“The crows have left,” Ishmael Reed said, explaining the chorus of songbirds. It was a clear spring day in Oakland, California, and I had just sat down with Reed, his wife, Carla Blank, and their daughter Tennessee in the family’s back yard. The eighty-three-year-old writer looked every inch “Uncle Ish,” as he’s known on AOL: sunglasses, New Balances, a Nike windbreaker, and an athletic skullcap covering his halo of dandelion-seed white hair. He described his war against the neighborhood crows with mischievous satisfaction, as though it were one of his many skirmishes with the New York literary establishment.
“They had a sentinel on the telephone wire,” he said, and were chasing away the other birds. But Reed learned to signal with a crow whistle—three caws for a predator, four for a friend, he inferred—well enough to manipulate the murder. Before long, he said, “they thought I was a crow.” Now the songbirds were back. The four of us paused to take in their music, a free-verse anthology of avian lyric. When Blank mentioned that a hummingbird frequented the garden, I wondered aloud why the Aztecs had chosen the bird as an emblem of their war god. Reed answered instantly: “They go right for the eyes.”
Ishmael Reed has outwitted more than crows with his formidable powers of imitation. For half a century, he’s been American literature’s most fearless satirist, waging a cultural forever war against the media that spans a dozen novels, nine plays and essay collections, and hundreds of poems, one of which, written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I ain’t been mean enough . . . Make me Tennessee mean . . . Miles Davis mean . . . Pawnbroker mean,” he writes. “Mean as the town Bessie sings about / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ ”
His brilliantly idiosyncratic fiction has travestied everyone from Moses to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and laid a foundation for the freewheeling genre experiments of writers such as Paul Beatty, Victor LaValle, and Colson Whitehead. Yet there’s always been more to Reed than subversion and caricature. Laughter, in his books, unearths legacies suppressed by prejudice, élitism, and mass-media coöptation. The protagonist of his best-known novel, “Mumbo Jumbo,” is a metaphysical detective searching for a lost anthology of Black literature whose discovery promises the West’s collapse amid “renewed enthusiasms for the Ikons of the aesthetically victimized civilizations.”
It’s a future that Reed has worked tirelessly to realize. Mastermind of a decades-long insurgency of magazines, anthologies, small presses, and nonprofit foundations, he’s led the fight for an American literature that is truly “multicultural”—a term that he did much to popularize, before it, too, was coöpted. Through it all, Reed has asserted the vitality of America’s marginalized cultures, especially those of working-class African Americans. “We do have a heritage,” he once thundered. “You may think it’s scummy and low-down and funky and homespun, but it’s there. I think it’s beautiful. I’d invite it to dinner.”
Many writers of Reed’s age and accomplishment would already have settled into a leisurely circuit of dinners in their honor. But he’s proudly bitten the hands that do such feeding. Several years ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a longtime booster of Reed’s fiction, proposed writing the introduction for a Library of America edition of his novels. Reed, who considers Gates the unelected “king” of Black arts and scholarship, mocked the offer by demanding a hundred-thousand-dollar fee for the privilege.
“The fool can say things about the king that other people can’t,” Reed told me. “That’s the role I’ve inherited.”
Not a few people first learned Ishmael Reed’s name two years ago, with the début of his play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda.” Critiques of “Hamilton” had already addressed its Black-cast renovation of a fraudulent national mythology, but the news that someone hated the musical enough to stage a play about it caused a minor sensation. For those familiar with Reed’s work, the drama was even more irresistible: a founding father of American multiculturalism was calling bullshit on its Broadway apotheosis, and overseeing the production from Toni Morrison’s Tribeca apartment.
In January, 2019, I attended a packed reading of “The Haunting” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The storied Lower East Side arts space 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 venue felt pointed. The action follows a naïve and defensive Miranda’s awakening to the sins of the Founding Fathers. Ghosts of Native and Black Americans—including a woman enslaved by the family of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler—lecture the playwright in comically aggressive monologues, which he desperately parries by citing their absence from Ron Chernow’s best-selling biography of Hamilton. When Miranda confronts Chernow, the biographer mocks his protégé’s sudden scruples by alluding to 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 had envisioned. If “Mumbo Jumbo” celebrated the icons of aesthetically victimized civilizations, “Hamilton” used the representation of America’s racial victims to aestheticize its icons. Reed’s view was bolstered last year when new research concluded that Hamilton had kept enslaved servants until his death; emboldened, Reed is broadening his critique. This September, he and Carla Blank will publish “Bigotry on Broadway,” a critical anthology, and in December his play “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” a tale of art-world vampirism inspired by Andy Warhol’s relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat, is slated for an Off Off Broadway début.
“Somebody criticized me for being a one-man band,” Reed told me. “But what am I supposed to be, slothful?” Since “The Haunting,” he’s published a new poetry collection, “Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues”; a novel, “The Terrible Fours”; short pieces for Audible; and a steady stream of articles that settle old scores and commemorate departed friends, like the groundbreaking independent Black filmmaker Bill Gunn. (Their 1980 collaboration, “Personal Problems,” a “meta–soap opera” about working-class Black life, is featured in a Gunn retrospective now at New York’s Artists Space.) Nor has he been shy about public appearances, from acting in preliminary readings of his plays to performing as a jazz pianist at a London exhibition by the British designer Grace Wales Bonner. Models walked the runway in tunics emblazoned “Ishmael Reed” and “Conjure,” the title of an early poetry collection.
There’s a measure of defiance to his late-career productivity. Wary of being tethered to his great novels of the nineteen-seventies, Reed is spoiling for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be along for the ride. “I’m getting called a curmudgeon or a fading anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I’d go get books by the Brothers Grimm.” Now, he says, “I’m reverting to my second childhood. I’m writing fairy tales.”
A California literary institution who grew up in Buffalo and made his name in New York City, Ishmael Scott Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His mother, Thelma, brought him into the world alone, amid considerable hardship, in 1938. In her autobiography, which his press published in 2003, she describes the young Reed as an inquisitive old soul who admonished his elders to start reading the newspaper and stop wearing expensive shoes. A superstitious friend noticed tiny holes in his ears and pronounced 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 serials like “Grand Central Station.” His reputation as a literary troublemaker began in school, with a satirical essay about a crazy teacher that got him kicked out of English class. “They didn’t know whether to give me an A or to commit me,” he later wrote. “Critics still have that problem with my work.”
When Reed was sixteen, the great Black newspaperman A. J. Smitherman—a refugee from the 1921 Tulsa massacre—recruited him for the Empire 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’s Celtic-revival poetry spurred an interest in similarly neglected Black folklore, and a community theatre workshop introduced him to Priscilla Thompson, whom he married in 1960. Their daughter, Timothy, was born that same year.
The young family moved into a public-housing project and spent a difficult period subsisting on Spam and powdered milk—often purchased with food stamps—while Reed worked as an orderly at a psychiatric hospital. The marriage didn’t last. Even as his immediate horizons narrowed, Reed’s writerly ambitions grew. After interviewing Malcolm X for a local radio station, he felt the call of New York City. In 1962, he moved into an apartment on Spring Street, carrying everything he owned in a laundry bag.
In New York, Reed behaved like a “green bumpkin,” as he put it, earning the nickname Buffalo from a musician friend. But, within a year, he found a home in the Society of Umbra, a writers’ collective that published a magazine and was described by one of its founders, Calvin Hernton, as a “black arts poetry machine.” It was an ideologically fractious incubator of avant-garde expression, whose members included Lorenzo Thomas, N. H. Pritchard, and Askia Touré—later an influence on Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement. Reed shared an apartment with several of the group’s proto–Black nationalists, but eventually chafed against their dogmatism; it didn’t help, as he has written, that his hard-line roommates were sometimes unemployed while he worked part-time jobs to pay their rent. (Though he never joined the Black Arts Movement, Reed likes to say that he was its “first patron.”)
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