The Dark Heathenism of Ishmael Reed

The Dark Heathenism of Ishmael Reed


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To understand Ishmael Reed’s work, you need to know history. Not in the sense

of what his work is representing, because like the best postmodern writing,

Reed’s fiction, poetry, and even his essays represent themselves.



Books by Ishmael Reed

Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969) / Mumbo Jumbo (1972) / The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) / Flight to Canada (1976)

 The Terrible Twos (1982) / The Terrible Threes (1999) / Reckless Eyeballing (2000).

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The Dark Heathenism of the American Novelist Ishmael Reed

African Voodoo As American Literary Hoodoo

 By Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure



This book posits that Neo-HooDooism, an African Voodoo-derived aesthetic, evinces Ishamel Reed’s post-colonial transformation of the English language, colonialist discourses, and imperial cultural systems into discourses of self-empowerment and self-representation. As Reed’s return to dark heathenism, Neo-HooDooism represents an attempt to rediscover pre-slavery and pre-colonial African languages and oral traditions to remedy the impact of physical and linguistic displacement that African-Americans continue to experience in the United States. Reed’s nine novels are post-colonial writings whose production affects social, cultural, political, and historical contexts from African-American, American multi-ethnic, Caribbean, African, Third-World, and global perspectives. This book analyzes Neo-HooDooism as a post-colonial discourse/literary theory and a multi-cultural poetics through which Reed reconnects the African Diaspora to Africa within a global perspective. To accomplish this, an investigation is made into slavery, hegemony, language, place and displacement, race, gender, feminism, writing, post-coloniality, and theory as post-colonial themes that permeate Reed’s nine novels.—Publisher, Mellen Press


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To understand Ishmael Reed’s work, you need to know history. Not in the sense of what his work is representing, because like the best postmodern writing, Reed’s fiction, poetry, and even his essays represent themselves. As Samuel Beckett said famously in James Joyce’s proto-postmodern work, Finnegans Wake, what’s created is not about something but is something itself. Yet Joyce, formed in a world that was giving new privileges to both myth and psychology, remains most fundamentally a modernist. Reed is postmodern because he engages history without describing it. To understand how that is done, one must read Dr. Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure’s study at hand. (from the Preface)—Dr. Jerome Klinkowitz, Distinguished Professor, University of Northern Iowa


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In this book, Dr. Mvuyekure examines Reed s ambitious literary enterprise of re-centering Africa globally through fashioning an Afro-based discourse and post-colonial poetics. Dr. Mvuyekure s work is a multi-layered and inter-textual analysis of Reed s nine novels and his effort to transform colonialist discourses into a post-colonial trope of individual and multi-cultural empowerment with a view to providing for diasporic Africans a validating medium of reconnection … and argues that for Reed, Writin is indeed Fightin .

—Professor Rose Ure Mezu, Morgan State University

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No one before has shown how Reed’s purposeful use of language acquisition . . . constructs both a telling and showing narrative. Indeed, I am not sure such a critical trope has ever been constructed by a critic before much like Reed’s narrative had never been accomplished before in English. Dr. Mvuyekure’s new book is a critical work by a major critic.


—Dr. Reginald Martin, Coordinator, African-American Literature Program, University of Memphis

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Table of Contents

Preface Acknowledgements Introduction

1 Neo-HooDooism: Post-Colonial Textual Resistance, African Diaspora Re-Connection, and Multicultural Poetics

2 The Free-Lance Pallbearers: Colonial Mimicry and “Adulteration of her Tongue”

3 Yellow Back Radio Broke Down: “Scattering Arbitrarily” and Blowing like Charlie “Bird” Parker – HooDoo Be-Bop Western

4 Mumbo Jumbo: “Profaning [Western] Sacred Words” and “Beating Them on the Anvil of Boogie Woogie”

5 The Last Days of Louisiana Red: “The Wretched of the Earth”

6 Flight to Canada : HooDoo Writing as a “Pièce de Résistance”

7 The Terrible Twos and The Terrible Threes : Ecological Imperialism, Christmas Blues, Reggae, and Calypso

8 Reckless Eyeballing: Writing Post-Coloniality and African American Women’s Feminist Fictions

9 Japanese by Spring: Re/Writing American Orientalism and the Metonymic Function of Japanese and Yoruba

Notes Bibliography Index


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Bio Sketch

Ishmael Reed — poet, essayist, and novelist — was born in 1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was raised in Buffalo, New York, and attended the University of New York at Buffalo. Reed’s first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, was published in 1967. That same year he moved to Berkeley, California, later relocating to the adjacent city of Oakland, where he currently resides with his wife, Carla Blank, a dancer and choreographer. They have a daughter, Tennessee. Reed also has a daughter, Timothy Brett, from a previous marriage.

Reed named his philosophy and aesthetic processes Neohoodooism. Hoodoo, the African American version of voodoo, appeals to Reed because of its “mystery” and its eclectic nature, thus provided him with a metaphor for his understanding and realization of art. 

Reed’s view of neohoodooism can be found in his first book of poetry, Conjure (1972)–especially “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” “The Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic,” and “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church”–while the most successful actualizations of neohoodooism as a practice are his novels Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), the aforementioned  Mumbo Jumbo, and Flight to Canada  (1976).

Neo-hoodooism is an undeniable mix of ingredients in the New World. Instead of black essentialism, Reed argues for hybridity as a virtue. Immersion in blackness is simultaneously an immersion in Americanness. Africa helped to make America and there would be no America without Africa. America is a gumbo of cultures. Ishamel Reed’s artistic vision is unique among American writers.

He is the author of five collections of poetry: New and Collected Poems (Atheneum, 1988), A Secretary to the Spirits (1978), Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church (1970), Chattanooga (1973), and Conjure (1972). Reed has also written nine novels including Japanese by Spring (1993), The Terrible Twos (1982), Flight to Canada  (1976), The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), and The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Among his plays are Mother Hubbard (1982) and The Ace Boons (1980).

He is also the author of four collections of essays: Airing Dirty Laundry (1993), Writin’ is Fightin’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper (1988), God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (1982), and Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978).

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Dr. Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure is Professor of English and African-American Literature in the Department of English Language and Literature and the 2005 Philip G. Hubbard Outstanding Educator at the University of Northern Iowa. A Fulbright alumnus, he received his Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dr. Mvuyekure specializes in African and African Diaspora Literatures, Post-Colonial Literature and Theory, Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Literature, and Cultural Theory and has authored numerous articles and book chapters on these subjects. His most recent publications include “Lamentations on the Rwandan Genocide (Final Thursday Press, 2006) and World Eras Volume 10: West African Kingdoms, 500-1590 (Gale/Thompson, 2004)

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The Return of the Nigger Breakers  (Interview) /  Parable of the San Francisco Negro (2)

The Dark Heathenism of the American Novelist Ishmael Reed

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Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media

The Return of the Nigger Breakers

By Ishmael Reed

Juice!: A Novel

By Ishmael Reed

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Ishmael Reed talks about this book with Phil Taylor of the Taylor Report (audio)

Listen to interview with Ishmael Reed on KPFA Berkeley (min 32-60) (audio)

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.

This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 6 October 2012




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Related files: How the Media Uses Blacks to Chatise Blacks    “Preface” to Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice   T he Return of the Nigger Breaker 

The Dark Heathenism of Ishmael Reed

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