Racial Discourse and Black-Japanese Dynamics in Ishmael Reed's Japanese by Spring

By Anderson, Crystal S. | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Racial Discourse and Black-Japanese Dynamics in Ishmael Reed's Japanese by Spring


Anderson, Crystal S., MELUS


Ishmael Reed's work usually elicits strong responses, both positive and negative. As someone "who for years has aired the dirty laundry of the black, white, yellow and the brown community," Reed feels free to critique ethnic US culture with impunity ("Airing" t79). Despite the controversy, he creates an innovative way of exploring US ethnic literature by focusing on the dynamic among US ethnic groups. By placing Blacks and various Asian and Asian American groups in conversation with one another, he joins such African American writers as Octavia Butler and Paul Beatty and Chinese American writers as Maxine Hong Kingston, Frank Chin, and Gish Jen in exploring elements of racial discourse that go beyond the black-white continuum. Such interchanges sometimes result in harmony and consensus, other times in disagreement and dispute. Both scenarios demand a mode of critical examination that can make sense of multiple ethnic experiences. In focusing on his exploration of an African American/Japanese dynamic in Japanese by Spring, this article will examine Reed's transference of the black-white racial dynamic onto the Japanese. Within an American context, he uses the Japanese as a metaphor for white supremacy and allies them with American Blacks in the struggle for racial equality in America. In doing so, he simultaneously privileges a multiethnic perspective and undermines that perspective by reinforcing the black-white racial paradigm.

Reed's interrogations of multiple ethnic groups demonstrate that all multiculturalisms are not created equal. Uncritical multiculturalist literary approaches, or approaches mostly concerned with acknowledging the existence of various ethnic groups, fail to address fiction like Reed's that interrogates relationships between ethnic groups. Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield note how many efforts at multiculturalism protect the status quo that erases ethnic difference and fails to engender change: "If you thought there were mainly two races, multiculturalism insisted there are at least five.... If you were led to assume that American culture would be better if color-blind, then multiculturalism shocked you by showing that color consciousness is American culture" (3). This brand of multiculturalism draws attention to diversity, but does little to explain how those ethnic groups interact with each other. The literary criticism that it spawns often uncritically lumps such groups under the label of "minority" and assumes that their experience is shaped wholly by the dominant culture. By doing so, it overlooks the dynamic between ethnicities.

Conversely, David Palumbo-Liu speaks of a critical multiculturalism that reveals the dynamics between ethnic groups. Palumbo-Liu asserts that "critical multiculturalism explores the fissures, tensions, and sometimes contradictory demands of multiple cultures, rather than (only) celebrating the plurality of cultures by passing through them appreciatively" ("Introduction" 5). Instead of glossing over the complex relationships between ethnic groups, this brand of multiculturalism seeks to understand clashes. Reed clearly practices this form of multiculturalism, for Sharon Jessee lauds his fictional vision of "the multiculture as a sort of collective consciousness to be created through cultural exchanges between individuals and groups which will revitalize not only their individual experiences but their culture as well" (5).

Critical cultural discourse produced by scholars of color recognizes the context created by other cultural realities. Around the time W.E.B. Du Bois formulated his notion of "double consciousness" as it related to Blacks at the turn of the century in The Souls of Black Folk, he also placed African Americans in a global context in his 1897 essay, "The Conservation of Races": "The American Negro has always felt an intense personal interest in discussions as to the origins and destinies of races" (38). Du Bois's use of the plural implies that Blackness must be situated among different cultural realities. …

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