Ishmael Reed Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 6) - Essay

Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reed, Ishmael 1938–

Reed, a Black American novelist and poet, establishes with ludicrous, brilliant parodies a Black mythology transcending Blackness. (See also, Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 5, 13 and 174.)

One of the many critical studies of Afro-American literature that needs to be written might be entitled "Irony and the Black Literary Tradition." Except for the serious odes of Phillis Wheatley, there is hardly a work by an Afro-American author that would not be illuminated by such an approach. On second thought, even Wheatley's poems embody the inherent irony of a black poetic spirit cramped into a white poetic mold. Irony is an essential element in black artistic expression because it is so integral a part of black life.

When this study is written the works of Ishmael Reed will have at least a chapter devoted to them. His … novel, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, might serve as a textbook on irony. In it he blends paradox, hyperbole, understatement and signifyin' so expertly that you can almost hear a droll black voice telling the tale as you read it.

One of Reed's best satiric methods is the interweaving of fantastic verbal absurdities with the familiar absurdities of everyday life. He compares the entrance of Louisiana Red's hero, Ed Yellings, into Berkeley, California to the entrance of Osiris into Egypt at a time when "cannibalism was in vogue."… This is of course comic irony; in Reed's hands it is a mighty weapon.

The primary targets of Reed's wit are the black revolutionary organizations that sprang up in places like Berkeley in the 1960s. He condemns their use of revolutionary violence, which was at times indistinguishable from old-fashioned crime. The posturing, the rhetoric and the exploitation that sometimes characterized actual movements symbolize the forces of foolishness and evil in Reed's hoodoo drama.

Reed calls the members of the movement the Moochers, a term taken from a Cab Calloway song, and terms their mindlessly bloody tactics "Louisiana Red," which is also a kind of hot sauce…. The opposing forces of righteousness are led by Ed Yellings, founder of the Solid Gumbo Works and discoverer of a cure for cancer. Actually the Gumbo Works is a highly sophisticated voodoo operation, but Reed hilariously appropriates the slogans and symbols of capitalistic enterprise to describe its activities.

The plot of Louisiana Red is impossible to recount. Like Reed's last novel, Mumbo Jumbo, it takes the form of a hoodoo detective thriller, features the master practitioner Papa LaBas, and generally focuses upon the struggle between the upright Gumbo Workers and the dangerous advocates of "Louisiana Red." For so many story lines and themes, however, a concept as linear as "plot" seems inadequate. (pp. 53-4)

Reed appears deeply concerned with the relationship between the sexes, but on this topic his perspective is frighteningly distorted. Throughout Louisiana Red there is joking contempt toward women, particularly black women. When he satirizes the women's movement his originality disappears and he falls back on the tired stereotype of feminists as man-hating dykes. The method for subduing these "fierce, rough-looking women" is attack and rape.

Reed's most astounding statements occur in a confrontation between Papa LaBas and Minnie, a Moocher leader. LaBas accuses Minnie and all black women as co-conspirators with white men in keeping black men in submission. LaBas intones: "Women use our children as hostages against us…. The original blood-sucking vampire was a woman…. I can't understand why you want to be liberated. Hell … you already liberated."

The violence and humorlessness of this diatribe, delivered by a character whom Reed respects, indicate that he wants his opinions to be taken straight. Reed's views on a difficult problem are antediluvian and for this reader they cloud the entire impact of his work. If he is so insensitive in this area, how can he be so incisive in others? (Can I laugh with a man who seems so hostile toward me?) As a critic I found The Last Days of Louisiana Red brilliant. As a black woman I am not nearly so enthusiastic. (p. 54)

Barbara Smith, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 23, 1974.

Unlike most black writers today, whose novels and autobiographical testaments are firebombs meant to reduce susceptible white liberal readers to guilty pulps, Ishmael Reed addresses himself basically to his own people. In his new (and fourth) novel, The Last Days of Louisiana Red …, Reed attacks the black opportunists who corrupt their brothers and sisters with Louisiana Red—not a hot sauce, but a fiery and lethal state of mind among blacks, "the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another, carving one another while above their heads, 50,000 feet, billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes…."

To free those contaminated by the Louisiana Red blight, Ed Yellings, "an american negro itinerant," develops the Solid Gumbo Works, a business that uses 19th-century hoodoo spells and charms to produce cures for cancer and heroin addiction, two conditions essential to the pernicious survival of Louisiana Red…. (p. 10)

The story, told in a high-spirited, jivey rhythm, deals with Ed Yellings' murder by bad Moochers in the grip of Louisiana Red, and the unraveling of the crime by LaBas, a hoodoo detective who has appeared in earlier Reed novels. Part shamus and part shaman, LaBas is the learned guardian of traditional Afro-American folk culture, which reaches back to ancient Egypt, and the invincible enemy of "Louisiana Red: insolence, sloppiness, attitude, sounds from the reptilian brain, dejection and nay-saying." When Reed, blazing with healthy disrespect for everything fashionably sacred, has finished trashing all the pretentious hypocrisies that threaten black life in America, he comes out squarely in favor of "Business, Occupation, Work."

Unfortunately, he does not apply this conservative ethical severity sternly enough to his own effort. The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a lazy book, making do with crude cartoons in place of realized comic characters, with some feeble one-liners rather than a thoughtful, persuasive development of episodes. Reed's stand in favor of hard work and against mooching is certainly unexceptionable, but instead of giving it the narrative coherence it demands, he hands his message to us raw, in the flatly stated affirmations of LaBas. Since Reed is obviously inventive, intelligent, scholarly, and sometimes brilliantly funny, one can only lament the fact that in this novel he has sacrificed his considerable gifts on the worthless altar of glib indolence. (p. 11)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 23, 1974.

Ishmael Reed's first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, hoodoo'd those sympathetic critics who instinctively praise the first novels of young Black writers. There was nothing to praise in Pallbearers—no privileged insights into negritude, no angry calls for social justice, no trade at all on the racy material of Black experience. Instead Reed caricatured the typical hero of the "Neo-Slave Narrative" and relentlessly parodied its traditional rhetoric. What is it like to grow up in Soulsville? To make one's way from Chattanooga to the grim projects on Buffalo's East Side and finally into the "Now-here" world of New York City? Doopeyduk's progress through the world of Hairy Sam is set forth in episodes as sharply delineated as cartoon frames. Ralph Ellison's epiphanies are reduced to pratfalls, James Baldwin's careful discriminations are heaved like pies at the reader, and indeed the pieties of that exemplary fiction are turned one by one inside out—reversed, ridiculed. The subject of Pallbearers is the monstrosity of American life, but the full force of Reed's ire falls upon the conventional modes of telling the Black man's role in that life. Doopeyduk's foolish innocence in the novel, his resolute dedication to good grammatical English, the Nazarene Code, and Success, thus marks in large farcical letters the loss of Reed's own innocence as a Black writer, his refusal to enter Afro-American literature through the usual door.

Since that denial in 1967, Reed has produced two books of poetry, Conjure and Chattanooga, and three affirmative novels: Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo, and The Last Days of Louisiana Red. In this fiction he has tried to do a number of difficult things at once and not always succeeded. Too often the satirist and the mythmaker are at odds in his narrative, and there are times, particularly in The Last Days, his most recent novel, when this tension is ruinous. (p. 311)

The problem in The Last Days is Papa LaBas, the old man from down there, a patriarchal houngan who first appears in Yellow Back Radio and then serves as the focal character in Mumbo Jumbo. He is the voice Reed has given to his mythology (Neo-HooDoo) and as such, tirelessly discoursing, he calmly dominates the hectic plot of The Last Days. Each of these three novels variously repeats the mythos of Neo-HooDoo. Loop Caroo's "connaissance" in Yellow Back Radio is the knowledge of myth, a knowing that is at once a way of being in the world, and this knowledge, rooted in the lore of West Indian voodoo, links him to the myth of Osiris. He is indeed Black Osiris reborn, and Drag Gibson, the LBJ-like rancher, none other than Set in whiteface. Taking first the familiar yellowbacked Western as his narrative model, and then in Mumbo Jumbo the pulp detective-adventure fiction, Reed has retold their essential conflict in his own terms and at the same time set forth an ambitious reinterpretation of past and present Afro-American literature. Yet certain formal problems remain, not the least of which is the introduction of a great deal of unfamiliar material. In Yellow Back Radio Reed filters these arcane legends and strange terms through the student wars in Berkeley and Oakland, sticking close to evident historical parallels, but even then he needs an operatic Pope to intervene finally with the larger mythic perspective. In The Last Days he simply allows Papa LaBas to catechize the reader, and the result is a heavyhanded underscoring of the text. A rich and complex history underlies these narratives, a history in which Marie Philome and Doc John are important figures. Yet how does one get these names and events to resonate and refer without footnotes and glossaries?

In Mumbo Jumbo, his best work to date, the satirist and mythmaker work in unison. Reed's subject is the phenomenon of Jes Grew, the development of ragtime in American culture, and in pondering its significance he calls into question the whole of the Harlem Renaissance. How did Black writers interpret Jes Grew? Why did they fail to incorporate its meaning into their art and effectively create a new fiction and poetry as innovative and forceful as jazz? Reed grapples with the figure of Carl Van Vechten who, as Hinckle Von Vampton, moves elusively through the novel seeking to capture the essence of Osirian wisdom (as transcribed in The Book of Thoth) in order to contaminate its purity. Papa LaBas scrutinizes the various attitudes taken toward "primitivism" during the renaissance and comes to learn, thanks to certain Haitian emissaries, the correct approach. The question really is how the phenomenon of Jes Grew (that sudden awakening of Osirian consciousness) is to inform one's art. Black writers in the twenties dealt with "primitivism" through a system of values that were not natively Black, Reed argues, and thus wrote fiction that was tortured in its sensibility, torn between mind and body, fiction that never shook loose from its mooring in Anglo-American literature. They gave consent to Van Vechten's exploitation of their experience and themselves wrote versions of Nigger Heaven, novels in which "primitive" heroes lived high and quick in a constant state of coarse sensuality. There were writers, however, like Zora Neale Hurston, who took the mumbo jumbo of "primitivism" seriously, who learned its language and lore, and it is in their work that Papa LaBas discerns the relettering of the lost sacred text. For here the very concept of "primitivism" is abolished, Black consciousness is mythically reconsecrated, the integrity of knowledge restored to the Dance, and the cultural dualism that plagued the renaissance is effectively resolved. Improvisational, working out its own myths and forms, not solemn but witty, Black writing thus escapes from American literature, returns via West Indian ritual to its African sources, and becomes at last itself.

If only in the range of its assumptions, Reed's achievement in Mumbo Jumbo is considerable. Yet Papa LaBas's vision of a reformulated and clarified Black literature is prophetic in Mumbo Jumbo, not yet realized, and we leave off in the modern period with this ancient necromancer still construing the hopeful signs…. There has always been in Reed's fiction an involuted love/hate relationship with Black history and the types it has engendered in popular mythology and literature. This revulsion is powerfully expressed in Pallbearers, which resembles Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in its vitriolic exposures of domestic life. Unlike Roth, however, Reed has taken great pains in his subsequent fiction to create a constructive protagonist who embodies an intelligible morality. When Alex Portnoy goes back to Israel to touch his racial roots, to be renewed, he is instead stripped bare and rejected. Reed's Africa is a different place, a distributed Africa alive in Haiti and expressed in New Orleans, an Africa still powerful in its cures and spells. But in The Last Days Papa LaBas is not all that convincing in his powers, not all that intelligible in his "connaissance." For all of Reed's pregnant allusions, Gumbo seems more a business than the Business.

Reed's anti-moocherism is an attack not just on the Marxist cant of radical politics, but on something deeper in the Black psyche—moocherism itself, the slave's mentality. (pp. 312-14)

Papa LaBas's "old morality" is severely patriarchal in its values. White men and Black women have conspired in subjecting Black men in America, he argues, the former by direct repression, the latter through an indirect and subtle color coding of their sexual preferences, by their willingness to accept the White man's stereotypes of Black manhood. His discourse mounts into a fury of antifeminism…. Although Reed somewhat ambivalently puts down Street's bullying machismo, it is nonetheless machismo that finally jars Minnie into an understanding of her proper role, allows her to perceive the salvation that lies in the acceptance of Blackness. (p. 315)

Like Pallbearers,… The Last Days deals with the politics of Soulsville, and yet this novel lacks the malevolent intelligence that drives Reed's first novel. What intervenes is the construction of Reed's eclectic mythology, the construction of an obdurate positivism. Even as it provides him with a coherent mythos, Neo-HooDoo necessarily deflects the course of his satire. In Mumbo Jumbo,… Reed's didacticism is ingeniously presented, woven into the narrative which is, after all, finally about the search for a narrative. But in The Last Days, Reed's mythology is used like a vacuum sweeper: it has all the answers within its system, Neo-HooDoo is the way, and therefore it efficiently absorbs all the difficult problems that Reed the satirist uncovers. No one can take seriously his rescue of Minnie at the end of the novel, nor can anyone overlook the fact that the business she at last learns does not have much to do with the confection of Gumbo. Indeed Reed has come to a problematical pass in his writing. The mythology of Neo-HooDoo does not inform his satiric reading of Black experience in The Last Days—it consoles that reading. If Blue Coal's chastisement of Minnie represents the restoration of order in Reed's mind, then Louisiana Red is hardly in its last days. Reed has yet to define himself as a writer, to choose between the rigorous demands of satire and the programmatic concerns of Neo-HooDoo. (pp. 315-16)

Neil Schmitz, "The Gumbo that Jes Grew," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1975 by Partison Review, Inc.), Vol. XLII, No. 2, 1975, pp. 311-16.

[Who] is better at putting the word on the bizarre growths of America than Ishmael Reed? He ranges through history selecting from Vaudeville scripts, Greek dramas, small-town esoterica, folklore, old radio scenarios, and yesterday's newspapers to compile the raw material that he shapes into his fiction. The novels themselves have all been satirical and targeted attacks on those obscenities that America commits inside the hollow body of its righteous statue of liberty, or crouched womb-wise under its gallant stars and stripes. Reed strips off the covers, exposes the inner spaces, and reveals the postures as caricatures on decency…. And by moving swiftly, on at least two temporal planes—the near and the distant past—the novelist has been able to show us the continuity of corruption in the Western world. (p. 51)

The targets of Reed's barbed wit are feminists, ex-thugs and convicts-turned-revolutionaries, white intellectuals "exploring" Black literature, Black Kingfish hustlers, religious cultists, hippies, perverters of art, and castrating women of all ages. (pp. 51-2)

Not only is a good deal of the text composed of whimsical larks, but also much of its upbeat and on-the-spot philosophizing is informed by what appears at times a sophomoric consciousness. The anti-feminist digs by the omnipresent narrator and LaBas' monologue on the willing cooperation of Black women in the white man's scheme to castrate the Black man sound like James Joyce manqué. After all, Mr. Deasy also thinks all the evil in the world is attributable to women. The slightly veiled parodying of the Black Panther Party seems a bit of wasted space, given the knowledge that most of us now have of that group's limitations and successes. And to drag out those poor, tattered creations of the white American psyche—Amos and Andy—my heavens, what dim corridors will next provide filler?

The intense individualism that acts as the author's point of origin seems to have played him false in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, because the most elegantly-described setting in the novel is a house (secluded, mind you) in the Berkeley hills, and the most redeemed historical personage in the work who inhabits it—none other than Amos, the taxi driver. Surrounding him and the earnest laborers of the Gumbo Works (who seem terribly like budding Black capitalists rather than mysterious creative saviors, to me) are the "Moochers," those who want something for nothing and who devote their lives to any cause that promises gain without sacrifice.

Yes, we all know about the rip-offs perpetuated in the names of anti-poverty, revolution, women's liberation, Black art, and Black studies. But to see the exploitation of limited and carefully-doled American resources as the essence of Black American activity in the 1960's seems curious indeed. And setting up a generation of college-bred Black folks, a cool and "uncharacterized character" à la Cab Calloway as representative artist, and a group of secretive hoo-doo workers as foils for the exploitation seems simplistic. To charge the novelist with any of those ludicrous offenses dreamed up by the sociorealists would be equally as curious and simplistic on the part of the critic. Instead, I would like to see The Last Days of Louisiana Red as a book that Ishmael Reed just had to get out of his system. It is not a fully thought out novel. It is not truly original, since it adopts—to a large extent—the formula of his third novel. Nor is it vivid in the manner of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down or Mumbo Jumbo: the dialogue, the jokes, the set pieces, and the interpolated historical references to Greek drama often land as dully as Silly Putty. But Reed has now had his say. (pp. 52, 89)

Houston A. Baker, Jr., in Black World (copyright © June, 1975, by Houston A. Baker, Jr.; reprinted by permission of Black World and Houston A. Baker, Jr.), June, 1975.

"The Last Days of Louisiana Red" [is] an inventive, madcap satire that takes off on black folk religion as well as the white Establishment, saving some of its sharpest barbs for black women….

In "Louisiana Red" and three previous novels—"The Free-Lance Pallbearers," "Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down" and "Mumbo Jumbo"—Reed's comic energy has earned him high critical praise as well as charges of racism, by both whites and blacks, and of male chauvinism. "I get the same kind of attacks Richard Wright got for introducing Bigger Thomas," he says….

At the core of Reed's writing is an urgent plea for a multicultural civilization, an "ethnic sharing of sensibilities."

Arthur Cooper, "Call Him Ishmael," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 2, 1975, p. 70.