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Call him Ishmael: the controversial (some say reckless) cultural critic Ishmael Reed returns a new collection of essays appropriately titled Another Day at the Front.

I had the feeling, as I prepared to interview Ishmael Reed, that the 64-year-old writer would turn out to be much more mellow and friendly in conversation than his nine novels, four books of nonfiction, five poetry collections and five plays might indicate. (I was right.) But I was only about ninety percent sure of that, and as I punched in his phone number it was the other ten percent that had me worried.

Consider the expression on his face as it appears on the cover of his new book of essays, Another Day at the Front: Dispatches for the Race War. He is looking askance at something or someone, his eyelids slightly lowered beneath his short, gray Afro; this is the face of a man who will not be fooled, who knows what you're trying to pull, even if you don't.

Then there's what is actually in his books. To read a handful of the novels he began publishing in 1967 is to see that there is no one and nothing that Reed is afraid to satirize, stomp on or offend. His first book, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, by turns hilarious, scalding and hallucinatory, takes aim at government, religion, white people, black people, pop culture and academia, just to name a few targets. Unlike many things that must have been shocking in the 1960s but now seem quaint, the novel has not lost its power to startle. Reading it today may make you wonder one of two things--what Reed ingested before he sat down to write it, and whether somebody just slipped you something. Being "out there" was practically a requirement in the '60s, of course, but as much of the country returned to the straight and narrow in subsequent decades, Ishmael Reed went on being ... well, Ishmael Reed.

His 1976 novel, Flight to Canada, is a comic look at, ahem, slavery. Coming along when it did, the book provided an alternative to the solemnity of another phenomenon of that era--the book, and later, the TV miniseries Roots--with such dizzy passages as: "Davis' slaves are the only ones I know of who take mineral baths, and when hooped skirts became popular he gave some to the slave women, and when this made it awkward for them to move through the rows of cotton, he widened the rows." Just beneath the comedy, though, are serious points; a novel in which characters watch the assassination of President Lincoln unfold on live television, and key figures in the Civil War communicate by telephone, is in a satirical way saying that there are similarities between then and now.

A decade later came the novel that even Reed admits "got me in a lot of trouble." Reckless Eyeballing is the writer's take on what he saw as black women writers' selling out to white feminists and others whose aim was to put down black men. That book arrived in stores the year after Steven Spielbergs movie version of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple arrived in theaters; think matches and gasoline. (One of the novel's characters goes around shaving the heads of black female writers, explaining to his victims that this is what was done to French women who aided and abetted the Nazis.) In 1993 came Japanese by Spring, which follows the exploits of a black neoconservative academic who will write, do, or stomach anything for the sake of advancing his career.

If Reed's novels often serve as condemnations, his nonfiction books are outright assaults. His first, published in 1988, was Writin' Is Fightin.' His latest, Another Day at the Front, continues many of the themes in his 1993 collection, Airing Dirty Laundry--chiefly, the distortion of the image of black people in the media. But for all his iconoclasm, Reed is not a marginalized figure tossing rocks at the gates of the Establishment. While his books may not sell like those of, say, Terry McMillan (his former student at the University of California at Berkeley), they have received critical recognition.

In 1998, he won a coveted MacArthur fellowship, commonly referred to as the "genius" grant. His poetry collection Conjure was nominated for the National Book Award. So was his 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo, in which the mostly black defenders of "Jes Grew" (the ancient spirit of joy and celebration that originated with the Egyptian god Osiris) do battle with the mostly white "Atonists" who want to stamp it out. (In the novel, it is Jes Grew that sparks the Jazz Age, during which Mumbo Jumbo is set.)

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's most prominent black literary scholar, devoted a lengthy chapter to Mumbo Jumbo in his groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. "It is fair to say that The Signifying Monkey, as a theory of criticism and as the shape it has assumed in this book, at the very least began with (and at most was shaped by) my explication of Reed's difficult novel" wrote Gates. Award-winning novelist Charles Johnson wrote about Reed in his book Being and Race. "The significance of Reed's body of work is threefold," says Johnson. "First, Reed is noteworthy for his attempts since the late 1960s to break away from rigid, Western aesthetic formulas for what fiction can be," he observes. "Secondly, Reed was an early proponent of multiculturalism and Afrocentrism." Finally, in Johnson's view, "Reed will be remembered for challenging the negative, one-dimensional and man-hating images of black males in The Color Purple and other works by black feminists in the 1980s."

Not everyone is so impressed. When asked about the impact of Reed's work on American and African-American letters, the cultural critic and novelist Stanley Crouch responded, "I don' t know that it's had any impact, do you?" He says that Reed's work "peaked at Mumbo Jumbo and has become progressively less good." Still, Crouch concedes, "Whatever you want to say about him, whether you like his work, whether you ... perceive him as a writer who never fulfilled his promise, you have to give him his due as an original. He found a way to get from one place to another that was his own."

Reed was born in 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For a while he lived with his great-uncle and great-aunt, while his mother and grandmother worked for rich white families, in what he says were "considered prime jobs" for blacks in the those days. Reed's fighting spirit seems to have been inherited from his mother, Thelma Coleman. Enlisting the support of wealthy whites in relatively liberal Chattanooga, who would intervene in court on their behalf, Thelma Coleman and other blacks stood up for their civil rights.

Reed remembers his mother's being involved in an episode in which blacks dared to sit at the front of a bus. (The incident ended in a riot.) His mother took that attitude and strategy to Buffalo, where she moved with Ishmael and his stepfather, Bennie Reed, in the early 1940s. The family lived in the projects: the Willert Park Courts. His stepfather was an autoworker, while his mother became a housewife and sometimes worked as a sales-person at department stores. "I don't remember missing a meal," says Reed of his youth. His half-brothers, Bennie and Benson, were born when he was nearly grown.

The writer remembers spending "a lot of time in solitude" as a boy. He read voraciously, checking out Brothers Grimm stories and other fairy tales from the library. At a very early age, he began writing. When he was only 13, he started writing a jazz column for the Empire Star. "I didn't know what I was talking about," Reed now admits, but he nonetheless put his thoughts down about Sonny Stitt and other jazz musicians. In his late teens, he had a job in a library and discovered the writings of James Baldwin, whose books had just begun to be published. Baldwin had "a style that could enchant one," Reed says. "I think Go Tell It on the Mountain is probably one of the great books of the last century." Not having been exposed to the work of black writers, Reed had thought that "you had to be white and maybe a lord or a duke or something" to publish books, but Baldwin "made it seem as though somebody from my background could write."

At 20, he returned to the Empire Star, where he and another man, Joe Walker, "wrote the whole paper," as Reed recalls. Through his work there he met Malcolm X, and the two spent time together whenever Malcolm came through Buffalo. Reed remembers that the fiery leader had a quick mind and was familiar with many books that Reed himself, who had attended the University of Buffalo, hadn't yet gotten to. When Reed composed a poem for Malcolm that was "full of youthful exuberance and bad taste," he says, Malcolm graciously compared it to the work of Dante and Virgil.

For the Empire Star, Reed covered such topics as politics and discrimination in schools. He also did some campaigning for a Buffalo city councilman during that time. "I was going to organize the poor," he says, self-deprecatingly. "I had different values from some of the people whom I was patronizing. I learned right away that the intellectuals should be followers and not leaders."

In 1962, he moved to New York City. He began writing plays as well as poetry during that time; to support himself he worked in factories and hospitals. He also wrote for the weekly Newark, New Jersey, Advance, becoming its editor in 1965. Once settled in New York, he became involved with the Umbra Workshop, a black poetry collective, and helped found the East Village Other. (It was also there that Reed, walking down the street one day with the late poet and teacher Calvin Hernton, made a remark about the police that was overheard by two white cops nearby--and soon found himself in jail.)

In 1967, the year that The Free-Lance Pallbearers was published, Reed left New York in part because he "didn't want to become a showpiece, trotted out for display at literary functions, or a surrogate fronting for somebody else's political and cultural position," as he writes in Another Day at the Front. In the late 1960s, he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, where he still teaches.

Much of Reed's work touches, to one degree or another, on hoodoo. He says that his fascination with the subject began in his college years, when he discovered writers such as the Irishman William Butler Yeats, who revolted against "colonial literary structures" and went "into their own background, reviving their nationalistic culture." Yeats and his circle explored old Celtic myths in their work, and Reed began searching for a similarly rich theme in African-American culture. He concentrated on hoodoo. He likes, he says, the "ridicule associated" with the term by the dominant culture, which associates hoodoo and African-American religion, in general, with sticking pins in dolls.

Reed's most controversial stands, in fiction and nonfiction, have been on the subject of feminism. Asked about his view of feminism--apart from any scapegoating of black males--he says: "There are all kinds of feminists. I get along very well with black feminists. The attacks I have received are from black divas, who are not the rank-and-file black feminists of black women writers--and who are sponsored by Gloria Steinem, people like that. Sometimes black men and black women intellectuals are used in a proxy fight representing other people." His problem with the movement is "it has made black men the effigy for the mistreatment of women all over the world," he says.

Far from being combative in conversation, Reed is not only friendly but also modest. It becomes apparent before long that he would rather talk about others, particularly his family, than about himself. His older daughter; Timothy, who "hardly had any education" when she came to live with Reed at age 11--and whom he taught to read and write--is now a novelist. Experts told his younger daughter, Tennessee, that her learning disability was so severe that she would never learn to read or write; she went on to publish her first book of poetry at age ten through Ishmael Reed Books, and another with Raven's Bone Press. Then there is Reed's mother, who recently finished a memoir she began at age 74--she' s now 85. The book, Black Girl From Tannery Flats, is coming out soon from Reed's press.

If Ishmael Reed is loath to talk about himself, his longtime friend Cecil Brown, a novelist with a Ph.D. in folklore, is happy to talk about his old friend. "He's there for me and very supportive," he says. "Always been supportive." An example involves Brown's recently completed film, Twofer. "He believed in my idea. At one point I said, `Ishmael, you helped me with this film, man, but don't you want to read the script?' He said, `No, I trust you, man.' I said, `Hey, that' s all I needed to know.' He's a good guy, and we have a good time together."

Reed's marriage to Timothy's mother ended in divorce in 1970. In the same year, he married Tennessee's mother, Carla Blank, who is Jewish. Asked if his marriage has caused him any problems, Reed says, "I think I'd stand out even if I weren't with my wife." He adds, "I'd be a curiosity."

Clifford Thompson is the editor of Current Biography. He has published essays, reviews and short stories in a number of journals and anthologies and is currently at work on a novel. Thompson, who interviewed Derrick Bell and reviewed Bell's book, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, in the September-October issue, sat down with Ishmael Reed to discuss his controversial writing career. The cover story begins on page 40.
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Author:Thompson, Clifford
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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