Ishmael Reed Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ishmael Scott Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on February 22, 1938, the son of Henry Lenoir and Thelma Coleman. A year later, his mother married Bennie Stephen Reed, and the infant Ishmael assumed his stepfather’s name.

When World War II began, Reed’s mother moved north to find work in factories depopulated by the draft, and young Ishmael went with her. They settled in Buffalo, New York, where Reed would spend the following twenty years. Reed’s first encouragement in his writing came from his mother: When he was a boy, she asked him to write a poem for the birthday of one of her coworkers. He remembers writing another poem for Christmas, 1952, but did not return to poetry until after college. He spent his first two years of secondary school at Buffalo Technical High School but finished at East High, from which he graduated in 1956.

Finding employment as a clerk in the Buffalo public library system, Reed attended night classes at the State University of New York, Buffalo. In an English class at the university, he received further encouragement for his writing. Feeling alienated from the university’s predominantly white, middle-class student body, however, Reed withdrew in 1960 and moved to a government housing project. In September of 1960 he married Priscilla Rose.

Reed began writing professionally at this time for a Buffalo-based African American newspaper, Empire State Weekly. Through the paper, and a weekly community affairs show he cohosted on a Buffalo radio station, Reed became increasingly involved in civil rights activism. He also became active in Buffalo’s growing theater groups; learning roles in such classics as Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith (1960) and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) helped Reed to develop his ear for dialogue.

In 1962, the birth of his daughter Timothy Brett Reed (for whom he wrote the poem “instructions to a princess”) was, he says “the only friendly event.” Separated from his wife, he left Buffalo to seek better literary opportunities in New York City, and he found them. He became a member of the Umbra Workshop, a seminal black writers group on the Lower East Side,...

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Ishmael Reed Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Reed is an innovative black satirist. His Neo-HooDoo style, a mixture of African religion and art with American popular culture, created fiction that is popular, yet educates the reader about the African roots of American culture. Defining the African American artist as a “necromancer,” or magician, Reed sees his art as a form of conjuring, calling up the spirits of his African ancestors to comment on the past, present, and future of America. Reed’s heroes are underdogs fighting oppression in many forms, usually by turning the system upside down.

Ishmael Reed Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The jacket notes to Chattanooga glibly recount the life of Ishmael Reed with the following: “born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, grew up in Buffalo, New York, learned to write in New York City and wised up in Berkeley, California.” Each residence played a crucial role in his development.

Reed was given the name Emmett Coleman at birth. He was born to Henry Lenoir and Thelma Coleman, but before he was two years old, his mother remarried, this time to auto worker Bennie Reed. When the young Reed was four years old, his mother moved the family to Buffalo, New York, where she found factory work. Reed graduated from Buffalo’s East High School in 1956 and began to attend Millard Fillmore College, the night division of the University of Buffalo, supporting himself by working in the Buffalo public library. A satiric short story, “Something Pure,” which portrayed Christ’s return as an advertising man, brought Reed the praise of an English professor and encouraged him to enroll in day classes. Reed attended the University of Buffalo until 1960, when he withdrew because of money problems and the social pressures that his financial situation created.

Reed married Priscilla Rose Thompson and moved into the notorious Talbert Mall projects. The two years he spent there provided him with a painful but valuable experience of urban poverty and dependence. His daughter, Timothy Bret Reed, was born there. During his last years in Buffalo, Reed wrote for the Empire Star Weekly, moderated a controversial radio program for station WVFO, and acted in several local stage productions.

From 1962 to 1967, Reed lived in New York City. As well as being involved with the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement, Reed served as...

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Ishmael Reed Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ishmael Reed’s writing can be said to mirror his own multiethnic descent, which includes African American, Native American, and Irish. His stepfather, Bennie Stephen Reed (an auto worker), later adopted him. He married Priscilla Rose in 1960; they were divorced in 1970. Reed has two children—Timothy and Brett—from his first marriage and a daughter, Tennessee Maria, by his second.

Early in his life his family moved to Buffalo, New York. He attended the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1956 to 1960 but was not graduated. He has published books of essays and poetry, but he is primarily known as a novelist. He has edited two multicultural anthologies: Nineteen Necromancers from Now (1970) and Calafia: The California Poetry (1979). He lives in Berkeley, California, where he teaches at the University of California, and he has been a visiting professor or writer-in-residence at many other schools.

Reed’s first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, shows most of the elements for which his writing is known. It is the wildly picaresque and often scatological tale of the adventures of an African American, Bukka Doopeyduk, in HARRY SAM, a city that reflects and exaggerates the most repressive aspects of Christian, European culture.

Reed’s best-known novel, Mumbo Jumbo, uses the conventions of the detective story. Papa LaBas (whose name, typically for Reed, refers to the Voodoo god Papa Legba and French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans’ decadent novel Là-Bas, 1891; Down There, 1924) investigates an alleged plague called Jes Grew, which turns out to be spontaneous joy, opposed to the grim power structure of monotheistic European culture.

Reed is widely praised for his style, his imaginative story construction, and his masterly use of elements from many cultural backgrounds, but he is often attacked by African American and feminist critics. He has continually satirized other African Americans, most notably in The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), in which he refers to many of them as “Moochers.” His criticisms of feminism, most notably in Reckless Eyeballing (1986), are widely considered to be misogynist. Japanese by Spring satirizes the politics of the university.

Ishmael Reed Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ishmael Scott Reed was born Emmett Coleman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1938. In 1944, he went with his mother to live in Buffalo, New York. There he assumed the last name of his mother’s new husband. Finishing high school in 1956, he continued his studies at Millard Fillmore College, the night school of Buffalo University, where his writing dazzled one of his instructors, who was seconded in his enthusiasm by a number of his colleagues.

Reed was persuaded to transfer to Buffalo University, which he did in 1957. After financial pressures forced his withdrawal before graduation, he went to work as a correspondent for the Empire Star Weekly, a newspaper serving the black community. He was also cohost of a radio program, a job from which he was abruptly fired for interviewing Malcolm X.

In 1962, Reed moved to New York City, where he became involved with the literary community and was editor of the first and best-known subversive newspaper, The East Village Other. His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, was published in 1967. Reed moved to California, settling first in Berkeley and soon moving to Oakland’s inner city. In 1970, he published his first volume of poetry, Catechism of d Neoamerican Hoodoo Church.

Reed began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and taught there for more than three decades, although he was denied tenure in 1977 and subsequently was employed in...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Ishmael Reed Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ishmael Scott Reed is recognized as an important American satirist, an innovative poet, and a major part of the antirealist countertradition in black American fiction that includes authors such as Clarence Major, James Alan McPherson, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. He was born Emmett Coleman to Thelma Coleman and Henry Lenoir in Chattanooga, Tennessee; before he turned two years old, his mother married Bennie Reed and his name was changed. The family moved to Buffalo, New York, when he was four. After he graduated from Buffalo’s East High School, Ishmael Reed attended the University of Buffalo, but financial problems forced him to withdraw before graduation. He then married and moved into the notorious Talbert...

(The entire section is 830 words.)