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A highly original satirist and writer of experimental fiction, Ishamel Reed is best known for novels that assail aspects of western religion, politics, and technology. Reed is known as much for his criticism of mainstream society as of African-American society, which has led to harsh reactions against him from other black American writers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Years in New York
Ishmael Scott Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on February 22, 1938.
He moved with his mother to Buffalo, New York in 1942. He lived there for twenty years, during which time he attended night school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. while in night school, Reed wrote a short story called ”Something Pure,” in which Jesus returns as an advertising agent with a unique sales strategy that causes him to be ridiculed and scorned. The story attracted the attention of an English professor who subsequently helped Reed become a full-time student at the university. However, Reed eventually left SUNY-Buffalo in 1960 because of financial problems. He briefly worked for a local newspaper and then left Buffalo.
Reed moved east to New York City, where he began writing ”visionary poetry”—a loosely-defined type of poetry that focuses on metaphysical and spiritual imagery—and became affiliated with the Umbra workshop, a group of artists and intellectuals associated with the growing Black Power movement, part of the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. Reed also founded the East Village Other, a popular underground newspaper. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., ”Reed’s New York period was crucial in his evolution as an artist.” Between 1965 and 1966, Reed wrote his first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers (1967), a parody of the confessional style that has characterized much black fiction since the slave narratives of the eighteenth century. The book was warmly received by critics upon its publication.
In his next work, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Reed introduced his Neo-HooDoo concept. As Reed explained in Conjure (1972), ”Neo-HooDoo believes that every man is an artist and every artist a priest.” Reed saw Neo-HooDoo as an artistic movement that embraced ”all styles and moods.” The concepts of time and syncretism emerge as central to Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down and Reed’s vision of Neo Hoo-Doo. The title essentially means that the racial and political difficulties of an old west town called Yellow Back Radio are explained, or “broke[n] down,” for the reader. A spoof of Western pulp fiction, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is about the forces of intuition and irrationality, represented here by the Loop Garoo Kid, the Neo-HooDoo hero, in conflict with those of rationalism and science, as embodied by Drag Gibson.
A Love of Parody and Satire
Reed extended his Neo-HooDoo philosophy in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Both novels are parodies of the mystery genre in which a detective, Papa LaBas (who represents the voodoo deity Legba), attempts through voodoo to combat spells cast by the white establishment, which seeks to anesthetize the artistic and political black communities. A subplot in The Last Days of Louisiana Red involves a black radical feminist group called the Moochers, who conspire with white males to subdue black men. This theme is prevalent throughout Reed’s work and has prompted feminists to criticize him harshly. The Last Days of Louisiana Red also drew criticism from advocates of the Black Aesthetic, a movement that had arisen from the political culture of Black Nationalism in the 1960s and that viewed black artists as activists for their ethnicity. Objecting to Reed’s satire of black cultural nationalists in the novel, Houston A. Baker wrote: ”Concerned primarily with his own survival, [Reed] turns on the culture and destroys it with satire.”
His next novel, Flight to Canada, continued to use parody and satire to explore themes of race, politics, and American society. In it, Reed lampoons the slave narrative and, particularly, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Reed has continued to satirize in subsequent novels, occasionally analyzing the American political and economic systems. In The Terrible Twos (1982), Reed distorts Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol into a dark satire on racism and greed during the Ronald Reagan-led 1980s, equating the selfishness and destructive tendencies of the United States with those traditionally displayed by two-year-old children.
Reed continued to play with these themes in his next novel, Reckless Eyeballing (1986), a caustic satire of literary politics. Through his writing, Reed criticized what he perceived as a conspiracy between white male publishers and black female writers to subjugate black men by incorporating negative depictions of them into their work. In 1989, Reed published a sequel to The Terrible Twos. In The Terrible Threes, he speculated on the future and presented 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 and to institute a fundamentalist Christian state.
In addition to his novels, Reed has also written many essays and nonfiction pieces about contemporary American society and politics. Thirty-five of these essays, written between 1978 and 1993, were collected and published as Airing Dirty Laundry (1993). Among Reed’s subjects are how blacks are, in Reed’s opinion, negatively depicted in the mass media; his thoughts on attacks on multicultural education in schools; and how contemporary black intellectuals—among them Toni Cade Bambara and Langston Hughes—have had a significant impact on white America, even though most whites have not heard of them.
Reed has also written several volumes of poetry. In such collections as Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, Chattanooga: Poems (1973), and New and Collected Poetry (1988), he combined black street slang with elements of mythology, voodoo, and pop culture. In addition to writing, Reed promotes young writers through his ”Before Columbus” coalition, an ”anti-Nazi”—the term is Reed’s, presumably referring to his leftist politics— venture that publishes unknown writers of all ethnicities. Yet, despite his poetry and activism, it is his fiction that has attracted the most critical attention, and that attention has often been negative.
A Lightning Rod for Controversy
It can be safely stated that Reed’s writings have provoked controversy over the entire course of his career. He has been the target of attacks from both liberals and conservatives, from fellow black writers, from feminists who have accused him of misogyny—hatred of women—and certain literary critics who find his style and subject matter too cynical. What some find distasteful, however, others find merit in, and Reed has garnered much support along with the criticism. Reed continues to receive invitations to give lectures and contribute to magazine columns or articles. He has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has received multiple NEA grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. Reed recently retired from his teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley and is currently focusing on a series of collaborations with jazz musicians.
Works in Literary Context
Reed’s writing is distinguished by dynamic, playful language. For example, he prefers phonetic spellings, uses capitalization for emphasis, and substitutes numbers for words in the text. Although he writes about injustices brought about by Western civilization, he is primarily concerned with establishing an alternative black aesthetic, which he terms Neo-HooDooism. This concept is a combination of aspects of voodoo and other cultural traditions that Reed hopes will forge a multicultural aesthetic to purge African-Americans and Third World peoples of Western influence. Although his works and the Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic have offended some groups and provoked the ire of critics Houston A. Baker, Jr., Addison Gayle, Jr., and Amiri Baraka, Reed is widely regarded as a revolutionary force in American writing. Despite adverse reactions to his works, Reed is committed to satirizing American society—specifically its supposed cultural arrogance and subsequent neglect of those who are not ”vital people,” or members of the dominant culture or moneyed class.
The worlds of Reed’s novels reflect a vaudeville and picaresque universe where folk traditions inform the language and philosophy, where chronology can be altered to prove argumentative points, where the absurd becomes routinely possible, all to reinterpret and analyze the nature of social structure and our cultural manifestations of evil. The achievement that the work brings in sequences of fantastic situations, cartoon events, and biting parody is a coherent investigation of historic motivations, pointing the reader toward a more humane analysis of our cultural journey. Reed’s versatility as a writer allows him to work in many formal genres. The vision is consistent enough that genre becomes liberating more than limiting; while a reader may predict a new Reed work to be inventive, fun, and bordering on the fantastic, the nature and quality of the invention will always be new. His influence may come close to that of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—with every bit as idiosyncratic an attitude as his contemporary fantasist.
All of these elements—satire and parody, inventive fantasy, constant reinvention—are derived from Reed’s Neo-HooDoo philosophy, which a bears a closer analysis. First, some definitions are in order. Hoodoo is the name for a type of African-American folk magic. Closely related to yet distinctly separated from the more familiar practice of Voodoo, both practices share a common ancestry dating back to the days of slavery. West African religious beliefs, outlawed by white slave owners, where folded into the approved Christian religion that all slaves were required to practice. This blending of two separate and seemingly incompatible belief systems is known as syncretism and has become a hallmark of Hoodoo and Voodoo practices ever since.
The Neo-HooDoo Concept
In his second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Reed begins to use at length Hoodoo folklore as a basis for his work. Underlying all of the components of Hoodoo, according to scholars, are two central ideas: that of syncretism and the Hoodoo concept of time. Even before the exportation of slaves to the Caribbean, Hoodoo was a syncretic religion, absorbing all that it considered useful from other West
African religious practices. In the hostile environment of slave-owning America, Hoodoo survived because of its syncretic flexibility—its ability to take even supposedly negative influences and make them into something that helps the believer.
Reed turns this concept of syncretism into a literary method that combines aspects of ”standard” English with less ”standard” language—the language of the streets, and of ”disposable” culture, such as popular music and television. By mixing language from different sources in popular culture, Reed can create the illusion of real speech, since very few people speak ”proper” English in their everyday lives. In Black American Literature Forum, Michel Fabre draws a connection between Reed’s use of language and his vision of the world, suggesting that ”his so-called nonsense words raise disturbing questions . . . about the very nature of language.” Reed emphasizes ”the dangerous interchangeability of words and of the questionable identity of things and people” in other words, the flexible syncretism Reed’s philosophy brings to the English language reflects the transitory nature of language.
Reed applied his Neo-HooDoo philosophy to his poetry as well. In Conjure, ”Neo-Hoodoo Manifesto” defines all that Hoodoo is and thus sheds light on the ways Reed uses its principles in writing, primarily through his absorption of material from every available source and his willingness to reevaluate and reinterpret that material in the best tradition of syncretism.
Works in Critical Context
Reed’s novels ”are meant to provoke,” writes New York Times contributor Darryl Pinckney. Of Reed’s role as an innovative force in American literature, Derek Walcott noted: ”He alters our notion of what is possible. His importance to our use and understanding of language will not be obvious for many years.”
Reed’s poetry has been largely ignored by critics in favor of his fiction. Caroline G. Bokinsky has noted that Reed’s poems ”echo the musical and rhythmical quality of the black dialect,” but added that ”Although the poems attain lyrical excellence, Reed’s anger permeates the poetry.”
Critics are rarely satisfied with Reed’s Neo-HooDooism. Darryl Pinckney contended: ”Reed’s ‘Neo-HooDooism’ is so esoteric that it is difficult to say what he intends by it, whether it is meant to be taken as a system of belief . . . or, as he has also suggested, as . . . a method of composition.” Feminists have attacked his harsh portrayals of women and objected to his allegations that there is a conspiracy between white men and black women to oppress black men. Reed’s satire of black characters has drawn criticism from architects of the Black Aesthetic: critics have accused the author of needlessly attacking a noble cause by lampooning figures in the Black Power and Black Arts movements. Furthermore, commentators have called Reed’s works ”crazy,” ”cute,” and ”living proof that the bacteria of the pop culture has entered the literary world.” Reed responded to such reactions in the introduction to his 1978 essay collection, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans:
Many people have called my fiction muddled, crazy, incoherent, because I’ve attempted in fiction the techniques and forms painters, dancers, film makers, musicians in the West have taken for granted for at least fifty years, and the artists of many other cultures, for thousands of years. Maybe I should hang my fiction in a gallery, or play it on the piano.
The Terrible Threes
Reactions to Reed’s later works, such as The Terrible Threes, were typically mixed. Even the positive reviews tended to note that this particular work did not live up to Reed’s past standards. Several critics warn that readers will find The Terrible Threes near-incomprehensible without first reading The Terrible Twos. Further, New York Times Book Review critic Gerald Early observes, ”The major problem with The Terrible Threes is that it seems to vaporize even as you read it; the very telling artifices that held together Mr. Reed’s novelistic art in previous works, that cunning combination of boundless energy and shrewdly husbanded ingenuity, are missing here. . . . I like The Terrible Threes, but it seems more a work for Reed fans among whom I count myself.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Jacob Epstein finds that ”Reed’s vision of the future (and our present and past) is original and subversive.” John O’Brien, writing in Washington Post Book World, says, ”Reed’s eerie, weird, implausible world has a way of sounding all too real, too much like what we hear on the evening news.” O’Brien concludes, ”Reed has an unnerving sense of what will show up next on our televisions. He is without doubt our finest satirist since Twain.”
Conjure is perhaps the best known of Reed’s poetry collections, which in and of themselves have not received as much critical attention as his fiction. Critical response to the volume is emblematic of the general feeling towards Reed’s poetry—mixed at best. Caroline G. Bokinsky observed that the collection ”contains . . . poems that echo the musical and rhythmical quality of the black dialect,” but added that ”Although the poems attain lyrical excellence, Reed’s anger permeates the poetry.” In his Modern Poetry review, Neil Schmitz says that Reed’s writing is ”essentially newfangled American tall-talk.” Reed concludes that ”in how it is written . . . Neo-HooDoo is not art . . . but rather an episode an episode in a continuous anti-literary literary movement in American literature.”
- ”Beware: Do Not Read This Poem,” in Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby. Vol. 6. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1999.
- Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics, London: Macmillan, 1987.
- Settle, Elizabeth A., and Thomas A. Settle. Ishmael Reed: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- Dick, Bruce, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Jackson, Miss. University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
- ”Ishmael Reed (1938-),” in Poetry Criticism, edited by Michelle Lee. Vol. 68. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2006.
- Black American Literature Forum, Volume 12, 1978; spring, 1979; spring, 1980; fall, 1984.
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 20, 1986; June 4, 1989; April 14, 1991, p. 10.
- New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1972; November 10, 1974; September 19, 1976; July 18, 1982; March 23, 1986; May 7, 1989; April 7, 1991, p. 32; February 13, 1994, p. 28.
- Martin, Reginald. An Interview with Ishmael Reed. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from http:// www.centerforbookculture.org/interviews/ interview_reed.html.
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