A novelist, journalist, and playwright, American writer Ishmael Reed (born 1938) has been cited by critics as among the greatest contemporary African American literary figures of his generation.
According to Lee Hubbard in American Visions, Ishmael Reed is "an unorthodox writer who has taken on the media, the writing establishment, feminists, politicians, blacks, whites and [the] American institution of higher learning." Reed's satire has been controversial, to say the least, but he has nonetheless joined novelists Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany as among the most important forces in the distinct African American culture that developed during the 20th century.
Early Years in New York
Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but grew up in Buffalo, New York, in a working-class neighborhood. He graduated from Buffalo public schools in 1956 and enrolled as a night student at Millard Fillmore College. While there, Reed wrote a short story about a young African American man and showed it to his English professor. Impressed with Reed's abilities, the professor aided Reed in enrolling for day school at the University of Buffalo, where he attended classes from 1956 to 1960. Financially unable to remain in college, however, Reed dropped out before graduating but continued to write. While in Buffalo he wrote a jazz column for the Empire Star Weekly, an African American community newspaper, and co-hosted a Buffalo radio program that was canceled after Reed interviewed controversial black leader Malcolm X.
Reed moved to New York City in 1962, where he worked as an editor for a Newark, New Jersey, weekly and organized the American Festival of Negro Art. Reed established himself as a founder of the East Village Other, a respected underground newspaper, and as a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop. The workshop, in the words of Robert Elliot Fox in The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, was "one of the organizations instrumental in the creation of the Black Arts movement and its efforts to establish a Black Aesthetic." The goals of the workshop—especially the establishment of a black aesthetic—would stay with Reed for the rest of his career. While in New York City, Reed befriended Langston Hughes, a major influence in African American poetry who became a major influence in Reed's work. Hughes was also instrumental in getting Reed's first novel published.
Unhappy with the African American literary movement on the east coast, Reed relocated to Oakland, California, where he settled permanently, living at least part of the time in the city's so-called black ghetto. That same year, 1967, his first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was published. With his first novel, Reed established the various themes and styles that would become his trademark. The Freelance Pallbearers was a satire heavily critical of the Western European Christian tradition, the formal literature of that tradition, and African Americans within different black communities. It was Reed's second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, published in 1969, that established his usage of "HooDoo" and folklore.
"Neohoodism is the name Reed gave to the philosophy and aesthetic processes he employs to take care of business on behalf of the maligned and mishandled," explained Fox. This African American version of voodoo appealed to Reed because of its mystery and especially its eclectic nature. It became a way for Reed to avoid using Western literary traditions while creating a new multi-ethnic voice. Reed respects voodoo as a world view due to its ease of adaptation, its flexibility, and its way of eating and dissolving into itself other ways of living. His written work is known for satirizing and challenging existing social and literary conventions, According to Hubbard, Reed is a "self-proclaimed multiculturalist who consistently incorporates different aspects of other people's cultures into his work."
Multi-faceted Career in Oakland
With his stints in Buffalo and New York City in radio, his editing work, and the publication of his first novel, Reed set his sights on building a multifaceted career. He has since become known not just for his novels, but for his extensive collections of essays, his poetry, his journalism, his editing, publishing, play-writing, song-writing, television producing, lecturing, teaching, and founding of various organizations. In most of these fields, Reed has been honored for his accomplishments and talents, making him a one-man tour de force.
In 1970 Reed's first collection of poetry, Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church, was published. Around this time he also started teaching at the University of California in Berkeley, where he remained on staff for upwards of 20 years (even without tenure). In 1971 Reed started the Yardbird Publishing Co., which published, among other things, the magazine Y'Bird.
Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, a novel published in 1972, was his first book to achieve widespread notoriety. It has also been considered by many to be his best work, along with Neo-HooDoo Manifesto, a collection of essays published the same year. Manifesto was nominated for a National Book Award along with Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, also published in 1972. In 1973 Reed published another collection titled Chattanooga: Poems. Meanwhile, he co-founded another publishing enterprise, Reed, Cannon & Johnson Communications. This new publishing company published Quilt magazine, which was designed for students, minorities, and writers living and working on the West Coast of the United States.
A Voice for Many Causes
The year 1974 saw the publication of another novel by Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red. In 1976 the novel Flight to Canada was published to critical acclaim and was praised as among his best works. Also in 1976, Reed co-founded the Before Columbus Foundation, a multiethnic organization promoting a cross-cultural America. The Before Columbus Foundation has often been cited as Reed's most important contribution to U.S. society.
In 1978 Reed published a volume of poetry titled Secretary to the Spirits as well as a volume of essays titled Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. By 1980 he was involved in the world of theater and wrote and produced the play The Ace Boons. He published two more plays in 1982: Hell Hath No Fury and Mother Hubbard.
The novel Reckless Eyeballing, published in 1986, reveals Reed's feelings about slavery in the United States and the Jim Crow era that followed abolition. In the novel the practice of "reckless eyeballing"—a black man looking at a white woman—is dealt with directly in Reed's satire. Reckless Eyeballing was followed by New and Collected Poetry and the 1988 essay collection Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper. In 1989 Reed published a sequel to his 1982 novel The Terrible Twos titled The Terrible Threes, a criticism of throwaway pop culture. He also edited the Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards 1980-1990.
In 1990 Reed published Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, in which he presents an account of Haiti as the country of origination for Voodoo. Reed also notes that Voodoo—or Hoodoo—because of its flexible qualities, has existed throughout history in many subversive forms. He told Reginald Martin in a Review of Contemporary Fiction interview: "I've decided that gospel music is just a front for Voodoo… . I think when they're praising Jesus, they're really singing about Legba or something like that."
Battled Mainstream Media
In 1992 Reed organized a boycott of major television networks that was led by the Oakland chapter of the international writers' organization PEN. The boycott was only one step in the author's ongoing battle against mainstream media. Reed has claimed that the media systematically undermines and unfavorably portrays minorities in the United States, and these inaccurate portrayals have been detrimental to the production of a healthy, multiethnic society and a healthy African American self-view. He spent years monitoring the media's portrayal of people and wrote letters whenever necessary. He has also attacked the media in his essays, novels, and poems. "The state of American journalism in its portrayal of minorities is horrible," Reed commented to Holland, and further expanded on his views of the media in his 1993 essay collection Airing Dirty Laundry.
In 1993 Reed published the novel Japanese by Spring and four years later edited the anthology Multi America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace, which showcases writers communicating about race relations in the United States.
Life and Time of Reed
Besides having taught at the University of California at Berkeley since the late 1960s, Reed has held visiting appointments at such places as Harvard University, Yale University, and Dartmouth College. In Germany and Switzerland he has lectured to standing-room-only crowds. Among his continuing projects is a musical titled Gethsemane Park and a novel about the O. J. Simpson trial. He has received a Pulitzer Prize nomination to accompany his two National Book Award nominations, as well as many other awards, grants, and fellowships. He founded I. Reed Books as well as the journal Konch and wrote a libretto for the San Francisco Opera Company. Reed is married to Carla Blank, a dancer and choreographer. The couple has one daughter, Tennessee, and Reed has another daughter from a previous marriage.
Hubbard called Reed "the establishment agitator who has been called a conservative, a radical, a black nationalist, a sexist and a crazed fool;" he has also been called America's best satirist since Mark Twain. Reed's work, known for its principle of collage and cited as having its roots in the Yoruba tradition of West Africa, has been criticized for incoherence. It has also been praised for its multi-cultural-ness, revolutionary-ness, and Reed's awareness of mythic archetypes. In his own defense against such criticism, Reed told Martin, "I don't think there is any standard English. I think there is such a thing as protocol English." Reed writes with neither. His English is a "HooDoo" English, full of an awareness of multiethnicity and concerned with a multi-race—and a distinctly African American race—of writers.
Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1997.
American Visions, April-May, 1998.
Callaloo, Fall 1994.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1984.
"Ishmael Reed," http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/reed/reed_ishmael_bio.html (February 10, 2003).
"Ishmael Reed," http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=769 (February 10, 2003).
Martin, Reginald, "An Interview with Ishmael Reed," http://www.centerforbookculture.org/interviews/interview_reed.html (February 10, 2003).