| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Ishmael Reed is a poet, novelist, actor, journalist,
dramatist, and editor; his works reflect his artistic, ethnic, political,
religious, and social interests. He spotlights black issues, but his themes are
universal. His satiric barbs intentionally provoke his audiences in their
wonderfully ironic and humorous way. Experimental forms, innovative style, and
radical ideas place him in the forefront of contemporary writers. From black
history to black humor, from Black Power to black magic, Reed integrates diverse
themes and nontraditional styles.
on February 22, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Ben and Thelma (Coleman)
Reed, Reed was raised in a blue-collar environment in Buffalo, New York, where
the family moved when he was a child. From 1956 to 1960, he attended the
University of New York at Buffalo. After moving to New York City, he founded
the East Village Other, an independent newspaper, and published his first novel
in 1967. This was followed by numerous books of poetry and fiction in addition
to articles, plays, songs and very active editing after arriving in Oakland,
California, in 1968. Ishmael Reed has won a National Endowment fellowship and a
Guggenheim Award, and he has been nominated twice for the National Book Award,
once in poetry for Conjure and once in fiction for Mumbo Jumbo.
Reed is indebted to all the humorous, satiric, and bawdy writers from Ovid to
Chaucer to Swift to Blake to Joyce, he emphasizes his debt to minority artists,
especially black writers. He relies on African mythology, black sports heroes,
and even rhythm and blues for his symbols and metaphors. Reed also weaves
motifs of literary and contemporary allusions throughout his work: Amos and
Andy, Egyptian gods, and famous figures (past and present) all appear in his
mirror of society.
about race, sex, politics, freedom, religion, and everything else, Reed
satirizes most institutions: “My main job I felt was to humble Judeo-Christian
culture.” In Reed’s Neo-Hoo Doo Church, all poets are priests and historians.
One of his favorite issues is that minority contributions to Western
civilization seldom receive due credit. He stirs the fires of discord by
satirizing the distorted versions of popular history. One function of the
artist is to re-rewrite history to reveal the “truth,” so Reed gleefully points
out that cowboys were predominantly minorities, that Alexandre Dumas, the
nineteenth-century French novelist who wrote The Three Musketeers, had African
ancestry; and even that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was stolen by Harriet Beecher Stowe
from The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave. But Reed is not a
single-issue writer; he is a universal writer. His books are not solely about
race issues, although race issues frequently serve as focal points. (He attacks
the black establishment as harshly as he does the white.)
comic tone and joyous outlook in his parodies make us laugh at our foibles.
Many of his works are comedies in the classical sense: Evil is punished and
Good rewarded. Viewing life as a struggle between Dionysian and Apollonian
forces, Reed chooses the laughter, dance, music, and joy: “I see life as
mysterious, holy, profound, exciting, serious, and fun.” So is his writing.
University of Southern Maine
In the Heath Anthology
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra
Flight to Canada
from Mumbo Jumbo
The Free Lance Pallbearers
The Rise and fall of . . .? Adam Clayton Powell (as Emmett Coleman)
Where Is Vietnam? American Poets Respond (contributing editor), Walter Lowenfels, ed.
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down
19 Necromancers from Now, ed.
Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoo Doo Church
The Last Days of Louisiana Red
A Secretary to the Spirits
Shrovetide in Old New Orleans
Yardbird Lives!, ed.
The Ace Booms
God Made Alaska for the Indians
The Terrible Twos
Points of View
Writin' Is Fightin'
The Terrible Threes
New and Collected Poems
Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology, ed.
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An Interview with Ishmael Reed
An interview conducted by Reginald Martin originally published in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1984, Volume 4.2.
Ishmael Reed by Spring
A biography, a bibliography, video files of a lecture, and links.
Ishmael Reed's KONCH magazine
Publication edited by Ishmael Reed offering essays, photographs, and poems.
Modern American Poetry
A brief biography and an analytical essay on I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra.