, which accurately depicts African American folklife, but also for her extensive nonfiction works, such as her pioneering work on North American Voodoo.

Chester Himes, whose work has also enjoyed a revival, received a positive review from Reed for The Quality of Hurt (1972), the fascinating first volume of his autobiography, covering his years as an Ohio State University fraternity man, an Ohio state prison inmate, an expatriate in Paris, and a literary celebrity. Meanwhile, playwright August Wilson and the novelists Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara are among the contemporary African American writers whom Reed admires most. All these writers function, to paraphrase Reed’s comment on Wilson, as bearers of the African American tradition.

In addition to his concern for writers who sustain the African American tradition, Reed has written essays on numerous other North American writers from outside the Anglo-American tradition. Reed introduces the subject in “The Multi-Cultural Artist: A New Phase in American Writing,” written in 1976 for the French newspaper Le Monde and included in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. Reed notes, as have many following him, that demographic and other changes have dethroned New York as the centralized capital of American writing. New York, Reed argues, has been replaced by a number of regional centers, especially areas populated by Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans. Because of Reed’s California connection, all...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bugeja, Michael J. Review of New and Collected Poems and Writin’ Is Fightin’, by Ishmael Reed. Southern Humanities Review 24, no. 3 (1990): 291-295. An omnibus review of Reed’s poetry and nonfiction. The writer notes that Reed has progressed from the avant-garde to the mainstream of North American poetry (or that the mainstream has moved toward him). Argues that Reed continues to be one of the most honest, thoughtful, and provocative writers on the literary scene.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A fundamental work of African American literary criticism. Using the work of Ishmael Reed as a paradigmatic example, Gates investigates the importance of the rhetorical tactic of “signifying” in African American literature. “Signifying” is a form of verbal gamesmanship often introduced into Reed’s fiction and nonfiction.

Lively, Adam. “Bunging Everything into the Gumbo.” Review of The Free-Lance Pallbearers and The Terrible Twos, by Ishmael Reed. Times Literary Supplement, May 18, 1990, 534. A positive review of Reed’s work. The writer finds Reed at least as interesting as the highly canonized contemporary American writer Thomas Pynchon and speculates that the “universal” appeal of Reed’s novels may be overlooked because of racial politics.

Mercer, Joye. “The Improvisations of an ‘Ethnic Gate Crasher.’ ” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 17, 1993, A5. A short biographical and literary portrait of Reed emphasizing his later work, particularly the novel Japanese by Spring. The essay emphasizes Reed’s efforts on behalf of multiculturalism, including remarks by Reed concerning the necessity in preaching and improvising.

Punday, Daniel. “Ishmael Reed’s Rhetorical Turn.” College English 54 (April, 1992): 446-461. An extended analysis of Reed’s use of rhetorical techniques in his fiction, with the novel Reckless Eyeballing (1986) used as a paradigm. Punday examines the various rhetorical modes present in the fiction, including signifying and “double-consciousness.”

Watkins, Mel. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” The Southern Review 21 (Summer, 1985): 603-614. Watkins’ interview features an extensive discussion of Reed’s fiction and multicultural views. Reed offers commentary on some of his more controversial views, particularly concerning the role of the media in the characterization of African American males.