Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1573

Illustration of PDF document

Download Ishmael Reed Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 174

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

Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (essays) 1978

Mother Hubbard (play) 1981

God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (essays) 1982

The Terrible Twos (novel) 1982

Reckless Eyeballing (novel) 1986

Hubba City (play) 1988

New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1988

Writin' is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (essays and criticism) 1988

Savage Wilds (play) 1989

The Terrible Threes (novel) 1989

Airing Dirty Laundry (essays) 1993

Japanese by Spring (novel) 1993

The Preacher and the Rapper (play) 1994

Multi America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace [editor] (essays) 1997

Gethsemane Park (libretto) 1998

The Reed Reader (poetry, novels, essays, and plays) 2000

From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry across the Americas, 1900-2002 [editor] (poetry) 2002

Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War (essays and criticism) 2003

Robert H. Abel (essay date May 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174

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 variously portrayed as a baby who grew older each day and was reborn the next, and later as a rider in a boat who traveled across the sky. In this poem, Ra appears momentarily as a cowboy riding in the traditional boat, but his true identity remains unrecognized. The first five stanzas explain Ra's rise and fall, the sixth and seventh stanzas suggest his present “underground” activities and his growing strength, and the last stanzas give us Ra preparing to do battle with Set (Ra's brother who was so evil that he ripped himself from his mother's womb) who has usurped him for so long. The organization of the poem itself suggests the birth-death-rebirth cycle of the Isis-Osiris myth in which Ra was ritualistically torn to shreds (Sparagmos) and sown in the barren, winter ground so that the soil would become fertilized and nature (and Ra himself) renewed. The irony that the god of rebirth is also the god of death is stressed by Reed in stanza 6, lines 6-8, where he suggests that virgin “sacrifice” is a necessary ingredient in Ra's regeneration.

In stanza 1, sidewinders means “evil men” in the jargon of the old movie Westerns, but it also conjures images of Cleopatra's asp and what was a rather classic Egyptian death ritual. The saloon of fools suggests a sodden variation of the classic “ship of fools” theme and at the same time reveals that Ra's view of the affairs of men is rather cynical and removed: we are not only crazy and at the mercy of a remote god, but blind drunk as well. That our Egyptologists, our supposed experts, “do not know their trips” in one sense means they do not know where they are going, but in another “popular” sense means they do not know the effects their drugs and medicines will have upon them. This is in contrast to Ra himself who (in stanza 8) “hold[s] the souls of men in [his] pot,” where pot suggests both the ritual vessel which held the ashes of the deceased and marijuana which may imbue the present god with marvelous powers of imagining. In their ignorance, the Egyptologists drive the true god from town, and to the question “Who was that / dog-faced man?” I suspect we should answer “The Lone Ranger.” (Compare “Radio” in stanza 10).

Stanza 2 reveals that the true divinity and its various manifestations are invisible to modern man. “School marms with halitosis”—perhaps tourists—“cannot see” either the artifacts of the past for what they are (fakes mutilated by Germans in their African campaign), or the divine symbols of the present. Sonny Rollins, a forceful jazz tenor saxophone player, appears as one of Ra's royalty, and the Field of Reeds has possible triple reference to the field on the banks of the Nile (where Moses was found and where a longhorn now replaces the water buffalo), to the “reeds” of the saxophone, and to the “Reed” who authors the poem, all of which stand as evidence of Ra's continuing life and strength for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

That Ra is a black god becomes increasingly evident in the next two stanzas. Isis is “Lady of the Bugaloo”—the bugaloo being what amounts to the ritual dance of black Americans—and Ra thinks of himself as the black middleweight boxing champion of the 1950's, Ezzard Charles, one of the few fighters to make a successful comeback in the ring. The command to Isis to “start grabbing the / blue” means both to “reach for the sky” and “grab the blue cloth” which symbolized Egyptian royalty. Thus she is not only a victim of Ra's lust, but is also blessed because of it. That Ra is “Alchemist in ringmanship but a / sucker for the right cross” means not only that his boxing has a weakness but also that his talismanic rings were no match for the symbols of Christianity. In the fifth stanza, Ra makes it plain that he has been ousted from his temple and that “outlaw alias copped my stance”—the forces of evil have robbed him of his throne and place.

The next three stanzas include a number of allusions which emphasize that Ra's return to power will be the return of a black god and the black people. The “motown long plays” written for “the comeback of Osiris” are long-playing records from a popular Detroit “soul” record producer; but “long plays” also hints at prolonged seduction (“play” in street parlance) quite appropriate to the god of fertility and potency. In stanza 7, “the Loup Garou Kid” (Lone Wolf Kid) alludes to the black outlaw of Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down who is the perpetual thorn in the Establishment's side. The most definite assertions of Ra's blackness come in stanza 8 in which he dresses for war with Set in “black powder” (suggestive of “black power” and “gunpowder”) and “black feathers” and asks for the bones of the Ju-Ju snake (Ju-Ju being a principal African tribal religion in which the bones of the Ju-Ju snake are cast to make prophecies and worn to ward off evil spirits). One of the allusions which does not imply racial identification directly (“Pope Joan of the / Ptah Ra”) nevertheless suggests both the exclusion of blacks from power (Pope Joan was a card game in which one of the cards was removed) and that Ra this time will appear as Ptah, protector of artists and artisans, a manifestation that obviously gives poets like Reed a great deal to benefit from. When Ra says that he “makes the bulls / keep still” he refers in one way to himself as a cowhand watching the herd, but in another sense he means that he keeps the police (“bulls”) at bay. There is a final non-racial allusion in Ra's claim to be “Half-breed son of Pisces / And Aquarius” which is an extravagant way (assuming that this is the age of Aquarius) of saying he feels like a fish out of water. Pisces is the eleventh astrological sign and Aquarius is the twelfth or last sign, which strongly intimates that a new beginning is close at hand.

The last stanza throws the cowboy and Indian chase, the battle between good and evil, into the heavens, where we may expect events to transpire with the speed of constellations, that is, with maddening slowness after all.

Jerry H. Bryant (essay date 25 September 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2762

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 up—Bukka Doopeyduk, Eclair Porkchop, Theda Doompussy Blackwell, the Loop Garoo Kid.

Mumbo Jumbo is not quite the same thing we got in The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969). Those were acerb parodies of various aspects of American life, created with unquenchable good humor. The first ridiculed America's ruling power elite—the men in the White House, the Pentagon and the executive suites of our great corporations. The second made fun of the myth of the American West, and “corrected” the traditional Christian story, revealing that Satan, who appears as the Loop Garoo Kid, was actually badly treated by a slatternly Mary, a tipsy “Old Man,” and an egotistical Jesus. Mumbo Jumbo has a somewhat more serious tone, and that is its main weakness. Reed becomes too much of an advocate of black glory, claiming for the black race their many “firsts,” and asserting their natural superiority. Such self-congratulatory chest thumping calls attention to itself and undermines the satiric objectivity with which Reed approached his targets in his first two novels.

But on the whole Mumbo Jumbo is as effective a piece of satire as are its two very effective predecessors. There are the same exaggerated characters engaged in zany doings. PaPa LaBas runs the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, which specializes in HooDoo and new dance steps. Biff Musclewhite is the curator of New York's “Art Detention Centers.” Hinckle Von Vampton, ex-Knight Templar, writes headlines for the New York Sun. Schlitz, “the Sarge of Yorktown,” is a gang leader out to overthrow the black mobster Buddy Jackson. And there is the same wacky Pop style, with its accumulated adjectives and playful jargon, merged here and there with authentic lyricism. The setting is the 1920s, and the first paragraph thrusts us waist-high into the corn of the era:

A True Sport, the Mayor of New Orleans, spiffy in his patent-leather brown and white shoes, his plaid suit, the Rudolph Valentino parted-down-the middle hair style, sits in his office. Sprawled upon his knees is Zuzu, local doo-wack-a-doo and voo-do-dee-odo fizgig. A slatternly floozy, her green, sequined dress quivers.

This is camp with a black cant to it. But why the 1920s? Reed is really a historical novelist. It's just that he doesn't write historical novels the way they used to. And for him the 1920s is a critical and symbolic period in the history of the confrontation between American blacks and whites. In Mumbo Jumbo he attempts to interpret—or rather reinterpret—that period through fiction, though fiction is not really the word to describe this work. Unlike fiction, it contains graphics, some twenty-two pictures—photographs, drawings, symbols, signs—that function not to illustrate scenes from the plot, as in the romantic novels of years ago, but to reinforce visually a point or a feeling conveyed by the words in the text. It also contains a pseudo-academic system of quotes and footnotes, even a bibliography at the end. Sometimes Reed himself intrudes parenthetically. The graphics are nearly always successful, adding a humorous pungency to the ridicule or invective. The quotes and footnotes are seldom successful. They often seem gratuitous and pretentious. Yet, both techniques serve Reed's purpose. Mumbo Jumbo has the texture of a weird history book.

Two historical “events” are the book's main focus: the dance craze of the flapper era and the dispatch of the Marines to Haiti in 1920 by Woodrow Wilson. The aim of Mumbo Jumbo is to “explain” them. Why should America suddenly, after World War I, have been swept with the irresistible impulse to dance, especially in the extroverted way of that period? At last we have the answer. It was a manifestation of “Jes Grew.” This is a phrase coined by James Weldon Johnson to refer to the songs that “jes' grew” up among black people, belonging to no one and everyone. Reed sees a historical significance in the phrase. It stands for the quality of natural spontaneity and joy and rhythm innate in the black spirit. It makes one want to dance, to shout, to carry on “like any old coon wench with a bass drum.” To America's white leaders, this phenomenon among the white as well as the black people, is a dangerous “infestation,” a threat to the purity of Western civilization. They must keep it from reaching pandemic proportions or the white tradition is lost, and along with it white control. So Wilson had to send the Marines to Haiti. He had to destroy what the white leadership thought to be the point of origin of Jes Grew.

These are farcical, but attractively imaginative, reinterpretations of history. We acknowledge in them a kind of figurative truth that goes beyond the facts. But occasionally Reed either fails to make his satire clear or abdicates the role of satiric observer. He asks us to accept the “truth” of the outlandish in a more than figurative way. For example, he traces Woodrow Wilson's sickness to VooDoo vengeance for the invasion of Haiti, and Warren Harding's death to the powers behind the Presidency who felt he had too much sympathy for blacks. It isn't that Reed advances such explanations but that he treats them with an inappropriate seriousness that violates satiric decorum. In destroying that decorum, he destroys, at these points, the reader's confidence in the steadiness of his hand and the consistency of his attitude.

Again, however, these flaws are minor in the context of the whole work, for what Reed gives us in Mumbo Jumbo is a concept of the relationship between history and fiction that is timely and useful. He synthesizes a good deal that has been recently said on the subject, addressing himself to the preoccupation of many blacks with their tribal past and with the art forms of their African and slave forebears. From Mumbo Jumbo, as well as Reed's other writings, we can piece together a kind of syllogism explaining the reason for so many black writers' concern with their history. A sense of identity is the prerequisite of self-respect. There can be no such sense without memory. The most effective means of preserving memory is the texts of history. The task of the black writer, the novelist and poet no less than the historian, is to correct the distortions of white historians, to recover the black past for the black man, and to transmit that past to the masses in their own language.

Many black novels in the last twenty years have had a historical pivot—Ellison's Invisible Man, Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Kelley's A Different Drummer, Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Williams' Captain Blackman—all of them operating to explain or create a past for the contemporary black awareness. Reed's novels, of course, are nothing like these more conventional ones. Rather than putting his fictional characters in a recognizable past, he evokes history through allusion. Historical figures and events become fictional figures and events, and vice versa, in a present which contains all time. All of Reed's novels contain unexpected and deliberately contrived anachronisms. This gives his work the flatness of medieval religious drama, in which contemporary shepherds witness Biblical events occurring hundreds of years before. Reed blurs factual and fictional distinctions as well as temporal ones. It is his compelling way of stating a commonplace: that the differences between history and fiction are only superficial, and that beneath the surface they share the same function—to embody the truth, whether it be factual or not, whether part of present events or past history.

One of the distinctive features of Reed's vision is that the writer who performs this function takes on the aspect of a demon for the white man, especially when he wrests from the white man the power to interpret his own racial identity. For from Reed's point of view, the white man has a vested interest in maintaining the historical “falsities” that serve his profit. Reed says that the white man sees the black writer as a practitioner of HooDoo, witchcraft, magic, whose very words are a challenge to the Western view and therefore a Satanic threat to the holy tradition. The emerging black artist seizes upon these fears and exploits them. He not only acknowledges his association with HooDoo; he enthusiastically embraces it, for it is his pipeline to the powers of the hidden world the Western tradition has sought to suppress. Magically he conjures up new artistic forms exactly designed to bear his new meanings. He feels that history is with him, that to be discredited by the white man tells him he is on the right track, because, as a character says in Yellow Back Radio, “the demons of the old religion are becoming the Gods of the new.”

Mumbo Jumbo is about the near success of that transformation from old to new in the 1920s, an “explanation” of why Jes Grew didn't reach pandemic proportions and change the face of America at that time. The reason Reed advances is as imaginative as his dissection of the Christian myth in Yellow Back Radio, and as important to the conception of black art as the work of Amiri Baraka. Jes Grew, says Reed, is an energy in search of a form, by means of which it can survive and flourish: “It must find its Speaking or strangle on its own ineloquence.” The artist must provide that Speaking, the “liturgy” that is to become the voice of the ancient but heretofore mute consciousness. It is only through such a form that the sacred energy can be preserved and by which it can mutate into more forms as a testament of its inexhaustible variety. The failure of Jes Grew in the 1920s didn't result from Wilson's sending the Marines to Haiti or from anything else the whites did. It failed because blacks didn't provide a Speaking equal to the power of Jes Grew. It's impossible not to see in this a reference to the Harlem Renaissance, and to read in it a suggestion that the literary art of that movement didn't provide forms that came up to those emerging from the Jes Grew musicians in New Orleans and Chicago. The total potential of black energy was not tapped.

This is an inference from the novel. We may carry it further. The trouble with the writers of the Harlem. Renaissance was that they mistakenly sought to embody their energy in the liturgical forms of the white tradition, dooming their efforts from the start. The ending of Mumbo Jumbo suggests that the current upsurge of artistic activity among black artists is guided by an impulse more favorable to Jes Grew, the determination to reject white forms and recall black. What failed in the 1920s seems to be succeeding in the 1960s and 1970s.

If this seems didactic, there is tattered explanation for it. Beneath the laughter of every satirist lies the soul of the reformer and moralist, who simply can't refrain from teaching. As a moralist, Reed is offended not only by the obvious wrongs associated with the white use of blacks in America but with the abuse of reason and humanity by an powerful vested interest. He has a deep suspicion of nearly all institutions created by men and then piously worshipped by those who profit from them. The Loop Garoo Kid remarks that people “are getting sick of daddies. You know—‘though shalt have no other before me’—Tsars Monarchs, and their deadly insidious flunkies.”

Reed teaches through caricature, not of prominent personalities but of types movements, attitudes. He's not so much interested in the excitement of the story or the passions of his characters as in the nature of American society and its opinions, and he excels in inventing forms through which the “‘truth” about these things can be revealed. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, the diarrhea of “democratically” elected dictator Harry Sam is equated to the waste generated by America's consumerism. In Yellow Back Radio, “Field Marshall” Theda Doompussy Blackwell's hunger for the land of the 19th-century American West represents the power mania of the 20th-century Pentagon.

Reed has a prodigious talent for such image making. It's the core of his effectiveness and importance. As in so much satire, his unusual metaphors appeal to our intellect rather than our emotions. We are swayed by their ingenuity and by the degree to which they reveal something new to us rather than by the way they involve us in the characters lives. As Reed sees it, metaphor is that “Speaking” through which Jes Grew reveals itself and grows strong, and Mumbo Jumbo contains one of his most delightful revelatory metaphors. It is a story of Set, Isis and Osiris, the Knights Templar and their part in the Jes Grew phenomenon, told by his central character, PaPa LaBas. Its function is to “explain” the relationship between Jes Grew and the whole history of black and white in the Western world. It deserves a lengthy summary.

Osiris learns to dance from the black teachers in Nyas, who imbue him with the joy and humor that dance both embodies and generates. Thoth persuade Osiris to record his dances so they won get lost, and the book that Thoth produces becomes the ark holding those rituals. This is the first form Jes Grew takes. From that time in the ancient past the “Text” of Jes Grew becomes an object of jealousy and greed. Men fight for it. It passes from hand to hand. Moses gets it, but when he is unable to employ it authentically, he buries it in the Temple of Solomon. Later, in the Middle Ages when the Knights Templar raid the Temple, they recover the book. Then temperament is antithetical to that of Osiris, but one of them, Hinckle Von Vampton, recognizes that possession of his Osirian “tabernacle” secures to its owner a virtually illimitable power over the black race, emotional descendants of the Osirian spirit the Knights Templar and so repugnant. Hinckle escapes the fate of his comrades when the order is dissolved and its members executed or imprisoned. He lives in Europe until 1890, when he comes to America. At that time, Jes Grew erupted in a few small explosions, but the time then was even less ripe than it would be later in the 1920s. Afraid that an enemy order will steal the Text and rob him of the opportunity of reviving his old fraternity, Hinckle distributes the book in parts. But it gets into the hands of a militant black, who is afflicted with the same narrowness of vision as the whites. Disgusted by its language, he burns it.

This is Reed's own myth, a contemporary black folk tale, created especially for our era. In his own distinctive way, Reed blurs the boundaries between pagan mythology, Biblical and secular history, and fiction. The result is a form embodying something more than the sum of its parts. It's the “true” spiritual history of the black race, black in its emotional tone as well as its form and point of view. Moreover, it illustrates a critically important quality of the black spirit, its inextinguishability. However important are the forms by which Jes Grew is known and practiced, they are expendable. The burning of the Osirian Texts—i.e., the failure of Jes Grew in the 1920s—didn't preclude a resurgence of the phenomenon in our period. Jes Grew doesn't die; only its forms can be destroyed. Wherever Jes Grew is allowed to come forth, forms will spring up, and then there will be dancing and shouting and the beating of bass drums.

Others who have expressed similar sentiments have sounded sophomoric at best, ill-humored and pugnacious at worst. Reed, however, wins us over by the breadth of his allusions and the seeming inexhaustibility of his imagination. He's impressively inventive, consistently experimental, and determined to make his experiments work for a useful intellectual and social purpose. Mumbo Jumbo tells us that in his work, Jes Grew will enjoy a long period in the daylight.

Madge Ambler (essay date fall 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4480

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 reveal
any such physical evil (potions,
fetishes, etc.,) still outside the
body and these must be burned—
RITUALE ROMANUM, published 1947,
endorsed by the coat of arms and
introduction letter from Francis
Cardinal Spellman.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra
sidewinders in the saloons of fools
bit my forehead like O
the untrustworthiness of Egyptologists
who do not know their trips. Who was
that dog-faced man? they asked, the
day I rode from town.
School marms with halitosis cannot
see the Nefertiti fake chipped on the
run by slick germans, the hawk behind
Sonny Rollins' head or the ritual
beard of his axe; a longhorn winding
its bells thru the Field of Reeds.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I
bedded down with Isis, Lady of the
Boogaloo, dove down deep in her horny,
stuck up her Wells-Far-ago in daring
midday get away. “Start grabbing the
blue,” i said from top of my double
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.
Ezzard Charles of the Chisholm
Trail. Took up the bass but they
blew off my thumb. Alchemist in
ringmanship but a sucker for the
right cross.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.
Vamoosed from the temple i bide my
time. The price on the wanted poster
was a-going down, outlaw alias copped
my stance and moody greenhorns were
making me dance; while my mouth's
shooting iron got its chambers
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.
Boning-up in the ol West i bide my
time. You should see me pick off
these tin cans whippersnappers. I
write the motown long plays for the
comeback of Osiris. Make them up
when stars stare at sleeping steer
out here near the campfire. Women
arrive on the backs of goats and
throw themselves on my Bowie.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.
Lord of the lash, the Loup Garou
Kid. Half breed son of Pisces and
Aquarius. I hold the souls of men
in my pot. I do the dirty boogie
with scorpions. I make the bulls
keep still and was the first swinger
to grape the taste.
I am a cowboy in his boat Pope Joan
of the Ptah Ra. C / mere a minute
willya doll?
Be a good girl and
Bring me my Buffalo horn of black
Bring me my headdress of black feathers
Bring me my bones of Ju-Ju snake
Go get my eyelids of Red paint.
Hand me my shadow.
I'm going into town after Set
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra
look out Set                    here I come Set
to get Set                              to sunset Set
to unseat Set                    to Set down Set
                                                                      usurper of the Royal
                                                                      imposter Radio of
                                                                           Moses' bush
                                                                      party pooper O hater
                                                                           of dance
                                                                      vampire outlaw of the
                                                                           milky way(1)

In this delightful poem, Mr. Reed shows his disgust with the warped views of history that the white man carries on his romantice-side. True history would seem to favor the black man more than white historians would wish, and Reed writes, “O / the untrust-worthiness of Egyptologists / who do not know their trips. Who was that / dog-faced man? they asked, the day I rode / from town.” The Egyptologists have painted the ancient men white in their minds.

In the second stanza he attacks the intellectual rationalization of the whites with their “school marms with halitosis” who can't tell the real from the fake—yet they pass on the false prophecy to others.

The third stanza is concerned with the sexual relations and family life of the black man and the black woman—the love that cannot be and the attraction to the black man's heritage in his African relations—one of the pure arts left to the black man in America. The black man tried to satisfy his need for a lasting love with the black woman and his black religion. He “beeded / down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo, dove / deep down in her horny, stuck up her Wells-Far-ago / in daring midday get away.” He longs for this lasting love with someone or something that belongs to his past.

In the fourth stanza he points out that the black man tried to console himself in art and music when others failed or the going became hopeless, but the white man stifled that outlet only to allow him to take out his frustrations in the ring. Getting beaten seems the only thing a black man could do successfully in the white man's mind—yet the black man held onto the dream of hope. “Ezzard Charles / of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they / blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a / sucker for the right cross.”

Reed's last line is a devastating pun on “cross.” The black man (sucker that he was) was clubbed with the right cross (a boxing term, a doublecross by the white man, and the cross associated with the white religion).

Stanza five shows the black man without a true religion—on the outside looking in—on the fringes of white society, without a voice. To the white man, he doesn't exist. He has no voice; while, in the sixth stanza he explains the need to find the black man's roots in his past. He writes, “long plays for the comeback of / Osiris. …” the god of the underworld and the Lord of the Dead. White society has forced him to choose his route of retaliation, and he has chosen militantism.

The seventh stanza shows this hate and evil that have come from the long years of frustration from the whites. “I hold the souls of men in my pot. I do / the dirty boogie with scorpions.” He is driven to do evil by the over-powering evil in the white man.

In stanza eight he refers to himself as Pope Joan, a 9th century female pope who, pregnant, was stoned to death on the way to take office. He has been driven to use his “Buffalo horn of black powder,” his warrior headdress, his Ju-Ju snake bones, and his war paint because he wants to be a real person—to cast a real shadow, and he says, “Hand me my shadow.”

He is going to get set to attack the white man in his own way, “to unseat Set,” and Set seems to represent the white man—the imposter. He (the white man) warps the Commandments of Moses to suit his own selfish ends. He dislikes the gleam of hope in the black man's eyes and outlaws his art as he sucks the life-blood from the black man.

In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (a novel), Ishmael Reed presents many of these same themes in an extremely creative and entertaining way. He shows the reader the hypocrisy of the Church in America; the black woman as she emasculates the black man; the flirting of the Communist Party; the warping of history to confuse and degrade the black man; the image of black man as evil; the ways the white man openly attempts to kill off the black man. All these are attempts on the part of the white man to get at the destroy the black man.

Yet, the black man tries to retaliate with his Hoodoo religion; real love; militantism; art; and hiding out.

In Yellow Back Radio the Loop Garoo Kid is seen as the devil through the eyes of the white man, and as the old roman on the talk show says, “The devils of the old religion are becoming the gods of the new.”2

As Zozo Labrique and Loop drive towards Yellow Back Radio in Zozo's circus wagon, Zozo gives the reader the “jist” of the entire book when she says, “Those were some dangerous stunts you did in the last town, boy, bucking those killer broncos like that. A few more turns with that bull and you would have been really used up. Why you try so hard?” (11). Loop is a black man bucking the ways of the white men who will get him in the end if he tries too hard. He is fighting white society at the same time his woman has “gone uptown” on him. His woman haunts him continually, wanting him to come back, but he refuses. He is a rebel with a hopeless cause. The Church has only suppressed him and threatened to wipe him out; his women are gone; and he exists on the fringes of society.

He is nearly killed by the white man in the raid on the circus wagons and is forced out into the desert—a hopeless and barren life with no hope. There he meets and is offered safety by Bo Shmo, a symbol for the Communist Party which promised help to many black writers in America only to use them for propaganda purposes. Bo Shmo and Loop argue about Loop's writing career; and Loop says that a novel can be anything it wants to be, yet Bo Shmo insists that “all art must be for the end of liberating the masses” (36). This is a deliberate parody of the way the Communist Party used the black writers until the writers found that the Party did not care about their welfare in the least.

Reed describes Bo Shmo as “dynamic and charismatic as they say. He made a big reputation in the thirties, not having much originality, by learning to play Hoagland Howard Carmichael's ‘Buttermilk Sky’ backwards” (34).

Here, the man parallels the development of the Communist Party in the thirties—especially during the Depression when people needed help from somewhere and the Party handed out such promises, yet they were only concerned with themselves. Bo Shmo says, “We can't afford the luxury of individualism gumming up our rustling. We blast those who don't agree with us” (36). Bo Shmo plays “Buttermilk Sky” as the dream of the better times by perhaps Stokely Carmichael—extreme and radical. Bo Shmo reverses the dream of the militants and warps it into the ways of the Party.

Reed's artistry shines through as he writes that “he banged the piano and even introduced some novel variations such as sliding his rump across the black and whites for that certain effect” (34). The author, in his ingenious way, shows the reader that he has little respect for the Party when it uses the blacks and the whites for toilet paper and its own ends. The Party leaves the black man in just as bad (if not worse) condition. Loop is left buried in the desert up to his neck with jelly all over his face, but he is rescued by Chief Showcase who tells him that Bo Shmo is “afraid of anything that can get off the ground … anything capable of groovy up, up, and away strikes terror in their hearts” (38). Later, Loop will truly be saved by the ways of Chief Showcase as he attacks the Church and white society from within.

Chief Showcase represents the particular people in the minority groups who live off the fat of the ruling class only to infiltrate and destroy them from within. He is a supercool faction which spies for the government (Theda) and the Church (Drag). He is out for what he can get while he disposes of the enemy.

He saves Loop from death in his helicopter; serves him champagne; and refers to the rest of his people as being ignorant. He is on the way to Europe to order new suits from his tailor; and he tells Loop, “I'm a patarealist Indian going about inventing do dads” (38). Like the black man, he digs Soul, and he writes militant poetry:

The Wolf-tickets of Chief Showcase
eat out of me backwards paleface!
like, your mind is a prairie dog's
your soul the wild cat's squall. like
may you fill the yawn of boothil's sigh,
and coyotes trample the fence of your
may goats dine on the black grass of
plot and the evil one skin your genocidal
hides and sell it as old clothes to
of the sea.
my people gave you roots and berries,
showed your trains the perilous cliffs;
taught you how to rope a steer and bled
themselves to salute you. monsters that
you were you knifed them in the back,
sent their children off to die;
made their squaws chew your boots,
paved over the forests with cold
eat out of me backwards paleface,
like, your mind is a prairie dog's hole;
your soul the wild cat's squall.

Chidf Showcase wants revenge, and, like Booker T. Washington, will play one of the enemy against the other. He says, “I'm trying the same thing on him he put on us” (40). He will “foment mischief among his tribes and they will destroy each other” (40). This time he will destroy the whites with an idea rather than by toying around. Later, Loop will believe the same way as Chief Showcase. He says that he will get their lungs if he does not get their scalps. Showcase plays Theda (the government) and Drag (the organized religion in America) in the hope that they will destroy each other—which they eventually do.

Chief Showcase uses imported tomahawks; and Drag gives him imported hookahs, Pierre Cardin originals, moccasins decorated with rhinestones, aqua blue headdress, world-wide aeroplane credit; and cashmere blankets. He represents the man with the brains who will work from within to destroy the enemy.

Like Showcase, Loop is not allowed in society. He sneaks in at times to threaten the enemy, but he spends nearly all his time in caves practicing Hoo Doo (primitive religion brought by the blacks from Africa). He has two helpers gather personal articles from Drag to use in his Hoo Doo religions as he puts a curse on Drag.

The only time he attacks is when he lashes the pants and star off of the Marshall and the Crucifix off of the Reverend Preacher Boyd.

The Preacher Reverend Boyd represents the Protestant religions in America—a devastating failure. The Reverend is constantly writing poetry and always drinking. The people know “how hard he tried with the kids and the town's heathen, how he'd smoke hookahs with them brats and get stoned with Chief Showcase the only surviving injun and that volume of his pastorale poetry he's putting together, Stomp Me O Lord. He thought that Protestantism would survive at least another month, and he's tearing up the Red-Eye and writing more of them poems trying to keep up with the times” (44).

He spends all of his time begging to be punished for his sins and drinking away his troubles. He is having D.T.'s in Big Lizzy's Rabid Black Cougar and calling God a gila monster. He is ineffective and feels that he is a failure. He says that it is his, Drag's, world now, completely.

When Loop appears in the saloon to whip the Marshall, the Reverend is crying in his beer at the end of the bar with tears falling into the froth. It is in the pub where Loop lashes the crucifix from the Reverend's breast. “The crucifix dropped to the floor and the little figure attached to it scrambled into the nearest mouse hole” (102). He says that the Church was inadequate, yet he is not any better. He says that he thought that spade poets went up in tinder. Nobody listens to him, and he is considered to be the town kook. Nobody goes to his church anymore. He wears a three-week old beard and, from his clipboard reads “Stomp Me O Lord!!”

i am the theoretical mother of all
mash my 21 or so body segments!!
tear the sutures which join my many
make me a mass of stains of thy choice
an ugly blotch under thy big funny

The symbol of the failure of the Protestant religions in America, rather than helping the blacks, it suppresses them because of the hypocrisy and the inadequacy. It is frail and feeble and will finally be destroyed by the greedy Catholic Church in America.

The Pope destroys Reverend Preacher Boyd with bug spray, after which he says, “Never again will he oviposit eggs. … He tried his best but Protestantism was the heathen German's reaction to the glory of Rome. He was bound to go tavistic sooner or later” (150). Nearly all of the white man's creations are disasters in the end.

The Protestant Church hurt the black man, but the open destructiveness of the white man hurt him more. The white man hired killers to destroy him. In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Drag hires John Wesley Hardin to destroy Loop. Hardin is the “baddest coon skinner of them all” (114). He has a heavy mustache and blue eyes—a characteristic of the real John Wesley Hardin. Ironically, he reads the “good book.” He studied law and earned his degree in jail. Thus, he has a warped sense of justice. He says, “I've always been on the side of the Word, killing only those who were the devil incarnate—you know—black fellows” (115). Hardin is white society personified. He killed blacks who didn't know their place after the Civil War. He killed black policemen, went to jail and got out again. Then he killed and lynched Negroes again. Finally, he is destroyed by Loop and ends up feeding hogs to pay his dues. He is a product of the devil and serves in Hell after he is destroyed by the black people—as the white man will do.

The evil of the black society is also represented in Royal Flush Gooseman—a half black, half white man with a fine “yellow frame” who seems to be the worst of both races, and his only interest is his greed. He sells Drag a murderer's dream—a gun with eight cylinders. He is also the one who sold the Indians defective flintlocks allowing Drag to wipe them out. He is an “aging unscrupulous furtrader” who wears a coonskin cap and a saran wrap cape.

He represents the pollution of the black blood by the whites. He is not black or white. He is only the evil and the greed. But, he is portrayed as he really is.

Whites do not present their historical figures as they were in reality, but in Yellow Back Radio, Lewis and Clark are portrayed as the black man sees them. They are glorified supermen in American history books, but in Yellow Back Radio Lewis appears as a “buckskinned, buck-toothed, freckled faced man with two lines for eyes” (89).

Clark is balling squaws and taking everyone for what he is worth. They run errands for President Jefferson—collecting mammoth bones and fish vertebrae. Clark says that “Injun killing runs in the family” (91). Whites have been killing off minorities for hundreds of years, and the white history books—if they represented the white man's real past—would be drenched with blood and packed with perverts.

The American government is portrayed by a pathetic, weak homosexual by the name of Theda Doompussy Blackwell. He seduces his black masseur and asks about Hoo Dooism but gets no real information. Theda tells the black masseur that he “tried to get that provision in the Declaration of Independence, a forthright resolution, but nothing happened. The Southern planters were dead set against it and we needed their support” (141).

The government has been so busy in politics that it has had no time for the black man. He is ineffective and weak—yet he expects the blacks to bow to his picture and say a prayer for him each morning. Reed suggests to the reader that blacks have no reason to respect such a pathetic figure, and Reed shows the fate of the American government in the black man's eyes when he has the government defeat the Church, but then he has the African people shoot Theda and Peter after the fall. As at Armageddon, the devil and his team go to the pit of Hell while the true spirit lives on.

The Pope is the only branch of hope left to Loop—yet it is his greatest threat. It is the stream of religion that has persisted for thousands of years, creating mass murder in the name of the Church. Loop sees this hypocrisy and greed in the Catholic Church in America and outside America. He sees the weakness and sickness in the Protestant Church in America. The African Hoo Dooism is the only true black religion.

Loop only regains his reasoning after the mad-dog's tooth is removed from his neck. Now he can think as Chief Showcase does.

Loop is dragged to the jail where he talks to the Pope, who rides into town on a red bull—perhaps the blood of men who died in defense of the ideas of the Church. He bug-sprays Reverend Preacher Boyd to death and refuses a gift from Drag. He wants Loop to come back to the Church and to his woman. The mad-dog's tooth had to be removed from Loop's neck so he might think rationally. We should not be so infuriated that we can not think straight, he seems to say to the blacks.

Loop tells the Pope that he and his crowd are the devils. They have killed in the name of the Church. Loop goes with him in the end—to destroy from within as Chief Showcase did to Theda and Drag.

The Church in America is symbolized in Drag Gibson. It owns the land and the industry and the people. Drag is the “prissy orthodox minds” (64) in America. There is no true love in the man, and he breeds evil purposely. He kills six wives and advertises for a woman in the paper—one who will not give him “frostbite of the penis.”

Drag, as he reminds the reader is short for Dragon (the devil) and is the man who rides in the rear of the cattle. He gets dirt in his eyes and cannot see. He is greedy and materialistic. He tells the people to “sign the town and property over to me so that my quest for power will be satisfied” (20).

He spends most of his time trying to kill Loop and stealing more property in his quest for power. He wears bull sperm on his head while the Pope rides the bull and Loop bulldogs the bull (pulls it to the ground).

Drag falls into the pit of pigs in the end as he tries to decapitate Loop (our black Christ-figure). As in the Battle of Armageddon, the evil forces fall into Hell while the true spirit survives.

The women in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down represent the women in the black man's life.

Diane is Loop's true love who nearly wiped out his mind when she “went uptown” on him. She left him powerless, and he had to leave. As soon as she deserted him, Mustache Sal and Mighty Dike left, too.

Mighty Dike is portrayed as a masculine black woman. “She wore goggles, bore a boyish haircut, and a leather miniskirt” (92). She is a “chocolate mama” who deserted the black man for the luxuries of men like Royal Flush Gooseman. She emasculated the black man and left him. She wears a belt with “chalky trophies from former lovers, penises which had been made into plaster of paris casts” (93).

There is a direct parallel to the situation in the black ghetto home. The women wear the pants while the man is completely emasculated. He can't find work and depends on the woman for food and rent.

Big Lizzy is also portrayed as a masculine woman who hunts moose and has an ear shot off. She is the woman at work. She has a faint print of a mustache beneath her nose, and she speaks in a “low husky voice … and carries a moose over her shoulder and under her arm a Winchester Rifle” (98). The women—black and white—are nearly all presented as more masculine than the men. The men are weak and cry in their beer while the women are strong.

Mustache Sal represents the white women who makes love to the black man, but the greed in her draws her to Drag. She makes a deal with the devil and balls all the men around her while she tries to poison Drag.

Like the white woman in our society, the black man sees her as a product of evil who will destroy herself in the end. Yet, Loop stops near the pig pen to pay his last respects.

The only faithful woman in the book is Zozo Labrique, who represents the original black religion. She looks like a gypsy with her bandanas and gold earrings. As she dies from the white man's bullets, she gives Loop the mad dog's tooth to wear. She tells him it will bring him connaissance and asks him not to “forget the gris gris, the mojo, the wangols” (26) old Zozo taught him. She tells him that when he needs more power, he should “play poker with the dead” (26). That is exactly what Loop will do in the end. He will play poker with the morally dead white man for tremendous stakes—the life and future of the black man.

Zozo is Loop's true love and he carries on her word until the tooth is stolen. Then, after a near-death, he goes to the Pope to do as Chief Showcase did—to destroy from within and regain his true heritage. This is only possible after the mad dog's tooth is gone. He is no longer so mad that he cannot think things out. He wants no more oppression from the Church, and he now knows how to go about destroying the oppressors so he may live like a human being.

Ishmael Reed does a magnificent job of tying all these major themes of black history together in a brilliantly funny novel which spans the time gap from 1000 B.C. to the present.


  1. Adam David Miller, ed., Dices or Black Bones (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970), p. 129.

  2. Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969), p. 55.

    (All future references will be to this edition.)

Lorenzo Thomas (essay date winter 1976)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9467

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 star-knowledge from ancient Africa's wisdom). Our present pole star, ridiculously known as Polaris, is located in the tail of the constellation which is now called the “dipper” or “great bear” but was anciently known as the “dog.” The position of the star is symbolic, which is why we look forward with joy to the new pole star. In that day coming, the tail shall no longer wag the dog. If you know what I mean.

This is not an astrology lesson. We simply admit we're star gazers interested, as Sun Ra puts it, in “the song of tomorrow's world.” We are interested also in understanding, as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has urged us to do, “all truths that were put in symbolic language.” The stars transmit light, cryptic radio shows and beautiful colors which are actually FORCE cast into visual form. The physical appearance is symbolic of something more powerful. Take red, for example. Red is just what you think it is. The symbolic associations of the color are Mars, blood, fire, pepper. Red clay c/o Freddie Hubbard & Georgia, courtesy of the Creator. Rednecks. Atheistic communism. Evil attitudes of ignorance, intoxication, and rage … “Old Red Eye” and “seeing red” are the phrases in American culture. The popular composer Randy Newman sings:1

We're rednecks, we're rednecks
Don't know our ass
from a hole in the ground
We're rednecks, we're rednecks
keepin' the niggers down

All that's cool. But Ishmael Reed, a writer very much in contact with all of America's spirits,2 is not concerned with rednecks; his interest is in Black people and maroon aspects of red. Shimmy dresses and muggled eyes. It was genius Ray Charles who sang, “See that girl with the red dress on / She can Birdland all night long!” Energy and joyful intensity. What the slang of the 30s called “a flame.” Carrying a torch. But the Black aspect of red is not merely sexual nor is the violent side limited to the brutal North American ghetto/saint home. Reed's study of our situation reveals a spiritual strain of our maroon Africanness that forms the basis of a major motif in both our folk and “popular” arts. Geography does not limit it and certain social conditions in the world of oppressed peoples encourage it. In the West Indies, the Slickers sing:3

Walking down the road with a ratchet in your waist
Johnny you're too bad
You're just robbing and stabbing and looting and shooting
Now you're too bad

The symbolic expressions stretch from Toomer's “blood burning moon” shining down upon Stagolee and Billy DeLyons, to Wright's bad nigger Bigger, back to Shango and West Africa's mystic fire. In his novel. The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed attempts a broad-based investigation of the social and spiritual properties of the color symbol red.4 The result is thought-provoking, militantly bourgeois, and insanely funny.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red begins as the story of a Black family, the Yellings, tracing their exploits through two generations. The patriarch is the founder of Solid Gumbo Works, a hot bebop argot sauce factory whose chemists secretly discover a cure for cancer and an antidote to hard-drug addiction. The recipe is derived from ancient New Orleans voodoo mixtures similar to slavery days' gombo:5

Well, Ed being a botanist, and knowing something of pharmacology, synthesized the formulas left by Doc John into a pill—an aspirin-like white pill which he gave to his clients for what ailed them. He noticed that Doc John referred to certain human maladies in terms of astrology. One had a snake or a crab inside of one. It occurred to him one day that a crab meant cancer. Even the astrological sign for Cancer is a crab. Doc John cured cancer by using stale bread, ginger root soaked in sweet oil, blackberry tea and powdered cat's eyes and making a pill of these elements. You see, Gumbo was the process of getting to the pill—using many elements, plant, animal and otherwise.

Louisiana Red Corporation learned through a spy who had access to Ed's papers … that he was on the brink of a cure for heroin addiction—a cure that would keep the victim off heroin forever. That's when they ordered their three spies to kill Ed.

Besides the murder, there are other problems. Two of Ed Yellings' children are spoiled and turn out bad, dragged down by the towering ignorance of urban Black society with all its frustrations, misinformation, and mistaken goals. They become dupes of various popular movements which are vaguely “liberation” oriented but are rip-offs nevertheless. On another level, the book is a study of malice understood in the sense of harmful magic as well as everyday testiness.

On yet another level, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a magical performance by Reed, again aimed at “ending 2000 years of bad news.” And, though some critics call Reed's stuff nonsense, this spell was so seriously mistaken by the manufacturers of Tabasco sauce that they thought he was trying to put them “Out of Business” and sought an injunction on the sale of the book. But that's what you've got to expect from Louisiana Red.

In its strongest aspect, the whole book exists as an alternative recipe (Rx) or a musical (“poetic” in the Sophoclean sense) composition. the seemingly simple vernacular of Reed's language disguises a vast construct of artistic and psychic (i.e., symbolic) design. The freedom to mix genres, a direct literary analog to culinary gombo, was firmly established in Black literature by Jean Toomer and Reed makes good use of it here. Toomer's influence on Reed is not merely stylistic, however. It is quite clear that, like Toomer's Father John who critic Bernard W. Bell termed “a Black Nemesis,” Reed's work since The Free-Lance Pallbearers chronicles an attempt to provide redress for wrongs committed when white people “made the Bible lie.”6 Some of Reed's ideas, derived from his study of Egyptian mythology and his understanding of C. G. Jung, closely relate to Jean Toomer's studies of Gurdieff and P. D. Ouspensky. Toomer's doppelganger constructions in the play Balo and in Cane (1923) come to mind when one considers Reed's concept of achronologically complementary worlds as expressed in the bold surrealistic time shifts of his novels.7 Reed's approach is more sci-fi than sociological, but the main conceptual approach is reminiscent of Jean Toomer. His next book, Flight to Canada, based on fugitive slave narratives and concepts of discontinuous omnivalent time, comes even closer to the mix of prose and poetry that Toomer explored. Gombo. It's interesting to note that, while fugitive slaves in Spanish and English colonies were called maroons, the word for a runaway in French Louisiana was the Conglese nkombo … another indication of the complex associations that Reed veils and reveals in his simple style.

Other literary and extra-literary influences are revealed in this book. Reed's fondness for poet Bob Kaufman's work is evident in his definition of Moochers that recalls Kaufman's brilliant “Abomunist Manifesto”:8

Moochers stay in the bathtub a long time. Though Moochers wrap themselves in the full T-shirt of ideology, their only ideology is Mooching.

Elsewhere, he intercuts the Sophoclean riddling sphinx with a satirical take-off on confused Kafkaesque intellectualism. And, in his wittiest turn, the Kingfish choral interludes (written as screen dialogue) reveal a new aspect of Reed's comic abilities. For example, Kingfish and Andrew H. Brown are found on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, standing near Sather Gate:9

Remember the time we took over the Black Studies programs up here, Andy?
Yeah, I remembers. We bopped the bushwa nigger who was running it, and he had a big hickey on his head. Then we took over.
Those was the days, Andy, the sixties. They took us off television and the radio and gave us freedom to roam the world, unchecked, hustling like we never hustled before.

The dialogues between Kingfish and Andy also display Reed's application of media effects (television and film) to the novel form in an unexpectedly direct manner. He himself insists that he was first turned on to this area of attention by reading Ellison and Wright.

He has been working toward this for some time. “My narrative technique,” he said in 1972, “involves having a kind of duo that one associates with the vaudeville stage. There's the straight man and the clown, the jokester. Like Laurel and Hardy. And there's a formula for it: one guy keeps breaking into dialect or slang, and slapstick or burlesque. That's what happens in Free-Lance Pallbearers. That's what I attempted to do. I was reading a lot of Mack Sennet and Bert Williams' scripts about that time, and burlesque, and listening to comedy routines.”10

In this context, the use of Jean Toomer as a model is fortunate. Toomer's free forms, combined with Reed's own eclectic approach to mythology and so-called trivia, enable him to approach a mixed media form for the novel that promises more electric breakthroughs in the future. The technique shows that Reed is quite as aware of the past as he is of the present … and his idea of the past is continuous and unbounded. The mixed media concept brings him closer to the original artistry of the griot, the traditional African oral storyteller, who was and is the repository of the people's wisdom and who entertains at the same time he teaches. Speaking of his first novel, Reed stated:11

… I wasn't really thinking about writing a novel; I was thinking about telling a story. Story-telling precedes “the novel,” which Frye and others say is a very recent and arbitrary form. I consider myself a fetish-maker. I see my books as amulets, and in ancient African cultures words were considered in this way.

The statement provides a clue both to the genius of Reed's work and to the greatest failure of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, which is too consciously written as “a novel,” despite Reed's obvious attempt to escape that approach.

Let it be understood that questions of style and form in Reed's manner of doing art also involve message and social philosophy. In the same 1972 interview with John O'Brien, Reed said:12

The ending of Yellow Back Radio was based on an introduction that Carl Jung wrote to Paradise Lost in which he traced the origin of Satan. What he claims is that the devil climbed out of art at a certain period along about the time of John Milton and that Milton was using an old gnostic idea of the devil as superman, “a man capable of all things.” Jung contends that the devil became eminent in the world. In the ending of Yellow Back, which is kind of both a quasi-anarchistic and Tom Mix ending, the symbols of religion, the gods, return to art. They return to where they belong as something one contemplates but that doesn't participate in the world.

“Some people,” he added, “interpreted it as Loop Garoo going back to Rome. But all the events that Pope Innocent VIII was talking about were taking place in art. And what happens is that people are on their own and Loop Garoo and the Pope return to art.” We may note here that certain implications of such a “trick ending” for the real-life Vatican may not be quite as funny as Reed's irreverent wisecracks about the Pope seem to indicate. With the Amos & Andy characters in Louisiana Red, Reed gives the trick an interesting surface reversal. Kingfish and Andy, having escaped from popular art (due to NAACP protests in the late 1950s that the characters were derogatory stereotypes), have been wreaking their peculiar havoc on an unsuspecting world. Reed feels that we were all better off when their antics were confined to the TV screen and is determined to stuff them (and their attitudes) back into art via the pages of his novel.

Again, a larger problem is implied. “The poet,” Jung wrote, “now and then catches sight of the figures that people the night-world—spirits, demons, and gods; he feels the secret quickening of human fate by suprahuman design, and has a presentiment of incomprehensible happenings in the pleroma. In short, he catches a glimpse of the psychic world. …”13 This idea is, essentially, the link that connects Reed's concepts to Jung's. And it is a fact that the poetic vision Jung speaks of cannot be transmitted except by extraordinary language and poetic structure. Art, because of its affective or suggestive dimension, is actually more than the sum of its parts which are tangible artifacts in any sense. The result is that the effective communication of literature more directly depends upon structure than on language. Structure in art becomes, at this level, the procession or play of symbols which Jung defines as “an intuitive idea that cannot yet be formulated in any other or better way.”14 And it is at this point that the question of social philosophy arises. We are all aware, particularly in terms of the almost “suprahuman” popular advertising media, of the ways by which a symbol or vision can be destroyed by means of inadequate structure. What is saddening is that we are not as familiar with the methods by which this is purposely done; though we should be by now, after the peculiar press agentry and media “support” that disrupted the Black movements of the 1960s.

Nor is the question of race the heart of the issue, despite the racist origins of Amos & Andy. The problem concerns the social role of the arts and the media in society, generally. William Burroughs bluntly outlined our problem. “Genet,” he wrote, “says that a writer assumes the terrible burden of responsibility for the characters he creates. They are his creations and he is responsible for them. Journalists on the other hand have no responsibility whatever. Let them go out and hijack a plane, kill five women in Arizona, assassinate the President, and what happens to them after that? Who cares? A basic difference in attitude.”15 Of course, journalists cannot plot the destinies of their characters. Those who devise the fictional characters of the electronic media can, but choose to assume the journalistic non-responsibility that Burroughs describes. Similarly, the younger journalists who have been raised on these media fictions exhibit the same cavalier attitude to real people who are reduced to the stature of situation comedy characters on the electronic news. So Houston Baker is more than misguided when he bemoans Reed's decision “to drag out those poor, tattered creations of the white American psyche—Amos and Andy—my heavens, what dim corridor will next provide filler?”16 The point that Reed understood is that after their creation of these characters, white radio artists Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll did not spend a day either tattered or poor. And they took no responsibility for the psychic effects of their creation, either. So Reed assumed the responsibility of symbolically eliminating their distorted symbols. You gonna kill him for that?

Reed's social philosophy is sound and his sense of what's happening actually and otherwise is better than most of his critics'. Yet there is a definite problem in this book. “A black writer sitting down doesn't have all of Europe looking over his shoulder,” he has said.17 But, in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed allows the shadow of American Book-of-the-Month literature to reach his typewriter keys. As fast as he works (he can set a scene, make a scene & launch a polemic in a single sentence), it is a bit disturbing that he spends eleven chapters here (50 pages) setting up his story line. This may be a sign of an interest in “the novel” as a form, but it results in the book's being more interesting at the end than at the beginning, a fault not usually found in Reed's work. I consider this to be a structural flaw when the book is read, as I feel it should be read, as a movie or screenplay. In those terms (style, not morality, of the movies), the usual “novelistic” elements in the writing appear as irritating interruptions and weaken the construction of Reed's argument. And I mean argument in a traditional rhetorical or structural sense. Reed's audience expects him to know that his best effects are achieved without old-fashioned narrative editorial intrusion. His knack for building collages of insinuous detail, as in his description of Berkeley and Oakland (Chapter 23), is what we dote on. The man knows how to signify. If we wanted the other thing, we'd go elsewhere. Dickens or something.

Reed is best here as in Mumbo Jumbo (1972), when he concentrates on his spiritual matters. He has developed the ability to make visible the spiritual reality hidden in the everyday and, in doing this, his poetic structures reach a high point of compatibility with his content. He tries here, for example, to suggest the deeper reality of the lady in red, identified here as Minnie the Moocher. You remember the old Duke Ellington tune? You know her … the one that fingered Dillinger at the picture show, embarrassed her husband at the SCLC banquet, the one Richard Brautigan writes about, the one Michael McClure's Billy the Kid loves as Jean Harlow in The Beard, the one Baraka's Clay knows as Lula in Dutchman … regardless of the color of she dress. Reed tries to tell us just how she got that way. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Hard Momma. You know how she is.

Reed knows other aspects of her, too … some of them very particularized to Black people in this confused time and space. But then he always seems to understand many alternative visions.

Reed's approach to mythology is fascinating and grows more direct and intense in each work. Some of his ideas, such as the escaping of characters from myth into the real world, suggest a striking parallel to Robert Silverberg's fine short story “After the Myths Went Home.”18 Reed's social alertness far outstrips Silverberg's, however, and his axe is honed much more persistently. Reed's mythology is not only syncretic but synoptic. Collagistic. His Loop Garoo Kid in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) can be read as the archetypal “American Negro” similar to Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas. Staggerlee bad nigger madman you can meet in any southern town today; the mad badman whose madness grotesquely metamorphoses into abject docility when the full light hits the sheriff's badge. On the other hand, Loop just might be a genuine Haitian voodoo werewulp. Naturally, in his treatment of the character, Reed consistently reverses all of the expected polarities.

He puts people off balance that way. Recently, I was amused to hear novelist Kristin Hunter refer to Mumbo Jumbo's Papa LaBas as an heroic figure in pleasant contrast to the Biggers, crazy niggers, and other derogatory freaks of Black literature. In truth, Papa LaBas is the devil, as any West Indian knows … or any jazz buff who has heard Sonny Rollins' version of the old folk song “Fire Down Dey” (re-christened “St. Thomas”).19 In Derek Walcott's play Ti-Jean and His Brothers, the character is portrayed as awful and exceeding strange and is addressed as Papa Le Bois, the cow-footed old man of the forest. No problem of identification there. In all ancient existential cultures Reed's Papa LaBas was well-known as the presiding spirit of choice, janitor of truth, god of the crossroads … Hermes, Elegbara, and Thoth, son of both Horus and Set. In Rome, equipped with the keys to the kingdom (Yakub's ladder), he appeared as St. Peter described as “the rock” (or herm).20 So, in The Last Days of Louisiana Red as in Mumbo Jumbo, Papa LaBas is the stand-in for Elegba or Exu, the first of the loa to be summoned in voodoo rites. The opener of the way. In ancient Egypt this role was given to Ptah, a name by which the figure became known in post-Egyptian Rome when the symbolic paraphernalia of Egyptian religion and mythology was taken over and mislabelled by the Church of Rome. In this sense LaBas, like all the other characters he uses, is not really a novelistic invention of Ishmael Reed's.

Similarly, “the lady in red” has a much deeper mythological identity than her appearances in popular culture and contemporary literature indicate. Minnie the Moocher (also Antigone) in Louisiana Red is closely patterned on the West African orisha Oyá whose color in Africa, Puerto Rico and Cuba is maroon. Her emblems are fire and lightning; she is the loa of the cemetery and death. As the Niger River, Oyá is angry Shango's favorite woman and, in the African system, personifies the justice that Europeans revere as a woman with bandaged eyes. Well, they know what they been doing! But, in the symbolic context of Reed's syncopated images, justice is only blinded by congenital ignorance and rage. In other words, America as we know it. The deterioration of the image from a woman with flashing eyes to a blind one suggests the typical misuse of African mythology in the West. In ancient Egypt, justice was the prototypical equal sign (= ; in hieroglyphics, MISSING TEXT: EDITOR), the twin goddesses Mayet (Right & Truth). In the still-extant Spanish-language voodoo system, Oyá's prominence in the graveyard is a logical declension of the duplication symbol that Mayet represented … the persistence of right and truth in two worlds. As you sow, so shall you reap, etc. And you'd better believe that no one except William Faulkner ever considered folks was sowing up there. The truth extends into both life and death because the truth is, simply, what's true.21

Perhaps we are straying too far from the point, though we will return to this concept of dual worlds again. The point is that Louisiana Red is an eponym, like Jes Grew in Mumbo Jumbo, of a psychic level of feeling; in this case, alabaster grimaces and red eyes. In this book, the quick-temper syndrome is raised to a higher imagistic and symbolic dimension. Louisiana Red is at once pepper sauce, an “evil” half-white octoroon woman steeped in HooDoo, and a psychic epidemic of which all citizens are carriers. Just start some mess, you'll find out what it is. This multi-level interlocking of images has been part of Reed's repertoire and esthetics since his early days when he conceived of Martin Luther King's struggles in terms of the metempsy-chosis of ancient slave revolutionists such as Denmark Vesey.21a

The Last Days of Louisiana Red blends Reed's historical understanding of corporate Christianity, voodoo, and the Black Power movement in all its Californian extremity. The book also includes Reed's studies of politics, religion, and mythology in ancient Egypt and Greece. Antigone in Reed's peevish redaction becomes a comical tragedy (tragic because Antigone, the bad seed girl, emerges victorious again) and we find the traditional Chorus “unemployed,” absurdly replaced by characters from Amos & Andy's Music Hall. Chorus, however, has his splenetic say and Reed makes the most of it in some hilarious discontinuities:22

Did Oedipus think that when he banished the Sphinx—in Africa a half-man, half-animal which became a grotesque female in Greece—did he think that when he banished this monster from Thebes, in thousands of years the Sphinx would reappear as his brother's niece, Antigone. …

Antigone? Or does Reed's Chorus really mean militant feminist poets like Robin Morgan? Chorus' chauvinism is, of course, based on the simple self-interest of survival. After all, he's been unemployed ever since the turn in Sophocles' Antigone! A walk-on in an Anouilh or Cocteau production barely keeps the Chorus alive … not to mention government sociologists convincing folks that there's a reason for this.

Of course, this is silly. Several critics have been irked by this type of foolishness. Yet—illogical, unorthodox, or not—Reed does manage to make a telling synthesis of Sophoclean poetics, the Antigone legend, and the Moynihahn-styled official analyses of our own day which effectively “explain” the disproportionate unemployment rate among Black males. Silly if one is trying to make masterpieces, but you damn bet you serious if you trying to make groceries. As Reed plays it, it's too unentered to be propaganda and too loose to be “literary” protest; but I'm sure it connects synaptically with most of his readers who live in the reality that his fantasies are abstracted from. If he's a juggler, Reed is (like the hieroglyphic beetle Keper-Ra parodied in Free-Lance Pallbearers) only juggling one ball of confusion: the world as it is now.

Reed delights in teasing his readers on all of the many levels of his work. For example, Louisiana Red itself is an exploration of several genres in the manner of Toomer's Cane, yet it seems most comfortably read as an undisguised “screen treatment” … yet again, the Black pope cum HooDoo detective Papa LaBas reappears in this novel and Reed's oeuvre deliciously threatens to become a series a la Chester Himes. Modeled after New York spiritualist Professor Black Herman (who was actually a character in Mumbo Jumbo), LaBas also betrays Reed's share of vividly flickering memories of childhood's matinee Charlie Chan. This last observation may be offensive but it is demonstrably true. One of his reviewers unwittingly pounced on this; in the New York Review of Books, Roger Sale complains about the plotting of the story:23

What Reed wants is to say that the best people are hard at work, not mooching; Ed Yellings's Gumbo works turns out to manufacture a cancer cure and an antidote to heroin. The trouble is that all this is just something LeBas [sic] says at the end as he plays Ellery Queen and solves the mystery of Ed's killing without even needing a clue.

Sale blunders because he neither understands the importance of Reed's HooDoo concept nor Reed's immersion in the popular media. The HooDoo detective is less interested in logical deduction than he would be in divination. He would value connaissance above clues. In fact, precisely because LaBas is not even remotely considering Ellery Queen or any other literary detective, the case is solved, not with a clue, but with information given LaBas by “the messenger” (read Isis) who stands “on the right side of Osiris” in the world beyond this world.24 If there is anything of convention here, it is the fantastic apparitional continuity of the modern motion picture where things are known and unknown simultaneously and revealed without the deliberate “logical” progression of the written word. Beyond that, the narrative style of the entire book is much influenced by contemporary film-editing fashions, though always with a shrewd reservation for the dicta of Aristotelian poetics.

Hold it. All of that is fodder for formalists. The heart of the book is Reed's hearty denunciation of what he considers mistaken steps along the road to Black liberation. Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers, Angela Davis, and the editors of Black Scholar are all pointedly parodied. Strong comments are aimed at contemporary Black elected officials and at the so-called “new left” which Reed seems to think of as a collection of hippies who didn't have the guts to join the Weather-people and get their pictures on the FBI's late late show TV announcements. You know. VOICE OVER: “Bernadine Dohrn, dangerous fugitive” and high school yearbook photograph on screen. Parenthetically, one might recall that it was in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down that Reed announced his awareness of America's intention of making criminals of its brightest and most conscious young people. Here, of course, Reed's purpose is lampooning the moochers and small fry who managed, through their own dullness and casual corruptibility, to slip through the honorable dragnet because of their cooperation with and cooptation by the system. Along the way of several head-shakingly funny bits of business, Reed manages to throw in teachings on the imagistic histories of voodoo in New Orleans, crime in Harlem, and provincialism in San Francisco (Henry George's hometown!). Besides all this, Reed delivers ventriloquilly (through the unemployed Chorus) a treatise on Sophocles' Antigone that may be spun of whole cloth but is, for our time (as we have tried to show), psychically and mythologically true. Why all this? Because Ishmael Reed finds all of these of crucial import and because these concerns, as various as they be, map out the shifting boundaries of his imaginative world.

His poem “Antigone, This Is It,” was written while Louisiana Red was in progress and illuminates some of the concerns of the novel while indicating the wide range of the author's stylistic sources. In the poem, Reed accuses Antigone of crimes wrought by the implication of her acts:25

You would gut a nursery
To make the papers, like
Medusa your Poster Queen
You murder children
With no father's consent

Her burial of her brother in defiance of Creon is seen here by Reed as a crime of disobedience that erases the merit of her obedience to her father. Creon as king rightfully succeeded Oedipus as Antigone's authority, in this view, because of his maleness and his sacred position. But from this somewhat perilous stand, Reed leaps into an insistence upon ritual orthodoxy that he casts in the language of voodoo:26

Suppose everyone wanted it their
Way, traffic would be bottled up
The Horsemen couldn't come
There would be no beauty, no radio

He then accuses Antigone of failing to consider and, in that, reduplicating the transgressions of Oedipus:

No one could hear your monologues
Without drums or chorus
In which you are right
And others, shadows, snatching things
Fate, The Gods, A Jinx, The Ruling Class
Taboo, everything but you

Excuses, excuses … still she gets away with it. Reed gives us a fascinating cross-cut flash of the ridiculous trial of Angela Davis super-imposed on the standard B-movie and cartoon book comedy of the unfair advantage women use against male eloquence and wisdom. It's a scene right out of Pigmeat Markham's notorious courtroom:27

All the while you so helpless
So charming, so innocent
Crossed your legs and the lawyer
Muttered, dropped your hankie
And all the judges stuttered

Nevertheless, the jury (not a presumptuously prejudicial Nixon) finds Antigone guilty and Reed sentences her to the tortures of the Egyptian underworld, Amen-Ta:

The jury finds you guilty
Antigone, may the Eater
Of the Dead savor your heart
You wrong girl, you wrong

Satirists are cold-blooded, but I do not think Reed disliked Angela Davis' cause, however misdirected that cause might have been, quite that much. Beyond that, Reed's relationship to the United States' racist authorities places him in much the same position as Sophocles' Antigone, continually facing the choice of conscience before “law” or “tradition” represented by our criminal ruling regime. That, if anyone doesn't recognize it, is what existentialism really is.

On the other hand, Reed identifies Greek mythology, in its deviation from the Egyptian original, as part and parcel of the anti-African forces he despises. To his credit, so different from certain come-lately 60s “revolutionist” writers, this attitude—probably correct—has not prevented Reed from studying and commenting on the bastard Greek system and its many mysteries.

This poem, which also summarizes scenes from The Last Days of Louisiana Red, is an example of surface reversal. The trick done with mirrors that is so vital to the theatrical arts Reed examines, exercises, and exorcises in his writings. Surface reverse. Reed's total devotion to his HooDoo gods demands that he accept them as the only valid orthodoxy. Anything else is merely “mundane law.” In other words, he outdoes Antigone and beats her at her own game. By doubling back.

What is most interesting, of course, is the engagingly disparate set of references Reed brings to the examination of any reality. The model, like a nuclear physicist's tinkertoy atoms, is Louisiana gombo, a culinary mix-up of whatever is at hand that Reed has raised to the level of a magical healing stew. Just like the physicist, neat in his white lab coat, punctual with his radiation-indicator clearance badge, preoccupied in his 2-year old station wagon (remember all those old science-fiction movies on TV?) … Ishmael Reed is a nice guy with a wife, teaches school, lives in a bungalow in California, has a little girl, plays with his cats. The difference is that Ishmael Reed's works are recipes for gombo remedies to end the madness of the ruling regime, to overthrow the whole evil psychic mess, including some people. You know who you are.

It is as if Reed's insistence that the world be a conjunction of spiritual forces leads him to examine the most mundane aspects of life in search of their spiritual content. To define their spiritual context. This was the brilliant breakthrough he made in his very first book, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) when he unmasked the corporate structure of Christian theology through his examination of the follies of the Black proletariat. Besides that, Reed also maintains a deep enthusiasm for the artist's prophetic role. Enthusiasm, I said. Look it up.

Here, again, leave it to him to carry us into brilliantly intuitive conceptions beyond anything we might otherwise imagine. Armed with his Jungian studies, Reed finds more miraculous arms along his way. Explaining his method, he wrote: “HooDoo—or, as they say in Haiti and other places, ‘VooDoo’ or ‘Vodun’ [or vaudeville?]—was always open to the possibility of the real world and the psychic world intersecting. They have a principle for it: LegBa (in the U.S., ‘LaBas’).”28 In old-timey minstrel shows, the idea resulted in the pseudo-planter figure Interlocutor and the result of the same idea applied to contemporary literature by Ishmael Reed is that “there were sections of Mumbo Jumbo which were written in what some people call ‘automatic’ writing, or the nearest thing to it.”29 But here we must be very careful.

Reed's version of automatic writing is closer to a surrender to the spirit Ahhhheeaiah ooo uh lord jedus huh than it is to Andre Breton's surrealist Hegelian concepts. Breton attempted to “present interior reality and exterior reality as two elements in process of unification. …”30 If anything, Reed would be concerned for such a re-unification featuring his own militant version of the Holy Ghost or the descent of the loa. For him, a student of Jung rather than of Hegel, the unification of psychic and mundane realities is accomplished in the activated symbol of the crossroads. In Louisiana Red he writes:31

[LaBas] relaxed in the Worker's garment worn only in privacy so as not to draw attention; a black blouse, black cotton pants. He was wearing the jet equilateral cross on a chain around his neck. The Watson cross.

and, again:

When the messenger entered the club, the few patrons who were there on this cool Berkeley night looked up. Even the bartender, suave Obie Emerson, a connoisseur, looked up. Every time she entered a place, people looked up. She was smiling, fresh from the crossroads. She was wearing a white cloche hat, white suit, white high heels, and white veil. She wore the cross made of jet; not the cross of anguish and suffering but the traditional cross of American Business people: the Watson cross.

One wonders if the Watson cross might be named for IBM's Thomas Watson (the book is, after all, about giving folks “the business”), if it is the plus sign (+) of corporate profit. Or Louisiana Red, and going back to the “lady in red” … is it the signature of the grave? It is definitely the sign of Hermes and Legba, the crossroads. And maybe, very likely, it is the Watson-Crick model of the DNA molecule: Life and individual personality resulting from one's genetic heritage. The “original” cross all tricked up in a tinkertoy model.

The intersection at the crossroads. Elmore James used to sing all about that in a high and whining voice. The intersection at that crossroads also is the tinkertoy model of the Blues. Anaphoric. Epistrophic. And still the intersection of the crossroads also plays a part as a location for the climactic vignette of Ishmael Reed's novel. After pleading for mercy for Minnie with the powers that be in the under-world, LaBas leaves in defeat:32

“Poor Minnie,” LaBas said as he was about to enter the crossroads dividing two worlds. She was certainly in the hands of a primitive crew. They would eat her heart out.

Suddenly LaBas heard someone call behind him. It was Minnie.

Yes. And in her heart I know she was saying, well nigger who you think it was. Natural so.

The images can be found intact in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The book of the Duat, the dualities. The scene at the crossroads is the ancient Egyptian judgment day in Amen-Ta, the hidden land where Toth is the court reporter and here come the judge here come the judge Osiris is the judge. Your heart is weighed against the feather of Mayet, your deeds measured against justice. If you blow it, crocodile Sebek eats your heart out … at the same time documenting every move you make and crying crocodile tears. It can scare you more than the accented fulminations and warnings of the tent-show evangelists. You can break out in a cccold sweat at the library, reading the ancient Egyptian formulas and imagining impish Rodney Alan Rippys munching on sinners' bones and singing “Take life a little easier.” Or, at least, more or less seriously. After all, it's your bones.

Reed, in the manner of any initiate or true believer, is aware that the intersection of realities, the unification (if it indeed occurs or exists) is not obvious to everyone. On other levels and for other people, the two realities continue to be, as Andre Breton stated: “In the present form of society, in contradiction.”33 Reed would surely agree that American society is jammed up with psychic contradictions, but his is basically a religious orientation (as exemplified in Louisiana Red by LaBas solving the case with information presented by the supernatural “messenger”) involved with “inspiration” to an extent that would doubtlessly put off the surrealists. Automatic writing? One would suppose that Breton, as an empirical—if not imperialistic—romantic (awake or sleeping) would find Reed's position superstitious, though C. G. Jung maintained that superstition was a valid reaction to the awesome psychic world for primitive people. “It is only we,” Jung wrote, “who have repudiated [the psychic world] because of our fear of superstition and metaphysics, building up in its place an apparently safer and more manageable world of consciousness in which natural law operates like human law in society.”34 Like tinker-toy models of fissionable molecules.

Breton would, naturally, have chosen the psychic path. But we must again caution the reader about careless application of European artistic ideas and concerns to the Black writers of the 1960s and 70s who are makers and students of an utterly unique consciousness. On the other hand, the Europeans are embarrassingly untrustworthy. As late as 1945, Breton (who must certainly have known Leon Damas' Pigments which appeared in 1937) could make the kind of “automatic” associations with the word noir that have justly (if sometimes stridently) been identified by contemporary Blacks with an offensive racist unconsciousness. Breton's concept of “intersection” is an insult. Paul C. Ray reports:35

… a symbol of synthesis appears in Arcane 17 in another quotation from Eliphas Levy, “Osiris is a black god” of which Breton says, “obscure words and more radiant than jet! It is they which, at the limit of human questioning, seem to me the richest, the most charged with meaning.” The image of a black god from the Eleusinian mysteries supplied Breton with an exciting synthesis: to the traditional idea of god is added black, the color of the infernal powers. A black god is the synthesis of the divine and the demoniac, of the opposition between good and evil.

If that is the best insight automatism offered Breton, he would have done much better thinking on purpose! I suspect, however, that Ray is the culprit responsible for the idiotic notions just quoted.

Breton and the surrealists did make an effort to reject the acceptance of human law as natural law (the tinkertoy universe of the corporate scientists of death and greed) and attempted to open a way of communication with the psychic world. Others, as Jung pointed out, have not made the same choice or commitment. What the choice means to us today is well expressed by our writers. Amiri Baraka, in Blues People (1963), showed that the choice of mundane corruption is represented in 18th century history by the fact that “the North American settlements were strictly economic enterprises, with the possible exception of the Pilgrims.’”

“The straw that broke the camel's back,” Baraka wrote, “and sent the American colonists scrambling headlong for independence from Great Britain was an excessive tax on dry goods. Instead of ‘The Will of (our) God Must Be Done,’ the rallying cry for a war could be ‘No Taxation without Representation.’”36 In other words, justice is blind but everybody else knows which side their bread is buttered on.

Crazily and characteristically, Ishmael Reed goes deeper into the shadows of motives. Speaking of people with psychic abilities, he wrote:37

It may be that a large percentage of Western people with such abilities were slaughtered (nine million people in two centuries) when the Catholic Church wiped out those who rivalled its authority as the supreme residue of “supernatural” powers—you know, witches. Natural selection set in and most of the people who remain were benumbed.

The statement is made in Reed's usual cranky tone, but one need not retreat that far back into Western history to prove its essential validity. In 1935 the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church blessed the arms of Mussolini's legions before the invasion of Ethiopia and some American Blacks who followed the Catholic faith hold lifelong grudges. Coincidentally, Abyssinia's native Coptic Church (like the Eastern Orthodox Church) is a Christian denomination that antedates the Vatican organization. Plus, them niggers can prove it … even if it turns out in the end that Haile Selassie wasn't really related to Solomon and the comely Queen of Sheba. Heaven forbid! Still, the parameters of the struggle, as Ishmael Reed sees it, should be clear to all of us. There is even a hidden spiritual dimension in the news.

What Andre Breton called “exterior reality” is interpreted by critic Paul C. Ray (following Freud's concepts) as “material reality” in conflict with the unconscious. Jung, of course, rejected the dichotomy of the spiritual and the material with his rejection of Freud. Reed, in his distaste for Marxist-styled “social realism,” would probably be able to identify the opposite of the psychic world as materialist reality; and Baraka's insight about the American revolution should illustrate the implications of that phrase. Baraka—we should note—has subsequently drawn conclusions, influenced by his political ideas, that are much closer to Breton's than to Reed's.

Reed's “automatic writing,” then, involves actual visions (most often of words) brought to him from the psychic world. He enhances this communication through the study of the American adaptations of African spirit religions. He does not, in the French surrealist manner, open himself to his ignorances. This is not to deny the literary merit in the French mode as demonstrated by Breton, Soupault, and Desnos. Not to mention Aimé Césaire, the Antillean poet who taught them something … and who used voodoo, too.

Automatic writing or not, Reed's work does manage to escape premeditation. In Louisiana Red, one has the sense that the novel's ending astonished even the author. Reed, having convinced himself (and many readers) of the reality of HooDoo, conceives of his writings as wangas, spells or “conjures” designed to effect actual changes in the real world (i.e., the world that suffers from the false materialistic definitions of several certain vested interests). Reed's works, of course, provide corrective redefinitions of reality. They are also “readings” of Ishmael Reed for the benefit of he himself and others. Houston A. Baker acknowledged this, in a somewhat slighting tone, when he wrote: “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.”38 But I can think of few writers today (after our experience of Lowell, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Baraka) who can actually avoid the sort of “personalism” that Baker objects to in Reed. Poet Lewis MacAdams pointed out to me that our literature is tending toward a fusion of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction that requires a new basis for evaluation. This tendency is not new, it's as old as Whitman, but it has lately acquired new force. While Kerouac in The Dharma Bums (1958) still pretended to roman à clef, Steve Cannon pointed out the new boldness when he included a real-life actual Nelson Rockefeller among the characters of Groove, Bang, and Jive Around (1969). Similarly, it is hard to accept Charles Wright's novels as merely fiction. Perhaps we are simply returning to the original truth that the artist first struggles with his own soul and his world … that anything he creates as “art” is the fruit of that struggle and must speak of it.

In The Last Days of Louisiana Red we can read of Ishmael Reed's struggle to “do away with” intra-racial malice and violence. Yet, on another level, Reed's own frustrations and heritage, his own sentimental attachment to the female, finally betray him to passion. To his credit, and due to his calculatingly theoretical mind, the weak aspect of this position is fictionally divided in the book between the characters Papa LaBas and his informant, the baboon Hamadryas (read the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth). In the delicious pulp of the last pages, both characters show symptoms of possession by Louisiana Red. LaBas thinks he overcomes this seizure through an act of lenience and civil charity but the implication of this act only serves to betray him into the hands of the deadly Antigone, which is itself an epidemic presence similar to Louisiana Red. The difference is Antigone is sex-linked. Militantly feminist dreadful Antigone (orientalists can read Kali) is spontaneously reincarnated in Essencely fashionable Ms. Betterweather, executive secretary at the Solid Gumbo Works, who uses her casually feminine influence (all the wiles) upon LaBas so that he can spring the awful and dangerous Minnie the Moocher from the lascivious male chauvinist clutches of Hell. All them broads sticks together. At the very end, Papa LaBas seems quite comfortably self-deluded. Until he hears the news.

Hamadryas, the wise mandrill, pushed to the end of his patience, physically assaults his zoo keeper, and thus becomes a “horse” or vehicle for Louisiana Red rather than the wise and gentle loa he and LaBas originally served.

There the book ends, striking a similar note to that sounded by The Free-Lance Pallbearers. There is little else, short of the old bayou stories of haints and ghostes, to compare it to. It leaves the same sense of foreboding that the end of Baraka's Black Mass does. After all the struggle just depicted, we are told that the jihad begins now! Sure, we understand that this is just another expression of the storyteller's conventional art of surprise, but it is effective and draws more moment from the dire political realities of our time. Reed's statement, like the cancer signal people's “A check-up and a check” is couched in much subtler terms than Baraka's inflammatory “These monsters are still at large.”39 But the message is the same. The Free-Lance Pallbearers told us “them spectres done got bolder” and the subsequent works of Ishmael Reed continue to inform us that our struggle is for sanity and that it grows deeper and more strenuous, always moving to a higher level … carrying us to a higher plane of our psychic and racial existence. Rocket number nine take off for the planet to the planet. Venus. And why not Pluto, too? Or the new boss star? Or Canada?

Yeah. Ishmael Reed is writing escapist literature all right. But it just might be the most significant escape of all time … an escape from all the chains that bind us into the most dangerous unreality the planet has ever seen, a madness equipped with communications networks that depose and murder presidents of honest-to-goodness nations. And, let us make no mistake, such men are murdered for their goodness.

A book like Louisiana Red shows us that we are earthbound most of the time for reasons more profound than the domestic chaos Bukka Doopeyduk (the corporate zombie) went through in Free-Lance Pallbearers. But there is a distinctly merciful sense of hope here, too. Louisiana Red is, after all, only a thing. Ain't no big thing because Reed, our dutiful Public Health officer of the spirit world, makes us understand its sources and symptoms:40

She was mad. Louisiana Red mad. Hot. You know how all those songs come out of Louisiana—those homicide songs, ‘Frankie and Johnnie,’ ‘Betty and Dupree,’ ‘Stagalee.’

Notified again of our traditions, we make it what we want it and we put it where it is. “Cacophony!” Jass! We seek the true King on his righteous, rightful natural and embattled throne. We are, Reed's book reveals, still in search of the third and final crown: complete self-mastery. The Ph.D. the third degree, the 33° recast in our own greater dimension. That will be our real victory. The end (I mean STOP) of the tail wagging the dog anymore. You know what I mean. We will have Black people recognized in their genuine genius, their ancient and original spiritual power.

I walked into a cafe and met a young brother at the pool table. I asked what's happening. “I'm gonna make it,” he said. And I said, “Get away.” What he meant was that he was using all of his powers to live a natural gentle life well. And I meant to tell him to do that. I meant to tell him that that is what's happening now. We will be recognized as our own Black selves again … and then the onus is on us.

But that's alright. When it happens, the whole world will jump and shout. The King on his throne. At last, again. Wise and healing serpents of mythology will no longer suffer disgrace, torment, and ungratefulness at the hands of women bruised by heels and stereo-phony ghetto “heroes” that Reed identifies as Moochers.

That is the dream and the goal, cast in the excessive rhetoric of Black imagism. At meetings on stumps couches crossroads street-corners, we demand action; but The Last Days of Louisiana Red is definitely not the triumphal New Year's march into Habana. Havana. The book is, rather, the journal of an intense but inadequate attempt to correct the total imbalance of the African peoples' lives in America. As such, it now becomes an instructional module. And it will prove to be a very effective one.


  1. Randy Newman, “Rednecks,” Good Ole Boys (Warner Brothers MS 2193) 1974. Side 1, track 1. Lyrics by Randy Newman (c) 1974, Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corporation (BMI).

    The epigraph is taken from Lightnin' Slim, “Hoodoo Blues,” High and Low Down (Excello EX-8018). Side 2, track 5. Lyrics by Otis Hicks (Lightnin' Slim) (c) Excellorec Music (BMI). Recorded in the early 1960s.

  2. See Lorenzo Thomas, “NeoHooDoo: The Sound Science of Ishmael Reed,” University Review, No. 29 (May 1973), 15-17, 28-30. Also, Thomas, “The Black Roots are Back,” Village Voice (March 15, 1973), 19, 64.

  3. The Slickers, “Johnny Too Bad,” on Jimmy Cliff in “The Harder They Come” (Original Soundtrack) (Mango SMAS-7400), 1972. Side 2, track 1. Lyrics by The Slickers (c) Ackee Music Inc. (ASCAP). In the film, directed by Perry Henzell, the playing of the tune precedes a scene in which protagonist Jimmy Cliff knifes another man over ownership of a bicycle. But the film has established that the question is not exactly trivial.

  4. Ishmael Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (New York: Random House, 1974). All quotations are from this edition.

  5. Reed, p. 164.

  6. Bernard W. Bell, “Jean Toomer's Cane,Black World, XXIII: 11 (September 1974), 96. See Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923), p. 237.

  7. See Michael J. Krasny, “Design in Jean Toomer's Balo,Negro American Literature Forum, VII: 3 (Fall 1973), 103-104.

  8. Reed, p. 17. See also Bob Kaufman, “Abomunist Manifesto,” Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New York: New Directions, 1965), pp. 77-87. The poems, signed “Bomkauf,” were originally issued as a broadside by City Lights Books in San Francisco in 1959. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee produced an interesting dramatization of the works for National Educational Television.

  9. Reed, p. 118.

  10. Ishmael Reed, see Interviews with Black Writers, ed. John O'Brien (New York: Liveright, 1973), p. 178.

  11. Ibid., p. 172.

  12. Ibid., p. 180.

  13. C. G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, R. F. C. Hull, trans., Bollingen series XX (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 95-96.

  14. Jung, p. 70.

  15. William Burroughs, “Time of the Assassins,” Crawdaddy (September 1975), 12.

  16. Houston A. Baker, Jr., “The Last Days of Louisiana Red,” Black World, XXIV: 8 (June 1975), 52.

  17. Interviews with Black Writers, p. 181.

  18. Robert Silverberg, “After the Myths Went Home,” from Noonjerks and Starsoups. A recording of the story by Mike Hodel was produced at KPFA-FM, Berkeley, California. Pacifica Foundation archive No. BC 1942.

  19. Sonny Rollins, “St. Thomas,” Saxophone Colossus and More (Prestige P-24050), 1975. Side 2, track 1. Originally released on Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (Prestige 7079), 1956.

  20. Norman O. Brown's Hermes the Thief (New York: Random House, 1969) provides an interesting study of the historical guises of this archetype.

  21. Clues to the iconography of Oyá and Elegba can be found in Fernando Ortiz, Los Negros Brujos (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1973), pp. 31-32, 38-40. The book originally appeared in Madrid in 1917 but was written in 1906 in Cuba.

    Oyá's character is well depicted in Pepe Carril, Shango de Ima: A Yoruba Mystery Play (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970). The English adaptation is by poet Susan Sherman.

  22. Reed handles the continual shifts of characters in the “spirit world” with ease. His poem “Ghost In Birmingham,” Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972) begins:

    The only Holy Ghost in Birmingham
    is Denmark Vesey's holy ghost

    and goes on to draw satirical caricatures of M. L. King, Sheriff “Bull” Conner, and other figures of the Civil Rights struggle. The poem also includes a parody of Ezra Pound's “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly” (1920), lines 59-60. Pound's verses are themselves parodies of a line from Pindar. Reed's message seems to be that the modern world gets more and more ridiculous. His poem originally appeared in Umbra (1963).

  23. Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, p. 106.

    Reed's comic Antigone might have been suggested by Robin Morgan's Monster (New York: Random House, 1972), a collection of militantly feminist poems which appeared with a color photograph of a snake-handling Cretan goddess figure on the cover. See note 25 below.

  24. Roger Sale, “Winter's Tales,” The New York Review of Books, XXI: 20 (December 12, 1974), 20.

  25. The Last Days of Louisiana Red, p. 135ff.

  26. Ishmael Reed, “Antigone, This Is It,” Chattanooga (New York: Random House, 1973), pp. 29-30. The poem was originally published in Black World (1972).

  27. The loa or orisha (gods) of the various voodoo cults are generally thought of as spirits who mount their “horses” (the ecstatic worshippers) during the course of the service. The Spanish term is “vehiculo.” Fernando Ortiz, p. 83, writes that the worshipper “subirse el santo a la cabeza.” Maya Deren described the Haitian loa as “the divine horsemen.” It should also be noted that Haitian Creole loa is the equivalent of French Ioi, “law.” The Spanish word orisha (Brazilian Portuguese orixa) comes directly from Nigeria.

  28. Cf. Pigmeat Markham, The Trial (Chess LPS 1451). Markham has performed this vaudeville routine for many years, making a subtle comment on ordinary American racism.

  29. Ishmael Reed, “Ishmael Reed on Ishmael Reed,” Black World, XXIII: 8 (June 1974), 23. This “self-interview” is described in an editorial footnote (p. 34) as Reed “talking to himself.” Um hmmmm.

  30. Ibid., p. 23.

  31. Andre Breton quoted in Paul C. Ray, The Surrealist Movement in England (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1971), p. 15. The quotation is from Andre Breton, What Is Surrealism?, David Gascoyne, trans. (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), p. 49.

  32. The Last Days of Louisiana Red, pp. 109, 135.

  33. Ibid., p. 169.

  34. Andre Breton quoted in Ray, p. 15.

  35. Jung, p. 95.

  36. Ray, p. 54.

  37. LeRoi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1963), pp. 5-6

  38. Reed, “Ishmael Reed on Ishmael Reed,” p. 23.

  39. Baker, Ioc. cit.

  40. Imamu Amiri Baraka, “A Black Mass,” Four Black Revolutionary Plays (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969), pp. 17-39. The script was originally published in Liberator (1966).

  41. The Last Days of Louisiana Red, p. 141.

Frank McConnell (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4764

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 talented black writers—Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, James Alan McPherson—who had to wait for their recognition until they were officially acknowledged, patted on the head, by an influential-enough member of the white literary establishment. Every twenty or so years, it seems, white America discovers with amazement and sighs of delight a new—the first—true black genius, the one who will finally articulate the sufferings of his people in an undeniable, inescapable voice and who will make that most native American experience, the Blues, into that most venerated American shibboleth, Art. (There is an analogy here, as Ishmael Reed would be quick to point out, to the birth of the ‘swing era’, when a talented clarinettist and a canny recording executive created a national fad by buying the arrangements of a brilliant but down on his luck black arranger named Fletcher Henderson.)

These observations are by way of apology for introducing an essay on Ishmael Reed's fiction with a reference from a novel by a white writer, and one accepted, however grudgingly, as a major writer by the Establishment. But Reed (as Pynchon would insist) doesn't need such puffs. And there is nothing condescending or patronizing about the passage I have quoted. Reed does ‘know more about it’ than you'll find in Gravity's Rainbow: and it, in this case, is the whole world of occult, pre-or anti-Christian religion, of the hip American underground, and of that special with-it, outside-it-all sensibility that he has made distinctively his own.

Ishmael Reed has written five novels—The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) and Flight to Canada (1977)—as well as two volumes of poetry and numerous essays, reviews, and interview articles with other artists. In the Introduction to his recent collection of essays, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), he speaks as frankly as he ever has about the business of writing:

Writing is hard work, don't let anybody fool you. … I'd say I get the most kicks out of writing poetry; fiction is the second most fun; the essay is the ditch-digging occupation of writing. I spend a lot of time running up and down the stairs for Facts!

This is an important passage for understanding Reed, I think. Fiction, the craft of the novel, lies somewhere between the kick of lyric poetry and the drudgery, the fact-bound plodding, of the essay. But that is to say, also, that fiction—if it works—can include the best powers of both the other two kinds of writing, the sheer sweep of poetry and the urgency, the argumentative power of the essay. From his first novel to his most recent one, Reed has kept close to this distinction. And while his poetry may sometimes be too private to understand, and his essays sometimes too complex to follow, his fiction has remained the clearest and best expression of his vision, and by the way one of the most brilliant and funniest bodies of storytelling of the last twenty years.

Sometime after the publication of his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed came to take VooDoo seriously. Or, maybe, VooDoo came to take him seriously, since Reed is fond of insisting that some of his best writing is simply a matter of taking dictation from the loas, or gods, of that complex and fascinating religion. By 1970, in his anthology of contemporary writers, Nineteen Necromancers from Now, he was describing his work as ‘Neo-Hoodooism’, and had published one of his wittiest prose pieces, the “Neo-Hoodooist Manifesto” (reprinted in Conjure, 1972). Some scattered assertions from the Manifesto will give its flavour:

Neo-HooDoos would rather ‘shake that thing’ than be stiff and erect. … All so-called ‘Store Front Churches’ and ‘Rock Festivals’ receive their matrix in the HooDoo rites of Marie Laveau conducted at New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain, and Bayou St. John in the 1880s. … Neo-HooDoo ain't Negritude. Neo-HooDoo never been to France. Neo-HooDoo is ‘your Mama’ as Larry Neal said. … Neo-HooDoos are detectives of the metaphysical about to make a pinch. We have issued warrants for a god arrest. … Neo-HooDoo is a litany seeking its text.

Many of Reed's main influences, and much of his distinctive brilliance, are apparent in these telegraphic sentences. Among the influences: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and LeRoi Jones in the confident observation that Black American street culture, without embellishment, is a full and rich cultural heritage, the stuff of major myth (‘Neo-HooDoo never been to France’); William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon in the surreal transformation of history into nightmare, and nightmare into pop-melodrama (‘Neo-HooDoos are detectives of the metaphysical’); and the whole tradition of comparative religious thought from Fraser to Eliade in the swift, sure discoveries of the elemental and archetypal under the quotidian (‘Neo-HooDoo is a litany seeking its text’).

But there is something more than a mere catalogue of influences at work in the Manifesto. Reed's tone, a combination of high intelligence, carefully academic terms and citations, jive talk and stand-up comic one-liners, seems at first not only confusing but confused. Here as in his fiction, he shifts voices as quickly and as disconcertingly as anyone writing in America, except perhaps Pynchon. But Pynchon's jumps at least are within the extremes of a given cultural context: high to low culture, scientific to humanistic, tragic to comic. Reed's jumps of tone are on that axis, too, but also on another, scarier one: from everything we have been trained to take as ‘culture’ to its opposite, which is not ‘low’ or ‘pop’ culture but deliberately corrosive anti-culture. Here is an example, from Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. A group of cowboys who work for the evil genius Drag Gibson are discussing the book's hero, the Loop Garoo Kid, who is an outlaw cowboy, a trickster HooDoo, and Satan himself:

You see the Kid ride off last night? It was as if he were lightning taking a hiatus from nature. Looked like two ghosts were waiting for him. I could see only their outlines in the moonlight.

What you say we pick up our gear and make it, Skinny?

The other cowpokes needed no encouragement and began to get their stuff together. Suddenly Drag's voice boomed through the intercom:

Men come on up here a minute. Something big is cooking on the range.

The speech of the cowpokes ranges, in this short passage, from the lyrical and metaphysical to street slang (and what is the intercom doing in this Gene Autrey scene?) to a groaner of a pun at the end. Examples of this technique could be multiplied from Reed's books, though one of the best is the moment in Mumbo Jumbo when he explains the personality of the VooDoo goddess Erzulie, whore and virgin, remarking that she is known among Americans as the girl with the red dress on (but among the Egyptians as Isis and among the Greeks Aphrodite).

The point is that these leaps, outrageous as they are, work. But they do not work the way associations usually work in novels, even in so-called ‘post-modern’ novels. To understand how funny and how profoundly right is the combination of Erzulie, Aphrodite, and the girl with the red dress on you have to know a little about VooDoo (Reed tells you that), a little about Greek mythology, a little about Ray Charles. But more than that, you have to know how to let all those associations merge instantaneously one into another, while still retaining their individuality, their historical specificity. The same is true of the outrageous pun, ‘Something big is cooking on the range.’

One way—the best way, I want to suggest—to understand Ishmael Reed's fiction is precisely in terms of these fast, jagged changes of tone and context; ‘as if he were lightning taking a hiatus from nature’, as the cowpoke in Yellow Back puts it. But lightning, however flashy, doesn't really take a hiatus from nature. Rather, it reveals in its sudden violence the possibilities of disaster and illumination that are part of the otherwise hidden nature of things.

Reed's narrative voice, at its best, has this kind of effect. And it is exactly the effect, more than of anything else, of a voice. One important source for this kind of storytelling is that distinctively modern American narrative tradition, the stand-up monologue. In cheap bars and expensive clubs for the last thirty years, from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor, the most manic and creative of American underground men have had their own back at the expense of the Establishment in free-form, improvisational ‘bits’—instant short stories and novels, actually—whose illogical scenarios mock our official expectations about ‘fiction’ at the same time they reveal to us—or remind us—how corrosive, distorting, and true can be the mirror fiction is supposed to hold up to life. Here is part of Bruce's famous ‘Religions, Inc.’ routine (from The Essential Lenny Bruce, 1967, edited by John Cohen): a character named ‘Oral Roberts’ is speaking long-distance to a character named ‘The Pope’:

Billi wants to know if yew can get him a deal on one o those Dago spawts cahs. … Ferali or some dumb thing. … yeah. … yeah. … Willie Mays threw up on the Alcazar? Ha ha! That syrup! Really freaked awf!

And here is a speech from Reed's latest novel, Flight to Canada. The slaveholder Swile is speaking to Abraham Lincoln, who has just claimed to be able to give the South its ‘death-knell blow’:

There you go again with that corn-pone speech, Lincoln. ‘Death-knell blow’. Why don't you shave off that beard and stop putting your fingers in your lapels like that. You ought to at least try to polish yourself, man. Go to the theatre. Get some culture.

The two passages are not interchangeable. But it is obvious that the Reed passage is family-related to the Bruce. It is dialect humour, assuming a role, improvising on the possibilities of the role, and finally reducing the role to absurdity (the grim humour of the one-liner about Lincoln going to the theatre to get some culture is what would have been called, during the first years of Bruce's celebrity, a ‘sick joke’). This is the humour, and the genius, of that headlong and frantic verbal invention that Jewish comics call the spritz and that is known in urban black culture as ‘the dozens’. And one way of tracing Reed's development is to note his increasing control over the direction and pacing of his multiple voices, from the wild but random comic violence of The Free-Lance Pallbearers through the inspired fantasia of Mumbo Jumbo and into the austere, pointed bitterness of Flight to Canada.

But there is another analogue to the speed and dazzle of his narrative voice, and perhaps a closer one. John A. Williams, a contemporary writer Reed admires, has said (in John O'Brien's 1973 Interviews with Black Writers):

There's an inclination to do to the novel what Charlie Parker did to jazz. I don't know whether you remember this period in jazz music that is called ‘Bop’, where the method was to take. … well, you could take any tune that was standard, say ‘Stardust’, for example. They would go through it once and then would come through again with all their improvisations, so that it was only recognizable in part. … That's the way it works. And I think that's what's happening to the novel … Ishmael Reed's books.

Reed, throughout Mumbo Jumbo and in many of the essays in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, argues that VooDoo, an old-world, solemn and slow ritual, becomes speeded up, like everything else, in America—and emerges as HooDoo, one of the prime manifestations of which is Bop. Of Charlie Parker, ‘Bird’, the astonishing genius of Bop, he writes (in Shrovetide): ‘Perhaps you can only relate to a monster in terms of awe, especially the Monster Bird, whose talents were so immense he could invent classics standing on his feet and whose appetites for life were as enormous. …’ In bop the improvisational art of jazz becomes self-conscious—more highly self-conscious than it had been previously—becomes the deliberate ‘invention’ of classics while standing on your feet. And more importantly, as Williams points out, it becomes aware of the popcult triviality of the material upon which its most towering masterpieces are constructed. What could be cornier, more worn-out than ‘Stardust’? Or than that swing-era warhorse, ‘Cherokee’? And yet it is upon the chord changes for ‘Cherokee’ that Parker constructs one of his most stunning improvisations, ‘KoKo’.

The boppers—Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk—were not only self-conscious about the value of their music, they were quite self-conscious about it as black music. At least, among the impulses behind the founding of bop was a strongly felt need to play a music so complex and so passionate, so distinctively the product of a single voice, that it could not be imitated, trivialized, or mass-produced by commercial white musicians. And while this may have begun as a separatist sentiment, it eventuated in a new and major American art form. Few serious people today would deny that, at their best, Parker, Monk, and Gillespie represent the best and most universal art Americans have produced since the end of the Second World War.

All these elements of bop (and post-bop) are crucial to reading Reed. ‘HooDoo’, after all, is a contemptuous white name for a native Afro-American religion: literally, with a punning irony Reed would like, a denigrating term for a system of belief and ritual. But what is this system? For one thing, it involves possession by the gods or loas rather than, as in the Christian tradition, approximation to the perfection of a single godman: the inspired, shamanistic, but also totally self-conscious moment at which you give yourself to the god who wants to take over your personality. And at that moment you use whatever everyday props are available to you to help the god manifest him/herself: it is the improviser's moment of vision, in other words, and the shabbier, the more familiar the props the more impressive the incarnation of the deity within them (this is not, really, very far from the most primitive ideas of the ‘scandal’ of Christianity—though far indeed, as Reed insists, from its most massively institutionalized manifestations). Remember that, for Reed, the business of writing fiction occupies the same kind of psychic space, midway between the lyrical exaltation of poetry and the everyday drudgery of a world of facts.

But VooDoo, or ‘HooDoo’, is also a religion of the oppressed that turns into a religion of triumph over the oppressor. The saints of the slaveholders’ Christianity become new loas in the pantheon of VooDoo—not simply parodied, in other words, but really converted, in this most syncretic of religions, into precisely what they should not (from the orthodox viewpoint) become. At its most creative, VooDoo is a kind of exorcism, the exorcism of the stultifying mythology of the oppressor from the figures of that mythology itself. It is, if you will, Heart of Darkness told from the side of the people Mr. Kurtz tries to ‘raise’, and as such it is liberating, wildly funny, and immensely good-humoured. Parker playing ‘Cherokee’ or Monk playing ‘I Surrender, Dear’, or Sonny Rollins playing ‘Softly As in a Morning Sunrise’ can be taken as the same sort of exorcism.

Reed has said that his most experimental writing to date is the short story, “Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon”, published in Nineteen Necromancers from Now. In Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, he writes, ‘I wanted to make a crude, primitive fetish and that would put a “writing” on an individual considered an enemy to the tribe.’ The sub-title of “Cab Calloway” is ‘D HEXORCISM OF NOXON D AWFUL (D MAN WHO WAS SPELLED BACKWARDS)’ and the story is a grotesque, surreal, obscene narrative of a day in the life of ‘President Noxon’ as he slips further and further into madness and cretinism. Of course, spelling an enemy's name backwards is one traditional way of gaining power over him. And the whole story, which could easily be mistaken for a disorganized, though very funny, attack upon the President, really is an exorcism. All the terrible things that happen to Noxon are ‘worked’ on him by the HooDoo detective and hero, Papa LaBas (‘Cab Calloway’ was originally intended as part of Mumbo Jumbo, where Papa LaBas makes his first full-scale appearance in Reed's fiction).

If we think in terms of VooDoo as a form of creative parody and purification-through-possession, and of bop as an especially fast, especially improvisational form of VooDoo, it is easy to see both how consistent and how deeply serious has been Reed's development as a comic novelist. The Free-Lance Pallbearers, his first novel, is a headlong, William Burroughs-influenced satire with more energy than point. Its non-hero, a Black named Bukka Doopeyduk, narrates how he rises from the rank of mere hospital attendant in the mythic kingdom of HARRY SAM to that of media personality, star token Black revolutionary, and almost the new leader of HARRY SAM itself—though at the end he fails in this bid for ultimate power, and is subjected to a grisly public crucifixion. Bukka Doopeyduk is an earnest, well-meaning lad, a careful student of the Nazarene scriptures, a believer in the rightness of HARRY SAM's government, and an altogether assimilated Black man—a fucking dopey dupe, as his name implies—who is almost a working model of everything not to be in Reed's world. In the first chapter of the novel, as the title has it, ‘Da HooDoo is Put on Bukka Doopeyduk’: the hero finds himself wasting away because of a strange curse that has been worked on him. He finds a man to cure him of the curse, and that of course is his worst mistake, since the rest of his career will be his increasingly frantic attempt to assimilate himself to the grotesque and evil world of HARRY SAM, the white idea of ‘normalcy’ from which the HooDoo might have saved him.

Nevertheless, the idea of ‘HooDoo’, and therefore of parody, quotation, possession, and improvisation plays little part in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. It appears only as a negative possibility—something bad that can happen to you—but not in its more positive, creative aspects. This may be part of the reason why Pallbearers, in retrospect, seems Reed's weakest book. In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, at any rate, the myth and the image of HooDoo is much more important and mature—and the book is correspondingly vastly more perceptive and entertaining.

If VooDoo is the conversion of Christian saints into pagan loas, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the conversion of that most cherished of white middle class psychic shibboleths, the Western, into—literally—Black humour. Here is the first paragraph of the novel:

Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bull-whacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women. A desperado so ornery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner's swine.

It is, in the purest sense of the phrase, an epic invocation, summarizing the entire action, in sequence, of the book that will follow—but to what Muse? To the Muse of the ‘Folks’, surely: those folks who were raised on Western radio shows and the entire, white-centred myth of the American West. But the Loop Garoo Kid, the hero of this Western, is not only black, he is Satan himself, the Dark One rejected by the self-confident, daylight religions of Europe and America, returning as an outlaw, sorcerer, and cosmic gunslinger to reclaim his heritage. He is, in other words, a HooDoo hero, a self-conscious and witty parodist and gris-gris-man whose magic is not so much a matter of spells and rituals as it is of the corrosive, mythically alert consciousness itself. Loop's battle against the evil Drag Gibson, trail-boss of the town of Yellow Back Radio, doubles the struggle of Bukka Doopeyduk to enter the presence of the terrible HARRY SAM, leader of the nation HARRY SAM. But here the struggle is even, and Loop knows how phony is the magic Drag Gibson employs to keep his own people down. ‘HooDoo’, in other words, simply a negative factor in Reed's first novel, has now become a principle of narrative and satire. Yellow Back Radio, like The Free-Lance Pallbearers, ends with the public execution of its hero—with a lynching, that most powerful and most grim detail of the black American experience. But in the second novel, the lynching turns against the lynchers: Loop's tormentor and enemy Drag Gibson is eaten alive by his cannibal swine, and the Loop Garoo Kid escapes. In the baldest terms, it is the symbolic turning of the oppressor's tools against himself, as has been, in fact, the whole course of this inverted Western.

Between Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and Mumbo Jumbo, Reed seems to have developed the idea of ‘neo HooDoo-ism’ into something like a deliberate aesthetic. It is an aesthetic he has recently (in Shrovetide) disclaimed and one he has (in Flight to Canada) surpassed, but nevertheless it is a central part of his fiction. Mumbo Jumbo, which may be his best novel, is in some ways less a novel than it is an exploration of the idea of HooDoo, and of its possibilities for the writer. Set in the twenties, Mumbo Jumbo tells how Papa LaBas, head of the Mumbo Jumbo Cathedral and metaphysical Private Eye, tracks down the ‘text’ of the jazz craze sweeping the nation (remember: ‘Neo-HooDoo is a litany seeking its text’) and foils the plans of the ‘Wallflower Order’, a Teutonic Christian sect of those who can't dance, to stifle the jazz phenomenon by converting it into another pseudo-classical and self-consciously secondary ‘Negro movement’.

As in a Charlie Parker solo, the shifts of tone and motif in Mumbo Jumbo are too swift and too complicated to transcribe here. But they are all organized around the same central theme, the same hackneyed, standard set of thematic assumptions that the book itself expands, inverts, and remakes. Mumbo Jumbo is a detective story, but a detective story with no crime and with no criminals—except for the white members of the Wallflower Order who try to suppress the phenomenon of jazz by turning it into a denatured version of Western modes of imagination. The Wallflower plan is at least partially successful, with the result that the real flowering of HooDoo—or ‘Jes Grew’, as it is called in this book—will have to wait another thirty or so years; until, in other words, the flowering of the genius of Charlie Parker (who, the book is careful to point out, was born in 1920—the beginning of the book's action) or until the writing of Mumbo Jumbo itself.

To find the essential text of Jes Grew, the written liturgy that will make the emotional experience of HooDoo truly religious, truly institutionalized, men will and do kill in Mumbo Jumbo. But, the story insists, such killing is not only wrong, it is a betrayal of the text itself. Mumbo Jumbo ends in a brilliant parody of the end of the classic detective story. LaBas makes his arrest, and in making it explains the nature of the crime he has been investigating: but that crime turns out to be, not at all the limited, specific act of violence we are used to in the convention, but rather the aboriginal crime through which Set usurped the music and the godhead of Osiris, turning it from cosmic bop into a kind of metaphysical Laurence Welk tune, and through which latter-day magicians like Moses and Christ imitated and transmitted this boring, foxtrot version of a radiant and shattering original vision.

The novel, in other words, moves from pop-parody to cosmogony, from cliché to mythography, and all without missing a beat. It is, in many ways, precisely the ‘text’ that Jes Grew (or HooDoo) is seeking throughout the narrative, the right story that will allow us to understand our whole cultural heritage as, not occlusion or limit to the imagination, but the backdrop for new levels of possession, new reaches of generosity and vision.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red continues the movement of Mumbo Jumbo, though in a somewhat muted and more tentative way. It is set in the present, more or less, with the now-aged Papa LaBas in New Orleans, investigating the collapse of the HooDoo business, the ‘Solid Gumbo Works’, (‘Solid Gumbo’ is a kind of universal medicine and nourishment). LaBas traces the problem to the usurpation of the business of a cartel of white liberals and black revolutionaries—aided by a passionate and misguided Women's Liberationist—none of whom understand the profound cosmological implications of ‘The Business’, and all of whom try to warp it in the direction of their own petty interests. Louisiana Red has been taken as Reed's unsympathetic, grumpy reaction to the Women's Movement; and, indeed, there is a kind of accidental but distracting parti pris to the novel. But it is most interesting—and quite brilliant—as an exercise in HooDoo without apologies and without deflections, an exorcist's division of the world into those who understand the vital powers of the work and those—regardless of race, background, or political affiliation—who do not.

This division continues in his most recent novel, Flight to Canada. After two exercises in HooDoo parody at its most extreme, Reed has most lately written a book that is a parody of that most black, as opposed to white, form of popular literature, the slave narrative. Flight is the story of Raven Quickskill, an escaped slave who tries to reach Canada but ends up back in the plantation he escaped from, though now as a free man and a liberator of others. Flight merges and confuses historical periods, real and imagined characters, and factual and fantastic situations with a grace and a mad subtlety that reminds one of Thomas Pynchon. But the point of the book remains sure and clear from the beginning: this is the narrative of a slave who, through comedy and parody, has ceased to think of himself as a slave and is, therefore, no longer a slave. It is a fiction that completes that archetypal American fiction (which Reed himself has admitted to loving) the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, in which the narrator insists that he became really free at the moment he learned to read and write—the moment, that is, when he took over the tools of his oppressors and learned how to turn them to the uses and needs of his own soul.

Reed, in other words, has passed beyond the idea of HooDoo in his latest book—or, rather, has assimilated that creative idea into a larger and more capacious aesthetics and politics of national liberation and rebirth. Unlike Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon, he insists that the mythologies of black people in America are themselves worthy of respect and repetition, without artificial neo-classical embellishments. And unlike James Alan McPherson in Hue and Cry or Elbow Room, he insists that the black experience in America is, of itself, both richly comic and richly humanizing, without the filter of a conventionally ‘novelistic’ narrative style. But like both these other brilliant contemporary black writers, he is concerned with making the black experience not a revolutionary programme, a marching-song for violence in the streets, but rather the basis for a new polity, a community of charity and good humour—including ribald good humour—that can transform violence into the dance. Like all great comedians, he is a trickster whose tricks glimpse not only the abyss but the way out of that pit. And to the reader wondering whatever happened to the black movement in American literature, one cannot do better than requote Pynchon: check out Ishmael Reed.

Robert Murray Davis (essay date winter 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5410

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 establishment; Jewish critics of Black literature; other Black writers and critics of differing political, esthetic, and even physical hue; and the whole idea of English departments, which, he argues with a logic even more irritating than his ad hominem attacks, should be made part of ethnic studies programs. Certainly it would be easier to ignore Reed than to argue with him, but academic critics are masochistic enough to overlook everything except the lack of a viable critical approach to Reed's work, especially to his novels. While it is possible that all of us should seek training in voodoo mythology and ritual, though even this might annoy Reed, perhaps it would be more immediately useful to look at some conventional approaches to his fiction: comparative myth and genre, defined in terms both of literary theory and popular culture. And while none of Reed's six novels can be regarded as typical, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down illustrates most spectacularly Reed's “main job”: “to humble Judeo-Christian culture.”1

As everyone familiar with Eliot, Joyce, and other modernists will see at once, the fact that Reed uses mythologies from various times and cultures offers nothing new in itself. There are, however, at least four major differences between the use of myth by the modernists and by Reed: shape; sources; cultural authority; and formal authority. Of course, he does all of these things in the context of specific works, not in a programmatic fashion, and in any case one should not subject him to a rigid format.

Allowing for considerable individual differences, the great modernists subscribed to the theory that human history is circular if not cyclical—Yeats's gyres; Joyce's Viconianism; various Spenglerian derivatives; Eliot's contrast of turning world and still point—and that the circle or cycle is futile if not vicious. For them, the world is a very serious place, very much influenced by the “vale of tears” Christian/Augustinian model. (Granted that there are comic elements in Ulysses, but its general thrust is far from comic in any but the most rarefied Dantean sense.) Furthermore, though for the modernists the past is present, it is a highly selective past constructed on classical principles—featuring, that is, a series of monuments, physical and verbal, in a highly structured if largely implicit hierarchy.

Of course, the order was not so rigid, or coherent, as to be neoclassical. In the eighteenth century, it was relatively easy to determine whether the past was being used to overinflate the present, as in the mock-heroic; or the present was being used to deflate the pretensions of the past, as in travesty; or whether the past was being used to lend authority to the present, as in the dozens of perfectly serious neoclassical epics now remembered only by readers of footnotes to the Dunciad. Even thirty years ago it was widely assumed that Eliot was using Spenser's refrain and the references to Elizabeth and Essex to show the modern degradation of the Thames and that Joyce was using Odysseus to underscore the comic littleness of Leopold Bloom. Critical orthodoxy now assumes that Elizabeth and Essex are no less sordid than the Thames daughter supine in the canoe and that Bloom not only is Odysseus but Christ and a number of other figures in serious, straightforward allusion. Nevertheless, the contrasting interpretations have in common the assumption of hierarchy. Furthermore, the characters are immersed in the myth, more or less unconscious of it, manipulated in its terms. The past may be present, but seniority is important.

Ishmael Reed's image of human experience (he seems to prefer not to use the term “history” except in a derogatory sense) is rhythmic rather than geometric, a dance rather than a pattern or fixed shape. The theoretical synchronicity of his modernist predecessors is for him perfectly genuine: the Aeschylean chorus can appear in minstrel costume and shoot Antigone/Minnie the Moocher in revenge for esthetic usurpation in The Last Days of Louisiana Red; in Mumbo Jumbo, Moses can appear like a R and B star at the Apollo and reject the old music and rites with “Don't be bringing none of that silly shit to my gig. … I'm the 1.”2 This is not just a kind of pseudorelevance, a telling of fractured fairy tales, but the result of a belief “that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.”3 In Flight to Canada, Raven Quicksill puts it another way in rejecting the modernists. Pound

hardly ever spent time in this “half-savage country”. … His mind was always someplace else. That was his problem, his mind was away somewhere in a feudal tower. Eliot, too. The Fisher King. That's Arthurian. How can anybody capture the spirit of this “half-savage country” if they don't stay here? Poetry is knowing.4

Reed knows and uses the past—“voodoo says that the past is contemporary”5—but in his continuum there is no hierarchy; in fact, though Reed seems to assert the primacy of African experience and art forms, he actually seeks an EEOC of mythologies whereby each can receive its imaginative due and give its energy to the human psyche, and he is practically as well as theoretically open to any and all sources. In Radio [Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down], Judas Iscariot, Jack Johnson, Black Hawk (the Indian, not the comic-book hero of the 1940s, though Reed is perfectly capable of alluding to an all-white ethnocentrist artifact), and Booker T and the MGs are all equally powerful spirits, models, and guides in “the super-hero hype to end them all” (p. 64).

Reed respects generic no more than he does cultural hierarchies. As a modern writer of prose, he is aware of Northrop Frye's distinction among “The Four Forms of Prose Fiction,” which reduces “novel” from a normative to a descriptive term, and Reed goes on to link the novel to “Western epistemology, the way people in the West look at the world. So it is usually realistic and has character development and all the things that one associates with the Western novel.”6 Instead of character—“I'm not a big man on characterization. I deal in types” (SONO [Shrovetide in Old New Orleans], p. 232). He looks “for the essential elements. … I'm not interested in rendering the photograph of a person. I'm interested in capturing his soul and putting it in a cauldron or in a novel” (fi [fiction international], p. 66). One might ask whether Reed posits an essential and stable human and perhaps even bourgeois self—much as Eliot does. The answer is both theological and formal: Reed does believe in essences, and for everyday purposes no doubt believes in a developing, changing self, but almost certainly he does not use “soul” in anything like the Christian sense. As a novelist, he seems to present characters who do not change but keep on keeping on to and even beyond the end of the novel. This, as we shall see, has important consequences in the form of his novels. Nor is he interested in merely verbal forms, even non-Western, oral forms: poets and novelists he admires “have been influenced by not only music but graphics, painting, film, sculpture [Reed puts a comment on sculpture next to his comment on characterization] and all art forms—and write about all subjects” (SONO, p. 141). Doing a bit of prophecy, to which he is professionally committed as a creative artist, he expects that “more writers will try to collaborate with other fields of art. Maybe that is what the new fiction is all about.”7 And, in Reed's esthetic, none of these forms or subjects has status or authority superior to any other.

However, Reed is aware of quantitative changes in form. Radio only seemed esoteric, he says:

it's just a different way of viewing things. I've watched television all my life and I think my way of editing, the speed I bring to my books, the way the plot moves, is based upon some of the television shows and cartoons I've seen, the way they edit. Look at a late movie that was made in 1947—people become bored because there was a slower tempo in those times. But now you can get a nineteenth-century five-hundred-page book in a hundred and fifty pages. You just cut off all the excess, the tedious character descriptions you get in old-fashioned prose and the elaborate scenery.

(fi, p. 65)

Easily missed in this analysis of fictional technique, which in fact describes changes initiated in the 1920s, is the awareness of an implicit reliance upon the older forms. This assimilation, digestion, and transmutation is also revealed in Pope Innocent's analysis of the voodoo methods of the Loop Garoo Kid, hero of Radio:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and adding his own. He's blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He's throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don't know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

(p. 154)

Elsewhere, Reed praised Parker's talent as “so immense he could invent classics standing on his feet.”8 But he constructed them, as John A. Williams and Frank McConnell point out, on the framework of “popcult triviality.”

Reed mentions a review of Radio in a rodeo magazine (SONO, p. 134), and one hopes that the reviewer responded to the wit and invention of the novel better than, say, a Lawrence Welk fan would to either of Parker's quite different and totally unrecognizable versions of “Embraceable You.” Reed is far from arbitrary in his chord changes, or arbitrary only in Western, rationalist terms, and he insists that “thousands of pages” went into Radio and Mumbo Jumbo (fi, p. 70), that The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Radio were “very organized and very well-structured,” and that “If they ‘get out of hand’ for some people it's because they're not really looking at the writing but looking at what the writer is telling them about American society or sociological issues or their own psychology” (fi, p. 65).

In fact, Reed sometimes denies that he is technically radical or even very innovative, citing Black predecessors outside the Irving Howe-approved Wright/Russian/social realist canon and insisting that “it's my style that's unique and it took me a long time to develop that” (fi, p. 69). Because his form is confusing enough, others are welcome to discuss his style,9 but Reed gives some insight into its variety of sources and complexity of associations in his explanation of the title:

The title Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down was based upon a poem by Lorenzo Thomas called Modern Plumbing Illustrated, which was published in a magazine called East Side Review (1966) which lasted one issue. I based the book on old radio scripts in which the listener constructed the sets from his imagination—that's why radio, also because it's an oral book, a talking book; people say they read it aloud, that is, it speaks through them, which makes it a loa. Also radio because there's more dialogue than scenery and descriptions. “Yellow Back” because that's what they used to call old West books about cowboy heroes—they were “yellow covered books and were usually lurid and sensational,” and so the lurid scenes are in the book because that is what the form calls for. They're not in there to shock. “Broke-Down” is a take off on Lorenzo Thomas' Illustrated. When people say “Break-it-down” they mean to strip something down to its basic components. So Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the dismantling of a genre done in an oral way like radio.

(SONO, pp. 133-34)

Having got past the title, the reader is confronted with the book. Giving a plot summary of this kind of book is a sure way to sound like an idiot at best and a pedant at worst, but it seems unavoidable. The Loop Garoo Kid, whose real identity is disguised (he turns out to be the devil, the eldest son of God), travels with a circus in the first decade of the nineteenth century to Yellow Back Radio. Confronted by children dressed as Indians who have rebelled against the old, they give a performance but are attacked and, except for the Kid and a few children, killed by the gunslingers of Drag Gibson, “old ugly ignorant cattlerancher” who escaped from Hell and who seeks total domination of the West and, it is implied, the whole world. Buried to the neck in the desert by Bo Shmo and his neosocial realist gang, Loop is rescued by Chief Showcase, “a patarealist Indian” and the last surviving red man of any kind, who is at least a triple agent (and ethnic poet) attempting to undermine white rule. Loop acquires a costume (black buckskin with pink fringe), a green horse, a white snake, a weapon (whip), and a hideout, and he “hangs out horrific super-hero shingles with a side dish of unusual origin process” (p. 53). His spells/curses/poems cause giant sloths to attack Drag's trail drive; later they affect the morals of Mustache Sal, Drag's mail-order bride, former member of Loop's stable of females, and very thinly disguised Mary Magdalene. He humiliates the Marshal, the Preacher Rev. Boyd, and Drag's hired gun, John Wesley Hardin (JWH), and seems invincible until he is betrayed by his henchmen, pseudo-Black pseudoartists, at the instigation of Pope Innocent, brought in by Drag to counteract Loop's spells. Meanwhile, back East, Chief Showcase has fomented a plot involving Field Marshal Theda Doompussy Blackwell and Congressman Pete the Peek (D-NJ, who has also learned to geek) to take over the West in defiance of President Thomas Jefferson because he is far too liberal, even anarchic, for their tastes. The Pope wants Loop to return to heaven to counter the influence of Black Diane (the Virgin Mary, or Erzuli in the voodoo pantheon) and enliven the atmosphere, but Loop is determined to upstage the other (Christ), give a superior artistic performance—“Horse opera. … And the Hoo-Doo cult of North America. A much richer art form than preaching to fishermen and riding into a town on the back of an ass” (p. 163)—and

show the world what they were really up to. I'm always with the avant-garde. Seems to me that people are getting sick of daddies. You know—“thou shalt have no other before me”—Tsars, Monarchs, and their deadly and insidious flunkies.

(p. 165)

However, Loop is cheated of “this parody of his passion” when General Blackwell and his troops arrive in a fleet of taxis and wipe out the gunslingers with ray guns, Drag faces Blackwell for a shootout but falls off the scaffold and is eaten by hogs, Amazons wipe out the government forces, the surviving children arrive in a Chicken Delight truck with news of the Seven Cities of Cibola, “a really garish smaltzy super technological anarcho-paradise” (p. 170), and everyone except Loop heads off into the sunset to live happily ever after, leaving the Kid to join the Pope aboard the ship headed heavenward.

Reed based the end, he says, on Carl Jung's theory of the origin of Satan as “an old gnostic idea of superman” derived from art. At the conclusion of Radio,

which is both a kind of quasi-anarchistic and Tom Mix ending, the symbols of religion, the gods, return to art. They return to where they belong as something one contemplates but that doesn't participate in the world. That's one level of it. It's a trick ending. Some people interpreted it as Loop Garoo going back to Rome. But all the events that Pope Innocent VII was talking about were taking place in art. And what happens is that people are on their own and Loop Garoo and the Pope return to art.

(fi, p. 68)

As the Pope says to Loop, perhaps more confidently than we can say to Reed, “we figured out your game, what's your point?” (p. 163). As usual, Reed provides at least a partial answer: Radio “is really artistic guerilla warfare against the Historical Establishment. … to sabotage history” (fi, p. 67). Judging from the response of a graduate student in American history who complained heatedly and somewhat incoherently that after reading the novel, he could not read history, Reed attained his goal. To do so, he did research in the Bancroft Library, “one of the centers of Western Americana” (fi, p. 63), scrambling, blending, anachronizing in order to create a “‘time sense’ … akin to the ‘time’ one finds in the psychic world where past, present and future exist simultaneously” (SONO, p. 134). Given his purpose, the choice of the West was inspired if not inevitable. First, the conventions of Western novel and film are familiar and even native to American readers, and Reed uses these familiar motifs to get at and make palatable the unfamiliar, the Hoo-Doo cult of North America. Then, of course, the West of tall tale is a place of freedom, mystery, possibility, experiment—anything might be out there, from the Flying Bush Beeve (actually Chief Showcase's ghost helicopter, presumably akin to the Ghost Shirt but more effective) to the Seven Cities of Cibola to Germans to Amazons. Best of all, it is wild, not reduced to patterns, not “occupied” in any of several senses, and a place where, free of the repressions of civilization, the individual can create a new society and, more important to Reed, a new self.

Reed's West is, as one by this time might expect, a wild amalgam. François Duvalier is Prime Minister of Haiti; Charlie Parker has already lived; John Wesley Hardin will be fifteen in about sixty years (this would put the action in 1808); President Thomas Jefferson, “a freaky bopper peacenik,” has sent the cretin and criminal Lewis and Clark to hunt for fossils, spreads consternation among professional soldiers and politicians by his contempt for them, his interest in arts and sciences, and his acting upon the principle that the less government, the better. The last line of the novel, “Thomas Jefferson was out of a job, but that was O.K. too,” subverts the idea of Jefferson as leader and reaffirms him as principle, what one might call the logos or, perhaps more accurately, the loa of Radio.

However, Jefferson never appears, and the country is anything but an anarchist paradise. Like all evil cattle barons, though in high camp style, Drag Gibson seeks to take over the town as well as the range. Bo Shmo, Drag's esthetic equivalent, persecutes Loop because, as a novelist, he is a “crazy dada nigger. … given to fantasy and … off in matters of detail. Far out esoteric bullshit is where you're at” (p. 35), extolling the political ends of art, and ambushing wagon trains full of masochistic liberals. All the Indians except Showcase have been slaughtered because they tried to organize and confront the whites directly instead of using traditional, clandestine means, and Showcase appears to be a tame Indian, praising Drag's white intellect in a recorded telephone message and reciting militant ethnic poetry, “The Wolf-Tickets of Chief Showcase” (an invitation to fight; a series of insults) to the plaudits of excited white women (“What bitter and tortured Americana. Hey Injun come over here and look up my dress.”) and the criticism of his overuse of “like” by a Japanese semanticist, who I suppose must be identified as S. I. Hayakawa, former college president and sleeping senator from California.

The townspeople of Yellow Back Radio are typically faceless, confused, and bland, and Loop cares no more for them than does Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti-Western phase. Only three are mentioned: the Marshal, of the blustering, cowardly type; Preacher Rev. Boyd, who has turned from preaching because he fears that Protestantism is collapsing to writing “hip pastorale poetry,” “trying to keep up with the times,” too confused even to serve as apologist for Drag's massacre of the children; and Big Lizzy of the Rabid Black Cougar Saloon, despised by the townspeople and therefore a sympathetic character in the tradition of Marlene Dietrich clones.

Things look pretty bleak (one cannot in the context say dark) for the righteous, the open, the creative. The Western itself is traditionally an all-white, even Anglo-Saxon genre: note Scipio le Moyne's apologia, “us folks have been white for a hundred years” in The Virginian;10 the narrator's observation in Invisible Man that “there was no one like me taking part in the adventures” of “an epic of wagon trains rolling ever westward” in which he loses himself before dreaming of his grandfather;11 the fact that “Roy Rogers' movie double's name was Whitey Christensen” (p. 31), symbolic and etymological confirmation of the same idea. But the Loop Garoo Kid, like his creator and unlike modernist characters, does not simply inhabit a myth: he appropriates it. As an artist, a conjurer, an actor, he uses the myth not simply to keep things moving, like the doctor in John Barth's The End of the Road, through Mythotherapy, nor, like Eliot's and Joyce's artists, to extinguish himself, but to participate, improvise, liberate through the force of imagination rather than firepower. Scorned by Bo Shmo because “you can't create the difference between a German and a redskin” and faced with the extinction of the Indians, he, or Reed, creates a green horse's nightmare in which Germans with horrible Katzenjammer accents and Hagar the Horrible hats attack Drag's Purple Bar-B ranch, scalp everyone, and are about to behead the green horse when it awakens to discover “the Hoo-Doo cowboy [who] would hagride the night holding the horn of the lone green horse” (p. 68). Almost twenty-five pages later, Drag says confidently that “the idea of another tribe inhabiting these hills has about as much authenticity as a horse's dream” (p. 92), and the matter seems closed. Meanwhile, Loop confronts directly the Marshal and the Preacher, stripping them of badge and crucifix, symbols of usurped and “the baddest coon skinner of them all” (p. 114), to gibbering impotence with his magic white python—like the whip, a not very subtle analogue for his sexual potency.

With minor exceptions (“mass murder, sexual excess, drugs, dancing, music” [p. 162]) this follows the pattern of “the revenge motif” of a thousand Westerns. At this point, however, Reed begins to alter the pattern. Instead of another gunslinger, Drag brings in the Pope, who is more interested in co-opting Loop than in the impossible task of doing him in, so instead of a shoot-out there is a debate in which Loop reveals his method and his goal, to overthrow all “daddies.”

Given Reed's view of the military, one can hardly expect the cavalry to figure favorably in “A Jigsaw of a Last Minute Rescue,” and in fact the government forces are mirror images, considerably updated, of Drag's men. However, Reed makes a liar of Drag and a prophet of the green horse by bringing on the Amazons. They have no motive for appearing or leaving; they simply dispose of “certain biological accidents” and plan a celebration, with drinking, dancing, and “messages to be sent out to other liberated tribes” (p. 175). The townspeople, children, and Chief Showcase and Big Lizzy (on a two-seated bicycle, perhaps in fulfillment of Loop's promise: “if I ever sell this mind sauna to Hollywood I'll give you all of Gene Autry's bicycles” [p. 43]) depart for a paradise which Reed clearly does not value—“the late late late show is about to begin on the boob toob and we can watch eating Pooped Out Soggies” (p. 173)—and Loop is left, without apotheosis, without even an audience.

This goes beyond modernist use of myth, in which the vehicle seems to be in control of or at least inseparable from the tenor, and even beyond Reed's analysis of the end of the novel. Of course, it is a commonplace in discussions of the Western to point out that the hero, in saving society, creates a world in which his virtues are obsolete or irrelevant, and the nostalgia for the wilder West informs many Westerns, not just of the past thirty years but as far back as The Virginian. However, Loop has not helped to impose the rule of law against tyranny or anarchy; he has too little concern for the townspeople to be a populist force; Bo Shmo is essentially correct in calling him an “alienated individualist.”12 To put it another way, Reed approves of the Amazons' view of the Seven Cities, “who cared as long as no one starved and everybody could swing the way he wanted?” (p. 175). And given Reed's distrust of authority, even the authority of his chosen myths, it seems essential that the myth of horse opera not be enforced or even recapitulated in its entirety. Loop can offer no model for the peoples of the West except that of independence from all forms and continuous and spontaneous creation of new ones. At the end of The Waste Land, it is purity of heart, not force of arms, that may prevail, as in the original Grail legend. At the end of Ulysses, the characters are fixed in the fluid roles of eternal father, son, and woman. But in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and in Reed's other novels, the characters cannot fall back on the security of pattern. Nor can the artist—if one sees the Pope as the only one (besides us) who understands or cares what Loop is up to and therefore is his only audience—for, as the end of the novel shows, that audience may well be indifferent, fickle, or corrupt. The joke is on Loop, “the cosmic jester. … always made to appear foolish, the scapegoat of all history” (p. 165), and perhaps, by extension and by a logic he is forced to accept, on Reed.

In denying the shaping and enforcing power of myth, Reed has at least implicitly undermined his authority as author. To some extent, he recognizes this, and he has extended the practice of early moderns (not Modernists) like D. H. Lawrence in opening up the end of the novel.13 Like some of his contemporaries (though Barth seems to be having doubts and Barthelme seems to be as indifferent as Joyce's artist), Reed assumes that “the linear novel is finished. I find it boring now” (Northouse, p. 229). But Lawrence was able to write open-ended novels because he abandoned “the old stable ego” for a dark unconscious which worked on the level of unrecognized but profoundly imperative myth. Reed's characters are not fixed in the Trollopean sense, but they exhibit none of the psychic energy of Lawrence's characters. Furthermore, denied a part in resolving or, with a few exceptions, directing the course of action, they can only continue to do what they are already doing. In Reed's terms, this seems thematically to be quite satisfactory. However, this is hardly a dynamic sort of energy with which to inform novels which are essentially novels of action, however parodied, and Reed seems instead, and increasingly, to depend upon variety of plots and mythologies to animate his novels.

When he has an external form familiar enough to generate its own momentum, like the Western in Radio or the mystery/conspiracy novel in Mumbo Jumbo, that form is adequate not only to contain but to lend thematic point to the other elements that Reed includes. However, when his borrowed form is less popular, stereotypical, or even archetypical, as with the Antigone story in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, slave narrative in Flight to Canada, or the St. Nicholas myth in The Terrible Twos, more exposition is required, parallels obvious in his most successful work must be pointed out, and the speed and wit, very much interdependent, give way to discursive and even polemical units a good deal thicker in several senses that those in Radio. Drag's doing a comic pratfall while engaged in a shoot-out and then being eaten by hogs are pointed, fitting, and funny. Eisenhower, Truman, and Nelson Rockefeller being tormented in a hell of Reed's devising make a point, are intended to be grotesque rather than funny, and may be getting what they deserve. But the last point is arguable, and satire at its best bypasses argument to subvert reason by fantasy. In recent novels by Reed, the myth has been less accessible, the characters less relevant to it (compare the detectives in Mumbo Jumbo, Louisiana Red, and The Terrible Twos), and the desire to convince the audience more insistent.

In his movement towards kinetic art as well as other aspects of his theory, Reed has departed as far from the spirit and method of the Modernists as he can. Whether or not in practice it is possible to use myth at all and not be in some sense bound by and to it, theoretically it is possible, and obviously it is possible to loosen the bonds and play with them, even to do rope tricks like Loop or Reed in Radio. Whether or not the method works, and it is difficult to make any method work in or out of literature, depends upon its embodiment in the individual work. Just as some Charlie Parker solos are better than others, depending in part on the complementary interaction between underlying received structure and the soloist's melodic inventiveness, so Reed can be more or less successful. I believe that he works best where he has a firm structure against which to play his variations, and a structure, like the Western or the mystery, which is part of his lived experience rather than, like the Antigone and St. Nicholas stories, the product of research. In either case, there is no virtue per se in the method Reed has adopted, and he seems to be in danger of repeating method if not mythologies. On the other hand, the method is none the worse for being repeated if it is being refined and perfected. Since Reed will be only forty-five when this essay is published (no great age for a novelist or satirist), he and his audience should have plenty of time to discover whether “a way of thinking that's considered ‘way-out’ or even ‘crazy’” will come to seem commonplace or ho-hum (SONO, p. 134).


  1. “Ishmael Reed—Self Interview,” Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978), p. 133. Further references given in the text with SONO and page number.

  2. Mumbo Jumbo (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972), p. 182.

  3. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969), p. 64. Further references given in the text.

  4. Flight to Canada (New York: Random House, 1976), p. 104.

  5. Interview with Cameron Northouse in Conversations with Writers II, ed. Matthew J. Broccoli (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978), p. 231.

  6. John O'Brien, “Ishmael Reed: An Interview,” fiction international, no. 1 (Fall 1973), 63. Further references given in the text and identified by fi and page number.

  7. John O'Brien, “Ishmael Reed,” in The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, ed. Joe David Bellamy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), p. 131.

  8. Frank McConnell, “Ishmael Reed's Fiction: Da Hoodoo Is Put on America,” in Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel since 1945, ed. A. Robert Lee (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1980), p. 141.

  9. See Roland E. Bush, “Werewolf of the Wild West,” Black World, 23, No. 3 (January 1971), 51-52, 64-66, and Robert W. Jones, “Language and Structure in Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down,Notes on Contemporary Literature, 8, No. 2 (March 1978), 2-3, for good beginning treatments of Reed's language.

  10. Owen Wister, The Virginian (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), p. 158.

  11. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1952), p. 130.

  12. For a good analysis of the changing concept of the outlaw hero in the Western, see Stephen Tatum, Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982).

  13. For a seminal discussion of the open-ended novel, see Alan Friedman, The Turn of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966). For criticism and extension of Friedman's theories, see Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981). Wilde's book was particularly useful in helping me clarify my conceptions of modernist myth.

Joe Weixlmann (essay date summer 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2097

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 is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
                              Shall be lifted—nevermore!

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”2

Schooled, as most of us have been, in the literature of the white West, the mention of a raven is almost certain to evoke Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 poem. And how much more strong that evocation is likely to be when a character named Raven appears in Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), a novel which contains repeated allusions to the famous Virginia Romantic poet and short-story writer. Readers with some anthropological background, however, might prefer to understand Reed's Raven Quickskill in the context of Tlingit mythology, particularly since the Tlingits, a native American tribe situated in the panhandle area of Alaska, are alluded to in the second chapter of Flight to Canada. In fact, Reed's remark, reprinted in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, that “Raven Quickskill … was based more or less on a Tlingit legend—a raven myth,”3 would seem to make this latter association the more clearly appropriate. The subject, however, is sufficiently complex to merit—and reward—more detailed consideration.

“The mythology of the Tlingit,” observes Aurel Krause, “revolves around the adventures and deeds of Raven, about whom a large number of tales are told. … The fundamental concept is, ‘As Raven lived and acted, so must we behave.’”4 The Tlingits' Raven is, on the one hand, a creator: the source of the stars, sun, and moon; the originator of the earth's waterways; the one who, like Prometheus in Western lore, brought man fire; and, less happily, the one who originated sickness in mankind. But the characteristics which make Raven revered by the Tlingits are his trickiness and his penchant for producing coarse humor.5

Raven's values, particularly his sensuality, and the Tlingits', while they conflict rather obviously with those of the white West, are strongly akin to the African values Reed describes in his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. Writing of his favorite Egyptian deity, Osiris, Reed observes that “he became known as ‘the man who did dances that caught-on,’ infected other people. … The people would plant during the day and at night would celebrate dancing singing shaking sistrums and carrying on. … Osiris was called the Bull by the Egyptians who loved him and greeted him as he toured Egypt with his musicians and their sets of decoration having to do with procreation.”6 Reed, in “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” extends the myth into twentieth-century America: “Neo-HooDoo [Reed's idiosyncratic version of “real” Black power] is the music of James Brown without the lyrics and ads for Black Capitalism. … Neo-HooDoo is sexual, sensual and digs the old ‘heathen’ good good loving.”7

The behavior of Raven Quickskill, the fugitive slave/protagonist of Flight to Canada, accords closely with that of the trickster/hero of Tlingit myth. Like the mythological character, Quickskill is a creator, a poet who, with godlike swagger, announces that “‘words built the world and words can destroy the world,’”8 and he is guileful. “‘Quickskill, the difference between you and me,’” quips Stray Leechfield, a fellow escapee from the Swille plantation in Virginia, “‘is that you sneak, while I don't. You were the first to hat, but you did it a sneaky way’” (74).

Indeed the two qualities, creation and guile, would seem to be tightly associated in Reed's mind: “Raven was the first one of Swille's slaves to read, the first to write and the first to write and the first to run away” (14). It is the honorarium paid to Raven for his combination of words and wit, the poem which gives the novel its name, that earns Quickskill his fare out of the United States: “‘Flight to Canada’ was responsible for getting him to Canada. And so for him, freedom was his writing. His writing was his HooDoo … his typewriter was his drum he danced to” (88-89). Relatedly, the seemingly faithful Uncle Robin, who remains on the Swille plantation to “serve” his master, uses deceit and his ability with words to “‘dabble’” with Swille's will (170) and thus, by the novel's end, inherit his former master's estate. “They get down on me an [Uncle] Tom,” muses Robin. “But who's the fool? Nat Turner or us? Nat said he was going to do this. Was going to do that. … Now Nat's dead and gone for these many years, and here I am master of a dead man's house” (178).

Raven and Robin—the names have not been selected arbitrarily. Near the middle of the novel Reed observes that “there was much avian imagery in the poetry of slaves. Poetry about dreams and flight. They wanted to cross that Black Rock Ferry [from Buffalo's East Side] to freedom [across the Niagara River] even though they had different notions as to what freedom was” (88). Raven first seeks freedom in a place, Canada, only to discover that freedom is, as Robin observes, “a state of mind” (178). Robin, who “couldn't do for no [literal] Canada” (178), but for a time uses the Swille estate as a surrogate, at the very last also develops a sense of freedom which transcends the physical plane: “I don't want to be rich.I'm going to take this fifty rooms of junk and make something useful out of it” (179). Raven and Robin celebrate life, healthful love, and the development of full human potential.

Conversely, and here is the point at which a consideration of Poe and his Raven takes on particular importance, the Southern slavemaster class, epitomized by Arthur Swille, seems to prefer death, warped romance, and self-abasement. “Raised by mammies,” Reed writes, “the South is dandyish, foppish, pimpish; its writers are Scott, Poe, Wilde, Tennyson. … [Jefferson] Davis, who was accused by The Charleston Mercury of treating Southerners like ‘white Negroes,’ misread his people. It wasn't the idea of winning that appealed to them. It was the idea of being ravished” (141-42).

Borrowing freely from Poe's “Annabel Lee,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Ligeia,” Reed depicts Swille's rejection of his wife, who is neither pallid nor emaciated—nor dead!—enough for her husband, and his necrophilic longing for his deceased sister Vivian. About halfway through the novel, a young slave happens upon Swille in Vivian's crypt, lying “‘on top of his sister … crying and sobbing, and … sweating and … making so much noise that he didn't even notice the child … and the child say he saw Vivian's decomposed hand clinging to his neck’” (60). Later, Swille's thoughts focus on “Vivian, my disconsolate damsel … my fair pale sister. Your virgin knees and golden hair in your sepulcher by the sea. Let me creep into your mausoleum, baby. My insatiable Vivian by the sea …” (109). And the planter's will expresses his “‘wish to be buried in my sister's sepulcher by the sea, joined [with Vivian] in the Kama Sutra position … in eternal and sweet Death’” (168-69). The dual-identity theme of “Ligeia” (the spirit of Ligeia infusing the corpse of Rowena) and the sister-brother death embrace of “The Fall of the House of Usher” also come into focus in the novel's climactic scene, in which a la Poe's tales, Ms. Swille/Vivian's “Etheric Double” (the latter, in Ms. Swille's rendering of the story of her husband's death) “grabs her brother and then is all atop him. He falls against the fireplace. … Fire is hungry. Fire eats” (136).

Reed is, moreover, careful not to overlook Poe's attachment, as expressed in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” for example, to instruments of torture. The novelist depicts Swille as a dedicated sadist, one of whose fondest possessions is his whip collection. As the specter of the Swilles' dead son Mitchell tells his mother, “‘Your husband, my father, is one macabre fiend. No wonder he has Poe down here all the time’” (126). So attuned was Poe to the ethos of the Southern planter class, Reed feels, that, fully aware of the anachronism, he asks, “Why isn't Edgar Allan Poe recognized as the principal biographer of that strange war [i.e., the Civil War]? … Poe says more in a few stories than all of the volumes by historians” (10).

“The Raven” is consistent with Poe's other writings in its emphasis on deathly attachment (“the lost Lenore”) and torment (“my soul from out that [Raven's] shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!”). And though Reed never adverts directly to the poem, its shadow hovers over Swille throughout Flight to Canada. Referring specifically to “The Raven,” but alluding by extension to many of his works (among them “Annabel Lee” and “Ligeia”), Poe, in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” remarks that “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”9 Reed perceives this stance to be utterly degenerate. Poe, in discussing “The Raven” in “The Philosophy of Composition,” uses the term self-torture in combination with the verb delight and, later, the word thirst; the protagonist of the poem, Poe observes, in questioning the Raven, pursues “the luxury of sorrow.”10 Reed can view such celebration of “self-torture” in only one way—as profoundly sick, flagellant.

Poe's Raven, then, is precisely what the Tlingits' (and Reed's) is not. And Reed, it seems certain, wishes the reader to capture the dual connotation of his protagonist's name: The novel would have us reject the decadent weltanschauung of Poe's South in favor of the wholesome, liberating, multiethnic vision of Raven and Robin. To grasp only one import of Raven's name is to misunderstand the dynamic by which Flight to Canada operates.


  1. Iwan Weniaminow, Bemerkungen über die Inseln des Unalaschka-Distrikts (St. Petersburg, 1840), 3:55, quoted in Aurel Krause, Die Tlingit-Indianer (Jena, 1885), trans. by Erna Gunther as The Tlingit Indians: Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1956), 179.

  2. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1969): 369.

  3. Ishmael Reed, “The Great Tenure Battle of 1977,” The Daily Californian, 28 January 1977, reprinted in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 228-29. Allusions to the Raven of Tlingit mythology also punctuate the title essay of Reed's God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982), 1-34, and Raven figures prominently in Reed's 1977 poem “Rough Trade Slumlord Totem,” reprinted in A Secretary to the Spirits (New York: NOK Publishers, 1978), 33-34.

  4. “Myths of the Tlingit,” in The Tlingit Indians, 174.

  5. This point is made by Krause (175), who relates a number of Raven tales. A similar group of tales may be found in John R. Swanton, Myths and Texts of the Tlingit, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 39 (Washington, D.C., 1909).

  6. Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 162-63.

  7. Ishmael Reed, “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972), 20-21. The correlation between Osiris and James Brown is made explicit in the poem “why i often allude to osiris,” in which the Egyptian deity is described as “prefiguring JB” (Conjure, 43).

  8. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (New York: Random House, 1976), 81. Future citations from the novel will refer to this edition and will occur parenthetically in the text.

  9. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. Hershel Parker et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 1:1324. Irrelevant to Reed is the fact that “The Philosophy of Composition” is, in T. O. Mabbott's words, “a partly fictional account of the planning of ‘The Raven’” (Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1:353). For, to Reed, the creative writer's reality is at least as trustworthy as the historian's: “Fiction, you say? Where does fact begin and fiction leave off?” (Flight to Canada, 10). Moreover, as Mabbott adds, Poe's essay is not a sham; rather, it dramatizes the “serious” descriptions of Poe's intentions (Collected Works, 1:359).

  10. Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” 1324, 1328.

Peter Nazareth (essay date summer 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12417

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. Not one Wolf, however; he sidesteps the bones and the mess. He decides to run off in an oblique direction and head the stagecoach off at the pass.

Just watch the Loop Garoo Kid in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed's second novel, a Western.1 Loop Garoo is a black cowboy, like the famous Lash Larue of the fifties wearing black and using whips. First appearing as Loup Garou in Reed's quintessential poem, “I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra,” he means “wolf.” Chapter 20 of Reed's Flight to Canada is prefaced by a poem by Raven Quickskill which ends, “Just like a coyote cassetting amorous / Howls / in Sugar Blues / I airmail them to you / In packages of Hopi Dolls / Ah ouoooooo! Ah ouoooooo!”2 The coyote is a small prairie wolf, the poem ends as a blues, and the howl comes from Howlin' Wolf, the famous bluesman. We were prepared for this wolf howl because we have heard the low moan of a solitary wolf at critical points throughout the novel. The son of Ed Yellings who is taking care of business in The Last Days of Louisiana Red is named Wolf.3 When the President gets to the Presidents' hell in The Terrible Twos, “an animal in a white smock” dashes by which appears to be “a wolf or coyote.”4

Reed knows the heterogeneity of experiences of modern people, so he provides them with different entry points into the chase. The novel that gives me the best entry into Reed's path is Flight to Canada. In this novel, three slaves have escaped Arthur Swille, the slave owner who is simultaneously a multinational, and are trying to get to Canada. Canada represents the Promised Land. The chief character is Raven Quickskill, who wants to get to the literal Canada. Although Raven entered Reed's fiction through the Southwest coyote stories, the movement to Canada is taken from black history: slaves did escape to Canada.5 But when Raven finally gets to Niagara, Canada, he meets a beaten-up Carpenter returning from Toronto who tells him that Canada belongs to the Americans, the Swilles; they just let the Canadians run it. Raven is deeply disillusioned and decides to return to the United States. When I was in East Africa, Goans, my race, were always planning to fly to Canada. In 1975, my wife and I bumped into a Goan couple in Montreal who had left Uganda in 1970. The man said that he was thinking of moving to Toronto. He hadn't found his Canada in Montreal and was thinking of looking for it in Toronto. The following year, we met a Goan friend at a dance in Toronto. A travel agent, he had been trying to get to Canada since the late sixties and had only succeeded because of Amin's expulsion of Asians in 1972. He told us that we looked good, thanks to living in the United States. He had lived in Toronto for four years and wished he could move to the United States too. I met a Goan journalist in Toronto last July who had emigrated there from India and had been without a job since his arrival eight months earlier. Last I heard, he had returned to India. When I chaired the first panel on Goan literature at the annual conference on South Asia at Madison, Wisconsin, on 7 November 1982, Dr. John Hobgood presented a paper on the writings of Francisco Luis Gomes, a multitalented Goan intellectual of the nineteenth century, from which I learned, to my astonishment, that Goans had been looking to Canada as the Promised Land a hundred years ago. Time for me was collapsed: past and present became the same. Yet I had not understood the Goan obsession with Canada until I read Flight to Canada: it is the flight from a long colonial oppression, the ravenous hunger for freedom, which is in the blood. If Goans could have read Flight to Canada, moving the desire for escape to the mind, their options would have been different. Reed says in his foreword to Conjure, “If America had listened to me then, her son, her prophet, much of the agony of the following years could have been avoided.” I would modify this statement by adding “and Goans” to “America.”6

Getting to Canada is not simple. To make us see multifaceted reality, Reed operates on multiple artistic levels. Flight to Canada begins with a poem entitled “Flight to Canada,” written by Raven Quickskill to his erstwhile master, Arthur Swille. Within the poem, the poet says, “That was rat poison I left / In your Old Crow.” The crow is a sort of “Jim Crow” raven, which brings to mind “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, which brings to mind his most famous work, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which brings to mind an implied incestuous relationship in a Southern mansion, which is the underpinning of the novel that follows Raven's poem. The poem makes us laugh, and through laughter Raven both ridicules the enemy and makes us think.

If we do research, we discover that escaped slaves frequently sent taunting letters to the master. This fulfilled a psychic hunger for justice. Turn the page, and we realize that the poem is just that: a work of art. It is not reality. We should not be surprised, for the blurb to the first edition of The Free-Lance Pallbearers says, “This electrifying first novel zooms American readers off to a land they have never heard of, though it may strike them as vaguely, and disturbingly, familiar. It's a crazy, ominous kingdom called HARRY SAM, a never-never place so weirdly out-of-whack that only reality could be stranger.”7 Reed frequently gives us reading clues in his blurbs, indicating to us that his fiction is stylized. Art has a complex relation to reality, for it is not only mirror but also dynamo. The poem “Flight to Canada” has set forces into motion, creating a new reality for Raven. Chapter I begins, in italics, “Little did I know when I wrote the poem ‘Flight to Canada’ that there were so many secrets locked inside its world. It was more of a reading than a writing” (7). Raven the artist creates a work of art which then changes his life, getting him an invitation to the White House and then north to Canada. Note the parallel with Reed: Reed the artist created a novel, Flight to Canada, which got him invited to Alaska by the Raven's Bones Foundation of the Tlingits. “I cannot express the uncanny feeling that came over me as I read Raven Quickskill's monologue, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and narrative in Flight to Canada's first chapter while a movie screen Raven … stared down at me,” he says.8 Art is not a photograph of reality. When the two Nebraska tracers, earning their way through college by tracking down runaway slaves, catch up with Raven, one of them asks whether the poem is autobiographical. “‘I'm afraid it isn't,’” replies Raven. “‘See, I told you,’” the questioner tells the other. “‘They have poetic abilities, just like us. They're not literal-minded, as Mr. Jefferson said’” (63). This is the racism that grows out of thinking of black people as property, as things, lacking creative imagination. The two tracers say they have read his poetry in The Anthology of Ten Slaves, which is in the anthropology section of the library. Reed is dealing with the widespread idea that art is only created by white people. Under the heading “Black Literature in America,” The Reader's Companion to World Literature, the revised and updated 1973 edition, says:

The psychological and moral dehumanization of slavery, its brutality and corruption, have found a counterpart in and infected a black revolutionary literature where the “black aesthetic” becomes a violent rage against all things Western and white. … Much black literature is flawed by polemics, specious ideological arguments, and stereotyped situations and characters. But black writers have produced work of great passion and considerable art.9

Except for the ambiguous last line, this entry states that black writing is only reaction, not creation. Before they can get away with it, since they are part of the problem, they are put into a work of art by Reed and undermined. Anthropology section? Turn the tables. In the novel, the anthropologist is sent by his multinational father to the Congo to really find out about natural resources, which he will then grab. Missionaries have become too obvious, so there must be a new cover. But the Congolese are hip. They grab the anthropologist and feed him to the crocodiles. He comes back to haunt his parents.

This is an old function of art: art as magic. The good artist becomes a medium. Chapter 1 of the novel is a prologue whose action was sparked off by the poem which prefaces the prologue. Raven is speculating on art: Who is to say what is fact and what is fiction? An important question for a colonized person, whose history has been stolen, denied, or distorted. It is the artistic imagination that has to recover “his story.” Raven speculates on Harriet Beecher Stowe. She took the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin from Josiah Henson, who made no money; his settlement named “Dawn” went bankrupt while agents and a promoter producing a musical version of the novel got fabulously rich. “Is there no sympathy in Nature?” Raven wonders (9). Perhaps there is, since Byron came out of the grave to get Harriet Beecher Stowe for spreading stories of him committing incest with his half-sister Augusta. Raven thinks that she was herself attracted to Byron, as revealed by her words. This prepares us not only for the necrophiliac incest of Swille with his sister but also for his sister's ghost, phantom, or double coming to get revenge against him. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave was short, “but it was his. It was all he had. His story. A man's story is his gris-gris, you know. Taking his story is like taking his gris-gris. The thing that is himself. It's like robbing a man of his Etheric Double. People pine away” (8). Harriet Beecher Stowe stole the story of Henson, so if there is no sympathy in nature, there must be sympathy in art: Reed seeks artistic redress on behalf of Henson by putting her into an updated story of Uncle Tom, exposing her, and preventing her from doing it all over again. Reed demythifies history: she wrote the story of Uncle Tom, not because she wanted to undermine slave ownership or the aristocracy, but because she wanted to buy a dress. Uncle Robin is careful with his story: he commissions Raven to tell the story: “Quickskill would write Uncle Robin's story in such a way that, using a process the old curers used, to lay hands on the story would be lethal to the thief. That way his Uncle Robin would have the protection that Uncle Tom (Josiah Henson) didn't. (Or did he merely use another technique to avenge his story? Breathing life into Byron.)” (11). St. Augustine states that, since all time is eternally present, it is possible to change the past. He thought this could be done through prayer. Reed does it through art. Max Kasavubu is an expert on Wright's Native Son. He begins dreaming that he is Mary about to be raped by Bigger. Then he dreams he is Bigger about to kill Mary and he does kill “Mary,” his fellow-conspirator in Louisiana Red, Nanny Lisa. Mess around with the work and the work will get you.

But art is a two-edged sword. When Edward Said visited the University of Iowa in early 1982, he said he was very angry with a review of his book Orientalism by a friend in an Arab paper. This friend said that in writing this book, Said was serving the purposes of the CIA; whereas before the book, the CIA exploited the Arabs inefficiently, after it, they had the means to exploit the Arabs efficiently. Said said that he had stopped talking to this friend. Firstly, there was the likelihood that careless readers would conclude that he was a CIA agent; but secondly, he was really bothered that what the friend said was right. I pointed out to him that his dilemma had already been presented by Reed in Raven's story. “‘Flight to Canada’ was the problem,” Raven thinks. “It made him famous but had also tracked him down. It had pointed to where he, 40s and Stray Leechfield were hiding. It was their bloodhound, this poem ‘Flight to Canada.’ It had tracked him down just as his name had” (13). In a dream/vision while ill in the White House, Raven becomes an “it,” property, and hears Swille closing in: “The poem had also pointed to where it, 40s, Stray Leechfield were hiding. Did that make the poem a squealer? A tattler? What else did this poem have in mind for it. Its creation, but in a sense, Swille's bloodhound” (85). The chapter ends, “But it was his writing that got him to Canada. ‘Flight to Canada’ was responsible for getting him to Canada. And so for him, freedom was his writing. His writing was his HooDoo. Others had their way of HooDoo, but his was his writing. It fascinated him, it possessed him; his typewriter was his drum he danced to” (88-89). Raven would not be able to achieve his freedom without taking the risk of being tracked down.

Raven's speculations before the story gets going become an important guide to the novel as art. They give us the questions by which the artist is to fly, just as a jazz musician starts with a theme and then soars. (The title of one of Grover Washington, Jr.,'s LPs is “Reed Seed.”10) When we get to what we might consider preposterous, we must remember this is stylized—it is not naturalism. It is absurd to read Reed naturalistically, as Sondra A. O'Neale has done in a review of Flight to Canada. She says, “And after all the painful realism of the effective time collage, the reader is left with an ending that is inappropos for Reed's sardonic humor. Master Swilles cannot be programmed into leaving all their money to faithful Uncle Toms. All will not end happily ever-after—not in 1868 or 1978. The black man's dilemma is insanely funny—enough to make one die laughing.”11 But within the work of art, it is entirely plausible that the “faithful” Uncle Robin ends up owning Swille's estate. Swille gets to depend on Robin after Raven escapes because he suffers from dyslexia. The significance of the dependency relationship is recognized by Bessie Head's chief-to-be Maru when he sees a painting by Margaret Cadmore, Jr., of the Masarwa, the slaves of the society: “You see, it is I and my tribe who possess the true vitality of this country. You lost it when you sat down and let us clean your floors and rear your children and cattle.”12 Uncle Robin is a player: he is playing at faithfulness, waiting for the right time. Trusting his faithfulness, Swille gets him to write out his will (“Massa's will”). Robin consulted his own gods, who told him that he did not have to obey the gods and the laws of people who did not respect him as a human being. He doctored the will, and when the will is read, he is named as the heir. The judge has doubts and says, “According to science, Robin, the Negro doesn't … well, your brain—it's about the size of a mouse's. This is a vast undertaking. Are you sure you can handle it? Juggling figures. Filling out forms’” (167). Robin, who actually has been doing all this for Swille, knows what the white man's “science” is:

“I've watched Massa Swille all these many years, your Honor. Watching such a great genius—a one-in-a-million genius like Massa Swille—is like going to Harvard and Yale at the same time and Princeton on weekends. My brains has grown, Judge. My brains has grown watching Massa Swille all these years.”

Then turning to Swille's relatives, Robin stood, tearfully. “I'm going to run it just like my Massa run it,” he said, clasping his hands and gazing toward the ceiling. “If the Good Lord would let me live without my Massa—Oh, what I going to do without him? But if the Lord 'low me to continue—”


We know this is burlesque, but the Ph.D.'d Cato mutters, “‘Allow, allow,’” putting his hand to his forehead “and slowly bringing it down over his face in embarrassment.” In a few lines, Reed is exposing the brainwashing of Western education accepted uncritically. Cato may be Swille's bastard son biologically, but he certainly is psychologically.13 Uncle Robin's behavior is the diametric opposite. “Uncle Tom” became a term of abuse in the radical sixties but Reed is showing that Uncle Tom techniques played an essential role in the survival of black Americans, techniques that are still required. By remaining in the shadows and “tomming” when necessary, Raven lives up to his name and flies to freedom. Robin, too, could have fled, for he often flew on business for Swille. But he knows what Raven discovers: that the Master owns it all, he owns Canada. And Raven too has to tom when he is in a jam. When the two Nebraska tracers come to his door to reclaim him, he greets them calmly, even obsequiously, putting them off their guard. Noting that one of them has a cold, he says he is going to get some vitamin C tablets from the bathroom and then he leaps out the bathroom window and makes his escape. Robin is not actually a faithful slave: he is a player, and so he recognizes that Lincoln is a player too, for the President is weaker than the multinational capitalist. Robin has never given the game away so that he could be bugged, like Moe, the white house slave. Reed the artist is playing a game too. In his deliberate exaggeration, a burlesque as in vaudeville, we know Robin is tomming. Nathaniel Mackey explains this aesthetic technique as displaying “the most indispensable ingredient of street-corner repartee, the ability to make one's opponent look silly through the creation of absurd scenarios and the use of outrageous images.”14

One has to read the work, as Raven tells us, not impose on it. It is simply not true that, as Ms. O'Neale says, “We get the distinct impression that Uncle Robin and his wife, Aunt Judy, have no intention of ‘freeing the people.’ Instead they simply fill the master's shoes. Life will continue as usual with the high-yellow nouveau riche in charge. It appears that the ‘plantation niggers’ are no nearer to owning themselves than they were when Swille was alive.”15 In fact, Uncle Robin frees Stray Leech-field, who is captured by the Nebraska tracers and brought back. Leechfield was not able to buy his freedom with the money he made from his pornographic photos taken by Mel Leer: as Raven warned him, Swille did not want money, he wanted his property. But Leechfield, blinded by his dislike of house slaves, does not see that he owes his freedom to Robin. One needs more than one wing to fly. Robin also gives Raven the freedom to work his art without fear of pursuit. As for the estate, Robin is trying to figure out what to do with it because it is too large for him. He needs to think. He has not given up his role in the shadows: after all, there are other forces around. He says at the end, “The rich get off with anything. … I don't want to be rich. Aunt Judy is right. I'm going to take his fifty rooms of junk and make something useful out of it” (179).

Under colonial rule, the colonized were denied any knowledge of their history. “A sense of history was totally absent in me,” says Bessie Head, “and it was as if, far back in history, thieves had stolen the land and were so anxious to cover all traces of the theft that correspondingly, all traces of the true history had been obliterated.”16 Insofar as there is history, it is imposed; for example, the Horatio Alger myth that you can make it within the system by hard work. Reed checks out this idea in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Bukka Doopeyduk has the ambition of becoming the first bacteriological warfare expert, works hard, goes backward, moves to the bottom in more ways than one, is to receive a golden bedpan for his faithfulness, but even that is denied him as he receives a boot on the bottom. You know what the novel is saying about the myth: one man's myth is another man's nightmare.

So you want your own history, huh? Here it is. You can have your history. That is all you can have: gnaw on it. “‘Get back to your language,’ they say,” says Adil Jussawalla in Missing Person.17 Reed ridicules this kind of obsession with one's own history in an exchange between Raven and Mel Leer, an immigrant Russian Jew:

“Nobody has suffered as much as my people,” says Quickskill calmly.

The Immigrant, Mel Leer, rises. “Don't tell me that lie.”

The whole café turns to the scene.

“Our people have suffered the most.”

“My people!”

“My people!”

“My people!”

“My people!”

“We suffered under the hateful Czar Nicholas!”

“We suffered under Swille and Legree, the most notorious Masters in the annals of slavery!”


Blowing up the balloon, Reed lets it burst. He shows that the oppression of people, which has actually happened, can be turned into what Derek Walcott calls a career.18 This is the accusation by the actress playing Desdemona to the actor playing Othello in Murray Carlin's play Not Now, Sweet Desdemona: “We have suffered,” she jeers. “We know what suffering is. We are all refugees, so will you pay my hotel bill. … Othello the Moor—and what is he? Another bloody self-pitying, posturing, speechifying Chairman of the Afro-Asian Delegation!”19 This is the danger of exploiting your people's exploitation. Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara enjoys the fame that comes from performing ethnic dances on college campuses. Her name suggests squaw, a raven's cry, and flightiness (“tralaralara”).

Quaw Quaw is therefore hypocritical when she accuses Raven of being too obsessed by race—this is his reality. When it comes to the crunch, when she is mistaken for Japanese by a racist United States immigration official, she gets mad. But real racism can make the recipient so touchy that he reacts to racism where it does not exist. Pirate Jack, a sophisticated, exploiting middleman who controls the market and mass taste behind the scenes, is helping Raven get to Canada on his private boat to elude Swille's men. There is the following exchange:

“You think that's manly. Huh? You think that's manly. One day I outwitted thirteen bloodhounds.”


“I did. Thirteen bloodhounds. They had me up a tree.”

“That can't be. I've studied the history of bloodhounds since the age of William the Conqueror, and that's just a niggardly lie.”

“What did you say?”

“I said it's just a niggardly lie.”

“Why, you—” Quickskill rushes around the desk and nabs the pirate, lifting him up.


The reader knows what Raven thinks of the word “niggardly.” But Webster's New World Dictionary shows that the word comes from “niggard,” which probably comes from the Middle English “negarde,” which means “stingy” or “miserly.” Treating the subject on a comic level, Reed is showing that colonialism has programmed the colonized person to destroy himself if he is not cunning and self-knowledgeable. Pirate Jack was helping Quickskill elude Swille's men and get to Canada—his touchiness is jeopardizing this plan. Quaw Quaw jumps overboard to stop the fighting, and Raven nearly loses her.

Part of the reason for the two dangers is that the bitterness black people feel over their exploitation can seldom attach itself to the force that is actually responsible for the exploitation. It is difficult for people in the belly of the whale to realize what is going on in the whale and where the whale is going. “Day after day I'm more confused,” sings Dobie Gray in “Drift Away.”20 People keep fighting among themselves, destroying one another while the real exploiters remain out of reach, out of sight. Reed, drawing on Afro-American tradition, gives these invisible forces concrete names. First, Louisiana Red, which is a hot sauce manufactured by a corporation:

Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another, carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like a Merv Griffin Show set.


By refusing to use commas, Reed makes us read this description in an out-of-breath way, thus making us feel the gross accumulation of luxury. The reference to the set of the Merv Griffin Show both undermines the whole description through bathos and makes us understand the thing described in an instant because we all watch television. Reed goes on to identity a category of people who are manipulable by Louisiana Red, finding a clue in Cab Calloway's hit song of the thirties, “Minnie the Moocher”:21

Moochers are people who, when they are to blame, say it's the other fellow's fault for bringing it up. Moochers don't return stuff they borrow. Moochers ask you to share when they have nothing to share. Moochers kill their enemies like the South American insect which kills its foe by squirting it with its own blood. God, do they suffer. “Look at all of the suffering I'm going through because of you.” Moochers talk and don't do. You should hear them just the same. Moochers tell other people what to do. Men Moochers blame everything on women. Women Moochers blame everything on men. Old Moochers say it's the young's fault; young Moochers say the old messed up the world they have to live in. Moochers play sick a lot. Moochers think it's real hip not to be able to read and write. Like Joan of Arc the arch-witch, they boast of not knowing A from B.

Moochers stay in the bathtub a long time. Though Moochers wrap themselves in the full T-shirt of ideology, their only ideology is Mooching. …

The highest order of this species of Moocher is the President, who uses the taxpayers' money to build homes all over the world where he can be alone to contemplate his place in history when history don't even want him. Moochers are a special order of parasite, not even a beneficial parasite but one that takes—takes energy, takes supplies.


The portrait of Minnie the Moocher is a hard one, particularly if we see her in terms of Angela Davis.22 Reed is frequently accused of misogyny. Sondra A. O'Neale says, “For the black woman Reed intends no sympathy,” continuing, “If Reed purposes to free the black man with his writing, let us hope that he will magnanimously enlarge his vision to free all the race—even his likewise-enslaved-to-unfair-stereotypes black sister.” Reed could be better understood if one looks at other black male novelists he is connected with. Al Young's Sitting Pretty and William Demby's Love Story Black are novels narrated by black males.23 Reed once said that the runaway black man should be given equal time to present his side of the story instead of just being blamed for deserting the family and leaving the burdens entirely on the woman. This is precisely what Young does: grant his protagonist equal time. Not that Sitting Pretty is without fault: in his late fifties, he can recognize some of the areas in which he has been deficient, particularly towards his wife and children; but when younger, he had wanted freedom. The point is that he is a man, he has a voice and a point of view, he has a philosophy such that a black philosophy professor needs him to maintain his sense of identity, and he is a great hit on radio and TV. In Demby's novel, the protagonist is a black professor. He does not realize that he has been psychically castrated by the system, just as the black male was physically castrated in the past by certain forces. He goes to interview Mona Pariss, an old entertainer, to earn enough money from a black success magazine to pay off his credit cards. But she turns the tables. It turns out that the deeper level of her entertainment is that of high priestess. She has been waiting to restore the manhood of the black man. Mona Pariss is like Okot p'Bitek's Lawino in wanting to cure her man whose testicles have been smashed by large books.24 The TV sitcom Different Strokes has as its underpinning the idea that two young black boys cannot have an irresponsible black father, and so they must be brought up by a great white father. The denial of manhood can take different forms.

Why is Minnie always talking of shedding blood, Papa LaBas asks her. Enough black people have been destroyed by colonial forces without their destroying one another in the name of some mythic freedom. Minnie is bringing disaster down on her family without realizing what she is doing. She springs Andy and Kingfish from jail and hijacks a plane for them on the assumption that every black man in jail is a political prisoner. In fact, both men were jailed for burglarizing Amos's house, and they proceed to rob the passengers on the plane. Chorus is on the plane and shoots Minnie, whom he sees as Antigone. Minnie's case reminds me of what happened to a friend of mine, a game warden in Kenya. He told me that the huge lump I saw on his head was the result of going on patrol with his dog. The dog disappeared into the forest, upset a herd of elephants, and then ran back to my friend, with the herd of elephants in pursuit. My friend turned to flee and tripped on his gun, which struck his forehead. He barely got away. Imagine the elephants programming the dog to lead them to the man. Papa LaBas discovers from Minnie's unconvincing language, which he realizes is secondhand, that she is being manipulated by her feminist nanny, who is teaching her man-hating stories, and her Marxist teacher, both of whom are agents of Louisiana Red. The nanny is not actually a black woman but a white woman acting as a black woman. This is the black-imitating-white-imitating-black tradition of this country but it is also out of the movie cartoon tradition, where a person can change form.

Before condemning Reed for misogyny, we have to look closely at the specific character and see how that character functions within the work. I was startled when seeing Gone with the Wind on TV a few years ago to notice that the Mammy was exactly like Mammy Barracuda in Flight to Canada (as well as being a female Idi Amin). Like Professor in Wole Soyinka's The Road,25 Reed finds clues to make his psychic arrests all over the place: literature, comics, newspapers, movies, TV, radio, music. Nance Saturday, the maverick criminologist in The Terrible Twos, “approached a problem as a romantic would. He would read material. He would study all the trivia connected with the case and all the facts he could sew together and usually the solution would come” (119-20). This is the oral person's respect for the power of the word. Why was the Mammy figure so outspoken and so powerful in this popular precursor to the TV soap opera? There must be a meaning there, and Reed finds it in the hidden relationship between Mammy Barracuda and the owner of the estate. Swille did have a special relationship with his Mammy, given his incestuous nature. Mammy terrorizes the underlings, including Swille's pale wife. We cannot make the mistake that she is in charge of the plantation/multinational corporation: she is not. But she has power within the household because of her relationship to Swille, whom she brought up, and she is as dangerous as the factors Ayi Kwei Armah identifies in his novels: the Africans who were middlemen in the slave trade, who handed the slaves over to the white men.26 No wonder Mammy lights up when she inherits Swille's whips and fettering devices. She is not playing a game to win her freedom, unlike Pompey and Bangalang who react “stupidly” when Swille is on fire and let him burn. Notice the looping relationship to the movie: Reed finds a clue in the Mammy of the movie, reinterprets her in his novel of Southern aristocracy caught up in the Civil War, and then makes us see Mammy differently when we see the movie again. We know that Reed was conscious of this movie because the white woman acting as Minnie's nanny says, “I have to shuffle about like Hattie McDaniel,” who played Mammy in the movie. The Southern belle was played by Vivian Leigh, Swille's sister's name.

Reed creates what he wants out of what exists. Underneath Minnie the Moocher, you find an Angela-Davis-type figure from the seventies, Minnie the Moocher from a pop song of the thirties, Joan of Arc from the fifteenth century, and Antigone from over four centuries B.C. Reed has unearthed another version of the Antigone myth, hinted at by Creon in Sophocles' play, in which Antigone is actually a man-hater in love with death. In Reed's value system, as Marian Musgrave points out, those to be admired are people who take care of business.27 Creon got on with the job of keeping the state going. If Antigone wanted to do things for her brothers, why didn't she stop the two from fighting? This is what Chorus asks, and one of his functions in the novel is to present that alternate version of Antigone as a pattern that continues through time. Chorus also draws attention to Reed's use of the particular myth underlying the novel so that we will not make the mistake of thinking that Reed's improvisation is without structure.28 The simultaneous myths and histories in Reed, like the market studies by corporations which superimpose various polyethylene patterns onto one basic design, have the effect of retrieving relevant history and myth all at once. No pedestrian chasing after historical facts in a scholarly way, one element at a time; that way, we will never catch up with the coach. Reed deals with simultaneous myths because he expects us to have the quick skill to connect things on the run.

Since men are deliberately prevented by colonialism from achieving their manhood, the women frequently have to take on more than one role. Colonialism puts a heavy burden on women by making it possible for them to do things in areas where it blocks the men. When Canada took in Asians from Uganda expelled by Amin in 1972 (some of whom were Ugandans whose citizenship had been taken away), the women found it easy to get jobs while the men had to go through several humiliating rejections, frequently being told that they were overqualified or lacked Canadian experience. The effect was to totally demoralize several of the men, particularly those qualified for high jobs; they were as unprepared as Carpenter and Raven for the existence of racism in Canada against “West Indians” (all people originating from Africa) and “Pakistanis” (all people originating from the Indian subcontinent) (160). Very few of the Goan women in Canada, if any, realized, while they were keeping the family together, that the men were unemployed because of colonial forces rather than their own innate uselessness. There was no alternate way of judging the system and themselves. “It hurt to see us folding in on ourselves,” says Angela Davis, “using ourselves as whipping posts because we did not yet know how to struggle against the real cause of our misery.”29 Raven bitterly ponders such lack of understanding in the bar in Emancipation City: “Slaves judged other slaves like the auctioneer and his clients judged them. Was there no end to slavery? Was a slave condemned to serve another Master as soon as he got rid of one? Were overseers to be replaced by new overseers? Was this some game, some fickle punishment for sins committed in former lives? Slavery on top of slavery?” (144). Papa LaBas, really Legba, the Yoruba god of communications and the medium between the material and spiritual world, explains to Wolf why there are such divisions in his family: “‘The experience of slavery. I'm afraid it's going to be a long time before we get over that nightmare which left such scars in our souls—scars that no amount of bandaids or sutures, no amount of stitches will heal. It will take an extraordinary healer to patch up this wound’” (100). But there are healers at work in Reed's fiction. Aunt Judy is one of them. She is aware of the slave-master's hegemony. Although she had disagreed with Robin's daily providing Swille with slave-mothers' milk, she did not quarrel with him but asked him about it afterwards, and he explained that it was Coffee Mate with which he was poisoning the master. She is aware that there is something going on between Robin and Bangalang, but she waits for the right time to deal firmly with it. And she is the one who advises Robin to break up the estate.

The attempt to end colonialism must incorporate, if not begin with, the restoration of manhood to the male. All the women who do not recognize this are acting, in Reed's fiction, as agents of the oppressors, of Louisiana Red. These include Fannie Mae, Mammy Barracuda, Ruby, and Minnie. All the women who understand the de-manning of colonialism and work against it and/or work with the men are admirable figures in Reed's fiction, women like Zozo Labrique, Joan, Sister, Aunt Judy, Bangalang, Esther, and Erline in Mumbo Jumbo.30 Women who work against the men without realizing it but can be rescued are not damned: Quaw Quaw, Vixen, and even Minnie, for whose life Papa LaBas goes to the underworld to plead. The question of why Reed does not make a woman the protagonist of his novels is an aesthetic one, not a moral one: it is as absurd as asking Paule Marshall why she makes a woman the protagonist of Brown Girl, Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow.31

So you want black manhood? Here is a man! Look at him on TV and in the papers! But Reed is already there. See, Reed says, look at Louisiana Red at work. Street Yellings: a selfish, greedy, vicious, mean thug, a murderer sprung from jail to be used against black people. There was a famous Street-type black leader of the sixties who killed a woman for the same reason as Street roughed up Ms. Better Weather: “‘Do you know who I am? Don't you recognize my picture? Haven't you seen my picture all over?’” (95). This happened after the publication of The Last Days of Louisiana Red so the readers could have anticipated such behavior. Reed is against sloppily attaching heroism to individuals who do not deserve it. Real manhood does not need to “bully the blacks, to bully the women,” as Vixen thinks in The Terrible Twos (105). It may work quietly, behind the scenes, in the shadows, like Ed Yellings, Papa LaBas, and Uncle Robin. Minnie, not knowing her history and culture, wants to go public, thus exposing her people to further destruction. Mammy Barracuda never questioned the rightness or wrongness of Swille's absolute ownership of human beings, having no knowledge of her culture but only that of suffering Western Christianity, as indicated by the huge cross she wears around her neck, the reflection of the sun on which once blinded two slaves. Uncle Robin, knowing his culture and his gods, played a game until the time was ripe. Pompey and Bangalang knew he was playing a game, as they were, and they did not squeal on him.

No, freedom is not easy to achieve. Stray Leechfield thinks he can buy his freedom by making money from posing for pornographic photos and other schemes with Mel Leer. 40s thinks he can protect himself with guns. Raven begins to recognize what Robin has known much earlier: that Swille's ruling philosophy is the love of property, and he considers the slaves to be property. Swille does not need money: he controls the source and supply of money. But his love of property may be too abstract an idea to grasp, for slavery also chains the mind and the imagination. In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Reed concretizes the Western capitalist's love of property:

Three horsemen—the Banker, the Marshal and the Doctor—decided to pay a little visit to Drag Gibson's ranch. They had to wait because Drag was at his usual hobby, embracing his property.

A green mustang had been led out of its stall. It served as a symbol for his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Holding their Stetsons in their hands the delegation looked on as Drag prepared to kiss his holdings. The ranch hands dragged the animal from his compartment towards the front of the Big Black House where Drag bent over and french kissed the animal between the teeth, licking the slaver from around the horse's gums. …

This was one lonely horse. The male horses avoided him because they thought him stuck-up and the females because they thought that since green he was a queer horse. See, he had turned green from old nightmares.

After the ceremony the unfortunate critter was led back to his stall, a hoof covering his eye.


The difficulty for a critter—excuse me, “critic”—is that Reed always has a hundred things going on at the same time while the critic goes in a straight line, pursuing one lead. Reed cautions us against this kind of linear reading: on page 183 of the Avon edition of Mumbo Jumbo, one has to turn the book in circles to read what is being said at the bottom of the page. We see the love of property concretized in terms of a Wild West pattern imprinted on our cowboy-loving minds: the cowboy loves his horse more than anything else. But this is a horse that has turned green from its nightmares. Nightmare—horse: the connection is that of the stand-up comic who, in this heterogeneous America, finds all words funny, like Groucho Marx's “Why a Duck?” The horse is green, as in “greenhorn,” again from the cowboy yellowbacks. Then the horse is led away, covering his eye with a hoof: this is out of movie cartoons. Lest we dismiss the whole thing as “unreal,” we know from the very beginning that the story is a tall tale, a tradition as old as America: “Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bullwhacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women” (9). Straight from the tall tale, from yellow-back novels, and also from the storylines in black music.32 The horse turned green from nightmares: in its recurrent nightmare, it is about to be killed by Germans. The big American problem, says Reed, is that Drag, Swille, and other American capitalists live in America but have their hearts in Europe. Arthur Swille is named after the Arthur of the mythic Camelot, but he is actually no better than food for pigs, which is precisely the fate of Drag. The German chieftain hates green and wants his men to chop off the horse's head; the horse always wakes up just before they are to do so. In the horse's nightmare, “The Germans burned down Yellow Back Radio in a matter of seconds—about the amount of time it takes for a station break” (78).

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a title that tells several stories. The “yellow back” is a Wild West novel. It refers to the young people who have taken over the town because they do not have “yellow fever”: the fever for gold like many European adventurers and perhaps the paranoia against the Chinese and Japanese. They are not afraid; they are not “yellow.” The word “radio” tells us that we are reading a radio script, that we are to hear the words that follow as we would on radio. The word “radio” also brings to mind Reed's quintessential poem “I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.”33 The poem connects up “Ra,” the Egyptian sun god, with “RAdio,” suggesting that there is a world beyond one's perceptions from which, if one is tuned in, one can receive messages; conversely, one can tune out bad messages. “Broke-Down” suggests both that the whole system has broken down and that the radio has been “exploded” so that we can understand it. (The radio connection is extended to TV by the neighboring town being named Video Junction.) “Yellow Back” has yet another meaning, mentioned in Mumbo Jumbo. Benoit Battraville from Haiti, which is fighting an invasion by white American soldiers, says to the black Americans, “I know this is a strange request but if you will just 1 by 1 approach the Dictaphone, tell just how Hinckle Von Vampton propositioned you, the circumstances and the proposals he made to you, we will record this and then feed it to our loa. This particular loa has a Yellow Back to symbolize its electric circuitry. We are always careful not to come too close to it. It's a very mean high-powered loa” (172-73). The word “electric” is a clue that “to loop” is to join so as to complete circuitry. Thus although it would make no difference on radio, the difference in spelling of “Loop Garoo” in the novel compared with “Loup Garou” in the poem is significant. A loop is a sharp bend in a mountain road which almost comes back on itself like a snake (so Loop fights Drag with a white python, Damballah). In physics, a loop is an antinode, the node being the point, line, or surface of a vibrating object free from vibration. To knock for a loop is to throw into confusion. And a loop antenna is used in direction-finding equipment and in radio receivers. Once you get to the multiple meanings, you, the reader, begin to loop. “Garoo,” according to Toma Longinovic, a Yugoslav writer who was in the International Writing Program in 1982, means “essence.” Reed's novel gets to the essence, doing more in two-hundred-odd pages than a six-hundred-page novel, and Loop practices HooDoo, which is the essence of VooDoo. Reed wants us to short-circuit the whole mess, to break it down.

Reed's syncretism opens up “the possibilities of exquisite and delicious combinations,” which is a Gumbo way of writing, as Reed's epigraph to The Last Days of Louisiana Red suggests, as does the poem “The Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic,” which is about Gumbo.34 Reed does not want black Americans to shortchange themselves by denying what they are told is not their tradition (“Get back to your language”). Black people have built up this continent and their contributions have penetrated everything that is American, even the Wild West.35 Reed's epigraph to Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, from Henry Allen, says, “America … is just like a turkey. It's got white meat and it's got dark meat. They is different, but they is both important to the turkey. I figure the turkey has more white meat than dark meat, but that don't make any difference. Both have nerves running through 'em. I guess Hoo-Doo is a sort of nerve that runs mostly in the dark meat, but sometimes gets into the white meat too.” So as Americans, black Americans have to be open to possibilities of connecting up with other Americans. When Uncle Robin is taking care of business, he hears footsteps approaching. “Uncle Robin takes a sip of coffee, looks innocent and begins to hum a spiritual” (40). He is actually as innocent as the pope of the same name who comes to confront Loop Garoo. Moe is suspicious but cannot prove anything. Robin says, “‘Sometimes it seems to me that we are all Uncle Toms. Take yourself, for example. You are a white man but still you a slave. You may not look like a slave, and you dress better than slaves do, but all day you have to run around saying Yessuh, Mr. Swille, and Nossuh, Mr. Swille, and when Mitchell was a child, Maybe so, l'il Swille. Why, he can fire you anytime he wants for no reason’” (41). Moe's refuge is race: “‘What! What did you say? How dare you talk to a white man like that!’” Robin replies, “‘Well, sometimes I just be reflectin, suh.’” Like other Reed heroes, Robin is always thinking. The next moment, the red light begins to blink, which means that Swille wants Moe to come into his office, and “Moe wipes his mouth with a napkin, gulps the coffee down so quickly it stains his junior executive's shirt.” Robin cleans it quickly. The detail of the shirt shows that even an executive is a slave. The timing of the incident to prove a point is that of the TV sketch.

Moe is the “white house slave.” If we heard this, which we would on radio and TV, it would sound like “White House Slave.” This takes us forward to The Terrible Twos in which the President, Dean Clift, a former model, is a slave to forces he never bothered to understand until he began to speak out against their interests. It is his black butler, trying to protect him, who tells him, “Mr. President, everybody in the White House knows that you don't run the government, and that the Colorado gang is in charge. … Mr. President, will you get it through your thick head that all they wanted to use was your model's face. They know that America gets butterflies in the belly over a pretty face. It was just your face, Mr. President” (158-59). Shades of Benson!

But the President is locked up in an asylum after he blows the lid off the vicious antihuman schemes on TV. This is not all a disaster, for a black American saying is, “Suffering is seasoning” (173). It is a sort of purgatory for Dean Clift's days of selfishness. Justice demands a correction to, not a gloss over, historical crimes. In Mumbo Jumbo, there is a multicultural group going around reclaiming its stolen art from Western museums. Not all the members of the group agree with Berbelang's decision to include a white man, Thor Wintergreen, in the group on the grounds that he is different from the others because, the repentant son of a rich white man, he wants to end exploitation. Yellow Jack, a Chinese, does not trust the white man because of his history. In spite of the bitter exploitation of black Americans, Berbelang is willing to take a risk, a great risk. He sees the white man's history in terms of the myth of Faust. He is not the first thinker to see the West in terms of the Faust myth, which is usually interpreted as the willingness to sell one's soul for knowledge and power, or rather, for power through knowledge. Berbelang approaches the myth from a perspective outside the Western one. He says that the real point is that Faust is a charlatan, a bokor, a thief-magician who one day finds to his surprise that something seems to be working. He is thereafter haunted by his fear of being revealed as a charlatan. Thus Berbelang's interpretation of the myth is that, perhaps deep down, Western man knows that he has been stealing the art and creativeness of non-Western man and knows he is a fake. If so, the knowledge, the fear of exposure, will make him continue to keep non-Western people down. Is this the case? “I'm just 1 man,” says Thor Wintergreen. “Not Faust nor the Kaiser nor the Ku Klux Klan. I am an individual, not a whole tribe or nation” (104). “That's what I'm counting on,” replies Berbelang. “But if there is such a thing as a racial soul, a piece of Faust the mountebank residing in a corner of the White man's mind, then we are doomed.” In the event, Thor is weakened by an appeal to his race, class and tribe by a descendant of the lower class of Europe, still serving the upper class and keeping European values going, preparing to take over and protect white civilization. “Son,” says the tied Biff Musclewhite, “this is a nigger closing in on our mysteries and soon he will be asking our civilization to ‘come quietly’” (130). Thor tearfully unties Musclewhite, who proceeds to kill Berbelang, Papa LaBas's daughter Charlotte, and finally Thor himself. The media call it suicide in two cases and justifiable homicide in the third.

Must there always be Christian monotheistic domination? Zumwalt in The Terrible Twos is working for the North Pole Development Corporation, which has acquired monopoly rights to Santa Claus. He used to be a radical member of the SDS in the sixties but got tired of the demands of black Americans. Western culture reasserted itself: it had never abandoned his mind. But he is not abandoned by the novel. He is ultimately saved by the Santa Claus and Black Peter exposure of the terrible crime he had carried secretly within him, that he had accidentally killed the President's son in his radical days and had had plastic surgery to change his identity. Deep down, Reed suggests, there is hope for ending the alienation of at least some powerful white people, including the President. Black Peter and Saint Nick reveal to these people the alienation from their own humanity.

So it is worth taking the risk of selectively linking up with other people, because you can then go places you would be denied, see things you would miss, remember things your people have forgotten, and get a different perspective on yourself. In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Chief Showcase, the lone survivor of a massacre by Drag, rescues Loop from Bo Shmo by helicopter. Showcase says, “You see the tribe was so busy trying to organize they forgot that they were clandestine by nature, camouflage, now you see now you don't, what some blockheads call esoteric bullshit. But now I'm trying the same thing on him he put us through. … Foment mischief among his tribes and they will destroy each other. Not only that. I have my secret weapon. … If I can't get their scalps I'll get their lungs. … This time it'll be done by an idea” (46). The value of the shadows again. Drag permits his Chinese servant to say rude things about him. Drag enjoys it, and perhaps, with his Judeo-Christian consciousness, he wants to be whipped for his sins, just like Swille. Not too much, just enough to permit him to continue doing what he likes best, exploiting other people, owning them, killing off those who stand in his way, grabbing property. And why not permit his servant to let off steam? He is likely to feel better too, and nothing will change. Just shouting the truth will not make the walls of Jericho Collapse. Was this what happened in the sixties, with radicalism going public? Reed's novels note that the real struggles are taking place between secret societies behind the scenes. In Mumbo Jumbo, the Atonists deliberately begin the Great Depression to put black artists out of work and stop Jes Grew. Among their agents are “The 1909 versions of Albert Goldman” (51): Albert Goldman, the man who did a hatchet job on the late Elvis Presley several years after the publication of Mumbo Jumbo.36 Another novelist who sees history in terms of plots between secret societies, Thomas Pynchon, says in his massive novel Gravity's Rainbow, “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.)”37

Real fighters do not underestimate the power of their antagonists. In fact, they do not underestimate power. There is a tendency for Third World intellectuals, not having tasted power and dealing with its structures and modes of operation, and also imitating powerless Western intellectuals, to underrate power and profess to despise all powerful men—a deadly misjudgment since, as Wole Soyinka shows in Kongi's Harvest, a dictator knows how to exploit the weakness of intellectuals, giving them a taste of power in return for which they manufacture the words of legitimacy for him.38 No, with Reed, power is given due respect, even when the adversary is hated. Aunt Judy sees as hypocrisy the fact that Lincoln (initially) only frees the slaves in the territories he has no control over. Not so Uncle Robin: he applauds the player in Lincoln. And as a true player, Lincoln wonders whether Uncle Robin is one too. Although Robin is secretly working to undermine his boss, when Swille is dead, he says, “Well, you had to hand it to Swille. He was a feisty old crust. Lots of energy. What energy? Rocket fuel” (179). The stand-up comic again. In American culture, you can get away with murder through jokes.

Cunning people like Robin and Chief Showcase, learning from their history, are working indirectly. Papa LaBas, knowing his culture, believes in wearing masks. Not that they know everything: Papa LaBas seeks help to solve the murder of Ed Yellings by consulting Hamadryas, an older baboon god in the zoo (who may also be the Egyptian baboon god Toth). When Aunt Judy asks Robin whether it was not un-Christian of him to doctor Swille's will and end up owning the estate, he replies, “‘I've about had it with this Christian. I mean, it can stay, but it's going to have to stop being so bossy. I'd like to bring the old cults back’” (171). Loop Garoo fights Drag, not with Drag's weapons, for then Drag would win, but with HooDoo, spells, thought control, psychic force, the mind. When Loop is winning, the problem gets serious enough for the Pope to appear in the West. He knows how to fight Loop since they are ancient enemies. The Pope wins a round but not the fight. The Pope wants Loop to rejoin Christianity and bring his strengths in. It is an old fight, the novel says. Christianity designated all the African gods as the devil. Yet the West needs the energy and creativeness of the black world. The Pope knows this: check out the Pope's art collection being sent around the U.S. The Pope also wants Loop's help in controlling the Blessed Virgin. The fight is not for total destruction but for Western hegemony. This is the same fight in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red as in the James Bond movie of the same time, Live and Let Die. In the Bond movie, the action alternates between New Orleans and a Caribbean island. There is a white woman possessed by a loa who loses her power after being seduced by Bond, then becoming a white virgin to be sacrificed by black voodooists. At the end, there is a diversion: the conflict is presented as one between the forces of good (the West) and black drug dealers. But Baron Samedi survives at the end, with his Geoffrey Holder laugh. We can see why Reed takes movies seriously but uses them in his own way. He has his own detectives, opposed to the Bonds, detectives like Papa LaBas and Nance Saturday, out to make psychic arrests.

People's idea of history is created by the media: by fiction. The kids at Yellow Back Radio have taken over and chased the grown-ups out because they are tired of being taught miserable, hateful lies. “We decided to create our own fiction,” they say (18). “Who pushed Swille into the fire?” Robin speculates. “Some Etheric Double? The inexorable forces of history? A ghost? Thought? Or all of these? Who could have pushed him? Who?” (179). The logic of the fiction pushes Swille in, like the spontaneous combustion in Dickens's Bleak House. Art seeking justice through the working of its story. The anthropologist son of Swille sent to the Congo to find energy sources for his father is thrown to the crocodiles. He comes back to haunt his father's mansion. Vivian, with whom Arthur commits necrophilious incest, haunts him to death. Everybody is haunted by past crimes. There are ghosts in the White House. President Dean Clift in The Terrible Twos is taken by Saint Nick to the Presidents' hell, where he sees past presidents and would-be presidents chained to their crimes against nature for not having had the courage to oppose dehumanizing actions: Eisenhower (Lumumba), Truman (Hiroshima), and Rockefeller (Attica). Reed's fiction haunts, too, and changes things in our mind. Is the American Indian really seeking revenge against the white man by introducing him to smoking tobacco so that he will die of lung cancer? Well … we know that smoking tobacco so that he will die of lung cancer? Well … we know that smoking causes cancer. … Uncle Robin has been poisoning Swille with Coffee Mate while Swille thought he was drinking slave-mothers' milk which would keep him young: will the FDA suddenly announce that Coffee Mate causes cancer? Just look at those nasty ingredients listed on page 174. Reed the black American artist plants things in the mind and thereby changes the past. “No one says a novel has to be one thing,” says Loop to Bo Shmo. “It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons” (40). We have seen the news and the demons. Vaudeville? Reed the necromancer presented a vaudeville show in 1970 of forthcoming attractions in his novels entitled “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” which introduces almost the whole cast of Reed's characters in order to put a “Nix on Noxon.”39 Reed's writing is like an electronic series. Black Peter in the sixth novel seems to be Pompey in the fifth novel (175). In Loop's story: “Three black cowboys were seated on tree stumps drinking from some wooden bowl and grinning. One of 'em was playing the slide trombone” (64). Reed used to play the trombone. The staple unit of vaudeville on TV is the anachronistic historical sketch, where past and present are hilariously simultaneous. This is how Reed writes his fiction. When Professor Hobgood spoke on my panel at Madison on Goan literature, he produced a volume of Gomes's selected writings with the stamp of the Entebbe Goan Institute, of which I had been president three times and my father before me five times, and yet I had never noticed the volume! Suddenly all the layers of time were before me, summoned up by the introduction of a material medium of communication. This is what Reed does when he introduces the TV or radio into what we might think is the past. For example, Lincoln is assassinated with the TV cameras on him, there is an instant replay, and an immediate interview with his wife—which Raven sees while making love to Quaw Quaw in a den in Carpenter's house the night before Carpenter leaves for Canada. What presidential assassination is this? What time? What plot? Is the multinational involved? Reed would not call it anachronism. Of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, he says, “The ‘time sense’ is akin to the ‘time’ one finds in the psychic world, where past, present and future exist simultaneously.”40 Through the constant TV, radio, video, and electronic references, Reed is also asking his people to acquire literacy as well as to leap to video and electronics or else they will be left far behind, as when they were denied literacy. Swille spells it out to Lincoln: “‘We gave him Literacy, the most powerful thing in the pre-technological pre-post-'rational age—and what does he do with it? Use it like that old Voodoo’” (37-36, my emphasis).

Raven Quickskill acquires reading, and this makes him flee outward from the condition of slavery. Robin, who is put in charge because of the flight of Raven, also acquires reading and uses it to move inward. The two need each other's skills; hence Robin gets Raven to write his story, which is also Raven's story. Watch the name: “Raven” comes from a curing story; he is a healer through words.41

The original spelling of Loop Garoo's name in “I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra” is “Loup Garou,” a wolf, actually a werewolf. The man who changes into a wolf does so to try to rescue the earth from the mess men of power have made in their blindness, greed, and alienation from nature.42 The wolf also seeks to rescue those men of power who would be rescued. Thus in The Terrible Twos, Black Peter, Santa Claus, and Saint Nick save Zumwalt, the aging soap-opera star who would be Santa, and the President. Even the President who was elected in 1980, setting off a Scrooge-like meanness in the spirit and a cold wave in nature, is not doomed because he did once take part in a movie in which he represented the plight of the oppressed. But some cannot be saved. The Christmas tree that an old Indian chief had tried to protect from the white man's bulldozers on the grounds that it was alive gets its revenge: when the President's wife turns the Christmas tree lights on, she is electrocuted and burned to a crisp. The switch let the current pass. The Yellow Back loa is mean. There is sympathy in Nature, LOUP GAROU, but it needs help from Art, LOOP GAROO, to close in on the Western stage. Reed.


  1. Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (New York: Avon, 1977). The novel was first published in 1969. All page references are from the Avon edition.

  2. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (New York: Random House, 1976), 124. All page references are from this edition.

  3. Ishmael Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (New York: Random House, 1974). All page references are from this edition.

  4. Ishmael Reed, The Terrible Twos (New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1982), 109. All page references are from this edition.

  5. Ishmael Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 2. Ralph Ellison quotes “an old slave verse” in his famous interview in The Paris Review which contains three characters, Aunt Dinah, Uncle Jack, and Uncle Ned, who want to get to Canada, freedom. Ellison comments, “It's crude, but in it you have three universal attitudes toward the problem of freedom. You can refine it and sketch in the psychological allusions, action and what not, but I don't think its basic definition can be exhausted. Perhaps some genius could do as much with it as Mann has done with the Joseph story” (Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act, New York: Signet, 1966, 173-74).

  6. Ishmael Reed, Conjure (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1972), viii. Goa, in India, was conquered by the Portuguese in 1510.

  7. Ishmael Reed, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (New York: Doubleday, 1967).

  8. Reed, Shrovetide, 2.

  9. Lillian Herlands Hornstein, C. D. Percy, and Sterling A. Brown, eds., The Reader's Companion to World Literature, second edition revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, Leon Edel, and Horst Frenz (New York: New American Library, 1973), 65.

  10. Grover Washington, Jr., Reed Seed (Hollywood: Motown, 1978), M7-910R1.

  11. Sondra A. O'Neale, “Ishmael Reed's Fitful Flight to Canada: Liberation for Some, Good Reading for All,” Callaloo (October 1978): 176.

  12. Bessie Head, Maru (London: Heinemann, 1971), 109.

  13. Reed, Flight, 54. Also see Reed's poem, “Badman of the Guest Professor,” in Conjure, 77. “They gibbed me a Ph.D.,” says Cato (53).

  14. Nathaniel Mackey, “Ishmael Reed and the Black Aesthetic,” CLA Journal 21 (March 1978): 358.

  15. O'Neale, 175.

  16. Bessie Head, “Social and Political Pressures that Shape Literature in Southern Africa,” World Literature Written in English 17 (April 1979): 21. The paper was first presented in Iowa City in the fall of 1977 when Bessie Head was a member of the International Writing Program.

  17. Adil Jussawalla, Missing Person (Bombay: Clearing House, 1976), 15.

  18. Derek Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain and Other Plays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), 20.

  19. Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona (Nairobi: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), 43-44.

  20. Dobie Gray's “Drift Away” was no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973. Ray Charles's version of the song is on Ain't It So (New York: Atlantic, 1979), SD 19251.

  21. A new recording of “Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway is on the original soundtrack recording of The Blues Brothers (New York: Atlantic, 1980), SD 19251. See his Of Minnie the Moocher and Me (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1976).

  22. It is difficult on the first reading to avoid linking Minnie the Moocher with Angela Davis. I bought The Last Days of Louisiana Red and Angela Davis: An Autobiography at the same time; they were published simultaneously by Random House in 1974. Reed says in his “Self-Interview,” originally published in Black World in 1974, “The abuse of the term [Political Prisoner] by people like Baldwin and Professor Angela Davis harms the cause of those who are truly political prisoners” (Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, 136), a point that is made against Minnie in the novel.

  23. Al Young, Sitting Pretty (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1976). William Demby, Love Story Black (New York: Reed, Cannon & Johnston, 1978).

  24. Okot p'Bitek, “Song of Lawino” and “Song of Ocol” (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1972), 191. Song of Lawino was first published in 1966.

  25. Wole Soyinka, The Road (London: Oxford, 1965).

  26. In particular, see the following novels by Ayi Kwei Armah: Fragments (New York: Collier Books, 1969); Why Are We so Blest? (New York: Doubleday, 1973); Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973).

  27. Marian E. Musgrave, “Ishmael Reed's Black Oedipus Cycle,” Obsidian: Black Literature in Review 6, no. 3 (1980): 64.

  28. For example, see J. A. Avant's review of the novel in Library Journal 99 (1974): 3147.

  29. Davis, 95.

  30. Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (New York: Avon, 1978). The novel was first published in 1973. All page references are from the Avon edition.

  31. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (New York: Avon, 1972). The novel was first published in 1959. Praisesong for the Widow (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1983). Paule Marshall shows how colonialism undermines manhood in her fiction. She has major male characters in all her work, particularly her tour de force The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, but even here the protagonist is a woman. See my chapter, “Colonial Relationships, Colonized People” in my The Third World Writer: His Social Responsibility (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978).

  32. “Now this here's the story 'bout the ‘Rock Island Line,’” begins Lonnie Donegan's imitation of Leadbelly's “Rock Island Line,” which reached no. 8 on the British pop charts and no. 10 on Billboard's pop charts in 1956, setting off the skiffle craze in England. A whole generation of English boys were inspired by Donegan to start their own skiffle groups, including what became the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and discover black blues. Supposedly, Bill Skiffle was the first man in New Orleans to hold a rent party, using instruments like a washboard and box-bass. Lonnie Donegan is a collection of Donegan's 26 hits (Scarborough, Ontario: Pye, 1977), FILD 011. Putting on the Style is an updated Donegan, backed by his musical heirs (Los Angeles: United Artists, 1977), UA-LA827-H. Leadbelly's version of “Rock Island Line” can be found on Leadbelly (Hollywood: Capitol, undated), SM-1821.

  33. Reed, Conjure, 17-18.

  34. Ibid., 26. One of the problems with Abdul Hamid, a Muslim, in Mumbo Jumbo is that he, too, has a monolithic world view, though for tactical reasons.

  35. For example, see Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, The Adventures of the Negro Cowboys (New York: Bantam, 1969). Durham and Jones wrote the book at UCLA.

  36. Albert Goldman, Elvis (New York: Avon, 1981). I am aware of the feeling that Elvis ripped off black music. The singers he copied, learned from, or was influenced by, run into dozens, chiefly black but also white. But Little Richard says in his Rolling Stone interview, “Like, see, when Elvis came out, a lot of black groups would say, 'Elvis cannot do so and so and so, shoo shoo shoo [huffs and grumbles]. And I'd say, ‘Shut up, shut up.’ Let me tell you this—when I came out they wasn't playing no black artists on no Top 40 stations, I was the first to get played on the Top 40 stations—but it took people like Elvis and Pat Boone, Gene Vincent, to open the door for this kind of music, and I thank God for Elvis Presley. I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road, you understand?” (The Rolling Stone Interviews: Talking with the Legends of Rock & Roll, New York: St. Martin's Press/Rolling Stone Press, 1981, 92.)

  37. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (New York: Bantam, 1974), 685.

  38. Wole Soyinka, Kongi's Harvest (London: Oxford, 1965). Bob Krantz in The Terrible Twos refers to Uganda in 1990 and says, “We wouldn't have expected that these nations would spend an eternity under military rule and unemployed intellectuals” (55).

  39. Ishmael Reed, “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” Amistad 1, ed. John A. Williams and Charles F. Harris (New York: Vintage, 1970), 165-82. By focusing the readers' minds, the story gets a psychic fix on “Noxon.”

  40. Reed, Shrovetide, 134.

  41. For the raven in a “curing story,” see The Greenfield Review, issue on American Indian writing, vol. 9, nos. 3 and 4 (Winter 1981-82): 136-38. Hena Maes-Jelinek says in her chapter on Wilson Harris's Eye of The Scarecrow, “In alchemy Raven's Head is at once the initial stage of the process of exploration and the state of blackness that precedes the cauda pavonis or resurrection.” (Hena Maes-Jelinek, Wilson Harris, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982, 171, n. 6.)

  42. See Coyote's Journal, James Koller et. al., ed. Harry Fonseca (Berkeley: Wingbow, 1982).

Geoffrey Green (essay date summer 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2383

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 restraints of realism, naturalism, expressionism,” most assessments of his work do not reflect this belief. Indeed, in an introduction to a very recent interview (“Straight Talk from Ishmael Reed,” City Arts Monthly, October 1983, 9) David Armstrong makes this exemplary statement: “As in all Reed's projects, these diverse efforts [his novels] draw upon folklore and fantasy, media and music, hoodoo and history to provide a running commentary on American popular culture—and prescribe cures for what ails it.”

Most commentators have emphasized this social aspect of Reed's work: that he seeks “to provide a running commentary on American popular culture,” on the one hand, and that he seeks to “prescribe cures for what ails it,” on the other. One reason for this overwhelming social emphasis on the part of the critics centers on Reed's exciting and original prose style and its connection to American popular culture. In an interview with John O'Brien contained in The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers (Joe David Bellamy, ed. [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974]), Reed states:

I've watched television all my life, and I think my way of editing, the speed I bring to my books, the way the plot moves, is based upon some of the television shows and cartoons I've seen, the way they edit. Look at a late movie that was made in 1947—people become bored because there was a slower tempo in those times. But now you can get a nineteenth-century 500 page book in 150 pages. You just cut off all the excess, the tedious character descriptions you get in old-fashioned prose and the elaborate scenery.


But the shared cultural basis for Reed's style ought not to conceal his concern with “editing”—his highly wrought fictional conceptualization, the way a 500-page book can be achieved in 150 pages, and his sense of the imaginative basis of existence.

Certainly, the novel has always been centered in society. But the world of fiction is not simply the world of life with “the names changed to protect the innocent.” And Ishmael Reed understands this only too well. Describing his technique in creating Mumbo Jumbo to John O'Brien, he said, “I took all these things, used the classic techniques of the detective novel, as well as Egyptology, Western history, black dance, American civilization, and the Harding administration—all myths to explain the present” (134). This statement confirms the prevalent social mode in Reed's work but it does not transform fiction into journalism. “Myths to explain the present”: but myths are not always true; there are many possible explanations for any event, and the present is often nothing more than a predominant way of thinking—an imaginative act.

Thus it may come as no surprise that in the same conversation with O'Brien, Ishmael Reed stated: “Often reality is art,” and “it works both ways—art can reflect and create reality” (135). Reality—when perceived through a creative sensibility—may be seen to be art. Art not only reflects the reality in which it is created but acts, as well, to create reality. The critical viewpoint is incomplete which says that The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a social novel satirizing the political activism of the sixties and questioning the matriarchal theory of black society in America. The novel creates a world, a vision of reality through fiction that must be balanced against its social criticism in order to perceive the novel's ultimate workings.

A decade has revealed how Reed's novel seeks to pattern, arrange, and restructure myths in order to create a world that has the chance to stand clear of them. Thus, the social material is always presented so as to reflect a mythic dimension. This is made quite clear in the opening pages of The Last Days of Louisiana Red (New York: Random House, 1974):

When Osiris entered Egypt, cannibalism was in vogue. He stopped men from eating men. Thousands of years later when Ed Yellings entered Berkeley, there was a plague too, but not as savage. … Men were inflicting psychological stress on one another. Driving one another to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, which only made it worse, since the stabbings, rapings, muggings went on as usual. … Louisiana Red … is what all of this activity was called.


Louisiana Red is identified with plague: we are invited to think about the present reality of the novel's Berkeley in relation to the mythic conception of the plague—and, ultimately, with the plague that tormented Thebes when Oedipus was king. The Oedipus myth and its eventual conclusion in the tale of Antigone forms the frame upon which the fictional events of the novel rest. Indeed, Chorus, the character who is the modern embodiment of that ancient institution, points out that the Antigone story “‘closely parallels the Egyptian story of Osiris and Isis, so there were probably Egyptian writers who had a hand at it first’” (28). So we have Osiris entering Egypt, Oedipus entering Thebes, Ed Yellings entering Berkeley … and the plague, now retitled Louisiana Red.

It is no monumental discovery to note that Reed's characters exist as modern figures in Berkeley and also as the current manifestations of mythic prototypes: the novel realizes this correspondence masterfully. Hence, Oedipus is Ed Yellings; Eteocles and Polynices, Oedipus's warring sons, are Wolf and Street Yellings, respectively. Sister Yellings fulfills the role of Ismene, Oedipus's daughter. And Minnie Yellings is meant to be Oedipus's daughter Antigone, holding forth against Creon in the person of Papa LaBas. What interests me is how this correspondence to a mythic prototype transforms the social nature of the fictional material.

LaBas's strong words to Minnie at the climax of the novel—after Ed's destruction and the slaughter of each brother at the other's hands—were often viewed as being “the voice” of Ishmael Reed, the author:

You, Minnie. You take yourself so seriously. You couldn't stand for your Dad and your brothers to run a Business as they sought. You and your roustabouts and vagrants just couldn't stand negro men attempting to build something; if we were on the corner sipping Ripple, then you would love us, would want to smother us with kindliness.


The quarrel intensifies until Minnie answers:

“Well, no man tells me what to say or think. Negro or white, you or Max.”

“O, you're denying the very lucrative benefits that go along with being a black woman in a white man's country? …”

“What lucrative benefits are you talking about—rape?”

“You say it was all rape, huh? … A lot of you begged for him and fought over the trinkets he threw at you, nursed him and taught him how to fuck, loved the bastard children he gave you more than your own. You are defiling the truth of history when you deny this.”


LaBas's words here have several dimensions. They exist as an expression of LaBas's anger after the tremendous loss of life caused by Louisiana Red; they exist as a critique of the supposed complicity between black women and white men that contributed to “‘the philosophy of slavery—the philosophy of inferiority in which the slave's plight was compared to that of fellow slaves: the ancient Hebrews’” (125); but most significantly, perhaps, they exist as the words necessitated by the mythic prototype of Creon's confrontation with Antigone. Thus, LaBas's accusation that Minnie is “defiling the truth of history” has itself a mythic—and therefore, a non-historically determined—origin.

The novel resounds with the confrontation between myth and history, with the question of whether fate or the individual determines the outcome of life. Wolf Yellings tells his brother:

Our family has had its share of troubles. But now, for the first time, with LaBas at the helm, I feel that things don't have to be so accursed. It's not fate that's holding us back. We just have to learn to cut it, Street; that's what LaBas has taught me.


But this realization—that “it's not fate that's holding us back”—does not prevent Wolf from shooting Street and being killed by him, thus fulfilling the fateful expectation of the Eteocles-Polynices feud.

Ms. Better Weather paraphrases LaBas's words to Sister:

What he's saying … is that your family was destroyed not by fate but by a conspiracy. Not Que será, será, whatever will be will be, but plain old niggers and white front men up to ugly.


But when one of those conspirators, the Nanny, is revealed to be Lisa, in league with Maxwell Kasavubu to spread Louisiana Red, she is presented by Max as follows:

You are a fugitive from justice, you know, you bag woman. (Reads) “Real name: The Hammerhead Shark.” The title you picked up in that caper when you hit a man on the head with a hammer, put a hex on a congressman, double-crossed Jack Johnson, stabbed Martin Luther King, brought charges against Father Divine, brought down Sam Cooke in a blaze of gunfire and bad-mouthed Joe Louis.


Hence, the historical or actual conspirator—the human cause of all this strife—is depicted as a mythic character: a woman of legendary proportion, the bag lady who “brought down” a congressman (Adam Clayton Powell?), the fighters Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, Father Divine, the soul singer Sam Cooke, and who stabbed (!) Martin Luther King. We might be justified in terming this mixture of myth and history, of reality and fictional distortion, a Gumbo, for which

the word “evolution” fails to apply, … for it is an original conception, a something sui generis in cooking. … The olden Creole cooks saw the possibilities of exquisite and delicious combinations of making Gumbo, and hence we have many varieties!


There can be no single authorial voice in this novel, just as a Gumbo is comprised of many ingredients and appears in many varieties. The vision of life presented varies from Street's view

Do you know what the people want? They want lots of blood; monkeys roller-skating; 200 dwarfs emerging from a Fiat, and lots of popcorn—that's what they want. Scorn you when you alive, but if you die—a hero's funeral.


to the philosophy of LaBas, who “subscribed to the viewpoint that man is a savage who does the best he can” (175).

At times, history is seen as a veil, camouflaging the pervasive effects of fate and black magic; LaBas seeks to prove that the prototype for Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher was not “just a good gal but they done her wrong,” as the song says (LaBas calls these “liberal social-worker lines”): “‘She was no helpless object swept away by forces beyond her control but a dedicated agent of the sphinx's jinx. … [People] will be on the lookout for this character posing as a victim of history while all the time she is a cruel jinx’” (35). And Chorus, in fact, disputes the historical basis of myth: “‘Do you suppose that Zeus really gave a hang whether Polynices was buried? Zeus was too busy chasing tail to be bothered with such trifles’” (55).

Since the novel persistently has highlighted the tension between figure and fulfillment, between the mythic frame and the contemporary social trappings, between Thebes and Berkeley, the culmination of this formal struggle within the novel ought to appear in the depiction of the fate of Antigone. Creon's conception of the law mandates that Antigone be put to death. Were Minnie to meet the same fate, the point would be clear: we live our lives in the paths carved out ages ago by the mythic fates of our ancestors. History is little more than the story of this influence. The novel would be a neat conceit illustrating the parallel between present event and mythic past.

But Minnie does not meet Antigone's fate. Although her infractions are arguably more severe, LaBas pleads for Minnie to Blue Coal (who is the novel's equivalent of Zeus), and she is spared. Does this suggest that history—the actions of human individuals—may prevail over the fateful mandates of our mythic past? Not necessarily. For Ishmael Reed illustrates that there are “many varieties”!—not only for Gumbo, but for myths.

Chorus informs us:

Now about this Antigone. According to writing found written on Egyptian papyri, there's a later episode of the myth. In this version, Creon, due to the counsel of Teiresias, was able to save Antigone. … When Creon saw how incensed the population was towards him, he relented and freed Antigone.


When one mythic “variety” is not adequate to “explain the present,” the answer is to substitute creatively another one, more “exquisite and delicious”; thus, “the word ‘evolution’ fails to apply.” But even here the suspected orderly relation between the second myth and reality is undermined by the later portion of the tale. Chorus continues that the Athenians

sent Antigone on tour. She teamed up with her nanny, a confidante and rough-looking woman from the old days; formerly Antigone's nurse, but now making a reputation from her “readings.” In these “readings” Nanny depicted the Theban males as weak and simpering while Antigone would play the guitar.


What is clear is the ongoing process, the way we create myths that influence lives until life insists upon the creation of new myths in order to change life. And in so doing, the fictionality of both enterprises is established. “Often reality is art,” Ishmael Reed stated; “it works both ways—art can reflect and create reality.” The Last Days of Louisiana Red is about the creative process by which we make the fictions that both sustain and imprison us. But we have the imaginative power to change these myths: “Storytelling,” Reed told John O'Brien, “will always exist … literature will be kept alive and will endure” (141); thus, we may not only reflect reality through art but also create it anew.

Reginald Martin (essay date summer 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6482

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 jerking
Trout in my paw
Anyone who messes with
Me today will be hugged
And dispatched.

—Ishmael Reed, “Untitled,” in A Secretary to the Spirits (1976)

Ishmael Reed's battle with the new black aesthetic critics began early in his career. From the very start, he has disliked being categorized and seems to find it impossible to play the literary game by the rules of others.1

Clarence Major had said in his Walt Shepperd interview in 1969 that he was not sure if the novel form, as it was then commonly structured and marketed, was “worth saving,” and that he wanted, in the ensuing ten years, to “do something new with the novel as form, and getting rid of that name would be the first step” (Voices 552). As early as 1969, then, Major had seen the need for newness and experimentation under the rubric of the new black aesthetic. Other critics were not to be so expansive and ecumenical.

Reed's first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, did not exactly challenge the constitution of the novel form, itself, but the contemporary indices in the course of the novel certainly changed the reference points of American novels up to that time. Set in a city called HARRY SAM, which is also the name of the villain of the work, the action and plot of the novel rest on the broad concepts of human waste and corruption (Thomas Pynchon dealt with the concept of waste in the same year in The Crying of Lot 49), and is an extended satire on the state of the black artist in American Society circa 1966. HARRY SAM (Richard Nixon?) represents all those things about the society which are crippling to individualistic yearnings different from his own; and the only things which interest HARRY are power and sitting on the toilet, through which he evacuates his waste to poison and stultify the city. Reed's “hero,” Bukka Doopeyduk, wishes to become a “true believing Nazarene” (8), someone with power in the structure of HARRY SAM. When Doopeyduk achieves the mantle of Bishop of the Nazarenes, he is summarily crucified on meathooks and viewed by a television audience, including his mother and father.

But upon the death of Doopeyduk, there is no redemption for him or the other inhabitants of HARRY SAM; in fact, things carry on in a bit more depraved fashion than usual. This sort of satirical flippancy put Reed squarely against those who, as Reed said, wanted all work by black writers to “be one thing.” In his satire of the Crucifixion and the Passion, Reed refutes this connection with the religious foundation of Western literary tradition. Secondly, although the book touches on issues serious to the black community (black mouth-pieces controlled by the white power structure, inadequate housing, the narcotic effect of Christianity on the poor) each issue is satirized. Polemics, so much a part of writing during this period of the new black aesthetic to this point, are gone; or at least, they are transfigured to be humorous as opposed to being only or purely instructional. Since this was his first widely distributed work, it seems to have escaped heated reviews from the new black aesthetic elite, but because Reed was to continue to develop his brand of satire, and because that development turned out to be popular, it was not long before his name began to be mentioned in the criticism of the major black aestheticians, such as Clarence Major in Essence (March 1971), Houston Baker in Black World (Dec. 1972) and Addison Gayle in Contemporary Novelists (1972).

In 1969, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down met with good critical response, which laid the groundwork for numerous reviews of Mumbo Jumbo (1972); indeed, Mumbo Jumbo became a critical debating ground for discussions about the merits or faults of Reed's work. In general, the reviews of Mumbo Jumbo were positive; it was Reed's longest work to date, and it was also the text in which he made the switch from Egyptian symbols and myths to those of the Afro-American aesthetic or “Neo-Hoodoo” aesthetic. It is also his most sustained, illuminative satire, concretizing his stand against things in Western culture which make it oppressive and dull.

One of the most positive reviews of Mumbo Jumbo came from Houston Baker. Writing in the December 1972 issue of Black World, Baker called Mumbo Jumbo “the first Black American novel of the last 10 years that gives one a sense of the broader vision and the careful, painful, and laborious ‘fundamental brainwork’ that are needed if we are to define the eternal dilemma of the Black Arts and work fruitfully toward its melioration” (63). Adding that the novel has a few flaws, Baker ends his review of Mumbo Jumbo by saying that its “overall effect is that of amazing talent and flourishing genius …” (64). This review is typical of the way the new black aestheticians initially regarded Reed. He comes out quite well when mentioned in Gayle's The Way of the New World (1976). But between the Black World review of 1972 and the publication of Baker's review of The Last Days of Louisiana Red, published in numbers 3 and 4, 1975, of The Umnum Newsletter, something has obviously happened to Baker's appreciation of Reed's literary talents. Perhaps the plot line of Louisiana Red, in which the individualistic black, Ed Yellings, is the positive role model, while “militants” and “moochers” (blacks who look to federal or other types of aid) are given extremely negative portrayals, was what offended Baker. He opens his review in this way:

Ishmael Reed is at it again, wolfing, ranking, badmouthing, putting down those who stand in his way of love, harmony, common sense, and the neo-hoodoo way. This time the target is close to home: the liberation struggle of the late sixties and early seventies. Reed gets behind the creative burners and begins to deal. He throws in three or four Black Militants to one portion of old-fashioned Uncle Tomism, adds a few liberated Black women, mixes in a little mafia and organized crime, stirs lightly and ends up with a spicy dish.


Later, Baker adds:

The novel is too formulaic, relying heavily on the protagonist from Mumbo Jumbo … this is not to imply that Reed has nothing to say in his fourth novel. On the contrary, he has more than enough to say. This is the Swiftian opus, the one that clears out the system by putting down the folly of one's contemporaries and demonstrating how inane their most cherished enterprises are when exposed to the stinging barbs of satire.

Baker asserts that Reed saw in Louisiana Red a chance to “settle old scores.” Here, Baker seems to indicate that Reed was angry at the small amount of commercial success his works had gained, and Reed is at this point, after the critical success of Mumbo Jumbo, criticizing all those whom he may have seen as having limited his stylistic and earning power. After destroying the culture the new black aesthetic critics were trying to help create, Reed, according to Baker, had “reduced its frantic and desperate activities to nonsense. The catharsis secured, he belches loudly, rubs his stomach, and turns to the next promising enterprise” (7). Baker accuses Reed of betraying the very movement which had brought attention to Reed's work. Without the new black aesthetic movement, Baker asserts, there would have been no Ishmael Reed. At the end of the review, Baker hopes that Reed will “turn again to serious satire, i.e., the exposure of the vileness and corruption at the root of the racialistic society” (7).

Reed's response was published in the same volume of the Umnum Newsletter. Under the title of “Hoodoo Manifesto #2 on Criticism: The Baker-Gayle Fallacy,” Reed's kindest remark to Baker is that Baker's review is “unsubstantial.” Reed accuses Baker of being an “educated native priest,” such as those who helped Pizarro destroy the folk art of the Incas. According to Reed, Baker is in no way in touch with what “real black people” are in touch with, because he is Western-academy trained and more interested in fitting in than in correcting inequities. Reed writes:

Mr. Baker wants to be “right on” even if it means defending any wretch, any lout, or tramp who preys upon Afro-Americans, the kind of uncritical indiscriminate thought which has left a segment of a generation in intellectual shambles.


And later Reed says, “I dare Mr. Baker to enter the faculty lounge at the University of Pennsylvania and dismiss Yeats' mystical theories as ‘spurious.’” (As Baker had called Reed's notion of using aspects of voodoo as parts of a literary method). But Reed reserves his strongest words for the new black aesthetic. He had earlier in his writing called it a “goon squad aesthetics.” At the end of the response to Baker, Reed insists that the new black aesthetic critics be able to understand Afro-American artistic forms:

This means that they will have to (go to the) [sic] woodshed. It means when they speak of an Afro-American writer's “technical flaws,” they must discuss whose “technical” they mean. They will have to abandon those theories which were consciously and subliminally drilled into them or their attempts of creating a “Black Aesthetic” will continue to be beside the point, like someone building a magnificent black Winchester Mystery House with stairs leading to nowhere and doors behind them; and most pitiful of all, built on a great fault.


Again, the aim here is against the limiting notions, the artistic boundaries of the new black aesthetic. Reed wants the literary artist, black or white, to be free to create with boundaries only of his or her own creation. Then, if the work fails, the artist has only himself or herself, his or her own ability and standards to blame.

For Baker, the terms of the new black aesthetic were more theoretical and helpful than Reed saw them. By 1980, for Baker, the term “black aesthetic” had taken on more of an anthropological and linguistic/cultural bent. Baker wrote in The Journey Back (1980) that one must know well the particular society or culture being examined to understand adequately the manifestations of that society, such as literature. This understanding may start with literature, eventually moving to other aspects of the culture in question. And in his Jerry Ward interview, Baker adopts the formally dreaded term universal as an admissable label for the ways in which human communities perceive. He says that insofar as the term is used in a non-pejorative sense to address the similar ways in which cultures develop, he has no objection to the term's usage. Baker goes on to say:

And to the extent that there are these trans-regional essential similarities in our culture, in Afro-American culture, whatever serious inquiries in aesthetics we make are going to have similarities. That is, the inquiries into the aesthetics, the Afro-American aesthetics, of Mississippi are going to connect, in my mind, persuasively with the aesthetics of Afro-America growing out of Philadelphia. They're going to connect more closely than they would with, say, the aesthetics growing out of Aspen, Colorado, and a colony of white poets. So that's my assumption. But I believe that to the extent that black scholars are provocative, brilliant, successful in their analyses, their findings are going to be claimed as evidence of universals, as proof that all “human” communities perceive in essentially the same ways.


Baker had been of a double-mind about Reed before (he published another review of Louisiana Red in Black World, June 1975, which praised some parts of the work and which was certainly not as virulently against Reed as his earlier review had been.) Perhaps that is indicative of the way Reed initially struck the new black aesthetic critics—Reed leaves them not quite sure of what he is doing or where he stands. In any event, Reed's insistence upon doing exactly what he wished to do would put him squarely against any sort of formalistic critical structure.

After calling Reed “perhaps the best black satirist since George Schyuler” in The Way of the New World, Addison Gayle turns upon him in the same year in a strongly-worded review of Flight to Canada, which had also been published in 1976. Gayle criticizes Reed severely for the structure of Flight to Canada, as well as his handling of black male-female relationships. Gayle cites a flippancy about serious gender relations, as well as a “ridiculous” notion of collusion between black women and white men against black men, as some of the reasons he is displeased with Flight to Canada. In the winter volume of Black Books Bulletin (1976), Gayle had written that Reed was an “anomaly, and if much of his fiction, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Flight to Canada, proves anything, it is that Black women have no monopoly on demons, real or imaginative” (51). Gayle calls Reed the “victim of the myths of others,” and, after posing the question of whether blacks should be compassionate enough to call back to the fold of black brotherhood writers such as Reed, Gayle ends his review with this peroration:

This writer has no such compassion, will join in no appeals to lure the prodigals back to the fold. At this juncture of history the battle lines are being drawn, wherever Black people are, in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, the United States, and one must choose for himself which side of that line he stands on. No, my compassion is not to be wasted upon writers, who, after all, must take responsibility for what they write.


Reed was quick to respond. 1978 saw the publication of essays and interviews, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, in which Reed begins to call by name his staunchest critics and enumerate their criticism of him in their works. Reed writes that Gayle, in the pages of Black World had said that “there is too much hedonism going on,” and that “Black World thought it a simple matter of white faces being white racists. It should be so easy. Like Pogo said: ‘We have met the enemy and they is us’” (“Hate” 285). In the same essay, “You Can't Be a Literary Magazine and Hate Writers,” Reed calls Houston Baker “a slithering critical mugger,” who “based an entire review of my book The Last Days of Louisiana Red upon where he thought I lived in Berkeley. Not only was the review illiterate, but he was too lazy even to check the telephone directory” (284). It is also in this essay that Reed labels Gayle the “Witchfinder General,” and in the text of the speech, “Harlem Renaissance Day,” Reed says,

Some sullen, humorless critics of the Black Aesthetic movement seem to have long since abandoned rational argument and take their lead from Addison Gayle, Jr., who at the conclusion of his careless new book, The Way of the New World, recommends the machine-gunning of those who disagree with him, surely a sign of intellectual insecurity.


A literary Banana Republic approach to things by those who've forgotten that the mainstream aspiration of Afro-Americans is for more freedom, and not slavery—including freedom of artistic expression.

Perhaps the civil rights movement lost its steam because people noticed that blacks weren't practicing civil rights among themselves. Apostles of the Black Aesthetic held “Writers' Conferences,” which served as tribunals where those writers who didn't hew the line were ridiculed, scorned, mocked, and threatened. The ringleader, Addison Gayle, Jr., a professor at Bernard Baruch College, argues that the aim of black writing should be to make “black men feel better,” as if we didn't have enough Disneylands.


And in three interviews published in 1978, Reed makes it clear that two of the main causes of his dissatisfaction with the literary world are Gayle and Baker. In his interview in Conversations with Writers II, Reed calls Gayle and Baker “black opportunists in the English departments” who had been set up by liberal critics to keep Afro-American writers in check by imposing rigid guidelines for what would be considered acceptable writing by blacks (219). In his interview with The American Poetry Review, Reed says that the Manhattan literary and dramatic establishment has propped up and speaks through “tokens, like for example that old notion of the one black writer, the one black ideologist (who's usually a Communist), the one black poetess (who's usually a feminist lesbian)” (33). A third interview in Black American Literature Forum gives the other important bases, aside from the limiting critical boundaries, for Reed's disapproval of the black aesthetic critics as the critics' interest in “meally-mouthedness” and their attempts at making things seem orderly and “serene” when in fact they are not (16).

Amiri Baraka had already written in his essay “The Myth of a ‘Negro Literature’” (1962) that “A Negro literature, to be a legitimate product of the Negro experience in America, must get at that experience in exactly the terms America has proposed for it in its most ruthless identity,” and that the Negro, as an element of American culture, was “completely misunderstood by Americans” (196). Thus, his rigidity in the face of any novelistic method which did not coalesce with his notion of the “Negro experience” was already stated five years before Reed's first novel would see print. And another comment, which would pit Baraka squarely against Reed, who was according to critics an advocate of the black middle class, was Baraka's own polemic against a black middle class. In discussing why, in his opinion, there was so little black literature of merit, Baraka said,

… in most cases the Negroes who found themselves in a position to pursue some art, especially the art of literature, have been members of the Negro middle class, a group that has always gone out of its way to cultivate any mediocrity, as long as that mediocrity was guaranteed to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.

(Aesthetic 191)

Baraka wrote that as long as the Negro writer was obsessed with being accepted, middle class, he would never be able to “tell it like it is,” and, thus, would always be a failure, because America made room only for white obfuscators, not black ones.

After Baraka formally announced that he was a socialist, no longer a black nationalist, and with some different goals (1974), his guidelines for valid black writing changed, but his new requirements, though with a slightly different emphasis (liberation of all classes, races, genders) and a slightly different First Cause (Monopoly Capitalism), were as rigid as his prior requirements. Writing in his autobiography (1984) of his change from black nationalist to socialist, Baraka says:

But we made the same errors Fanon and Cabral laid out, if we had but read them, understood them. Because the cultural nationalism, atavism, male chauvinism, bourgeois lies painted black, feudal dead things, blown up nigger balloons to toy around with. I would say the Nation of Islam and the Yoruba Temple were the heavist [sic] carriers of this, the petty bourgeois confusing fantasy again with reality. The old sickness of religion—all the traps we did not understand. Crying blackness and for all the strength and goodness of that, not understanding the normal contradictions and the specific foolishness of white-hating black nationalism. The solution is not to become the enemy in blackface, that's what one of the black intellectual's problems was in the first place. And even hating whites, being what the white-baiting black nationalist is, might seem justifiable but it is still a supremacy game. The solution is revolution. We thought it meant killing white folks. But it is a system that's got to be killed and it's even twisted some blacks. It's hurt all of us.

(Autobiography 323)

Baraka, as did Gayle in Wayward Child, sees certain black writers as disrupting the essential and beautiful Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Baraka calls these writers, as was said of Booker T. Washington, “capitulationists,” and says their movement was simultaneous with and counter to the Black Arts Movement. Baraka feels that the simultaneity was no accident. In his long essay “Afro-American Literature and the Class Struggle,” in Black American Literature Forum (1982), Baraka, for the first time, makes several strong, personal attacks on Reed, and also attacks other black writers whom he feels fit into the capitulationist mold. And, again, Baraka echoes Gayle in his belief that the ground-breakers in the Black Arts Movement (as regards the social values to be embodied in literature read, new black aesthetic) were doing something which was new, needed, useful, and black, and those who did not want to see such a flourishing of black expression appeared to damage the movement.

Naming Reed and Calvin Hernton as “conservative,” Baraka writes:

Yes, the tide was so strong that even some of the “conservatives” wrote work that took the people's side. (The metaphysical slide [sic] of the BAM even allowed Reed to adopt a rebellious tone with his “Black Power Poem” and “Sermonette” in catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church, 1970, in which he saw the struggle of Blacks against national oppression as a struggle between two churches: e.g., “may the best church win. shake hands now and come/out conjuring.” But even during the heat and heart of the BAM, Reed would call that very upsurge and the BAM “a goon squad aesthetic” and say that the revolutionary writers were “fascists” or that the taking up of African culture by Black artists indicated such artists were “tribalists.”)


Much of the labeling of Reed as a conservative and a “house nigger” begins with the publication of his 1974 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red, in which, as I briefly noted before, a group of people Reed labels as “moochers” loiter around Ed Yellings, a black small-business owner who is making active efforts to earn a living and who, through voodoo, finds a cure for cancer in the process. Critics interpreted “the moochers” as being stipulative of some of the black aesthetic group. Reed, in the course of the novel, explains moochers this way:

Moochers are people who, when they are to blame, say it's the other fellow's fault for bringing it up. Moochers don't return stuff they borrow. Moochers ask you to share when they have nothing to share. Moochers kill their enemies like the South American insect kills its foe by squirting it with its own blood. God, do they suffer. “Look at all of the suffering I'm going through because of you.” Moochers talk and don't do. You should hear them just the same. Moochers tell other people what to do. Men moochers blame everything on women. Women moochers blame everything on men. Old moochers say it's the young's fault; young Moochers say the old messed up the world they have to live in. Moochers play sick a lot. Moochers think it's real hip not to be able to read and write. Like Joan of Arc, the archwitch, they boast of not knowing A from B.


This passage was seen as callous and unfeeling toward the disadvantaged. Relatedly, The Last Days of Louisiana Red contains figures who do little more than emphasize Reed's definition of moochers, and who continually re-enact negative black stereotypes. Ed Yellings, the industrious black, is killed by moocher conspirators. Does this mean that blacks will turn against what Reed believes to be the good in their own communities? Ed Yellings is a business owner, a property owner, and this station puts him in opposition to the platform of Baraka. Attacking both Ralph Ellison and Reed in the same section of the Black American Literature Forum article, Baraka quotes Ellison as saying:

“After all I did see my grandaddy and he was no beaten-down ‘Sambo.’ Rather he owned property (Baraka's emphasis), engaged in Reconstruction politics of South Carolina, and who stood up to a mob after they had lynched his best friend … I also knew one of his friends who, after years of operating a printing business for a white man, came north and set up his own printing shop in Harlem.”

Does this mean that everybody who didn't own property or become a small politician was “a beaten down ‘Sambo’”? Ishmael Reed and Stanley Crouch both make the same kind of rah-rah speeches for the Black middle class. Reed, in fact, says that those of us who uphold Black working people are backwards (see Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, pp. 136-37) or as he says, “the field nigger got all the play in the '60s.” Focus on the middle class, the property owners and music teachers, not the black masses Ellison tells us. This is the Roots crowd giving us a history of the BLM [Black Liberation Movement] as a rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger tale in brownface, going off into the sunset and straight for Carter's cabinet or the National Book Award. No, slavery was not as bad for the house-Negroes, nor is national oppression as grim for the petty bourgeoisie—not bad at all for the tiny bribed element among us. But for most of us it is hell, and we want it destroyed!


Baraka also sets up a dichotomy for a “white aesthetic” and a “black aesthetic,” but while defining the two, one would assume toward the end of endorsing one or the other, Baraka shows only the failings of each and discusses his points of divergence from “the Black Aesthetic Crowd.”

In Baraka's dichotomy, the “white aesthetic is bourgeois art—like the ‘national interests’ of the U.S. at this late date when the U.S. is an imperialistic superpower” (9). Immediately following this excerpt, Baraka seems to defend the black aesthetic group over Ellison's negative criticism of them. Baraka writes that Ellison says of the black aesthetic crowd that they “buy the idea of total cultural separation between blacks and whites, suggesting that we've been left out of the mainstream. But when we examine American music and literature in terms of its themes, symbolism, rhythms, tonalities, idioms, and images it is obvious that those rejected ‘Negroes’ have been a vital part of the mainstream and were from the beginning” (9). Baraka then writes, “We know we have been exploited, Mr. Ralph, sir; what we's arguing about is that we's been exploited! To use us is the term of stay in this joint …” (9). Baraka writes that he takes issue with the “comfortable commentator” used with his own permission who seeks “no connection with the mass pain except to get rich and famous off it.” (9)

Baraka's point is that it makes no difference if the corrupt personage is black; the issue is still corruption, and it is a double insult to the oppressed when that corrupt one turns out to be black. (Ironically, this is one of Reed's themes in The Free-Lance Pallbearers.) But it is at that point that Baraka separates himself from others in the new black aesthetic movement:

Where I differ with the bourgeois nationalists who are identified with the “Black Aesthetic” is illuminated by a statement of Addison Gayle's: “An aesthetic based upon economic and class determinism is one which has minimal value for Black people. For Black writers and critics the starting point must be the proposition that the history of Black people in America is the history of the struggle against racism” (“Blueprint for Black Criticism,” First World, [Jan-Feb 1977], 43). But what is the basis for racism; i.e., exploitation because of one's physical characteristics? Does it drop out of the sky? Is it, as Welsing and others suggest, some metaphysical racial archetype, the same way the white racists claim that “Black inferiority” is? Black people suffer from national oppression: We are an oppressed nation, a nation oppressed by U.S. imperialism. Racism is an even more demonic aspect of this national oppression, since the oppressed nationality is identifiable anywhere as that, regardless of class.


Baraka reminds the reader that his disagreement with the new black aesthetic elite is not to say that there is no such thing as a black aesthetic, but that his conception of a black aesthetic manifests itself in his definition of it differently than it does for others. For him it is “a nation within a nation” that was brought about by the “big bourgeoisie on Wall Street, who after the Civil War completely dominated U.S. politics and economics, controlled the ex-planters, and turned them into their compradors” (10).

After explaining his important divergence from the black aesthetic elite, Baraka attacks Reed and the quality of his work. He calls Reed an “arsehole” and says that his comments are “straight out agentry,” and, significantly, he claims that Reed and those who agree with him have their own aesthetic, one of “capitulation” and “garbage.” Baraka writes:

Recently, the bourgeoisie has been pushing Ishmael Reed very hard, and to see why let's look at his most recent book, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. In essay after essay Reed stumps for individualism, and asserts ubiquitously that the leadership of Black folks is the Black middle class, rather than the working class, …


Baraka takes other writers to task whom he feels have made money and fame on the Black Arts Movement, but who have turned viciously on the true meaning of that movement. Michael Harper is called “rhythmless”; Michelle Wallace gets things wrong about the Black Liberation Movement because she “wasn't there and doesn't know,” and, thus, she “takes the side of our oppressors.” Ntozake Shange “deals in effects but not causes,” which results in “one-sidedness and lack of information.” Correspondingly, there are writers whom Baraka feels uphold his aesthetic standards, such as Sonia Sanchez in I Been a Woman, and Henry Dumas in “Will the Circle Remain Unbroken,” and Toni Morrison in Sula and The Bluest Eye (16).

Toward the end of his article, Baraka says that the “main line” of his argument has been that “class struggle is as much a part of the arts as it is any place else” (14). His pleas and support are reserved for those artists who are “struggle oriented,” those who are trying to “get even clearer on the meaning of class stand, attitude, audience, and study, and their relationship to our work” (14). And, thus, Baraka's argument is epanaleptic, as it turns back upon the same core of arguments of the other black aestheticians he has said he is in disagreement with; those arguments forming a complete circle with Baraka's stated premise that black literature, black art must do something materially positive to help black people. Art must be socially functional.

Reed responded in letters to Black American Literature Forum, and in an interview conducted in 1983, Reed called Baraka's charges “irresponsible,” “scurrilous,” and “outrageous” (Martin 184). He asserts that Baraka is one of the “romantic” heroes of the left, and that the left supports him for that reason (1986). Further, Reed accuses the new black aesthetic critics of their own brand of capitulation; i.e., a division of labor and resultant capital from the tacit agreement not to infringe on each other's critical territory. Reed says:

I think there was a nonaggression pact signed between the traditional liberal critics and the black aesthetic critics. They were brought into the publishing companies about the same time I was … But the black aesthetic crowd came in and writers were required to conform to their Marxist blueprints. But that's happened to Afro-American artists throughout history.


And, of course, Reed continues to insist that he is not against a black aesthetic or a black way of doing things; it is simply that, the way he sees it, censorship cannot be a part of the black aesthetic, an aesthetic which is intrinsically against critical limitation and is by nature racially syncretic.

Thus, Reed will not admit to being an “anomaly,” a “spurious writer,” or a “capitulationist,” in the terms of Gayle, Baker, or Baraka. In Reed's work, white villains and crimes against oppressed people are shown in just as poor a light as they are in the works of his severest critics. In The Terrible Twos (1982), white businessmen have called a meeting to discuss the danger to their Santa Claus Plan. Big Business decides that they could corner the Christmas market if there were just one official Santa Claus. But before that scheme can be hatched, the upsurge of colored peoples' independence must be taken care of (54). But it seems that even with a peace treaty signed between the major “white” countries, the darker peoples of the world still will not learn their place and are doing ridiculous things every day such as demanding decent housing, free education for their children, and enough food to eat. This is Reed's jab at “monopoly capitalism.” But unlike his critics, there is often a healthy dose of black villains in his work as well, such as the “talking Negro Android” in Mumbo Jumbo, and the Amos and Andy moochers of Louisiana Red.

As I have pointed out, the major points of disagreement between Reed and the key new black aesthetic critics are thematic, philosophical, and programmatic. Baker cannot condone Reed's use of negative black characters in Louisiana Red and Flight to Canada. The only truly negative black character to the aestheticians is the traitor to black causes; admittedly, causes whose validity is established by the aestheticians themselves. Gayle accuses Reed of constructing themes which are frivolous and backward, as in Mumbo Jumbo, or which substitute one harmful set of myths for another, as in Flight to Canada. To Baraka, Reed's approach to the serious problems which still face black Americans is flippant, traitorous, and his use of satire is an escape method for not naming the true cause of distress in the world: capitalist exploitation. And Baraka admits that there are those who would say that there may be errors in Baraka's judgments about Reed, since Baraka, himself, has said that he has been wrong before. To these critics, Baraka writes: “People always say, ‘Well what's Baraka doing now? he keep on changing.’ I am a Marxist-Leninist, because that is the most scientific approach to making revolution. But for a long time most of y'all knew I wanted to be a revolutionary. I'm still committed to change, complete social change. We just got to get back on it” (“Afro” 14).

Recently, Reed has tried to get away entirely from the notion of “aesthetics.” He calls the “black aesthetic thing … a northern urban, academic movement—that's why you have a fancy word like aesthetic which nobody figures out. When you come to talk about standards of taste, everyone differs” (Martin 187). Certainly, the major new black aestheticians never adapted their own critical boundaries enough to admit Reed into their circles of critical acceptance; and Reed shows no signs of reining in authorial methods which keep him on the outside of these boundaries. Yet, between these two opposites, one senses on the parts of both Reed and his critics, a lack of intended opposition and animosity, as though the two sides are being only what they intrinsically are, living out their artistic desires in the only ways they can, finding that, a priori, their methods for constructing a new black aesthetic cannot be fused together. On the part of the new black aestheticians, one senses that they saw their purposes as essential and higher than structural arguments may have led some to view their movement. It was a chance for black intellectuals to lay groundwork for a kind of literature and study of literature that had not before been done; a chance to influence a younger generation of writers—white as well as black—toward more than one standard. From all the heat and confusion, and genius, must have come some good. Perhaps Baraka sums up the idea best toward the end of his autobiography when he writes:

But even in that tradition, that dumb thrall, we built some actual things, we laid out a process of learning. For the close readers. We did step through madness and bullshit. But we were not just full-of-shit-tourists. We did take the city away from the lowest level, and if the next level is sickening, the task is of a higher order, and its solution is the current day's work. Are we up to it, anyone, anywhere? Of course, is the roared refrain.



  1. Baraka's own footnote on this term warrants quotation, as it is a sterling example of his search for exactness in diction and a perfect example of his particular kind of rhetoric:

    Capitulationist here equals general submission to the U.S. status quo of Black national oppression and racism; “Tom” would spell it out in classic Black cultural terms. I also use the scientific term comprador, which means literally an agent of the oppressor nation (in this case, a Black agent); “house nigger” we have traditionally called them, with some accuracy.

    (Black American Literature Forum 14)

Works Cited

Baker, Houston. “Books Noted.” Black World. (December 1982): 63.

———. “The Last Days of Louisiana Red—A Review.” Umnum Newsletter 4, 3-4 (1975): 6.

———. The Journey Back. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Baraka, Amiri. Raise, Race, Rays, Rage: Essays since 1965. New York: Random, 1971.

———. “What the Arts Need Now.” Negro Digest (Winter 1967): 43.

———. “Afro-American Literature and Class Struggle.” Black American Literature Forum 14, 1 (1980): 37-43.

———. The Autobiography. New York: Freundlich, 1984.

Domini, John. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” The American Poetry Review.

Gayle, Addison. The Black Aesthetic. New York: Doubleday, 1971.

———. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. New York: Doubleday, 1976.

———. “Black Women and Black Men: The Literature of Catharsis.” Black Books Bulletin 4 (1976): 48-52.

———. Wayward Child: A Personal Odyssey. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Gover, Roger. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” Black American Literature Forum 12 (1978): 12-19.

Jones, Leroi. “The Myth of a ‘Negro Literature.’” Black Expression: Essays by and about Black Americans in the Creative Arts. Ed. Addison Gayle. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969.

Martin, Reginald. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4, 2 (Summer 1984): 176-187.

Northouse, Cameron. “Ishmael Reed.” Conversations with Writers II. Ed. Richard Layman, et al. New York: Gale Research Co., 1978.

O'Brien, John. “Ishmael Reed.” The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. Ed. Joe David Bellamy. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1975.

Reed, Ishmael. The Free-Lance Pallbearers. New York: Bard, 1967.

———. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. New York: Bantam, 1969.

———. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Avon, 1972.

———. “Hoodoo Manifesto #2: The Baker-Gayle Fallacy.” Umnum Newsletter 4, 3-4 (1975): 8.

———. A Secretary to the Spirits. London: BOK, 1976.

———. “You Can't Be a Literary Magazine and Hate Writers.” Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. New York: Avon, 1978.

———. The Terrible Twos. New York: McGraw, 1959.

Shepperd, Walter. “An Interview with Clarence Major and Victor Hernandez Cruz.” New Black Voices. Ed. Abraham Chapman. New York: Mentor, 1972: 545.

Reginald Martin (essay date spring 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3384

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 occurrence in the narrative is more in keeping with the ways contemporary people influenced by popular culture really speak. By purposely mixing the myriad aspects of language from different sources in popular culture, Reed pulls into individual cardinal functions (one closed set of narrative actions; Barthes) words and expressions which create the fictive illusion of real speech. Though the emotive effect is bathetic, evoking interest and humor because of seeming incongruencies, the language Reed uses comes from concrete päróles (selected, individual utterances from the field of all available language usage [längúe]; Saussure) of the present day. The involved reader in the text knows that contemporary language is not static, is in fact in tremendous flux, and that actual people mix levels of diction constantly to achieve the desired communicative effect; and the proof of the validity of Reed's artistic method is the ease with which his characters display bathetic discourse.

In his second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Ishmael Reed begins for the first time to use at length Vodoun (Voodoo; Hoodoo) methods and folklore as a base for his work. A description of Vodoun is important here. Although the culturally-absorptive, syncretic, religious base for Voodoo (Originally Vodoun from the Creole French version of the Dahomey Vodu; also possibly etymylogically related to the West African word for magic, JuJu) is of West African origin, the myriad religious, spiritual, and social elements that make up what are now called Voodoo beliefs are actually of Caribbean origin. Elements of Caribbean Voodoo influence are easily found among West African peoples, the Devego and the Shango for instance, who were influenced by re-patriated Africans from the Caribbean Diaspora, such as the Maroons. Elements native to the Yoruba religion of Nigeria, said to be one of the origin countries of syneretic, African religions, are found to be joined with elements from sources which are alien. The major Yoruban elements of Voodoo are: 1) the fetish [a physical icon], 2) trance, 3) Voodoo gods and their spiritual essences (loas), 4) sacrifice, 5) offerings, 6) magic, and 7) an absence of a clear hierarchy in its gods (Voodoo 5-8). The fetish, in Voodoo terminology, has a tri-parite meaning: a) it may be an icon, b) the human may “carry” the fetish attributed to a god (the human carrier is then labeled a “horse”) and show a quality attributed to a god, or c) the fetish may be the god, itself, in control of the horse. The carrier of such Voodoo spirituality may be human or inanimate, but the carrier is not the fetish itself. The fetish or god “rides” the horse. The spiritual part of a fetish is a part of everything (animism), but remains an entity unto itself. A western analogy which may serve is the idea of the expanding celestial spheres of Gnosticism, a concept in which each particle of the expanding number of spheres retains some remnant of the original Source or God-head in its being. The function of any fetish is to increase its power in a horse, so that for a time a horse may be more divine and possess supernatural powers for use. The form the fetish may take depends upon the ritual situation in which it exists.

The trance is the method by which a fetish (god or god-essence) is brought more into the corporeal sphere. If a god does possess the carrier during the trance ritual, then the carrier's human essence is sublimated by the identity of the god. In Voodoo, these transmissions are dynamic and emotional, while in original Yoruba, they are more refined (Voodoo 10).

The Voodoo gods are unlike most church-sanctioned gods or saints of European origin, in that Voodoo gods are often malicious. Indeed, most Voodoo gods are quite human in personality range and are subject to severe mood shifts. In this way, the gods are thought to be more human, and, thus, more understanding of human strengths, weaknesses, and desires.

Sacrifices are often used to evoke the presence of a god during a ritual ceremony. Common sacrifices are food, alcohol (especially gin), tobacco, and perfume. These offerings are spilled or imbibed during the invocation. Sometimes a small animal may be killed for the evocation; at other times, dancing or chanting rituals are the demands of the gods. Offerings of food play a large part in evoking the fetish because food may be the stipulative representative of man in the world of the gods. Gert Chesi in Voodoo: Africa's Secret Power explains that while fruit and foodstuffs have no intellect, “they have metaintellect. They are the product of a creator who makes use of a higher intelligence; thus they have a share of this intelligence, and, because of their metaphysical qualities, they may stand up for man with all his problems in the world of the gods” (8).

Magic in Voodoo may be either black or white; white magic is used to summon gods who can be used for positive actions; gods who will perform negative actions, such as the punishment of an enemy, are summoned by black magic (the adjectival ascriptions have no connotative, racial association). I want to point out that, in general, black magic is used only for what the houngan or “holy person” feels is good cause: a prior murder, theft, or a previous act of violence. There seems to be no clearcut hierarchy of gods in Voodoo. And the number of gods is tremendous. Any person or thing may become a god under the right circumstances; an individual who makes an exemplary act, a divine manifestation of human emotion, or an object which is connected with a supernatural happening may all be transfigured into gods.

Underlying all of these components are the two main bases of the Voodoo religion: 1) the Voodoo concept of syncretism and 2) the Voodoo concept of time. Yoruba, as it existed before the exportation of slaves to the Caribbean, was even then a syncretic religion, absorbing all that it considered useful from other West African religious practices. Upon the return of blacks from the Caribbean, Yoruba was infused with Voodoo practices. The plantation owners of Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and other countries introduced Christianity to the slaves because it was seen as a tranquilizer, something to “help” the slaves become more docile in their acceptance of the horrors of slave life in this world, and giving them the belief that if they were faithful slaves, they would go to a better world when they died. But the slaves were not placated by this, as can be witnessed by the successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1801. Haiti is also generally recognized as the birth place of Voodoo. Although given Christian principles in skeletal form, the slaves appropriated, or syncretized, many aspects of Christianity, including saintly icons as well as Catholic practices which were used in rituals against the slaves' oppressors. Thus, figures such as St. Paul and the Virgin Mary appear as Voodoo fetishes. In Voodoo murals, Catholic symbols and Voodoo symbols appear side by side as positive or negative talismans (Haitian 54-59).

During the great cultivation period of Voodoo in the Caribbean, roughly from 1650 (the beginnings of the forcible removal of West Africans by the Portuguese) to 1800 (the beginnings of the Haitian revolt against France) West Africa itself was undergoing great religious change due to the 1200 years of influence of Islam and the more recently arrived Hinduism. Consequently, Voodoo (Hoodoo is the United States' version) returned to an African religious landscape already greatly altered and different from the original Yoruban landscape it had left behind. Presently, one finds aspects of all of the aforementioned religions, along with icons and practices from each, present in Voodoo. Thus, Voodoo, a religion formed under the pressure of degrading social conditions to give human beings dignity and a connection with helpful supernatural forces, thrives because of its syncretic flexibility; its ability to take anything, even ostensibly negative influences, and transfigure them into that which helps the horse. It is bound by certain dogma or rites, but such rules are easily changed when they become oppressive, myopic, or no longer useful to current situations.

It is this concept of syncretism that Reed turns into a literary method. All aspects which he can borrow from the päróle of längúe are used to positive ends; in other words, any aspects of “standard” English, dialect, slang, argot, neologisms, or rhyming for rhetorical ends, are used. Secondly, Reed effectively uses to great advantage emotive terms from all of these aspects of English. In a key scene in Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Talking Negro Android, Woodrow Wilson Jefferson, who has educated himself on the writings of Marx and Engels, is saved by his Baptist preacher father from the clutches of the evil Hincle Von Vampton (Carl Van Vetchen). Though Jefferson converses only as bespeaks his training in mid-19th-century polemics, his father from “Rē-mōte,” Mississippi speaks in a combination of King James Bible English and “Black English.” The incongruences of the two types of language, along with the emotive situation, achieves Reed's desired emotive effects: cathartic humor through bathetic constructions, and audience recognition of the folk idiom. Upon seeing Von Vampton and Jefferson applying skin bleacher to Jefferson's face, his father responds:


The 3, Hubert, Hinckle, and W. W., turn to see a huge man dressed in a black Stetson, Wild Bill Hickok flowing tie and black clergyman outfit and cowboy boots.


The 3 deacons accompanying Rev. Jefferson kneel as Rev. Jefferson stretches his hands toward the heavens.

Lawd we axes you to pray over this boy … mmmmmmmmm an' deliver this child away from these naked womens and sweet black mens. And save his soul from torment … mm.


After stuffing his son into a cotton sack, Rev. Jefferson responds “New Yorkers ain't the only 1s possess a science” (164), evoking John 2:14 (Christ and the money-lenders) as his explanation for beating Von Vampton. But Rev. Jefferson is speaking to justify more than his use of violence. He stipulatively speaks for Reed and justifies Reed's usage of syncretic method as valid literary technique.

The emotive effectiveness and economy of syncretism harkens back to the difference between an oral culture and a literate culture, and the particular origins of the Afro-American oral background. To provide for and elicit emotive response from the listener is of greatest importance to the Afro-American imparter of a narrative. This method springs not only from the African oral culture background of black Americans, but also from the degrading status they have been forced to occupy in American society. As Berndt Ostendorf writes in Black Literature in White America (1982), much of the striving for emotive terms in modern Afro-American writing comes not only from a racial and cultural past, but also a social one as “black oral culture and folklore has been trained for centuries in the art of squeezing a large measure of emotional ‘liberty’ from the enjoyment of the here and now, thus to make the lack of civil and conceptual liberty tolerable” (29). And further, Ostendorf states:

In oral culture performance and style are central, while little attention is paid to textual complexity and discursive logic … in oral cultures semantic ratification is immediate and linguistic invention the norm. They are warm hosts to loan words and breeding grounds for neologisms and slang. They favor performance words over content words, i.e., words with affective rather than cognitive wealth. Echoes of the ‘oral modality’ of black speech are to be found in black poetry even today.


Note in this exchange in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down between Loop Garoo and Zozo, who are discussing the betrayal of Loop by his girlfriend, Black Diane, the disjunction in levels and textures of diction, sentence length, and sentence structure:

I let her open my nose Zozo. I should have known that if she wasn't loyal to him with as big a reputation as he had—I couldn't expect her to revere me. What a line that guy had. A mit man from his soul. And her kissing his feet just because those three drunken reporters were there to record it. Ever read their copy on that event Zozo? It's as if they were all witnessing something entirely different. The very next night she was in my bunk gnashing her teeth and uttering obscenities as I climbed into her skull.

She got to your breathing all right Loop. Even the love potion you asked me to mix didn't work, the follow-me-powder. Her connaissance was as strong as mine.


Along with the inclusion of a contemporary index which roots the narrative in reality, (“drunken reporters,”) these passages mirror what Reed believes to be general, contemporary discourse structures, even though the characters involved are fantastic and surreal. The euphemistic expressions are not “standard,” but they achieve Reed's intended effect, verisimilitude, because, first, the involved reader in the text knows that contemporary language is not static, is in fact in tremendous flux, and that actual people mix levels of diction constantly to achieve the desired communicative effect; and, secondly, Reed's characters seem more believable because they display their discourse with such seeming ease, comfort, and naturalness. Slang expressions occupy the same paragraph as pollysyllabic, “standard” discourse (“open my nose,” and “got to your breathing,” in conjunction with “revere me” and “uttering obscenities as I climbed into her skull.”)

The historical sense of time in Reed's discourse, based on the African concept of time, is not linear, or diachronic, as diachronicity is commonly discussed in Western terms. Obviously, this is not to say that Africans do not acknowledge the passage of time; but along with this acknowledgement goes a most pointed emphasis on the present, the here-and-now. Dates are not generally ascribed to the past, and in narrative past events overlap with present events. Ostendorf notes that time is “telescoped;” that there is no concept of a future, just the certainty that nothing will bring an end to man's existence. Reed's version of this synchronicity incorporates a future by believing in time as a circle of revolving and re-evolving events, but the past/present concept is certainly maintained in the way characters correspond about past and present matters as though they were simultaneous.

All of Reed's books exhibit dystaxy, i.e., the disruption of linear narrative, but certainly the book which gives the best example of Reed's use of dystaxic, synchronic development in its various forms is Flight to Canada (1976). The “time” of the novel is the antebellum period. But that time period overlaps with the present (1976) through the use of contemporary indices such as language lexicon, cardinal references, and the situational responses of the characters. For example, the characters make long-distance phone calls when in distress; Raven Quickskill, the crafty slave who escapes, joins the lecture circuit and uses a jet to travel through Canada, where he delivers his abolitionist speeches, reads his poetry, and collects his honoraria; Josiah Henson's spirit appears to lambast Harriet Beecher Stowe for stealing from Henson's slave narrative the plot for Uncle Tom's Cabin. Leechfield, another escaped slave, is making a fortune selling photographs of himself with women through an antebellum pornography magazine: “I'll be your slave for the night,” one pictorial caption might read, not unlike the “personal” ads in the Village Voice (a newspaper given its original name, The East Village Other, by Reed).

This overlapping-period, synchronic effect does several important things for Reed. First, it mimics the African oral culture sense of time, an intention of Reed's, and, secondly, and relatedly, it takes the narrative out of the routine, the linear, the dull. And dullness, again, is one of the things Reed's writing is rhetorically against. Thirdly, the narrative structure offers Reed a way to construct historical causes and parallels for present-day events in his attempt to write what he calls “detective” fiction (Martin 180). Reed's Hoodoo term for this is necromancy. Unlike the evil forces in a novel by Dashiell Hammett or J. M. Cain, the villain in Reed's brand of hard-boiled action is usually a myopic system, racist policy, or black-backwardness in the face of oppression, not a gang boss, hopeless drifter, or rich-girl-gone-wrong. There are criminals in Mumbo Jumbo to be sure, but they are, like Hinckle Von Vampton, ones who steal one's sense of self and steal one's soul; only by associated action do they steal one's purse. Lastly, the synchronicity of Reed's narratives roots the books in more of a contemporary reality. That is, contemporary life is fast-paced, each moment filled with several expected responses to several unexpected events, and any number of events important to an individual take place simultaneously. The individual who faces the maddening present without a sense of historical cause, and, thus, without a balm for the madness in its explanation, is not only existential; he or she is lost.

Further, Reed's type of synchronicity takes several simultaneous events, seemingly unrelated, and arranges them so that later they coalesce to further the ends of the plot. His plot structures are archetypes of detective fiction in that they are periodic: details first, main idea, or answer, revealed at the end. This method is taken to Rabelaisian proportions in the final section of Mumbo Jumbo, wherein, the origins of evil and the origins of the “original Afro-American aesthetic” are revealed in a long, detailed, diachronic section which begins with the creation of the world by the Egyptian sky-goddess, Nut, and ends with the Hoodoo priest (houngan) Papa LaBas lecturing to college classes in the 1960's about the powers of Voodoo. Flashbacks also aid in the traditional detective plot and Reed's brand of synchronic development, as they are bits of narrative, interspersed throughout the plot, which are not necessarily interpreted or related together until the end of the novel when the “answer” or culprit is revealed. This also leads to the text's reflexiveness, as the text intermittently turns back upon itself to explain itself.

This narrative self-referentiality is not always so simple to decipher, as all of Reed's novels are readerly texts; he expects the reader to be familiar with past fiction and non-fictional events external to the particular novel at issue. Reed also expects the reader to “make” the text and its implications by way of understanding the narrative games being played. The fact that the 1976 publication of Flight to Canada is a direct response and a counter-blast to the publishing of Alex Haley's Roots, and that both books can be appreciated much better with this knowledge, is something of which Reed expects the interested reader to be aware. Moreover, without a readerly knowledge of historical and contemporary personages, much of the satirical effect of any Reed novel is lost. A part of the cause of oppression, in Reed's scheme of things, is ignorance, and he will not accept ignorance from his readers; thus, an aspect of any Reed novel is didactic. Again, the point of syncretism as a literary method for Reed is that it pulls together from all existing language-level and discourse possibilities those utterances which he feels are most effective in illuminating the fictional situation he has created.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” Trans. Lionel Duisit. New Literary History 7, 2. (Winter 1975): 67-73.

Chesi, Gert. Voodoo: Africa's Secret Power. Austria: Perlinger-Verlag Ges. m.b.II., 1979.

Martin, Reginald. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4:2 (Summer 1984): 176-87.

Ostendorf, Berndt. Black Literature in White America. New Jersey: Noble, 1982.

Reed, Ishmael. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

———. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Avon, 1972.

———. Flight to Canada. New York: Avon, 1976.

Stebich, Ute. Haitian Art. New York: Harry Abrams, 1978.

Joe Weixlmann (essay date winter 1991-1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10334

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


Reenacting a mid-twentieth-century debate between the Marxists and the American New Critics, scholars of African American writing during the 1960s and '70s often disputed the relative importance of attending to a work's content, as opposed to its form. More recently, disagreements have centered on the appropriateness of critics' using contemporary theoretical models associated with Europe to help understand and interpret African American texts.1 At once above and central to these debates are the compositions of those African American writers whose works deconstruct the novel as genre. Critics may argue which tendencies constitute the heart (and soul) of African American writing, but fictions indisputably exist which, to quote Henry Louis Gates, “simultaneously critique both the metaphysical presuppositions inherent in Western ideas and forms of writing and the metaphorical system in which the ‘blackness’ of a writer and his [or her] experiences as a writer have been valorized as a ‘natural’ absence” (“Blackness” 297). Foremost among the contemporary African American writers who have undertaken this project in a concerted, ongoing manner are Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major. Both, in quite different ways, have produced important, rigorously anti-illusionistic works which, in giving new freedom, direction, and shape to black cultural reality, have undermined bourgeois concepts and structural traditions which for centuries have defined “the novel.”


Ishmael Reed's self-conscious use of form is as noticeable as it is distinctive. His writing is pun-packed and moves to a variety of jazz and blues rhythms; the cinema informs his quick-splice scene changes; a metafictional impulse plays lightly through his tales; exuberant parody abounds; and purposeful anachronism penetrates his reader's defenses. Reed's literary canon is permeated by his unique blend of the verbal and visual, prosaic and poetic, old and new, fictive and factual, serious and satiric, African and American, traditional and popular. “I think the linear novel is finished,” he remarked in 1978. “As a matter of fact, I don't think we're going to call [books that are normally referred to as novels] ‘novels’ anymore—that is a name that is imposed on us. … I would call mine a ‘work’” (Northouse interview 229).

Reed's deconstruction of the novel as genre is implicit in his first book-length fiction, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967),2 but with the publication of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down two years later, his deconstructionist project assumed the status of a plot element. In Yellow Back, which he described in 1974 as “the dismantling of a genre done in an oral way like radio” (“The Writer as Seer” 25), Reed, in a complex act of signification, inverts thematic patterns characteristic of the traditional Western, toys with the form of the subgenre, and exposes the racist assumptions of Western “civilization,” of which the novel itself is very much a part.

The protagonist of Yellow Back is the Loop Garoo Kid, a black cowboy whose name associates him with the loup-garou of folklore (figurally, one endowed with the ability to metamorphosize3). Loop's actions, in turn, associate him with the New Orleans “Work,” hoodoo. “Born with a caul over his face and ghost lobes on his ears, he was a mean night tripper …” (9). As the book opens, Loop is in the company of “New Orleans Hoodooine” Zozo Labrique (14), a woman cast out of her native Louisiana by the famed Marie Laveau. Members of a circus troupe, players, Loop and Zozo arrive in Yellow Back Radio, a small town which has been taken over by the local children, who have banished their parents. Enter the villain, land baron Drag Gibson, who rides in with his horde, murders Zozo and the children, and returns merciless, delimiting “order” to a region which had, temporarily, been relieved from the crush of “civilization.”

Scenes within this and subsequent sections of the novel are separated by two adjacent circles: one “filled in” black and the other “empty,” white. More than mere scene dividers, the paired circles (• ○), whose origin may be traced to voudou and Umbanda, cleverly permit black to become the principal element in the design (the darkened circle comes first) and to be figured as a presence. White, figured dominantly in Euro-American literature as a presence, becomes the second element, figured as an absence. Less polemically, the circles, as Robert Elliot Fox has pointed out, serve as a metaphor for the essential duality of existence,4 which voudou images in its Rada (“right-hand”) and Petro (“left-hand”) rites. Like the Taoist yin-yang that appears in Mumbo Jumbo (166) or the vé vé design on that book's covers, the paired circles connote life's necessary multiplicity. Culture, Reed would have us understand, is not limited to the West, and life should not be constrained by a singular concept of “correctness.”

Neither should “the novel” be one thing, as Reed makes clear at the beginning of the second section of Yellow Back, in which Bo Shmo and his “neo-social Realist gang” (34) descend on Loop. “I think that the Western novel is tied to Western epistemology,” Reed told John O'Brien in 1973, “the way people in the West look at the world. So it is usually realistic and has character development and all these things that one associates with the Western novel” (63). Loop and Bo fire words rather than bullets at one another in a scene that dramatizes Reed's central objection to the novel as genre in the West. According to Bo, whose kinship with the Black Aesthetic critics of the 1960s is thinly veiled, “All art must be for the end of liberating the masses” (36). “A real collectivist” (35), Bo “can't afford the luxury of individualism.” Loop Garoo, on the other hand, argues that the novel “can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons” (36). Play and imagination, Reed feels, are at least as important for the writer as are seriousness and realism, whose relationship to genuine literary excellence has been greatly overstated.

A “social realist” by disposition “and not very original,” Bo and his gang end their confrontation with Loop by “smear[ing] jelly on his face and bur[ying] him up to the neck in desert” (37). But being deconstructive and extremely innovative, Reed has Loop rescued in a manner that exposes several of the author's formal and thematic preoccupations. Chief Showcase, “a kind of patarealist Indian [who] go[es] about inventing do dads” (38), descends in a homemade helicopter “right out of Science Fiction” (37) and saves Loop. Purposeful anachronism, the outrageous interjection of a deus ex machina, and a positive image of multiethnic unity here fuse in a scene that is quintessentially Reed's.

Sci-fi and the Western, along with the electronic and print media, blend as Yellow Back moves toward its close. With Loop wittingly facing a martyr's death at the guillotine, “The Field Marshall” and his black-hatted “sleuths” mete out vengeance to Drag Gibson's thugs with their ray guns, and Drag is “munched” to death by some “greedy and unnatural animals” (172-73). But the newly arrived conquerors have time only to “annex Yellow Back to the East” before being slain by passing Amazons (173). Prefacing this overtly irrealistic surface action are a series of verbal exchanges between Loop and the fifteenth-century Pope Innocent VIII, who has come to “purge” Yellow Back of Loop's “evil.” The dialogue, which is calculatedly wooden, pits hoodoo versus Christianity and reenacts, in a somewhat more sophisticated manner, the confrontation between Bo Shmo and Loop earlier in the book. Voudou, according to Innocent, is “elastic” (153), unlike the relatively rigid doctrines of Christianity; and voudou's American counterpart, hoodoo, is even more flexible—or, to use the Pope's word, which happens to be one of Reed's favorites, syncretistic (154). A clever, worldly man who defines himself and his religion in opposition to “heathen” practice, the Pope accuses Loop of cultism (“mass murder, sexual excess, drugs, dancing, and music” [162]). In replying, Loop assumes the offensive, recalling the Catholic Church's actions during the Inquisition, which Loop images as “the triumph of the clerk, the bureaucrat” (162-63). Hoodoo, he argues, is not only more fluid but more culturally expansive—“a much richer art form than preaching to fishermen and riding into a town on the back of an ass” (163).

Like hoodoo, with its ability to absorb traditions drawn from worldwide religious practice, “the novel,” in Reed's view, must not be tied to externally-imposed criteria. It need not be realistic or naturalistic; its narrative need not be linear; its story need not be told from a single point of view. Rather, the novel, as the term itself suggests, must ever remain new. Techniques associated with the print media are valid, but so are those borrowed from oral cultures, the electronic media, or anywhere else. One of the burdens of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is to discuss and display some of the variation Reed feels to be central to the project of contemporary writing.

Compared to Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Yellow Back appears rather tame, for in the more recent work, photos, production stills, drawings, posters, symbols, and the like are integrated with Reed's words to form what Henry Louis Gates aptly describes as “a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative composed of sub-texts, pretexts, post-texts, and narratives-within-narratives” (“Blackness” 299)—not to mention a “Partial Bibliography.” Taking as its point of departure the detective novel, in much the same way that Yellow Back spins off from the traditional Western, Mumbo Jumbo evinces Reed's desire to deconstruct the epistemology of the detective novel subgenre, with its emphasis on realism, linearity, and ratiocination. Unlike the brooding, rational Sherlock Holmes or, for that matter, the hard-boiled sleuths of American fiction, Reed's detective, PaPa LaBas, is above all else intuitive. His name, as Gates has noted, suggests both the voudou loa (deity) Ésú, in Haiti called Papa Legba, a pan-African trickster figure, and Eh La-Bas, a phrase used in New Orleans jazz recordings of the '20s and '30s (“Blackness” 300). A “two-headed man” (or hoodoo) who “Works” out of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, LaBas eschews “empirical evidence,” preferring to understand phenomena through dreams, feelings, and his “Knockings.” “… Before this century is out,” LaBas contends, “men will turn once more to mystery, to wonderment; they will explore the vast reaches of space within instead of more measuring more ‘progress’ more of this and more of that” (28).

Even more overtly than in Yellow Back, Mumbo Jumbo dramatizes the direct confrontation between Euro- and Afro-centric thought and culture. As the novel opens, there has erupted what Reed, signifying on Harriet Beecher Stowe, calls a “Jes Grew” epidemic, which he associates, specifically, with African religious practice (voudou) and dance.5 Jes Grew, writes Reed, is “an anti-plague” which enlivens the host; it is as “electric as life and is characterized by ebullience and ecstasy” (9). Establishing, from the outset, the schism between Western and African sensibilities, and recalling Loop Garoo's tête a tête with Innocent VIII, Reed adds that “terrible plagues were due to the wrath of [the Christian] God; but Jes Grew is the delight of the [African] gods” (9). Introducing the book's central mystery, Reed tells us, further, that “… Jes Grew is seeking its words. Its text” (9). And the search for that text is on.

From one side march the protectors of the Great Western Way—Reed calls them the “Wallflower Order,” and links them with the Knights Templar. The Order, in turn, is described as being a part of the “Atonist Path”—after the Egyptian king Akhenaton, a sun worshipper who, like Blake's Urizen, or Saint Paul, attempted to establish The One Law, ending polytheistic worship and effectively severing human ties with the natural world in its variety. The Order's twentieth-century goal is the same as it has been historically: to stamp out native religions and their texts—in this case, the ancient, lost Book of Thoth, which we learn, has surfaced after centuries of absence.

Opposing the Atonists is PaPa LaBas, who, unlike his antagonists, is a pluralist, and a player, like the Egyptian mythological figure Osiris, whom Reed discusses in the long fifty-second chapter of Mumbo Jumbo. An exemplar of Jes Grew, Osiris, we're told, “became known as ‘the man who did dances that caught-on,’ infected people” (184). In Reed's poem “why i often allude to osiris,” he remarks that “prefiguring J[ames] B[rown] he / funky chickened into / ethiopia & everybody had / a good time. osiris in / vented the popcorn, the / slow drag & the lindy hop” (43).

The climax of Mumbo Jumbo embodies an exquisite parody of the traditional detective novel's scene of confrontation and disclosure. LaBas gathers together the book's living principals in Villa Lewaro and proceeds to explain the Atonists' active role in the suppression of Jes Grew's Text. He tells, as well, of the reason for Jes Grew's recent eruption: The Text got out, falling into the hands of a Black Muslim named Abdul Sufi Hamid, who rendered its Egyptian hieroglyphics into English with the idea of publishing it. But Hamid was found out by the Atonists, who killed him yet failed to recover the Text, the Book of Thoth. LaBas, on the other hand, seems to have done so, locating the Book's jeweled holder—only to discover, in a moment of counter-epiphany, that the case is empty, the Book of Thoth having presumably been burned by the prudish Hamid, who felt that the Book depicted rites which were “lewd, nasty, [and] decadent” (231).6 Meanwhile, Hamid's translation, spurned by an indifferent publisher, has become a casualty of the postal system.

With the written text(s) of Jes Grew gone, its manifestations once more recede. But as LaBas explains to his assistant, there is no need for alarm, since Jes Grew's true Text is not a book but a feeling—or, perhaps more precisely, a state of mind and being. “Jes Grew has no end and no beginning,” LaBas tells Earline. “Jes Grew is life … We will make our own future Text. A future generation of artists will accomplish this” (233). Ultimately, Jes Grew is the music of Charlie Parker, the “second line” in a New Orleans funeral procession, the African American literary tradition—African American culture itself.

Mumbo Jumbo is interlaced with a plethora of pictorial and textual elements borrowed from external, and in many cases nonbellettristic, sources. There are photos, posters, and drawings; dictionary definitions, anagrams, and epigraphs; symbols, graphs, and newspaper clippings. And at the book's end there appears a 104-item bibliography drawn from such diverse disciplines as psychology, history, dance, religion, mythology, music, theatre, economics, journalism, design, literature, astrology, the occult, sociology, ethnology, art, oratory, political science, and the life sciences. Henry Louis Gates observes that, “just as our word ‘satire’ derives from satura, ‘hash,’ so Reed's form of satire is a version of ‘gumbo,’ a parody of form itself.” Gates adds that

the “Partial Bibliography” is Reed's most brilliant stroke, since its unconcealed presence (along with the text's other undigested texts) parodies both the scholar's appeal to authority and all studied attempts to conceal literary antecedents and influence. All texts, claims Mumbo Jumbo, are inter-texts, full of intra-texts. Our notions of originality, Reed's critique suggests, are more related to convention and material relationships than to some supposedly transcendent truth. … The device, moreover, mimics the fictions of documentation and history which claim to order the ways societies live.

(“Blackness” 301-02)

True enough, but, as Gates neglects here to state, though no doubt realizes, the principal aesthetic points that these seemingly digressive, even decorative, elements make is that a book need not be limited by genre or by discipline, that play is an acceptable (perhaps even necessary) element in art, and that the status of “fiction” need not be viewed as less than—or even other than—what commonly passes for reality.

In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed signifies on the Pursuit/Discovery/Disclosure-of-Truth pattern of detective fiction, in the process undermining the notion that “truth” is just one thing—or any thing. For Reed, truth, as a character states at the end of his 1976 novel Flight to Canada, is “a state of mind” (178). It can be experienced, felt, but not confined in a single form or shape. The way of singularity is the way of the Atonist Path. It is the way of Western thought and culture and the way of the traditional detective novel, in which the one or ones who done it are exposed. The African way, however, recognizes plurality, multiplicity, indeterminacy. It is the way of Papa Legba, the trickster, mediator, and signifier. It is the way of Papa Legba, the trickster, mediator, and signifier. It is the way that, like Topsy, “jes grew” and, avoiding fixity, continues to do so.

Reed returned to the detective novel subgenre in his next book-length fiction, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), but that book, less ambitious in theme and form, failed to move forward his deconstructionist project in any very meaningful way. It was with the publication of Flight to Canada two years later that Reed most fully examined the very concept of genre. Having explored some of the possibilities inherent in the Western and detective novel subgenres, Reed in Flight to Canada turned to an indigenous black pop-cultural form, the slave narrative, and in so doing produced what, for me, is one of his two great book-length works, the other being Mumbo Jumbo.7 Nominally the narrative of Raven Quickskill, an escaped slave poet, and told from both the first- and third-person points of view, Flight to Canada is, were one making traditional classifications, part prose fiction, part literary historiography, part sociopolitical historiography, part poetry, part drama, and part autobiography. And while the book lacks the visual dimension of Mumbo Jumbo, it employs effects borrowed from, as well as situations describing, the electronic media, especially television.

If Flight to Canada's contribution to the development of contemporary African American writing has been less widely acknowledged than it deserves to be, the reason might inhere in the fact that Reed's deconstructionist impulses tend to get a bit lost amid the book's fabulous surface action, with its freewheeling satiric style and abundant anachronisms. Here is a tale that opens with the narrator's observation that Edgar Allan Poe, who died in 1850 and from whose literary works Reed distills the quintessential nature of the Southern mythos he develops in the book, should be “recognized as the principal biographer” of the Civil War (10). Despite the book's nineteenth-century setting, men in it wear leisure suits and use Coffee Mate; Quickskill, who subsequently claims to have escaped the South on a jumbo jet, learns of Lincoln's assassination while watching a live television production of the play Our American Cousin from Ford's Theater; and Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters can be seen discussing former Canadian Prime Minister Henry Trudeau and his wife Margaret on the evening news while Jefferson Davis schemes to undermine the Union. Reed wants us to understand that slavery continues to inform American social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics, although the war which was to have ended slavery was fought more than a hundred years ago.

Slavery and its corollary freedom are Reed's true subjects in Flight to Canada, and it is in this context that his attitude toward the concept of literary genre may be fully understood and appreciated. How ironic that critics debate whether Reed is a better poet or novelist,8 for he makes it clear in Flight to Canada that genre is one of the many capricious restrictions which Western culture has attempted to establish as meaningful. Like Reed himself, who begins Flight to Canada with a poem of the same name and punctuates it with the verse “Saga of Third World Belle,” Quickskill, we are told, is “so much against slavery that he began to include prose and poetry in the same book, so that there would be no arbitrary boundaries between them” (88). Generic distinctions, Reed makes clear, foster a kind of literary Jim Crowism. They would fragment what is, or should be, unified; fence off what should be open; restrict the writer's sense of identity, individuality, and the freedom to create.

What Flight to Canada offers us through its movement among a broad assortment of literary genres, as well as in and through time, is an emblem of the author's need to be independent of restriction if he or she is to produce significant work. As Reed exposes the schemes and lusts of Lincoln, Davis, Gladstone, and Queen Victoria; as he lays bare Harriet Beecher Stowe's callous theft of ex-slave narrator Josiah Henson's Life for use in Uncle Tom's Cabin; as Quickskill becomes an ever more thinly-veiled spokesperson for Reed's views on critics, audiences at poetry readings, those who would restrict the production and distribution of culture at all levels, the New York literary establishment, and so forth; as racist scenes from Our American Cousin flicker across the television screen; and as all of these blend with Reed's poems and prose fiction—a physical image of authorial freedom emerges. The book's structure does not simply reinforce meaning; it presents diversity-in-action. In Flight to Canada, Reed does not merely examine the effects of genre-based distinctions, he produces an overt representation of freedom.

By including a lengthy treatise on Egyptology (ch. 52) and “documentary” intra-texts within Mumbo Jumbo, and by appending a “Partial Bibliography” to the narrative, Reed suggests that products of an author's fictive imagination can contribute as fully to the world's thought as scientific and historical tracts do. In Flight to Canada, he begins on the first page of the narrative to eradicate what he regards as the false distinction between what passes for truth, on the one hand, and for imaginative fancy, on the other. “Who is to say what is fact and what is fiction?” asks Quickskill (7). History, he adds, “will always be a mystery. … New disclosures are as bizarre as the most bizarre fantasy” (8). Not content to rest the case there, Reed proceeds actively to blend historical and fictional characters and accounts. Only when liberated from the arbitrary enclosures which society attempts to erect around the writer is he or she able to explore the full range of human thought and knowledge.

Quickskill's former master Arthur Swille prattles that literacy is “‘the most powerful thing in the pre-technological pre-post-rational age’” (35). Quickskill himself phrases the proposition more clearly. Asked by a fellow escapee, 40s, “What good is words?” Quickskill responds that “words built the world and words can destroy the world” (81). Raven uses his verbal and imaginative talents to create the partly factual, partly fanciful poem “Flight to Canada,” the honorarium from which supports his escape from America; he also uses his literary endowments to “writ[e] passes … forg[e] freedom papers” and “fool around with [Swille's] books” (35). But the most impressive literary act in the book is performed by Uncle Robin, who we learn has used his creative abilities to “dabble with [Swille's] will” (171) and, in so doing, inherit his former master's estate.9

Flight to Canada anticipates critic Robert Stepto's thesis in From Behind the Veil that the themes of freedom and literacy are central to the African American literary experience (ix). Reed not only wishes to avoid self-negation, but like his protagonists Raven and Robin, he wants to soar above banal definitions of both “great writing” and “great black writing.” He reminds us that “there was much avian imagery in the poetry of slaves. Poetry about dreams and flight. They wanted to cross that Black Rock Ferry [from Buffalo's West Side] to freedom [across the Niagara River in Canada] even though they had different notions as to what freedom was” (88).

Because little in this relativistic universe which we inhabit is genuinely objective, Reed would have us believe that true significance resides within a self permitted to explore a full range of possibilities. And lest this position seem solipsistic, Reed is careful to add that those who achieve self-definition without relatively broad social concern and multicultural awareness do so at their peril. What he calls his Neo-HooDoo aesthetic is an understanding built syncretically upon information and beliefs drawn from investigation of and response to a variety of cultures. In its simplest form, Neo-HooDoo is the assertion of black prerogative in the face of the white West's attempt to negate African American identity; voudou is presented as a more than worthy antipode to Western rationalism. But as the Mu'tafikah group in Mumbo Jumbo, Quickskill's involvement with Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara in Flight to Canada, Loop Garoo's association with Chief Showcase in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and the essays collected in God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982) make clear, Reed's is a multicultural imagination sensitive to the accomplishments of black, red, yellow, brown, and white peoples.10 Neo-HooDoo is process as well as product; it is not limited by a single set of tenets.


Like Reed, Clarence Major has produced literary objects which deconstruct the novel as genre. As early as 1969, Major wondered aloud “if the present forms of the novel [we]re worth saving,” adding that “the word ‘novel’ itself is really inappropriate” (Shepperd interview 122). In 1973, he told John O'Brien that he was “working very deliberately” to break down what he thought were “the false distinctions between poetry and fiction” (137). Either quote might have come from Reed's mouth, yet each writer has approached his deconstructionist task in a fundamentally different manner.

In a 1964 essay, author Donald Barthelme reflected that, in the mature writing of Gertrude Stein and especially James Joyce, “… the literary work becomes an object in the world rather than a text or commentary upon the world—a crucial change in status which was also taking place in painting.” This fundamental shift in focus, Barthelme contends, produced “a stunning strategic gain for the writer.” No longer is the reader “listening to an authoritative account of the world delivered by an expert … but bumping into something that is there, like a rock or a refrigerator” (13). Having produced this “strange object,” the writer calls on readers to discern what they can about the work: “The reader reconstitutes the work by active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his [or her] ear to hear the roaring within. It is characteristic of the object that it does not declare itself all at once, in a rush of pleasant naivete” (14).

The strategy Barthelme defines, and practiced in his own writing, has relevance for the work of Ishmael Reed, who, in a 1973 interview with John O'Brien, imaged himself not as a novelist or a poet but as “a fetish-maker. I see my books,” he said, “as amulets. … in ancient African cultures words were considered … to have magical meanings and books were considered to be charms” (63). In exploratory works like Mumbo Jumbo and Flight to Canada, Reed's disdain for traditionally structured print narrative is apparent. Theme and form combine to produce empowered and empowering objects that both defy facile categorization and promote a genuine sense of literary and sociopolitical freedom. Works, fetishes, amulets—they are not, in any normative sense, novels.

Yet Reed's works stray from Barthelme's definition of a literary object insofar as they sustain a rather intense “commentary upon the world.” Reed's The Terrible Twos (1982) and The Terrible Threes (1989), for example, demand to be understood within the context of the sociopolitical conservatism associated with the Reagan and Bush administrations, and Reckless Eyeballing (1986) overtly dramatizes the impact of the writing of black feminists on the shape of contemporary literary politics in America—at times becoming a roman à clef. Moreover, while some undergraduates have difficulty understanding Reed's work, and while it certainly rewards rereading and extended analysis, it is scarcely inaccessible. Strange, perhaps, but not alien, it “declares itself” more readily than most of Major's books do. One of the strengths of Flight to Canada is that its many, often bizarre components mesh so effectively; the book's somewhat convoluted narrative structure tends to mask the fact that it is a tidy work devoid of verbal or thematic fat.

Major's Reflex and Bone Structure (1975), Emergency Exit (1979), and especially My Amputations (1986) adhere far more closely to the pattern Barthelme delineates. According to Major, “The kind of novel that I'm concerned with writing is one that takes on its own reality and is really independent of anything outside itself. … I don't want to say that a novel is totally independent of the reality of things in everyday life, but it … certainly [does] not [involve] the kind of reflection that's suggested by the metaphor of the mirror” (O'Brien interview 130). Major's principal contribution to the African American deconstruction of the novel as genre has to do with his creating works which are, structurally and thematically, even more indeterminant than Reed's—books less linear and less fastened to “reality,” as it is conventionally conceived.


Written, like Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, with the detective novel tradition as a principal sub-text, Major's Reflex and Bone Structure (1975) is one of the most formally exploratory fictions of the 1970s.11 More clearly disruptive, even discontinuous, in its narrative flow than any of Reed's works, Major's book undermines the central expectations of the who-done-it. Not only do we never learn, in any meaningful sense, who did, but we get fragmentary, not infrequently conflicting accounts of the details of the murder of Cora and her lover Dale. “I want the mystery of this book to be an absolute mystery,” says the narrator (61), who gets his wish. Clues concerning the crime pop up regularly, only to have the narrator inform us that he has made them up. And while we do learn, on the book's last page, that the narrator has, in one sense, caused the characters' deaths—“They step into a house. It explodes. It is a device. I am responsible. I set the device” (145)—his act is the act of a storyteller as storyteller; his device is a literary one. Any “real” explanation for the explosion will have to be found elsewhere.

In Reflex and Bone Structure, Major eschews even the most fundamental tenets of realism. Cora, for example, “dies” no fewer than five times in the book: in the explosion which scatters pieces of her body about a room (1); in a car crash (25); in an airplane crash (42); after being run over by a speeding taxi, which stops, “backs up and runs over her again” (111); and after being abused by four thugs, one of whom turns out to be Cora herself (110). The buffoons of the piece are the police detectives, who attempt, scientifically, to disclose the “truth” of Cora's and Dale's murders. Theirs is more an exercise in stupidity than futility. Their epistemology is no less flawed than are their methods.

Acted out against a backdrop that includes “real-life” events—black militancy; the Vietnam War; travel to the Grand Canyon, Greenwich Village, North Dakota, Russia, and so forth—the book's status as an artifact is rigorously upheld. One of the few metafictions in African American literature, Reflex combines the story of its own processes as a fictional work with the tale of Cora and her lovers, who include the narrator and a character named Canada as well as Dale. In fact, in certain important ways, Major's account of his novel's processes and construction supersedes the story of the book's characters. That Dale, the narrator, and the free-spirited Canada slide in and out of bed with Cora and otherwise interact with one another, involves the reader, as does the mystery surrounding Dale's and Cora's deaths; but it is the metafictional aspect of Reflex and Bone Structure which carries the book's intellectual weight.

Divided into two sections, “A Bad Connection” and “Body Heat,” which are further subdivided into more than a hundred seemingly disjunctive, sometimes contradictory prose fragments that range in length from one sentence to several pages, Reflex offers a thoroughgoing critique of the traditional novel's demands for narrative unity, character development, and the like. “Fragments,” opines the narrator, echoing the most famous pronouncement by any of Donald Barthelme's narrators, “can be all we have. To make the whole” (17). He later laments that “I find everything I touch falling to pieces, and the pieces themselves continue to break into smaller and smaller segments” (50). A problem for the narrator, this fragmentation is for Major a structural ploy which reinforces the theme of indeterminacy in the book.

Generally, the narrator insists that he is in control, that the characters are his to play with: “. … I keep them all moving going coming around, even when they don't care” (7). When Dale bothers the narrator, he simply “erase[s]” him (20). But the characters tend to be strong-willed. Canada, we're told, “invents and reinvents the world as he wishes it to be” (31). Dale images Cora “standing at the sink with an apron tied around her naked body” and sees her apartment as a “home … where he is boss.” But “that's Dale's vision. Cora erases it and replaces it with her own: she's at the sink, but she's fully dressed. … She is making supper for her man who will arrive soon.” Then “she realizes she must not confine herself to the kitchen. … she has many other sides. … She has endless meaning” (41-42). Even the book becomes a character of sorts: “This book can be anything it has a mind to be” (61, emphasis added), says the narrator, who on the penultimate page observes that “the book is pulling itself together” (144, emphasis added).

Ishmael Reed has a talent for drawing flat, two-dimensional characters that are well-suited to his parodic purposes. Major's characters are so flat that most cannot, in any conventional sense, be said to have identities. Introducing a technique that he would exploit more fully in Emergency Exit, Major denies the police detectives individuality. They could be distinguished, the narrator informs us, but he chooses not to do so:

The truth is I do not really give a shit about the names these men have who happen to be cops. One might be called U and he might be known to copulate with his victims, dead or alive. Another might be known as A because he looks like a bull, complete with horns. Still another could be called D as a symbol of door or doorway, and, if you like, you might even refer to one as B, if somehow you can see how he resembles a house.


Simultaneously, Major deconstructs the traditional notion that characters must be rounded and that their names should have symbolic significance. And this treatment is not reserved for supernumeraries. The most fully rendered of the characters, Cora, remains “elusive,” although the narrator claims that he “can handle” her (10); Canada, Dale, and the narrator are Jungian shadows of one another. Even gender distinctions are often eradicated: Cora “knows she is the opposite of what we have … clinically chosen to call ‘male.’ Yet, at the same time, she knows there is no opposite, really. … each man is partly female. And each woman is. … partly male” (73).

As in Reed's work, spatial and temporal dislocations abound in Reflex. As Canada, Dale, the narrator, and Cora sit around playing cards “to the sounds of Scott Joplin's piano. Roman soldiers break in. They say Agatha Christie sent them. They drag Cora outside and nail her to a cross planted in the sidewalk” (123-24). Earlier, Cora and the narrator are in bed watching a movie. Suddenly, “it's 1938. A Slight Case of Murder. Edward G. Robinson and Jane Bryan.” The narrator gets up to go to the bathroom and, looking in the mirror on his return, sees “Little Caesar … [and] wink[s] at him in the mirror. He winks back” (3). Some time later, “… Canada does a transatlantic lindy hop from Europe to the states and landing in a courtroom in the South, he accidently gets sentenced to the penitentiary as one of the Scottsboro boys” (46).

Not socially conscious in the way that Reed's books are, Major's work more radically deconstructs not only traditional notions of the novel but also our conventional means of perceiving and structuring reality. If Reed's project is preeminently epistemological and ethical—designed to return the reader to questions of belief and value—Major's is more distinctively metaphysical—designed to make the reader examine the very nature of what passes for reality. The proposition that fiction directly mirrors life is central to the so-called realistic school of American writing, of which the traditional detective novel, along with the preponderance of African American fiction, is so much a part. But in Reflex and Bone Structure, Clarence Major makes explicit what his earlier works All-Night Visitors (1969) and NO (1973) merely hint at: The writer creates his or her own reality. Literary works are necessarily bound to the phenomenal world only by their status as artifacts within that world (namely, those things we call books, or performances) and by virtue of their being extensions of authors whose imaginative acts brought them into existence. “I'm extending reality,” quips Major's narrator, “not retelling it” (49).

Implicit in Major's metafictional insights is a statement of the need to question all received “truths.” Modern physics (not to mention experience) has shown ours to be a multivalent world in which investigation is more likely to widen the number of possible alternatives than it is to ferret out a single, unassailable answer. And ours is also a world in which African Americans, along with members of other historically oppressed groups, must develop their own definitions of truth, refusing to permit themselves to be seduced by the subjective assessments others have attempted to institutionalize as irrefutable facts.

Emergency Exit (1979) moves forward the deconstructionist project announced in Reflex. Dedicated “to the people whose stories do not hold together” (vii), Emergency Exit tells of life in Inlet, Connecticut, where, in an “attempt to restore moral sanity and honor and dignity” (8), the town fathers pass a statute which mandates that “all males (over the age of 21) will be required to lift from the ground … all females (over the age of 18) and carry such females through, beyond, out of … doorways, entranceways, exits, across, beyond, thresholds, of all buildings, dwellings, public and private, taking stern and serious care that no physical part of the bodies of said females touch in any manner whatsoever the physical parts of such entranceways, doorways and exits” (6). The narrator, a salesman for Superior Pussy, Inc., wryly observes that Inlet has purity, cleanliness, proper conduct, and racism “deep in the psyche” (9).

Social taboos, especially those having to do with human sexuality, have long held a fascination for Major, whose sympathies are decidedly anti-Freudian. And these taboos are violated regularly by Emergency Exit's Ingram family—Jim and Deborah, and their children Julie, Barbara, and Oscar. A catalyst for the novel was Major's being labeled a pornographer when he traveled to northwestern Connecticut in February 1972 to give poetry readings (Weixlmann 156), and at the heart of the book is an ongoing critique of what Major sees as a repressive American society whose distorted attitudes about “purity” spill over from the plane of sex to that of race.

Hyperbole is one of the techniques which Major uses to ridicule the importance which this society has placed on Freudian symbology. Emergency Exit, from its title to its final page, is consciously overburdened with uterine and vaginal symbols. To offer one example, the “Threshold Law” of Inlet, home of Superior Pussy, a firm which manufactures prosthetic vaginas (and penises), embodies the central, painful paradox of the book: “Women were creatures who periodically lost, ‘wasted,’ blood; therefore, they were born eternally guilty and damned.” From this stemmed the practice of their being “lifted and carried across the threshold,” with the understanding that “… they could not touch the doorway. Yet they, the givers of life itself, were the source of the symbolism and ritual. They were the doorway of life” (1). The patriarchy is determined to strip women of the power inherent in their ability to bear children. “I think the metaphor has its place,” Jim Ingram tells his daughter Julie, “but the place is historical” (55). Ours needs to be an era of openness and disclosure. “The world,” as Jim later informs his son, “is not an orderly place easily defined by a cozy myth” (67).

A highly episodic, digressive, and self-conscious book, Emergency Exit exposes the Ingram family's sexual indiscretions to the reader. Julie has had a brief involvement with Barry Sands, “a handsome young Jewish man” (17) who seems attracted by her blackness, and Barry, in turn, is pursued by Janice Page. Julie's principal lover, however, is Allen Morris, a black Harlemite who had earlier had a brief affair with her sister Barbara. Prior to his involvement with Julie, Allen was living with a black woman named Gail, who doesn't want their relationship to end. Julie also recalls her affairs with two Africans, Jomo and Julius, and with an American named Johnny Hawkins. Julie's father, Jim, who works for the CIA, has for some time been having an affair with a white woman named Roslyn Carter; and her mother, Deborah, has maintained an off-and-on relationship with a character we know simply as The African. Amid this maze of triangles and triangles-within-triangles, the characters tend to blur in much the same way that Cora's trio of male lovers merge in Reflex, at times assuming a generic identity—“He” / “She” (152) or “One” / “Two” (181). Never memorable, the lovers' language sometimes becomes indecipherable, degenerating into what might be called linguistic static (126, 132, 140, 187, 194). At other times, the words and sentences are intelligible, but there is no way in which to match them with a particular speaker or set of speakers (see, e.g., 77-78).

To what is already a diverse mix, Major adds a staggering number of intra-texts: epigraphs, paintings, various kinds of lists, visual and linguistic collages, schedules, catalogues, concrete (and other) poems, charts, photos, dictionary definitions, book excerpts, and news stories. As a literary object, Emergency Exit is in the tradition of Mumbo Jumbo, right down to its bibliography (175-76), although the works on Major's list are, in the main, invented. From Donald Barthelme's Snow White, Major has borrowed the idea of offering the reader several pages of absurd questions mid-book (128-29). John Barth's influence is briefly felt (145). And Vonnegut's parody, in Cat's Cradle, of the opening line of Melville's Moby-Dick would seem to be the source for Major's introductory “Call me Dracaena Messangeana. I don't mind” (3). While these gleanings are, to a large extent, imaginative significations on the avant-garde tradition, black and white, in American literature, they tend to lack the emotional punch that Reed's plurasignifications regularly deliver.

Still, critic Jerome Klinkowitz is, I think, correct in nothing that Emergency Exit introduces a genuine technical innovation. By blending examples of what Klinkowitz calls “pure writing” (“words and sentences and even scenes free from the burden to tell some kind of story”) with passages germane to the narrative, “the stuff of the narrative sections, which because of its socially recognizable nature would tend to refer out toward the documentary world, is instead made to refer in toward the novel itself—toward these passages of pure writing that are sustained throughout the book.” The result, says Klinkowitz, is “an important step in the evolution of the novel … since it solves the biggest problem for fiction: the fact that its constituents, words, fight an otherwise losing battle with the outside world of reference in a way that notes of music and daubs of paint do not” (48).

One memorable instance of this technique occurs early in the novel, as the middle paragraph in a series of three which show Major's exceptional range. In the first paragraph, Major parodies the realists' propensity to burden their descriptions with physical detail. (“Barbara has brought her fairy lamp with her Julie is working her embroidery frame Oscar is picking his abscesses with a silver pin Deborah scratches his fissures Barbara has an X-ray of a growth in her bladder. … Everything is insured especially the Chippendale antiques and the canted candlestick holder.”) But with the very next sentence, the reader is treated to a passage of “pure writing”:

I (your narrator) parked my car on the road went down to say hello to thirty cows eating grass they all came to the fence to greet me. I cut the fence and they stepped across the threshold into the ditch followed me up to the car we went down to the local beer pub and got smashed. The bartender was so delighted he set us up twice. Said all we have to do is vote for his man. I can't remember the guy's name.

Direct segue to a Freudian parody: “Deborah is playing with the ring on her finger. She watches the finger ease up to the opening then she plunges the finger through the ring. She pulls it out with just as much ceremony. It's fun she says her husband continues to look worried …” (10). The least satisfying of Major's seven published novels, Emergency Exit nonetheless has its moments. Moreover, it extends the deconstructionist project announced in Reflex and Bone Structure and culminated (for now, at least) in My Amputations.12

Comprised of 112 paragraphs which range from approximately 100 to 2,000 words, My Amputations (1986) is unconventionally structured but less overtly the product of its author's formal preoccupations than is Reflex or Emergency Exit, on which Amputations signifies. The “blackest” of Major's deconstructionist works, Amputations more importantly signifies on the quest novel tradition in American and African American literature, typified by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.

Dedicated “to the people who must find themselves,” Amputations dramatizes the attempt of its narrator, Mason Ellis, to establish a stable identity. A would-be author and ex-convict, Mason has while in prison so intensely read the writing of The Author (identified in the book's final typescript, though not in the printed text, as Clarence Major) that, at least at times, he seems to have “convinced himself that he was the writer and no longer the reader” (40). Throughout the book he refers to The Author, or someone pretending to be The Author, as “The Impostor” or “The Other.” In what seem initially to be more lucid moments, but may not be, Mason hires a detective named Ferrand who informs him that The Author, a recipient of a $50,000-per-year grant from the Magnan-Rockford Foundation (MRF), has “assumed the name of Clarence McKay,” made a series of international investments, and gone into seclusion (22). This allows Mason to assume The Author's identity, go on a lecture tour of America—and subsequently Europe and Africa—and drain off some of what are supposedly The Author's funds from the MRF. But as Mason continues his search for wealth, status, and personal identity, he begins to fear that the MRF and/or Ferrand and/ or the agency which sponsors his overseas tour may simply be toying with him. Is he an impostor, or the author, or an impostor pursuing or being pursued by an impostor? Is he paranoid or attuned to a conspiracy? Are we to understand he is “the same Mason who in the joint had read The Author's works over and over again …” (40), or are there two, or more, Masons? In his most compelling confrontation yet with Jungian selves (Mason/Major's “amputations”), Major prevents his reader's being certain about this or most anything else. As Mason tells an audience at Sarah Lawrence, “I want to talk with you about the differences between fiction and reality, real characters and fake people—not because it's cute or literary but because my life depends on it. … You see, I'm in the process of inventing myself—in self-defense, of course. Think of me as a character in a book” (64). Real or imagined, “factual” or “fictional,” identity is process, coming to be, not defined product.

The world of Amputations is one of unbridled passion. Mason makes credible his claim that he places instinctual gratification before studied sublimation: He has sired more than three dozen children, and most of the stops on his lecture tour are accented by sexual intercourse. Here, and throughout his canon, Major withholds negative judgment from his protagonist. His heroes, like Reed's, are intensely sexual beings whose actions calculatedly subvert the status quo. Violence is also ubiquitous. Gun battles rage around Mason; arsonists' fires burn; beatings occur; bombs explode; the earth quakes; Mason is several times falsely imprisoned and once brutally tortured. If the world of Amputations has not exactly gone mad, it is certainly and unpleasantly decentered. And while Major never allows us to forget that his world is decidedly fictional, he also implies that it has elements that are all too real.

Indeed, one of the strengths of Amputations is that it blends the imaginative and the phenomenal so effectively that the reader is often unable to distinguish between the two. As Major points out, impostor authors do exist. Someone claiming to be Donald Barthelme submitted and had published several stories under Barthelme's name. Relatedly, that great postmodern creator of literary cabala, Thomas Pynchon, exists incognito or in absentia—or does he exist at all? Mason's life and Major's share many facts in common: Both were born on the same date, reared in Chicago, have a half-sister, did a stint in the Air Force, and so forth. It is sometimes impossible to tell where autobiography leaves off and literary self-creation begins. Fabulous at its outset, pseudo-naturalistic for a number of sections, filled with semi-chronological episodes that seem to betray the narrator's paranoia, and well-seasoned with metafictional allusions, My Amputations robs reality of its claim to genuineness. “… puzzling over the relation between ‘clear reality’ and confessional writing,” Mason recalls, “Jack Kerouac, in Vanity of Dulouz [, wrote] … : ‘I'll … get to believe … that I am not “I am” but just a spy in somebody's body pretending … ’” (42). “Truth,” the narrator feels, “was nothing other than the establishment of trust, agreement. …” (62). Professor Thomas Kakotu, whom Mason meets in Ghana and whom he describes as “a man of ‘like spirit,’” understands that “‘the imaginative foundation of human existence ha[s] some basis in the secular “dream” of our actual journey’” (195). Presumed to be paranoid but, from another standpoint, very much in touch with twentieth-century life, Mason is “writing a novel in which he couldn't figure out the difference between what was real and not” (103).

A problem for us all, the ambiguous nature of what passes for reality poses a very special threat to Mason, who is attempting to define his own very slippery identity. The book is laden with references to “forced connections,” one's propensity to insist on the reality of something perceived or desired to be real or true. The '60s, says Mason, was a decade in which people regularly attempted to forge their own “truths”: “Everybody in New York was serious in the sixties. The terror was not yours alone, then.” It was a time when “you could establish a forced logical connection between any two completely unrelated things: make a collage or cubist plot of yourself, your life.” However, “… politics, war, disillusionment were never the solutions” (186); what at the time seemed to be answers we know today to have been something more akin to platitudes. My Amputations here extends the concept of “A Bad Connection,” the title of the first half of Reflex and Bone Structure, which ends with the narrator's smashing a phone through which Canada has been speaking, only to hear him “talking to me through the pieces” (145). Reality, like identity, is created in an existential act of perceptual becoming, not by the application of pre-existing principles. Ours is a metaphysics born of desperation.

Ellison sought to answer the pessimism, the literal dead end of Richard Wright's “The Man Who Lived Underground,” in Invisible Man, which concludes with the narrator's hoping that there may yet be a socially responsible role for him to play in American society. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon dramatizes Milkman's developing sense of rootedness and identity within the context of the African myth of flight, although the protagonist's liberating “flight” at the book's end may (or may not) be deadly. And Alex Haley's persona finds apparent connectedness and wholeness in Roots. The protagonist of My Amputations ends up in a more desperate position, one more akin to that of Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Having traveled across America and Europe in search of his identity, Mason returns to mother Africa as a would-be prodigal son, only to end up the bearer of a note like that given to the Invisible Man by Dr. Bledsoe: “Mason pulled it from his pocket and handed it over. The old man ripped it and read it aloud: ‘Keep this nigger … [boy running]!’” (204). The Invisible Man is several times given the opportunity to recover; Mason is not. Oppressed by the heat and humidity, dazed rather than illuminated, unable to separate his anima from his various personae, the narrator stands, numb, in a hut that smells of “cow rocks, turtle piss and smoke” as the book closes (205). At this point, even a forced connection is impossible.

Here, as in no previous work, Major's critique of realism spills beyond the literary into the sociopolitical arena. Less sanguine about the possibility of the individual's achieving a genuine African American identity than Haley, Morrison, or even Ellison, Major depicts a world more akin to Richard Wright's. For the African American writer in particular, identity has been a central issue, and Major in My Amputations, signifies on a tradition that goes at least as far back as the slave narrative, in which the individual's status as human or animal was ever a matter of debate.


Henry Louis Gates has argued persuasively that, “in literature, blackness is produced in the text only through a complex process of signification. There can be no transcendent blackness, for it cannot and does not exist beyond manifestations … in specific figures.” Relatedly, creators of “open-ended” works which emphasize “the indeterminacy of the text” demand “that we, as critics, in the act of reading, produce a text's signifying structure” (“Blackness” 316).

Major, when he writes of the forced connections made during the '60s, has in mind various groups and individuals, but especially those staunch supporters of a Black Aesthetic for whom blackness was an extant commodity the writer might simply pour into a literary mold. Both he and Reed would, I think, agree with Gates that to will blackness into existence, as it were—to present blackness as a transcendent signified, a preexisting essence—is to falsify blackness. Rather, that thing we call blackness becomes a presence though the author's figuration and signification combined with the reader's active involvement in the text as object. Theirs is an argument against Aristotelianism. To predefine the essence of someone or something, including genre and race, is to delimit and, ultimately, betray that person or object. Such dangerous concepts need to be deconstructed. The writer must be granted the freedom to explore new possibilities—to become, not just to be.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo, Flight to Canada, Reflex and Bone Structure, Emergency Exit, and My Amputations are among the more successful attempts by recent black writers to deconstruct a variety of cultural assumptions, including what the novel is, or should be. Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major have produced books of redefinition, artists' declarations of aesthetic, philosophical, and political independence. Not only transforming a variety of literary genres but also denying the wisdom of making generic distinctions, these works bring medium and message to a point of tangency, if not fusion.


  1. An exchange printed in the Winter 1987 issue of New Literary History encapsulates the debate. In it, Joyce Ann Joyce takes issue with the critical practice of those African American scholars whose work incorporates insights gleaned from poststructuralism and deconstruction, most notably Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston A. Baker, Jr.

  2. Franco La Polla insightfully examines the way in which Reed subverts the traditional notion of the novel as genre in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, although that novel, it seems to me, provides a muddier illustration of Reed's method than do several of his subsequent works.

  3. See Reed's 1973 poem “Loup Garou Means Change Into.”

  4. Fox's “Blacking the Zero” is a masterful essay which should be read in its entirety. Fox provides a significantly more detailed analysis of Reed's use of the double circle than I am able to present here. For an extended discussion of Reed's use of the figures 1 and 2 in Mumbo Jumbo, and the importance of doubles and doubled doubles to Reed's Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic, see Gates, “Blackness” 297-317.

  5. Surely Reed recalls James Weldon Johnson's remark, in his preface to the 1922 edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, that “the earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes grew’” (283); two additional references to “the ‘jes grew’ songs” appear on the same page.

  6. In his treatment of Hamid, Reed satirizes what he perceives to be the extremism of those belonging to the Nation of Islam. Throughout his work, he is quick to oppose black nationalistic excesses, although most of his barbs are designed to shred the fabric of white power and control.

  7. The Terrible Twos (1982), Reckless Eyeballing (1986), and The Terrible Threes (1989), like The Last Days of Louisiana Red, sustain Reed's deconstructionist impulse, but none of these works marks a significant technical or thematic advance.

  8. Marge Ambler, for instance, has argued that Reed “is a brilliant poet first and a novelist second” (125), whereas Robert Elliot Fox has insisted that the opposite is true (“Mirrors” 136-37). Fox at least adds that “. … it may not be necessary or useful to make severe distinctions between the two vocations” (137).

  9. “The altering of Swille's will,” writes critic Robert Elliot Fox, “not only provides reparations in that the wealth of the master is now passed on, or returned, to the slaves, it is also a short-circuiting of the process of dynastic inheritance, suggesting that the autonomy and continuity of oppression can be broken. Furthermore, if we take ‘will’ to mean not simply a legal document but intention, determination, desire, then the rewriting assumes another dimension, for the black writer's quest for authentic expression, like Jes Grew's search for its Text, implies that the obedience to masters (the canonical authority of Western culture) has been rejected. There is a double refusal: a refusal to be silent and a refusal to (slavishly) imitate.”

  10. “That's the beauty of Neo-HooDooism,” Reed informed Reginald Martin, “there are European influences in my work, as well as African, Native-American, Afro-American, and that's what Neo-HooDooism is all about” (186).

  11. Useful discussions of the book appear in McCaffery and Gregory, and in Bradfield.

  12. Major's more recent novels Such Was the Season (1987) and Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar (1988) are quite traditionally structured, but what the future holds for his fiction is uncertain. Some of the stories collected in his latest book of fiction, Fun & Games (1990), are very traditional; others are structurally avant-garde.

Works Cited

Ambler, Marge. “Ishmael Reed: Whose Radio Broke Down?” Negro American Literature Forum 6 (1972): 125-31.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. “In Dubious Battle.” New Literary History 18 (1987): 363-69.

Barthelme, Donald. “After Joyce.” Location (Summer 1964): 13-16.

Bradfield, Larry D. “Beyond Mimetic Exhaustion: The Reflex and Bone Structure Experiment.” Black American Literature Forum 17 (1983): 120-23.

Fox, Robert Elliot. “Blacking the Zero: Towards a Semiotics of Neo-Hoodoo.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 95-99.

———. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood, 1987.

———. “The Mirrors of Caliban: A Study of the Fiction of LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka), Ishmael Reed and Samuel R. Delany.” Diss. SUNY at Buffalo, 1976.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Gates. New York: Methuen, 1984. 285-321.

———. “‘What's Love Got to Do with It?’: Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom.” New Literary History 18 (1987): 345-62.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Preface.” The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1922. Rpt. in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Nathan Irvin Huggins. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. 281-304.

Joyce, Joyce A. “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 18 (1987): 335-44.

———. “‘Who the Cap Fit’: Unconsciousness and Unconscionableness in the Criticism of Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” New Literary History 18 (1987): 371-84.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Notes on a Novel-in-Progress: Clarence Major's Emergency Exit.Black American Literature Forum 13 (1979): 46-50.

La Polla, Franco. “The Free-Lance Pallbearers, or: No More Procenium Arch.” Review of Contemporary Literature 4.2 (1984): 188-95.

Major, Clarence. Emergency Exit. New York: Fiction Collective, 1979.

———. My Amputations. New York: Fiction Collective, 1986.

———. Reflex and Bone Structure. New York: Fiction Collective, 1975.

Martin, Reginald. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4.2 (1984): 176-87.

McCaffery, Larry, and Sinda Gregory. “Major's Reflex and Bone Structure and the Anti-Detective Tradition.” Black American Literature Forum 13 (1979): 39-45.

Northouse, Cameron. “Ishmael Reed.” Conversations with Writers II. Detroit: Gale, 1978. 212-54.

O'Brien, John. “Clarence Major.” Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. 124-39.

———. “Ishmael Reed: An Interview.” fictional international 1 (1973): 60-70.

Reed, Ishmael. Flight to Canada. New York: Random House, 1976.

———. “Loup Garou Means Change Into.” Chattanooga. New York: Random, 1973. 49-50.

———. Mumbo Jumbo. 1972. New York: Bantam Books, 1973.

———. “why i often allude to osiris.” Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1972. 43.

———. “The Writer as Seer: Ishmael Reed on Ishmael Reed.” Black World (June 1974): 20-34.

———. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Garden City: Doubleday, 1969.

shange, ntozake. “takin a solo/a poetic possibility/a poetic imperative.” Nappy Edges. 1978. New York: Bantam, 1980. 3-13.

Shepperd, Walt. “Work with the Universe: An Interview with Clarence Major and Victor Hernández Cruz.” Nickel Review 12 Sept. 1969: 6-7. Rpt. in The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work. By Clarence Major. New York: Third P, 1974. 115-24.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Weixlmann, Joe. “Clarence Major.” Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955. Ed. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Dictionary of Literary Biography 33. Detroit: Gale, 1984. 153-61.

Merle Rubin (review date 9 March 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

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 Spring, offers a guided tour of the groves—more aptly, the jungles—of contemporary academe, seen through the eyes of one hapless black junior professor struggling to achieve tenure.

Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt III is the first in a long line of Puttbutts stretching back to the American Revolution not to have followed the family tradition of volunteering for military service.

Benjamin's choice of a career in the humanities has been a severe disappointment to his father, who is a two-star Air Force general, and his mother, a dashing intelligence officer. They have told him time and time again that the United States military provides the best prospects for African-Americans in search of a genuinely integrated, equal-opportunity career.

Harry Truman, who ordered the military to integrate, is one of their heroes, along with the Puritan poet and polemicist John Milton (they like his emphasis on training and discipline). “That's not the only attitude they shared with Milton,” we're informed, as the narrative slides deftly from clever satire into inspired nonsense: “With their continuous need for enemies, their motto could have been taken from Milton's panegyric for Cromwell: ‘New Foes Arise.’ Their favorite blues singer was ‘Little Milton.’ Their favorite comedian was Milton Berle.”

Their peace-loving son is finding the academic terrain quite as arduous, despite his seeming flair for self-advancement:

When the Black Power thing was in, Puttbutt was into that. When the backlash on Black Power settled in, with its code words like reverse discrimination, he joined that. He'd been a feminist when they were in power. But now they were on the decline … and so for now he was a neoconservative. …

As the story opens, this unabashed but appealingly unruthless opportunist is studying Japanese with a tutor who promises results “by spring,” by which time the ever-enterprising Puttbutt hopes to speak the language well enough “to take advantage of new global realities.”

Teaching at predominantly white Jack London College in Oakland, Calif. (named for the racist, socialist author of The Call of the Wild), however, is a lot like picking one's way through a minefield. The feminists want to eliminate his modest $30,000 a year position to beef up their budget for enticing a chic, overpaid radical feminist poet from back East. The African-American Studies department is divided by rivalries between Africans and African-Americans, and between proponents of Swahili and champions of Yoruba. The entire campus is plagued by a bunch of neo-Nazi students who continually harass and torment Puttbutt, even though he continues to defend their right to free speech and excuse their racism as an understandable response to the excessive “demands of black students.”

While the aging white radical dean and many of his black colleagues consider him a sellout, the conservative old guard of the English department—Miltonists and the like—also close ranks against him. Puttbutt is worried that he soon may be reduced to the same impoverished income level “as the black writers he wrote his lectures about.”

Things take an unexpected turn for the better when a mysterious consortium of Japanese interests takes over the college. Dr. Yamato, Puttbutt's humble-seeming Japanese tutor, is installed as college president. Puttbutt, his right-hand man, is now able to repay his old enemies. Puttbutt even accomplishes some good from his new position, sending his old nemesis, the Miltonist Crabtree, off to study Yoruba. (Worn out by years of chewing over the same old subject, Crabtree is rejuvenated by learning something new!)

In due course, however, Puttbutt discovers that this particular Japanese invasion is not a benign case of multicultural cross-fertilization, but rather is part of a plot to restore an ancient tradition of Japanese militarism. Before long, it's hard for anyone to know what to believe.

Confusing? Yes, and in more ways than one. Some of the confusion deliberately mimics the sheer lunacy to which academic politics can sink. (“Why is it that crazed serial murderers are usually white men?” demands a black professor. “Last I heard, Idi Amin wasn't a white man,” replies his white colleague. “Oh, yeah.” “Yeah.” “Oh yeah.” “Yeah.”)

But a rather different kind of confusion ensues from the fact that Puttbutt is both the novel's hero and an object of its satire. Perhaps to alleviate this confusion, the author introduces a character called Ishmael Reed and keeps interrupting the story to let the reader know exactly where this gentleman stands on the many issues raised in the course of the book.

Summarized briefly, the targets of Reed's satire include out-and-out racists, xenophobes, Japan-bashers, and neoconservative defenders of Western Civilization courses, as well as tenured radicals, feminists, and other groups trying, as it were, to steal the thunder of the black civil rights movement by claiming to be equally, if not more, victimized. Nationalism in any form is identified as the chief foe, and cultural diversity the internationalist antidote to any one culture's attempt to dominate others. All of which raises some questions: Is everyone who favors teaching Western Civilization merely, as this novel seems to suggest, a racist in disguise? Is “cultural diversity” a panacea for nationalism or a potential hothouse for new outgrowths of ethnic chauvinism?

And, while it's easy to make fun of well-heeled feminists claiming to be as victimized as blacks trapped by systemic discrimination and poverty, Reed's seeming inability to comprehend the pervasive oppression of women in almost every culture is a blind spot that undermines the force of an otherwise shrewd, funny, and instructive satire.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039

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 recognize the logical progression of Reed's writing. The narrative tends to ramble in and out of extended didactic digressions on the virtues of linguistic pluralism, the wrongs supposedly done to Clarence Thomas, Japanese American trade conflicts, and almost every other issue of interest to the author. The plot speeds through more twists and turns than a Moroccan bus on a narrow road in the Atlas Mountains. Many of his characters are more caricatures than they are believable, three-dimensional individuals.

So why did I like the book so much? Part of the reason must be that Reed's enormous gift for social satire enables him to get away with breaking many of the normal rules of fiction. Chappie Puttbutt is recognizable as a composite of a number of contemporary black intellectuals: Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, William Julius Wilson. Puttbutt's chief goal in life is to receive tenure at Jack London College in Oakland, where he teaches courses in both the African American Studies department and in something called the “Humanity department” (Reed's renaming of the Eurocentric discipline known as “the humanities” is one of the little jokes scattered throughout the novel).

In order to get his tenure, the former sixties Black Panther (who used to wear an Afro “so big that once some blackbirds tried to make a nest in it”) will say or write anything that might please the academic establishment. In the eighties, when feminism was the defining ideology of academia, Puttbutt memorized Zora Neale Hurston and Sylvia Plath. Now, he has jumped on the anti-affirmative action bandwagon. He specializes in explaining why all of the problems of blacks in America are their own fault, and why blacks should play on the guilt of whites.

Always attentive to changes in the winds of power, Puttbutt is also studying Japanese in downtown Oakland with the mysterious Dr. Yamato. This proves to have been a wise move when the Japanese buy Jack London College and Dr. Yamato turns out to be something more than a simple language tutor. The tables are wittily turned as Japanese culture becomes the basis for the curriculum and the former Humanity department is relegated to “Ethnic Studies.”

The various strands of racism, militarism, nationalism, and Japanophobia that weave through the collective awareness of contemporary America all come together in Puttbutt's unlikely person. His father is an Air Force general who has fought in wars against Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and who trumpets the virtues of the American military as “the most integrated institution in American life.” His mother is a CIA operative being held hostage in the Middle East. Chappie himself initially pursued his studies of the Japanese language at the Air Force Academy until, as a result of bizarre events related in several chapters that suddenly and unexpectedly jump back 20 years, he was expelled and turned to pacifism, as later frustrations push him to turn to neoconservatism, to a passion for things Japanese, and finally to revolt against Japanese takeover. Reed's central character is an American Everyman, a child of wars hot and cold with opinions that change as often as the figures in the Gallup Polls.

Reed's unorthodox style of storytelling is also bolstered by the author's playful erudition and broad intellectual scope. When he himself appears in the novel to give a lecture at Jack London College, Reed the narrator says of Reed the character, “The topic merely provided a theme on which his mind could improvise, sort of like a jazz musician stating a song and then dancing around it elliptically.” In the course of his elliptical dancing through this novel, the author steps into knowledgeable discussions of Afrocentrism, the English Only movement, Jack London's racism, the debate over multiculturalism, Yoruba mythology, and a host of other topics.

This digressive, hyperkinetic stream of opinion is a descendent of the jazz-influenced spontaneous prose of the Beats. The spontaneity lends it a sense of breathless excitement, particularly when expressed by a writer as nimble and knowledgeable as Ishmael Reed. The chief danger of Beat spontaneous prose, though, was a tendency to get so wrapped up in the flow of writing and thinking as to lose the overall form of a piece of literature.

It is this loss of overall form, rather than the winding plot or unlikely characters, that constitutes the primary flaw of Japanese by Spring. Dancing around a theme is fine, so long as one retains the theme as a center. But Reed seems unable to decide, in this book, whether he wants to write a novel or an essay. The author's wide-ranging ideas make the individual passages of the book appealing to readers, but the ideas tend to get out of control, take over the book, and weaken its coherence as fiction. Reed's formidable intelligence gets the better of his artistic sensibilities.

Toward the end, the author appears to abandon fiction as a vehicle for his thinking. In the epilogue, Puttbutt disappears altogether, replaced by Ishmael Reed, who has moved from playing one of the minor characters in the book to occupying center stage. The last 20 pages lapse into a series of disjointed meditations, similar to journal entries, on the subject of cultural pluralism in America and in the world.

In spite of the novel's structural flaws, though, Japanese by Spring is an intelligent, funny, insightful book. Such an opinionated work is bound to contain something to provoke almost every reader. Many will find Reed's antifeminist tirades objectionable. But fairness, after all, is not necessarily a property of satire, and this is a witty, biting satire that takes on some of the biggest issues in contemporary academia and world affairs. Don't skip this one.

Kathryn Hume (essay date May 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8688

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 message of this Foucauldian end? The protagonist of Ishmael Reed's Free-Lance Pallbearers is meat, and the country a shambles. Bukka is to be eaten by HARRY SAM, otherwise known as the good old US of A; he is fuel for SAM's governmental machine. His being consumed is what keeps that machine going, and as long as he participates in the food chain of consuming and being consumed, the system will continue.

Reed writes about power and about the aim of power, control. New conceptions of power and control, and of the subtle mental mechanics of oppression, have spawned several current schools of cultural and literary criticism—feminism, black studies, postcolonial studies, gay studies, and new historicism, among others. Control has thus been “in the air” for some time, and a number of novelists since the 1960s have reached the conclusion that control is a powerful lens for magnifying human interactions, a revelatory alternative to Freudian libido or Marxist economic forces.1 Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, Kathy Acker, William S. Burroughs, and Reed have all produced violent satires on the exercise of power in America or in Western society. All express themselves with apocalyptic and unsavory grotesquerie. All push power, and their art, toward the edge of … explosion? implosion? At any rate, they attempt to pierce the walls of power by the violative revolutionary force of their expression in hopes of reaching something beyond. Such visions of control are far from neutral; they attribute to control something just short of sentience and volition and interpret the forces of control as malignant. In such demonization, these artists echo the rhetoric and stances of what Richard Hofstadter calls the “paranoid style” in American politics.2 When I talk about American or Western control culture, I mean the culture as seen by control artists, for of course any culture is a system of controls, but these are not always perceived as vicious, especially by those in privileged cultural subgroups.

Reed has been interpreted as the patricidal son of Ralph Ellison and as a raucous and razzle-dazzle but lightweight satirist.3 An examination of Reed's literary endeavor in the context of others struggling with the problematics of control, however, shows that Reed is more intellectually impressive than his critical reputation would suggest. His vision, though inscribed in satiric shorthand, is indeed coherent, and he challenges the structures of control with more of a solution than do his fellow control visionaries. He suggests a way of conceiving of life and society that could reroute the headlong Western (or American) rush toward apocalypse.

The first part of this article shows how issues of power and control are central to Reed's fiction, a stable core of concern lying behind his grimly flashy surfaces. The second part deals with characteristic images and subjects—such charged matter as problems with sexual identity and sexual relations, homosexuality, grotesque presentations of heads of state, efflorescent anality, Hoodoo, and violent revisions of founding myths. Critics treat these as individual to Reed, implicitly making them incompletely assimilated anal-stage anxieties, oedipal tensions transposed to government, and other such Freudian reductions. Each of these issues and symbols, however, appears in the works of several other control artists. Studying Reed in the usual contexts of postmodernism or the African American novel is helpful, but the context of writers obsessed with control gives a new and rather different picture of Reed's philosophical and artistic accomplishment.


Power is exercised when a person or state forces individuals to act against their interests or wills.4 The ultimate aim of power is control, control of the present ensured by planning the future. Western technological culture, preeminently in America, is governed by fear of the uncontrolled future. To avoid future famine (and keep prices up), the United States stockpiles food and lets it rot instead of giving it to those in need. To prevent other, less fortunate nations from seizing land and wealth someday, the powers that be stockpile warheads. Most Americans try to buy material security and happiness instead of pursuing life as a spiritual adventure or cultivating philosophical equanimity. Taming the future demands predictability. Western science reflects and reinforces this desideratum, for the first test of a new scientific hypothesis is whether it correctly predicts a result.5 Likewise, for technology and industry to be efficient, supply must be controlled and manipulated to meet demand, and workers are more highly valued the more they resemble automatons. Uniformity in people is enforced because individual differences and diverse cultural values do not mesh efficiently. In short, the major manifestations of control in modern culture are fear of hypothetical future dangers; materialism; the efficiency ethic; and repression of spontaneous, authentic impulses and cultural differences in favor of machinelike conformity.

Different facets of culture as control have attracted writers. Pynchon, in Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, and Reed, in The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes, grimly portray the interconnectedness of everything that is pushing the technological world toward totalitarianism.6 Interconnectedness in the specific form of multinational corporations and technologies intrigues not only Pynchon but also cyberpunk authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The human by-product of the multinationals' rhizomatous spread is what pains Acker. Her Don Quixote reminds us that the rule of these corporations will produce an Orwellian underclass equivalent to Pynchon's Preterite and Reed's surps in The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes. Mailer revolts against the pressure on individuals to fit a mold and despises the uniformity imposed even on those ostensibly in power. All these writers share one assumption: the control world is headed for partial or total destruction, whether through nuclear violence or through ecological or social collapse.

In three novels, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, The Terrible Twos, and The Terrible Threes, Reed launches grotesque attacks on American social, economic, and political avatars of control. In the country of HARRY SAM, control manifests itself not just through the hooks of public execution but also through secret cannibalism and sodomy in high places and through the media's shaping of the public mind. In Bukka Doopeyduk, we have a Candide-like—or, as Malcolm X would say, brainwashed—protagonist. Bukka does not understand that the National Ear-Muffle Factory provides the means for insulating oneself from the screams of victims. He does not doubt the words of HARRY SAM or the Nazarene state church, both of which enjoin hard work, patience, and perseverance and press their messages on him through omnipresent radios. Even when Chinese invaders take over the country, the message for the poor is the same: “EATS—SAVE GREEN STAMPS—BINGO—WED.” In other words, the poor are urged to consume goods, be consumed, and beget more consumers, while comforting themselves with the promise of luck in a game of chance.

In The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes, Reed traces the tangled skeins of interconnection in American power centers, showing how broadcasters buy legislators, how advisers close to the president answer to back-room industrial interests, how the military can be influenced or bought, and how fake Hollywood glamour creates the illusion of reality. The reader learns how a tiny group of fanatics not answerable to any legal power could bring about the nuclear destruction of an African nation. Blackmail, drugs, the sale of information, secret societies, the manipulation of images: these are what The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes are about. Reed seems to fear that this degree of interconnectedness may make the system impervious to legal improvements; Pynchon expresses the same insight in Gravity's Rainbow: “Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good” (539). Pynchon suggests killing such vampire powers with traditional magic, and Reed, too, with his St. Nicholas and Black Peter from the Hoodoo island of Guinea, thinks of magic as possibly all that will work against so entrenched and densely woven a fabric of complicity and crime.

Control is also a helpful tool for understanding Reed's other novels. Reckless Eyeballing has confounded and revolted reviewers but makes some sense as a demonstration of how an alert and reasonably sophisticated individual persuades himself to submit to the forces of control. The results are nightmarish, though members of mainstream culture will not at first find them noteworthy: Ian Ball does not know his real self anymore. An island hex is the ostensible cause of his cloven personality, but magic only reinforces what his attempts to “make it” in New York have already effected: a split self with the inauthentic half dominant.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, like Flight to Canada and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, looks at the historical roots of control. The novel reinterprets the cowboy myths of taming the American West as grotesque and perverse cultural rape. Reed also challenges Christianity as a form of control in this book opposing the pope to his Hoodoo protagonist, Loop Garoo, a banished older son of God, cloven-hoofed, but a genuine spiritual power to be reckoned with. The cultural intolerance derived from Christianity and the contempt for those with less sophisticated technology and therefore less firepower are both important targets in this mock Western, as well as in the governmental worlds of The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes, in which television Christianity is also savaged.

Flight to Canada teases out historical contradictions at the roots of American thought. Far from being fundamentally democratic, Reed argues, Americans moon over a medieval dream of being lords and ladies, members of a happy aristocracy supported by the necessary servants and slaves. Pynchon's elite is wed to a technological rather than an aristocratic dream, but he too envisions a small, privileged group and an exploited mass rather than true democracy. For Acker, in Don Quixote, the groups are Landlords and Tenants. For Mailer—in the words of D. J.—they are high-grade assholes and all those who submit to their shit. Reed gets good mileage out of references to the Kennedy administration as Camelot. True Euro- or Anglo-American desires, he feels, surface in that symbolic naming and in the antebellum South, and he argues that morally these social longings are a Poe nightmare rather than a midsummer day's dream.7 The whip—instrument for writing the discourse of power on black bodies—is the ultimate reality in this nightmarish world, and its patterns have not disappeared from the world of today.

In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed states that a debilitating pattern that originated in slavery is being repeated today through ignorance and greed. Black women attach themselves to white men, and this bond gives black women reason to conspire with their partners to keep black men subjugated. Readers have balked at Reed's analysis, seeing it as an attack on black feminists, but whether one agrees with Reed or not, the book clearly functions as part of Reed's scrutiny of control as practiced in the black community and in black-white interrelations.8

In Mumbo Jumbo Reed spells out his vision of the alternative to society as control. The Western way is conventionally derived from Athens and Jerusalem, and it claims for itself their philosophy and morality. Reed, however, anticipating claims for African culture made by Martin Bernal and Cheikh Anta Diop, traces the roots of Western culture to ancient Egypt, to Set and Osiris and to the first known monotheism, Egyptian Atonism. Monotheism nurtures the development of a control mentality; it encourages its followers to see themselves as a chosen people with a special relationship to an exclusive God. That sense of being chosen became part of Christianity and increased as Christianity merged with the Roman hegemonic culture, evolving through Catholicism to Protestantism. All other religions and ways of life are damned. All other peoples, therefore, can be treated as little better than animals, can be lied to or betrayed, can be robbed of land and wealth, can and indeed should be forced to abandon their own patterns and reduced to cultural and economic peonage under the one true way. Or, as one white American puts it in Mumbo Jumbo, African Americans “must adopt our ways, producing Elizabethan poets; they should have Stravinskys and Mozarts in the wings, they must become Civilized!!!!” (130). Industrialism and capitalism reduce the already narrow Western values to a yet narrower materialism, and efficiency becomes the primary virtue. In the 1920s of Mumbo Jumbo, these values are promulgated by the Wallflower Order, a coterie representing the Ivy League, the Social Register, and other wealthy upper-class white institutions. This Wallflower Order rules America. Its members are wallflowers because they cannot dance.

Throughout the history of Western culture, according to Reed, there has been an opposing force, Jes Grew, a spirit that manifests itself in his book primarily as dance but also as jazz, poetry, art, Hoodoo, and hedonism in general.9 The urge to dance wildly, eat hugely, make love with gusto, and enjoy oneself without being obsessed by the morrow becomes in this revisionary account not just the repressed desire of individuals but also a cultural impulse as old and as coherent as monotheism. Spontaneity characterizes this life-style. Lively and intelligent improvisation, whether in music (jazz) or in making a living (hustling), is admired more than careful planning, scrimping, and saving.10 Individual expressiveness is valued over uniformity and mass production in works of art, styles of walking, dressing, verbal battle (the dozens), and dancing, even in automobiles. Such pleasure need not preclude work, and Norman Harris characterizes Osiris as a “working sensualist” (“Politics”); one of Reed's examples of work in this world picture is the thousands of hours Yardbird Parker spends perfecting his playing. Overall, however, those who practice the Jes Grew philosophy live for the present to enjoy every moment to the fullest, not simply to become something else in the distant future. Toni Morrison contrasts this style with the Western way in Tar Baby. Jadine wants to “make it” in New York, but Son argues, “That's not life; that's making it. I don't want to make it; I want to be it” (266). For Reed, polytheism is the spiritual style suited to Jes Grew, and in the African manifestation of this outlook, polytheism is Vodoun or Hoodoo, with its ever-increasing multitude of numina called loas. Because of the Egyptian origin of Osiris, Reed identifies the Jes Grew mind-set as peculiarly African, as a black culture that counters the white order of analysis and death, but he clearly feels that variations on this outlook are compatible with a wide range of non-Western and nonwhite cultures.

Not only does Reed argue that this alternative style of living has existed in Africa, he suggests that the outlook has survived as a repressed but continuous tradition within Western culture, and much of what Bakhtin says about the carnivalesque in the medieval world bears Reed out.11 Reed claims that various heresies, as well as tarantism and incidents of hearing voices, are manifestations of this spirit. Joan of Arc, he suggests, was possessed in a fashion recognized and valued in the Hoodoo tradition, and Tituba of Salem witchcraft fame, who was, after all, from Barbados, evidently introduced a number of girls to loa possession. The gap between official history and reality is evident in that only within the last two decades have Americans begun to become aware of Vodoun and to learn that it is widely practiced in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, with a following large enough to make it a major world religion. Vodoun is a religion without scriptures and without a priesthood whose power derives from privileged access to scriptures. Because its perpetuation depends on improvisation rather than on conservation of an ancient, unchanging text, it lacks heresy and repression of heresy; and because it is practiced by dark-skinned peoples, its presence has been repressed in the consciousness of text-oriented white culture.

Western culture and Jes Grew clash most openly over the matter of technological accomplishment. To a Westerner, large buildings, complex transportation systems, and efficient means of mass killing are self-evident proofs of cultural superiority. Literally, might makes right. In describing the marines' invasion of Haiti, Reed has a Robber Baron comment that Haiti “doesn't have any culture either. I didn't see a single cannon or cathedral” (Mumbo Jumbo 24). PaPa LaBas, Reed's Hoodoo houngan and detective, “is contemplative and relaxed, which Atonists confuse with laziness because he is not hard at work drilling, blocking the view of the ocean, destroying the oyster beds or releasing radioactive particles that will give unborn 3-year-olds leukemia and cancer” (Mumbo Jumbo 50).12 In the Jes Grew outlook, many Atonist technological achievements are work of the “left hand,” because they cause great evil to somebody.

To Atonists reading Mumbo Jumbo, the Jes Grew life-style does not look like much of an alternative, but their mental filters are programmed to screen out this possibility. Yet the Jes Grew philosophy has many advantages. To a degree, it already exists and thus cannot be ruled out as impossible. Many Third World villages, tribal peoples, and low-tech cultures survive without elaborate planning for the future because they depend on cyclical patterns and traditional answers to recurring problems such as drought. Technological life, by contrast, is linear, and its frequent drastic changes call for more complex plans. Because the future for low-tech groups (until recent times) consisted of traditional problems and solutions, it did not rouse quite the fear that a future without precedents can, and it did not demand such frenzied attempts at control. The indifference of many residents of Third World countries to saving money, to having regular jobs, and to amassing the Western versions of personal power and security is familiar and frustrating to capitalist investors and industrialists. These Third World residents see work as peripheral to what matters in life and concentrate on the here and now, not the future. Likewise, the poor in many cultures focus on the present and put less psychic energy into shaping the future than do the well-to-do in the same cultures. African Americans living in ghettos have proved the viability of the outlook and have found that such a culture can provide goals to strive for (witty or admirable self-expression), community recognition for individuals in their efforts, satisfaction for goals achieved, and an aesthetic rather than a material sense of life. This is not to romanticize ghetto life or to say that ghetto dwellers would not like access to the material benefits of the larger culture, but they have evolved modes of cultural interaction that encourage psychic survival in circumstances where survival is exceedingly difficult. In essence, they have a philosophy to live up to and measure life by, rather than just an accumulation of material possessions.

At the heart of this life-style, Reed puts enjoyment rather than bourgeois security or any sort of rigid code cultivating bravery or stoicism. He lauds creativity, individuality, and difference and accepts inefficiency as an inevitable side effect. PaPa LaBas, for instance, drives a 1914 Locomobile, “designed to accommodate the philosophy ‘small numbers make for distinction, quantity destroys’ and its production is limited to 4 per day” (Mumbo Jumbo 54). Presumably parts would be more readily available for a Ford. Reed's putting enjoyment at the heart of culture recalls Fourier, whose elaborate utopian system in Théorie de l'unité universelle is predicated on the argument that culture cannot be civilized until enjoyment rather than repression is the basis for social structures and activities.

What alternatives do other control artists offer? Mailer demands living on the adrenaline edge, seeking fear and testing courage by passing through and beyond fear at every opportunity. Courage is the key to his philosophy, and violence is a common component, whether as murder (An American Dream) or slaughter (Why Are We in Vietnam?). The technobourgeois Atonist path demands self-control and delayed gratification and operates through fear of the future and death. It promises an improved standard of living and personal safety but, by reducing all values to the material, may well bring about nuclear or ecological disaster in the long run, since halting the juggernaut through legislation would beggar too many voters. Acker finds no solution to this dilemma and laments the lack of an answer. Burroughs offers the transcendence of drugs and of time travel achieved through orgasmic deaths and transmigration to other bodies (Cities of the Red Night, among others), an answer that does not operate on the same plane of reality as the answers other control writers suggest. Pynchon sees no way that any organization can function without also imposing tyranny, and so he can only recommend individual withdrawal and small acts of kindness. He envisions the possibility of exchanging necessities through an informal black-market-style economy, and he values that relatively unstructured free enterprise much as Reed values certain kinds of semilegal hustling—Ed Yelling's Solid Gumbo Works, PaPa LaBas's mail-order Hoodoo, Nance Saturday's life as gypsy-cab driver and freelance detective. These men survive without truckling to the power structure and avoid contact with it as much as possible. Their hustles do not prey on the poor as do numbers games and do not exploit others or damage them as do pimping and dealing in drugs. Nance's ex-wife, a TV anchor, scorns him for not getting ahead in life, that is, for not improving his standard of living; his triumph, however, is freedom and sufficiency without excess. In The Terrible Threes, Nance even manages to aid others as king of his block; he fights landlords and building code violations, reports drug dealers, and helps individuals resolve their financial messes and make fresh starts.

Neither Reed nor Mailer tries to accommodate women within his system, but Reed is so bent on reestablishing black manhood that he can picture it only in conjunction with a differentiated and (many would say) subordinated black womanhood. Nor does Reed mention obligations to children, which make Atonists feel the need to plan ahead and delay gratification, to save if they can instead of improvising and hoping everything will work out all right. Children are an economic asset in nonmarginal, agricultural, tribal life, so sexual pleasure and spontaneity benefit women as well as men. In a high-tech urban life, however, children are an economic liability. Reed's hypothetical world presumably lies somewhere between those extremes of life-style, but how children would be made more relevant to activities and less crimping to parental life is not discussed.

One finds interesting parallels to Reed's Jes Grew in two recent utopias, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. Both these writers envision a good deal of personal freedom and creativity in limited-tech, semiagricultural societies. Their utopias, however, specify ruthless birth control and an equitable distribution of wealth; Piercy furthermore invests much of that wealth in the community rather than in individuals. Both measures minimize the burden imposed by children and hence minimize inequality between the sexes. Even the anarchistic Piercy shows long-term planning at the community level, and Callenbach envisions it at the national level as well. Such governmental actions obviate the need for individual planning but cannot be called improvisation. Reed has not detailed the structure of a society based on Jes Grew, partly because his concept of power is too negative to let him follow through to this set of concerns.

I would argue that among the answers to control, Reed's system offers a great deal to those who are not ensorcelled by desire for ever-expanding economic consumption. Reed's expositions of Jes Grew and the modifications obvious in Ed Yellings (productivity) and Nance Saturday (helping others) show that Reed incorporates improvements into his philosophy and spells out things that he originally took for granted. Reed's modifications also attest to the coherence of his vision. He can afford to present his idea in a shorthand form because his proffered life-style does in a sense already exist. Versions of the Jes Grew outlook flourish in pockets all over the world, wherever material possessions are not the most important measure of human worth and the good life.

One can understand Reed's perspective better by comparing it with an insight from Salman Rushdie's novel Shame. While viewing Büchner's Danton's Death, Rushdie's narrator remarks that Danton

gets the chop (miraculously staged) because he is too fond of pleasure. Epicureanism is subversive. The people are like Robespierre. They distrust fun. This opposition—the epicure against the puritan—is, the play tells us, the true dialectic of history. Forget left-right, capitalism-socialism, black-white. Virtue versus vice, ascetic versus bawd, God against the Devil: that's the game.


Rushdie, an elitist from a Muslim background, sees the common people as puritanical, whereas Reed locates the Atonist impulse among the white majority in capitalist America and Jes Grew among an oppressed black minority—but both writers see the cultural impulses to seek and to deny pleasure as the chief spiritual options. Note too that Rushdie's Islamic upbringing causes him to condemn pleasure to some extent in this and his other novels; the enjoyable things are vices and weaknesses. In this contrast, Reed is much more radical, upholding such pleasures as an alternative vision of culture. Epicureanism is subversive.


When Reed is read as an African American writer, his images and concerns seem peculiar to him—rampant anality and cannibalism do not (dis)grace the pages of Ellison or Morrison. One assumes that Reed's blaming women for his protagonists' problems reflects a personal hang-up. Likewise the grotesque presentation of homosexuality hints at inner aversion. Comparison with other control artists, however, suggests that these oddly assorted subjects are somehow inherent in the subject of control, though the slant of their presentation remains personal.

Take, for instance, Reed's betrayal of uneasiness over masculine identity vis-à-vis women. PaPa LaBas's scene with Minnie the Moocher is well known (The Last Days of Louisiana Red 134-41). He accuses her and women like her of being unable to stand it when black men accomplish something solid and of being able to love them only when they are “on the corner sipping Ripple.” He goes on:

We walk the streets in need of women and make fools of ourselves over women; fight each other, put Louisiana Red on each other, shoot and maim each other. The original blood-sucking vampire was a woman. You flirt with us, tease us, provoke us, showing your delicious limbs to our askance glances. … Your cunt is the most powerful weapon of any creature on this earth, and you know it, and you know how to use it. I can't understand why you want to be liberated. Hell. You already free—you already liberated. Liberated and powerful. We're the ones who are slaves; two-thirds of the men on skid row were driven there by their mothers, wives, daughters, their mistresses and their sisters. I've never known a woman who needed it as much as a man. Women rarely cruise or rape.


Reed considers pleasantly pert, subordinate women like Earline and quiet, supportive women like Sister Yellings acceptable, but overall he blames women for men's sexual longings. Robert Elliot Fox reminds readers of existing gendered power structures, however: “Who, after all, runs the world? Is phallocracy really seriously threatened by ‘cockteasing’ or ‘bitchiness’?” (“Ishmael Reed” 65). He points out that capitalism, imperialism, and the Faustian impulse are all manifestations of uncontrolled desire and that men's slavery to their sexual longings is not unconnected to these other avatars of control. In other words, sexual desire and the interrelations between the sexes are likely to be highly problematic when viewed in the context of control.

Similarly, in Mailer's code a true man must resist all attempts to control him; such definitions assume male aggressiveness and dominance. Therefore, powerful or independent women are a problem, so much so that Rojack feels he must kill his wife or be psychically killed by her and that the relations D. J. and Tex have with women are likely to be unspeakable. Burroughs's values are complicated by the homosexuality of his male characters, but his cast of villains is garnished with evil demons like the Countess de Gulpa. Acker's female Don Quixote finds what men offer inadequate to her needs; they seem unable to offer real love. Pynchon escapes this friction between the sexes, but mainly because most of his characters are loners and drifters. They gain freedom from antagonism by losing contact. Masculine identity, particularly with regard to women, seems to be one of the commonplace problematics of control, and thus love proves difficult to accommodate in any theory of control.

Masculine identity must also be defined in the context of the power of the state. The relation between man and state is fraught with the oedipal rivalry between the authority-father and subordinate-son; hence, there is often symbolic overlap between the man-eating giant of fairy tales (an infantile projection of the father) and the tyrannical head of state. HARRY SAM is such a figure, a cannibalistic father who threatens the protagonist's existence and his masculine identity (by sodomy). The state can eat its citizens, consume them—Reed plays on this “consumption” syllepsis. Attacks on heads of state, usually involving shit, vomit, rape, and perversion, characterize this power literature. Reed's “Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” one of the earliest of such attacks on Richard Nixon, depicts him eating cat shit—perfectly orthodox Hoodoo ill-wishing. Acker lambastes Nixon in Don Quixote through vomit, rape, and embarrassing sex. Philip Roth may have felt more anguish over the power of mothers than over that of paternal heads of state, but he too joined the flood of grotesque satires on Nixon, with Our Gang, and so did Robert Coover, with The Public Burning, which includes the final public sodomizing of Nixon by Uncle Sam. Pynchon does not take on heads of state so much as power brokers in general; however, his depiction of Brigadier Pudding eating shit and the portrayal of Weissmann's sadomasochism are part of his attack on control, and he casts his argument in terms of sexual and scatological perversions.

Reed argues in The Last Days of Louisiana Red and elsewhere that black men must reestablish their manhood, especially vis-à-vis white men and black women. At the same time, he wants, somewhat contradictorily, to argue that black manhood is unassailably genuine and that the manhood of white power brokers is fraudulent. He signifies the false masculinity of powerful whites by making them mincingly homosexual, their sexuality further warped by sadism, masochism, and necrophilia (HARRY SAM, Drag Gibson, Theda Doompussy, Arthur Swille).

Mailer also defines the aggression of the power brokers in terms of homosexuality, though the targets of his satiric vision are aggressive rather than effeminate, expressing tyrannical power through metaphorical homosexual rape rather than living as powdered and painted queens as Reed's homosexual characters do. To Mailer, the power brokers are supermasculine, while Reed argues their lack of masculinity. Pynchon's analysis of power as homosexuality puts him somewhere between Mailer and Reed; to Pynchon, homosexual attachments in the trenches during World War I were just love, but “[i]n this latest War, death was no enemy, but a collaborator. Homosexuality in high places is just a carnal afterthought now, and the real and only fucking is done on paper” (Gravity's Rainbow 616). Pynchon's portrait of mincing and sadistic homosexuals in high places is almost as hostile as Reed's, and the fucking done on paper corresponds to Mailer's image of rape by those in power. Reed represses this image of being raped by the powers that be; such a relationship comes too close to master-slave domination and its systematic attack on black manhood. Part of Reed's point in writing is to proclaim that he, as person and writer, has not let his manhood be thus diminished. However, this nexus of homosexual images governs his attitudes toward power, and it damages his ability to consider power in a positive fashion. To accept HARRY SAM for him means submitting to HARRY SAM's anal “goat-she-ate-shuns.”

Another concern that seems to belong to the problematics of control is shit. The Free-Lance Pallbearers is overwhelmingly stercoracious in its imagery. The reader encounters the oral shit put out by the white government, the filthiness of whites' behavior toward members of minority groups, the dung that passes for Dean U-2's scholarship, the anal aspects of homosexual copulation and rape, sewage as ecological pollution, and the stinking excrement resulting from cannibalistic consumption of minority children.13 Similarly, one can hardly read a page of Why Are We in Vietnam? without encountering some repulsive reference to shit—human or animal, metaphoric or literal. One of the most (in)famous of contemporary anal adventures, Slothrop's excremental journey down the Roseland toilet bowl, seems heavily derived from Reed. Like HARRY SAM, Slothrop goes down a toilet into a sewer. Pynchon's episode ends with a dog on meat hooks, as Reed's does with Bukka on hooks. Reed is clearly describing the Harvard jaunts to Roxbury and the Roseland in his story of Alfred and Lenore, and PaPa LaBas also mentions the Roseland. (Both Reed and Pynchon apparently draw on Malcolm X's autobiography, published in 1965.) Pynchon's description of Pudding's coprophagy is also an analysis of control, as is clear from Katje's dominatrix role. Controlling one's bowels is an early childhood achievement, and some kinds of control thus have anal-stage roots. Only in contemporary satiric modes, however, has that psychic connection been worked out so explicitly and in such florid detail.

Control artists have other common concerns, such as magic modes of thought. Presenting a Hoodoo that is a much sanitized form of Vodoun, Reed does away with the cruelty to animals necessary in many rites, indeed dispenses with blood altogether and intellectualizes all rituals. Mailer indulges in magical thinking when Rojack must walk the roof ledge twice in An American Dream; once would have been Mailer's usual fear-facing act, but a second attempt could magically have saved the life of Rojack's girlfriend. D. J. engages in telepathy and plugs into boreal electromagnetic currents. Pynchon explores myriad nonrational coincidences, including Slothrop's link to incoming rockets. Vodoun, as it creeps into white consciousness, makes more appearances in fiction. The loas have invaded the world computer network in Gibson's later cyberpunk novels Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Acker's Don Quixote mentions Vodoun in her letter to Nixon (106-07) and later acknowledges that the loa named Papa Eleggua (whose other names are Papa Legba and Papa LaBas) is calling her. Burroughs's world is rife with magic rites whose aim is to transplant souls from one body to another at the expense of the second body's previous inhabitant. In most instances, the connection between magic and power is clear; magic is a tool by which individuals attempt to gain power over something or someone in ways not available to most people.

Though these control artists doubtless share other concerns, the final element I will examine in their shared vision is attention to foundational myths. Burroughs, Acker, Pynchon, and Reed all look to early American history for some explanation of conditions today. Reed pays more attention to the Civil War era but refers in passing to Salem and Thomas Jefferson. His foundational myths go back beyond early American history to Set and Osiris in Africa.

Acker, however, looks in some detail at early laws in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Having described the 1658 decree in Massachusetts Bay sentencing Quakers to death, she concludes that “[t]he United States is exactly as it was started: religiously intolerant, militaristic, greedy, and dependent on slavery as all democracies have been” (124). Pynchon describes the burning of William Slothrop's tract and wonders whether William Slothrop might represent the path America should have taken (556), the path to a world less obsessed with “shit, money, and the Word” (28).

Burroughs describes the articles drawn up by Captain Mission in Cities of the Red Night (xii). To those freedoms Burroughs adds sexual freedom and then states that had Captain Mission's colony been established,

mankind might have stepped free from the deadly impasse of insoluble problems in which we now find ourselves. … The chance was there. The chance was missed. The principles of the French and American revolutions became windy lies in the mouths of politicians. … There is simply no room left for “freedom from the tyranny of government” since city dwellers depend on it for food, power, water, transportation, protection, and welfare.


Such reinterpretations of founding myths differ just as the authors' ideologies do, but all these writers focus on the abuses of control that developed early in American cultural history and argue that the abuses have continued, little modified, to the present.

Most of these writers would say that their readers are ignorant of true history and believe falsehoods, but Reed does the most to identify publicly accepted myths and rewrite them according to his own truths. The taming of the West had little to do with clean, white Marlboro-country suavity and heroism; our spirits have become insanely amalgamated with a lust for private property; Christianity, far from being the source of spiritual health, is a warped, antilife, antihuman force; Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were not the idealistic and virtuous white fathers they are publicly held to be; the Confederacy did not represent a gracious and cultured form of life; what matters in Washington is not what appears on the evening news; America is closer to setting up concentration camps for racial “undesirables” than liberals would believe possible; the American Christmas is a ghoulish travesty14 and Santa a zombie gangster; blacks and the spirit of their culture are central rather than marginal to human culture and to the continued survival of the human race.15

Control in the runaway form these writers describe may well drag humanity to destruction; on that they seem agreed. On its own terms, control seems unstoppable. Fear of the future wins support for control, and its economic efficiency drives alternative social and economic systems out of business. Dismantling the system seems virtually impossible, and were some natural or nuclear disaster to accomplish the task, the price would be millions of lives. Most writers aware of the problem have found no solutions. Reed's answer is at best partial, and he gives no thought to how transitions might be made, but he does try to envision a different relation between people and the forces in life that affect their outlooks. Reed asks for some courage regarding the possibility of future disasters and implicitly demands more acceptance of death than American culture seems able to muster, but he makes no Maileresque cult of such courage. Rather, he recommends enjoyment of the present and extensive satisfactions of the body and thus challenges social scientists who disparage the underclass live-for-the-day outlook. Compared with the utopias of Callenbach and Piercy, Reed's society has a better chance of working on a large scale because it already exists in some forms in pockets of the world today. The source for Reed's answer—the life-styles of slum and tribe—is one of his most original contributions to control artistry. He finds his answers in the social group least affected by the forces of control, the group that seems least likely to challenge those forces.

Reed's works have often been treated as scattershot endeavors—Reckless Eyeballing as an attack on feminists; Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down as a Western; Mumbo Jumbo as a Hoodoo detective story; and The Terrible Twos, The Terrible Threes, and The Free-Lance Pallbearers as political satire. Most critics have found no stable core of concerns aside from a satiric attitude toward the world. I argue that Reed has an ongoing project in his explorations of control and that his grotesque vision of America resembles the visions of other artists sensitive to the workings of control. Reed and these other artists feel cheated of some lost element of the American dream and protest this betrayal with images of filth and violent perversion. The critique of America is flashy and is even compelling to readers disturbed by inequities in the country's treatment of its citizens. Reed's contribution to this strain in American thought becomes evident only when one looks at all his novels together. Examined individually, they are disparate and variably successful; however, the limitations of any one signify little in the series of hallucinatory portraits of America's soul. Each might be likened to a séance in which Reed depicts America as seen from the Hoodoo spirit world, much as Pynchon portrays America from the other side, Acker from a dreamworld, and Burroughs through a drug vision. The evils Reed attacks are not just African American problems; his focus on control demonstrates that he belongs to a group of bitter satirists—female and male, black and white—whose experience with cultural lies appalls them. Their artistic violence aims at breaking through to vantages beyond those of ordinary social and literary consciousness. Such perspectives, they imply, reveal truths normally ignored by privileged members of society. Those ugly truths, not the bourgeois self-image that the contented have cultivated to protect their own comfort, are the reality.


  1. Although their lineage has become obscure, various systems for explaining control actually derive from Marx and Freud. Studies of ideology by the Frankfurt school and by Louis Althusser in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” show how human subjects internalize the values of the ruling group. Demystifying such thought control has been central to cultural critiques focusing on issues of power and oppression. Frantz Fanon draws not only on Freud and Marx but on Adler as well to analyze the effects of French colonialism, and Adler's focal concern was power. In fiction, however, control seems largely to lack Marxist and psychoanalytic earmarks and is often simply another major schema for explaining human interrelations.

  2. Hofstadter describes several waves of American political frenzy, all assuming “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character” (14). He notes the similarities to the European millennialist mental complex described by Norman Cohn, which demonizes its adversary, perceives its own group to be persecuted, detects a trend that if not reversed will lead quickly to the end of civilization or of the world, and refuses to accept life as a tissue of limitations and compromises. The political groups mentioned by Hofstadter and analyzed at length by David H. Bennett, from the Know-Nothings to John Birchers, almost all identify with the white majority and occupy the far right of the American political spectrum. The control artists tend to share the fears of these groups, but most identify with minority groups and have Left-leaning politics. While seeming to hold somewhat Manichaean values in Mumbo Jumbo, The Terrible Twos, and The Terrible Threes, Reed is freer than most control artists from that simplistic mind-set, and even in those texts, he shows characters reversing tyrannical stances or proving themselves to be as much victims of tyranny as they are tyrants.

  3. Reed's lack of pious respect for predecessors like Ellison is one of the issues that got him in trouble with the black aesthetics movement (see Martin, “Free-Lance PallBearer”). His signifying on Invisible Man's “Journey to the Heart of Whiteness” is discussed by Fox (“Ishmael Reed”), Gates (“‘Blackness’”; “Ishmael Reed”), and Schmitz. Reed mentions the influence of African satiric modes in his interview with Joseph Henry (88).

  4. When Foucault analyzes power in The History of Sexuality (92-98), he stresses power's omnipresence and denies that it is imposed from above. Rather, it “comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled” (94). Control artists, however, favor a more conventional distribution, a Manichaean division between the power brokers and the oppressed. For a survey of alternative views of power, see Hoy.

  5. In “Industrialization and Capitalism in the Work of Max Weber” and One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that the concept of technological and scientific reason is ideological. Jürgen Habermas develops this argument further in “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology,’” illustrating ways in which science is not value-free but predicated on controlling nature and dedicated to the politics of control. He sees fetishized science as more irresistible than older ideologies and notes its power to justify a dominant class while repressing another class; indeed, he argues, the efficiency ethic and its problem-solving prowess affect and limit the concept of freedom (111).

  6. For a critique of the new-leftist assumption that all institutions are evil and resemble Hitler's totalitarian enterprise, see Glazer's “New Left and Its Limits.”

  7. Joe Weixlmann analyzes the influence of Poe's “Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and “Ligeia” on Flight to Canada and argues that Reed finds Poe's delight in self-torment and in the luxury of sorrow “utterly degenerate” (“Politics”; “Raven”).

  8. Reed also satirizes such black leaders as Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver (see Harris, “HooDoo Solution”); for similar identification of targets in Flight to Canada, see Harris (“Gods”).

  9. For analyses of Jes Grew and the Hoodoo aesthetic, see Byerman, Fontenot, Fox (“Zero”; “Ishmael Reed”), Harris (“Politics”; “HooDoo Solution”), Lindroth, Martin (“Syncretic Use”), and McConnell.

  10. Jazz offers an obvious analogue to this life-style; for an analysis of Mumbo Jumbo in musical terms, see Shadle. Gates argues that Jes Grew celebrates indeterminacy and lack of closure, in addition to improvisation (“‘Blackness’”).

  11. See the introduction to Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World. Linda Hutcheon notes that Bakhtin sees only the positive side of the carnivalesque impulse and ignores the destructive (“Contemporary Narrative”). Her insight is relevant to Reed as well.

  12. Carter, Paravisini, and Weixlmann (“Culture Clash”) discuss Reed's use and parody of detective conventions.

  13. For a discussion of the poetics of shit in contemporary literature, see Pops; for a discussion of Reed's use of shit, see Fabre (“Ishmael Reed”; “Dialectics”). Des Pres analyzes the “excremental assault” carried out by death camps to degrade prisoners in their own eyes and make it easier for their captors to kill them (51-71). Similar aims may be involved in control literature, though in these works the victim or the author is using shit against the oppressor to strip away pious pretense and name the tyrannical actions for what they are.

  14. Gloria Naylor also reproaches the commercial American Christmas, in the depiction of Candlewalk in Mama Day. For observations on Reed's excoriation of Christmas through invocation of Dickens and Dante, see Hutcheon (Poetics 130-31).

  15. Theodore O. Mason, Jr., analyzes both Reed's attack on Christianity and his revelation of “the hidden centrality of people of color” (100).

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. Don Quixote. New York: Grove, 1986.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review, 1971. 127-86.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Introduction.” Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT P, 1968. 1-58.

Bennett, David H. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.

Burroughs, William S. Cities of the Red Night. 1981. New York: Holt, 1982.

Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.

Callenbach, Ernest. Ecotopia. New York: Bantam, 1977.

Carter, Steven R. “Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Detection.” Dimensions of Detective Fiction. Ed. Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green: Popular, 1976. 265-74.

Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Coover, Robert. The Public Burning. New York: Viking, 1977.

Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Fabre, Michel. “Ishmael Reed's Free-Lance Pallbearers; or, The Dialectics of Shit.” Obsidian 3.3 (1977): 5-19.

———. “Ishmael Reed: The Free-Lance Pallbearers ou le langage au pouvoir.” Revue française d'études américaines 1 (1976): 83-100.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin: White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Fontenot, Chester J. “Ishmael Reed and the Politics of Aesthetics; or, Shake Hands and Come Out Conjuring.” Black American Literature Forum 12 (1978): 20-23.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage-Random, 1979.

———. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Fox, Robert Elliot. “Blacking the Zero: Toward a Semiotic of Neo-HooDoo.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 95-99.

———. “Ishmael Reed: Gathering the Limbs of Osiris.” Conscientious Sorcerers. Westport: Greenwood, 1987. 39-92.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The ‘Blackness of Blackness’: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey.” Critical Inquiry 9 (1983): 685-723.

———. “Ishmael Reed.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 33. Detroit: Gale, 1984. 219-32.

Glazer, Nathan. “The New Left and Its Limits.” The Radical Left: The Abuse of Discontent. Ed. William P. Gerberding and Duane E. Smith. Boston: Houghton, 1970. 11-30.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Technology and Science as ‘Ideology.’” Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon, 1970. 81-122.

Harris, Norman. “The Gods Must Be Angry: Flight to Canada as Political History.” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (1988): 111-23.

———. “The Last Days of Louisiana Red: The HooDoo Solution.” Connecting Times: The Sixties in Afro-American Fiction. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988. 166-88.

———. “Politics as an Innovative Aspect of Literary Folklore: A Study of Ishmael Reed.” Obsidian 5.1-2 (1979): 41-50.

Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and Other Essays. New York: Knopf, 1966. 3-40.

Hoy, David Couzens. “Power, Repression, Progress: Foucault, Lukes, and the Frankfurt School.” Foucault: A Critical Reader. Ed. Hoy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. 123-46.

Hutcheon, Linda. “The Carnivalesque and Contemporary Narrative: Popular Culture and the Erotic.” Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa 53.1 (1983): 83-94.

———. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Lindroth, James R. “From Krazy Kat to Hoodoo: Aesthetic Discourse in the Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4.2 (1984): 227-33.

Mailer, Norman. An American Dream. New York: Dial, 1965.

———. Why Are We in Vietnam? 1967. New York: Holt, 1982.

Marcuse, Herbert. “Industrialization and Capitalism in the Work of Max Weber.” Negations: Essays in Critical Theory. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon, 1969. 201-26.

———. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Martin, Reginald. “The FreeLance PallBearer Confronts the Terrible Threes: Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics.” MELUS 14.2 (1987): 35-49.

———. “Ishmael Reed's Syncretic Use of Language: Bathos as Popular Discourse.” Modern Language Studies 20.2 (1990): 3-9.

Mason, Theodore O., Jr. “Performance, History, and Myth: The Problem of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.Modern Fiction Studies 34 (1988): 97-109.

McConnell, Frank. “Ishmael Reed's Fiction: Da Hoodoo Is Put on America.” Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel since 1945. Ed. A. Robert Lee. London: Vision, 1980. 136-48.

Morrison, Toni. Tar Baby. 1981. New York: Plume, 1982.

Naylor, Gloria R. Mama Day. New York: Vintage-Random, 1989.

Paravisini, Lizabeth. “Mumbo Jumbo and the Uses of Parody.” Obsidian II 1.1-2 (1986): 113-25.

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett, 1986.

Pops, Martin. “The Metamorphoses of Shit.” Salmagundi 56 (1982): 26-61.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Bantam, 1967.

———. Gravity's Rainbow. New York: Viking, 1973.

Reed, Ishmael. Flight to Canada. New York: Random, 1976.

———. The Free-Lance Pallbearers. 1967. London: Allison, 1990.

———. “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful.” Nineteen Necromancers from Now. Ed. Reed. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970. 293-309.

———. Interview. With Joseph Henry. MELUS 11.1 (1984): 81-93.

———. The Last Days of Louisiana Red. 1974. New York: Bard, 1976.

———. Mumbo Jumbo. 1972. New York: Bard, 1978.

———. Reckless Eyeballing. 1986. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

———. The Terrible Threes. 1989. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

———. The Terrible Twos. 1982. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

———. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. 1969. London: Allison, 1971.

Roth, Philip. Our Gang. New York: Random, 1971.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. 1983. London: Picador, 1984.

Schmitz, Neil. “Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” Twentieth Century Literature 20 (1974): 126-40.

Shadle, Mark. “A Bird's-Eye View: Ishmael Reed's Unsettling of the Score by Munching and Mooching on the Mumbo Jumbo Work of History” North Dakota Quarterly 54.1 (1986): 18-29.

Weixlmann, Joe. “Culture Clash, Survival, and Trans-formation: A Study of Some Innovative Afro-American Novels of Detection.” Mississippi Quarterly 38 (1984-85): 21-31.

———. “Ishmael Reed's Raven.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 4.2 (1984): 205-08.

———. “Politics, Piracy, and Other Games: Slavery and Liberation in Flight to Canada.MELUS 6.3 (1979): 41-50.

Peter Nazareth (review date summer 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837

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 anything, put it into a novel and let the novel decide. And so Reed himself is also a character in the work: “He sometimes went around with a tacky beard in order to appear to be a man of the people. He sometimes wore clothes so long that they became ragged and his family would have to go to Macy's to buy him new clothes.”

The protagonist is Benjamin Puttbutt, a black junior professor at white Jack London College. He is being nice to the English and Women's Studies departments and attacks black men for not shaping up—one of his heroes being Thomas Sowell—because he wants to get tenure. He even turns a blind eye to the outrageous racist actions against him by a student, Robert Bass, whose father is a rich contributor to the college. A radical in the sixties, he will do anything that goes over: “Now that the writer was considered as obsolete as a 1960s computer, he could share in some of the profits of the growth industry of the eighties and nineties. Criticism. All you had to do was string together some quotes from Benjamin, Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan and you were in business. Even a New Critic like himself could make some cash.” However, he is double-crossed and denied tenure.

Puttbutt has been studying Japanese because he sees it as the wave of the future. Suddenly, the college is bought by a Japanese group, and his Japanese teacher becomes acting president and makes him his right-hand man. While the Japanese do to the Eurocentrics what the latter have done to others, Puttbutt makes Crabtree, an English professor, teach freshman Yoruba. Crabtree changes. “I have learned a language that transports me to a culture that's two thousand years old,” he says. “Have they ever produced a Tolstoy? They have produced Tolstoys. Have they produced a Homer. They have hundreds of Homers. We were just too lazy and arrogant to find out.”

The novel presents true multiculturalists versus hostile right-wing groups and “cause pimps” and opportunists. Reed and his group, Glossos United, have been fighting for multiculturalism for twenty years. “Fighting” is right: Reed enters the novel at the same time as an anti-Glossos point man from India named D'Gun ga Dinza, clearly based on Dinesh D'Souza, whom Reed identified as Destar D'Nooza, Santa's elf, in The Terrible Threes (see WLT 64:2, p. 310) and whom he pins down again for his illiberal education; naming is very important in the Yoruba American tradition.

Why is Reed studying Yoruba? “Perhaps it was Peter Nazareth's catching Ishmael Reed red-handed anglicizing Yoruba (Yoruban)” (see WLT 63:3, p. 483). Like his detectives PaPa LaBas and Nance Saturday, he is out to make a psychic arrest. Reed is giving English a transfusion from Japanese and Yoruba. The struggle to learn each language, the successful use of expressions from each language, and concepts and ideas expressed through each language become part of the novel: the novel itself becomes multicultural. Reed believes racism is learned, so it can be unlearned. Bass is punished by his father (who wants to access to the Japanese market) by having to act as Puttbutt's servant: the experience of getting to know a black American changes Bass.

Puttbutt is another I. Ball, the protagonist of Reed's Reckless Eyeballing, a sexist (see WLT 60:4, p. 631). Puttbutt's sexism leads to the murder of his Japanese lover by her husband. Lest we say he is Reed, as readers did with I. Ball, Reed enters the text and reads his game: “All about binary this and that. Liberal quotes from Walter Benjamin, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes (but his reviews fell back on Freud and Tate).” Puttbutt had read Reed earlier: if he had taken him seriously, he would have found his moral center. While Puttbutt dishes out his textbook, Japanese by Spring, Reed is springing his larger version.

Jack Only, an updated version of Swille the multinational in Flight to Canada, comes to see Reed for help, because, thanks to financing people who are single-visioned, monocultural, anti-Semitic, and racist, he has been losing business: Reed gives him a lesson on multiculturalism. Once again Reed is helping to save Western Civilization.

Japanese by Spring is full of plots and counterplots. It pulls together all of Reed's previous work and prepares us for more to come. It is his funniest novel since Flight to Canada. With Reed, humor is life-affirming.

George Packer (review date 12 December 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137

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 chances of those kinds of careers emerging and enduring in the future seem dim.

Cornel West and Ishmael Reed approach the task in almost antithetical ways: All they really have in common is their concern with race. West, professor of philosophy and Afro-American studies at Princeton and author of the widely praised book Race Matters is reasonable and judicious in everything he writes, but his prose is largely inaccessible to the uninitiated. Many of Reed's nonfiction pieces [in Airing Dirty Laundry] sound like irascible bar-stool musings whose topics keep getting derailed by one or another of the author's obsessions. West never really leaves behind the circumlocutions and constraints of his academic training; Reed, best known for his nine novels, operates entirely free of intellectual rigor.

Keeping Faith is West's fourth collection of 1993 (in addition to Race Matters, he's also published Volumes One and Two of Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism). While the essays in Keeping Faith have less obvious interest for the general public than those on racial politics in Race Matters,” there's no reason why lemma of the black intellectual, Georg Lukacs' Marxism or the Critical Legal Studies movement shouldn't be opened up to thoughtful readers who haven't done postgraduate work in the fields. Instead, accumulations of names and theoretical tags do the work of unpacked argument or plain definition, for example: “To put it crudely, Lukacs replaced the prevailing forms of positivistic scientism with a Hegelian form of scientism in the Marxist tradition.”

It isn't trivial to wish that West were cruder—that he used more of what he calls “Anglo-American commonsense lingo”—because the mission of this book, and perhaps of his other books as well, is to place scholarship in the service of West's watchword, the “prophetic.”

“To take seriously one's vocation as an intellectual,” he writes, “is to justify in moral and political terms why one pursues a rather privileged life of the mind in a world that seems to require forms of more direct and urgent action.” That imperative genuinely haunts West; it accounts for his earnestness, decency and sanity.

But Keeping Faith doesn't meet the promise of its subtitle: Instead of using philosophy to analyze race, it makes philosophical inquiry an impenetrable affair, crammed with casual allusion, and then, in essay after essay, breaks into the clear at the end with the same appeal for a marriage of criticism and insurgency.

“Jameson's works are therefore too theoretical,” West concludes an essay on the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson. “His welcome call for a political her-meneutics is too far removed from the heat of political battles.”

The critical legal theorists, the Foucaultians, Richard Rorty, black literary critics, everyone comes up under the same charge: They've neglected the prophetic task; in a sense they've failed to justify their vocation. Intellectuals need to turn themselves into “critical organic catalysts,” a formula by which I think West simply means the best of everything: Nietzsche and Marx and Dewey, Africa and Europe, philosophy and revolt, the academy and the church and the public square.

We do need the best of everything, and we also need Cornel West to remind us of that. But this latest book shows how much easier it is to propose the marriage than make it.

“The discussion of race in this country,” says Ishmael Reed, “never seems to rise above the tabloid level, even among academics.” At times it even sinks to the sub-tabloid. Reed's defense of Clarence Thomas, who keeps popping up in Airing Dirty Laundry, rivals Thomas' own: “[He] was treated by feminists in the manner that the Klan has traditionally treated black men—denying them due process.”

Feminists black and white (“the greatest threat to black male well-being since the Klan”) come in for a lot of airing. So do National Public Radio, Terry Gross (the host of NPR's “Fresh Air”) in particular, the New York Times, CNN, NBC and even Cornel West.

The attacks are formless and repetitive and sometimes flatly wrong. West is lumped with writers “who see the friction between blacks and Jews as coming exclusively from the black side.” Read “On Black-Jewish Relations” in Race Matters. It's as balanced as everything else West has written.

“It simply amazes me,” says Reed, “how few feminists criticize men from their own ethnic group, making black men take the rap for all men.” He could at least have mentioned Bob Packwood, if only as the exception that proves the rule.

The theme of this book is the bum rap on black men—on among others, Clarence Thomas, Mike Tyson and Ishmael Reed. What Reed calls the “black pathology industry” is an work everywhere he turns, even on NPR's frequencies, while “a far more lethal white under class” is ignored.

The accusation probably contains a fair part of the truth. But it's the essayist's job to think, not catalog, and without serious reflection or research, without the zest and invention of Reed's fiction, the accusation gets dreary over the course of a whole book of mainly first drafts.

The saving grace of Airing Dirty Laundry is that Reed is not an ideologue with a totalizing system. He shoots his targets, but from time to time his other interests and pleasures manage to appear.

There is a good piece on Ambrose Bierce's Civil War stories, another on the lowlife novels of Chester Himes, another on Zora Neale Hurston's 1936 book on voodoo. (Reed likes Hurston in spite of “the ideological grand standing of some of her contemporary fans, out to get even with the entire male species.”)

Two rambling essays written in 1978—one on the Ali-Spinks fight in New Orleans, one on “Naropa” Buddhist poetry in Colorado—convey the atmosphere of hype and flagging spirit in two vastly different but completely American scenes. And the volume's last piece has Reed in search of his roots—his white, Irish roots.

“There's no such thing as Black America or White America, two nations, two separate bloodlines,” he writes. “America is a land of distant cousins.”

Funny, moving, this essay leaves you surprised and disappointed, as if after an evening on harangue the man on the next bar stool had suddenly told good story just as they we closing up.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14849

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

“Reed's Law” is a counterintuitive statement of how intertextual relations are established and how they can operate. It demands that we see the relationship between a parodic text and its “host” text in new ways. “Reed's Law” is, therefore, a fitting general code through which we can appreciate Ishmael Reed's entire career since one of the noteworthy features of that career is Reed's insistence that we also not treat signs as representatives of a given reality or referent. As Henry Louis Gates points out, Reed challenges the belief that the “so-called black experience cannot be thought of as a fluid content to be poured into received and static containers” and instead proposes that “it is the signifier that both shapes and defines any discrete signified” (Signifying 218). A specific instance of this strategy occurs in Flight to Canada, a novel in which, as Hortense Spillers demonstrates, Reed attempts to overthrow American chattel slavery “as the privileged text of Afro-American historical movement” by using a strategy of invading “the discursive and its properties in order to blast our own habits of language and the configurations of value and belief that arise in them” (48). In other words, Reed challenges the representation of slavery as the primary historical event in the “so-called black experience” by reconfiguring the accepted protocols of African American discursive traditions. In Flight to Canada, moreover, Reed dismantles any definition of the black experience as monolithic and simultaneously disturbs the relationship of the “signifier” to the “signified” by representing slavery in the form of a Neo-HooDoo slave narrative. As the first and (so far) only specimen of a Neo-HooDoo slave narrative, Flight to Canada plays an even more significant role in Reed's ouevre than almost any critic has granted. It is, I will argue, his most considered aesthetic enactment of Neo-HooDoo religious principles and also his most sophisticated representation of the motivation governing his parodic impetus. It is, in other words, the most complete realization of what Reed himself calls “Reed's Law.”

It has long been recognized that what Reed calls Neo-HooDoo—which is Reed's term for a Voudon-based religious system with its own aesthetics—provides him with a strategy and a form for parodying all kinds of “monisms,” that is, largely Western reified systems of beliefs and values which define themselves by excluding other usually African or African-derived syncretic systems of beliefs and values.1 Reed's most perceptive critics have taken up the challenge of defining Neo-HooDoo in terms that respect the syncretism of Voudon-based religious systems. Their definitions, which differ not just in their emphases but in their substantive claims about the purpose and proper sphere of Neo-HooDoo, can generally be seen to fall into four types. The first group, represented by Norman Harris, argues that Neo-HooDoo is almost strictly an aesthetic principle in which the artist uses “whatever she/he wishes in whatever combination she/he wishes in order to tell a story” (114). The second group sees in Neo-HooDoo both an artistic and a religious sensibility. As Reginald Martin puts it, Hoodoo is both a “literary method” and also “a way of doing things, with certain particular principles, which aligns its literary procedures and themes closely with a love of life, and the good things to be found in life” (82). The third definition states that Neo-HooDoo is a means for Reed to marry his artistic and his political imperatives. As Chester Fontenot writes, Neo-HooDoo provides “the Black artist with the vehicle to merge art with politics without compromising either” (23). Finally, a fourth group of critics defines Neo-HooDoo as a set of general principles Reed uses to confront Western culture and confound Western cultural imperialists. According to Keith Byerman—who sees Reed's career as devoted to “nothing less than the demystification and deconstruction of cultural history”—Reed designates as Neo-HooDoo those acts by which a set of “anarchic, individualistic, and irrepressible … non-Western voices which express life and creativity” intrude on or break the “controlling patterns” of the “dominant culture” (218).

One would guess that the fact that Neo-HooDoo has not been strictly defined as a monolith probably doesn't bother Reed all that much. He has taken pains to ensure that no one thinks of Neo-HooDoo as a “school” or a “philosophy” or any kind of a reified model or set of aesthetic, political, or religious principles. Reed would probably find nothing particularly troublesome with Neil Schmitz's comment that Neo-HooDoo is best described as “a characteristic stance, a mythological provenance, a behavior, a complex of attitudes, [or] the retrieval of an idiom” (127). In fact, the critic who seems to me to have made the most suggestive comments on the function of Neo-HooDoo in Reed's career has made so compelling a case because he has taken particular care to offer a set of staggered comments which work at defining the term by noting its several provenances and applications. Working from the insight that Neo-HooDoo “is process as well as product” and that “it is not limited by a single set of tenets” (“Deconstruction” 66), Joe Weixlmann defines Neo-HooDoo as a political strategy denoting “Reed's idiosyncratic version of ‘real’ Black power” as well as an aesthetic strategy Reed uses to describe his reliance upon “spiritual forces” in order to assert “his deep and abiding sense of freedom and the method which he has selected to create distinctively Black art” (“Raven” 205; “Politics” 45). It is also, Weixlmann concludes, an epistemological program necessary for the construction of a tenable black identity. Because Neo-HooDoo is “an understanding built syncretically upon information and beliefs drawn from investigation of and response to a variety of cultures,” it provides the impetus for “the assertion of black prerogative in the face of the white West's attempt to negate African American identity” (“Deconstruction” 66). In other words, Neo-HooDoo encompasses Reed's religious principles, his political motives, and his artistic imperatives.

If we define Neo-HooDoo in these terms, then it seems to me that Flight to Canada provides us with a singular example of Neo-HooDoo as a practice. In saying this, I am going against most of Reed's critics, who have been reluctant to see the novel in those terms. Although Schmitz noted just before the publication of Flight to Canada that the “course of Reed's experimentation with narrative has … increasingly involved his conception of Neo-HooDoo as a literary mode” (127), most critics found nothing in the novel to substantiate the implicit prediction that Reed would continue to be involved in Neo-HooDoo. Frank McConnell, for instance, believes that Reed “has passed beyond the idea of HooDoo” in Flight to Canada—“or, rather, has assimilated that creative idea into a larger and more capacious aesthetics and politics of national liberation and rebirth” (147). To my mind, though, no novel in Reed's career provides more thorough a representation of what I will argue are the three elements (writing, history, time) nor as complete a realization of the three spheres (religion, politics, art) of Neo-HooDoo. In fact, I maintain that not only is Reed as involved in Neo-HooDoo ideas in Flight to Canada as he had been in his first four novels, but that unlike the earlier novels in which HooDoo is the subject of the narratives, Reed employs HooDoo as the governing principle of Flight to Canada. More specifically, Flight to Canada itself is an enactment of the most basic of the HooDoo principles and practices—the act of spirit possession. In other words, Flight to Canada is Reed's first and only literary performance of Neo-HooDoo practice.

Once we recognize that the novel is performative, we are better able to understand its complex parodic strategy, its attempt, as C. W. E. Bigsby puts it, to “subvert history from within” (158) in order to rearrange the relations between sign and signifier, original and parodic text. The historical representation of slavery which Reed is most intent on subverting in Flight to Canada is that provided by those revisionist cliometricians of the mid-1970s who attempted to accumulate, process, and interpret data collected from slavemasters' documents without consulting the narratives of former and fugitive slaves. What Robert William Fogel and Stanley Engerman, the foremost amongst such cliometricians, were doing with computers, in other words, was pretty much what Ulrich B. Phillips had done by hand. At one point in the narrative, Raven catalogues for Yankee Jack his sufferings as a slave: “The hardships I've had to overcome. My mother sold down the river. My father broken for spitting into the overseer's face. The whippings, the floggings.” When Yankee Jack responds cynically—“That's not what the revisionists are saying. Don't forget, I read the New Republic”—Raven snarls back: “Revisionists. Quantitative historians. What does a computer know? Can a computer feel? Make love? Can a computer feel passion?” Ripping off his shirt, Raven points to the scars from his whippings and asks: “What does a fucking computer know about that?” (150-51). What is particularly the issue involved here is that cliometricians ignore the materials and evidence against slavery provided by slaves themselves in fugitive narratives. What gets lost when computers determine what slavery was like are the human feelings of indenture and physical and psychic suffering. Raven, therefore, is making a case for the form of writing which depicts those feelings and represents slavery from the other side of the whip, that form of representation which historians from Phillips to Fogel and Engerman have ignored and derided—slave narratives.

Reed's critique of those who have ignored or abused slave narratives is complicated, though, because Flight to Canada's formal properties are so complex. Obviously, the main target of Reed's parodic impetus is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which Reed believes was produced by dint of Stowe's “theft” of Josiah Henson's slave narrative. Reading the novel as a parody of only Uncle Tom's Cabin, critics such as Barbara Foley have been led to argue that in “Flight to Canada, Reed parodies the classical historical novel, inviting the reader to flout the very generic contract he has invoked” (259). What we have to consider, however, is that Reed is also casting his novel into the form of a slave narrative. As John M. Reilly has pointed out, “in this tale of Raven Quickskill” Reed gives us nothing less than a thorough “revision of the form of the earliest popular Afro-American writing, the fugitive slave narrative” (6). The novel begins with a three-page poem called “Flight to Canada,” which is written by the fugitive slave Raven Quickskill (3-5). The prose narrative begins with Raven's four-and-a-half-page first-person meditation on his own poem and on the crime Stowe committed against Henson when she “borrowed” his story. Abruptly, Raven's first-person voice falls silent and the rest of the narrative is offered through a third-person omniscient narrator who tells us that Raven has been commissioned to write Uncle Robin's story (11). In other words, Flight to Canada takes on the formal properties of both a historical novel and a fugitive slave narrative; it contains both the first-person voice of the fugitive slave and the third-person voice of the classical historical novelist. Reed's parodic strategy is complex, then, because he is implying that the “original” which would be rendered “obsolete” if his parody is successful is not only Stowe's “classical historical novel,” but also the slave narrative itself, which is, after all, the form in which Reed begins writing his novel. What I think Reed is doing, though, is offering a parody of slave narratives as they were read as a way of reconstructing potential readings of slave narratives as they can be read. Since Uncle Tom's Cabin is not original, but nonetheless acts as a mediating force that governs the reading of original slave narratives written by people like Josiah Henson, a parody which renders Uncle Tom's Cabin “obsolete” simultaneously opens up the possibility for fresh readings of those co-opted slave narratives. In other words, what Reed is rendering obsolete are readers' reading patterns and expectations. That, we can say, is the corollary to “Reed's Law.” What he is establishing is nothing less than a reading strategy that is not based on appropriation. And he is doing so by returning to the form of writing which, in African American literature, provided both the first form of black representation and resistance and the first literary instance of white appropriation of black texts and voices.


Starting with the narrative of Briton Hammon in 1760, the African American slave's textual representation of slavery confronted a threefold set of problems involving production, reception, and mediation. As Robert Stepto has pointed out, the antebellum slave narrative was the first form of writing in which was inscribed the “primary pre-generic myth for Afro-America”—the wholly interrelated “quest for freedom and literacy” (xv). The slave's writing of his or her own narrative exemplified the marriage of these two quests in the production of one text, written by the escaped slave himself or herself. Given that the slave narrative was written in order to promote the antislavery cause, however, these texts had to be concerned with how they would be received. More specifically, the narrative encountered the problem of constructing a readerly “community” which was more interested in freedom than literacy, and more concerned with slavery than with the slave. When Frederick Douglass began his career as an abolitionist lecturer, for example, he found that he was prohibited from being allowed “to speak just the word that seemed to me the word to be spoken by me.” Attempting to be true to himself by articulating his “moral indignation for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy,” he was told to adopt a “little of the plantation manner of speech” and curb his learned commentary: “‘Let us have the facts,’ said the people.” As John Collins, the general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, told Douglass, “Give us the facts … [and] we will take care of the philosophy.” White abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and George Foster echoed this advice as they “always wished to pin” Douglass down to his “simple narrative” (Bondage 220-21). Although the audience of the slave narratives, as Frances Smith Foster points out, did not share the fugitive slaves' “cultural or moral concerns,” the fugitive slave narrators had nonetheless to write their narratives in such a way as to “inform and convert” that very audience (3, 23). Therefore, as Stepto notes, the slave narrative, like all the “aggregate literature of the Afro-American written tale,” had to be concerned with “comprehending the abiding link in America between race and readership” by advancing “appropriately revised models of competent readership.” The postbellum device most often employed for this purpose is a framed tale in which a “black storyteller's white listener” is depicted as “socially and morally maturing into competency” (207). The antebellum device for preparing a community of white readers to accept the slave's testimony involved a mediation between the production and reception of the slave's narrative. In the vast majority of slave narratives, the text expressing the slave's literacy and freedom was governed and determined by “other voices which are frequently just as responsible for articulating a narrative's tale and strategy.” The “primary function” of these mediating voices—including abolitionists' prefaces, letters, poems, and other textual apparatus—is to “authenticate the former slave's account” in order to promote the “narrative's acceptance as historical evidence” (3). The slave's textual production, in other words, was mediated by texts not of the slave's authoring in order to construct a receptive community which was emphatically not of the slave's race.

What links the problems of production, mediation, and reception is the question of the slave's presence or absence. The slave wished to write himself or herself into presence by demonstrating in a literate form the path and progress he or she took towards freedom. The mediating abolitionist and the receptive community of white readers, on the other hand, wished to construct and to read the black slave as an essentially absent being. From the “outset of black autobiography in America,” writes William Andrews, the regnant presupposition was that “a black narrator needs a white reader to complete his text, to build a hierarchy of abstract significance on the mere matter of his facts, to supply a presence where there was only ‘Negro,’ only dark absence” (32-33). In the crucial years between 1810 and 1840, slave narrators experimented with rhetorical strategies that would allow them to manipulate that presupposition to their advantage. One means for doing so was to construct a narrative which would produce what we can call the “appropriating” reader. As Andrews points out, some slave narrators used a “mode of autobiographical discourse that subtly reoriented a reader's response” so that, in effect, the narrator “authorized” the reader's “appropriation” of the narrative (65). This “authorized appropriation” was meant to destroy the white reader's “distanced perspective” and establish in its place a desire for the reader to engage in the world of the slave in an interested way. As Andrews notes, “appropriation” in this sense “occasions a dispossession of the [reader's] ego and a discovery of a new self that emerges from the understanding of the text” (64). An “appropriating” reader, then, is a reader whose engagement with the text is a pretext to that reader's transformation from a disinterested or partially-interested reader into a political agent. Ideally, the reader should have walked away from the slave narrative spiritually transformed and willing to act on behalf of the abolitionist cause. What the abolitionist editors discovered, as we saw in the example of Douglass and the abolitionists, was that the story which was most effectively going to be appropriated by its white readers was the story which highlighted the institution of slavery by subordinating the slave subject. In other words, the slave narrative that would be most successful for the abolitionist cause was the narrative in which, as Gates puts it, “the blackness of the writer and his experience have been valorized as a ‘natural’ absence” (Signifying 218). To a large extent, the slave narratives published between about 1830 and 1860 seemed to contain just such an absence and were certainly read as if they did. As James Olney notes, the “central focus” of “nearly all” the slave narratives published in those years “is slavery, an institution and an external reality, rather than a particular and individual life as it is known internally and subjectively” (154).

This strategy of denying the subject's presence in the slave narrative, as Andrews concludes, worked to “make the slave narrator an eyewitness, not an I-witness” (65). In other words, as might be expected, the “appropriating” reader, no matter how amiable a construct this kind of “appropriation” might seem, was nonetheless going to appropriate the story of the fugitive slave. The result of that appropriation was the production of the narrator's absence. Given the forms through which we do know about slavery—narratives that predominantly defer the subjectivity of their narrators—Hazel Carby is quite right to note that in a “formal sense slavery can thus be a most powerful ‘absent’ presence” (126). Perhaps because of the ways slave narrators were proscribed from representing themselves as “present,” critics such as Spillers can maintain that “slavery” remains for us in late-twentieth-century America “one of the most textualized and discursive fields of practice that we could posit as a structure for attention.” In a very real sense, she continues, “a full century or so ‘after the fact,’ ‘slavery’ is primarily discursive, as we search vainly for a point of absolute and indisputable origin, for a moment of plenitude that would restore us to the real, rich ‘thing’ itself before discourse touched it” (29). What Spillers is referring to here is the larger epistemological debate concerning the play between experience and its recording, between a concrete reality of felt pain and horror and the representation of that reality. More particularly, the issue is the role of writing in representing a self to an “other.” To write, notes Jean-Paul Sartre, is “both to disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader. It is to have recourse to the consciousness of others in order to make one's self be recognized as essential to the totality of being” (542). The reason Sartre can make this claim is that he presupposes an act of writing premised on a kind of contract which is simply not available for the fugitive slave narrative. According to Sartre, “the one who writes recognizes, by the very fact that he takes the trouble to write, the freedom of his readers; and since the one who reads, by the mere fact of his opening the book, recognizes the freedom of the writer, the work of art, from whichever side you approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom of men” (544). However, writing for the fugitive slave, as we have seen, does not work this way. The reader does not recognize the freedom of the writer of a slave narrative. The genre itself denies that possibility. Using Sartre's terms to our purpose, then, we can say that the fugitive slave narrative is based on a contract in which the (writing) self is not recognized as essential by the (reading) other, but is rather posited as an essential absence.

We can call a narrative in which an absent black narrator requires a white reader to provide a complementary “presence” a “tracked” text, in the Derridean meaning of that concept. According to Derrida, every such text is “tracked” because the text “must have retained a mark of what it lost or put in reserve, set aside.” Such a text contains what Derrida calls the “trace,” which is what makes the text comprehensible by providing it with the “simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself” (Speech and Phenomena 156). What Derrida means by the “trace” or the “track” has to do with the construction of time in the formation of subjectivity. The “trace,” writes Derrida, “constitutes what is called the present by this very relation to what it is not, to what it absolutely is not; that is, not even to a past or future considered as a modified present” (Speech and Phenomena 142-43). The “trace” produces a simulacrum of presence by defining itself against everything else. “In order for it to be,” he continues, “an interval must separate it from what it is not; but the interval that constitutes it in the present must also … divide the present in itself, thus dividing, along with the present, everything that can be conceived on its basis, that is, every being—in particular, … [the] subject” (143). In its role of producing the temporal “interval” that in turn produces subjectivity, the “trace” becomes the element which distinguishes a “self” from an “other.” It is in Of Grammatology that Derrida more fully explores what he there calls the “instituted trace” as the principle that produces “difference” between “self” and “other” (55). The “trace,” according to Derrida, is precisely “where the relationship with the other is marked.” The “trace must be thought” before the other “entity” (whatever it is) can be conceived because the “trace” defines the basic difference between a perceiving self and a perceived other. This formulation is problematic, as Derrida notes, since the “movement of the trace is necessarily occulted,” and in fact “produces itself as self-occulation.” In other words, the “trace” which marks the difference between self and other is that same “trace” that is also produced in noting that very difference; the “trace” becomes “present” only when the difference between self and other becomes “present,” and that, Derrida strenuously argues, just does not happen (Of Grammatology 47). As with all forms of binary oppositions in Derrida's writing, then, the problem of the “institutional trace” is truly the problem of the concept of “the metaphysics of presence.” We will return to this issue presently.

Here, though, is where Derrida's theory of the trace abuts on Reed's theory of Neo-HooDoo aesthetics and politics. It is not difficult to make the case for comparing someone who criticizes Western “monisms” to someone who has heavily indicted the Western “Atonist mind” (Of Grammatology 71; Mumbo Jumbo 24). Recent critics of Reed's work have already made a fairly convincing case that Reed's fictional representation of textuality has many meaningful similarities to poststructuralist theory, particularly Derridean deconstruction. Gates points out that Reed criticizes the “idealism of a transcendent black subject, integral and whole, self-sufficient, and plentiful, the ‘always already’ black signified, available for literary representation in received Western forms” by critiquing “the metaphysical presuppositions inherent in Western ideas and forms of writing” (Signifying 218). Reed's Flight to Canada provides us with an exceptionally clear instance of Reed's own form of deconstructive practice. In that novel, Reed produces his own tracked text. The narrative opens with a poem, called “Flight to Canada,” that is, according to its author Raven Quickskill, “more of a reading than a writing” (7). This poem endangers its author's life since it leads Raven's master Arthur Swille to him: “‘Flight to Canada’ was the problem. It made him famous but had also tracked him down. … It had tracked him down just as his name had” (13). Thus does the “trace” (or “track”) make its most important appearance in Reed's novel. Upon having the poem read to him (Swille is dyslexic and cannot read), Swille immediately sends his police forces after Raven: “Call out my tracers, my claimants, my nigger catchers, and my bloodhounds. Arm my paddyrollers” (52). The “tracers,” it turns out, are two men dressed in blazers and grey slacks who have orders to “repossess” Raven. When they catch up with him they hand him a card stating their status: “NEBRASKA TRACERS, INC” (62). We have, then, a text which has in it a “trace” that acts as a danger to its author—primarily but not exclusively because the author signs his name to the text. Secondly, we have what Derrida refers to as an “institutional trace” made literally a “(peculiar) institutional trace” in Reed's novel, in the form of the two Nebraska tracers whose work involves discovering where Raven has gone by discerning the “track” in his text. It is worth noting that Reed, by showing how a text is tracked, is establishing the primary and integral function of the “trace” in acts of fugitive slave writing, textuality, and self-representation.

It is also interesting to note that Reed provides so critical a representation of “writing” when he set out to replicate what Stepto called the implicated “quest for freedom and literacy” that marked the slave narratives. This is especially curious when we attend to the fact that Reed is not going to represent writing as inherently dangerous in order to argue that orality is more sacred or sound a means of self-representation. As Gates notes, Reed's fiction “constitutes an argument against the privileging in black discourse of what Reed elsewhere terms ‘the so-called oral tradition’ in favor of the primacy and priority of the written text” (Signifying 223). Indeed, Reed himself announced that he set out to do nothing less than to “add fresh interpretations to an ancient Afro-American oral literature by modernizing its styles so as to reach contemporary readers” (Writin' [Writin' is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper] 137). It was particularly during the course of his historical research in preparing to write Flight to Canada, in fact, that Reed began to appreciate the importance of his task of representing the quest for literacy as a significant feature of African American history. “During the research for my novel Flight to Canada,” he reports, “I discovered that after the Civil War, thousands of slaves, regardless of age, rushed to free schools where they were tutored to read and write. … For them, learning how to read and write was tantamount to emancipation” (Writin' 193). Without denying that “writing” was the means used to “betray” African American both historically (by legal codes which denied slaves freedom and literacy) and in history (in the long tradition of unflattering misrepresentations of African American experiences), Reed also saw that writing was a means for slaves and ex-slaves to establish their freedom. In Flight to Canada, he manages to capture the ambivalent senses of writing as dangerous and as liberating—as something which aids Raven in his escape from the Swille plantation and something which also endangers Raven because he is part of the “trace” of the text and the text is therefore able to “track” him down.

Writing in Flight to Canada occurs in a variety of forms and testifies to a range of motives. Both Uncle Robin and Raven, the two “writers” in the novel, write primarily as a way of resisting slavery. As Swille's amanuensis—“I became his reading and writing” (171)—Uncle Robin rewrites his master's will and leaves himself the whole of the Swille plantation. In this way, Robin challenges his definition as “personal property” and redefines himself as a “propertied person”: “Property joining forces with property. I left me his whole estate. I'm it, too. Me and it got more it” (171). As Swille's bookkeeper, Raven had also “fooled around with” Swille's books as a way of destroying the records which validate and help maintain the trade in human beings. Every time Swille would buy a new slave, Raven would “destroy the invoices” and leave Swille without any “record of purchase” (35). Moreover, Raven writes passes and forges freedom papers for the other slaves (35). The only other significant feature of Raven's writing comes in the form of his poem “The Saga of the Third World Belle,” which addresses Quaw Quaw Tralaralara's plight as a Native American woman married to the white man who has murdered her family and destroyed her people's culture (123-24). Although it is addressed to her, it is a poem Raven had not intended Quaw Quaw to read: “He didn't want her to learn about it this way. No, not this way” (121). In other words, the poem acts as an informant against its author's intentions. That, to a large extent, is what Raven's other poem also does. In showing Raven's problems with an insubordinate text, as Theodore Mason suggests, Reed represents the “task of maintaining control of the materials, the meaning, and the implications of one's work” (107). As Keith Byerman also notes, in Flight to Canada Raven's “narrative is the self, the ordering of identity that gives body and voice through language.” The problem, however, is that the story is able “to act independently of him.” Indeed, concludes Byerman, “the writing always exceeds its author's designs. It is more than his life; it has a life of its own” (233). When his poem gives him away, Raven wonders: “Did that make the poem a squealer? A tattler?” The poem, Raven realizes, is both his “creation, but in a sense, Swille's bloodhound” also (85). Reed develops the significance of this ambivalence by noting that, on the one hand, Raven's poem “‘Flight to Canada’ … tracked him down” while, on the other, “‘Flight to Canada’ was responsible for getting him to Canada. And so for him, freedom was his writing” (88-89). Part of what Reed is doing in his representation of a text that is both a means to freedom and an endangering of that freedom is paying tribute to those slave narratives which had earlier recorded precisely this same dilemma.

James Pennington noted at the beginning of his slave narrative that it is important for any human being to have a sense of “family history”—a situation in which a son (in his case) can “appeal to the history of his family in vindication of his character” (xii). Although Pennington attempted to write himself a family history in the form of The Fugitive Blacksmith, he found at the end that he could not make full disclosure of his “family history” since it would deleteriously affect precisely those people making up his “family.” Near the close of his narrative, he notes that while he has “many other deeply interesting particulars touching our family history,” he is unable to disclose them for fear of harming “those members who are yet south of Mason and Dixon's line” (63-64). Likewise, while Douglass deeply regretted the necessity that impelled him “to suppress any thing of importance connected with [his] experience in slavery,” he felt he had to forego the pleasure of giving his readers “an accurate statement of all the facts pertaining to [his] most fortunate escape” in order not to close “the slightest avenue by which a brother slave might clear himself of the chains and fetters of slavery” (Narrative 135-36). Henry “Box” Brown, whose escape in a box mailed through the United States postal system was actually not the first attempt made by a slave to be delivered of the peculiar institution in this way, says that he had imagined various other schemes before settling on this one. He chooses not to reveal those schemes or plans, he writes, because “some unfortunate slaves may thereby be prevented from availing themselves of these methods of escape” (59). In Raven's case, the people who are endangered are not the slaves remaining on the Swille plantation but rather the other fugitive slaves who escaped with him—Stray Leechfield and 40S. In a conversation with 40S, Raven demonstrates his understanding of the potential power and danger of words. In response to 40S's question—“You got to be kidding. Words. What good is words?”—Raven states: “Words built the world and words can destroy the world” (81). Likewise, writing can free one from slavery but writing can return one to slavery.

So far, we see that Raven uses his writing to escape slavery, to aid others to escape, and to disrupt Arthur Swille's records of his slave dealings. In other words, all his acts of writing serve to aid his fellow slaves; but it also turns out that his writing aids the slaves in a very limited sense. Neither Raven himself nor the fellow slaves he helps escape are ultimately free. There are several reasons accounting for the limited value of Raven's writing. For one thing, Swille is no ordinary slaveowner. Even after the end of the Civil War, his escaped slaves are still subject to his own version of the Fugitive Slave Bill. As Raven points out to a worker on the underground railroad who notes that he had “stopped these runs since the war was over”: “My slavemaster, Arthur Swille. You don't understand. These issues don't apply to him. He sees me as chattel, and he won't rest until he recovers me” (145). Arthur Swille is one who sincerely believes in the Swille family motto: “never yield a piece of property. Not to a man, not to the State” (19). Aside from its extremity—which is only that the Civil War did not change anything in this planter's relationship to slave property—Swille's position is actually not that far from one we might easily ascribe to most slaveowners of the Old South. As Uncle Robin points out to Stray Leechfield when Stray attempted to purchase himself from Swille: “Did you think that it was just a matter of economics? Did you think you could just hand history a simple check, that you could short-change history, and history would let you off as simple as that? … You thought he'd let you off with a simple check. It was more complicated than that. … He had money. He didn't want money. He wanted the slave in you” (177). Like other masters, Swille was as much interested in owning the soul as the body of his slaves. As Kenneth Stampp points out in his discussion of slaveholders' techniques of creating slaves, one of the most important means of gaining an “unconditional submission” from the slave was for the owner to “impress upon [the slave] his innate inferiority” (144-48). In other words, the master defined himself as master by bringing out whatever inchoate “slave within” resided in each potential slave in order to define that person as slave. Defining American chattel slavery for his British audience in 1846, Frederick Douglass noted that slavery consisted of the “power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of property in the body and soul of another” (“An Appeal” 155; my italics). Reed also contends that slaveowners wish to possess the innermost soul of their personal chattel: “He wanted the slave in you.” Slavery, in Reed's representation, as in Douglass's, is an institution which includes but also exceeds the physical condition of enslavement.

Secondly, because slavery operates on the minds and souls (as well as the bodies) of its victims, Raven's writing is not able to free him or the slaves from the sense of being slaves even after they are no longer indentured. When Raven enters the Eagle Tavern in Buffalo with Quaw Quaw on his arm, for example, he finds himself subject to the “slave cackle” and “signifying looks” of “two of the female slave help.” It affords Reed's narrator an opportunity to expatiate on how slavery imprinted itself as a set of behaviors on those who had been marked by the peculiar institution. “Slaves judged other slaves like the auctioneer and his clients judged them. Was there no end to slavery? Was a slave condemned to serve another Master as soon as he got rid of one? … Was this some game, some fickle punishment for sins committed in former lives? Slavery on top of slavery? Would he ever be free to do what he pleased as long as he didn't interfere with another man's rights? Slaves held each other in bondage; a hostile stare from one slave criticizing the behavior of another slave could be just as painful as a spiked collar—a gesture just as fettering as a cage” (144). It takes more than writing, in other words, to free a slave from the mindset of a slave. Although his research for the novel had shown him that “learning how to read and write was tantamount to emancipation” for former slaves, Reed clearly saw that more than literacy was required for complete intellectual and spiritual emancipation.

Without that healing, without a concerted attempt to eradicate those sets of behaviors of the “slave within,” slave writings and stories would remain “tracked” and subject to theft by unscrupulous white masters-authors. That, according to Reed, is precisely what happened to Josiah Henson. In commenting on Harriet Beecher Stowe's alleged plagiarism-theft of Henson's slave narrative, Raven states: “It was short, but it was his [Henson's]. It was all he had. His story. A man's story is his gris-gris, you know. Taking his story is like taking his gris-gris. The thing that is himself” (8). Again, Reed is expanding on an important theme that former slaves had developed in their own writing and oral interviews. Having an intimate life story stolen from them was a situation more than one former slave feared. As former slave Thomas Hall, who was eighty-one years old when he was interviewed in North Carolina in 1937, put it poignantly to an interviewer from the Works Project Administration: “You are going around to get a story of slavery conditions and the persecutions of Negroes before the Civil War and the economic conditions concerning them since that war. You should have known before this late date all about that. Are you going to help us? No! You are only helping yourself. You say that my story may be put into a book, that you are from the Federal Writers' Project. Well, the Negro will not get anything out of it, no matter where you are from. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. I didn't like her book, and I hate her. No matter where you are from, I don't want you to write my story, because the white folks have been and are now and always will be against the Negro” (45).

Raven's story or “writings” are also subject to the same kind of treatment. We are told that his “poems were ‘readings’ for him from his inner self, which knew more about his future than he did. While others had their tarot cards, their ouija boards, their I-Ching, their cowrie shells, he had his ‘writings.’ They were his bow and arrows” (88). But those stories and “writings” are liable to being stolen insofar as they are treated as “possessions.” According to Gates, Reed is writing about what Stepto called “narrative control”—“the possession of one's own story, be that our collective history or even one's very own autobiography” (“Review” 80). What Raven discovers, however, is that he cannot control his story so long as it remains only his story. That personal story has to become an expression of collective identity and a representation of a communal experience in order not to be appropriated. Having shown that the danger to Raven will persist so long as he treats his story as an individual possession in a “tracked” text, Reed goes on to demonstrate how Raven “untracks” his text. In order to see how Reed resolves this issue of an untracked text as a Neo-HooDoo text, we need to return to Derrida's comments on the “institutional trace” and the problem of the “metaphysics of presence.”


In order to deal with the problem of the “metaphysics of presence,” Derrida theorizes what he calls “arche-writing” as “that very thing which cannot let itself be reduced to the form of presence” (Of Grammatology 56-57). Arche-writing dismantles the distinction between orality and literacy because, according to Derrida, it occurs in both graphic and nongraphic expression, both writing and speaking as they are materially practiced (60). What distinguishes “arche-writing” from what Derrida calls the “vulgar concept of writing” is that “arche-writing” has a “track in the text,” or what Derrida calls the “arche-trace” (56, 61). How, then, does this newly-theorized concept of the arche-trace function in its role of producing the difference between self and other? The answer is that it does so ambivalently by destabilizing that very difference. On the one hand, it performs this function just as it had earlier, only it does it “purely” because it is doing it in a “transcendental” text. “Without a retention in the minimal unit of temporal experience, without a trace retaining the other as other in the same, no difference would do its work and no meaning would appear. It is not the question of a constituted difference here, but rather, before all determination of the content, of the pure movement which produces difference. The (pure) trace is difference” (62). On the other hand, its status in a “transcendental” text situates the arche-trace in an untenable paradox: “The trace is in fact the absolute origin of sense in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of sense in general” (65). Rodolphe Gasché comments on the significance of this paradox. Although the arche-trace provides “the minimal relation to an Other (the relation of indication), without which a self could not be self,” it also is “that which forever prevents a self from being self, since the relation to Other is ‘older’ than selfhood” (192). In other words, then, the arche-trace which Derrida theorizes here creates a usable instability in distinguishing between self and other. It is an instability Derrida will later employ to argue for a political program in which the self is radically “responsible” for the other. In an interview with Jean-Luc Nancy, conducted some twenty years after the original publication of Of Grammatology, Derrida noted that deconstruction created the space for a theory which “would define the subject … as the finite experience of nonidentity to self, as the underivable interpellation inasmuch as it comes from the other, from the trace of the other” (103). Given this subject's investment in the other as something intimately related to the self, this subject begins “to identify with the other” and determine, therefore, the “best, most respectful, most grateful, and also most giving way of relating to the other and of relating the other to the self” (115, 114). The trace becomes necessary to Derrida's elaboration of an ethics of respect, since it is only by destabilizing the difference between self and other that he is able to promote a theory of relating self to the “trace of the other.”

Derrida concludes his interrelated theories of arche-writing, the arche-trace, and the transcendental text by proposing that all philosophies of Western culture have based their notions of “presence” on their attempts to eradicate that very concept of the “trace.” “All dualisms, all theories of the immortality of the soul or of the spirit, as well as all monisms, spiritualist or materialist, dialectical or vulgar, are the unique theme of a metaphysics whose entire history was compelled to strive toward the reduction of the trace” (71). In the end, though, by deconstructing all these Western “monisms” and by recuperating the “trace,” Derrida sets up the possibility for an entirely different ethical program in which political subjects respect other political subjects because they are all involved in a profoundly ethical intersubjectivity where caring for the other is the same as caring for the self—there isn't a trace of difference amongst them, one might say.

Whatever similarities there are between Reed's Neo-HooDoo and Derrida's deconstruction, and they are not inconsiderable, we have to pay particular attention to how Reed's work, as Reed himself told John O'Brien in an early interview, constitutes a concerted effort “to restore the ancient hoodoo epistemology” (177). In Reed's Neo-HooDoo theory and practice, the “trace” also manifests itself in the issue of writing and the concern with understanding history. We have already seen how the “trace” is involved in “writing” in Flight to Canada. We shall see that the trace is also involved in issues of history in the novel. In his opening musings on history—“Strange, history. Complicated, too. It will always be a mystery, history” (8)—Raven suggests that the strangest, most complicated, and most mysterious element of history will prove to be the question: “Where does fact begin and fiction leave off?” To articulate the problem of history as a product of textuality—and thereby forming a complex of the issues of writing and history—Reed asks one poignant question about the definition and character of the antebellum South: “Will we ever know [about the Old South], since there are so few traces left of the civilization the planters called ‘the fairest civilization the sun ever shown [sic] upon,’ and the slaves called ‘Satan's Kingdom’” (10). By noting the paucity of “traces” left from defunct social systems, Reed shows how historical definitions are essentially contested. Simultaneously, by noting that there still are “traces” of history, he subtly demonstrates how the major institution of the Old South is residually present in contemporary America. Reed uses the “trace” to destabilize “history” as the sense of what is unalterably past in order to establish a different sensibility of what constitutes “history”—particularly the kind of “history” which Thomas Carlyle celebrated as a “Palimpsest” or “Prophetic Manuscript” in which every event is interrelated to “all other events, prior or contemporaneous” (88). By making the past and the present continuous, Reed also destabilizes the sense of “time” in his novel.

Like Derrida, Reed is concerned with showing how the “trace” dissolves apparent differences in “time” by bringing the past into the present. As Derrida argues, since the “past has always signified present-past, the absolute past that is retained in the trace no longer rigorously merits the name ‘past’” (Of Grammatology 66). Reed points out in an interview with Robert Gover that much the same sort of synchronicity marks what he calls the “African sense of time.” “They don't have linear time, you know. Past, present and future function at the same time” (13). Therefore, Reed indulges in the kind of anachronisms which are symptomatic of and signify the “discontinuous sense of time” consistent with Neo-HooDoo beliefs by having Raven claim to escape to Canada in about 1864 aboard a “non-stop / Jumbo jet” and refer to twentieth-century events such as the founding of “Uncle Tom's Museum” in Dresden, Ontario (3, 9). Likewise, I think few readers will not recognize the televising of the assassination of Lincoln as a poignant comment on the assassination of Kennedy (Flight 103). As Reginald Martin points out, Reed “uses time disjunctionally and synchronically to illustrate social truths by juxtaposition with their opposites and their supposed origins” (83). In Flight to Canada, the time of slavery acts as just such an “origin” for modern social relations. By collapsing the difference between 1864 and 1976, Reed manages to show, as he comments elsewhere, that “people today, many of our contemporaries, enjoy slavery” (Shrovetide 173). “I study a lot about slavery,” he says in another instance, “because I think slavery is contemporary” (Shrovetide 228). In the end, then, Reed's play with a “discontinuous sense of time” abets his desire to recover “history” as a transcript for the present and the future. Again, as he pointed out in his interview with Gover, the reason he “like[s] Voodoo's recognition of the past, its reverence for the past,” is that it means “history is always with you. Life goes on” (15).

The obverse side of Neo-HooDoo's reverence for the past and its reanimation of history in the present is that the effects of the past—the “traces” of history—continue to linger on in modern social relations. A modern society in which people “enjoy slavery” is not a healthy society, to say the least. As PaPa LaBas proclaims in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, the “experience of slavery” is a “nightmare which left such scars in our souls—scars that no amount of band-aids or sutures, no amount of stitches will heal. … It will take an extraordinary healer to patch up this wound,” PaPa LaBas concludes (100). Here is where Neo-HooDoo's insistence on writing as a means of healing assumes its crucial place. That healing which PaPa LaBas mentions, according to Reed, requires the healer to produce and promote the intersubjective relations that will benefit the community. By opening up the past and making history present through writing a “tracked” text, the healer is able to confuse the difference between self and other in order to create the possibility for more intimate and open relations between persons (intersubjectivity) or between communities (multiculturalism). This last point is especially important for Reed. In his general statements on American culture, Reed consistently and insistently argues that we must recognize the country's profound multiculturalism. In an interview with Mel Watkins, Reed suggests that the “major factor in determining who finally survives in this country” will depend on the extent to which we all become “aware of disparate cultures” and the degree to which we “become multicultural” (26-27). Moreover, as Reed writes elsewhere, “Voodoo is the perfect metaphor for the multiculture” (Shrovetide 232). “Instead of dismissing this tradition as a pile of backward mumbo jumbo,” he comments, “perhaps we can learn through it to tolerate cultures that are different from our own, and maybe this knowledge will help us solve some of the complex problems that face our world” (Writin' 141). To sum up, then, we can see that Neo-HooDoo involves using writing as a way of destabilizing history, which instability in history then creates a discontinuous sense of time—all together producing a state of intersubjectivity in which the individual is able to accommodate other individuals and appreciate other cultures.

It is important for us to acknowledge the conditions in which writing, history, and time coalesce in Reed's Neo-HooDoo practice in order for us to understand how Reed employs what he calls “Neo-HooDoo writing” in Flight to Canada as a means of enacting that most basic practice of Voudon, the act of spirit possession. Because Voudon is, as Robert Thompson points out, a “vibrant, sophisticated synthesis of the traditional religions of Dahomey, Yorubaland, and Kongo with an infusion of Roman Catholicism,” it contains an entire range of syncretic beliefs, values, and practices (163). Despite its remarkable breadth of beliefs and values, the practice of spirit possession has attracted more critical attention than anything else. Possession, which Jim Haskins says is the “supreme experience in West African religion” (35), is also the most discussed aspect of West African-derived religions. What “Voodoo is mostly about,” according to Donald Consentino, is “the sense of celebration” involved in “a hosting of the deities in the bodies of their serviteurs” (73). Voudon, writes Harold Courlander, “is built upon the premise of the existence of loa”—the Congo-derived word for the deities of Voudon—and “possession is the instrument of direct contact and of constant proof of the loa's imminence” (16). As well as having this religious purpose, possession in Voudon also has bearings on a more strictly political issue—the question of whether any kind of transcendence is an act of resistance against or acquiescence to an intolerable material condition. Michael Saturnin Laguerre notes the possible interpretations of possession as an act of either acquiescence or resistance: “Possession will be interpreted on the one hand, as recognition and acceptance of dependency toward the spirit world, and, on the other hand, as protest against inferior status and dependency toward the wider society.” Laguerre concludes that being possessed “is a political act inasmuch as it is a symbolic reaction against a dependent societal status” (qtd. in Jacobs 46). There is another feature of possession which Laguerre does not mention, however, and that has to do with how possession which Laguerre does not mention, however, and that has to do with how possession acts to produce a sensibility of the possessed person's belonging to and being identified with the sociéte of Voudon believers. In other words, what gives possession a more oppositional feel than a submissive one is the fact that it problematizes rather than asserts individual identity. Joan Dayan has recently written about Voudon's political impetus with a great deal of insight. Assuming that “the spirits are always … functions of rather exigent … socio-political situations,” Dayan argues that in “thinking about vodoun we must inhabit … a middle ground where laws of identity and contradiction no longer work, where local and sometimes erratic gods summon and urge an insistent ideology or world of reference” (“Vodoun” 45, 35).

What possession in Voudon does, then, is produce two interrelated effects. First of all, the possessed person loses the sense of a reified and stable “self-hood.” The relationship between the loa and the person possessed by the loa is one of contingency. As Maya Deren writes in her classic study of Haitian Vodoun, when the loa “enters reality it not only acts upon that reality but is, of necessity, defined, shaped and modified by it” (73). The subjective experience is modified by becoming part of the divine experience. Likewise, as Dayan points out, the fact that the divine principle is altered by being manifest in human forms means that the sense of identity bound with being possessed becomes radically problematized: “The very notion of what constitutes a person or identity is indelibly tied to the loa, whose lineaments are in turn dependent on the contingent and human” (“Vodoun” 50). Therefore, although possession, as Deren writes, can be understood as a “transitory period of exalted and exclusive obsession with a principle,” possession also entails that the possessed person assume a “quality of selflessness, discipline and even of depersonalization. The performer becomes as if anonymous” (92, 228). Because selfhood “is the source of all virtuosity … whose pride is the pleasure of unique achievement,” selfhood as such is eschewed. Such aspects of selfhood as volition are subsumed in the state of possession. “The person mounted,” writes Zora Neale Hurston, “does nothing of his own accord. He is the horse of the loa until the spirit departs” (Horse 221). Indeed, in the state of possession, when the “spirits have entered his head,” they must have already “driven his own consciousness out” (Horse 252). Possession by a loa, therefore, “soothes all the diversity of singular fears, personal losses, and private anxieties” because, as Deren points out, there is actually no “self” in the possessed person since “the self must leave if the loa is to enter” (248-49). This loss of self is not the same as the Protestant sort of self-abnegation since it is not a prelude to the individual's becoming one with God in an act of private salvation; rather, as Deren notes, loa possession is the act of a god's possessing an individual primarily for the “reassurance and instruction of the community” (30). The “affairs of the loa,” writes Courlander, “are the affairs of the sociéte” (75). This is the second effect of possession in Voudon. The possessed person's loss of a sense of distinction between self and other leads to a renewed sense of collective identity. The possessed person, according to Sheila Walker, “becomes aware of his interdependence with the members of the society and the mutuality of their destinies” (98). Deren notes the crucial importance of the intersection of subjective and collective experience in Voudon. The subjective self is possessed by a “loa [which] contains both subject and object” for the benefit of the collective community (91). In other words, possession provides people practising Voudon with the process and benefits of intersubjectivity: the means by which individual identity is problematized so that individual experience intersects with collective experience, becomes validated as part of the community enterprise, and is then translated back into the transcendental principles governing the subject and the community. Loss of self in loa possession, then, involves intersubjectivity both in terms of persons and communities.

Reed's Neo-HooDoo is clearly involved in the same practice—spirit possession—and aimed towards the same end—intersubjectivity and multiculturalism—as Voudon. “Consciously or unconsciously, Afro-American writers have continued the HooDoo tradition,” notes Reed, and the tradition he has most in mind is spirit possession (Shrovetide 74). “Vodoun,” writes Reed, “is based on the belief that the African ‘gods,’ or loas, are present in the Americas and often use men and women as their mediums” (Shrovetide 10). In particular, as he notes, it is “Afro-American writers [who] still summon the loas” (Shrovetide 74). Again, as we can see, just as writing had been the most important element in Reed's general representation of Neo-HooDoo, so is writing the most important fact of the Neo-HooDoo practice of possession. In Flight to Canada, after meditating on the idea that “writing is strange,” Raven establishes the conditions for what he calls his “HooDoo writing” (8, 10). HooDoo writing, as Reed testifies, is akin to possession by a loa in that it puts him “in contact with those fleeting moments which prove the existence of the soul” because writing provides him with the capacity for becoming less solipsistic and more attuned to the benefits of selfless possession (Shrovetide 3). It also, therefore, provides Reed with a means of connecting his experience to a collective experience. Neo-HooDoo writing permits the possessed person, in Reed's aesthetics, to be intimately at one with others in his or her community and it also, in Reed's politics, becomes the best means to achieve and represent a genuine multiculturalism. “HooDoo artists,” he concludes, “serve the community as ‘soothsayers, exorcisers, organizers of public entertainment, and choirmasters’” (Shrovetide 73). The ultimate purpose of Reed's Neo-HooDoo aesthetic enterprise, I am arguing, is to reproduce the conditions which are essential to Vodoun—a form of possession premised on the principle that the individual subject must lose his or her self in order to merge with the loa. What Raven calls “HooDoo writing” is a result of spirit possession and Flight to Canada is an enactment or performance of that Voudon principle. Whereas “most Afro-American writers” are HooDoo artists “in principle,” Reed is, just as he says of David Henderson, “a HooDoo poet in substance as well” (Shrovetide 75).

Writing, as we recall, had been dangerous to Raven because his text had been “tracked.” Not only had slavery still pervaded his social and interpersonal relationships, but his writing itself continued to threaten to return him to indenture. The reason slavery residually affected his psychic and social life and the reason his writing was ambivalently freeing him and yet threatening his freedom, I suggested, had to do with the question of his writing as his material “possession.” His writing must become less his material possession and more the product of a spiritual possession. Ironically, the way to control one's own narrative in Flight to Canada is to allow the writing to possess oneself instead of having oneself possess the writing. Once Raven learns to think of his writing as a loa, he is able to understand how best to remove the dangerous “track” from his narrative. Only then can “writing” become “his HooDoo. Others had their way of HooDoo, but his was his writing. It fascinated him, it possessed him; his typewriter was his drum he danced to” (88-89).2 Once writing possesses the narrator, the narrator's story becomes no longer dangerous to him or her—but only to whoever would attempt to steal it. “When you take a man's story,” notes Raven, “a story that doesn't belong to you, that story will get you” (9).

In being possessed by writing, Raven not only produces a narrative which endangers whoever attempts to co-opt it, but he also creates the conditions for a healing of those who were victimized by what PaPa LaBas called the “experience of slavery.” According to Reed, “HooDoo writing” is essential to that act of collective healing necessary for slavery to end its influence on the behavior of its survivors. The primary model of that writing and healing involves the two main characters in the novel—Raven and Uncle Robin. We are told that Raven “had never gotten along with Uncle Robin in slavery, but away from slavery they were the best of friends” (13). The reason they become so amicable after slavery is that then Raven and Robin build their relationship on the basic tenets of HooDoo writing. In other words, Raven learns to write in the manner of HooDoo and this changes the relationships existing amongst the slaves on what used to be Swille's plantation. Before he engaged in “HooDoo writing,” Raven was unable to write in a way that was solely positive—even when writing against the institution of slavery as when he rewrote Swille's receipts so as to destroy the records of his ownership of slaves, or when he wrote out passes or freedom papers for the other fugitives, or even when he wrote his own slave narrative-poem. Only when he starts to employ “HooDoo writing” is he able to write in a positive way.

Latent in Raven's writing, then, is a magic that would allow him to represent himself and other slaves in a different way—more specifically, in a way that would not permit the text to “track” down its author or its subject precisely because, as HooDoo writing stipulates, the text has no single subject. To appreciate what we can call the intersubjective “trace” in Flight to Canada, we need to recall the sophisticated way the opening of the novel is formally arranged. The book opens with Quickskill's signed poem, “Flight to Canada” (3-5). Then for the first four and a half pages, we have Raven's first-person narration-meditation on the mysteries of historiography, on the dangers of stealing someone else's story, and on “HooDoo writing” (7-11). After an abrupt shift to third-person narration in the middle of the first chapter, we are informed that Raven has been commissioned to write “Uncle Robin's story” (11). Critics have noted that the relationship between the opening first-person narration and the third-person narration that continues throughout the rest of the novel suggests that the book represents both Robin's and Raven's narratives. Gates calls the novel “Uncle Robin's slave narrative, written by Raven Quickskill” (“Review” 79). Spillers says that the novel is “filtered through the fictive consciousness of Reed's poet—Raven Quickskill—who has been commissioned to create the narrative of Uncle Robin” (47). Peter Nazareth suggests that “Robin gets Raven to write his story, which is also Raven's story” (223). While there is little room for disagreement with any of these critics, it seems to me worth attending to the way that Reed structures the opening of his novel so as to demonstrate the process by which Raven's story becomes simultaneously Robin's story. In what Reed calls “Raven Quickskill's monologue, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and narrative in Flight to Canada's first chapter,” we find Raven referring to the process by which stories become merged so that the writing is no longer about the self or the other, but about the intersubjective relations between the two (Shrovetide 2). At one point, Reed offers us Quickskill's interior monologue—“I'll have to include all of this in my story, Quickskill thought”—and then comments: “He'd have to write all of this in Robin's story;” (14; my italics). Flight to Canada is, as Nazareth notes, both Robin's and Raven's story; but it is both their story in a very specific way and for an even more specific reason.

Raven, we are told, “would try to live up to the confidence Robin had in him by writing a good book. ‘You put witchery on the word,’ (13). As Harris points out, in “writing Uncle Robin's biography, Quickskill objectifies and consciously commingles the seen and unseen forces of history in his writing. He will put ‘witchery on the word’ so that Robin's story is neither plagiarized nor minimized” (123). Harris is right, of course, in noting that Raven's writing is a prophylactic against theft or reduction. As Reed points out, “Quickskill would write Uncle Robin's story in such a way that, using a process the old curers used, to lay hands on the story would be lethal to the thief” (11). So, too, Swille had observed that although writing is “the most powerful thing in the pre-technological pre-post-rational age,” black people like Raven abused it by treating it “like that old Voodoo—that old stuff the slaves mumble about. Fetishism and grisly rites”—by which he probably meant that slaves used writing as a form of fetishistic protection (35-36). Even more important than the fact that Raven will write in such a way as to protect the story from the appropriating pens of others, however, is the fact that Raven's writing exemplifies the Neo-HooDoo principle of intersubjective relations. To put “witchery on the word,” then, is to participate in “HooDoo writing” which is premised on the belief that writing creates intersubjective relations. Not only does Reed break with the traditional form of biographical or autobiographical writing as the story of an individual by having both forms operate in the same text, but he also gives that multivoiced text the agency of divine possession. What Raven calls “my story” and what the narrator calls “Robin's story” are in effect the same story because it is Raven who is also the possessed narrator.

What Reed is attempting to do in a literary text is not simply describe but truly to enact what Dayan calls “the crise de loa—that moment when the god inhabits the head of his or her servitor” (“Vodoun” 40). The last thought Raven has in his interior monologue is as follows: “Harriet saying that God wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Which God? Some gods will mount any horse” (11). Immediately thereafter, the narrative is related through a third-person narrator. In other words, the writing possesses Raven—“Do the lords still talk? Do the lords still walk? Are they writing this book?” (10)—and thereby produces the conditions for an intimate intersubjective connection between Raven and Robin. Just as Derrida had shown us that the shift from the “institutional trace” to the “arche-trace” frees the self to engage in a better, more affirmative “way of relating to the other and of relating the other to the self,” so does Reed show us that the shift from the “(peculiar) institutional trace” of one kind of writing to the bewitching trace of HooDoo writing literally frees the subject from an enslaving concept of a solipsistic individuality. Flight to Canada, then, is Raven's narrative of his story and Robin's story. It is persistently Raven's story because possession by a loa produces the conditions for an intersubjective relation—that is, the ability of the self to see others as parts of the self—only by changing that perceiving self. As Deren elaborates, “the primary effect” of the ritual actions of Voudon possession “is upon the doer”: “The miracle is, in a sense, interior. It is the doer who is changed by the ritual, and for him, therefore, the world changed accordingly” (198). That is what happens when one puts “witchery” on the word—the word changes the world. Probably no action more clearly demonstrates this than Uncle Robin's act of changing Swille's will. As Spillers notes, “Uncle Robin in the manipulation of signs, changes the letter, which insurgent act makes the world a different place” (55-56). It is a different place, most obviously, because there is now a new division of labor and a different distribution of property because the will had been so manipulated. But what is more important than the act itself is the reason Robin gives for his undertaking it.

As Robin explains to his wife Judy, when Africans first came to America “our gods came with us.” He then “prayed to one of our gods” who came to him in a dream and told him that it was “okay” to dabble with the will: “The ‘others’ had approved” (170). In other words, Robin writes out the new will after he has been possessed by the gods. This possession enables him not only to write, but it also promotes precisely the same kind of intersubjective relations which Raven will enjoy once he too is possessed. As Robin explains to Leechfield, the reason Swille was threatened by the acts of the fugitive slaves was that the fugitives “were showing the other slaves that it didn't have to be that way. That the promised land was in their heads. The old way. The old way taught that man could be the host for God. Not one man. All men. That was the conflict between you and Swille. You, 40S and Quickskill threatened to give the god in the slave breath” (177; my italics). That human beings could be hosts for God—and not just one human being but “all”—is, in essence, the basic belief of Voudon. In Reed's novel, the way the gods possess “All men” is through writing. Spillers, whose study offers us the fullest exploration of the play of discursive protocols in Reed's novel, notes that “one of the strategies that Flight to Canada assumes in the subversion of ontological categories becomes the holding in abeyance of the distance that falls between the writer and his or her ‘object of desire’—the writing” (47). We can add that Reed destroys the sense of distance between writer and writing as a way of showing how the writer is possessed and therefore at a distance from the “self.” Having been possessed by writing, Raven is able to embark on an autobiographical act which is not ultimately based solely on the representation of self but necessarily based on the imbrication of self and other.

For Reed, then, like Derrida, the “trace” in writing appears to be the factor which produces intersubjective relations which represent a revolution in Western ontology by confusing easy distinctions between self and other, thereby producing the epistemic conditions for a revaluation of “time” as the lag between the self's recognition of the other and a reassessment of “history” as some set of events that happened only in the past. Ultimately, we have to say that what Raven calls “HooDoo writing” is the way Reed represents his complex ideas about intersubjectivity because “writing”—as a form of possession and as a manifestation of the “trace”—encompasses the issues of “history” and “time.” And the form of historical writing Reed is parodying and opening up to fresh readings is the antebellum slave narrative. By offering us a narrative which is structured as a form of spirit possession and which thereby produces intersubjective relations between the slave subjects of the narrative, Reed is arguing that slave narratives need not be read as statements of radical subjectivity in order for a revisionist reader to answer their having been previously read as expressions of their narrators' absence. Instead, Reed suggests, we need to read the classic slave narratives in a way that enables us to attend to the strategies fugitive slave narratives in a way that enables us to attend to the strategies fugitive slave narrators used in writing their texts so that those texts were going neither to deny the presence of their subjects nor endanger the paths to freedom of their brethren.

I suggested earlier that Olney is largely correct in noting that “slavery”—and not the former slave—was primarily the subject of representation in most slave narratives published after a foundational abolitionist press in America was established. However, there are exceptions and exceptional narratives which disrupt the conventional form of the abolitionist narratives. They are the kinds of slave narratives which reclaim the stories of their author's lives and the life of the author's community. These slave narratives situate themselves as narratives which authorize the “appropriating” reader's reading at the same time as they subtly construct what we can call an “appropriate community” of other readers, readers whose claim to authority is their having shared with the author the “experience” of slavery and of being a slave. Here, in these particular narratives, I think we find the fullest manipulation of and resistance to the presupposition that “a black narrator needs a white reader to complete his text.” As Andrews points out, in the 1840s there emerged in some slave narratives a “sense of an individual authorial personality, the sound of a distinctive authorizing voice” (98-99). These slave narrators made a claim to authority by announcing “that truth to the self takes priority over what the white reader may think is either probable or politic to introduce into discourse.” In this way, the slave narrator claimed “allegiance to the self rather than to the other, the reader” (103). By noting the distinction between self and other—instead of eliding it as a way of surrendering the self—these narrators were able to refashion a healing relationship between the self and another community of readers, a different set of others.

The most important slave narrative to exemplify this claim is Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative. Early on, Douglass makes the claim to his reader that his story is resolutely his and that the reader is not invited to appropriate it: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence” (56). Having made the distinction between self and other in order to make the claim of being true to himself, Douglass is then able to claim the authority that comes from experience. Consistently throughout his narrative, Douglass informs the reader of the reader's limitations. Rather than inviting the reader to join him in rejoicing at the feeling of empowerment Douglass enjoyed after defeating Covey in their fight, Douglass informs the reader that this sense of empowerment will be comprehensible to only a select few: “He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery” (105). Likewise, rather than assuring the reader that he or she knows what it is to feel distrust, Douglass insists on informing the reader that “to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances.” But to “imagine” what a fugitive slave feels, Douglass adds, is possible only to one who has “experienced” the life of a “fugitive slave in a strange land”: “then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave” (144). By insisting on the authority of “experience,” Douglass validates another community of readers as participants in his story. Ironically, that community of what Douglass calls “the society of my fellow-slaves” turns out to be based on relations that appear not too strictly founded on firm distinctions between self and other. Writing about the slave community, Douglass notes that “[w]e were linked and interlinked with each other. … We never moved separately. We were one” (115). His story, Douglass implicitly suggests, is their story; their story is his story.

Following the publication of Douglass's Narrative, there emerged a set of slave narratives each of whose narrators—particularly Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Pennington—made the same claim to authority as Douglass while also emphasizing what Andrews calls the “nonheroic dimension of his slave past” (143). Andrews classifies each of these narratives as a “confession-celebration of the fugitive as trickster” (165). These narrators follow Douglass in making a “declarative act of defining autobiographical truth as one's inalienable private possession” (164). Pennington, for instance, finding himself accosted by a group of captors during the course of his escape, decides to lie about his background because he decided that the “facts in this case are my private property” which would have been ill-used by those to whom they were honestly disclosed: “Knowing the fatal use these men would make of my truth, I at once concluded that they had no more right to it than a highwayman has to a traveller's purse” (22, 30). Also like Douglass, these narrators use their claim to their own experience and their own truth to construct a community of appropriate readers. Near the close of his narrative, Pennington performs two significant acts towards that end. He writes a letter to the members of his family who are still in bondage in order to tell his mother that his story and hers are intimately connected: “Thy agonies are by a genuine son-like sympathy mine; I will, I must, I do share daily in those agonies of thine” (78). He also writes a letter to his former master telling him that although Pennington was “bred, born, and raised in your family,” he cannot call him a “father in Israel” or a “brother in Christ” because “mockery is a sin” (83). In other words, having claimed his story as his “private property,” Pennington declares that it is to be shared with a family of readers—the “dearly beloved in bonds”—but not with another, falsely-called “family” of readers.

The ways fugitive slave narrators such as Douglass and Pennington repudiated the premise of an “absent” slave subject was for them to write themselves more resolutely as agents who can and do manipulate discourses. What is worth noting about both the heroic and the trickster fugitive slave is that in either case the fugitive slave narrator proclaims that his or her story is never just his or her story at the same time as the narrator notes that not all “others” are equally invited to be equal sharers in this story. Employing different discursive means of self-representation—open proclamation or covert silence about a personal and private truth—both the heroic and the trickster slave narrators maintain that while the story they will tell deals, as Olney puts it, with slavery as an “institution and an external reality” and not with an “individual life as it is known internally and subjectively,” they also insist that the story they tell is not theirs alone. We can say that Pennington, Douglass, and other slave narrators offer an individual life as it is known intersubjectively, as it is revealed to a community of readers as part of a collective experience. That is also what Reed does in Flight to Canada. He offers us a text that is both tracked and untracked, both in danger of being appropriated and addressed to an appropriate sociéte of readers—a text, in a word, that is his Neo-HooDoo slave narrative and fulfills the promise of “Reed's Law.” “Little did I know when I wrote the poem ‘Flight to Canada’ that there were so many secrets locked inside its world,” Raven begins his slave narrative. “Everything it said seems to have caught up with me. Other things are running away. … The bad spirits who were in me left a long time ago” (Flight 7). The good spirits remain, though, and as a result of these possessing spirits the text offers us interesting and refreshing ways of reading its own “originals.” In fact, the biggest “secret” in the “world” of Flight to Canada is that it turns out to be, as the possessed Raven says, “more of a reading than a writing.


  1. Usually, the terms “Voudon” and “Hoodoo” refer to the religious practices of Haitians and black Americans in New Orleans, respectively. See Jim Haskins, Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual Practictioners, 66-67; Harold Courlander, The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People, 8-9; Jessie Gaston Mulira, “The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans,” Africanisms in American Culture, 56-57, 63-64; and Zora Neale Hurston, “Hoodoo in America,” 317. Although, “voodoo connotes the positive religious rites while hoodoo generally connotes the mystic and magical aspects that are usually evoked for negative purposes,” as Mulira notes, the two terms were either synonymous or “hoodoo” had replaced “voodoo” by the mid-1940s on mainland America (56, 63). Over the years, notes Haskins, “the distinctions between voodoo and hoodoo have been blurred until they are commonly used interchangeably” (87); in popular usage the terms have become “essentially interchangeable” (67). I will be following widespread practice and using “Voudon” (unless I am quoting someone who is employing a different spelling).

  2. It might seem odd to speak of “writing” as a loa, but it is important to point out that Voudon is a religion capable of adapting to new forms and adopting new deities. As Maya Deren points out, in Voudon each object remains sacred only for so long as it “functions as an access to divine power.” Because each object is “sacred only in action; and since an act is transitory in time, Voudoun has, indeed, a quality which can only be described as constant ‘disappearingness’” (187). As each object in turn becomes a vessel for the divine principle, the object which has finished serving as that vessel loses its sacredness. Reed notes that “each HooDoo priest was allowed to bring his own improvisations to the rites because HooDoo is elastic enough to incorporate any number of loas (spirits)” (Shrovetide 75). Likewise, it might seem unwarranted to speak about possession outside of the ritual dance ceremony. But, again, Voudon is consistently flexible in defining the terms of its practice. As Courlander notes, although most “commonly the loa arrive during religious rituals or dances … possession may occur anywhere and at any time” (20).

I would like to thank Joe Weixlmann for generously sharing with me his profoundly insightful work on Flight to Canada. I would also like to thank Stacy Morgan for sharing with me his knowledge of Vodoun in our conversations, giving me useful bibliographical information, and reading an earlier copy of this paper.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986.

Bigsby, C. W. E. The Second Black Renaissance: Essays in Black Literature. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box Three Feet Long, Two Wide, and Two and a Half High. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. Boston, 1849.

Byerman, Keith. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985.

Carby, Hazel. “Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery.” In Slavery and the Literary Imagination, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, 125-43. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989.

Carlyle, Thomas. “On History.” In The Works of Thomas Carlyle. Vol. 27. London: Chapman and Hall, 1905.

Consentino, Donald. “Spirit and Image: The Art of Voodoo.” African Arts 21 (November 1987): 71-73.

Courlander, Harold. The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People (1960). Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973.

Dayan, Joan. “Caribbean Cannibals and Whores.” Raritan 9 (Fall 1989): 45-67.

———. “Vodoun, or the Voice of the Gods.” Raritan 10 (Winter 1991): 32-57.

Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena And Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs. Translated by David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973.

———. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1967). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953). New York: McPherson & Company, 1991.

Douglass, Frederick. “An Appeal to the British People, reception speech at Finsbury Chapel, Moorfields, England, May 2, 1846.” In The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, edited by Philip S. Foner. Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers, 1950-1975.

———. My Bondage and My Freedom. Edited by William L. Andrews. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1987.

———. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Edited by Benjamin Quarles. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960.

Foley, Barbara. Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986.

Fontenot, Chester J. “Ishmael Reed and the Politics of Aesthetics, or Shake Hands and Come Out Conjuring.” Black American Literature Forum 12 (Spring 1978): 20-23.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 1979.

Gasché, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Review of Flight to Canada, by Ishmael Reed. Journal of Negro History 63 (January 1978): 78-81.

———. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.

Gover, Robert. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” Black American Literature Forum 12 (Spring 1978): 12-29.

Hall, Thomas. “Interview with T. Pat Matthews, conducted September 10, 1937.” In Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves, edited by Belinda Hurmence, 42-45. New York: Mentor, 1990.

Harris, Norman. “The Gods Must Be Angry: Flight to Canada as Political History.” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (1988): 111-23.

Haskins, Jim. Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual Practitioners (1978). New York: Original Publications, 1988.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Hoodoo in America.” The Journal of American Folklore 44 (October-December 1931): 317-417.

———. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938). New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Jacobs, Claude F. “Spirit Guides and Possession in the New Orleans Black Spiritual Churches.” The Journal of American Folklore 102 (January-March 1989): 45-67.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Mason, Theodore O., Jr. “Performance, History, and Myth: The Problem of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.Modern Fiction Studies 34 (1988): 97-109.

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 Robert Lee, 136-48. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1980.

Mulira, Jessie Gaston. “The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans.” In Africanisms in American Culture, edited by Joseph E. Holloway, 34-69. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. “‘Eating Well,’ or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” In Who Comes After the Subject?, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, 96-119. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Nazareth, Peter. “Heading Them Off At The Pass: The Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 4 (Summer 1984): 208-26.

O'Brien, John, ed. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973.

Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” In The Slave's Narrative, edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 148-75. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.

Pennington, James W. C. The Fugitive Blacksmith; or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington. 3rd ed. London, 1850.

Reed, Ishmael. Flight to Canada (1976). New York: Atheneum, 1989.

———. The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). New York: Atheneum, 1989.

———. Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.

———. Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978). New York: Atheneum, 1989.

———. Writin' is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Reilly, John M. “The Reconstruction of Genre as Entry into Conscious History.” Black American Literature Forum 13 (Spring 1979): 3-6.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Why Write?” In Criticism: The Major Statements, edited by Charles Kaplan, 528-46. New York: St. Martins, 1975.

Schmitz, Neil. “Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” Twentieth-Century Literature 20 (1974): 126-40.

Spillers, Hortense. “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed.” In Slavery and the Literary Imagination, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, 25-61. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. 1956. New York: Random, 1989.

Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 1979. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random, 1983.

Walker, Sheila S. Ceremonial Spirit Possession in Africa and Afro-America: Forms, Meanings, and Functional Significance for Individuals and Social Groups. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Watkins, Mel. “An Interview with Ishmael Reed.” In Afro-American Writing Today: An Anniversary Issue of “The Southern Review,” edited by James Olney, 17-28. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1989.

Weixlmann, Joe. “African American Deconstruction of the Novel in the Work of Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major.” MELUS 17 (Winter 1991-1992): 57-79.

———. “Ishmael Reed's Raven.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 4 (Summer 1984): 205-08.

———. “Politics, Piracy, and Other Games: Slavery and Liberation in Flight to Canada.MELUS 6, no. 3 (1979): 41-50.

Shamoon Zamir (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16254

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 collected poetry rightly acknowledges its status as apprentice work, “Time and the Eagle” provides an invaluable point of departure for understanding Reed's poetic development. This development can be charted as a radical shift in the relationship of self to history and as a struggle between passivity and agency. These are the first two out of eight verses from Reed's poem:


The shackled Black, being torn in innocence;
Molded his advent through cyclical time.
Surging, flowing, rising, falling time.
Begatting contraries which fuse and breakaway
like fire, water, wood and metal.
In the ashes of the bird, a new egg and the moon
Bring a second coming.
Golgotha and the knocking at the tomb
Comes with the blood of the moon.


The dog of the moon bays with the tide,
And cacophony of each age of madness.
Each gloomy age has its dying Gods and is
Marked by the scaly sea creatures.
Each rope dancing age made the demon
Pact and is marked by the heavy winged
Bird, who soars and dives like the
Rhythm of the blood tide.
Each age, an interminable ceremony,
As time flows in heroes, Gods, scaly
Heavy winged creatures.(1)

The poem was published just a year after Reed's arrival in New York from Buffalo. In 1963 Reed was only just starting out on his writing career, and “Time and the Eagle” is one of his earliest published works. Looking back on his years in New York, Reed later claimed that he went there thinking he “was going to be a W. B. Yeats”2 and that he was “writing visionary poetry” during his early years in the East Village.3 “Time and the Eagle” is a confused adaptation of “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan” that reads almost like a parody.4 As yet there is little in the poem that is not immediately derivative of Yeats, but the groundwork for Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (1971), Reed's first major collection of poetry, and related works from the same period, is laid here. Reed is attracted to Yeats's deterministic poetics of history and borrows the Irishman's symbols of cyclicality, contrariety, and violent annunciation as a framework of prophecy. The “interminable ceremony” recasts the “ceremony of innocence … drowned” from “The Second Coming,” as the “cacophony of each age of madness” refigures Yeats's “Mere anarchy … loosed upon the world.”5 The eagle and the egg as signifiers of the violent birth of a new age are taken from Yeats's interpretation of the myth of Leda's rape by Zeus. Yeats's swan incarnates the immutable force of history; the violation engenders further history and myth. Reed's adaptation of Yeats's bird symbolism is as yet vague. It is clear that Reed has studied A Vision together with the poetry. “I imagine,” writes Yeats in A Vision, “the annunciation that founded Greece as made to Leda, remembering that they showed in a Spartan temple, strung up to the roof as a holy relic, an unhatched egg of hers; and that from one of her eggs came Love and from the other War. But,” he adds, “all things are from antithesis. …”6 The Virgin and the dove are replaced by Leda and the swan: “The new birth is to be … a welter of blood and pain, full of the screams of the new birds of prey. …”7 In Reed, “The heavy winged bird swoops down / Upon a yard of innocence and kills.”8

“I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra” (1968), Reed's most frequently anthologized poem, is a comic reworking of “Time and the Eagle.” It moves towards the transformation of passivity into agency. The heroization of the poetic persona is dramatized within the struggle for mastery between satire and prophecy within the poem. In the “Foreword” to Conjure Reed offers himself as America's “son, her prophet” and proceeds to quote from Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled: “Philo Judaeus makes Saul say, that if he banishes from the land every diviner and necromancer his name will survive him.” Reed adds, “if the government ever created a Bureau of Prophecy, Saul and his cronies would certainly stack it.”9 If the combination of satire and prophecy seems at first incongruous, it should be familiar from Blake. As Northrop Frye notes, “condemnation is only part of the satirist's work. … the great satirist is an apocalyptic visionary like every other great artist, if only by implication, for his caricature leads us irresistibly away from the passive assumption that the unorganized data of sense experience are reliable and consistent, and afford the only means of contact with reality.” But “satire is not necessarily revolutionary in itself, though its hostility to the world of its time may be pressed into revolutionary service. … a poet cannot depend on satire alone if he wants to show his revolutionary sympathies and point out what such revolutions signify.”10

The Blakean analogy is invited self-consciously by Reed. When he synthesizes the multiple personas of his poem prior to the final showdown into the figure of the poet-priest, or the artist as necromancer, the poet-priest's call for his ritual paraphernalia refers the reader to Blake's Milton:

bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder
bring me my headdress of black feathers
bring me my bones of Ju-Ju snake
go get my eyelids of red paint.
Hand me my shadow.

(C [Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970] 18)

Here are the corresponding lines from Blake's preface to Milton:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!(11)

Reed's invocation of Blake at a climactic point in the poem—when the cowboy Horus announces his return from exile—establishes Romantic literary structures as necessary interpretive frames for Reed's poem: Milton is a paradigmatic text of Romanticism's exploration of the imagination's struggle against duality and its quest for resolution through the higher synthesis of culture—in Blake's case through the restoration of prophetic vision. This process of consciousness is commonly dramatized by the Romantics in terms of the Homeric journeys away from and back to home, the Iliad and the Odyssey serving as the respective halves of the dialectic.12 Reed simply substitutes the Nile voyage for the Mediterranean one. But while Reed organizes his poem by referring to the Romantic plot, the sequence of his poem is as a partial inversion of this plot, concluding in a New World configuration that is not easily assimilable into Romantic synthesis.

Reed's poem offers variations on the theme of culture clash organized within an overarching plot of exile, return, and renewed war. Two other frames overlap with this larger structure. The return of the exiled hero is also the resurfacing of the repressed and the suppressed. The urge towards the psychologizing of history borders on the Spenglerian and remains true to the politics of the 1960s counter-culture in the context of which the poem takes shape. And the drama of departure and journey home narrativizes the dialectic of dualism, of unity lost and regained, that is the central plot of Romanticism and undergirds its obsession with immanent teleology and a metaphysics of integration, laying the foundations for the modern divided self13—a fragmentation described most notably in the Afro-American context by W. E. B. DuBois. The processes of duality and synthesis are staged both as the irresolvable confrontation of satire and prophecy and as a dialogue amongst poets. Reed engages the poetics of Blake and Yeats, resisting the conflation of the two and finding in this differentiation both a range of possibilities and a set of closures for the black poet. The Nile journey of “I am a cowboy” is also an Afro-American recasting of Whitman's “Passage to India” (1871).

In the midst of the Second World War, the Afro-American poet Robert Hayden had questioned the possibility of the transcendental vision even in Whitman's own time. “Middle Passage,” a long section of an uncompleted book on slavery and the Civil War, imagined the “Voyage of death, / voyage whose chartings are unlove” that was part of Whitman's reality.14 Continuing an Afro-American dialogue with Whitman, “I am a cowboy” was one among many revisions of Whitman's prophecy of America undertaken by American writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Like Reed, many poets attempted to retrieve the idealism of the frontier myth in the age of the New Frontier when that idealism had been significantly tarnished. Inevitably, the attempted recuperation simultaneously acknowledged the strength of the contemporary barriers to the Romantic dream of spiritual and cultural synthesis and the recovery of unity in “Passage to India.”15 In 1956 Allen Ginsberg had used the verse-line of Whitman to voice the end of the dreamed-of garden of the New World. In the apocalyptic parody of Howl, “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!” are all “gone down the American river!”16


Reed's poem retells an ancient Egyptian myth of divine conflict as a wild west showdown. The outlaw gunman, once “vamoosed from / the temple” and now fighting for “the come back of / Osiris” (C 17,18) is the exiled Horus who returns to avenge the murder of Osiris, his father, at the hands of Set, the brother of Osiris. Osiris, the black fertility god and culture hero who, according to Plutarch, civilized Egypt through the power of his songs, introducing agriculture, the observation of laws and the honouring of gods, is sacrificed in a manichean drama to the forces of chaos. Horus's aim is to restore cultural and political order.17 Although never named as such in the poem, the cowboy is clearly identifiable as Horus. According to the myth, even while Horus was under the protection of Isis, Set managed to have him “bitten by savage beasts and stung by scorpions.”18 Reed alludes to this in the poem's first strophe (“sidewinders in the saloons of fools / bit my forehead”). Having obtained magical powers of transformation from Thoth, Horus fought the battle against Set from the boat of Ra.19

But the poem's persona is multiple in its identities. As one who “bedded / down with Isis” (C 17), the cowboy is also Osiris; as the “dog-faced man” (C 17) he is Anubis; later he appears as “Loup Garou” (C 18), a Vodoun loa of the fierce Petro cult of Haiti; he is also an African priest and necromancer demanding his “bones of Ju-Ju snake” (C 18); and a gangster calling his “moll” (“C / mere a minute willya doll?” [C 18]). The quotation that provides the epigraph to “I am a cowboy,” taken from the Rituale Romanum and endorsed by Cardinal Spellman, insists that “the devil must be forced to reveal any such physical evil (potions, charms, fetishes, etc.) still outside the body and these must be burned” (C 17). But the devil, the poem demonstrates, is more slippery. The liturgical book of the Roman rite and the cardinal are over-confident in their belief in the mimetic abilities of the Word as a guarantee of that alliance of logos and law that has been an alibi for conquest. In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Reed's second novel and a work closely tied to “I am a cowboy” in its preoccupations, John Wesley Harding explains to the cattle baron Drag Gibson: “I got so strung out behind the Bible, that I went on to study law. Got my degree in jail. I've always been on the side of the Word, killing only those who were the devil incarnate—you know—black fellows.”20 Spellman, among America's most prominent Catholics and a favorite target of Reed's, combined his social work with energetic support for McCarthy and the Vietnam war.21 Taking up the challenge of the Rituale Romanum, “I am a cowboy” appears to trace the imminent return of all that would be exorcised or repressed. The poem follows the pattern of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; this is Reed's Bible of Hell. Like Blake's “Mental Traveller,” it threatens the revival of pagan forms and the decline of Christianity. And like Blake, the poet-prophet becomes the satiric advocate of the “Devil's Party” against the priestly order and its books of law. Used for the administration of sacraments and blessings as well as for conducting processions and exorcisms, the Rituale Romanum's authority depends to a large extent on its formulas being followed with minimal variation.22 The history of this liturgical text from the 16th to the 20th century represents precisely the attempt at codification that Reed and Blake resist and which Reed parodies in his poem “Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic.”23

The rapid, seemingly gratuitous proliferation of personae in “I am a cowboy” does more than resist the confessional or lyric voice in Afro-American poetry and the politics of identity and interiority these modes represent. Reed's illusive shape-changers recognize with Emerson that reality is “the endless passing of one element into new forms, [an] incessant metamorphosis.” It is upon this ground that Emerson concludes that “all thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy,” or, as Lawrence Buell explicates, “the inter-substitution of images for the same principle.”24 This principle of identity is not a stable self in Reed, any more than it is in Emerson. Rather it is that Manichean duality that is a universal description of the world in the occult and which allows all heresies to crowd at one pole as a community of identity. Here Transcendentalist Neo-Platonism and Reed's counter-cultural melange of Vodoun and Yeatsian theosophy find alignments.25

In a move characteristic of the 1960s, Reed conflates Vodoun and gnostic traditions into a subculture of heresy as a reservoir for his poetic mythology. In Yellow Back Radio Reed identifies his Vodoun hero with a gnostic idea of the devil and his uprising with that of the Albigenses and Waldenses (YBR [Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down] 164-65, 151). Black Diane from the novel re-appears in the poem as “Pope Joan” (C 18), a woman who, disguised as a man (it is fabled), became pope sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries.26 Reed associates Joan with the composite figure of Ptah, the creator god of Memphis, and Ra, the great sun god,27 but moves her quickly into the personae of a gangster's moll and a ritual assistant to an African priest. The same year that Reed's novel was published, Gary Snyder wrote of a “great subculture of illuminati … a powerful undercurrent in all higher civilizations … which runs … without break from Paleo-Siberian Shamanism and Magdalenian cave-painting; through megaliths and Mysteries, astronomers, ritualists, alchemists and Albegensians; gnostics and vagantes, right down to Golden Gate Park.”28 Reed's continued identification of the appearance of ancient gods in a Chinese American novel as “Cantonese Hoodoo”29 and of Kabbalistic traditions in his own work as “Jewish Vodoun”30 suggests that “Hoodoo” is for him a term of general inclusivity. “Old country writing, backwoods writing, medicine shows, nineteenth century speeches,” like genres of popular fiction and Afro-American folklore, are part of “a subculture in American literature that never makes the institutions” (S [Shrovetide in Old New Orleans] 133). This subculture is a repository of all those cultural histories excluded from that version of cultural history installed by “Egyptologists who do not know their trips” and “School marms with halitosis” (C 17). (Pope Joan is also a card game in which one of the cards, the nine of diamonds, is removed from play.)31

Such conflations are congenial to the mythology of the devil within Afro-American folk traditions. In this folklore “Satan or the Devil is not a personification of evil or of the demon in man; he is almost a comic figure, a scapegoat for human failings and errors.” The reimagining of Satan is in part a resistance to the missionaries' forced identification of trickster gods of African descent (such as Legba or Labas) with their own devil.32 At the same time that these gods had their complexities partially distorted within Christian manicheanism, the Christian devil emerged as a personification of a process of cultural hybridization that stands against the Church's extension of imperial control through religious indoctrination. Following Blake's heretical model, Reed takes the New World devil hero as the upholder of the poet-prophet's vision.


The second stanza of Reed's poem dramatizes a struggle between contending representations of history. It is cultural, not political history that is at stake here, and the site of contention is the artist's consciousness and his work.

School marms with halitosis cannot see
the Nefertiti fake chipped on the run by slick
germans, the hawk behind Sonny Rollins' head or
the ritual beard of his axe; a longhorn winding
its bells thru the Field of Reeds.

(C 17)

Reed's “school marms” are descendants of Yeats's “kind old nun in a white hood” in “Among School Children” who teaches her students a stale, uninspiring curriculum:

The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way …

(Yeats 215)

The “momentary wonder” of the children is only aroused by the appearance of the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” (Yeats 216). The “school marms” in Reed's poem represent a perpetuation of that ignorance about other cultures personified by the untrustworthy “Egyptologists” in the previous stanza (C 17). Specifically, they are oblivious to three things: “the Nefertiti fake,” “the hawk behind Sonny Rollins' head” and “the ritual beard of his axe.”

The famous bust of Nefertiti in Berlin is dismissed as a fake here because its features are so conspicuously “high yellow.” While the bust remains one of the best known pieces of Ancient Egyptian sculpture, the features of the Queen, Reed seems to suggest, are acceptable precisely because they hide any trace of the ancient history of cultural exchange between Egypt and West Africa. As Reed points out in the foreword to Conjure, “Egypt is located in Africa, you know, even though certain Western Civ. fanatics pretend that it lay in the suburbs of Berlin” (C vii). It is due to the invisibility of this history that the school marms cannot “see” the Nefertiti bust as a fake. This elliptical relativization of Western European aesthetics reconfirms the deathly image of the “Ledean” woman (Maud Gonne) in “Among School Children.” The “present image” of the once beautiful woman floats into the poet's mind as a “Quattrocento” painting, “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind / And took a mess of shadows for its meat” (Yeats 216).

The “hawk” behind Sonny Rollins' head is a more complex pun at the center of the staged dialogue between Yeats and Blake in this poem. It is Reed's counterpoint to Yeats's falcon, swan and golden bird. The figure of the bird is a multiple symbol of order, art and history in Yeats. The familiar Yeatsian vacillation between history as necessity and the terror of change, evident in “Leda and the Swan,” is more succinctly captured in “A Second Coming” where the divorce of the falcon and the falconer, whose union is a symbol of equilibrium, results in the famous collapse of the center and the nightmare of “things fall[ing] apart” (Yeats 187). The bird as symbol of order reappears at the close of “Sailing to Byzantium” as a supreme work of art (“such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make”) that will gather up the aging poet out of historical time (“what is past, or passing, or to come” becomes the song of the golden bird) “Into the artifice of eternity” (Yeats 193-94).33

Having lived through two revivals of spiritualism in Europe, Yeats had found many confirmations of myths and stories learned at any early age. He knew The Book of the Dead and “the great falcon that hovers over the God Horus.”34 Reed's hawk, however, is more than the recollection of this falcon (or hawk), the animal from of both Horus and his protector Ra. The witty move from Egyptian iconography to the famous profile of Sonny Rollins extends the cultural continuity between Egypt and West Africa, suggested earlier in the poem, to Afro-America. And as the unraveling of the pun on hawk will show, it is significant that the personification of this continuity is a jazz musician. The startling coincidence of familiar Egyptian relief paintings and the musicians' portrait constructs Rollins as an image come to life, stepping off the wall, in a subtle revision of the “sages standing in God's holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall” in “Sailing to Byzantium” (Yeats 193). It is to these sages that the aging poet, sensing his divorce from the sensual life, calls to come “And be the singing-masters of my soul” and “Consume my heart away” (Yeats 193). Yeats seeks an escape from history. “The poet,” Harold Bloom concludes, “is asking for transfiguration.” But the flight “is not so much from nature as from a new dispensation of the young.”35 But Reed seeks no such transcendent “tangible analogue” of eternity36 and the conflation of Horus and Rollins announces just such a new dispensation.

The shore from which Yeats sets sail “is no country for old men” (Yeats 193). The image of the “tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats 193) reappears with dismissive levity in “Among School Children”:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Soldier Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

(Yeats 217)

But Reed is interested neither in a conflict of young and old, nor in the hackneyed universalism of the dialectic of bodily decrepitude and art's eternity (though he would most likely twist Yeats's sense and take the old clothes upon a stick as the flag that marks the end of a cultural race for the famed Greeks). Against Yeats's elegaic turn to an idealized vision of Byzantium in the age of Justinian (c. A.D. 550) as a response to generational discontinuity, Reed offers a vital, living tradition. For Reed, Yeats's feared anarchy becomes a new order. In its association with Rollins, a leading exponent of hard bop, “hawk” resonates with the names of other jazz musicians: Coleman Hawkins, “the first noted ‘traditional’ jazz musician to play with the young bebop revolutionaries”37; Charlie ‘Bird’ (or ‘Yardbird’) Parker, the most celebrated of these revolutionaries, and most obviously Sun Ra and his Arkestra, major exponents of the free jazz movement in the 1960s. (The name of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, of course, echoes that of Ra [Sun-ny Ra-llins, American pronunciation]). Rollins and the figures that cluster around him in “I am a cowboy” encapsulate an entire musical history (indeed a musical genealogy if not an ornithology) from pre-be bop jazz to free jazz. No fingering upon a fiddle-stick here.

In the end Reed's own idea of jazz is perhaps no less utopian than Yeats's idea of Byzantium. It becomes in the poem a container for community imagined as the dialogue of living tradition within the visionary consciousness of the artist. During performances Sun Ra and the Arkestra dress in robes and ceremonial head-dress, and the lyrics of their songs evangelize Sun Ra's particular blend of mysticism and space-age consciousness. In 1967 Sun Ra gave a concert in New York's Central Park with about a hundred players, singers and dancers and a large crew of light and sound technicians; the concert was a tribute to “Nature and Nature's Gods.”38 In 1970 the Arkestra toured Europe and, at the Berlin Kongresshalle the concert included a light-show, bizarre costumes, dancing girls, a fire-eater, “songs extolling the ‘joys of space travel,’ a march through the audience (a la Living Theater), and Sun Ra's pretended star gazing with a telescope through the solid roof” of the hall.39 Critics and audience, for the most part, were either perplexed or furious at both concerts. As Ekkehard Jost argues, the critics' reaction “revealed an ignorance of the cultural background in which this kind of ‘musical theater’ is rooted, a background that has as little to do with the stupid flashiness of Broadway shows as it does with the intellectually calculated surrealism of Mauricio Kagel's ‘instrumental theater’”: “The roots of this show lie rather in the origins of Afro-American music: in the rites of the Voodoo cult, a blend of magic, music and dance; and in the vaudeville shows of itinerant troupes of actors and musicians, where there was room for gaudily tinseled costumes and the stunts of supple acrobats, as well as for the emotional depths of blues sung by a Ma Rainey or a Bessie Smith.”40 And Berendt, enlarging this catalogue, brings home the point that the label of “avant garde” is finally inappropriate for an artist like Sun Ra:

Sun Ra's music is more than just avant-garde, free big-band jazz. It certainly is that, but behind it stands the whole black tradition: Count Basie's Swing riffs and Duke Ellington's saxophone sounds; Fletcher Henderson's “voicings”; old blues and black songs; African highlife dances and Egyptian marches; black percussion music from South, Central and North America, and from Africa; Negro show and voodoo ritual; trance and black liturgy—celebrated by a band leader who strikes one as an African medicine-man skyrocketed into the space era.41

The blend of traditional and avant-garde elements in this music calls into doubt the usual definitions and usages of both terms—as Jost's comments on the initial response to Sun Ra indicate, the perception of his music as a destruction of jazz, or as “anti-jazz,” often depended upon the listener's own ignorance rather than on the music's alleged discontinuities. Both Reed and Sun Ra are uncomfortable with the label “avant garde” when it is applied to their work, and here the coinage of “inter-galactic” and “myth” terminology by the latter, and of “neo hoodoo” by the former, are attempts to “change the joke and slip the yoke.” Concerning the music of Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, and the differences of his own music from theirs as he conceived it, Sun Ra said in 1970 that “they were doing their thing, but they were not talking about Space or Intergalactic things … They were talking about the Avant Garde and the New Thing.”42 In “if my enemy is a clown, a natural born clown,” one of the poems in Conjure, Reed writes:

i called it pin the tail on the devil
they called it avant garde
they just can't be serious
these big turkeys.

(C 53)

In his The Theory of the Avant-Garde, Renato Poggioli argues that the modern artist's alienation from society is also an “alienation from tradition”: “In contrast to the classical artist, who had recourse to tradition as a stable and recurrent series of public epiphanies, the modern artist works in chaos and shadow, and is overcome by a feeling that language and style are in continual apocalypse.”43 But, as Gerhard Putschogl's discussion of tradition and innovation in jazz suggests, Poggioli's equation of the avant-garde with historical discontinuity does not seem to apply to Afro-American art. “The stereotyped equation of tradition with reaction,” he writes, “is generally not applicable to Afro-American culture. [Archie] Shepp defines the term avant-garde … in a ‘strictly historical sense’. … This is a major reason why the tradition is a point of reference for the black musicians of the sixties.”44

The interdependence of tradition and innovation has been referred to above in Blakean terms as an idealized image of community embodied paradoxically in the figure of the individual prophetic artist. In Milton the later Blake moves from the earlier idea of “Poetic Genius” to an idea of the artist as representative of a brotherhood that is also a body of poetry, what Leonard Deen has called “identity-as-community” and what elsewhere in Blake is personified by the creative genius Los:

Blake's prophecies show a community of “Eternals” falling asunder, but surviving and recreating itself through the love and labors of the figure he calls “Los”. … For Blake the community may not only act or recreate itself in the individual person: it may be that person, as Jesus is for Blake the community of mankind. Identity is community. For Blake, community achieved as a conversing in paradise is Jesus; struggling to create itself, it is Los.

… Los not only signifies but also embodies and enacts “divine humanity” and the ideals and salient characteristics of Blake's own poetry; and identity-as-community describes the form of a body of poetry as well as an ideal of brotherhood.45

It is this dual sense of community as a body of work and a brotherhood of individuals or artists that is also captured in the pun on the hawk behind Sonny Rollins' head. And out of all the jazz musicians Reed conjures up, it is Sun Ra who best embodies the full resonances of Blake's meaning. The mythological affiliations of his name with the Egyptian sun god make him kin to Blake's Los whose name is most likely the sun's name in reverse.46


Reed's version of identity-as-community is generated in the context of historically specific social collapse. In 1973, after his move to the West Coast, Reed recalls that “walking down St. Mark's Place in New York's East Village [he] was often able to observe key members of several generations of the American ‘avant-garde,’ before breakfast, or chat with Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and members of a splendid generation of young painters” (S 111). All the men named were musicians of free jazz or the new music. But all, except Ayler, were also members of the Jazz Composers' Guild, a mutual aid organization initiated by Bill Dixon. Umbra, a group of Afro-American poets to which Reed belonged in the early 1960s and with which Dixon had some contact, saw the “new musicians as representing a kind of strength and poetry of the black experience” with which they “strongly identified.”47 But while the “new music” became a major resource for Afro-American writers at this time, the history of the Jazz Composers' Guild also provided a pointed social parallel to the fragmentation and collapse of many art groups in the 1960s.

Dixon, one of the musicians Reed mentioned in his 1968 interview, was one of the first to set up a mutual support organization along more traditional lines than Sun Ra's Arkestra. He organized the now famous ‘October Revolution in Jazz’ of 1964 which brought together most of the leading free musicians of that time for a series of concerts at the Cellar Cafe on New York's West Ninety-Sixth Street. The idea for the Jazz Composers' Guild grew directly out of the experience of the concerts. Dixon wanted to create an organization that would protect jazz musicians and composers from economic exploitation, and he opened the door to white musicians as well as to blacks.48 The members agreed to turn down work unless it was considered advantageous to the Guild as a whole, and contracts for concerts and recordings were to be negotiated with the Guild rather than with the individual musicians. Due to internal differences, the Guild collapsed, but it was to set a model for organizations that followed after it. According to Taylor, the Guild did not survive because its members “lacked a social consciousness. … If certain members had shown themselves strong, more loyal to their promises, if their actions matched their ideas, the Guild would exist today.”49

The idealism implicit in Reed's turn towards a Romantic model for artistic practice cannot be read as a disavowal of history; it was in fact a recognition of the political limits of experiments such as the Jazz Composers' Guild that sought to explore democratic models within severely embattled cultural spaces. In the conclusion of his chapter on Sun Ra and his book on free jazz, Jost writes that “the politically accentuated reminiscences in the music of the Art Ensemble, Don Cherry's efforts toward ‘musical world peace’ and Sun Ra's mysticism dressed in the costumes of a utopian minstrel show, all represent levels of consciousness that can by no means be reduced to the equation ‘free jazz = Black Power.’ Nevertheless, there is in the style changes manifest in the music … a tendency that is probably tied up with the change of consciousness that took place in the Sixties among the black population.”50 While Jost is overly cautious about the political nature of free jazz and could easily have added the names of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane to his list, he is right to resist the potentially reductive readings of Frank Kofsky's Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970) and Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli's Black Power / Free Jazz (1971). This is not to discredit either of these excellent studies but to suggest that free jazz may reveal a path not coterminous with or identical to that of the Civil Rights movement or Black Power.

At the same time, resistance to this easy equation has led some cultural theoreticians into extreme fantasy as the only means by which to retrieve the radical potential of this art. Jaques Attali for instance believes that “Free jazz was the first attempt to express in economic terms the refusal of the cultural alienation inherent in repetition, to use music to build a new culture. What institutional politics, trapped within representation, could not do, what violence, crushed by counterviolence, could not achieve, free jazz tried to bring about in a gradual way through the production of a new music outside of the industry.”51 This escapism testifies to its own impotency. Attali burdens an exemplary cultural moment with a political weight it cannot sustain; there is no confrontation of society's organized power, control and violence here. Nathaniel Mackey's comments on the political nature of collective improvisation (note that Attali takes improvisation as the formal counterpart of the economics) state the matter more realistically: “black music—especially that of the sixties, with its heavy emphasis on individual freedom within a collectively improvised context—proposed a model social order, an ideal, even utopic balance between personal impulse and group boundaries.”52

The attraction to collective improvisation as a utopian model was indeed strong among Afro-American writers in the 1960s.53 For one who both listens to jazz and reads Blake, there are obvious cross-overs between the two. For in Blake (and other Romantics) there is a complex balance of individuation and unity; community arises not through common denomination but through the aggregate of difference: “The poet as man aims at a society of independent thinkers, a democratic ‘republic,’ but on the smaller and more intensive scale of community. The poet as prophet seeks to create a community of prophets, a New Jerusalem.”54 Blake seeks not the regaining of Eden in the present but the full potential of creative imagination in the fallen world. The poet-prophets form an apostolic succession, and through them history is turned back to its sources in myth, divided humanity is transformed into community.55 This is the third cultural blind-spot of Reed's school marms.

The “ritual beard” of Sonny Rollins' “axe” holds Reed's ambivalent transitions between sacrifice and performance in the poem; in the terms of the Blakean scheme, poetry and art, and not the priests, are the sources of culture. But Reed does not clearly sustain that distinction (just as he does not explicitly distinguish between priest and prophet). The musician and his instrument and the priest and his ritual tool are intertwined. “Ritual beard” again refers not only to Rollins' physiognomy but also to the pictorial analogy between the curved shape of beards in Egyptian (Assyrian?) iconography and the form of the saxophone (“axe” is jazz slang for the saxophone). In the second stanza of the poem the cut of the axe initiates the reader into the community of tradition and the “longhorn winding / its bells thru the Field of Reeds” completes the synthesis. The dance of the Sidhe, the ancient gods of Ireland, in the wind, and the poetic refiguration of the “philosophic gyres” as the “winding stair” of the tower of Thoor Ballylee in Yeats now resurface as a different motion of history and myth.56 For one, the meandering movement of the cattle looks ahead to the mythic west of the Chisholm trail in the fourth stanza. Rollins' saxophone (the “long horn” with the open “bell” of its mouth) threads its own voice with the music of other players of the reed instrument configured as a vibrant synchronic “field”: “Tradition, in a word, is the sense of the total past as now.57 The sounding of the bell may well reach to the boxing ring in which the Afro-American boxer Ezzard Charles is defeated later in the poem, but the competition in this stanza is something altogether different; the “cutting sessions” among the improvising soloists in jazz clubs perform a finer marriage between the group and self. The “Field of Reeds” is also the Egyptian Elysium and the Nile bank where the Horus child, like Moses, was hidden from Set, and Rollins is finally identified with Osiris, the god crowned with horns who weighs the hearts of the dead in Fields of Satisfaction that are the after-world.58 These dizzying metamorphoses are gathered up as the domain of the artist's active imagination in the pun on the author's name.

That these transformations should occur within Ra's boat or Sun Ra's jazz Ark continues the Blake analogy. In Milton the “Tabernacles” (Blake's “holy place for an ideal”)59 of Osiris, Isis and Horus (Orus in Blake) float on the Nile during the night, “till morning break & Osiris appear in the sky” (Blake 138). But it is at the climax of the poem that Ololon, the spiritual form of Milton's Emanation from which the poet has been divorced, descends in “the Moony Ark” heralding the restoration of the poet and her mystical union with Jesus, the wedding of love and wisdom that will bear man, like Noah's Ark, across the Sea of Time and Space, across the expanse of history:

Then as a Moony Ark Ololon descended to Felphams Vale
In clouds of blood, in streams of gore, with dreadful thunderings
Into the Fires of Intellect that rejoic'd in Felphams Vale
Around the Starry Eight: with one accord the Starry Eight became
One Man Jesus the Saviour. wonderful! around his limbs
The Clouds of Ololon folded as a Garment dipped in blood
Written within & without in woven letters: & the Writing
Is the Divine Revelation in the Literal expression:
A Garment of War, I heard it named the Woof of Six Thousand

(Blake 143)

The marriage of the Starry Eight (Milton's Humanity and his seven guardian angels)60 and Jesus restores Milton's divided self and his imaginative powers. The successor Blake faints on his garden path at the sight of this vision, and as he recovers, the Lark, Los's messenger and Blake's bird-symbol for “the new idea which inspires the entire poem,”61 heralds the new dawn (Blake 143).

By contrast to Blake, Reed's hawk descends towards the start of his poem, just as Blake's prefatorial invocation is echoed in the final movement of “I am a cowboy.” The reversal of the narrative movement of Milton is significant; Reed's poem is structured as an inverted epic. The three stanzas that follow the second one consider the failure of synthesis. Isis, like Leda, gives birth to war, and the ringmanship of Ezzard Charles is defeated. The fifth stanza then acknowledges the exile of art. This pattern is in fact closer to Blake's satiric meditation on the impossibility of art and the failure of Los in a fallen world in The Book of Urizen (1794). In reversing the transcendent sequence of Milton, Reed dramatizes the pressures of history and the social upon the ideal of the synthetic imagination. In Blake the aquatic Polypus symbolizes human society because some forms of this animal are “colonial” organisms of individuals.62 Ololon, descending to find Milton, must first enter “the Polypus within the Mundane Shell … [the] Vegetable Worlds” (Blake 136). “Human society,” S. Foster Damon explains, “must be taken into account before the creation of art is possible; or, as Blake puts it, ‘Golgonooza cannot be seen till having passed the Polypus / It is viewed on all sides round by a Four-fold Vision / Or till you become Mortal & Vegetable in Sexuality’” (Blake 135).63 This full humanity is never imagined in Reed. The Afro-American poet attracted to an idealist aesthetic finds himself caught between American Transcendentalism's rejection of the relevancy of society and Romanticism's dialectic of self and society, and this dilemma becomes the central political drama of his work.64


Following Yeats's occult model for a poetics of history, Reed's poem figures history as the incessant alternation of conflict and coniunctio. This pattern is already present in the larger narrative of the poem where war is a prelude to the restoration of order. But each stanza repeats the drama as an almost independent unit. While the Horus-Cowboy narrative of exile and return shapes the poem, an over-emphasis on the overarching structure of the poem can undermine the experience of local transitions and image by image progression.65 The links between (and within) stanzas follow no principle of logical or historical connection. The violent juxtaposition of diverse materials which disrupts the linear flow of narrative is held together by formal principles derived from Yeats's poetics.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. I bedded
down with Isis, Lady of the Boogaloo, dove
down deep into her horny, stuck up her Wells-Far-ago
in daring midday getaway. ‘Start grabbing the
blue’, I said from top of my double crown.

(C 17)

The rapid transitions in this third stanza are representative of the procedures of the whole poem and extend the flamboyant punning of the poem into a collagist aesthetic. A pun reminiscent of the sexual innuendos of blues lyrics allows Reed to leap from Egyptian mythology to nineteenth-century America and from an image of sexual union to a history of political and economic conflict, a parody of the rape of Leda by the Swan, used here to engender North American history. Isis's “Wells-Far-ago” is a distortion of the name of the Wells Fargo company, established in 1852 by Henry Wells, William G. Fargo and associates, founders of the American Express. The company carried mail, silver and gold bullion and provided banking services. “In less than ten years,” Alvin F. Harlow explains, the company had “either bought out or eliminated nearly all competitors and become the most powerful company in the Far West.” Wells Fargo later extended its operations to Canada, Alaska, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, and Hawaii, as well as the Atlantic coast.66 The economic monopoly of Wells Fargo parallels the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity which not only banished other gods (Osiris and the Voodoo loa) but also suppressed its own heretical traditions. The outlaw cowboy's cry, “start grabbing the / blue,” is slang for “put your hands up” but also refers to “blueback,” an archaic term for a bank note of Confederate money, so called for the contrast of blue ink on its back with the green ink used on the Northern “greenback.” With Horus speaking from the “top of [his] double crown” in the next line, the blueback carried by the Wells Fargo Company can be taken as a symbol of the division between North and South in the “United” States. This is confirmed by the double crown as symbol of a unified Egypt in Egyptian iconography, and one of the manifestations of Horus was “Har-mau,” or “Horus the uniter,” upholder of the unity of northern and southern Egypt.67 The aggressive lover of Isis is of course Osiris (the “longhorn” in the previous stanza refers, among other things, to the horned crown of Osiris, and the rather obvious sexual pun on “longhorn” and “horny” completes the link). The product of this intercourse is Horus, whereas in Yeats the rape leads to the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra, Love and War. The outlaw Horus initiates the fall of the Confederacy and the rise of the Union, while Leda hatches the fall of Troy and the ascendancy of Greece. The same pattern is repeated in the next stanza.

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Ezzard Charles
of the Chisholm Trail. Took up the bass but they
blew off my thumb. Alchemist in ringmanship but a
sucker for the right cross.

(C 17)

Here each sentence is a yoking together that, like the rest of the poem, brazenly defies the facts of history. The conjunction of Ancient Egypt and the American West is, by this point in the poem, familiar. The cowboy then appears as the Afro-American heavyweight boxing champion from the early 1950s riding the famous 19th-century cattle trail that stretched from south Texas to Kansas City.68 His transformation into a musician, linking back to Sonny Rollins in the second stanza and to the “Lady of the Boogaloo” in the third, is aborted by gun law. The last sentence is a characteristically condensed pun, welding together boxing and alchemy—again, confrontation and synthesis. Not only is the allusive hero's boxing prowess weak, but his “talismanic rings [are] no match for the symbols of Christianity.”69 The alchemist's dream of coniunctio, of the philosopher's stone, is defeated. The ring, occult symbol for such unity and wholeness but also representative here of the boxing ring, encapsulates the balance of conflict and coniunctio throughout the poem.70 But this very balance is shattered by a blow from the cross, a re-match between the gnostic traditions and Christianity in which the later once again emerges as victor. After being knocked out by “Jersey” Joe Walcott in seven rounds in Pittsburgh in 1951, Charles was never able to make a successful comeback in boxing. He was defeated again by Walcott in 1952 and by Rocky Marciano in 1954.71 In the next stanza the artist-hero accepts that an “outlaw alias copped my stance” but the exile is only a temporary set-back: “Vamoosed from / the temple,” he explains, “i bide my time” (C 17).

Yeats had adopted the idea of war and conflict as agents of renewal largely from his occult studies.72 But unlike in Blake, there is in Yeats no progression through the interplay of contraries, no transcendence of that image of history. War becomes the only possible form of the world, “a dramatic universe where conflict is the dance-form of life.”73 Dance is, of course, like the bird, Yeats's multivalent symbol of order and chaos. In the dream of the beggar Billy Byrne in “Under the Round Tower,” dance and conflict imagery is related to sexual imagery (Yeats 137-38).74 And Reed's Isis, in the midst of sexual union and physical conflict, appears as “Lady of the Boogaloo.”75 Referring to Yeats's characteristic techniques as they are evident in Billy Byrne's dream, Hazard Adams writes that, “with the building up of a mass of metaphorical suggestion, Yeats's multiverse, like Blake's, becomes a single macrocosmic metaphor, a universe. All things finally relate themselves to all other things in a unified vision.”76 This is also an accurate description of the procedures of “I am a cowboy.” But Adams continues: “The difference from Blake lies in the fact that conflict becomes the form of the only world Yeats knows, not simply, as in Blake, the delusion to be transcended.”77 This too is ultimately true of Reed. The danger for a satirist like Reed, who is also attracted to the possibilities of the poet-prophet, is one of entrapment within a closed system that psychologizes history as the unchanging clash of antinomial forces. The static nature of this model makes it fundamentally ahistorical as a poetics of history. The prophecies of a new age simply become predictions of repetition, so that the poet aspiring to vision can too easily become a mere magician. And the satirist, requiring perpetual conflict as a necessary condition for his art, is hard pressed to sustain a vision of identity-as-community or to fulfill the prophetic quest for polis.

In Milton Blake distinguishes between “Mental War” and “Corporeal Strife.” Immediately after those lines from Blake's preface which Reed parodies and invokes, the poet declares:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land.

(Blake 95-96)

Later in the poem Blake distinguishes Mental Fight from actual war. The “Four Elements” that are “Gods of the Kingdoms of the Earth” are caught “in contrarious / And cruel opposition: Element against Element, opposed in War / Not Mental, as the Wars of Eternity, but a Corporeal Strife” (Blake 130).

The intellectual war and hunting that goes on in heaven, which is of course a mental state in Blake, not a place beyond the sky, is the proper contrary form of those dreadful “negations” known as war and hunting in nature. Yeats thinks of that symbolized by the sphere as things-in-themselves, which fall into antinomies in experience. Blake's heaven is the life of intellect itself, which proceeds by dialogue and contrariety.

… this difference leads Yeats to an ironic welcoming of violence, while Blake was always horrified by war, which he regarded as the result of the repression of true contrariety.78

As in Blake's preface to Milton, the poet-priest of “I am a cowboy,” after calling for his “Buffalo horn of black powder,” his “bones of Ju-Ju snake” and other ritual instruments, launches his mental war against the cultural domination of Set, an archetype for all forms of religious, ideological and cultural monisms in Reed's mythology:

I'm going into town after Set
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra
look out Set                    here i come Set
to get Set                                   to sunset Set
to unseat Set                    to Set down Set
                                                            usurper of the Royal couch
                                                            imposter RAdio of Moses' bush
                                                            part pooper O hater of dance
                                                            vampire outlaw of the milky way

(C 18)

The return of the outlaw cowboy is in fact the return of art to the arena of effective cultural struggle since earlier in the poem the exile of the outlaw hero is defined as the exile of art:

                                                                                          Vamoosed from
the temple i bide my time. The price on the wanted
poster was a-going down, outlaw alias copped my stance
and moody greenhorns were making me dance;
          while my mouth's
shooting iron got its chambers jammed.

(C 17)

It is the poet's voice, the “mouth's / shooting iron,” that is silenced. Despite his obvious parodic and comic intent, Reed's obsessive use of the rhetoric of aggression can sometimes be misleading.79 But Reed takes care in many of his works to forestall such readings. The exchange between the slave 40s and Raven Quickskill, the artist-hero, in Flight to Canada (1976) offers just one example. When the militant 40s tells Raven Quickskill, “you take the words, give me the rifle,” Quickskill replies that “words built the world and words can destroy the world.” Quickskill eventually learns that a flight to Canada is a false promise of freedom; for him “freedom was his writing. His writing was his HooDoo.”80 The unjamming of the “mouth's / shooting iron” narrativizes the release of the creative and playful potential of language and simultaneously stages this release as a moment of self-genesis for the poetic persona. But what does genesis mean for Reed and his personae?


The action of “I am a cowboy” begins to turn in the seventh stanza. Though still in exile, the poet no longer has his mouth's shooting iron jammed. He is now writing “the mowtown long plays for the comeback of / Osiris” (C 18). Just as the climax of Milton is moved to the opening verses of Reed's poem, so Blake's prefatory invocation to his truncated epic is echoed towards the end of “I am a cowboy” (in the eighth stanza). By ending his narrative where Blake begins his, the point at which the poet calls for inspiration to arm him for the task of Mental War, Reed deliberately ends in limbo. The battle is yet to come or it is perpetual; in any case, the Afro-American poet is uncomfortable about projecting resolution.

The return of the exiled hero is no longer imagined as Horus's revenge. Instead of the more familiar and culturally more distant mythology of Egypt, Reed now turns to a New World transformation of African folklore and works his own syncretic changes upon it. In the eighth stanza the sexual union of Osiris and Isis is re-formulated in more traditional occult and astrological terms as the coniunctio of Pisces and Aries. But the product is “the Loup Garou Kid,” “Lord of the Lash,” not Horus, a “half breed son,” a reincarnation of the Afro-American divided self, not an incarnation of national unity (C 18). In occult and astrological lore, Osiris and Isis are taken to be representatives of the Sun and Moon respectively, and so as the father and mother of “sublunary nature” who, “by their conjunctions renew all life in its generations, and at their oppositions bring forth that which is generated.”81 The Loup Garou Kid is, of course, literally generated out of dramas of union and opposition in the course of the poem. The union of Pisces and Aquarius appears to be the first successful coniunctio in the poem, an alchemical wedding of “the prototypical male and female opposites—identified in alchemical symbolism as sulfur and mercury, or Sol and Luna, or king and queen.”82 But this is clearly not the case since the “half breed son” is not the reunited, complete man. Loup Garou in fact represents only the masculine half of the conjunction: where, in Blake, the female Ololon descends in the “Moony ark,” Reed's cowboy rides in the solar barge. In an 1896 letter Yeats wrote that “we belong to the coming cycle. The sun passes from Pisces into Aquarius in a few years. Pisces is phallic in its influence. The waterman is spiritual so the inward turning soul will catch the first rays of the new Aeon.”83 The counter-culture, too, was obsessed with the Aquarian Age and its promise of the transformation of human consciousness.84 In parts of his aesthetic formulations Reed is clearly sympathetic to the Yeatsian prediction of an inward turn, the metaphysical country behind the eyes, but with Loup Garou he makes the representative hero of the age a figure of aggression and outward confrontation.

Loup Garou, derived from the French, is the name given to werewolves and vampires in Haiti. Though the werewolves can be male, loups garous are more commonly known to be female vampires who suck the blood of children, as they are generally in West African societies.85 Most significantly for Reed, loup garous are associated with the Petro, not the Rada cult of Vodoun.86 Petro is, in Maya Deren's words, “a New World answer to New World Needs.”87 Where the loa of Rada, a cult of Dahomean origin, are generally protective, guardian powers, the Petro loa represent aggressive action, a response to the history of enslavement and violence: “For it was the Petro cult, born in the hills, nurtured in secret, which gave both the moral force and the actual organization to the escaped slaves who plotted and trained, swooped down upon the plantations and led the rest of the slaves in the revolt that, by 1804, had made of Haiti the second free colony in the western hemisphere, following the United States.”88 Loup Garou is, then, an appropriate choice of protagonist in a poem that satirically masks its own complex cultural kinships behind a polarized drama of cultural slavery and revolt. (The parentage of Reed's hero is, once again, telling here since Pisces is the “symbol of confinement and restraint, the fishes being tethered together,” and Aquarius one of the aerial signs, a symbol of freedom.)89

“The crack of the slave-whip,” Deren reminds the reader, sounds constantly in Petro rites like “a never-to-be-forgotten ghost.”90 Reed's hero is also “Lord of the Lash” but Reed, with his characteristic penchant for the humour of the incongruous, reincarnates a now-forgotten hero from B-movie westerns in the grim shadow of the Petro cult. According to The Film Encyclopedia, Al La Rue, a.k.a. “Lash” La Rue, was

Born on June 15, 1917, in Michigan. Cowboy hero of miniscule-budget Hollywood Westerns of the late 40s, known as “Lash” for his principle weapon, a 15-foot bullwhip, which he used on his enemies with great skill. His film career was brief and unmemorable. He later performed in carnivals and toured the South as a Bible-thumping evangelist, preaching the gospel and contemplating astrology and reincarnation. He had several brushes with the law, answering charges of vagrancy, public drunkenness, and possession of marijuana. He claims to have been married and divorced 10 times.91

At the start of Yellow Back Radio, run out of too many towns, Loop Garoo has joined “a small circus” (YBR 10).

Following the syncretic principles of New World religions, Reed takes the transformation of African vampire folklore one step further than it has already been taken in Vodoun. The Petro Loup Garou is reborn as a North American cowboy (and in recent years a new cowboy loa has in fact appeared in Brazil), though this is not quite accurate; rather, he is reborn as a popular culture idea of a cowboy and much more. La Rue stands at the other end of American mythology from Will Rogers. The bundle of paradoxical collisions represented by La Rue's career, like the heterogeneity of Vodoun, rather than the deceptively sanitized Christian imperialism of his more famous colleague, stands as the true groundwork for a usable indigenous mythology. It is in his vertiginous blend of New World religion and an Emersonian mythology of Americana that Reed discovers weapons for his Mental War against cultural exclusionism.


In Blake the female Ololon returns to Milton and is gathered up around Jesus. Reed does not follow this occult sexual law, the merging of male and female, the return of the Shekinah to God.92 The Afro-American offspring of Pisces and Aries is instead a divided self, a “half breed son.” Reed significantly erases all elements of the female from the mythology of loup garous and transfers the figure into a classical American male mythology of self-regeneration through violence.93

Those 1960s poets who adopted the gunslinger as hero in their re-engagement with Whitman dramatized the ambivalent potential of the Transcendentalist self.94 While the conflictual poetic narratives made explicit the blurred boundaries between Whitman's trans-continental visionary journey and the violent history of Manifest Destiny, the hero wrapped in the aura of the six gun mystique was at the same time himself a reincarnation of what Quentin Anderson has called the “imperial self.” In the 1950s and 1960s writers adopted the figure of the outlaw as representative for the creative artist. The outlaw was an ideal actor in the dramatization of the antagonistic relationship between self and society, but the myth of the Western outlaw contained within it an ambivalent resolution of this conflict through acts of violence.95 Emerson had accepted war as a function of self-reliance and a permanent condition of nature, suggesting that self-reliance was in fact initially a stance against society.96 While the emergence of the outlaw as artist-hero in the 1960s was also part of an oppositional stance, the literary anarchism could not escape a degree of association with the logic of the then prevalent consensus ideology that offered itself as the end of ideology.97 The interest here is in Reed's turn to the gunslinger as hero as an acceptance of the unavailability of the prophetic model of resolution in the late 1960s. The alternative of satiric narratives, based on occult rather than dialectical models, maintains double consciousness as an arena of perpetual conflict. Reed's persona takes the moment of conflict as the bridge to the triumph of satire in the vacuum left by the failed Blakean brotherhood of artists. While the final showdown between the Cowboy and Set, initiated as a new beginning at the end of Reed's poem, must still be seen as a continuation of Mental War, the poetic rhetoric there leaves little room for a possible mutuality through art. This turn in the second half of Reed's poem is part of a much broader problematic in Reed's work that is not easily absorbed by sympathetic understanding.

The “I” of “I am a cowboy” is a descendent of the expansive and incorporative selves of Whitman and Emerson. Reed's cowboy hero, confronted with the double-consciousness of a divided self, adopts a strategy of inflation, an “unrealistic aggrandizement” of the ego.98 This process is part of the “shifts from communal modes of self-validation to a psychic self-reliance [that] have always been part of magic and religion, and perhaps of action itself,” and have characterized classic texts of American literature.99 The transition from the Blakean notions of artist and community to the model of the gunslinger reverses the transition from sacrifice to performance in the second stanza and reincarnates the artist as sacrificial priest. This section examines this shift as the site of the imperial self's fullest manifestation and Reed's use of the possibilities of immanence in magic as the vehicle of this appearance.

In the sixth and seventh stanzas Reed repeats the wedding of Afro-American music, Ancient Egyptian religion and another classic scene of western mythology, but the movement now, unlike that of the second stanza, is from performance back to sacrifice:

I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Boning-up in
the ol West i bide my time. You should see
me pick off these tin can wippersnappers. I
write the mowtown long plays for the comeback of
Osiris. Make them up when stars stare at sleeping
steer out here near the campfire. Women arrive
on the backs of goats and throw themselves on
my Bowie.
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra. Lord of the lash,
the Loup Garou Kid. Half breed son of Pisces and
Aquarius. I hold the souls of men in my pot. I do
the dirty boogie with the scorpions. I make the bulls
keep still and was the first swinger to grape the taste.

(C 18)

Compare this to the take-over of Video Junction by Loop Garoo and the children in Yellow Back Radio reported by “the shotgun messenger from the Black Swan Stagecoach”:

Everybody dead except for the kids up in the mountains dancing and smoking injun tobaccy and some women arriving on a shindig on the backs of obscene goats. Without no floogers on. Nekkid. Was bettern a topless. One of them hookers had knockers on her that was biggern a helliummed grapefruit. Three black cowboys were seated on tree stumps drinking from some wooden bowl and grinning. One of 'em was playing the slide trombone.

Then everybody got on the ground. They was gnashing their teeth and rolling over each other and the air got all hot and funky. Finally they took some woman and put her on a platform on a log, then this one black cowboy took a Bowie and jugged the woman in the chest. She didn't even yell but said some furriner jaw-breaking word, exquisite exquisite, said it over and over again.

(YBR 55)

A little later in the chapter Loop chants a black mass, conjuring up the devil, Vodoun loa and “his personal Loa, Judas Iscariot, the hero who put the finger on the devil” (YBR 61-64).

Dionysus descends too easily here. The parody works within the terms of a discourse it seeks to subvert. The obvious sexism (as with the “school marms” and Isis) and show of phallocentrism are facile alternatives to Yeats's anxieties about sex and age. Reed's emotions of excess come as easy as Yeats's losses. The implied construction of this Yeats as representative of the sterility of Western culture (Blake notwithstanding) offers the instant gratification of cliché. To be sure the heathen rites are Cardinal Spellman's worst nightmares made flesh, the Afro-American adopting his stereotypical association with the devil not as a mark of condemnation but as a sign of his status as fellahin, but the satiric resurfacing of the repressed uncritically maintains the counter-cultural psychoanalytic model as political arena. The 1960s were witness to the fact that, without adequate social forms to hold it, the erotic release of the Bacchae was likely to result in disaster not revolution.100 This is where malign priests like Charles Manson stepped in. Reed is forced to revert from the controls of art to the repetitive regeneration of violent sparagmos. The eroticism of the famous “mowtown long plays” heralds the return of the Bacchus prototype, the Egyptian god of viticulture. The trombone playing artist stands on the periphery, providing accompaniment for the hallucinogenic orgy; this is Reed himself, a one-time player of that instrument.101 In “I am a cowboy” and Yellow Back Radio this is Eros's reply to Logos. While the ecstatic ceremony of “I am a cowboy” may restore the “limb scattered” Osiris of “Time and the Eagle,” transforming the poetic hero from passive to active agent, and may be compatible with the patterns of artistic regeneration in Blake, perpetual sacrificial renewal is finally antithetical to the visionary sense. Blake's “The Mental Traveller” rejects the delusions of determinism for the potential of spiritual progress. As Hazard Adams has detailed, when Yeats wrote of Blake's poem in the first version of A Vision, he isolated the single pattern of the poem as the myth of “the perpetual return of the same thing”: “Yet the myth must include the Traveller himself, the visionary who comprehends delusion. The Mental Traveller finds his way out of the circle and affirms that man may discover something more than the ‘perpetual return of the same thing.’”102 Unlike the Spenglerian Yeats, Blake asserts “that the cycle whirls to a vortex instead of rolling endlessly in space. That is, one proceeds toward vision if one rejects the idea of history as a simple straight line for the idea of history as cycle. But one attains to vision only when one sees time as a point.”103 In his vacillation between vision and satire the anarchist poet finds himself attracted to the magical powers of the priest as model.104 But Sun Ra's captaincy of his Ark is finally incompatible with the fully democratic experiment of the Jazz Composers' Guild, and it is telling that, unlike Melville's Pequod, it is the Arkestra, not the Guild, that has survived. While it is true that Sun Ra embodies the spirit of Los, he also steps into a stance ultimately antithetical to Blake and to Whitman by confusing the roles of prophet and priest. Not only does Sun Ra gather up the multiplicity of tradition and innovation in his music into his performance persona of ritual priest and utopian prophet, he presides as priestly leader over the famous, strangely monastic community of his Arkestra. A unique phenomenon in the history of jazz, the members of the Arkestra have often lived together as a commune, following not only Sun Ra's musical leadership, but also his esoteric mystical teachings and his self-help (even dietary) doctrines.

Also in the 1960s, the Jewish American poet Jerome Rothenberg takes the shaman as a figure for the poet. Extending the sense of shamanism as a “technique of ecstasy” and of the shaman as a “technician of the sacred” in Mircea Eliade's cross-cultural study of the phenomenon,105 he argues in 1968 that “the shaman can be seen as a protopoet, for almost always his technique hinges on the creation of special linguistic circumstances, i.e., of song and invocation.”106 Himself moving between various “primitive” cultures and contemporary poetic forms, Rothenberg is interested in “a common (shamanic / not priestly) pattern.”107 In a 1984 interview, pushed to define this delicate politics more fully against the developments of the preceding decades, Rothenberg acknowledges the susceptibilities of the archaic poetic model inside contemporary culture. Discussing the increased preoccupation with Dionysian release in American society, the growth of the Daemonic in popular culture, and figures like Jim Jones, he senses the dangers of a malign spill-over into poetic and social explorations seeking release from established frameworks into the unknown: “These are powers of the mind and they still remain—and some of the worst of its is probably a result of their release in what has been an extremely repressed, repressive culture”; “If shamanism depends somehow on a one-to-one relationship—the presence of the shaman and the other—then I don't think you can deal with it in mass-communication terms. I think it is ultimately irresponsible to try and do so and that was the tremendous failure of such as Timothy Leary …”108 Such strategies become, in fact, a disastrous over-compensation for the lack of social integration that distinguishes the modern poet from the shaman.109

At the end of “I am a cowboy,” the returning hero seeks to chase out Set, the “imposter RAdio of Moses' bush” (C 18). In Yellow Back Radio Loop's magic is directed as invasive noise within existing mass media and communication systems. In both instances the artist-magician aims simultaneously for his own immanence within the circuits. While there is no nostalgic dismantling of technology here, the media extensions of the human offer an effective diffusion of magical control. The “Old Woman” who runs the talk show in the town of Yellow Back Radio leaves town after “the Loop Garoo Kid came in there and put some bad waves into her transmitter.” She explains that “the ‘demons of the old religion are becoming the Gods of the new,’ cause he put something on her that had her squawking like a chicken” (YBR 83). Chief Showcase, referring to this and other incidents, explains the power of “nigger words—… how they move up and down the line like hard magic beads out riffing all the language in the syntax” (YBR 129). Within Reed's dramatization of cultural wars in terms of information theory paradigms, the “nigger words” are forces of anti-chance, not entropy; they create new meanings as they dissolve existing ones.110 Examining literature in the light of theories of negentropy in information theory, physics and biology, William Paulson acknowledges that the supposition of self-organization from noise in literature depends to some degree on romantic notions of literary autonomy but suggests that “romantic autonomy itself can now be reread in the context of contemporary, non-vitalistic and non-teleological approaches to the autonomy of organisms.”111 Reed's easy moves between romantic models of the artist and contemporary technological frameworks is similarly suggestive. Along with the destruction of Video Junction, Loop Garoo is concerned “with the serious business of closing every conceivable repair shop available to Yellow Back Radio, whose signals were needless to say becoming very very faint” (YBR 118). But the Pope realizes that Loop wants to broadcast his own “strange fixes” (YBR 119) without interference. Not surprisingly, Loop's hideout is a cave under “the Peak of No Mo Snow” (YBR 155), snow, of course, being the term for the effect of deteriorated image quality on television or video tape.

Reed is an admirer of Marshall McLuhan. In the late-1960s he reiterates the vision of a heterogeneous global village:

With a televised technology tribalism and separatism are impossible. Given what McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller have shown us, you can't be a separatist. … Once You become an international mind-miner it's all over. That's where the Afro-American artist is today: John Coltrane going to Ali Akbar Khan, Afro-American ragas, Bill Dixon doing science-fiction music, Sun Ra into Gustav Holst.112

And commenting on the title of his second novel, Reed explains that he “based the book on old radio scripts in which the listener constructed the sets from his imagination—that's why radio, also because it's an oral book, a talking book; people say they read it aloud, that is, it speaks through them, which makes it a loa” (S 134).113 “Given only the sound of a play,” McLuhan writes, “we have to fill in all of the senses, not just the sight of the action.”114 For the Catholic McLuhan, the transformation of human consciousness promised by the technologies of the global village will be the modern day second coming. It is in this sense that George Steiner is correct in stressing that “McLuhan is [Blake's] successor over and over again.”115 Reed's singling out of musicians whose work is marked by a cross-cultural imagination acknowledges as much. But in his explanation of his novel's sources in orality and radio he uncritically extends his meaning into the processes of possession. McLuhan, however (and despite his own religiosity), knows that within the magic of “the tribal drum” of radio “the old web of kinship” can begin “to resonate once more with the note of fascism.”116

As Richard Poirier has argued, there is in a great deal of American literature a crisis of failure at that point in the work when the author attempts to externalize the ideal consciousness (the “visionary eye”/I) of his hero, “tries to insert it, to borrow William James's metaphor, into social and verbal environments that won't sustain it. And the crisis is confronted not only by the heroes but also by their creators when it comes to conceiving of some possible resolution to the conflict of inner consciousness or some suitable external reward for it.”117 The point at which Loup Garou emerges and takes on the mantle of the priest-magician is such a moment of crisis for both protagonist and author in “I am a cowboy.” It is also the point at which we can most fully grasp those principal forms of the self in Reed that permit Yeats, Transcendentalism and Vodoun to perversely cohabit in the same body.

Terence Diggory has recorded the very significant impact of American poetry on the work of Yeats and of the subsequent engagement with Yeats in the work of several American poets. Yeats was initially attracted to Whitman as a poet who spoke to shared concerns of nationhood. But after his failure to establish the national theatre and a communal tradition through the recuperation of ancient Irish legend and folk beliefs, Yeats found in Emerson and Whitman poets who “had discovered in the self an alternative to tradition that was at the same time a new source of tradition.”118 This is what Diggory calls “the tradition of the self,” a tradition fundamentally different to the Romantic tradition of self-expression:

For Wordsworth, the self was given or, at most, discovered; for Yeats, the self was created. In the process of being created, the self becomes distanced or externalized. It is literally ex-pressed, but not as in romantic expression, because Yeats's externalized self differs from the internal self where it originated. Once externalized, the self is viewed not as the poet's content but rather as a form to be entered into; it is the mask or antiself that must be pursued throughout life.

Though it has roots in Blake's Four Zoas and Shelley's Alastor, Yeats's postulation of a dual or even multiple self marks another signal divergence from romantic self-expression, since that theory demands an identity between what is expressed and what is contained in the poet's true self. The romantic desires harmony between subjective and objective experience, a harmony that Yeats could preserve only by expanding the definition of the self to include what appeared to him as quite disparate modes of experience. Subjectively, Yeats felt himself to be the creator of the world, but, objectively, he felt himself the helpless victim of the world's intransigence. By granting a measure of truth to both selves, Yeats could adopt a heroic stance in his poetry without diminishing the obstacles he faced.119

From its inception in 1917 onwards, the philosophy of A Vision was formulated in the context of World War I and its aftermath, the Russian Revolution and unending insurrection, guerrilla warfare, civil disobedience and civil war in Ireland that destroyed that class of landed gentry which was Yeats's symbol for civilization and tradition.120 Yeats's response to the times was the assertion that “a civilization is a struggle to keep self-control,” an act of “an almost superhuman will” that is doomed to failure within his own deterministic system: “The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first the sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation. …”121 This paradox of “superhuman will” and determinism is what Diggory is referring to in his contrasting of the duality of “creator” and “helpless victim.” As Diggory goes on to argue, it is through the tradition of the self and its use of the mask that the poet attempts to overcome his sense of passivity and victimization before the forces of history.

… Yeats was able to retain a sense of inspiration as coming from outside—a sense demanded by the feeling of helplessness before the world—and yet to know also that his inspiration came from himself, since there was also a self that was outside. To enjoy the sanction of external authority and yet to recognize that authority as the self is the definitive experience of the tradition of the self.122

Reed's personae are his masks. Through them he too enacts the drama of dual or multiple selves caught between the constraints of history and the promise of heroic action and self-genesis. The imperial self retrieves its own projected self as its sanction and inspiration. It is through this poetic device that Reed overcomes the experience of history as absolute fate in “Time and the Eagle.” What Diggory refers to as subjective and objective experiences in Yeats, Anderson, in connection with American poetry, calls “the two imaginative modes” of the “imperial self,” “incorporation” and “agency.”123 “But,” as far as Yeats's work is concerned, “English romanticism checked [his] American Adamic impulse, freeing him to conceive a poetry distinct from either of its sources. The tradition of the self grows less distinctively American as Yeats shapes it to accommodate the communal concerns that he shared with the English romantics.”124 These concerns may be among the principle reason why an Afro-American writer may be attracted to the romantic tradition. And Yeats, as the poet who mediates between this tradition and the Transcendentalist tradition of the self in the context of colonialist politics, understandably engages the attention of Afro-American poets. While Reed turns, at the start of his poem, to Blake for a model of communitas, he cannot sustain this collectivity and increasingly incorporates Yeats into the more traditionally American and anarchist patterns of the “imperial self.”125


  1. Ishmael Reed, “Time and the Eagle,” Umbra 1.2 (December 1963): 5.

  2. John O'Brien, Interviews with Black Writers (New York: Liveright, 1973), 170.

  3. Ishmael Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Garden City: Doubleday, 1978), 5. Hereafter cited parenthetically as S.

  4. Before coming to New York Reed had written a short story that was a parody of the second coming. The story was called “Something Pure.” It was never published and is now lost. See Henry Louis Gates, “Ishmael Reed,” in Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, eds., Afro-American Fiction Writers since 1955, Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1983), 33:219-32.

  5. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Vol. I, The Poems, rev. ed., ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 187. All subsequent quotations from Yeats's poetry are from this edition and page numbers will be cited in the text.

  6. W. B. Yeats, A Vision (1937; New York: Collier Books, 1966), 268. Compare also page 214: “The bird signifies truth when it eats, evacuates, builds its nest, engenders, feeds its young; do not all intelligible truths lie in its passage from egg to dust?” The poem “Leda and the Swan” does not mention eggs of Leda, hence my argument for the likelihood of Reed's having read A Vision. The bloody tide and the bloodied moon are also common Yeatsian images.

  7. Northrop Frye, “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism” (1954), Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1963), 225.

  8. Reed, “Time and the Eagle,” 6.

  9. Ishmael Reed, Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), viii. Hereafter cited parenthetically as C.

  10. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 200, 202.

  11. William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David E. Erdman, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 95. Hereafter cited parenthetically as Blake.

  12. M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971; New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1973), 191, 223-24.

  13. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 177-83.

  14. Hayden, Collected Poems, 51. On the composition of the poem and its place in the uncompleted project, see John O'Brien, Interviews with Black Writers (New York: Liveright, 1973), 118.

  15. For a reading of “Passage to India” in the context of the Romantic plot of dualism, see Martin Bickman, American Romantic Psychology: Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, 2nd ed. (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1988), 32-37.

  16. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956), 18.

  17. See George Hart, A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), 151-67.

  18. New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology (1955), cited in J. M. Linebarger and Monte Atkinson, “Getting to Whitey: Ishmael Reed's ‘I am a cowboy …,’” Contemporary Poetry 2.1 (1975): 10. Linebarger and Atkinson identified the Horus myth in the poem.

  19. See M. A. Murray, Ancient Egyptian Legends (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1913), chapter viii, “The Battles of Horus.”

  20. Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), 115. Hereafter cited parenthetically as YBR.

  21. John J. Delany, Dictionary of American Catholic Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 546. See also Reed's poem in Conjure, “for cardinal spellman who hated voodoo” (58).

  22. “Besides the rites, it also contains rubrics that must be followed, hymns that may be used, and formulas employed in parish records.” G. J. Sigler, “Roman Ritual,” New Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. 12 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), 523-24.

  23. Sigler, “Roman Ritual,” traces the various attempts to codify the rituals of the church from the Liber Sacerdotalis compiled by Albert Castellani in 1523 through various revisions in the 16th and 17th centuries to the most recent and definitive revision in 1952. Only minor changes have been made since (524).

  24. Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973), 175. The first two quotations are from Emerson.

  25. The metamorphosis of personae in Reed's poetry also serves self-creation, and insofar as this entails an externalization of the self in a “mask,” it is very much part of the drama of duality and of Reed's attraction to Yeats. But more of that later.

  26. C. M. Aherne, “Fable of Popess Joan,” New Catholic Encyclopaedia, 7: 991-92. See also Lawrence Durrell, Pope Joan, translated and adapted from the Greek of Emmanuel Royidis, (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1960) for further information and bibliography. Pope Joan was discovered only when she gave birth during a procession between the Colosseum and St. Clements in Rome.

  27. For Ptah, see Hart, A Dictionary, 172-77.

  28. Gary Snyder, Earth House Hold (New York: New Directions, 1969), 105, 115.

  29. Joseph Henry, “A MELUS Interview: Ishmael Reed,” MELUS 11.1 (Spring 1984): 85.

  30. See interview with Reed in the present issue of Callaloo.

  31. See Robert H. Abel, “Reed's ‘I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra,’” Explicator 30.9 (May 1981): item 81, n.p.

  32. James Haskins, Witchcraft, Mysticism and Magic in the Black World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 9, 50.

  33. Geoffrey Thurley, The Turbulent Dream: Passion and Politics in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1983), 174-79, summarizes the debate about Yeats's use of “artifice.”

  34. T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats, rev. ed. (London: Methuen, 1965), 215.

  35. Harold Bloom, “from Yeats,” ed. William H. Pritchard, W. B. Yeats: A Critical Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 335, 337. Bloom notes that one cancelled line in an early draft of the poem reads “I fly from nature to Byzantium” and another applauds the city as the place “where nothing changes” (335).

  36. The phrase is from Arra M. Garab, Beyond Byzantium: The Last Phase of Yeats's Career (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1969), 20.

  37. Joachim Berendt, The Jazz Book, trans. D. Morgenstern and H. and B. Bredigkeit (1953; Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1975), 77.

  38. Tam Fiofiori, “Space Age Music: The Music of Sun Ra,” Negro Digest 19.3 (1970): 25.

  39. Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz (1974; New York: DeCapo Press, 1981), 191.

  40. Jost, Free Jazz, 191.

  41. Berendt, Jazz Book, 359, my emphasis.

  42. In Jost, Free Jazz, 181.

  43. Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1962; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), 127.

  44. Gerhard Putschogl, “Black Music-Key Force in Afro-American Culture: Archie Shepp on Oral Tradition and Black Culture,” History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture, ed. Gunter Lenz (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1984), 268. However, the emphasis on historical research and the exploration of cross-cultural materials in the work of many “white modernists” clearly challenges both Poggioli and Putschogl. We can no longer conceive of the avant-garde in terms of a perpetual historical discontinuity as Poggioli's emphasis on futurism, early surrealism and dada perhaps allows him to do. Nor can we accept the idea that an attachment to tradition is an exclusive preserve of “ethnic” modernists.

  45. Leonard Deen, Conversing in Paradise: Poetic Genius and Identity-as-Community in Blake's Los (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), 1.

  46. The sun is also “the axis upon which the entire Voodoo cult turns.” See Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo, 8-9.

  47. Tom Dent, “Umbra Days,” Black American Literature Forum 14.3 (1980): 108.

  48. “Rosewald Rudd, John Winter, Mike Mantler, Burton Greene and Paul and Carla Bley … were the charter members of the Guild, together with Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, Cecil Taylor and Dixon himself.” Valerie Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (London: Allison & Busby, 1974), 214. Most of my information on the Guild and Dixon is taken from Wilmer, 213-15. See also Robert Levin, “The Jazz Composers' Guild: An Assertion of Dignity,” Downbeat 32.10 (May 6, 1965): 17-18, and Dan Morgenstern and Martin Williams, “The October Revolution: Two Views of the Avant Garde in Action,” Downbeat 31.30 (November 19, 1964): 15, 33.

  49. Jean-Louis Noames, “Le System Taylor,” (interview), Jazz Magazine No. 125 (December 1965): 33. My translation. The history of the Jazz Composers' Guild must have been an all too familiar story to Reed since it closely paralleled the history of Umbra, the poetry group to which he belonged. There is no space here to examine the history of Umbra. For further information, see Michel Oren, “A '60s Saga: The Life and Death of Umbra,” Part I, Freedomways 24.3 (1984): 167-81. Part II of this study appeared in Freedomways 24.4 (1984): 237-54. Together the two parts comprise the most sustained social and literary history of Umbra to date. See also Dent, “Umbra Days,” 105-08 and Lorenzo Thomas, “The Shadow World: New York's Umbra Workshop & Origins of the Black Arts Movement,” Callaloo 4.1 (October 1978): 53-72. Thomas' article, like Dent's piece, is a useful source because written by a former member of Umbra. Reed gives his own brief account of Umbra in the introduction to 19 Necromancers from Now, xx-xxi.

  50. Jost, Free Jazz, 199, my emphasis.

  51. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1977; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), trans. Brian Massumi, 138. Attali is discussing the Jazz Composers' Guild, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Jazz Composers' Orchestra Association and other similar mutual-aid organizations that developed around the free jazz scene.

  52. Nathaniel Mackey, “The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka,” Boundary 2, 6.2 (1978): 368, my emphasis. For Attali's comments on improvisation, see Noise, 142.

  53. See LeRoi Jones, Black Music (New York: Quill, 1967), 194-95.

  54. Deen, Conversing in Paradise, 12.

  55. Deen, Conversing in Paradise, 9.

  56. For the Yeats references, see The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933). For Yeats's own glosses on the key images in these books, see Yeats 592, 599.

  57. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; New York: Signet, 1966), 263.

  58. For Osiris, see E. A. Wallis Budge, Osiris: The Egyptian Religion of Resurrection (1911; New York: University Books, 1961, two vols. bound as one), 50; for the afterworld's nomenclature, see Rudolf Anthes, “The Mythology of Ancient Egypt,” Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. Samuel Kramer (Garden City: Doubleday's Anchor Books, 1961), 19. Shadle, “Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo Works,” has remarked on some of these references previously (129-30).

  59. S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake (1965; rev. ed., Hanover: University Press of New England, 1988), 395.

  60. Damon, A Blake Dictionary, 307.

  61. Damon, A Blake Dictionary, 234.

  62. Damon, A Blake Dictionary, 332-33.

  63. Damon, A Blake Dictionary, 333.

  64. For this contrast between Transcendentalism and Romanticism, see Quentin Anderson, The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literature and Culture (New York: A. Knopf, 1971), 5.

  65. Buell, Literary Transcendentalism, 173-74, makes the same point about Whitman's poetry.

  66. Alvin F. Harlow, “Wells, Fargo and Company,” Dictionary of American History, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1976), 7:267.

  67. Hart, A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 89.

  68. For Ezzard Charles, see “Ezzard (Mack) Charles,” The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. II (15th ed., 1974), 763. For a brief note on the Chisholm Trail, see The Encyclopaedia of Americana, Vol. 6 (New York: Americana Corp., 1973), 608-09.

  69. Abel, “I am a cowboy,” n.p.

  70. The imminent return of the outlaw in this stanza is laden with the same desire that awaits the day when Osiris will “be scattered over 100 ghettoes” (C 4). But in his recurrent satire of Christian atonism, Reed never acknowledges that the Osirian sparagmos is identical to Christian mythologies of regeneration through sacrifice. In the dreamed of restoration of the alchemist's ring, Osiris and Christ are interchangeable. “In Christian alchemy,” M. H. Abrams reminds us, “the Philosopher's Stone was held to correspond to Christ, the Messiah of Nature, who has the apocalyptic function of restoring both fallen and divided man and the fallen and fragmented universe to the perfection of their original unity” (Natural Supernaturalism, 160).

  71. Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol. II, 763.

  72. Fahmy Farag, The Opposing Virtues (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1978), 6.

  73. Hazard Adams, Blake and Yeats: The Contrary Vision (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1955), 199.

  74. For the dance as order and equilibrium, see “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” (170-72) or “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” (7-8).

  75. Compare also the other dance references in the poem: the “winding” motion of the saxophone in the second stanza; the forced “dance” in the fifth; and the dance music of the “mowtown long plays” in the sixth.

  76. Adams, The Contrary Vision, 178.

  77. Adams, The Contrary Vision, 178.

  78. Hazard Adams, “The Seven Eyes of Yeats,” in William Blake and the Moderns, ed. Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 6.

  79. See for example Madge Ambler's “black power” reading of the poem. Ambler, “Ishmael Reed: Who's Radio Broke Down,” Negro American Literature Forum 6.4 (Winter 1972): 125-31.

  80. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 82, 89.

  81. Sepharial, New Dictionary of Astrology (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 82, 89.

  82. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 160.

  83. Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948; New York: E. P. Dutton, n.d.), 121.

  84. Theodore Roszak, Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness (1975; London: Faber & Faber, 1976), 3.

  85. Alfred Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti, trans. Hugo Charteris (1959; New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 300.

  86. Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti, 89; Hurston, Tell My Horse, 180.

  87. Maya Deren, The Voodoo Gods (London: Paladin, 1975), 65. Originally published as The Divine Horsemen (1953).

  88. Deren, Voodoo Gods, 66-67. Deren also notes that “it is still true, and extremely significant, that wherever Vodoun has been especially suppressed (at the insistence of the Catholic Church) it is the Petro rites that become dominant (66). Petro combines African and Indian elements (68-70) and we remember that in Yellow Back Radio Chief Showcase is the ally of Loop Garoo.

  89. Sepharial, Dictionary of Astrology, 84, 7.

  90. Deren, Voodoo Gods, 66.

  91. The quote and the information on La Rue are from Mark Shadle, “Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo Works: The Kalaedoscopic Fiction of Ishmael Reed,” Ph.D., University of Iowa, 1984, 151. La Rue also made a pornographic film called Hard on the Trail.

  92. See the section on “The Sexual Law” in Denis Saurat's Literature and Occult Tradition: Studies in Philosophical Poetry, trans. Dorothy Bolton (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1930), 94-121.

  93. See Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973).

  94. The exploration of the outlaw in the works of writers as diverse as Gore Vidal, Samuel R. Delany, Charles Olson, Michael McClure, Michael Ondaatje, and Jack Spicer, as well as other relevant materials from the post-war period are examined in Chapter 6 of Stephen Tatum's Inventing Billy the Kid: Visions of the Outlaw in America, 1881-1981 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982). Two works not mentioned by Tatum are particularly revealing companion pieces for both “I am a cowboy” and Yellow Back Radio: Ed Dorn's long poem Slinger (1975), the first two books of which appeared in 1968 and 1969, and Jerome Rothenberg's “Cokboy,” part one of which appeared in 1972 and part two in 1973. There is, unfortunately, no space here to pursue a dialogue among these works.

  95. Tatum, Inventing Billy the Kid, 117, 123, 146.

  96. Frederick Ives Carpenter, Emerson Handbook (New York: Hendricks House, 1953), 149-50.

  97. Cf. the comments on the ideological biases of historians at this time in Tatum, Inventing Billy the Kid, 140-41. On the relationship of the American concept of representative selfhood and consensus ideology to the mythology of the expansive frontier, see Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Rites of Assent: Rhetoric, Ritual, and the Ideology of American Consensus,” in Sam B. Girgus, ed., The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 9, 13.

  98. Bickman, American Romantic Psychology, 83: “The double consciousness can be collapsed into a condition that has been called ‘inflation,’ where the ego confounds its own aims and powers with those of the entire psyche. The process can result in an unrealistic aggrandizement of the ego and in a sense of power not fully apprehended or controlled. Perhaps one of the reasons that Emerson's transparent eyeball passage in Nature is such an easy target of satiric and critical deflation is that it suggests this hazardous identification of the ego with the self. …”

  99. Anderson, The Imperial Self, 237.

  100. For an investigation of the 1960s' obsession with the Dionysian, see Eric Mottram, “Dionysus in America,” Other Times 1 (1975): 38-48.

  101. Shadle, “Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo Works,” makes the identification (138). See also the interview with Reed in this issue of Callaloo where Reed talks about his early playing.

  102. Adams, The Contrary Vision, 243.

  103. Adams, The Contrary Vision, 244. Abrams notes that the return of the divided man to wholeness in Blake is dependent upon his breaking out of “what Blake calls ‘the circle of Destiny’—the cyclical recurrences of pagan history—into a ‘Resurrection to Unity’ which is the full and final closure of the Christian design of history” (Natural Supernaturalism, 260).

  104. Although Yeats dissociates the artist and magician, and, like his mentor Blavatsky, rejects the priests as model, his sense of the relationship of art and magic is not always clear. See George Mills Harper, Yeats's Golden Dawn (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), Chapter 8; and Ellmann, Yeats, 56-57, 90-91.

  105. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964).

  106. Jerome Rothenberg, “Pre-Face,” Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America and Oceania, ed. Rothenberg (1968; Garden City: Anchor Books, 1969), 424.

  107. Rothenberg, “Pre-Face,” 440.

  108. Gavin Selerie and Eric Mottram, The Riverside Interviews 4: Jerome Rothenberg (London: Binnacle Press, 1984), 31, 32.

  109. For a consideration of this social distinction between modern poet and shaman, see Kevin Powers, “A Conversation with Jerome Rothenberg,” Vort 7, 3.1 (1975): 146-47; Fedora Giordano, “Translating the Sacred: The Poet and the Shaman,” in North American Indian Studies: European Contributions, ed. Pieter Hoverns (Gottingen: Edition Herodot, 1981), 109-22; Michael Castro, Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth Century Poets and the Native American (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), 122.

  110. On the principles of information theory, see Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life (1982; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), especially 11-12. William R. Paulson explains that noise, the collective term for all causes of interrupted and altered transmission, “may be the interruption of a signal, the pure and simple suppression of elements of a message, or it may be the introduction of elements of an extraneous message … or it may the introduction of elements that are purely random” (The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988], 67.)

  111. Paulson, The Noise of Culture, 121.

  112. Walt Sheppard, “When State Magicians Fail: An Interview with Ishmael Reed,” The Journal of Black Poetry 1.2 (1969): 73. And in the late-1980s he continued to hold a positive, McLuhanite sense of the possibilities of technology. See also the interview with Reed in this issue of Callaloo.

  113. Regarding the other elements in the title, Reed explains that “Yellow Back” was the name given to old, popular Western novels after their yellow covering. “Broke Down” is a “takeoff” on Lorenzo Thomas' poem “Modern Plumbing Illustrated” (1966). “When people say ‘Break it down’ they mean to strip something down to its basic components. So Yellow Back Radio is the dismantling of a genre done in an oral way like radio” (S 134).

  114. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 264.

  115. In Gerald Emanuel Stearn, ed., McLuhan: Hot & Cool (New York: Dial Press, 1967), 242.

  116. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 259.

  117. Poirier, A World Elsewhere, 29.

  118. Terrence Diggory, Yeats and American Poetry: The Tradition of the Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 5.

  119. Diggory, Yeats and American Poetry, 5-6. The externalized or dual self, of course, refers to Yeats's ideas of the antithetical and primary selves. See A Vision, 71-72.

  120. A. G. Stock, W. B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought (1961; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 176-78.

  121. Yeats, A Vision, 268. The urge behind A Vision is the conservative's anxiety to stabilize history through the construction of a system in which poetics is finally sacrificed to metaphysics. Yvor Winters hits the mark when he writes that Yeats's was a “medieval method” masquerading as “Mallarmean method.” Winters, “from Forms of Discovery” (1967), W. B. Yeats: A Critical Anthology, ed. William H. Pritchard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 272.

  122. Diggory, Yeats and American Poetry, 6.

  123. Anderson, Imperial Self, 241.

  124. Diggory, Yeats and American Poetry, 7.

  125. This same development can be traced over a longer period in the novels. Although the first two novels subscribe to an anarchist individualism, in Mumbo Jumbo, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Flight to Canada, Reed returns to narratives of community in the form of mutual aid organizations. But the later novels abandon this attempt and return to a less optative version of the masculine heroism of the earlier novels.

Julian Cowley (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4629

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, desensitization in the society of the spectacle, an atomized pseudo-community of eye-witnesses at one remove, gorged on televised images of History-in-the-making. As a self-proclaimed saboteur of historical orthodoxy, Reed necessarily engages with the dominance of the eye in Western cultural formations. The West, as Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker have pointed out, “has invested every aspect of its waking life with visual order, with procedures and spaces that are uniform, continuous and connected.”2 These spaces and procedures are illusory, and derive solely from the eye. Human identity formed in a sensory environment with so pronounced a visual bias is “extremely fragmented. To retain such an image of the self requires persistent violence, both to one's self and to others” (M&P [Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting] xxiv). Reed writes to counter this violence, through restoration of full play of all the senses in our apprehension of reality.

In Flight to Canada, Lincoln's assassination is broadcast on TV; a replay on the Late News is promised. The ghoulish voyeurism of Reed's anachronism is pungent because familiar; we recognize our customary role as lookers-on in isolation from the event, our compulsive observation of what is physically apart and emotionally divorced from our viewpoint. Theoretically, television might be a tactile, participant medium, but in practice “the potential of any technology is always dissipated by its users' involvement in its predecessor” (M&P 267). Between the unrelieved gloom of The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1968), and Reed's second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), he appears to have fallen under the spell of technology's liberatory potential, as disclosed by the magus, R. Buckminster Fuller. It is no accident that his enchantment with the prospect of “an anarchotechnological paradise”3 parallels a shift from ridicule of Voodoo in the first book, to extensively documented development of a Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic. Neo-Hoodoo is devoted to “rediscovery of nonvisual, multisensory spaces” (M&P 28), and to removal of inherited hindrances to our adaptation to them. The children of Yellow Back Radio blame television for the corruption of their parents' minds; Reed realizes it is not the medium that is at fault, but its use, and seeks in print to establish modes that will permit positive application of electronic resources.

He readily admits that he is engaged in “rediscovery”:

I just don't think that I've been influenced all that much by modernism. I've been interested in the forms they use, the discontinuity, but many years ago I discovered that these ideas were not originated by modernists. I think that avant-garde movements tend to take themselves too seriously and believe that they are originating forms which are, in fact, ancient.4

An instructive analogue to his satiric onslaughts against the culture of the eye is Swift's Laputan academy, where professors in the school of languages had instigated projects “to shorten discourse by cutting polysyllables into one, and leaving out verbs and participles, because in reality all things imaginable are but nouns,” and, still more radically, to dispense with words altogether. The latter project was founded on the assumption that “since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on.” Swift remarks that the uneducated (women, the vulgar and illiterate) refused this innovation, stubbornly clinging to “the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers,” while the learned and sage could be seen bearing bundles upon their backs, whose size testified to the weightiness of their business or the magnitude of their wisdom.5

Swift was making fun of universal language projectors and champions of Plain Speech, notably members of the Royal Society who saw purification of language as a prerequisite for adequate transmission of the emerging scientific model of reality. Their basic assumption was of isomorphic relation between nature and language; a stable, coherent, rationally organized world required stable, coherent and rational language, free from treacherous ambiguities and serpentine rhetoric. Thomas Sprat recorded the Royal Society's “constant resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver'd so many things, almost in an equal number of words.” In their practice of Natural Philosophy, the Society's members were seeking “a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness; bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainess, as they can” (M&P 11).

Three centuries later, Reed begins Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down with these words:

Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bull-whacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women. A desperado so ornery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner's swine.

Far removed from pristine linguistic purity and its concomitant crystalline model of the real, Reed's usage declares solid affinity with the author of A Tale of a Tub, who conceived of wisdom as “a cheese, which, by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat; and whereof, to a judicious palate, the maggots are the best.”6 Both satirists acknowledge the entire sensorium. The Royal Society projectors sought purity that was, ultimately, Edenic. Reed's evocations of the archaic do not follow this trajectory into primal coherence, but assert that “preliterate man accepted speech as gesture and action, a sort of dance or mime of mental posture” (M&P 226). His aim is to transfer into print such gesture and action.

Raven Quickskill, the runaway slave in Flight to Canada, carries the vitality of the preliterate into his writing: “his typewriter was his drum he danced to” (89). Swille, the slave-owner, is bemused by such violation of the hallowed medium of rational communication and representation:

We gave him literacy, the most powerful thing in the pretechnological pre-post-rational age—and what does he do with it? Uses it like that old Voodoo—that old stuff the slaves mumble about. Fetishism and grisly rites, only he doesn't need anything but a pen he had shaped out of cock feathers and chicken claws.


The tactile implement, the physicality of the entire process, and admission gained to the realm of invisible powers—such elements form the heart of Reed's approach to writing.

In his “Introduction” to 19 Necromancers from Now, he suggests that some of the writers he has included in the anthology “have transcended print altogether and are coming very close to what a younger generation of painters, sculptors, film makers and musicians are doing in their work.”7 What are actually being transcended in this synaesthetic writing are the limits imposed by the rule of verisimilitude, governed by conventional perspective, the single point of view, the single space. McLuhan and Parker indicate how the traditional zoo, “a rationally and visually contrived space,” travesties the territorial space “called into being by sounds, by odors, by colors—in short, by that orchestration of the senses compatible with the total life of the species” (M&P 2-3). In a reversal of this kind of reductive process, Reed rejects the received structure of the novel, as defined within a Realist aesthetic, in order to recuperate forms appropriate to the human territorial space of American, and particularly black American experience.

When Michel Foucault considers the establishment of zoological collections in The Order of Things, he links their structure to the development of taxonomic principles in 17th-century Europe. The natural history collection displaced the Renaissance practice of presenting animals “in fairs, in tournaments, in fictitious or real combats, in reconstitutions of legend in which the bestiary displayed its ageless fables.” Such multisensory orchestration gave way to eminently pictorial space, “a non-temporal rectangle in which, stripped of all commentary, of all enveloping language, creatures present themselves one beside another, their surfaces visible, grouped according to their common features, and thus already virtually analysed, and bearers of nothing but their own individual names.”8 The pertinence of this historical shift to Reed's satiric project is perhaps best comprehended through recollection of Ellison's Invisible Man, struggling for existence in the interstices of defining systems that violently confer visibility, that name and offer ready analysis at the expense of his being.

Reed clearly knows that “labels as classification are extreme forms of visual culture”; he also appreciates that “as the visual bias declines, the other senses come into play once more” (M&P xxiv). As a black American writer, he needs to address the history of black people in America; at the same time, courting the confusion of realms, he needs to subvert the authority of classificatory labeling, which means dismantling “black” as a coherent category. In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed has the socially successful Amos chastize the shiftless Moochers, Kingfish and Brown: “You Moochers always intimidating us, extorting us because we're the same skin color; even insects and animals have a higher criterion than that for companionship.”9 Reed's objection to the militant movements of the 1960s was essentially an objection to facile identification grounded in surface visibility. This was not to forget the victims of racist violence, nor blandly to forgive its perpetrators, but his conviction was that the way out of the impasse of racial polarity would be forged by modes of representation that could rescue human beings from the stark labeling of the taxonomic table.

Foucault notes that the emergence of natural history involved the disappearance of animal semantics: “The words that had been interwoven in the very being of the beast have been unravelled and removed: and the living being, in its anatomy, its form, its habits, its birth and death, appears as though stripped naked” (Foucault 129). The kind of Litteraria with which Melville was so pointedly to preface Moby-Dick was relegated to a supplementary category, deprived of authority in the new descriptive order, with its emphatic observational priority. Reed seeks to restore this “verbal sedimentation” (Foucault 130) as a crucial constituent of understanding. Stripped, starkly labelled figures inhabit the “suffering books” favoured by Bo Shmo and his neo-social realist gang, in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Shmo attacks the Loop Garoo Kid, Hoodoo cowboy as writer, for being “too abstract,” calls him “crazy dada nigger,” and argues that he fails because he is “given to fantasy” and is “off in matters of detail” (35). The champion of rationality's smooth uniform space, in whose books “every gumdrop machine is in place,” is deeply disturbed by the discontinuous, unpredictable, teeming life of Loop's creations, and views his work as “a blur and a doodle.” Loop responds by asking, “what if I write circuses? No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons” (36).

Reed has spoken of this novel as a deconstruction of the Western genre, “done in an oral way like radio.”10 By this means, he not only invalidates the classic iconography of men wearing white or black hats, but also projects an aurally structured world, having “none of the tracts of visual space long regarded as ‘normal,’ ‘natural’ space by literate societies” (M&P 6). In that opening paragraph, quoted above, he establishes the quasi-oral mode, and demonstrates that the novel's voice is not fixed for a single, recognizable perspective; there is fusion of customarily distinct spatial and temporal zones, with verbal meaning (and its classificatory imperatives) deprived of its conventional primacy over the auditory and gestural aspects of language.

Arguing that “the category of print is not a racial or sexual category” (19N [19 Necromancers from Now] xii), it has suited Reed to take Christianity rather than whiteness, a cultural rather than a biological formation, as a constant target for his vitriol. The Neo-HooDoo Manifesto states his case: “Whereas at the center of Christianity lies the graveyard the organ-drone and the cross, the center of Neo-HooDoo is the drum, the anhk and the Dance.”11 The distinction is between a visual and an auditory orientation: Reed associates Christian culture with Death and geometric stasis, perceptible even in the turgid continuities of its music; Neo-HooDoo, on the other hand, is vibrant, dynamic and celebratory. It comes as a surprise, then, when at the end of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down Loop Garoo joins Pope Innocent aboard his ship, to return home. Reed has explained that in this unexpected resolution he was drawing upon Jung's introduction to Paradise Lost, where it is suggested that around Milton's time Satan was projected out of Art, into the World. In this novel, “the symbols of religion, the gods, return to art.”12 Reed's reversal of a 17th-century projection may be understood as restoration of authority to the Litteraria, affirming fabular power against dominant faith in the eye-witness account.

Reed embraces the circus, not the museum. Chief Showcase, punning of course on Cochise, is named to acknowledge the fate of Native Americans, culturally etiolated, reduced to quaint exhibits in the display cabinets of American History. But, like all of Reed's most notable characters, he betrays his label. A master of camouflage, and fomentor of mischief, Showcase is a “patarealist Indian” (YBR [Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down] 38), evoking Jarry's Faustroll and his kaleidoscopic voyage, or the Ubu plays, pioneering theatrical presentation, as opposed to representation—both radically other than the framing structures ostensibly holding the Chief.

In Mumbo Jumbo, there is a Center for Art Detention, whose Curator, erstwhile Police Commissioner, Biff Musclewhite, employs an army larger than that of most countries to protect the “fetishes” held there. His rationale is that “if these treasures got in the ‘wrong hands’ (the countries from which they are stolen) there would be renewed enthusiasm for the Ikons of aesthetically victimized civilizations.”13 He recognizes the power of these artifacts, and understands that the smooth, neutralizing narrative to be read in the rooms and corridors of the museum and the gallery is in place to suppress that power. McLuhan and Parker remark that “in a preliterate society art serves as a means of merging the individual and the environment, not as a means of training perception of the environment. Archaic or primitive art looks to us like a magical control built into the environment. Thus to put the artifacts from such a culture into a museum or antienvironment is an act of nullification rather than of revelation” (M&P 243). The integrative function is sacrificed to the primacy of visual order, the affirmation of boundaries, and of dominant detachment.

It is not only art-nappers that Musclewhite fears; he is profoundly troubled by “these niggers writing. Profaning our sacred words. Taking them from us and beating them on the anvil of Boogie Woogie, putting their black hands on them so that they shine like burnished amulets” (MJ [Mumbo Jumbo] 130). Mumbo Jumbo is just, such an amulet. Its appearance alone cannot disclose the positive power it can exercise in the world, but it proclaims its objecthood loudly, through typography and illustrations, footnotes and bibliography. In order to dismantle the genre, it assumes the trappings of the mystery movie: the first chapter precedes the title and dedication pages, mimicking common cinematic practice; the final words: “(Locomobile rear moving toward neoned Manhattan skyline. Skyscrapers gleam like magic trees. Freeze frame)” (249). An extended scholarly digression on Egyptian mythology is the most jarring of the elements Reed introduces to break-up the cinematic rhythm, ensuring that emphasis falls not upon the visual, but upon the ethos of jazz music and dance that pervades the narrative.

Reed adopts, from James Weldon Johnson, the term Jes Grew to signify the jazz “anti-plague” spreading in the 1920s, “electric as life” (9), and knowing “no class no race no consciousness” (8). The novel traces, in a roundabout way, the search of Jes Grew for its text; as the Manifesto announces, “Neo-HooDoo is a Dance and Music closing in on its words” (Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 25). To prevent this conjunction is the highest priority of the Wallflower Order, backbone of the Atonist/Christian faith. The analytic procedures of science (isolating, classifying, naming) prove useless: “It's nothing we can bring into focus or categorize; once we call it 1 thing it forms into something else” (7). They are similarly unequal to the task of pinning down Papa LaBas, who mediates between the physical and the occult, or the protean space of Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, out of which he operates. The message to be derived from the headquarters of the Wallflower Order is, on the contrary, definitive: “The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over” (71). Sterility and stasis are inevitable consequences of the suppression of process demanded by classical thought's primary operation—“nomination of the visible” (Foucault 132), an operation “freed from all other sensory burdens and restricted, moreover, to black and white” (Foucault 133).

In Flight to Canada, the pirate Yankee Jack calls into question the truth of reports of hardship endured by slaves. He cites against them the latest work of quantitative historians, using statistical methods. Quickskill reacts angrily: “Look at those scars. Look at them! All you see is their fruit, but their roots run deep. The roots are in my soul. What does a fucking computer know about that?” (150-51). Historical narrative that aspires to scientific realism is destined to glide across the surface of human experience. LaBas intuits the growth of recognition of the bankruptcy of the superficial view:

I'll bet that before this century is out men will turn once more to mystery, to wonderment; they will explore the vast reaches of space within instead of more measuring more “progress” more of this more of that.

(MJ 28)

In Flight to Canada, Reed muses: “Strange, history. Complicated, too. It will always be a mystery, history. New disclosures are as bizarre as the most bizarre fantasy” (8). It is not just the fallacious nature of flimsy, insubstantial historical constructions that concerns him, but the power they assume to delimit possibility, circumscribing present and future action. His novels are interventions in the transmission of determinant information by “toad men who adore facts” (YBR 24). The skills of the fabulist are required for the writer of history to enter into constructive relation to its mystery. Of the American Civil War, he asks:

Why isn't Edgar Allen Poe recognized as the principal biographer of that strange war? Fiction, you say? Where does fact begin and fiction leave off? Why does the perfectly rational, in its own time, often sound like mumbo-jumbo? Where did it leave off for Poe, prophet of a civilization buried alive, where, according to witnesses, people were often whipped for no reason. No reason?

(FC [Flight to Canada] 10)

The witness may register what is observed, but that is far from being the whole story.

Reed's references to the archaic and the arcane are guides to modes of representation other than neat transcription of a perceived reality into well-constructed language. He has identified a HooDoo literary tradition, characterized by “the free use of what professors call ‘the vernacular,’ the lack of division between the natural and the supernatural, animism, the discontinuous sense of time, the listing of rites, and the talking of that talk (talking in codes …)” (SONO [Shrovetide in Old New Orleans] 73). The talking of that talk breaks the conventional bond between proposition and articulation, denaturalizing reference. In an essay entitled “The Roots of Jazz,” Ernest Borneman observes that “in language, the African tradition aims at circumlocution rather than at exact definition. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in ever-changing paraphrases is considered the criterion of intelligence and personality.”14 A great jazz soloist will similarly perform dazzling variations upon a simple theme: there is “My Favorite Things,” and there is John Coltrane's performance of “My Favorite Things,” a tune and a momentous event. Jazz furnishes a model for Reed in its improvisatory logic, and in its multiple voicing (whether Ellington or Sun Ra or the Art Ensemble of Chicago). Max Harrison has remarked of Charlie Parker's playing: “Discontinuity was a positive feature of some of his solos, and in such recordings as Klactoveedsedstene he demonstrated his ability to impart shape and coherence to improvisations made up of short, apparently unrelated snippets.”15 At his best, Reed displays comparable technical accomplishment in his fiction. On occasion, passion outstrips technique and judgment, but that must always be a danger for a writer who values “the manic in the artist who would rather do glossolalia than be ‘neat clean or lucid’” (MJ 241). Sprat's ideal of “close, naked, natural” prose is necessarily inverted in writing infused with Albert Ayler's tenor and Otis Redding's voice.

Jazz may have roots in Africa, but it is American music. That is important for Reed who, while cherishing the sense that as a black writer he can work without having “all of Europe looking over his shoulder” (O'Brien 181-82), is unequivocal about his American heritage: “My family goes back to Virginia in the 1600's, as free men. This is my culture, and I want to have a part in making it work for us.”16 In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, he mockingly renounces “all that talk about going back to Africa.”17 Clarence Major, a writer who espoused militancy during the 1960s, has subsequently expressed views similar to Reed's own:

A lot of blacks grew up in the United States and became writers. They are different because of the racial climate and because of this country's history, but they still are part of this common American experience. They may speak black English and use Afro-American slang, and eat black-eyed peas and corn bread, yet they are not African. And certainly they are not Chinese. So what do we have? We are Americans. We work in English; it may be black English, but at its roots, it's English.

(O'Brien 127)

Both novelists recognize the potential of black English for transforming not only the way Americans speak, but the way they think. Any degree of transformation will involve the decline of the visual bias, and the ascendancy of the aural. Al Young has noted that “the black writer who is writing about Afro-American life will naturally have to deal with music in some way or other. It's just there” (O'Brien 266). The magazine dedicated to new writing that Young produced with Reed was called Yardbird for Charlie Parker, whose spirit it embraced. Major has argued that the spoken language of the black American musician, encoded as a means of self-defense, and as “a diffused way of rejecting a system of logic and a history of values which are primarily racist,” has had enormous and increasing impact on American idiom:

Today the influence of his secret and rebellious way of communicating continues not only to wedge itself deeply into the sensibility of black folks but also it has become more than ever an “extension” of the young white person's conscious communication apparatus.18

As mentioned earlier, the fact that the kinds of temporal and spatial disjunction found in Reed's work have in European culture become closely associated with early 20th-century High Art experimentation can lead to misleading comparisons. He has said that the true avant-garde treats “tradition as a contemporary function” (SONO 64). The tradition he uses, refers to, and extends, is not the property of an elite, but those who find his work crazy or incoherent have clearly lost touch with it. It is useful to consider Valerie Wilmer's remark that while Albert Ayler's “Down Beat obituary claimed that his playing ‘bore little resemblance to any other jazz, past or present,’” in fact “his music encompassed every thread woven into the fabric of so-called jazz. He took as his source material the spirituals, funeral dirges, bugle calls and marches of the past, and, though he seldom did so, he could really play the blues.”19 Reed also draws upon folk materials and popular cultural forms; his sense of involvement with the vernacular is not restricted to the literary, rather he understands “the American experience as rooted in slang, dialect, vernacular, argot, and all of the other put-down terms the faculty uses for those who have the gall to deviate from the true and proper way of English” (19N xiv). He may cite Robert Wiene's expressionistic cinema as an influence upon the landscape of his first novel, but equally he stresses the important lesson learned from vaudeville in terms of multidirectional composition within a discontinuous framework.

Reed's aesthetic is expansive and inclusive, in the manner of Voodoo, which “comes out of the fact that all these different tribes and cultures were brought from Africa to Haiti. All of their mythologies, knowledges, and herbal medicines, their folklores, jelled. It's an amalgamation like this country” (SONO 232-33). He writes toward a collective identity for America, but that identity is not conceived as an expressive totality, the whole of which can be read from any slice cut from it. Rather, America must acknowledge its diverse, plural space, in which ancient multisensory experience and modern technological resources may combine to engender vital and creative cultural formations. McLuhan and Parker believe that “the artist has the power to discern the current environment created by the latest technology” (xxiii). In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo and Flight to Canada, in particular, Reed has written circuses, environments in which we may discover our own contemporaneity.


  1. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada (New York: Random House, 1976), 103. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as FC.

  2. Marshall McLuhan and Harley Parker, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 1. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as M&P.

  3. Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969; London: Allison & Busby, 1971), 24. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as YBR.

  4. Ishmael Reed, “Jewish Vodoun Baffles Posse: A Report on Literary Capital Gains” (Interview with Shamoon Zamir), Talus 4 (Spring 1989): 20.

  5. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 230.

  6. Jonathan Swift, A Tale of A Tub and other satires (1704; London: J. M. Dent/Everyman, 1909), 49.

  7. Ishmael Reed (ed.), 19 Necromancers from Now (New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1970), xxv. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as 19N.

  8. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock, 1970; originally published as Les Mots et les choses, 1966), 131. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as Foucault.

  9. Ishmael Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (New York: Random House, 1974), 133. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as LR.

  10. Ishmael Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 134. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as SONO.

  11. Ishmael Reed, Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1972), 22. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as Conjure.

  12. “Ishmael Reed,” Interviews with Black Writers, ed. John O'Brien (New York: Liveright, 1973), 180. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as O'Brien.

  13. Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972; New York: Bantam Books, 1973), 16. Henceforth referred to parenthetically as MJ.

  14. Ernest Borneman, “The Roots of Jazz,” Jazz, ed. Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy (1959; London: Quartet Books, 1977), 17.

  15. Max Harrison, “Charlie Parker,” in Hentoff and McCarthy, 278.

  16. Quoted in Jerome Klinkowitz, The Life of Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1977), 117.

  17. Ishmael Reed, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1969), 13.

  18. Clarence Major, Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), 13.

  19. Valerie Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (London: Quartet Books, 1977), 94.

Dennis Formento (review date October-November 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

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, makes it difficult to pick out the most important, yet I feel that the most urgent ones are the title essay and the one that follows it, “Beyond Los Angeles.” Both attack the mainstream media's whitewashing of the Los Angeles riots and of the actual multiracial composition of the rebellion's participants. They also take on the perpetuation of stereotypes of black men by the “neoconservative” mass media, including CNN and the formerly liberal NPR.

The problem is the media-doctored images of black men in the 1992 “Rodney King riots” and the willingness of

the media and the political intellectual and cultural elite … to be engaged in rumormongering, spreading what amounts to gossip and faulty intelligence about members of our multiethnic civilization and dividing Americans into hostile camps. I wonder how much the riots that followed the verdict had to do with CNN and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates speculating as to whether such riots would take place.

The broadcast media, Reed charges, “frequently engage in such irresponsible speculation when political events that might anger blacks are in the offing.” (His critical words about National Public Radio, often perceived as liberal and diverse, were vindicated recently when NPR decided to cancel, as “inappropriate,” commentaries by Death Row journalist Mumia abu-Jamal, framed for the death of a policeman.) Reed also blames the Bush-era Department of Education for dividing Americans with “a wedge of ignorance” by regarding multicultural education as “feel-goodism” and resorting to the old barbarians-at-the-gates angle in support of an embattled “Western civilization,” a term he says you'll never hear out of the mouth of a European intellectual. But in the U.S., both the lunatic White Aryan Resistance and the staid power elite are convinced that the very foundations of civilization are under attack. It doesn't take much to bug some people. (And while you often hear education touted as a panacea after explosions like L.A., what you hear most is how blacks need the education and opportunities that whites have, which exempts whites from any responsibility to change. Or “Jesus plus jobs,” as the semiassimilated black clergy in my locale put it.) Reed also charges that the media conveniently white-out participation in the riots by Caucasians and Asians except as protectors of private property, and, in the case of the Koreans, as “callous, successful, gun-toting vigilantes.” For instance, all national media ignored the efforts of certain Korean organizations, “conscious of the social and economic obstacles facing black people,” to protest mainstream journalism's rendering of African-Americans as “looters” and of their own stereotyping by the same news services. Reed speculates that these folks are sympathetic to blacks in L.A. because in Japan, which has a sizable Korean population, it is they who are the “scape-goat class.” (Then again, it could be that as victims of racism in the U.S. themselves, they have a clear picture of how it functions.)

Reed's thinking on the rebellion is good, but I feel compelled to differ with him on a point that he makes quickly and dismissively. That's Reed's apparent blind spot with regard to “white Leftist” responses to the riots, which he characterizes as reinforcing the left's “reputation for wackiness.” I feel that this broad stroke only strengthens the common perception that no left exists outside of the Democratic Party (or, say, the “gender-first” feminists he spends so much ammunition on). It could lead one to ask whether the lefts of other ethnic groups are any less “wacky”—a term that demands a definition and is potentially discrediting to all of them. It overlooks the sophisticated leftist responses of such groups as Refuse and Resist, a predominantly white leftist group that organized support for jailed rioters for over a year and a half following the mass arrests and attempted, through public talks such as the one it put on here in New Orleans, to cut through the electronic realities imposed by the blindered Fourth Estate in much the same way that Reed does in this book. Far from believing that the rioters were “revolutionaries,” as Reed's unspecified “white Leftists” claimed, these leftists perceived them as a spontaneous manifestation of popular outrage, lacking the perspective and supportive network that actually would make them revolutionaries.

Another related trouble spot is the lack of extended examination of bell hooks, a black feminist whom Ishmael Reed touts as a radical alternative to the “gender-first” sisters of the mostly white, middle-class feminist movement. hooks is emblematic of the progressive front that is ignored (“marginalized” in today's parlance) by the NOW/Fund for the Feminist Majority alliances. These organizations have excluded black women from their ranks, just as they have held lesbians, bisexuals, and radical women's clinic defenders at arm's length when it wasn't absolutely impossible to do so. Reed's neglect of these factions, like his overlooking of intelligent white leftists, tends to divide opinion instead of revealing what you might call the “bell hooks factor”: an analytical, sophisticated, leftist perspective that runs roots-deep.

Elsewhere, Reed profiles sixteen multicultural figures whose influence mainstream America has no idea it feels: Ambrose Bierce, Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, among others. In the book's third section, he includes a reflection on “The Be-Bop Revival,” and thank god he doesn't guilt-trip the young players for not improving on the music. Hey, if it ain't broke. … (Sneaky plug: for “new” in jazz, y'all, please check the brass band renaissance in New Orleans.)

Last call: in a long essay entitled “American Poetry: Is There a Center?” Reed examines the late seventies controversy over Boulder's Naropa Institute poetry program as the new “center of American poetry.” After a thorough look at the pros and cons (the harsher judgments of which he generously retracts in his preface to the book), he quotes an Okinawan-American poet, Geraldine Kudaka, who said that the center of American poetics is “In every poet's heart.” So should be the questions raised in this book.

Jeffrey Melnick (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6802

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 Reed by studying a random collection of quotations about him from his numerous enemies, rivals, and critics.2

Reed is an inveterate writer of letters to the editor, a peerless conspiracy theorist, and an individualist who consistently defies attempts to categorize him, although he has often been pushed unwillingly (if understandably) into a conservative pigeonhole.3 Amiri Baraka has described Reed as a “rightwing art major,” a “capitulationist” who is representative of “House Negroes” and is “part of the ‘bribed element’” to whom “we say, Fuck You!”4 Baraka has gone so far as to suggest that comments Reed has made about Malcolm X could, in certain circumstances, “easily get [him] iced.”5 But Reed has gone to great pains to form alliances with a wide range of other marginalized artists. It is important to Reed, as we shall see in his 1986 novel Reckless Eyeballing, that ethnic writers not let themselves be conquered by division.6

Another important ingredient of Reed's broad approach to art is an embrace of all cultural forms. In one catalogue of constitutive American items, Reed lists “comic books, movies, World War II, Milton Berle, Redd Foxx, Yiddish theater, John F. Kennedy, Muhammed Ali, Toscanini, John Coltrane, Black Power, KKK, Ice Cream, Mickey Mouse, etc.”7 The second page of his Reckless Eyeballing contains its own catalogue, this time of the objects found in lead character Ian Ball's hotel room: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Life magazine's World War II issue, a Hagler versus Hearns fight poster, a typewriter, and perhaps most tellingly of all, the Kronos Quartet's interpretation of Thelonious Monk—in other words, the long-dreamt-of meeting of Western “classical” and jazz music (2).8

One way to understand Reed is to pay attention to what he says about his own art. He has delineated an artistic vision which he calls the “Neo-HooDoo aesthetic.”9 Neo-HooDoo is necessarily undefined: it places a premium on improvisation and individual expression, and opposes attempts to codify art or separate it from its roots in folk expression. Neo-HooDoo is an attempt to move away from false oppositions such as East and West, artist and audience, history and myth. In his battle against monoculturalism, parochialism, and racism, Reed's major weapon has always been humor. He consciously invokes and parodies the most sacred texts and genres of American culture in order to demystify and subvert them. At times this leads Reed (by his own admission) to deal in “types” rather than in deep characterization as he searches for rhetorical clarity.10

Reckless Eyeballing takes great joy in the playful delineation of types who just barely qualify as characters. Reed claims to have written this book primarily as an exploration and revision of overly optimistic views of African American—Jewish relations, but the appearance of a number of straw-womanists makes it clear that he has at least one other major ax to grind as well.11 Reed has described Reckless Eyeballing as a “part whodunit in which the first clue is contained in the book's title,” and presumably he means that as soon as we learn of the crimes of the Flower Phantom, we should know that Ian Ball (I. Ball) is responsible.12 But Reed has also suggested that the title refers to his own daring in writing about Jewish issues. He argues that there is a long tradition of appropriation of African American experience by Jews (he cites Jewish television producer Norman Lear in particular) but that attempts by African Americans “to write about other major cultures is considered a case of ‘Reckless Eyeballing.’ What you lookin' at?”13 I will return to this issue, but first I want to sketch out the implications of one other central hint which the title of the book gives us.

The concept of reckless eyeballing most significantly refers to the charge historically made against African American men who are caught (or imagined to be) staring at white women. In Reed's novel this accusation is made within Ian Ball's play about Ham Hill. In this play, which Ball has written to appease the feminists who have “sex-listed” him as a result of his misogynistic first play, Ham Hill is a young African American who is lynched for “eyeballing” a white woman. Here one of Reed's major targets becomes obvious. The Ham Hill story is a retelling of the 1955 Emmett Till case, in which an African American teenager, visiting Mississippi from his home in Chicago, wolf whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Till was killed for it by Bryant's husband and his half-brother.14

It is not the case itself that Reed is responding to but the interpretation of it presented by Susan Brownmiller (one model for Reed's Becky French) in her influential 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Calling Emmett Till's whistle “more than a kid's brash prank,” Brownmiller concludes that he “had in mind to possess” Carolyn Bryant.15 Brownmiller's hyperbolic and insensitive interpretation of the Till case was derived in large part from her reading of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968), in which Cleaver recounts seeing a picture of Carolyn Bryant: Cleaver comes to the painful realization that he is attracted to Bryant and suffers a nervous breakdown. When he “recovers,” he decides to become a rapist; Cleaver concludes, in a notorious formulation, that rape is an “insurrectionary act.”16 That Brownmiller relied on this report for her understanding of the Till case is scandalous; notwithstanding later denials, she plainly and egregiously derives her argument from this single—and singular—piece of rhetoric. But Reed's location of Brownmiller as the basis for his attacks on all feminists replicates her offense. By 1986 numerous African American feminists (about whom Reed has said few kind words) had already roundly criticized Brownmiller's unfortunate use of the Emmett Till case; Reed's invocation of this controversy seems intellectually dishonest for what it neglects to mention.17

Ishmael Reed has had “female troubles,” as the title of a Michele Wallace essay once put it, for a long time.18 Since at least the mid-1970s it has appeared to Reed that an alliance between white and African American feminists (as well as between white men and African American women) has been forged—primarily through assaults on the African American man. In light of Reed's very public rhetorical battles with Alice Walker and others, it is not hard to see why he would create Tremonisha Smarts as his vehicle of retribution. The name Tremonisha comes from Scott Joplin's 1911 opera (Joplin spelled it “Treemonisha”), in which, according to Reginald Martin, Tremonisha “represents the powers of assimilation into American culture in opposition to” HooDoo power.19 In Reckless Eyeballing Tremonisha is first presented as similar to “those women who collaborated with the Nazis” (4). She is accused of fostering a “blood libel” against black men, and it is with this reference that Reed opens his investigations into the connections between African American and Jewish history and the present-day interactions of these two groups.20

Reed's examinations of gender and racial politics are inseparable and represent an extended demonstration that, as James Weldon Johnson claimed over fifty years earlier, “in the core of the heart of the American race problem the sex factor is rooted.”21 The link is nowhere more clear than in Reed's daring reenactment of the Leo Frank case—a re-presentation of a sacred text of American Jewish history—which Reed playfully includes as an example of his own reckless eyeballing. Reed's reference to the Frank case is glancing and oblique but still significant. Ian Ball's friend Jim Minsk is invited to Mary Phegan [sic] College, where he is forced to watch an anti-Semitic performance which culminates with a dramatization of Frank's alleged murder of Mary Phagan. This performance reaches it climax as Jim Conley, the African American janitor at the factory managed by Frank, discovers Frank carrying Phagan's lifeless body; in an echo of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (“Mistah Kurtz—he dead”) Conley asks, “She dead, Mr. Frank? She dead?” (45). Following this ritualized interpretation of the Frank affair, Minsk himself is lynched. This episode seems to have little direct connection with the rest of Reckless Eyeballing, but a brief overview of the Frank affair might help us to understand Reed's revisionist take on African American-Jewish relations.

Leo Frank was an American Jew who was tried and convicted in Atlanta in 1913 for the murder of Mary Phagan, a young white woman who worked in the pencil factory he managed. Although Frank was not formally charged with raping Mary Phagan, much of the testimony at the trial centered on his alleged sexual perversions: various charges made included that he was a homosexual, that he was unable to perform like a “normal” man, that he was addicted to oral sex, and that he used his nose sexually.22 The composite picture that developed showed Frank as totally alien, a deviant who had defiled a young flower of the South.

Perhaps most interesting for Reed's purposes, Frank was also accused of being a reckless eyeballer: he was charged with peeking into the dressing room of the factory while women workers changed into and out of their work clothes. Of all the many commentators on this case, only Leslie Fiedler, in his 1966 essay “Some Jewish Pop Art Heroes,” pushes this accusation to a rhetorical conclusion outrageous enough to attract Ishmael Reed: even if Frank were not sexually exploiting young women in the factory he managed, he did walk “in on their privacy with utter contempt for their dignity. Like most factory managers of his time, he was—metaphorically at least—screwing little girls like Mary Phagan.”23

The case also revived the popular question (as Eugene Levy pointed out in 1974) of whether Jews “counted” as white—or if they should be considered equivalent to African Americans, or something else altogether.24 The key testimony leading to Frank's conviction came from the janitor, Jim Conley. Never before had an African American's testimony been accepted in a capital case against a “white” man in the postbellum South. In addition, much of the evidence suggested that if Frank did not kill Mary Phagan, then Jim Conley must have. (Of course, a rarely uttered but real possibility is that both the Jew and the African American shared some responsibility for the crime.)

Frank was sentenced to death, but after two years of legal appeals the governor of Georgia finally commuted his sentence during the summer of 1915. Soon after this Frank was abducted from the prison farm where he was incarcerated and was hanged outside Marietta, the birthplace of Mary Phagan. The case led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League and contributed to the revitalization of the new Ku Klux Klan. When, in Reckless Eyeballing, Jim Minsk sees the campus of Mary Phegan College looming on a mountain in the distance, we are reminded that the legend of the new Klan has it that their first ritual was held on top of Stone Mountain in Georgia (36).25

The “lynching” of Ian Ball's friend Jim Minsk is more or less tangential to the major plot line of Reckless Eyeballing, so it is worth asking why Reed summons the memory of the Frank case. Given the “truly tasteless” joke that serves as epigraph to Reckless Eyeballing—“What's the American dream? A million blacks swimming back to Africa with a Jew under each arm”—one possibility is that Reed believes Jews and African Americans are in the same boat as marginalized groups in American society.26 Indeed, David Levering Lewis's influential 1984 study of African American-Jewish relations locates the Frank case as the moment when Jews realized that they too were vulnerable in America, and decided to throw in their lot with their African American brothers in suffering.27 (My use of gendered language to describe the putative alliance is intentional; the rhetoric around African American—Jewish relations is almost completely masculinized.)

I think Reed would demur from this dominant interpretation. Reed's adaptation of the Frank case, especially in the context of Jake Brashford's strong anti-Jewish sentiments in Reckless Eyeballing, suggests that the case provides a matchless example of how the veneer of similarity in the tribulations of Jews and African Americans has often covered up important differences. These differences have festered in a culture of avoidance and ultimately have given the lie to the simple dreams of alliance which depend on analogy.28

Most broadly, I think Reed is intent on reminding Jews of their provisional whiteness. Ian Ball tells Jim Minsk: “Brashford says that you're not a white male, you're Jewish, that white men and Jewish men have been fighting for centuries and for you to call yourself a white man is strange” (14). Randy Shank, in his own incoherent way, also promotes this viewpoint, arguing that “there's really no such thing as a white Jew. Real white people call Jews and the Arabs sand niggers behind their backs. Back in the 1900s and 1910s in this town they called the Russian ones Asiatics and Orientals” (67). Much of Reckless Eyeballing serves as a reminder of a time when the social and racial status of Jews in the United States was ambiguous and contested.

There are many voices in this book saying many contradictory things. It would do violence to the complexity of Reed's vision of African American—Jewish relations to simplify his message to the old line that these two oppressed groups were natural allies. Instead, through Ian Ball, Randy Shank, Jake Brashford, and Paul Shoboater, Reed includes a fairly representative sampling of modern African American opinion on relations with Jews. Reed himself harbors no romantic illusions about a golden age of African American—Jewish relations in anybody's recent memory. In an interview published in Southern Review in 1985, Reed claims with characteristic over-statement that “the last time Jews cooperated with blacks was in the Middle Ages when the Jews showed Africans how to get into Spain—how to take over the country. They provided the Moors with an invasion route because the Jews were catching hell in Spain. There were Spanish Christian fundamentalists who were trying to force the Jews into conversion; together the Jews and the blacks created a renaissance. It happened about 900 A.D.”29 With this, Reed reveals his project in Reckless Eyeballing to be a subversion of older, more quiescent views of African American—Jewish relations.

This is not to suggest that Reed rejects all comparisons of the two groups. It is safe to say that he takes the extermination of Jews in Europe during the Second World War as an extreme cautionary tale. But where Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka, for instance, focused on the negative lessons of attempted assimilation by besieged minority groups, Reed is more interested in the specific ways that the group in power demonizes threatening outsiders—in other words, how in-groups make out-groups killable.30 Reed has stated in a flagrant and purposeful misreading of Susan Brownmiller that he has

found some interesting parallels between the period leading up to the [German] denunciation of Jews … and some things that are going on in America today. That's what makes Susan Brownmiller and people like that frightening to me … She wrote that the black man encouraged rape and supported rape, which suggests that one person stands for the whole group and implicates all black men. This is the kind of generalization that you used to hear about Jewish males in Germany.31

So when Reed mentions a Nazi film replete with images of dark Jews compulsively raping pure German girls, the subtext is clear: the kind of cultural work this stereotyping does can open the door to genocide.32 Understanding how much emphasis Reed puts on the power of popular culture, we might also come to understand his committed attempt to brand any “negative images” of African American men as representing a concrete danger.

Even as Reed derives from the Jewish experience of the Holocaust crucial lessons for African Americans, he has little patience for what has been the most dominant version of African American—Jewish relations. This general line of thought argues two main points: (1) African Americans and Jews are similarly oppressed and ought to team up to fight their enemies together; and (2) since the Jews have had such success assimilating into American culture, African Americans should look to them as a role model and Jews should aid their progress.33 For much of this American century it has been assumed by many African American and Jewish leaders that friction between the two groups was atypical and unnatural. (Of course, the contest of potential villains in the Leo Frank case gives us one poignant example of how African American and Jewish interests could clash.)

We can see how little stock Reed puts in this view by taking a look at the character who reproduces this argument, Paul Shoboater. Shoboater (perhaps modeled on Stanley Crouch) writes for the Downtown Mandarin, a thinly veiled version of the Village Voice, a weekly for which Reed harbors no little enmity.34 His name is meant to remind us of Show Boat—the novel (1926) and Broadway play (1927)—a prime example of the adaptation of African American materials by Jewish artists.35 Shoboater is presented as a sellout, a tour guide for white people “who wanted to become acquainted with the trends and styles of Afro-American culture” (79). Shoboater is himself a “showboat,” an inane, affected, and superficial man who covers the waterfront of standard assimilationist opinion on African American—Jewish relations. He tells Ian Ball that the Jews were responsible for the success of many African American writers, but “instead of expressing gratitude, the fellas keep coming down hard on the Jews.” He then goes on to advise Ball that “instead of fight the Jews, you ought to be more like them” (82). In addition to presenting the old “Jews as model” construct, Shoboater also suggests that “if it wasn't for Jewish morality … people would be burning niggers left and right” (84). In an exceedingly slippery novel where authorial intent is almost always in doubt, Reed makes it clear that Shoboater's position deserves scorn, not support.

A good question to ask at this point is: what does Ishmael Reed want anyway? He doesn't want the old “natural allies” argument (although there is the hint that if African American and white women can team up across race lines, then so should African American and Jewish men—which would recapture one important aspect of New Left politics). Reed doesn't really seem to believe that Jews are black or Hitler was a Jew or Hitler was a Moor passing for Nordic, or that Jews are not really Jews, or any of the other mumbo jumbo he plays around with either.

Two messages come clear, finally, out of the mass of satire and misdirection in Reckless Eyeballing. First, rigid segregation of the subjects of art into sets of ethnic ownership is unfair, limiting, and potentially dangerous; and second, there must be a freer, louder conversation among African Americans, Jews, and other ethnic Americans in order to stave off the divide-and-conquer tactics of the white power elite.

On the first point, Jake Brashford's complaints about Jews' stealing all the good material have to be taken seriously, especially since they reflect Reed's own beliefs as he has displayed them in essays and interviews. Brashford tells Ball: “Every time you turn on the TV or go to the movies or read a new play or novel, there's some Jewish writer, director, or producer who thinks that he knows more about niggers than they know about themselves, and who's cashing in on the need of Americans to consume the black style without having anything to do with niggers” (30). Then, in a self-reflexive moment which echoes Reed's own contentions about how he is recklessly eye-balling by telling a Jewish story, Brashford tells Ian Ball that he's going to write about Armenians (30-32). For all of the intended humor in this, Reed does seem to be making a serious protest against artistic apartheid. If various ethnic artists are going to mine African American culture, then African Americans must be considered authorized interpreters of other cultures as well.36

On the second point, Reed believes that certain white ethnic groups, Jews in particular, have been used in American culture to keep African Americans in check. Randy Shank suggests that powerful white people “let” the Jews be white now “because they serve the white man by keeping an eye on us, monitoring us, providing him with statistics about us, and interpreting us to the white man” (67). Jews, then, become “deputy” whites, who maintain their status as long as they do their jobs as social scientists, artists, and television producers. Ball recounts that Brashford completes the argument with this proposition: “Jews are not being innocently manipulated, but are consciously using blacks to keep the goyim off their case. All this stuff about pathology—welfare, crime and dope, single parent households … conservative Jews keep those issues on the front burner so's the goyim will be so angry with blacks that they will ignore the Jews and leave them alone” (86).37 Reed has argued elsewhere that “white” ethnic groups which “stave off the ‘nonwhite’ hordes” are rewarded in American culture with “Angloness.”38 Reed's own cultural work—including his outrageous caricatures of ethnic conflict in Reckless Eyeballing—has often been focused on trying to avoid this kind of atomization.

But Reed doesn't get overly pious about all of this, as Tremonisha's “conversion” letter to Ian makes clear. Tremonisha, having escaped from the control of white feminists, is presumably the voice of informed reason here. She suggests that African Americans and Jews need to be more open to criticism and hard dialogue if they are going to make progress together. But listen to how treacly her language is: “Same thing with the Jews and the blacks. If they are afraid to tell the truth for fear of furnishing ammunition to their enemies or if they're trying to deflect legitimate criticism by dismissing it as anti-Semitic, or racist, then the Nazis will have won and the Klan will have won, and all of the other bigots under the sheets, and setting fires to synagogues will have won” (132). This scarcely sounds like the tough-minded feminist playwright Tremonisha is supposed to have been. It is hard to imagine this is the payoff Reed has been working toward. This kind of piety is certainly not part of Reed's cherished Neo-HooDoo aesthetic. The obvious flatness of Tremonisha's rhetoric suggests that Reed believes that reverence is not the only proper attitude to bring to discussions of cross-ethnic encounter; humor, too, may have a place. (Of course, Tremonisha's language might also be evidence of a wicked act of ventriloquism on Reed's part; here, finally, he can put the “proper” words in the mouth of a recovered feminist.)

But the serious point should not be lost: the manipulation of ethnic boundaries can cause real divisions, and usually serves ruling-class interests. It is the responsibility of the committed multicultural artist to reveal and combat discourses that marginalize “ethnic” expression. Jake Brashford's wife remarks at one point that Brashford has been “trying to write a play of universal values, but everywhere he turns, he runs into ethnicity” (117). So, too, does Ishmael Reed continue to run into ethnicity, but in his hands Mrs. Brashford's disconsolate binary opposition becomes (ap)positive.


  1. This essay is a part of my Harvard University Ph.D. dissertation, “Ancestors and Relatives: The Uncanny Relationship of African Americans and Jews” (1994), a study of episodes in the construction of African American-Jewish relatedness. All references to Ishmael Reed's Reckless Eyeballing (1986; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1988) are cited by page in the text. On Reed's penchant for fight imagery, see especially his collection of essays, Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1990). See the contributions by Katrin Schwenk and Sämi Ludwig in this volume for more on, respectively, Reed's interests in lynching and Neo-HooDoo. While I agree with Schwenk's general claim that Reed is particularly interested in historiography, I find her contention that Reed privileges racial over gender politics somewhat misleading; in Reed, as I note in the text, it is impossible to discuss race and gender separately.

  2. Robert Murray Davis suggests that Reed has been received with “relative neglect” because of his iconoclasm. Davis writes that Reed has “gone out of his way to reject … the New York literary establishment; Jewish critics of Black literature; other Black writers and critics of differing political, esthetic, and even physical hue.” See Robert Murray Davis, “Scatting the Myths: Ishmael Reed,” Arizona Quarterly 39.2 (Summer 1983): 406. Of course Davis does not even mention Reed's most frequent and vociferous antagonists, feminists and womanists.

  3. In “The World Needs More Guys Like Pee Wee,” in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1989), Reed writes that his critics are “always calling me ‘conservative’ and ‘right wing’ but all I know is when you lose your spine, you can't walk” (p. 242).

  4. The first phrase is quoted in Robert Elliot Fox, Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987), p. 82. The rest of the epithets are from Amiri Baraka, “Afro-American Literature and Class Struggle,” Black American Literature Forum, 14.1 (Spring 1980): 10.

  5. Baraka, “Afro-American Literature and Class Struggle,” p. 12.

  6. In one essay Reed cautions other African American writers not to become hypnotized by manipulation, and to examine themselves for feelings of competition with other struggling writers. “We will have to admit,” he writes, “that some of us are flattered when the Colonialists … tell us that we have better ‘craft’ than the Chicanos, or that we have more balls than Asians.” Ishmael Reed, “The ‘Liberal’ in Us All,” in Shrovetide, p. 42.

  7. For this catalogue, see Ishmael Reed, “American Poetry: Is There a Center?” in God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982), p. 112. Indeed, cross-cultural exchange has always been central to Reed's work. For instance, unlike most African American intellectuals Reed does not dismiss Norman Mailer's imagined White Negro out of hand he admits to some sympathy for Mailer's frustration at being white (although his sympathy, of course, is laced with irony) and imagines that maybe someday there will be an “identity delicatessen where one can obtain identity as easily as buying a new flavored yogurt.” On Mailer and the identity delicatessen, see Ishmael Reed, “The Fourth Ali,” in God Made Alaska for the Indians, p. 48.

  8. The issue of Life magazine mentioned here (December 22, 1941) included a post-Pearl Harbor guide for distinguishing between Japanese and Chinese citizens, titled “How to Tell Japs from Chinese” (p. 81). For a recent gloss on this special issue, see Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Knopf, 1989), p. 76. The hotel sounds like the famed Chelsea, long a bastion of New York bohemian life, where Bob Dylan lived for a while, and where ex-Sex Pistol Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen. On the Chelsea, see Florence Turner's memoir At the Chelsea (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987); and Claudio Edinger's photoessay Chelsea Hotel (New York: Abbeville, 1983). The Chelsea has been home to William Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Lee Masters, O. Henry, Brendan Behan, and James Farrell. Recall the hilarious reference to Farrell during Lieutenant O'Reedy's death scene (Reed, Reckless Eyeballing, p. 124).

  9. For Reed's initial HooDoo pronouncements, see “Black Power Poem,” “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” “The NeoHooDoo Aesthetic,” and “Catechism of d Neoamerican Hoodoo Church” (originally in his collection Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972]), in Ishmael Reed, New and Collected Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1989), pp. 19-27, 36. Various critics have striven mightily, if quixotically, to formalize Reed's intentionally slippery HooDoo conceptualizations. See, for instance, Reginald Martin, “Hoodoo as Literary Method: Ishmael Reed's ‘True Afro-American Aesthetic,’” in his Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (London: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 63-108; James R. Lindroth, “From Krazy Kat to HooDoo: Aesthetic Discourse in the Fiction of Ishmael Reed,” Review of Contemporary Fiction, 4.2 (1984): 227-233; James R. Lindroth, “Generating the Vocabulary of Hoodoo: Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed,” Zora Neale Hurston Forum, 2.1 (Fall 1987): 27-34; and Sämi Ludwig's essay in this volume.

  10. See Ishmael Reed, “The Great Tenure Battle of 1977,” in Shrovetide, p. 232.

  11. In Mel Watkins, “An Interview with Ishmael Reed,” Southern Review, 21.3 (July 1985): 609-611. There has, so far, been little scholarly reaction to Reckless Eyeballing; Daniel Punday argues, among other things, that Reed's attacks on feminists here are best read as an ironic cooptation of the charge of sexism so frequently levied against him. Daniel Punday's, “Ishmael Reed's Rhetorical Turn: Uses of ‘Signifying’ in Reckless Eyeballing,College English, 54.4 (April 1992): 446-461. See also Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, Nostalgia and Sexual Difference: The Resistance to Contemporary Feminism (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 39-42.

  12. Ishmael Reed, “The Tradition of Serious Comedy in Afro-American Literature,” in Writin' Is Fightin', p. 137. There are other clues in the title, too. First, it is an ironic rewriting of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous image of the “transparent eyeball” from his 1836 work Nature, where he writes of “standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me … I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” Of course for Ian Ball it is the beauty of women's bodies—not “the Universal Being”—which circulates through him when he becomes a transparent eyeball. See Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Selected Writings of Emerson, ed. Donald McQuade (New York: Modern Library 1981), p. 6. For a brief account of the surrealist obsession with eyeballs, see Vicki Goldberg, “A Spooky Fascination with Disembodied Eyes,” New York Times, January 24, 1993, section 2, p. 29.

  13. On Lear, see Reed, “The ‘Liberal’ in Us All,” p. 39. In “300 Years of 1984,” in Writin' Is Fightin', pp. 60-61, Reed contends that attempts by African American writers “to write about other major cultures is considered a case of ‘Reckless Eyeballing.’ What you lookin' at? This is none of your business.” Similarly, in Mel Watkins's Southern Review interview Reed argues that African American writers “can write about those other groups with more class and knowledge than they can write about us.” See Watkins, “An Interview with Ishmael Reed,” p. 612.

  14. For the most complete account of this case, see Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (New York: Free Press, 1988).

  15. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1976), pp. 272-273. We should be careful about trying too hard to denote the “real” identities lurking behind Reed's characters. Reckless Eyeballing flirts with being a roman à clef but never quite commits. Ian Ball displays similarities to Ishmael Reed, but so too does Lieutenant O'Reedy. (Reed has often written and spoken of his own Irish heritage.) Jake Brashford seems, in some ways, a parody of Ralph Ellison, but, again, it is an incomplete representation.

  16. See Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Dell, 1968), pp. 10-14.

  17. See especially Angela Davis's response to Brownmiller in “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist,” in Women, Race, and Class (1981; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1983), pp. 176-201, esp. pp. 178-180. Additionally, and quite unfortunately, Reed goes far beyond a mere rebuttal of Brownmiller's appallingly divisive rhetoric. There are, throughout Reckless Eyeballing, brazen instances of men staring at women with at least implied violence in their gaze. The representative of white male authority, Detective Lawrence O'Reedy, can hardly concentrate on the Flower Phantom case because he is too busy staring at Tremonisha Smarts's “serendipitous buttocks moving beneath her silk pants” (p. 11). The most egregious example of reckless eyeballing comes on page 61. While Ian is speaking with Becky French, we hear this interior monologue: “She put her hand down her back for a moment and scratched. As she did this her ass shifted on the sofa's pillow. He didn't know anybody who had fucked her, but he could look at her and know that she was a gasper. One of those kind who took short breaths when you gave it to her hot.”

  18. Michele Wallace, “Ishmael Reed's Female Troubles,” In Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (New York: Verso, 1990), pp. 146-154. This essay appeared originally in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, no. 51 (December 1986): 9-11.

  19. Martin, Ishmael Reed, p. 106. Joplin's Treemonisha was published in 1911 and performed only once during the composer's lifetime.

  20. The “blood libel,” of course, is the age-old charge that Jews use the blood of Christians in certain religious rites. The most famous blood libel incident is the Mendel Beiliss (also spelled Beilis) case which took place in Russia from 1911 to 1913. It came to a close in the same year in which the Leo Frank case, discussed later in this essay, began. Bernard Malamud used the Beiliss case as a rough model in his book The Fixer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966). On Beiliss, see Maurice Samuel, Blood Accusation: The Strange History of the Beiliss Case (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1966), and Albert S. Lindemann, The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Affairs (Dreyfus, Beilis, Frank), 1894-1915 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 129-193.

  21. James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 170.

  22. For the basic historical outlines of the Frank case and its implications, see Leonard Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968); Harry Golden, A Little Girl Is Dead (New York: World Publishing, 1965); Nancy MacLean, “The Leo Frank Case Reconsidered: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Making of Reactionary Populism,” Journal of American History, 78.3 (December 1991): 917-948; Eugene Levy, “‘Is the Jew a White Man?’: Press Reaction to the Leo Frank Case, 1913-1915,” Phylon, 35.2 (June 1974): 212-222; and my dissertation, “Ancestors and Relatives.” For specific information on Frank's perversions, see Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case, pp. 17-19, 41, 51; MacLean, “The Leo Frank Case Reconsidered,” p. 932; Jeffrey Melnick, “Leo Frank's Perversion,” paper delivered at the 1993 American Studies Association Conference in Boston.

  23. Leslie Fiedler, “Some Jewish Pop Art Heroes,” in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 2:135.

  24. On this point, see Levy, “Is the Jew a White Man?,” in particular.

  25. Leonard Dinnerstein suggests that the Knights of Mary Phagan, organized to avenge her death, formed the nucleus of the new Klan. See Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case, pp. 149-150.

  26. As such, it might be more accurate to say that African Americans and Jews are in the same ocean—without even a boat to keep them afloat.

  27. See David Levering Lewis, “Parallels and Divergences: Assimilationist Strategies of Afro-American and Jewish Elites from 1910 to the Early 1930s,” Journal of American History, 71.3 (December 1984): 543-564. This important essay has been reprinted in Bridges and Boundaries: African Americans and American Jews, ed. Jack Salzman, with Adina Back and Gretchen Sullivan Sorin (New York: George Braziller in association with the Jewish Museum, 1992), pp. 17-35. My own archival research into the discourses in and around this case suggest a much more ambiguous conclusion. The Frank case, rather than serving as a first entry in a utopian version of the relationship of Jews and African Americans, is better understood as a site of much struggle, specifically over whether Frank or Conley should have been punished for this crime, and more broadly over which group was “safer” and more Americanized.

  28. In the Frank trial even the images of perversion which surrounded the defendant marked him off as particularly alien and totally unlike the mythical phallic rapist of the southern imagination. Jim Conley claimed to have seen Frank with a woman who was “sitting down in a chair and she had her clothes up to here, and he was down on his knees” (Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case, p. 41): I think it is instructive that the focal point of this Jewish man's sexual perversion is not organized around a powerful vision of genitality, as it would have likely have been for an African American man at the time. See Melnick, “Leo Frank's Perversion.”

  29. Watkins, “Interview with Ishmael Reed,” p. 609. Bridges and Boundaries is a good place to begin an investigation of the liberal optimism surrounding this subject. See also Lenora E. Berson, The Negroes and the Jews (New York: Random House, 1971); Hasia R. Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977); Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism, intro. and ed. Nat Hentoff (New York: R. W. Baron, 1969); Negro and Jew: An Encounter in America, ed. Shlomo Katz (New York: Macmillan, 1967); Jonathan Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times between Blacks and Jews in America (New York: Scribner, 1988); Robert Weisbord and Arthur Stein, Bittersweet Encounter: The Afro-American and the American Jew (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970). For more from Reed, see “Is There a Black-Jewish Feud?” Airing Dirty Laundry (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993), pp. 33-42.

  30. Malcolm X wrote that “history's most tragic result of a mixed, therefore diluted and weakened, ethnic identity has been experienced by a white ethnic group—the Jew in Germany.” See Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965; rpt. New York: Grove Press, 1966), pp. 277-278. For Baraka on Jewish assimilation, see his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” (“the / ugly silent deaths of jews under / the surgeon's knife”) and his “Letter to Jules Feiffer,” where he wonders rhetorically, “Why so much fuss about Negroes wanting to call themselves Afro-Americans? … If you want to call yourself a Judeo (Judaeo?) American, it's perfectly all right with me. In fact, I think that if perhaps there were more Judeo-Americans and a few less bland, cultureless, middle-headed AMERICANS, this country might still be a great one.” In Amiri Baraka, Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966), p. 67. For “Black Dada,” see The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Harris (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991), pp. 71-73. This poem originally appeared in The Dead Lecturer (New York: Grove Press, 1964). I am grateful to Werner Sollors for these references.

  31. Watkins, “Interview with Ishmael Reed,” p. 611.

  32. Reed has noted that one of the white men accused in the Howard Beach incident was reputed to have seen the movie of The Color Purple with his African American girlfriend and to have been “real emotional” about it. (The Howard Beach incident took place late in 1986, when a gang of young white men chased and beat a group of African American men in this now infamous section of Queens, New York. One of the victims, Michael Griffith, tried to cross a highway to escape his attackers and was struck and killed by a car. The man Reed is describing is Jon Lester.) Reed's inference is that the depredations of African American men encouraged by the movie and its ilk were no longer abstract. See Reed's essay “Steven Spielberg Plays Howard Beach,” in Writin' Is Fightin', pp. 145-157.

  33. As early as 1899 Booker T. Washington described Jews as “a very bright and striking example” for Negroes, a people who have “unity, pride, and love of race … Unless the Negro learns more and more to imitate the Jew … to have faith in himself, he cannot expect to have any high degree of success.” Booker T. Washington, The Future of the American Negro, reprinted in The Booker T. Washington Papers, vol. 5, 1899-1900, ed. Louis R. Harlan and Raymond W. Smock (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1976), pp. 369-370.

  34. Recall that Michele Wallace's attack on Reed was first published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement.

  35. Edna Ferber, Show Boat (1926; rpt. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, n.d.). The musical was frequently lauded for its modern integration of music and story and its dignified presentation of African Americans. On the one hand, this Jewish-produced fantasy seems just the type of “tour” into African American culture that Shoboater is accused of leading; on the other, it does have a fairly progressive miscegenation plot. On the meaning of Show Boat as play and film for Paul Robeson's career, see Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (London: Macmillan, British Film Institute Series, 1986), pp. 105-109, 126-128.

  36. For relevant reflections, see Reed's essay “Chester Himes: Writer,” in Shrovetide, pp. 77-99.

  37. The reference here is to the proliferation of social science literature about rampant dysfunctions in the African American community, a stance that was actually given its most influential articulation by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “The Moynihan Report,” as it is commonly called, was originally titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action and was published in March 1965 by the Office of Policy Planning and Research of the U.S. Department of Labor.

  38. Ishmael Reed, “Hymietown Revisited,” in Writin' Is Fightin', p. 81.

Sämi Ludwig (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4845

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 significant cultural and historical forces—could not pass on to a further phase by means of abstract and rational dialogue, not by a purely dramatic dialogue, but only by means of complexly dialogized hybrids.

It is necessary to come to terms with discourse as a reified, “typical” but at the same time intentional phenomenon.

—M. M. Bakhtin

I'm convinced there's a connection between early New Orleans music, what people call Dixieland, you know, and religious rites. Because in the Voodoo rites a lot of loas [voodoo spirits] show up at the same time, and they start quarreling, everybody talking at the same time. You get that in Dixieland. The instruments take over from the usual drums as a vessel for the loas. So you hear the talking trombone, the wah-wah trumpet and all that, Erzuli's showin' up, you know. … Which makes Louis Armstrong the most important jazz musician of the century. He maintained the tradition.

—Ishmael Reed

The novel form itself was invented by Cervantes, a Moor.

—Ishmael Reed

My aim in this essay is to relate “voodoo rites” to Bakhtin, to sketch out some surprising analogies between the imagery and processes in Bakhtin's critical idiom on the one hand and manifestations of Ishmael Reed's polytheistic “Neo-HooDoo aesthetic,” especially the concepts of possession and the houngan (voodoo priest) as we find them in voodoo religion and in Reed's Mumbo Jumbo1 on the other. In doing so we find a certain figural overlap of constituents as well as systems. If, following cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, we assume that the metaphors we use determine the structure of our thinking, they become an ideal focus of comparison: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act,” they write, “is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”2 Even literary theorists claim that metaphor is the “founding stone of conceptualization and abstraction” and “the prime instrument for the discovery of meanings.”3 Thus, in this view metaphors also define what theorists call terminology. If, furthermore, we now follow Roland Barthes and define myth as a kind of discourse,4 we may look at Bakhtin's theory of language beyond an abstract terminology (such as “complexly dialogized hybrids”) to the dialogic animist way in which the “invisibles” concretely exert influence on and at the same time are used by humans in a voodoo ceremony. I hope to convince readers unfamiliar with Haitian rituals that there are interesting dynamic structural properties to such a system of representation, which, like Bakhtin's discourse in the novel, can integrate and express the views of multiple (sub)cultures and may to a certain extent serve as a concrete model for multiculturalism. Let me first present Bakhtin, then voodoo and Reed, and end with a comparison.

For Bakhtin all languages are voices of ideology, and in the novel they become stylized into active “ideologemes.”5 His most often quoted definition, from The Dialogic Imagination, expresses the tension between being controlled by a language and utilizing it as a tool to get one's own intentions across: “The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes one's own only when the speaker populates it with his own intention” (293). Novelistic “heteroglossia” tackles this “difficult and complicated process” of self-expression by choosing among many different languages: “Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language. With each literary-verbal performance, consciousness must actively orient itself amidst heteroglossia, it must move in and occupy a position for itself within it, it chooses, in other words, a ‘language’” (295). This very ability to use language rather than be used by it is what makes Bakhtin's realm of discourse a “treasure-house” (278) of ideologemes rather than a “prisonhouse” of ideology. It is an obvious consequence that only the person who consciously has access to many “languages” is ultimately “free” to negotiate his or her “intentions” in a position of choice.

This dynamic and multilayered process of motivated semiosis cannot be described with a static “Ptolemaic” model (65), that is, in terms of a logocentric universe of discourse. Moreover, abstract Platonist notions cannot explain motivated language “behavior.” Thus, in the novel, Bakhtin's exemplary medium, intersecting languages are often made concrete6 and personified: “Heteroglossia … enters the novel in person (so to speak) and assumes material form within it in the images of speaking persons” (332). Characters represent certain types.7 “Language” in the novel is often “stylized,” that is, it “highlight[s] certain elements while leaving others in the shade” (75). Time and again Bakhtin relates the novel's dialogic nature to a cognitive kind of competition, “an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions, and values” (346). The novel offers a “zone of contact” (39), in which multiple languages, familiarized into a reality of human form, can interact. Its “double-voiced discourse,” moreover, can integrate the novelist's meta-intentions: “The author utilizes now one language, now another, in order to avoid giving himself up wholly to either of them; he makes use of this verbal give-and-take, this dialogue of languages at every point in his work, in order that he himself might remain as it were neutral with regard to language, a third party in a quarrel between two people (although he might be a biased third party)” (314). He is a kind of referee who has himself expressed by these “languages” and yet keeps his distance from them. For Bakhtin “parodic-travestying forms” can liberate thinking from “the thick walls that had imprisoned consciousness” (60); a new dialogism appropriates and relativizes the functions of old monoglossia.

Many of these processes and metaphors can also be found in voodoo and in Reed's fiction. In voodoo Bakhtin's “ideologemes” are personified by the spirits. Maya Deren writes that these loas, or voodoo spirits, are “supernatural in the same sense that a principle is supernatural or abstract.”8 Milo Rigaud even relates them to the French word loi, “more frequently spelled loa when used as a Voodoo term. The lois, (the ‘laws of creation’) create the loas (animistic spirits) in visible manifestations such as plants, animals, and men, but chiefly as ancestors, because Voodoo is essentially a cult of ancestor worship.”9 Like Bakhtin's “languages,” the loas are fundamentally rooted in history; they represent the “socio-ideological” points of view of ancestral tradition. Being “supernatural” entities of memory, they “can be perceived only when manifest in matter, the serviteur addresses himself to material objects and phenomena, particularly in ritual.”10 As “intentions” manifest themselves in concrete words, the loas “live” in personifications, that is, by possessing voodooists.

Whereas the notion of ancestor worship may predominantly indicate a movement from human society to myth (the gods' historical origins), the term possession traditionally stands for exactly the opposite. It indicates a top-to-bottom movement, namely, the dependence of humans on their gods, the control the gods have over them:

Guedé [a loa] is never visible. He manifests himself by “mounting” a subject as a rider mounts a horse, then he speaks and acts through his mount. The person mounted does nothing of his own accord. He is the horse of a loa until the spirit departs. Under the whip and guidance of the spirit-rider, the “horse” does and says many things that he or she would never have uttered un-ridden.

Parlay Cheval Ou (Tell My Horse), the loa begins to dictate through the lips of his mount and goes on and on.11

It is very important to note that possession has nothing to do with self-expression at all: “The actions and utterances of the possessed person are not the expression of the individual, but are readily identifiable manifestations of the particular loa or archetypal principle.”12 The role acted by a possessed voodooist can be recognized by cognizant houngans, or voodoo priests, who know a loa's typical voice and behavior.13

The first loa to be addressed in a ceremony is Legba, “the doorkeeper of the loas. [He will] ‘open the gates’ and allow the loas to enter the temple. His title is Maître Carrefour.”14 Legba mediates between serviteur and loa; thus his symbol is the cross.15 As an inspirational communication facilitator he complements the houngan's efforts from the other side. Legba appears in Mumbo Jumbo personified as PaPa LaBas, the main protagonist and “metaphysical detective.”

In Reed's fiction we find the definitions of “loa” and “possession” applied to forces beyond the Haitian tradition. Robert Gover writes on the loas in Reed: “The university, the corporation, the government. These are our loas, a few of them, the entities that have power over our life and are fed by us. Each exists in our mind as a complex of forces, thoughts, spirits, moods, the composite of which is a loa.”16 He shows how voodoo can be applied to the American scene: “In Voodoo, the eternal loas are always there, history is always present. Down the street in your neighbor, the loa of Benjamin Franklin lives—if only very faintly—and the other basic archetypes live in your other neighbors, of whatever creed or color.”17 What Reed means by “loa” is the ideas that prestructure our experiences as well as our interpretations, the principles that govern our minds and our souls and the forces and institutions representing them. This includes different means of expression, of education, ideology, and art. Such a conception of “loa” may be more graspable for a western mind if one removes its exotic veil and defines it as any concrete, de-Platonized idea. Loa “is” conceptual practice, an ideologeme that represents ideologies as alive and kicking (that is, motivated) and is therefore best imagined as a person interacting with other persons,18 very much like Bakhtin's “languages” which “struggle” for hegemony in the novelistic discourse.

In the landscape of Reed's novels we find possession as a general metaphor of control. The most striking example occurs in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, when the Loop Garoo Kid steals Drag Gibson's green mustang and, like a loa, rides away on “MY SYMBOL,” as Drag hollers.19 It is their hunger for power that reveals the type-protagonists who are the main possessors in Reed's fiction. Most political figureheads are dominated by ambitious figures in the background.20 In Mumbo Jumbo President Harding is a mere peon manipulated and ultimately sacrificed by the Atonist Ohio Gang. This logocentric and monocultural force and its proponents are opposed by a multi-cultural group of metaphysical detectives and “art nappers” associated with Jes Grew, the revival of ancient loas which Reed relates to jazz, in a context of prohibition, gang warfare, and competing “secret societies.” In this way multiple possessions, the symbolic “quarrels” of the “invisibles,” of “languages” or “loas,” and the values they contain are made concrete in Reed's plots. In a cognitive laboratory of fiction their typical behavior is exposed.21

The multiple incidents of loa possession roughly cover the aspect of “double-voicedness” which in Bakhtin is defined as the “intention of others” in language—forces that come from above. Interestingly, in Mumbo Jumbo we also find a motif that suggests the other side of Janus-faced language, in which “the speaker populates it with his own intention,” that is, in which the “ideologeme” serves the user.22 Let me illustrate this countermovement with a short analysis of the concept of vehicles in Reed's text. Almost every character can be recognized by his own particular means of transportation—an emphasis on individualism which seems to coincide with functional pragmatics of variety in voodoo and which can, as I will show, also be related to possession.

Reed's preoccupation with cars is almost fetishistic. He describes the 1920s as a “drag race,” a competition of fast vehicles for victory (20). Schlitz, “the Sarge of Yorktown,” and his gang roll up in Harlem in “3 Packards” on collection day (19).23 The Sarge's classy black rival Buddy Jackson presides over a fleet of Studebakers, which suggest a combination of tradition and progress: “You can still see the influence of the carriage upon this automobile's design, this Studebaker which was characterized by its vendors as ‘Knight Motored’” (107). The Haitians pick up a group of distinguished black poets at a Harlem “intersection” in “3 black Buicks” (149). The “Rev. Jefferson … pastor from Ré-mōte Mississippi” and his “3 deacons” (142) take the prodigal son Woodrow Wilson back home in “3 T Model Fords which at the time had such a reliable engine you could plow with it” (143). The different groups drive a great variety of trinities.

Yet individuals have extravagant cars as well. The mayor of New Orleans sports a Stutz Bearcat (3). PaPa LaBas relies on his sturdy “Locomobile, the name of which amused many of his critics” (24). Later this vehicle is specified as “his 1915, 2-passenger Town Coupe Locomobile. It is a car designed to accommodate the philosophy ‘small numbers make for distinction, quantity destroys’ and its production is limited to 4 per day” (48). Black Herman, who helps LaBas with his detective work, owns an outlandish car called “President Straight 8” (130, 197). All of these examples emphasize individualism as far as vehicles are concerned, a predilection that is also confirmed by a negative statement we find in The Last Days of Louisiana Red: “Sherwood Anderson, the prophet, had warned of the consequences of standardization and left Herbert Hoover's presence when he found out that Hoover was a leveler: I don't care if my car looks like the other fellow's, as long as it gets me to where I'm going was how Hoover saw it.”24 Obviously the make of the car seems to matter to Reed's narrators, who advocate a special and singular relationship between each user and his vehicle.

Actually the preoccupation with “vehicles” in Mumbo Jumbo goes beyond cars in the literal sense and metaphorically branches out into semiotic notions described in terms of “vehicle” and “tenor.” Jes Grew, the jazz phenomenon of loa possession who shakes up the 1920s, has appropriated the radio as an (oral) medium to spread out and reach people.25 Though the Atonists control other (print) media such as the powerful New York Sun, their attitude toward “vehicles” is problematic. The radio reports that Biff Musclewhite, the curator of the Center of Art Detention (CAD), a kind of prison for ritual objects of ethnic culture, is sailing “FOR HOME ON THE INVINCIBLE SHIP THE TITANIC” (205). This ardent disciple of “Western Civilization” limits himself to a single gigantic vessel26—which is a risky anachronism, as we know from history. Even worse is the situation of LaBas's old rival, the Guianese art critic Hank Rollings. LaBas meets the low-down “ideological tramp” (217) again in the 1960s. The old Locomobile, which “by this time has developed a mind of its own,” simply runs him over: “He doesn't appear to be hurt because he lifts himself from the pavement and begins a ponderous trot in pursuit of the car. He stops and clutches his chest as if in pain” (218). Rollings obviously has no vehicle at all. In the context of Reed's attitudes we may assume that his “devotion to empirical method” (215) has left Rollings without cognitive tools. His “ponderous trot” exemplifies the culmination of Western religion and philosophy in a kind of absolute skepticism, in atheism and existentialism.27 Without belief and without language it is hard to progress in the landscape of ideas.

The most important metaphor concerning the question of metaphysical “transportation” in Mumbo Jumbo, however, is the emblem of the Knights Templar. It is depicted on the upper right-hand corner of the hardback book jacket and is described as “2 Knights riding upon 1 horse” (131), “a symbol of the Templars' poverty vow” (191). LaBas later lectures to his assistants that all Atonists in general “comfortably share a single horse like two knights. They will try to depress Jes Grew but it will only spring back and prosper” (204). Their sharing one single ideology is symbolized in the single horse, the one and only “vehicle” they all have vowed to use. Again we find on the Atonist side no expressive choice, no variety, no individualism.28

Riding a horse in the context of voodoo necessarily refers to possession by a loa.29 Surprisingly we thus encounter in Reed's vehicle fetishism an inversion of possession, the metaphorical term so elaborately worked out earlier. Yet what happens to hierarchy if we depict not the ideologemes as riders and the human beings as horses but, suddenly, the humans themselves as riders of “vehicles” which they use for their own purpose—if, in short, the loa is, from a different perspective, treated as a vehicle? What kind of discourse defines itself in these metaphors? Is the “riding” directed down and up at the same time? It looks as if the notion of possession, though useful for the description of a single incident of monitoring control—that is, for defining one momentary situation—cannot be generalized into an overarching strategy forever fixing the path of ideological causality. The specific use of vehicle imagery in Mumbo Jumbo indicates that possession goes both ways: not only does the superstructure, the multiple divine wills, “own” its share in the consciousness and ultimately the behavior of humans as its playground, but also the humans themselves, if they have enough connaissance, can “own” the realm of loas or Bakhtin's “languages” and “drive”30 it by their own control and for their own use. As Milo Rigaud observes: “Functionally, [the loas] are all under the houn'gan's control who, in point of hierarchy, is their chief.”31 The houngan “works” or does “business” with loas, just as Bakhtin's novelist negotiates intentions with “languages.”

Reed the houngan/writer thus operates with the stereotypes of American ideology in terms of conjuring.32 He appropriates a heathen model to deal with what Bakhtin calls the “difficult and complicated process” of expropriating “languages” (294). Like Bakhtin's novelist, Reed is a “biased” mediator in a special type of “verbal give-and-take” situation. His own role model seems to be the Legba-figure.33 “My reading,” he says, “leads me to believe that HooDoo or as they say in Haiti and other places ‘VooDoo’ or ‘Vodoun’ was always open to the possibility of the real world and the psychic world intersecting. They have a principle for it: Legba (in the U.S., ‘LaBas’).”34 The “metaphysical detective” PaPa LaBas simply traces “supernatural” forces and exposes mythological crimes. He does not personify any authoritative myth or closed knowledge (we might call this monoglossia), but he has an inspirational function. In that sense the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic offers a mode of communication rather than a statement: there is no written Bible, no authoritative “Book of Thot” left at the end of Mumbo Jumbo, only a possessive dynamic process called Jes Grew.

Let me conclude with a tentative chart suggesting certain parallels between Bakhtin's “dialogic imagination,” voodoo structures, and Reed's Neo-HooDoo aesthetic:

Bakhtin voodoo Reed Principle35
languages loas protagonists ideologies
stylization attributes typification highlighting
image of language personified principle type character familiarization
“brute materiality” manifestations concrete metaphors plasticity
novel Guedé ceremony fiction manifestation
zone of contact Legba PaPa LaBas communication/interaction
voices “speak through” jazz orality
intention possession “riding,” “driving” symbolic control
language intention loa stereotype given meaning
struggle quarrel gang wars hegemonic urge
user intention conjuring using “vehicles” expressive choice
heteroglossia polytheism Neo-HooDoo variety (multiculturalism)
monoglossia Atonism logocentrism
novelist houngan author monitoring (negotiation)
language ≠ intention loa ≠ human stereotype ≠ self map ≠ territory, difference
reified discourse symbolism surrealism distanced discourse, respect

I am aware that some of the analogies presented here go beyond the scope of this article, yet I hope that future work can further systematize the metaphors expressing heteroglot and possessive phenomena. Similarities between Bakhtin and Reed may become somewhat less surprising if we consider that both writers base their respective approaches to discourse on paganism and multiculturalism, which they see as causally connected. Reed claims that “Voodoo is the perfect metaphor for the multiculture,”36 the figure of a system that can integrate multicultural communication.37 Bakhtin similarly traces heteroglossia back to polyglossia, which could only come into being in the Roman and Hellenistic age of “hybrid culture and hybrid literary forms” (63).

Is there anything we can learn from observing these analogies? In “putting da hoodoo” on Bakhtin I intend to show that a heathen “aesthetic” can to a certain extent do the work of a theory, not because it creates a mental world of abstract ideals, but because it offers useful concrete concepts, metaphors which are tied to experiential reality. Reed's Neo-HooDoo approach to language may offer insights into the life of discourse which merely “abstract” theories, because of their metaphorical poverty, foreclose. Thus, not only can Bakhtin's “double-voiced” terminology “explain” Reed's use of “loas” and “vehicles” but, conversely, the voodoo aesthetic can integrate some of the discursive phenomena merely suggested in Bakhtin's concrete metaphors into an old oral tradition, which in addressing itself to “material objects and phenomena” shuns abstractons.38 This approach does not decry the “predicament” of the metaphor as imprisoning, but searches in a “treasure-house” of many metaphors for the one that best defines, explains, or represents a situation. Voodoo terminology uncompromisingly insists on familiarization and personification, on the interaction between myth and physical reality in ritual, and on the priority of function. Moreover, it can integrate a Lakoffian view of experiential concepts. If Bakhtin moves halfway out of abstract terminology and into concrete metaphors, voodoo does so radically, something, furthermore, it can do because it differentiates between principle and manifestation and in the metaphor of “possession” also explains their interaction. Thus, voodoo needs no vague discursive formations which combine representation and reality; it can disentangle the often confusing issue of meta-language.39 In the manner of differential calculus, such an aesthetic tackles the “ocean of heteroglossia”40 by way of multiple defining moments of possession. All of these issues may offer a fresh outlook on the nature of a decentered hermeneutic circularity and, more important, may in the future also help us better understand multicultural discourse.


  1. Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972); all subsequent references are cited by page in the text.

  2. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 3. Focusing on the “experiential” nature of metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson link cognitive categories to physical experiences and maintain that even abstract notions are ultimately expressed concretely: “No metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis” (p. 19).

  3. Liliane Papin, “This Is Not a Universe: Metaphor, Language, and Representation,” PMLA, 107.5 (1992): 1259. Papin contrasts the “limitation” of metaphor to its “potential.” She defines “metaphorical leaps” as theoretical insights which can come about only if a model is defined by new metaphors (her example is the issue of light as either particles or waves in physics; ibid., 1260).

  4. See Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (1957; rpt. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 109-159.

  5. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. and trans. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 333; all subsequent references are cited by page in the text.

  6. Bakhtin, like Lakoff and Johnson, insists on “the brute materiality, the typicality, that is the essential attribute not only of actions, gestures and separate words and expressions, but the basic ingredient as well in point of view, in how the world is seen and felt, ways that are organically part and parcel with the language that expresses them” (ibid., p. 367).

  7. Bakhtin observes that “certain kinds of internally persuasive discourse can be fundamentally and organically fused with the image of a speaking person: ethical (discourse fused with the image of, let us say, a preacher), philosophical (discourse fused with the image of a wise man), sociopolitical (discourse fused with an image of a Leader)” (ibid., p. 347).

  8. Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York: McPherson, 1953), p. 88. In my short presentation of voodoo phenomena I consciously limit myself to books that have been used by Ishmael Reed (see the bibliography appended to Mumbo Jumbo). As voodoo is not an orthodox matter, I concentrate on sources that are philologically relevant to “Neo-HooDoo.”

  9. Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo, trans. Robert B. Cross (San Franscisco: City Lights Books, 1985), p. 11. Although voodooists may believe that the loas are transcendent forces, the context of ancestor worship makes it clear that they are historically developed entities.

  10. Deren, Divine Horsemen, p. 10. This seems to correspond to the “living impulse … toward the object” of Bakhtin's “language” (Dialogic Imagination, p. 291).

  11. Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse (Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1981), p. 234. Obviously Reed's cowboys in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969) are loas which “possess” other characters. Reed also relates possession to the ventriloquism of Black Peter and his dummy in The Terrible Twos (New York: St. Martin's/Marek, 1982), pp. 22-28. Actually this imagery coincides with Bakhtin's words: “Thus a prose writer … speaks, as it were, through language, a language that has somehow more or less materialized, become objectivized, that he merely ventriloquates” (Dialogic Imagination, p. 299).

  12. Deren, Divine Horsemen, p. 16.

  13. The narrator in Mumbo Jumbo describes how “the loa is known by its signs and is fed, celebrated, drummed to until it deserts the horse and govi of its host and goes about its business” (p. 50). Also compare this to Bakhtin: “The action and individual act of a character in a novel are essential in order to expose—as well as to test—his ideological position, his discourse” (Dialogic Imagination, p. 334).

  14. Sheldon Williams, Voodoo and the Art of Haiti (Nottingham: Oxley Press, n.d.), p. 5.

  15. See the Watson cross, worn by many of Ishmael Reed's HooDoo heroes, for example, all the Workers in The Last Days of Louisiana Red (New York: Random House, 1974).

  16. Robert Gover, “An Interview with Ishmael Reed,” Black American Literature Forum, 12.1 (1978): 19.

  17. Ibid., p. 15.

  18. Voodoo semiotics thus may also explain why Roland Barthes's myth can appropriate language.

  19. Reed, Yellow Back, p. 81.

  20. Thus, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967) Harry Sam dominates Nixon; in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down Drag Gibson dominates the Banker, the Marshall, and the Doctor of the town; in Flight to Canada (New York: Random House, 1976) Swille dominates Lincoln; and in The Terrible Twos the Colorado Gang dominate President Dean Clift (Reed here creates an analogy between the Harding and the Reagan administrations).

  21. Compare this situation to Bakhtin's wording: “Stylized language” is projected into “new scenarios, testing it in situations that would have been impossible for it on its own” (Dialogic Imagination, p. 363). “In a word, the novelistic plot serves to represent speaking persons and their ideological worlds” (ibid., p. 365).

  22. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, p. 293. This aspect is already implied (though unwittingly) in the arbitrary selectiveness of voodoo ancestor worship. Only useful spirits will be “fed” and thus can survive.

  23. The specification of the vehicles is important because they are the clue to who murdered two Wall Street bankers at a Harlem intersection. Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, p. 23.

  24. Reed, Louisiana Red, p. 7.

  25. The “inventor of the 3-element vacuum tube which helped make big time radio possible,” Dr. Lee De Forest, is blamed at a press conference because “his invention [is] now in the grips of Jes Grew.” Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, p. 94.

  26. Reed also uses the term “vessel” in the context of possession by loas in jazz. Gover, “Interview,” p. 15.

  27. Ishmael Reed defines existentialism as “A Way of Saying Nothing,” in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), p. 93.

  28. Yet the speckled (“piebald”; Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, p. 71) nature of the horse indicates that variety resurges within the single symbolic vehicle. This is, however, possible only through linguistic ambiguity and thus loss of precision.

  29. Thus the “poverty” vowed by the Templars seems to be a spiritual one, see also Matthew 5:3.

  30. “Driving” seems a natural modernizing of the “riding” metaphor.

  31. Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo, p. 69.

  32. See also Ishmael Reed's two jazz albums with the band Conjure and his collection of poetry containing the “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), pp. 20-25.

  33. Ishmael Reed sometimes wears the Watson cross himself. Reed, Shrovetide, p. 271.

  34. Ibid., p. 132.

  35. Of course the notion of principle is problematic in a context of concrete theory. The fourth column is thus not paradigmatically consistent (or systematic), but merely provides additional explanatory points of reference.

  36. Reed, Shrovetide, p. 232.

  37. On Reed's multiculturalism, see also the essay by Jeffrey Melnik in this volume.

  38. Deren, Divine Horsemen, p. 88. Deren also relates material metaphors for voodoo processes of the mind to contemporary Western education: “In effect, this use of ritual constitutes the primitive version of the new theory underlying audio-visual aids and the contemporary appreciation of the efficacy of movies and television as means of concretely conveying the operation of scientific principles and theories” (ibid., p. 89).

  39. This primitive tradition takes for granted Magritte's insight that the picture of a pipe “is not a pipe.” Papin, “This Is Not a Universe,” p. 1259.

  40. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, p. 368.

Sämi Ludwig (essay date fall 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5862

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 task of performing an act of narratological induction, of recognizing “Who speaks?” This procedure, which is quite the opposite of the traditional sorting out and establishing of a hierarchical system of narratological levels, can be traced back to animistic practices of the kind Reed presents in his Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic. In Voodoo, rather than starting out from given notions of origin and authority, one is first confronted with particular cases of possession by a voice and must then infer the cause; the animistic strategy is one of recognizing the loas, the Voodoo gods. This attitude is generalized and modernized in Reed's appropriation of the genre of the detective story and in the “metaphysical detection” of his principal protagonist PaPa LaBas. As a strategy, it may actually help one to better cope with a postmodern world of simulacra. Moreover, the particular qualities of ancestor worship can explain the figurative circularity of such a non-essentialist inductive strategy of identifying forces.

One of the most striking aspects of Reed's style is the complex focalization patterns of his narrative. The way in which he deals with focalizers and avoids the hierarchical straight-jacket of authorial control confronts the reader with a confusing array of “voices” that somehow speak for themselves. Reed's fictional practice goes beyond the system of definitions provided by traditional literary theories of narratology and focalization: The notion of “free indirect discourse,”1 for example, cannot in a satisfactory way explain the way Reed combines narration and focalization. Somehow his focalizers turn from mere media or filters into independent sources of information or narrators in their own right. Actually, in many instances, focalization in the sense of mediation is abolished. This can be shown in a scene in Mumbo Jumbo in which Reed's protagonist/hero PaPa LaBas is in court, defending himself against harassment by the “Manhattan Atonists”2:

PaPa LaBas is a descendant of a long line of people who made their pact with nature long ago. He would never say, “If you've seen 1 redwood tree, you've seen them all”; rather, he would reply with the African Chieftain, “I am the elephant,” said long before Liverpool went on record for this. The reply was made when a Huxley had the nerve to warn him about the impending extinction of the elephant—an extinction which Huxley's countrymen were precipitating in the 1st place.

(Freud would read this as “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole,” which poor Freud “never experienced,” being an Atonist, the part of Jealous Art which shut out of itself all traces of animism. When Freud came to New York in 1909 LaBas sought him out to teach him The Work; but he couldn't gain entrance to the hotel suite, which was blocked by ass-kissers, sycophants, similar to those who were to surround Hitler and Stalin later, telling the “Master” what they wanted him to hear and screening all alien material meant for their master's attention. They had told LaBas to take the back elevator even though some of them prided themselves on their liberalism. 42 Professors from New York University or people from Columbia University.) (The 1909 versions of Albert Goldman, the “pop” expert for Life magazine and The New York Times who in a review of a record made by some character who calls himself Doctor John [when the original Doctor John was described by New Orleans contemporaries as a “huge Black man …, a Sen[e]galese Prince …] made some of the most scurrilous attacks on the VooDoo religion to date—I. R.)3Humiliated, PaPa LaBas had left the hotel, the laughter of these men behind him. He didn't get to see Freud, much to Freud's and Western Civilization's loss.

He could have taught Freud The Work.

LaBas sits in court awaiting the clerk to call his case.

No one called him an anti-Negro vulgarian, however.


In this scene PaPa LaBas is first described from the outside by the narrator, who then speculates about what “he would never say” and what he “would reply,” an analogy, as it turns out, which “was made” by “him,” and thus an actual quotation of LaBas, not the narrator. This is followed by a bracketed paragraph in italics about Freud, whose focalization is also assumed with a “would,” initiating a direct quotation, probably from one of Freud's lectures, which is followed by a voice calling Freud an “Atonist” and commenting about him very sarcastically. This other narrator is once removed from the original narrator. Though very close to LaBas, he presents an episode about him: “LaBas sought him out to teach him The Work.” This second narrative voice is then followed by somebody else's plain text statement in another pair of parentheses, interrupted by a bracketed statement, initialed “I. R.,” and footnoted, by some narrator, who probably again takes over the discourse in italics, this time unbracketed, however constantly moving into free indirect discourse focalizing through LaBas. Would this then be a third or a fourth narrator? Or only an additional “attitude”? The italics are followed by a regular-type narration of events by what we may take for the “original” narrator. Obviously at this point the very notion of “the narrator” has turned polyvocal.4

How are we to interpret this confusing chaos of narrators and focalizers? It is obvious that Reed is not keeping order. His stream of consciousness is a mess; we must constantly shift our focalizer attribution among the multi-leveled narrators: LaBas, Freud, the author-in-the-book “I. R.,” and the footnoter. As opposed to New Critical Modernist practice, however, Reed's ambiguity here is not semantic but focal and modal. Most statements in Mumbo Jumbo may be hyperbolic or far-fetched, yet their intrinsic content as statements is clear. What is not clear, or at least not always provided by the narrator, is most often the origin of the statements, or subject of utterance. Narratological closure is not possible. Reed, I would suggest, shreds the notion of hierarchical, well-ordered narratology. Unlike most other postmodern writers, however, he does this in a way which reflects and acknowledges traditional pagan origins.

Let me propose that, just as poets once turned to “free verse,” Reed presents a kind of “free narratology.” What Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls the “second, anti-, narration[, consisting] of all the motley sub-texts in Mumbo Jumbo which are not included in its first narration” (“‘Blackness’” 168), goes beyond binary complementation (the simplest kind of hierarchy) and is rather a “multi-narration.” Only from the perspective of a centered Atonist narration naturalized as “primary” will its multiplicity “figure” as a unified “ground” or negativity. However, Reed does not offer a carefully crafted hierarchical pyramid of narrative control; the whole superstructure of controlled mediation is almost totally abolished. In a somewhat less chaotic way, one can also find such tendencies in modernist writers such as Faulkner (e.g., Absalom, Absalom!), who does, however, not claim to undermine narrative hierarchy. We may refer to Henry James as a contrastive example in this context, as an exemplary master of control, whose artistry, especially in his famous short stories, can usually be traced back to what Linda Hutcheon calls a “Jamesian center of consciousness” (167), a central focalizer presenting the events in a biased way (e.g., “The Liar,” “The Real Thing,” etc.). Whereas James tends to work with implicit narrative hierarchies, which can be seen in retrospect or which are at least always assumed, Reed in many ways circumvents narratological order as such. Just as in Zora Neale Hurston's “speakerly” discourse, which enables “a multiplicity of narrative voices to assume control of the text” (Gates, Signifying 196), in Reed focalizers are not organized in a narrative grammar.

One of the most striking consequences of Reed's narrative technique is the unmediated use of “voices,” which are presented in an unmarked way—i.e., without quotation marks. The reader cannot differentiate among different meta-levels of diegesis because Reed puts almost all of his text on the same narrative level. Simply presented with a variety of voices, the reader has to figure out for him- or herself who “speaks,” who it is that one is reading (or “listening to”). The gist of Reed's narrative technique is his ability to make the reader recognize what is going on although speakers are not identified. Hence, any such information is intrinsic to the voices, who speak for themselves; it is not provided by an extrinsic authority. Much of this is like a radio play without all the nonverbal information. Rather than experiencing a performance, we are reading a script—yet from the words we can extrapolate tone and thus mood, intention, and character, and ultimately identify the speaker in a particular context.

To be sure, this is not particularly new or original. The French writer Guillaume Apollinaire dropped quotation marks long before Reed.5 Moreover, modernists such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce make use of “free” voices in their work as well. What is special in Reed's case, however, is, first, the highly insistent way in which he foregrounds these features: He plays with them consciously. Secondly, as a literary technique, his practice can be integrated into a pagan framework of the Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic, as I will show below. Though the symptoms may be the same, the respective rationales behind them are different: Reed's is a case of syncretic tradition rather than modernist fragmentation—i.e., his vision somehow “coheres,” for the negativity of one approach is the positivity of the other.

All of Reed's voices coexist in the same realm of direct dialogue, including the voice of the narrator, which is merely another one among them. As a result, his prose turns the reading experience into a crossroads zone of Bakhtinian polyvocal interaction.6 These are the unmarked voices of Black Herman, PaPa LaBas, the Black Muslim Abdul Hamid, and the narrator:

What do you think this Jes Grew is up to?

It's up to its Text. … It must find its Speaking or strangle upon its own ineloquence.

Interesting theory.

I don't quite agree with it, in fact I think it's a lot of Bull.

Black Herman and PaPa LaBas direct their attention to the man standing against the wall.


The disagreement is expressed by a different voice in the conversation, which is only afterwards identified as belonging to Abdul. Only the dramaturgy of the argument and the content of the statements make it possible to figure out what is going on. Reed even plays with quotation marks in the inverted sense, when in another scene he claims that “… the Guianese art critic … was ‘human too.’ We won't yield these gentlemen until you explain rationally and soberly what they are guilty of. This is no kangaroo courtroom, this is a free country” (160). In this instance the lack of quotation marks separating direct speech is especially noticeable because it is preceded by ironic quotation marks. There is no a priori hierarchy or order of perspectives presented; all differentiation is intrinsic.

In my opinion, Reed's most beautiful example involving the “voice” strategy occurs when the Reverend Jefferson comes to New York to take his truant son back to Rē-mōte, Mississippi, and catches the three Atonists by surprise:

It don't look too bad; a little more and I'll be a light brown and then …


The 3, Hubert, Hinckle, and W. W., turn to see a huge man dressed in a black Stetson, Wild Bill Hickock flowing tie and black clergyman outfit and cowboy boots.


The 3 deacons accompanying Rev. Jefferson kneel as Rev. Jefferson stretches his hands toward the heavens.

Lawd we axes you to pray over this boy … mmmmmmmmmmm An' deliver this child away from these naked womens … mmmm And sweet black mens. And save his soul from torment … mm

What is the meaning of this? Busting into my estate unannounced like this? Who are these men, W. W.? Hinckle asks, turning to his columnist.

W. W. is sobbing softly. It's my paw and his deacons, Publisher Hinckle Von Vampton.

Well it's a pleasure to meet you, Hinckle says. …


The capitals automatically raise the volume of the voice. “LAWD” identifies the stereotype of a black Christian, as do the humming and his way of reasoning. Reed puts qualities into print that are usually the privilege of oral media. Within the dialogue, recognition takes place as well. “PA!!!” must, for want of another suitable candidate, come from Woodrow Wilson Jefferson. Only then is the loud voice identified as “Rev. Jefferson,” the preacher whose countrified prayer-voice belongs to him like his typified outfit. Similarly Hinckle Von Vampton and Woodrow Wilson can be recognized by their voices and attitudes. The few “asks” and “says” phrases, which appear late in the scene, are redundant and merely make for easier reading. It is mainly in Reed's language that we find typified strategies, which not only reflect certain value systems but also function as dynamic forces defining speakers and thus propelling the course of the narrative.

We can only appreciate Reed's narrative logic (or lack thereof) if we see in it a strategy which is the only possible access we have to information in a mythological realm of knowledge in which the origin of inspiration is mostly unknown or of doubtful attribution. This is, of course, a typical feature of orality and its lack of traceable textual origins. Thus the focalizers—i.e., the centers of consciousness from which the information originates—must be found in retrospect and be inferred from the symptoms. There is no superior archimedic authorial position in relation to which all statements can be placed; there is no Kronos-like perspective of the father which “swallows” all other opinions, no narrative center through which we are supposed to assess the source of a given statement. Narrative levels in the sense of subordination, taken for granted in narratology (e.g., Rimmon-Kenan 87 ff.), dissolve. Such an attitude is diametrically opposed to the Bible, which starts out from a preceding and given nominal logos, a center of consciousness from which all meaning emanates. Neo-HooDoo discourse does not emphasize an elitist attitude of Quod licet Iovi non licet bovi; it concentrates on the statement first.

Moreover, Reed's use of “voices,” as already hinted at in the examples, is not limited to the oral dimension but involves a certain amount of dramaturgy as well. Walter J. Ong writes, “Spoken words are always modifications of a total situation which is more than verbal. They never occur alone, in a context simply of words” (101). In addition to creating focalizers and ideology, Reed's prose also uncovers a dramatic scene, the action of which is contained in its implied gaps. Therefore the text must be seen as necessarily invoking a physical context, something Keir Elam would call a “dramatic world” (98 ff.).7 This means that the issue of identifying speakers from the signs provided by their voices is only a specific instance of the more general issue of extrapolating a situated context from the limited information that signs can provide. Therefore the rules of Reed's particular “narratology” apply not only to the voices of direct speech but to any textual signs that have to do with a total situation—i.e., also to elements of description. (Hence the same rules can be applied to the detective story, as I will show further below.)


How did you know it was me?

(Mumbo Jumbo 127)

In Reed's work, such a dramaturgic and oral interpretive context is consistent with animistic practice. It implies a specific mode of exegesis which starts out from the perceptible manifestations and infers from them the virtual causes, a procedure which Reed closely assoc