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.
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.
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).
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.