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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ishmael Reed
(b. 1938)

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.

Born 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.

Although 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.

Controversial 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.)

Reed’s 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.

Michael Boccia
University of Southern Maine

In the Heath Anthology
I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra (1972)
Flight to Canada (1976)
from Mumbo Jumbo
      Chapter 10 (1972)

Other Works
The Free Lance Pallbearers (1967)
The Rise and fall of . . .? Adam Clayton Powell (as Emmett Coleman) (1967)
Where Is Vietnam? American Poets Respond (contributing editor), Walter Lowenfels, ed. (1967)
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969)
19 Necromancers from Now, ed. (1970)
Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoo Doo Church (1970)
Conjure (1972)
Chattanooga (1973)
The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974)
A Secretary to the Spirits (1975)
Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978)
Yardbird Lives!, ed. (1978)
Califia, ed. (1979)
The Ace Booms (1980)
God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982)
Mother Hubbard (1982)
The Terrible Twos (1982)
Savage Walls (1985)
Reckless Eyeballing (1986)
Points of View (1988)
Writin' Is Fightin' (1988)
The Terrible Threes (1989)
New and Collected Poems (1989)
Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology, ed. (1992)

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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.

Secondary Sources