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Ishmael Reed gets the last laugh



“The crows are gone,” said Ishmael Reed, explaining the songbird chorus. It was a beautiful spring day in Oakland, Calif., And I had just sat down with Reed, his wife, Carla Blank, and their daughter Tennessee in the family garden. The eighty-three-year-old writer looked like “Uncle Ish,” as he calls him on AOL: sunglasses, New Balances, a Nike windbreaker, and an athletic cap covering his halo of white hair with black hair. dandelion seeds. He described his war on the neighborhood crows with mischievous satisfaction, as if it was one of his many skirmishes with the New York literary establishment.

“They had a sentry on the telephone line,” he said, and hunted the other birds. But Reed learned to signal with a crow’s whistle – three croaks for a predator, four for a friend, he deduced – well enough to handle the murder. Soon after, he said, “they thought I was a crow.” Now the songbirds were back. The four of us stopped by to listen to their music, a free verse anthology of avian lyrics. When Blank mentioned that a hummingbird frequented the garden, I wondered aloud why the Aztecs had chosen the bird as the emblem of their god of war. Reed instantly responded, “They’re straight for the eyes.”

Ishmael Reed has foiled more than crows with his formidable powers of imitation. For half a century, he was the most fearless satirist in American literature, waging an eternal cultural war on the media spanning a dozen novels, nine plays and collections of essays, and hundreds of poems, including one written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I wasn’t mean enough. . . Make me mean Tennessee. . . Miles Davis means. . . Pawnbroker means, ”he wrote. “Mean as the town sings Bessie / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ “

Her brilliantly idiosyncratic fiction has disguised everyone from Moses to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and laid the groundwork for the freewheeling genre experiences of writers such as Paul Beatty, Victor LaValle, and Colson Whitehead. Yet Reed has always been more than subversion and caricature. Laughter, in his books, unearths legacies suppressed by prejudice, elitism and mass media co-optation. The protagonist of his best-known novel, “Mumbo Jumbo”, is a metaphysical sleuth in search of a lost anthology of black literature whose discovery promises the collapse of the West amid “renewed enthusiasms for the Ikons. aesthetically victimized civilizations “.

It’s a future that Reed has worked tirelessly to achieve. The brainchild of a decades-long insurgency of magazines, anthologies, small publishing houses, and nonprofit foundations, he led the fight for truly “multicultural” American literature – a term he used very much. made to popularize, before he too is co-opted. . Through it all, Reed affirmed the vitality of America’s marginalized cultures, especially those of working class African Americans. “We have a heritage,” he once thundered. “You might think it’s seedy and low and funky and homemade, but it’s there. I think it’s beautiful. I would invite him to dinner.

Many writers of Reed’s age and accomplishment are said to have settled into a leisurely dinner circuit in their honor by now. But he proudly bit the feeding hands. Several years ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a longtime promoter of Reed’s fiction, offered to write the introduction to a Library of America edition of his novels. Reed, who sees Gates as the unelected “king” of black arts and scholarship, scoffed at the offer by demanding a hundred thousand dollar fee for the privilege.

“The fool can say things about the king that others can’t,” Reed told me. “This is the role I inherited.

Many people learned of Ishmael Reed’s name two years ago, with the debut of his play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda”. Critics of “Hamilton” had previously addressed its Black-cast revamp of a fraudulent national mythology, but the news that someone hated the musical enough to put on a play about it caused a minor sensation. For those familiar with Reed’s work, the drama was even more compelling: A founding father of American multiculturalism was dealing bullshit about its apotheosis on Broadway and overseeing the production of Toni Morrison’s Tribeca apartment.

“We are focusing on the operation. There is a mosquito in my room. “
Cartoon by Ellis Rosen

In January 2019, I attended a packed reading of “The Haunting” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The legendary arts space of the Lower East Side has staged many of Reed’s plays – he was a friend of its founder, the late Miguel Algarín – but, given Miranda’s Nuyorican background, the choice of location made sense. . The action follows Miranda’s naive and defensive awakening to the sins of the Founding Fathers. Ghosts of Native Americans and black Americans, including a woman enslaved by the family of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, lecture the playwright in comical and aggressive monologues, which he desperately parries citing their absence in Ron Chernow’s best-selling Hamilton biography. When Miranda confronts Chernow, the biographer pokes fun at his protégé’s sudden qualms by hinting at Miranda’s corporate partnership: “Do you think American Express hired you because they want a revolution?”

For Reed, “Hamilton” represented the triumph of a multiculturalism far removed from the revolution his own work envisioned. If “Mumbo Jumbo” celebrated the icons of aesthetically victimized civilizations, “Hamilton” used the representation of American racial victims to aestheticize his icons. Reed’s opinion was bolstered last year when new research concluded that Hamilton had kept servants enslaved until his death; Emboldened, Reed broadens his critique. In September, he and Carla Blank will publish “Bigotry on Broadway”, a critical anthology, and in December his play “The Slave Who Loved Caviar”, a story of vampirism in the art world inspired by Andy Warhol’s relationship. with Jean-Michel Basquiat, is scheduled for an Off Off Broadway debut.

“Someone criticized me for being a one-man band,” Reed told me. “But what am I supposed to be, lazy?” Since “The Haunting” he has published a new collection of poetry, “Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues”; a novel, “Les Terribles Fours”; short songs for Audible; and a constant stream of articles settling old scores and commemorating departed friends, like groundbreaking independent black filmmaker Bill Gunn. (Their 1980 collaboration, “Personal Problems,” a “meta-drama” about black working-class life, is featured in a Gunn retrospective now at the New York Artists’ Space.) Neither did it. no longer hesitated to make public appearances, to star in preliminary readings of his pieces to be played as a jazz pianist at an exhibition in London by British designer Grace Wales Bonner. The models paraded on the runway in tunics bearing “Ishmael Reed” and “Conjure”, the title of a first collection of poetry.

There is a measure of challenge to his productivity at the end of his career. Wary of being attached to his great ’70s novels, Reed is spoiling himself for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be on hand. “I’m called cranky or dying anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I would go and look for books from the Brothers Grimm. Now, he says, “I’m going back to my second childhood. I write fairy tales.

A California literary institution that grew up in Buffalo and made a name for himself in New York City, Ishmael Scott Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His mother, Thelma, brought him into the world alone, in the midst of considerable hardship, in 1938. In her autobiography, which her press published in 2003, she describes young Reed as a curious old soul who urged his elders to start reading the newspaper and stop wearing expensive shoes. A superstitious friend noticed tiny holes in his ears and called him a genius.

Thelma moved the family to Buffalo and married Ishmael’s stepfather Bennie Reed, who worked on a Chevrolet assembly line. Until his teens, Reed was an only child in their upwardly mobile working class household, devouring medieval fantasies and radio soap operas like “Grand Central Station.” His reputation as a literary troublemaker started in school, with a satirical essay about a mad teacher who got him kicked out of English lessons. “They weren’t sure whether to give me an A or hire me,” he later wrote. “Critics always have this problem with my work.

When Reed was sixteen, the great black journalist AJ Smitherman, a refugee from the Tulsa massacre in 1921, recruited him for the Imperial star, a local weekly, first as a delivery boy and then as a jazz columnist. He spent three years studying at the State University of New York at Buffalo; There, an encounter with Yeats’ Neo-Celtic poetry sparked an equally neglected interest in black folklore, and a community drama workshop introduced him to Priscilla Thompson, whom he married in 1960. Their daughter , Timothy, was born the same year.

The young family moved into a social housing project and had a tough time supporting spam and powdered milk – often purchased with food stamps – while Reed worked as a nursing aide in a mental hospital . The marriage did not last. Even as his immediate horizons narrowed, Reed’s writing ambitions grew. After interviewing Malcolm X for a local radio station, he felt the call of New York. In 1962, he moved into an apartment on Spring Street, carrying everything he owned in a laundry bag.

In New York City, Reed behaved like a “green pot,” as he put it, earning the Buffalo nickname from a musician friend. But, within a year, he found a home in the Society of Umbra, a collective of writers who published a magazine and was described by one of its founders, Calvin Hernton, as a ” black arts poetry machine ”. It was an ideologically tense incubator of avant-garde expression, whose members included Lorenzo Thomas, NH Pritchard and Askia Touré – later an influence on Amiri Baraka and the black arts movement. Reed shared an apartment with several of the proto-black nationalists in the group, but ultimately resented their dogmatism; It didn’t help, as he wrote, that his die-hard roommates were sometimes unemployed while he was working part-time to pay their rent. (Although he never joined the Black Arts Movement, Reed likes to say that he was its “first patron”.)