In his title essay, “Shrovetide in Old New Orleans,” Ishmael Reed describes a phantasmagoric scene of wild and passionate contrasts, a confusion of shapes and a medley of dissonant sounds. His collection as a whole resembles the disorderly, strangely haunting scene of carnival time in New Orleans. Most of the pieces are miscellaneous sketches, with only a few fully developed essays; the rest are very brief topical articles in newspapers and magazines, interviews with prominent black writers and artists, book reviews, and self-advertisements. In “The Great Tenure Battle of 1977,” Reed reprints an inter view by Jon Ewing, portions of which were published originally in The Daily Californian. And in “Ishmael Reed—Self Interview,” the author serves his ends by acting as both questioner and respondent.
Indeed, the major subject of this volume is Ishmael Reed himself—poet, novelist, critic, black activist, black conservative, black liberal. Although the author’s interests range from voodoo in New Orleans and Haiti to the Raven’s Bones Foundation in Alaska, from white racism to black, from literature and art to politics, his overriding concern lies in his developing consciousness. Taken as a whole, the essays and occasional pieces reveal a complex mind, that of a would-be prophet not entirely certain of his objectives but passionate in pursuit of their vague outlines, a multitalented artist searching for conviction.
Reed is aware of some of these contrasts. An advocate of unpopular causes, he has served as the gadfly of the black literary establishment. “I lose fans and friends . . . because I’m blunt,” he writes. “A heathen, basically, I have cultivated as many enemies as friends.” Although some readers of his volume of essays may wonder whether the author is a genuine “heathen,” few will deny that he seems to go out of his way to cultivate adversaries. He is more than blunt; he is aggressive. The literary mask he wears is that of the impudent intellectual, too proud to argue with inferiors, too ironical nevertheless to accept his public mask without private laughter. “Unlike many black writers who write autobiographies of the spirit, the body, or the mind,” he sasses, “I don’t love everybody.” Or again: “Maybe I should become a ’stand-up’ comedian as some of my critics suggest. . . .” Or once more, in his “Self-Interview”: “Question: ’Why you so mean and hard?’ Answer: ’Because I am an Afro-American male, the most exploited and feared class in this country.’”
It is difficult to imagine Reed as feared, impossible to believe that he is exploited. Quite the contrary, he is affluent. Worse for his image, he is comfortable. “My body is a solid,” he boasts—“except for a paunch that’s a celebrity, having been written up in the Washington Evening Star, and is held by a big frame.” However, “sit-ups are forcing the paunch back into its place,” and besides, his physical problem is only “a middle-class complaint.” The reader imagines that Reed utters these outrageous comments fully expecting the worst. Shock them; anger them. So he hides nothing. His wife is white—well, not really; she’s a “Semite,” he informs his interviewer (“The Great Tenure Battle of 1977”): “. . . to call her my white wife is to dehumanize her, even if it were true. And if I were married to a Northern European or a Southern European, that would be my business.” Is Reed serious? Or is the witty author of Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red taunting his liberal readers, quietly amused with his private ironies?
Most ironical of all, Reed discovers the liberal in himself. Although he excoriates Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Roger Rosenblatt, Robert Moss, and others as liberals—or “Gliberals,” his cant word for the enemy—he must finally admit that “we all had a good laugh on the liberal until we discovered the liberal in us all.” Even in Ishmael Reed? For this offense, he is contrite, apologetic. To demonstrate his superior tolerance, he quotes with approval...
(The entire section is 1682 words.)