Ishmael Reed and the American War of Words

Ishmael Reed and the American War of Words


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Trillions of words have been spent in shaping and mapping the American

mindscape since 1492.  Reed’s sustained efforts to keep us somewhat honest

about that fact have  been commendable.  His fictions, poems, plays, and

recordings are a moral looking glass for envisioning what we might be. 



Ishmael Reed and the American War of Words

By Jerry W. Ward Jr.


The October 3 presidential debate was a capital example of America’s war of words and visualized rhetoric.  The spectacle was ulotrichy. Viewers are still at a loss to determine whether either debater said anything substantive regarding the economy, health care, the role of government, or a philosophy of governing.

Things would have been different and clearer had Ishmael Reed rather than James Charles Lehrer been the debate moderator.  Reed would not have stayed out of the flow.  He would have directed the debaters into the superdome of history.  Unlike Lehrer, Reed understands that a presidential debate is predicated on America’s social and racial contract and that one dividend of this contract is our nation’s contemporary nervous breakdown.

Reed opens his most recent collection of writing, Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown (Baraka Books 2012), with two sentences that fundamentally establish his locus in the history of black writing:

When they tell me “don’t go there” that’s my signal to navigate the forbidden topics of American life.  Just as the ex-slaves were able to challenge the prevailing attitudes about race in the United States after arriving in Canada, I am able to argue from Quebec against ordained opinion that paints the United States as a place where the old sins of racism have been vanquished and that those who insist that much work remains to be done are involved in “Old Fights,” as one of my young critics, John McWhorter, claims in articles in Commentary and The New Republic, where I am dismissed as an out of touch “fading anachronism.”

Reed is not an anachronism.  He is a pre-future sage.

Trillions of words have been spent in shaping and mapping the American mindscape since 1492.  Reed’s sustained efforts to keep us somewhat honest about that fact have been commendable.  His fictions, poems, plays, and recordings are a moral looking glass for envisioning what we might be.  His nonfiction, however, is at once testimony and indictment of what we are.

Reed turns 75 in 2013, and now is the time to give dedicated attention to his writing, anthologizing, and selfless work in publishing the multicultural/multiethnic writing of others. Special inquiries should be made about his nonfiction:  Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982), Writin’ is Fightin’ (1988), Airing Dirty Laundry (1993), Blues City: A Walk in Oakland (2003), Mixing It Up (2008), Another Day at the Front (2003), Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers  (2010), and Going Too Far

Fame has given Reed a few rewards, but the reward he most deserves is knowing, within his lifetime, that his uncanny intellect succeeded in making people a bit more honest.

6 October  2012                              

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Ishmael Reed and Multiculturalism / MP3 Ishamel Reed Interview, 2nd Hour

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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For Obama, No More Excuses—Bob Herbert—5 October 2012—But Obama never fought back in kind. He never found his inner Harry Truman, never took his case forcefully to the people. He kept trying to accommodate the other side long after it was clear that no accommodation was possible.

In the face of the worst economic calamity since the 1930s, the United States needed a mammoth job-creation and economic revitalization program, a New Deal for the 21st century. But that would have required presidential leadership capable of challenging the formidable opposition mounted by the very folks who caused the crisis in the first place. Instead we got a woefully insufficient stimulus program and a failed effort at some kind of grand bargain between the president and the retrograde Republicans in Congress. That grand bargain would have imposed austerity measures that would have further crushed the poor and the black and the middle class.On Wednesday night nearly 60 million television viewers got to witness this chronic unwillingness of Barack Obama to fight. He did not hammer Mitt Romney for his ugly, all-too-revealing comments that demeaned nearly half the population as slackers and ne-er-do-wells—


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Mr. Herbert, a good black liberal, has other issues than the debate. The primary one is our lack of a spokesman in the White House for the black poor. But the Black Left has been making that criticism from Day One, nay, since the 2008 primary, e.g., Black Agenda Report.

I made protests then as well, and since: Sexual Morality, Black Male Abandonment

But black liberals have been making apologies for Mr. Obama, since the 2008 campaign, defending him against Black left criticisms. And now these political deficiencies on domestic issues seem to become evident and apparent, only now, for black liberals in Obama’s Romney confrontation. I must question the ethics of such criticisms.

Mr. Obama has always been an opportunist politician. Where was Mr. Herbert when Mr. Obama attacked the black poor, black men, on their irresponsibility and their inability to take care of their children and defend their girl friends and wives. And we all know why he did that. He did it to make an appeal to conservative white voters, not a few of them Republicans.

Where was Mr. Herbert and others like him when they ignored Mr. Obama choosing a Republican conservative health plan rather than the public option? There are numerous other such issues like his lack of support for teachers and labor unions. The Race to the Top is a joke; the trade unionists are sycophants and have avoided criticism of Mr. Obama during the political struggles in Wisconsin and Chicago protests.

To now direct their criticism at a single debate that is meaningless in the larger picture of a campaign is some “chutzpah” on the part of the so-called liberal left, which is more conservative than liberal. They want Mr. Obama now to show up in the first debate as the Champion of the Poor. One might say that Richard Nixon was more liberal than they are in the defense of the poor, too often stereotyped (in similar terms as whites) by the black liberal left and Obama’s obsequious fans.

Mr. Obama is nothing if not a pragmatic politician in which winning office is more important than liberal idealism. The same criticism could be applied to his domestic security deficits and his militaristic foreign policies. Mr. Obama is not a liberal in the tradition of FDR or LBJ. He is a New Democrat imperialist who at times finds it convenient to be a liberal populist.

Mr. Herbert is a hypocrite and an opportunist, filled with conceit and deceit that he cares more for the black poor than Mr. Obama. He suggests that only during that first debate that the scales over his liberal eyes fell away, that he did not realize that in American politics the black poor are always expendable cannon fodder. Liberal left criticisms are a day late and a dollar short.—


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Dear Rudy,

Thanks so much.  In terms of the 7.8% unemployment rate, I looked at the published data since 1950 and noticed a cyclical up and down trend. In 2007 during the Bush era the curve was at 4.8% and moved to 11.1% in Nov 2009 of Pres Obama’s term.  There are many factors that may have an impact on the rate such as population, currently 314,515,000, changes in the job skills required, demographic changes and other factors. It appears that both sides agree it is difficult to cook the numbers as some right-wingers imply.

What’s your take?—sincerely, Ron

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‎”Today, I believe that as a nation, we’re moving forward again. When I was sworn into office, we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. Now our businesses have added 5.2 million jobs over the past two and a half years. This morning, we found out that the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since I took office… Today’s news should give us some encouragement. It shouldn’t be an excuse for the other side to try to talk down the economy just to try to score a few political points. It’s a reminder that this country has come too far to turn back now.” That’s what President Obama had to say about the latest jobs numbers before a rain-soaked crowd in Cleveland Ohio yesterday. Do you agree that the country has come too far to turn back now?—PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton

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Montreal, 5 October 2012—Eminent African American writer Ishmael Reed will launch Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown at a public meeting in Little Burgundy on Friday, October 12, 6 p.m.

Ishmael Reed likens his coming to Canada to the fugitive slaves who, from Canada, were able to challenge the prevailing view that slaves were well off under their masters. Ishmael Reed challenges the widespread opinion that racism is no longer a factor in American life.

In some ways, says Reed, the United States very much resembles the country of the 1850s. The representations of blacks in popular culture are throwbacks to the days of minstrelsy. Politicians are raising stereotypes about blacks reminiscent of those that the fugitive slaves found it necessary to combat: that they are lazy and dependent and need people to manage them. Ishmael Reed establishes his diagnosis of a nervous breakdown in three parts. Part I on a black president of the United States is entitled “Chief Executive and Chief Exorcist, Too?” Part II on culture and representations of African Americans in our supposed post-race era, “Coonery and Buffoonery.” In Part III, “As Relayed by Themselves,” cultural figures have a chance to tell the story in their own words.—barakabooks

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A Slave in the White House

Paul Jennings and the Madisons

By Elizabeth Dowling Taylor / Foreword by Annette Gordon-Reed


Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband’s death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists

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Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

By Henry Wiencek

Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes.

Master of the Mountain

, Henry Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson’s papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson’s world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money. So far, historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery; who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But Wiencek’s Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the “silent profits” gained from his slaves—and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited.

We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he’d vowed to overturn. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson’s grocery bills. Parents are divided from children—in his ledgers they are recast as money—while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call “a vile commerce.”

Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

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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 /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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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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posted 6 October 2012




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