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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