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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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.
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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