"Strange, History. Complicated, Too": Ishmael Reed's Use of African-American History in 'Flight to Canada.'

By Davis, Matthew R. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

"Strange, History. Complicated, Too": Ishmael Reed's Use of African-American History in 'Flight to Canada.'


Davis, Matthew R., The Mississippi Quarterly


Ishmael Reed maintains a complicated relationship with African-American experience, clearly visible in his 1976 novel, Might to Canada Relying upon the conventions of antebellum slave narratives for its structure and style, Flight to Canada forges a concrete link with the earliest form of African-American letters. Despite this novel's ostensible origins in the slave narrative, Reed "refuses to be a slave to his narrative."(1) This is apparent not only from Reed's conscious and deliberate use of anachronisms within his text--slaves fleeing on jumbo jets, slave quarters furnished with telephones and cable television, and carriages equipped with "climate control air conditioning, vinyl top, AM/FM stereo radio, full leather interior, power-lock doors, six-way power seat, power windows, white-wall wheels, door-edge guards, bumper impact strips, rear defroster and soft-ray glass"(2)--but also from his reluctance to resolve various other conflicts within the text: he never reconciles Lincoln as either a player or a fool, never fully distinguishes between Raven's narrative and that of Robin, and never explains why Quaw Quaw and Pirate Jack are together at the beginning of the novel, when, chronologically, she has already discovered that he uses her father's head for an ashtray and that Jack has buried her brother in the museum of natural history. While these inconsistencies have sent critics off in search of new ways to characterize Reed's aesthetic--anachronistic, Neo-HooDoo, necromancy, or others--I find a plausible explanation for Reed's particular deployment of history and his use of anachronism within the writings of William ells Brown, a man important not only as the first African-American playwright and novelist, but also as a character within Reed's novel. While characterizations of Reed's work as anachronistic or as an example of his Neo-HooDoo aesthetic are useful starting places for an examination of Reed's relationship with history, they fail to account fully for Reed's particular deployment of history. Although the historical figures of William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass are both available to Reed, Flight to Canada relies upon themes, stylistic devices, and characters introduced and developed in the works of William Wells Brown, revealing an affiliation between Reed and Brown in their individual belief in HooDoo, their use of anachronism, their particular political and social views, and, importantly, their styles.

Reed's tricky and unstable relationship with history is apparent throughout the novel. Not only are we bombarded with historical speculation and inaccuracies, but Reed also consistently references history as strange and bizarre--as in the quotation in the title of this essay, which comes from a longer quotation: "Strange, history. Complicated, too. It will always be a mystery, history. New disclosures are as bizarre as the most bizarre fantasy" (p. 8). Furthering this conception of history as flexible, mutable, and, perhaps more importantly, incomprehensible, Reed intersperses his text with questions such as "Where does fact begin and fiction leave off?" (p. 10) and statements such as "slavery was an anachronism" (p. 49). Later, as Reed's protagonist rails against revisionary history, the difficulty of pinning down Reed's particular relationship with history becomes clear.

One compelling way to theorize Reed's work is to label it anachronistic and then discuss how anachronism inflects his text. According to Barbara Foley, African-American writers are constantly in need of living up to the legacy of truthfulness in their writings. This legacy emerges from the earliest African-American writing--the slave narrative--and the need to authenticate the narrative with letters vouching for the slave's veracity and for the true authorship of the work. Flight to Canada challenges this legacy by using Reed's own blend of anachronistic history to make whatever he wants out of it, to include "the politics and prejudices of the writer, rather than any meaning inherent in the `facts' themselves" and to "mold the interpretations that we commonly accept as truth. …

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