Ishmael Reed and Multiculturalism

Ishmael Reed and Multiculturalism


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



As an American thinker and writer, Reed has chosen to provoke recognitions. 

This he has done with gusto in his novels and collections of essays and, most

importantly, in the anthologies he has edited. Beginning with 19 Necromancers

From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing for the 1970s (1970),

he included contributions by Frank Chin and Victor Hernandez Cruz.



Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers 

Redefining American Literary History

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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)

Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers  / Juice!; A Novel

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Ishmael Reed and Multiculturalism

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.


In The Gift of Black Folk (1924), W. E. B. Du Bois asserted that the meek in the new world “not only inherited the earth but made their heritage a thing of questing for eternal youth, of fruitful labor, or joy and music, of the free spirit and of the ministering hand, of wide and poignant sympathy with men in their struggle to live and love which is, after all, the end of being.” Strip Du Bois’s sentimental prose of flowers and sugar, and one comes to the core: the descendents of African peoples in the United States gave this nation the gift of humanity, a gift that burns the hands of people who have no color.  Those who chirp endlessly about their sympathy for peoples of color have much to learn from Ishmael Reed.

Since 1969, Reed’s writing has been an essential tool in my thinking.  I first read The Free-Lance Pallbearers in Pleiku, Vietnam and laughed at its humor in that alien Asian landscape of horror. Almost five decades later, I live in a vernacular landscape of massive destructive horrors and still need Reed’s cartography to understand the multicultural territory.  Reed’s words have made me too wise to laugh.

As an American thinker and writer, Reed has chosen to provoke recognitions.  This he done with gusto in his novels and collections of essays and, most importantly, in the anthologies he has edited. Beginning with 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing for the 1970s (1970), he included contributions by Frank Chin and Victor Hernandez Cruz.  His gesture of inclusion was one way of saying to Afrocentric Americans that excluding people was tantamount to being white. He explained in a brief editor’s note: “I have called the authors in this anthology ‘Black,’ ‘Afro-American,’ ‘Chinese-American,’ or ‘Indian’ because, with the possible exception of one, this is what they would call themselves if polled.” 

Nine years later, Reed made his case for the plural nature of American literature by editing Calafia: The California Poetry, “the most comprehensive multi-cultural anthology of a State’s poetry ever compiled.”  He strengthened his case by including authenticating introductions from Bob Callahan, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Simon Ortiz, Shawn Hsu Wong, Wakako Yamauchi, and Al Young. Reed operated from the premise that “if, as they say, California is the United States’ window on the future, then the prospects for a diverse national poetry, instead of the various sects of the moment, are good” (xliii). Using the conditional mode, Reed floated like a Muhammad Ali butterfly to avoid jabs from the left and the right.

Redefining American Literary History (1990), which I co-edited with A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, was a pure product of the American academy.  It was sponsored by the Committee on the Literatures and Languages of America of the Modern Language Association and published by MLA.  Nevertheless, it was influenced indirectly by the conversation Reed began in founding the Before Columbus Foundation in 1976. Working from the field rather than the classroom, Reed was much ahead of the academy in recognizing the diversity of American literary tradition. As he insisted in his introduction for The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology (1992): “Multicultural” is not a description of a category of American writing—it is a definition of all American writing (xi). The same declaration appears in the companion The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology (1992). Both anthologies contain selections from the American Book Awards 1980-1990, and both challenge the draconian hegemony of the American publishing industry.  Reed’s sentiments are echoed in J. J. Phillips’s introduction for the poetry volume: “Whether or not one likes to acknowledge it, America always has been a multicultural society, and any literary canon which presents but a narrow band of the spectrum of American letters and claim to be representative is itself a fiction of the first water “(xv). For reasons that have more to do with power than with education, America’s public schools and colleges have yet to renounce the fiction.

Reed has been very clear-sighted about the limits of his interventions as they pertain to literature and literacy and about the necessity of continuing interventions. As Reginald Martin remarked in Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (1988), Reed is like “the ultimate Trickster of Hoodoo legend,” who through “his collation of myth, fact, and apocryphal data into a history” conducts a quest to formulate “a different, and more humane, way of experiencing and influencing the world” (108). In his anthologies, I would argue, Reed places the burden of proof on fact.  To provoke deeper thinking about the pitfalls of American monoculturalism, Reed edited Multi-America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), a book that is seminal for understanding the contested territory of multiculturalism. Most recently, Reed has edited From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas (2003) and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009). It should not be lost on us that these titles allude to indigenous traditions.

In their chapter for The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011), Madhu Dubey and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg noted that Reed had reservations about the institutionalization of multiculturalism in the academy when he underlined “the profitability of racial and cultural differences to commodity capitalism”(575) in his novel Japanese by Spring (1993). And no doubt, Reed has reservations about the illusions of multiculturalism in everyday American life. Reed uses his intelligence to provoke for the public good; unless one is a confirmed dunce, one welcomes his provocations with choice grains of skepticism.  Few of us want, I suspect, to be permanent guests at a tea party in a Platonic cave.  The probity of Reed’s writing and anthologizing clears the mind of crap.  As one of the contemporary gifts of black folk to our nation, Ishmael Reed helps us to see a bit of the actual that “reality” would have us evade.

 Dr. Jerry Ward is a distinguished professor of English and African American World Studies at Dillard University, New Orleans, LA. Ward spent 20 years as the Lawrence Durgin Professor of Literature at Tougaloo College in Jackson. He is recognized as one of the leading experts on Wright. His credentials concerning Wright include, co-editor of the Richard Wright Encyclopedia, to be published in 2006 by Greenwood Press; founding member of the Richard Wright Circle, and his recent portrayal of Richard Wright in the Mississippi Humanities Council’s Mississippi Chautauqua Writers series. Dr. Jerry Ward contributed to the intellectual and cultural climate in Jackson for many years. More 

posted 11 July 2011

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The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W. Ward, Jr. $18.95  The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)

The Katrina Papers is not your average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of writing, including intellectual autobiography, personal narrative, political/cultural analysis, spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry. Though it is the record of one man’s experience of Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a part of his life and work as a scholar, political activist, and professor.  The Katrina Papers provides space not only for the traumatic events but also for ruminations on authors such as Richard Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The result is a complex though thoroughly accessible book. The struggle with form—the search for a medium proper to the complex social, personal, and political ramifications of an event unprecedented in this scholar’s life and in American social history—lies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers. It depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view which takes the local as its nexus for understanding the global.  It resists the temptation to simplify or clarify when simplification and clarification are not possible. Ward’s narrative is, at times, very direct, but he always refuses to simplify the complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the process and the historical moment that he is witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is both pedagogical and inspiring.—Hank Lazer

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Not Gone With the Wind Voices of Slavery—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—9 February 2003—Unchained Memories, an HBO documentary that makes its debut tomorrow night, provides a powerful answer to that question. It gives us, through the faces and voices of African-American actors, an introduction to a vast undertaking that took place in the 1930’s: the collection and preservation of the testimonies of thousands of aged former slaves in an archive known as the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project. This archive unlocked the brutal secrets of slavery by using the voices of average slaves as the key, exposing the everyday life of the slave community. Rosa Starke, a slave from South Carolina, for example, told of how class divisions among the slaves were quite pronounced:

”Dere was just two classes to de white folks, buckra slave owners and poor white folks dat didn’t own no slaves. Dere was more classes ‘mongst de slaves. De fust class was de house servants. Dese was de butler, de maids, de nurses, chambermaids, and de cooks. De nex’ class was de carriage drivers and de gardeners, de carpenters, de barber and de stable men. Then come de nex’ class, de wheelwright, wagoners, blacksmiths and slave foremen. De nex’ class I members was de cow men and de niggers dat have care of de dogs. All dese have good houses and never have to work hard or git a beatin’. Then come de cradlers of de wheat, de threshers and de millers of de corn and de wheat, and de feeders of de cotton gin. De lowest class was de common field niggers.”



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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

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



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#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media

The Return of the Nigger Breakers

By Ishmael Reed

For Ishmael Reed, Barack Obama, like Michelangelo’s St. Anthony, is a tormented man, haunted by modern reincarnations of the demonic spirits used to break slaves. These were the Nigger Breakers men like Edward Covey, who was handed the job of breaking Frederick Douglass. Isn’t it ironic, writes Reed: A media that scolded the Jim Crow South in the 1960s now finds itself hosting the bird. In this collection, which includes several unpublished essays, Ishmael Reed brings to bear his grasp of the four-centuries-long African-American experience as he turns his penetrating gaze on Barack Obama’s election and first year in power establishing himself as the conscience of a country that was once moved by Martin Luther King’s dream.—Baraka Books (April 15, 2010)

In the past 40 years, Reed has published more than 20 books and has also made his mark as an editor, publisher, critic, journalist, songwriter, librettist and fearsome letter-to-the-editor writer…. Reed is among the most American of American writers, if by ‘American’ we mean a quality defined by its indefinability and its perpetual transformations as new ideas, influences and traditions enter our cultural conversation.—The New York Times

With Ishmael Reed, the most persistent myths and prejudice crumble under powerful unrelenting jabs and razor-sharp insight.— Le Devoir, Montreal

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Juice!: A Novel

By Ishmael Reed

A new novel from the most outspoken African-American writer of our time. In 2010, the Newseum in Washington D.C. finally obtained the suit O. J. Simpson wore in court the day he was acquitted, and it now stands as both an artifact in their “Trial of the Century” exhibit and a symbol of the American media’s endless hunger for the criminal and the celebrity. This event serves as a launching point for Ishmael Reed’s Juice!, a novelistic commentary on the post-Simpson American media frenzy from one of the most controversial figures in American literature today. Through Paul Blessings—a censored cartoonist suffering from diabetes—and his cohorts—serving as stand-ins for the various mediums of art—Ishmael Reed argues that since 1994, “O. J. has become a metaphor for things wrong with culture and politics.” A lament for the death of print media, the growth of the corporation, and the process of growing old, Juice! serves as a comi-tragedy, chronicling the increased anxieties of “post-race” America.—Dalkey Archive Press

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what’s in your heart than what’s in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America’s shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, “Happy can make you money, but money can’t make you happy.”

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

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My First Coup d’Etat

And Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa

By John Dramani Mahama

Though the colonies of sub-Saharan Africa began to claim independence in the late 1950s and ’60s, autocratic and capricious leadership soon caused initial hope to fade, and Africa descended into its “lost decades,” a period of stagnation and despondency from which much of the continent has yet to recover. Mahama, vice president of the Republic of Ghana, grew up alongside his nascent country and experienced this roller-coaster of fortunes. In this memoir, Mahama, the son of a member of parliament, recounts how affairs of state became real in his young mind on the day in 1966 when no one came to collect him from boarding school—the government had been overthrown, his father arrested, and his house confiscated.

In fluid, unpretentious style, Mahama unspools Ghana’s recent history via entertaining and enlightening personal anecdotes: spying on his uncle impersonating a deity in order to cajole offerings of soup from the villagers hints at the power of religion; discussions with his schoolmates about confronting a bully form the nucleus of his political awakening. As he writes: “The key to Africa’s survival has always been . . . in the story of its people, the paradoxical simplicity and complexity of our lives.” The book draws to a close as the author’s professional life begins. —Publishers Weekly

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Book of Sins

By Nidaa Khoury

Khoury’s poetry is fired by belief in the human and the spiritual at a time when many of us feel unreal and often spiritually hollow.—Yair Huri, Ben-Gurion University 

Written in water and ink, in between the shed blood. Nidaa Khoury’s poems take us to the bosom of an ancient woman  . . . an archetype revived. The secret she whispers is ‘smaller than words.’—Karin Karakasli, author, Turkey

Nidaa Khoury was born in Fassouta, Upper Galilee, in 1959. Khoury is the author of seven books published in Arabic and several other languages, including The Barefoot River, which appeared in Arabic and Hebrew and The Bitter Crown, censored in Jordan. The Palestinian poet is studied in Israeli universities and widely reviewed by the Arab press. The founder of the Association of Survival, an NGO for minorities in Israel, Khoury has participated in over 30 international literary and human rights conferences and festivals. Khoury is the subject of the award-winning film, Nidaa Through Silence.

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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 26 July 2012




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