20th Century African American Writers
Wilfred D. Samuels, Ph.D., Department of English, University of Utah
                 
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A Gift of Story/Encyclopedia of African-American Literature

Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels, General Editor

Sample Essays

Ishmael Reed (1938-) Ishmael Reed has written nine novels, four collections of essays, five plays, and five collections of poetry. He has also recorded an album of his work, written a libretto, and co-founded several journals, foundations and a publishing company. The life of this prolific artist began in humble surroundings, however. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 22, 1938, Reed cultivated a love of art and expression at an early age. He moved to Buffalo, New York with his mother, Thelma Coleman, and his stepfather, Bennie Reed in 1942. As a young child he wrote stories and performed them at school. By the age of fourteen he was writing a regular jazz column for the African American community newspaper, Empire Star Weekly. Reed graduated from high school in 1956 and started attending Millard Filmore College before transferring to the University of Buffalo. Though he never completed a degree, Reed has since received an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

By 1960, Reed had dropped out of college and married Priscilla Thompson with whom he had a daughter, Timothy Brett, who was born in the same year. During the early 1960s, Reed developed his craft, helped establish the "East Village Other," worked for Umbra magazine, and interviewed thinkers and artists, among them Malcolm X. Reed's involvement with Umbra exposed him to some of the most influential writers of the Black Arts Movement*, a "group" he would later criticize in his fiction and essays. In 1963, Reed separated from his wife. They divorced in 1970 and Reed later married dancer and choreographer, Carla Blank. By 1967 Reed had moved on to Berkeley, California, and published his first novel, Free-Lance Pallbearers. Reed began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. He was denied tenure there in 1977 (the same year his daughter, Tennessee, was born). He has since taught at Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, University of Washington, and SUNY-Buffalo.

During his career, Reed has both garnered praise and courted controversy. One of the few African American satirists, Reed's postmodern, complex style and uncom-promising dedication to literary, political, and cultural freedom, has earned him as many detractors as fans. He has steadfastly fought to speak his mind in the manner that suits him best. An outspoken advocate of individuality and iconoclasm, he is also, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, deeply devoted to the community of artists. He co-created the Before Columbus Foundation that celebrates the work of multicultural writers. He also edited the poetry and fiction anthologies of the Foundation and helped establish their American Book Awards. He also was the co-founder of a publishing company and several journals (including Yardbird), all committed to presenting and nurturing writers.

Reed's project as a writer and editor is to satirize and parody Western tradition, ideologues, public figures, historiography - whatever stands in the way of the freedom of expression, especially in terms of telling your own story. Reed consistently works to dismantle African American stereotypes, the "fictions" that others have created. This is diversity and multiculturalism as practiced by Reed. No one story should take precedence over another and all stories and styles are valid as long as they take other voices into account. Reed's vision of America is a truly multicultural one, which seeks to illuminate the interwoven complexity of our national and cultural identity. No one story defines us all.

In 1970, Reed formally presented the blueprints of his aesthetic: "The Neo HooDoo Manifesto," published as a prose poem in Reed's poetry collection catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church. The poem defines and celebrates what Reed calls "neo hoodooism." A "neo hoodoo" writer or text is possessed of the spirit, a voice emanating in the African diaspora. The quality is jazz-like in style and content. It is often quoted that the jazz musician Max Roach called Reed the "Charlie Parker of American fiction." The multiple stories and styles, the textual hybridity, the rebellion against tradition, the playful, soulful voice in Reed's work is reminiscent of jazz or what Reed himself has called "gumbo." Neo hoodoo embraces rhythm, magic, nature, intuition, music, the past, openness, and creativity.

Even his first novel echoes this ideal. The hero of the novel is Bukka Doopeyduk, a man who lives in the country, HARRY SAM. Doopeyduk has had little success surviving in this oppressive society until he is asked by the "dictator" to be a mouthpiece for his government. At first, Doopeyduk agrees, but after undergoing significant changes (including at one point turning into a werewolf) decides to plan a revolt. This early novel presents many of Reed's themes. The cartoon like names illustrates the simplistic stereotypes that others force upon African Americans. Doopeyduk's ability to shapeshift suggests that the only way African Americans can escape this racism is by "shaping" and redefining their own identities.

This idea is expressed in Reed's second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969) as well. A "western" parody, the work satirizes not only dime store novels, but the canons of "Western Literature" besides. The main character, a cowboy named "the Loop Garoo Kid," also suggests shape-shifting, multiple identities and perspectives. A "garou," etymologically connected to the character's name, is a werewolf. The "kid" symbolizes a new generation of African American artists that are attempting battle with literary standards and history. His antagonist, Drag Gibson, represents the white, Anglo-Saxon tradition, while Loop Garoo's other enemy, Bo Shmo, is the leader of a "neo-social realist gang," a description of the Black Arts Movement. Garoo fights for the right to tell his story his way ("what if I write circuses?"), and he is able to achieve this because of his celebration of the neo-hoodoo aesthetic.

Reed's most critical success is the novel, Mumbo Jumbo, a novel with a multilayered, open-ended plot. Published in 1972, the novel was nominated for the National Book Award. Reed's collection of poetry, Conjure, also published in 1972, received a National Book Award nomination as well. It was the first time in the history of the award that a single author had been nominated in two separate categories in the same year. Mumbo Jumbo is a detective story. But as critics Joe Weixlmann and Stephen Soitos both point out, the novel is really an "anti-detective" story. Reed's purpose is not to unravel the mystery but to celebrate it. The "mystery" surrounds "jes grew" and the "jes grew" text (James Weldon Johnson's * term for jazz), a representation in this novel of neo hoodooism.

Henry Louis Gates calls the novel the "black intertext" and Reed's parodying an "extended commentary on the history of the black novel" (217). The novel is a montage of texts, photos, flyers, music, etc. The novel, like American culture, is a composite of multiple voices and traditions. Whites and blacks alike are interested in stealing or destroying the jes grew text. While PaPa LaBas, the "hoodoo detective," searches for jes grew he uses magic and intuition to help him. Reed criticizes here the genre of the detective novel and its reliance on reason. Like western tradition, only logic and rational thought can supposedly discover truth. This denies that there are multiple truths or ways to find truth. The lack of closure at the end of the novel reinforces this notion. PaPa LaBas returns as the detective in Reed's next novel, The Last Days of Louisiana Red. LaBas tries to solve the murder of a "gumbo works" owner whose gumbo had been found to cure the illness brought on by forgetting your history. The gumbo (or what Reed has said is a symbol of neo hoodooism) is the way to connect back to the spirit of the African past.

Reed's next novel, Flight to Canada (1976), also gained a reputation as an important African American literary work. A parody of the slave narrative (as well as just about everything else), the novel follows the escape and return of Raven Quickskill, a slave and writer. The novel's numerous anachronisms (a common technique in Reed's fiction) criticize the lack of progress in America's cultural and historical definition of race. The anachronisms and neo-slave narrative structure also argue that little has changed in the ways that African American expression and history are controlled by white power. Both Quickskill and Uncle Robin (a critical response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom character) are both writers, and in this creative act they can experience some manner of control of their identity and their past. When Quickskill returns to the plantation, he finds that Robin has rewritten his master's will so that Robin is now the owner of the land. He transforms it into a writer's community, which reminds the audience of the power of art to shape the world. Like Reed's other works, writing is neo hoodoo; it is a way to change the stories that have confined African American freedom and expression.

Reed's remaining novels, Reckless Eyeballing (1986), Japanese by Spring (1993), The Terrible Twos (1982), and The Terrible Threes (1989) satirize political correctness, feminism, the Reagan era, the nineteenth-century novel, the African American middle class, and academia. . The collections of essays Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982), Writin' Is Fightin' (1988), and Airing Dirty Laundry (1993) all provide scholars with another consideration of Reed's intellect, creativity, and cultural examinations. While there has not been much scholarly consideration of Reed's poetry, it has been critically successful. The New and Collected Poems were published in 1988. Reed's three plays: Mother Hubbard, Savage Wilds, and Hubba City have not been published though they have had notable readings.

Reed's significant contributions to African American literature are evidenced by the longevity and productivity of his career and by the numerous awards he has won. Besides the nominations for the National Book Awards, Conjure was also nominated for the Pulitzer. In 1979, Reed won the Pushcart Prize for poetry. He has also won the Poetry in Public Places Award and the American Civil Liberties Award. And he has been honored with a National Institute of Arts and Letters award and a Guggenheim Foundation Award for fiction in 1974. But it may be the last two achievements that he has been awarded that signify his influential place in the African American Literary tradition. In 1994, Reed was given the Langston Hughes Medal for Lifetime Achievement, and in 1998 he was granted the prestigious, MacArthur Fellowship (the "Genius" award). A truer testament to Reed's place in American letters may be that his work never ceases to inflame, inspire, or educate.

Selected Bibliography:

Davis, Matthew R. "'Strange, History, Complicated, Too': Ishmael Reed's Use of
African-American History in Flight to Canada." Mississippi Quarterly 49.4 (Fall 1996): 734-744.

Dick, Bruce Allen, ed. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.:
Greenwood Press, 1999.

Dick, Bruce and Singh, Amritjit, ed. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Fabre, Michel. "Postmodernist Rhetoric in Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke
Down." The Afro-American Novel Since 1960. Ed. Peter Bruck and Wolfgang
Karrer. Amsterdam: Gruner, 1982. 167-189.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi
Jones (Amiri Baraka), Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delaney. Westport, Conn.:
Greenwood Press, 1987.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary
Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Harris, Norman. "The Last Days of Louisiana Red: The HooDoo Solution." In
Connecting Times: The Sixties in Afro-American Fiction. Jackson: University of Press of Mississippi, 1988.166-188.

Hoffman, Donald. "A Darker Shade of Grail: Questing at the Crossroads in Ishmael
Reed's Mumbo Jumbo." Callaloo 17.4 (Fall 1994): 1245-1256.

Lindroth, James. "Images of Subversion: Ishmael Reed and the HooDoo Trickster."
African American Review 30.2 (Summer 1996): 185-196.

Ludwig, Sami. "Dialogic Possession in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo: Bakhtin, Voodoo,
and the Materiality of Multicultural Discourse." The Black Columbiad: Defining
Moments in African American Literature and Culture. Ed. Werner Sollors and
Maria Diedrich. Cambridge, mass: Harvard University Press, 1994. 325-336.

---. "Ishmael Reed's Inductive Narratology of Detection." African American Review
32.3 (Fall 1998): 435-444.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1988.

Mason, Theodore O. Jr. "Performance, History, and Myth: The Problem of Ishmael
Reed's Mumbo Jumbo." Modern Fiction Studies 34.1 (Spring 1988): 97-109.

McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's Press,
1997.

Rushdy, Ashraf. Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Soitos, Stephen. The Blues Detective: A Study of Afro-American Detective Fiction.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Weixlmann, Joe. "African American Deconstruction of the Novel in the Work of Ishmael
Reed and Clarence Major. MELUS 17.4 (Winter 1991): 57-79.

Tracie Church Guzzio
SUNY-Plattsburgh


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