Ishmael Reed Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 174) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ishmael Reed 1938-

(Full name Ishmael Scott Reed; has also written under the pseudonym Emmett Coleman) American novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, playwright, librettist, editor, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Reed's career through 2003. See also, Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 5, 6 and 13.

An original satirist and author of experimental fiction, Reed is best known for his novels in which he assails repressive aspects of Western religion, politics, and technology. Reed's fiction is distinguished by dynamic, playful language that encompasses a variety of dialects, from African American slang to academic critical terminology. Although preoccupied with the myriad injustices engendered by Western civilization, Reed is primarily concerned with establishing an alternative black aesthetic, which he terms Neo-HooDoo. This concept focuses on such ancient rites as conjuring, magic, and voodoo, which Reed maintains will purge African Americans and Third World peoples of Western conditioning and ultimately help them to regain their freedom and mystic vision.

Biographical Information

Reed was born on February 22, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1942 he moved with his mother to Buffalo, New York, where he lived for twenty years. He began his college education in 1956 by taking night courses at Millard Fillmore College. After being impressed by Reed's short story “Something Pure,” in which Jesus returns as an advertising agent, one of Reed's English professors helped him become a day student at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After leaving the university for financial reasons, Reed worked at the Empire Star Weekly and hosted a radio program until he was fired for conducting an on-air interview with Malcolm X. In 1962 Reed moved to New York City, where he helped found the underground newspaper The East Village Other. During this period, he was also active in the Umbra Writers Workshop as well as the Black Arts movement. In 1967 Reed left New York to reside in Berkeley, California, later moving to Oakland, California. He began lecturing at the University of California where he has taught for over thirty years, despite being denied tenure in 1977. He has also been a guest lecturer at several universities, including Columbia University, Harvard University, Yale University, Dartmouth University, and the University of Washington. Throughout his career, Reed has published and edited a variety of literary journals—The Yardbird Reader, Quilt, and Konch—and cofounded the Before Columbus Foundation, which is devoted to promoting multiculturalism in America. He has won numerous awards and accolades for his works, most notably nominations for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (1972) and for the National Book Award in fiction and poetry for Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Conjure.

Major Works

In his fiction Reed often parodies literary genres to produce a combination of the ridiculous and the didactic. His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), burlesques the confessional style that has characterized much African American fiction since the slave narratives of the eighteenth century. The novel's young hero undergoes a chaotic search for self-awareness in a power-obsessed, white-ruled society called HARRY SAM. In his attempt to assimilate into HARRY SAM the protagonist learns the importance of being one's own master, yet he is powerless to apply this knowledge and is ultimately crucified. Reed's next work, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), introduces his concept of Neo-HooDoo. A spoof of Western pulp fiction, the novel explores racial conflicts in a small town in the Old West in which the forces of intuition and irrationality, as represented by the Loop Garoo Kid, are pitted against those of rationalism and science, as embodied in Drag Gibson. Reed extends his Neo-HooDoo philosophy in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Both novels are parodies of the mystery genre in which a detective, Papa LaBas, attempts through voodoo to combat spells cast by the white establishment, which is seeking to anesthetize members of the artistic and political black communities. LaBas also wishes to rebuild an aesthetic from the remains of African American literary and cultural history. Mumbo Jumbo, set in Harlem and New Orleans during the 1920s, depicts the battle between two ideologies—Jes Grew, the instinctive black cultural impulse, and Atonism, the repressive, rationalist Judeo-Christian tradition. The Last Days of Louisiana Red, set in Berkeley, California, revolves around Louisiana Red, a destructive mental state that afflicts certain African American militants. The novel largely concerns LaBas's investigation into the murder of Ed Yellings, an African American who discovered a cure for cancer and founded the Solid Gumbo Works, a business that uses voodoo to fight Louisiana Red. A subplot involves a black radical feminist group called the Moochers, whom Reed identifies as conspiring with white males to subdue African American men.

In Flight to Canada (1976) Reed abandons Neo-HooDoo and combines satire, allegory, and farce to lampoon the slave narrative, particularly Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Set during the Civil War but mixing contemporary characters and artifacts with those from the 1860s to stress similarities between the time periods, Flight to Canada recounts a slave's escape from his master's plantation, his period of perilous freedom in Canada, and his return as a free man to the plantation in order to liberate other slaves. Reed's novel The Terrible Twos (1982) reworks Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol into a dark satire on racism and greed during the 1980s, equating selfishness and destructive tendencies on the part of the United States with those traditionally displayed by two-year-old children. The sequel to this novel, The Terrible Threes (1989), projects these maladies into the near future, presenting a nation that descends into chaos after the neo-Nazi President of the United States discloses a White House plot to expel all minorities, as well as poor and homeless people, from the country and institute a fundamentalist Christian state. In Reckless Eyeballing (1986), a caustic satire of literary politics, Reed castigates what he perceives as a conspiracy between white male publishers and black female writers to subjugate black men by incorporating negative depictions of them into their work. Japanese by Spring (1993) follows Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt, an African American junior professor who speaks out against affirmative action, minorities, and multiculturalism in an attempt to gain tenure at his predominantly white university. The novel explores issues of chauvinism and racism within college curricula as well as the conflict between Western and non-Western cultures.

Reed's poetry, which is collected in such volumes as Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 and New and Collected Poems (1988), typically explores themes found in his fiction. Combining African American street argot with elements of mythology, voodoo, and pop culture, Reed's poems affirm the liberating power of his Neo-HooDoo aesthetic while attacking what he views as the stultifying nature of the Western cultural heritage. In 2002 Reed edited From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry across the Americas, 1900-2002 a collection of modern American poetry organized into thematic sections such as nature and place, men and women, and heroes and anti-heroes. In addition to his poetry, Reed has published and edited several essay collections, including Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (1982), and Multi America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), which presents a selection of essays from American minority writers. In Writin' is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988) Reed evokes a recurring boxing metaphor to discuss the obstacles that prevent the United States from becoming a true multicultural civilization. Airing Dirty Laundry (1993) collects essays written by Reed between 1978 and 1993, focusing on such topics as anti-Semitism in the African American community, biased media coverage of national events, and the public controversy surrounding a number of African American figures such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 2003 Reed published Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War, an essay collection in which he argues that African Americans live in a continual police state, citing examples throughout American history. Reed has also written and produced several plays, including Mother Hubbard (1981), Hubba City (1988), Savage Wilds (1989), and The Preacher and the Rapper (1994), as well as writing the libretto for the gospel opera Gethsemane Park (1998).

Critical Reception

Many academics have regarded Reed as an innovative and controversial voice in American literature and letters, viewing his novels as a reaction against or break from the naturalistic conventions of such African American authors as Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin. Although he has attracted favorable critical notices for his essays and poetry, it is Reed's fiction that has garnered the strongest critical reaction—both positive and negative. Reviewers have argued that Reed's continuing focus on Neo-HooDooism is problematic, deeming the concept too esoteric and incomplete. Many feminist scholars—including bell hooks, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis—have attacked Reed's harsh portrayals of women and vehemently objected to his allegations that there is a conspiracy between white men and African American women to oppress African American men. Although Reed has argued that many of the feminists who object to his work have never actually read it, a large number of female critics and commentators still maintain that Reed's fiction is sexist and misogynistic. Reed's satirical portrayals of African American characters have also drawn criticism from the founders of the Black Arts movement. Other commentators have faulted Reed's narrative style, asserting that his prose is incoherent, disjointed, and too infused with pop culture. Despite such adverse reactions to Reed's body of work, admirers have continued to applaud Reed for his skillful satires of American society, cultural arrogance, and neglect of those who are not members of the dominant culture.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Free-Lance Pallbearers (novel) 1967

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (novel) 1969

catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church (poetry) 1970

19 Necromancers from Now [editor and contributor] (short stories, essays, and novels) 1970

Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (poetry) 1972

Mumbo Jumbo (novel) 1972

Chattanooga (poetry) 1973

The Last Days of Louisiana Red (novel) 1974

Flight to Canada (novel) 1976

A Secretary to the Spirits [illustrations by Betye Saar] (poetry) 1978


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Robert H. Abel (essay date May 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abel, Robert H. “Reed's ‘I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.’” Explicator 30, no. 9 (May 1972): 81-2.

[In the following essay, Abel offers a critical reading of Reed's poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.”]

Ishmael Reed's poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” turns on a series of elaborate puns and allusions that all reinforce the central idea that the old (black) god Ra is about to reclaim his throne and his power over men. In addition, Reed's marriage of “popular culture” imagery with figures from Egyptian mythology produces an offspring with some startling independent features.

Ra, the sun god and creator of men, was...

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Jerry H. Bryant (essay date 25 September 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bryant, Jerry H. “Who? Jes Grew? Like Topsy? No, Not Like Topsy.” Nation 215, no. 8 (25 September 1972): 245-47.

[In the following essay, Bryant praises Reed's synthesis of history and fiction in Mumbo Jumbo, placing the novel within the context of Reed's other fictional work.]

Reading the work of Ishmael Reed is a special experience. It's like moving through the nightmare world of William Burroughs permeated by the crack-brained whimsy of Max Shulman. Slimy “things” grow in undefrosted refrigerators. Heads of state commit gleeful sodomy in motel basements. Generals talk like pansies, and dictators like Brooklyn truck drivers. Crazy names pop...

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Madge Ambler (essay date fall 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ambler, Madge. “Ishmael Reed: Whose Radio Broke Down?” Negro American Literature Forum 6, no. 3 (fall 1972): 125-31.

[In the following essay, Ambler contends that the major thematic concerns of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down can be found in his poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.”]

To understand Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, one must realize that Reed is a brilliant poet first and a novelist second.

The several themes of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down are nearly all present in Mr. Reed's “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.” The poem is reprinted below:

The devil must be forced to...

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Lorenzo Thomas (essay date winter 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thomas, Lorenzo. “Two Crowns of Thoth: A Study of Ishmael Reed's The Last Days of Louisiana Red.Obsidian 2, no. 3 (winter 1976): 5-25.

[In the following essay, Thomas identifies the major strengths and weaknesses of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, deeming the novel “thought-provoking, militantly bourgeois, and insanely funny.”]

But after all
I did all in the world I can
But that little hoodoo girl
She's gonna hoodoo the hoodoo man

—Lightnin' Slim

In 2750 we will have a new pole star. It is guaranteed by the white boy's system of sidereal precession (stolen, like much of the West's...

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Frank McConnell (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McConnell, Frank. “Ishmael Reed's Fiction: Da Hoodoo Is Put on America.” In Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee, pp. 136-48. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

[In the following essay, McConnell explores the concept of “HooDoo” as a controlling metaphor in Reed's fiction.]

Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you'll ever find here).

—Thomas Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow

The history of American fiction is cluttered with...

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Robert Murray Davis (essay date winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Robert Murray. “Scatting the Myths: Ishmael Reed.” Arizona Quarterly 39, no. 4 (winter 1983): 406-20.

[In the following essay, Davis examines how Reed's use of mythology in his fiction differentiates from similar works by several modernist authors.]

dont look at me if all dese niggers
are ripping it up like deadwood dick;
doing art d way its never been done.

—“Badman of the Guest Professor”

Ishmael Reed's political and esthetic intransigence might well be responsible for his relative neglect by all critical schools, for in all of his work he has gone out of his way to reject, among others, the New York literary...

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Joe Weixlmann (essay date summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weixlmann, Joe. “Ishmael Reed's Raven.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4, no. 2 (summer 1984): 205-08.

[In the following essay, Weixlmann investigates the influence of the Tlingit myth and Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven” on Reed's Flight to Canada.]

Raven flew away to earth and let drops of water fall from his mouth on the land, and wherever they fell there are now springs and brooks and where the larger ones fell, seas and rivers originated.

—Iwan Weniaminow, Bemerkungen über die Inseln des Unalaschka-Distrikts1

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still...

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Peter Nazareth (essay date summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nazareth, Peter. “Heading Them off at the Pass: The Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4, no. 2 (summer 1984): 208-26.

[In the following essay, Nazareth provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Reed's fiction, beginning with Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.]

The Western stagecoach is being chased by a posse of cowboys. No, the pursuers are wolves. The driver's assistant and some of the passengers throw out bones of various sizes and shapes. The real loot is hidden. The leading wolves see these bones and stop to eat them, giving up the chase. Several wolves trip over these leaders. The dog in them leads others to fight for the bones....

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Geoffrey Green (essay date summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Geoffrey. “Reality as Art: The Last Days of Louisiana Red.Review of Contemporary Fiction 4, no. 2 (summer 1984): 233-37.

[In the following essay, Green discusses how Reed's The Last Days of Louisiana Red functions as a work of social commentary.]

It has been ten years since the appearance of The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Often the passing of a decade will bring changes in the way we read and thus affect our perception of an author and his work. But although a recent appraisal of Ishmael Reed (in Frederick R. Karl's American Fictions: 1940-1980 [New York: Harper and Row, 1983], 370) states that he “has broken free of...

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Reginald Martin (essay date summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Reginald. “The FreeLance PallBearer Confronts the Terrible Threes: Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics.” MELUS 14, no. 2 (summer 1987): 35-49.

[In the following essay, Martin surveys the critical reaction to Reed's body of work as well as Reed's attitude toward his critics.]

The only really committed artist is he, who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance.

—Albert Camus, Neither Victims Nor Executioners (1945)

Today I feel bearish
I've just climbed out of
A stream with a...

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Reginald Martin (essay date spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Reginald. “Ishmael Reed's Syncretic Use of Language: Bathos as Popular Discourse.” Modern Language Studies 20, no. 2 (spring 1990): 3-9.

[In the following essay, Martin provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Reed's fiction, focusing on his linguistic metaphors.]

Ishmael Reed extends the notion of syncretism into the level and texture he uses in his novels, thus creating a type of contemporary bathetic language, whose principal rules of discourse are taken from the streets, popular music, and television. In Reed's novels, it is not uncommon to find the formal blend of language mixed with the colloquial, as it is Reed's contention that such an...

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Joe Weixlmann (essay date winter 1991-1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weixlmann, Joe. “African American Deconstruction of the Novel in the Work of Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major.” MELUS 17, no. 4 (winter 1991-1992): 57-79.

[In the following essay, Weixlmann compares the different qualities that Reed and Clarence Major bring to the genre of the novel.]

we assume a musical solo is a personal statement / we think the poet is speakin for the world. there's something wrong there, a writer's first commitment is to the piece, itself. how the words fall & leap / or if they dawdle & sit down fannin themselves.

—ntozake shange



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Merle Rubin (review date 9 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Clever Satire, Inspired Nonsense.” Christian Science Monitor (9 March 1993): 14.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a mixed assessment of Japanese by Spring, faulting Reed for his “inability to comprehend the pervasive oppression of women in almost every culture.”]

Fans of Ishmael Reed's pungent, fast-paced prose have understandably (if predictably) likened it to jazz. His writing has a spontaneous, improvisational feel: It's full of quick turns, surprises, and inventive digressions, mixing the arcane and the down-to-earth in the unforced style of a man who can think on his feet.

His new novel, Japanese by...

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Carl L. Bankston III (review date March-April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bankston III, Carl L. “Japanese by Spring.” Bloomsbury Review 13, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 10.

[In the following review of Japanese by Spring, Bankston asserts that, despite some flaws in the narrative, “Reed's enormous gift for social satire enables him to get away with breaking many of the normal rules of fiction.”]

Chappie Puttbutt, neoconservative black academic and protagonist of Japanese by Spring, is described as having reviewed an earlier Ishmael Reed novel with the remark, “For those looking for plot, character development, and logic, skip this one.” It must be admitted that Aristotle might be hard-pressed at times to...

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Kathryn Hume (essay date May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hume, Kathryn. “Ishmael Reed and the Problematics of Control.” PMLA 108, no. 3 (May 1993): 506-18.

[In the following essay, Hume examines Reed's treatment of control and power in his fiction and places him within the context of other writers dealing with similar thematic concerns.]

Spiked on meat hooks in Emperor Franz Joseph Park, Bukka Doopeyduk dies slowly, his agonies overshadowed by the hoopla of public demonstrations attending his execution. Like Damiens, the regicide whose torments are narrated in the first pages of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Bukka suffers while the state inscribes its Kafkaesque discourse of power on his body. The...

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Peter Nazareth (review date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nazareth, Peter. Review of Japanese by Spring, by Ishmael Reed. World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 610.

[In the following review of Japanese by Spring, Nazareth praises Reed's humorous satire and the topicality of his subject matter.]

With his ninth novel, Ishmael Reed proves again that he is not afraid to plunge into the maelstrom. Japanese by Spring is full of contemporary issues plaguing the American consciousness: Rodney King, Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas, the U.S. attack on Iraq, and so on. As he moves through his fifties, has Reed lost his fictional abilities? No. For Reed, the novel is supreme. If you want to understand...

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George Packer (review date 12 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Packer, George. “The Question Is Race.” Chicago Tribune (12 December 1993): section 14, p. 4.

[In the following negative review, Packer contrasts the treatment of race in Reed's Airing Dirty Laundry and Cornel West's Keeping the Faith.]

Taken together, these two essay collections point up how difficult it is for writers to act as true “public intellectuals”—to bring their talent and discipline to bear on ideas that matter to general readers in a shared culture. James Baldwin did it; Irving Howe did it. But as journalism grows ever crasser, academic criticism ever more specialized and inward and the public less and less likely to read books, the...

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Ashraf H. A. Rushdy (essay date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Slave Narrative.” Narrative 2, no. 2 (May 1994): 112-39.

[In the following essay, Rushdy explores the role of the Neo-HooDoo slave narrative in Flight to Canada, contending that the novel is Reed's “most considered aesthetic enactment of Neo-HooDoo religious principles and also his most sophisticated representation of the motivation governing his parodic impetus.”]

When the parody is better than the original a mutation occurs which renders the original obsolete. Reed's Law.

—Ishmael Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans


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Shamoon Zamir (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zamir, Shamoon. “Artist as Prophet, Priest, and Gunslinger: Ishmael Reed's ‘Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.’” Callaloo 17, no. 4 (fall 1994): 1205-35.

[In the following essay, Zamir delineates the major thematic concerns and influences behind Reed's seminal poem “I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.”]


In 1963 Reed published “Time and the Eagle,” a somber poetic meditation on the burden of history upon the Afro-American people. Its studied and effected sense of tragedy and pathos make the poem unique in Reed's published oeuvre, a body of work almost entirely satiric in nature. While Reed's exclusion of this poem from his...

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Julian Cowley (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cowley, Julian. “What If I Write Circuses?: The Space of Ishmael Reed's Fiction.” Callaloo 17, no. 4 (fall 1994): 1236-44.

[In the following essay, Cowley argues that Reed's literary aesthetic is “expansive and inclusive,” contending that Reed is trying to establish a collective identity for America as well as a “diverse, plural space, in which ancient multisensory experience and modern technological resources may combine to engender vital and creative cultural formations.”]

“Tell us, Mrs. Lincoln, how do you feel having just watched your husband's brains blown out before your eyes?”1 Feeling is the issue; specifically,...

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Dennis Formento (review date October-November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Formento, Dennis. “Media-Doctored Images.” American Book Review 16, no. 4 (October-November 1994): 17, 22.

[In the following review, Formento discusses the controversial subject matter of Airing Dirty Laundry.]

Ishmael Reed's new collection of essays, Airing Dirty Laundry, proclaims to carry on his project of hanging out everybody's filthy dirties, “black, white, yellow, and … brown.” And even where the laundry isn't dirty, his subject is multiculturalism and the barriers that stand between all of us and a truly pluralistic society.

The intertwining nature of these essays, written over fifteen years between 1978 and 1993,...

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Jeffrey Melnick (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Melnick, Jeffrey. “‘What You Lookin' At?’ Ishmael Reed's Reckless Eyeballing.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich, pp. 298-311. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Melnick explores how Reed addresses gender and racial politics in Reckless Eyeballing.]

Ishmael Reed—like Norman Mailer, another writer fond of boxing metaphors—seems to go out of his way to court controversy.1 It is tempting to summarize Reed's career by presenting a kind of photographic negative image; one could learn much about Ishmael...

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Sämi Ludwig (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ludwig, Sämi. “Dialogic Possession in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo: Bakhtin, Voodoo, and the Materiality of Multicultural Discourse.” In The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich, pp. 325-36. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Ludwig investigates the relationship between M. M. Bakhtin's theory of language and Reed's “Neo-HooDoo aesthetic,” focusing on the concepts of possession and the voodoo priest in Mumbo Jumbo.]

Languages quarreled with each other, but this quarrel—like any quarrel among great and...

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Sämi Ludwig (essay date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ludwig, Sämi. “Ishmael Reed's Inductive Narratology of Detection.” African American Review 32, no. 3 (fall 1998): 435-44.

[In the following essay, Ludwig addresses the critical confusion surrounding Reed's narrative technique in Mumbo Jumbo.]

Words walking without masters.

(qtd. in Gates, Signifying 215)

Pallbearers did not read like Henry James.

(Chapple 18)

A salient feature of Reed's chaotic-seeming narratology is the fact that he presents voices in an unmediated way, which forces upon the reader the...

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Christian Moraru (essay date winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moraru, Christian. “‘Dancing to the Typewriter’: Rewriting and Cultural Appropriation in Flight to Canada.Critique 41, no. 2 (winter 2000): 99-113.

[In the following essay, Moraru examines the role of writing and rewriting in Reed's fiction, particularly as portrayed in Flight to Canada.]

Books titles tell the story. The original subtitle for Uncle Tom's Cabin was “The Man Who Was a Thing.” In 1910 appeared a book by Mary White Ovington called Half a Man. Over one hundred years after the appearance of the Stowe book, The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams, was published. Quickskill thought of all...

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Kenneth Womack (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Womack, Kenneth. “Campus Xenophobia and the Multicultural Project: Ethical Criticism and Ishmael Reed's Japanese by Spring.MELUS 26, no. 4 (winter 2001): 223-43.

[In the following essay, Womack discusses the critical reaction to Japanese by Spring—particularly by university professors—noting that several critics failed to acknowledge Reed's attempts to “understand and embrace racial difference.”]

Expensively kept, economically unsound, a spurious and useless political asset in election campaigns, racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment. (63)


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Richard Swope (essay date winter 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Swope, Richard. “Crossing Western Space, or the HooDoo Detective on the Boundary in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.African American Review 36, no. 4 (winter 2002): 611-28.

[In the following essay, Swope examines how Mumbo Jumbo fits into the genre of detective fiction.]

Following the publication of Mumbo Jumbo in 1972, Ishmael Reed proclaimed it “the best mystery novel of the year” (Shrovetide in Old New Orleans 132). Reed's statement, of course, seems out of place given that Mumbo Jumbo looks nothing, like a conventional detective novel. A “composite narrative composed of subtexts, pretexts, post-texts, and...

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Ishmael Reed and Clifford Thompson (interview date January-February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reed, Ishmael, and Clifford Thompson. “Call Him Ishmael.” Black Issues Book Review 5, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 40-4.

[In the following interview, Reed discusses his past, his body of work, and his opinions regarding fiction and feminism.]

I had the feeling, as I prepared to interview Ishmael Reed, that the 64-year-old writer would turn out to be much more mellow and friendly in conversation than his nine novels, four books of nonfiction, five poetry collections and five plays might indicate. (I was right.) But I was only about ninety percent sure of that, and as I punched in his phone number it was the other ten percent that had me worried.


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Clifford Thompson (review date January-February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, Clifford. Review of Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War, by Ishmael Reed. Black Issues Book Review 5, no. 1 (January-February 2003): 52.

[In the following review, Thompson compliments Reed's discussion of how the media portrays African Americans in Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War, but notes that some African Americans may object to Reed's arguments.]

If there is one thing that can be said unequivocally about Ishmael Reed's new collection of essays—and there may be only one thing—it is that these essays are definitely by Ishmael Reed. His pet themes, the media's misrepresentation of African...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Elias, Amy. “Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, and Robert Coover's The Public Burning.Critique 41, no. 2 (winter 2000): 115-28.

Elias examines alternate historical paradigms in the work of several postmodern novels, including Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.

Fleischer, Leonore. “Black Magic under Blue Skies.” Washington Post Book World (10 August 1969): 3.

Fleischer offers a stylistic analysis of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and suggests that the novel can be read as a comic satire.

Hardack, Richard. “Swing to...

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