Ishmael Reed on the Rampage

By Hubbard, Lee | American Visions, April-May 1998 | Go to article overview

Ishmael Reed on the Rampage


Hubbard, Lee, American Visions


Max Roach called Ishmael Reed "the Charlie Parker of American fiction," but Reed likes to think of himself as "the tommy Harns of writing." Hearns is an unorthodox southpaw boxing champion who has taken on all comers and has won six different weight division titles over an 18-year career. Reed is an unorthodox writer who has taken on the media, the writing establishment, feminists, politicians, blacks whites and american institution of higher learning.

He has written poetry, fiction, essays, plays, songs for Taj Mahal and a libretto for the San Francisco Opera Company. "I think I've done well in my writing career, considering how the United states treats black writers," says Reed, who has written more than 20 books and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards. "Black writers are under literary colonialism."

As he eases back into his chair at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has been teaching English for the past 20 years, the baby face of this 60-year-old turns into an old, angry scowl. "The Northeast writing establishment uses blacks to peddle whatever notions they have at the particular time," he says. "The Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and other publications that harbor hostility toward black people select black intellectuals who will validate their positions."

Reed believes that these "talented tenthers," led by Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, have set up a black Vichy regime. (The French Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.) "These blacks-Vichy-regime intellectuals don't and won't support black writers with viewpoint that differ from their own, such as black nationalist, multiculturalist and anyone who makes white people feel uneasy.

"It's time for African-American writers to end the slave-slave master relationship." Reed's recent anthology, MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (Penguin Books, 1997), showcases writers who offer a refreshing perspective on the paradigm of race relations in the United States. Although it has been honored by the Italian American Society in New York City and is being used in classrooms across the country, "this book is being ignored by the establishment because it doesn't see a black-white conflict," Reed says.

The book's contributors are black, white, Asian and Hispanic writers, including Miguel Algarin, Amiri Baraka, Helen Barolini, Frank Chin, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, and Haki Madhubuti. "This book is a way to create a dialogue so people can understand people's cultures," explains the self-proclaimed multiculturalist who consistently incorporates different aspects of other people's cultures into his work. In so doing, he hopes to break the stereotypical mirror of race that pervades the air today.

In the novel Japanese by Spring (Penguin, 1993), Reed uses Japanese language and culture in a satire on political correctness and the ordeals of a black professor on a college campus. Some readers may have difficulty interpreting Reed's satirical wit, which he says comes out of the Yoruba tradition of West Africa, a culture that he studied for 10 years. Perhaps a better window of opinion can be formed by beginning with Reed's nonfictional work, which is just as biting but offers insight on actual political events of the day. Reed's fighting spirit in such books as God Made Alaska for the Indians (Garland, 1982), Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Atheneum, 1989) and Writin is Fightin (Atheneum, 1991) translates to all of his writing.

One of his biggest fights has been against the mainstream media. "The state of American journalism in its portrayal of minorities is horrible," says Reed. "It's no different in the treatment of minorities than the media in Nazi Germany, which labeled Jews in the 1930s and '40s, or how the Americans wrote about the Japanese during World War II."

In his most recent nonfiction book, Airing Dirty Laundry (Addison-Wesley, 1995), he analyzes how the media cover blacks and minorities and how they love to talk about the dirty laundry of the black community but rarely talk about their own particular communities. …

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