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.