Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)

    Contributing Editor: Michael Boccia

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Ishmael Reed frequently offends readers, who feel that they and the institutions they hold sacred (the church, American history, schools, etc.) are attacked and ridiculed by him. His humorous exaggerations and sharp barbs are misunderstood partly because satire and irony are so often misunderstood. In addition, most students are ignorant of the many contributions to American culture made by blacks and other minorities. Black and minority contributions in every field are highlighted in Reed's work. Reed often lists his historical, mythical, or literary sources in the text itself and has his own version of history, politics, literature, and culture.

    Pointing out that Reed is a jokester and a humorous writer often makes his work more palatable to students. Once they begin to laugh at Reed's humor, they can take a more objective look at his condemnations of society. Of course, students refuse to accept his version of history, politics, and religion. Most commonly, students want to know if Reed's version of the "truth" is really true. They challenge his veracity whenever he challenges their beliefs. This permits me to send them off to check on Reed's statements, which proves rewarding and enlightening for them.

    Of course, Reed does not want readers to accept a single viewpoint; he wishes our view of reality to be multi-faceted. In Reed's Neo-HooDoo Church, many "truths" are accepted. In fact, one source that is extremely helpful in understanding Reed's viewpoint is the "Neo-HooDoo Manifesto" (Los Angeles Free Press [18-24 Sept. 1969]: 42).

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Reed covers the gamut of issues, writing about politics, social issues, racism, history, and just about everything else. Most of his satire is aimed at the status quo, and thus he often offends readers. It is important to remind students that he is writing satire, but that there is truth to his comic attacks on the establishment. Closely related to his allusions to black artists and history are his themes. He views the counterculture as the vital force in life and hopefully predicts that the joyous side of life will triumph over the repressive side.

    His radical beliefs appear as themes in his work. Knowledge of the cultures (popular, American, African, etc.) Reed draws upon is very helpful. Knowing about black history and literature is very valuable and can best be seen through Reed's eyes by reading his own commentary. Shrovetide in Old New Orleans is especially helpful in this area.

    Reed's vision of history cries out for the recognition of minority contribution to Western civilization. Estaban (the black slave who led Cortez to the Grand Canyon), Squanto (the Native American who fed the Pilgrims), Sacajawea (the Native American woman who helped Lewis and Clark) and many other minority contributors are referred to in Reed's work, and because students are often ignorant of these contributions, some small survey of minority history is very useful.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Reed's originality is rooted in his experimental forms, so introducing the traditional art forms that Reed distorts often helps readers understand his experiments. A survey of the forms of novels, journalism, television and radio programs, movies, newsreels, popular dances, and music will help students understand the fractured forms Reed offers.

    The symbols Reed selects also reflect the eclectic nature of his art, in that the symbols and their meanings include but transcend traditional significance. Reed will blend symbols from ancient Egypt with rock and roll, or offer the flip side of history by revealing what went on behind the veil of history as popularly reported. In all cases one will find much stimulation in the juxtaposition of Reed's symbols and contexts.

    Original Audience

    The students are often angry at Reed's satire of their culture. The provocation that they feel is precisely the point of Reed's slashing wit. He wants to provoke them into thinking about their culture in new ways. Pointing this out to students often alleviates their anger.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Introducing students to Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is an effective way to clarify how Reed's satire functions. Few readers think that eating babies is a serious proposal by Swift, and once satire is perceived as an exaggeration meant to stir controversy and thought, students are willing to listen to Reed's propositions.

    Placing Reed in literary context is difficult because he writes in numerous genres and borrows from many nonliterary art forms. No doubt his innovations place him with writers like James Joyce and William Blake, and his satire places him among the most controversial writers of any literary period.

    Certainly his use of allusion and motif is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot or James Joyce, but Reed likes to cite black writers as his models. Reed feels that the minorities have been slighted and a review of some of the black writers he cites as inspiration is often helpful to students.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    Students respond well to hunting down the literary, historical, and topical references in the poetry. I often ask them to select a single motif, such as Egyptian myth, and track it through a poem after researching the area.


    I strongly recommend reading Reed on Reed: Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, especially "The Old Music," "Self Interview," "Remembering Josephine Baker," and "Harlem Renaissance."

    For a detailed discussion of his literary and critical stances, see John O'Brien, "Ishmael Reed Interview," The New Fiction, Interviews with Innovative American Writers, edited by David Bellamy, 130-41. Urbana: Uni-versity of Illinois Press, 1974.

    For a view of the Dionysian/Appollonian struggle as portrayed by Reed, see Sam Keen, "Manifesto for a Dionysian Theology," Transcendence, edited by Herbert W. Richardson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969: 31-52.

    For a general overview, see Henry Gates, "Ishmael Reed," The Dictionary of Literary Biography 33.

    Half of The Review of Contemporary Fiction 4.2 (1984) is devoted to Reed.