Thursday Fiction Corner: Interview with Ishmael Reed
In conjunction with Black History Month, this Thursday’s Fiction Corner features an interview of author and activist Ishmael Reed from the Dalkey “Review of Contemporary Fiction” archives. Reed is not one to mince words. The homepage of his website features blurbs from three different writers, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Sam Tanenhaus, all praising him as, “Great,” “Great,” and “Great.”
Reed has published dozens of books, including the novels Juice!, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, The Terrible Threes, The Terrible Twos, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Reckless Eyeballing. He also wrote plays collected in Ishmael Reed: The Plays. See the available books here.
In this interview, Professor Reginald Martin speaks with Ishmael Reed, who excoriates a kind of “Eastern, Manhattan” intellectualism. In addition to his vociferous critique of the academic establishment, responsible, he argues, for the construction of “the black aesthetic,” their conversation veers into topics such as jazz, voodoo, and black feminism. Reed has faced backlash for his views. In a more recent interview with the Paris Review, Reed stated: “When Tupac mentioned me in a song, it compensated for all of the hostile responses to my nonfiction and fiction.” The song is ‘Still I Rise’.
The following interview was conducted July 1-7, 1983, in Emeryville, California, a suburb of Oakland and San Francisco.
REGINALD MARTIN: Camus wrote in “Neither Victims nor Executioners” that the only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance. In many respects, I see you that way, but many of your critics, Houston Baker, Jr., and Addison Gayle, Jr., for example, seem to throw out any possibility that issues they support may also be issues that you equally support.
ISHMAEL REED: I saw Houston Baker, Jr., recently in Los Angeles. I don’t bear any ill feelings toward him. In fact, he was very cordial toward me. I feel that the piece published in “Black American Literature Forum” that was edited by Joel Weixlmann was irresponsible, and my point is that they would never attack white writers the way they do black writers in that magazine, and I still maintain that. All these scurrilous charges that Baraka made against black writers—and I’ve discussed this with Baraka—those charges were outrageous—he called them traitors, capitulationists.
RM: Did you see Baraka’s recent piece on PBS in which was outlined his recent battles with police, where they accused him of beating his wife in his car, when they were just having a domestic argument, disagreement—
IR: That kind of thing happens to black people every day in this country, and they don’t receive that kind of sentence he did, which was to go to prison on the weekends; I think he lectured there—an outside lecturer.
RM: What did Norman Mailer receive for stabbing his wife with a pen knife?
IR: Well, they all like that, they all love that kind of stuff in New York. This Son-of-Sam syndrome, where, I guess, this comes from an interest in Russian psychology, Russian literature, this Raskolnikov notion, that there are some people superior to other people, that Dostoyevsky trip, you know, and that these people are above the kind of rules that apply to you and me. And I think that people who indulge in bizarre behavior are existential heroes, like Jack Abbott, Gilmore, I think even Baraka had that kind of role in cultural hero. As a matter of fact, there was someone in France recently, and the Mitterand government intervened to get him out of jail, a poet, or so he called himself a poet, and he went out and robbed a bank again or something. I don’t know, there’s this fascination with this kind of character. And I feel that that is just a kind of an Eastern, Manhattan, intellectual obsession.
RM: Addison Gayle, Jr., speaks critically about your perception of the relations between black men and women when he reviews “Flight to Canada” in relation to “Eva’s Man” by Gayl Jones. He writes: “Reed, of course, is an anomaly, and if much of his fiction, “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada”, proves anything, it is that black women have no monopoly on demons, real or imaginative. These two novels demonstrate that, like the ‘buyer’ in “Caracas,” like blacks in general, male and female, the web of folklore which has circumscribed much of our relations with each other from the days of slavery to the present time, have been impervious to the best efforts of conscientious men and women to tear it down. Thus, Reed’s central argument, as developed in both “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada,” may be summed up thusly: since the days of slavery, collusion between black women and white men has existed in America. The major objective of this collusion has been the castrating of black males and the thwarting of manful rebellion.”
IR: Well, I think that anybody who reads that ought to go and read his autobiography, “The Wayward Child,” and pick up on some of his notions on black women and white women. As I said in a letter to “Nation” magazine recently, women in general make out better in my books than black men do in the works of black women and white women, feminist writers. And I gave the example of Gayl Jones’s “Eva’s Man”—not to mention “Corregidora”—in which black men are portrayed as brutes, apes, but also Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” in which the character Jude is burned alive by his mother, something I had heard of in black culture. And Alice Walker’s fascination with incest—which can always get you over, if you have the hint of incest. I mean, it got Ellison over; there are a lot of male critics who are interested in that, who are interested in black male sexual behavior—they’re fascinated. There was recently a review on Louis Harlan’s book on Booker T. Washington, by Malcolm Boyd—he used to be a hippie preacher or something; I don’t know what he’s doing now. And he spent a whole lot of the book—he spent the whole article on this story about Booker T. Washington being caned for knocking on a white woman’s door or something like that. Of all the things Booker T. Washington had done! This man was just fascinated with this. He spent three or four paragraphs talking just about that! So there’s an obvious fascination with incest and rape, and Alice Walker picks up on things like this. I tried to get my letter published in “Nation” magazine. I finally had to go to the American Civil Liberties Union here in northern California to get my reply published to what I considered to be a hatchet job done by Stanley Crouch. He had all the facts about my career and publishing activities wrong. They see Al Young and myself as leaders of some multicultural revolt threatening the things they’re doing—against their interests. But in “Nation” I wrote that the same charges that Alice Walker makes against black men were made about the Jews in Germany. I guess we don’t have a large organization like the Anti-Defamation League or a large pressure group or lobby—
RM: Then it goes without saying that these people—not just the black critics but all critics—invent things that they say make up the black aesthetic, in fact that becomes a limiting label.
IR: They haven’t investigated Afro-American folklore, nor have they investigated voodoo. I call it Neo-HooDooism. So there’s a reference that goes back to shed light on the aesthetic I’m working out, which I consider to be the true Afro-American aesthetic. When I say Afro-American aesthetic, I’m not just talking about us, you know, I’m talking about the Americas. People in the Latin countries read my books because they share the same international aesthetic that I’m into and have been into for a long time. And it’s multicultural. The West’s Afro-American aesthetic is multicultural—it’s not black. That’s what they don’t understand. This black aesthetic thing is a northern, urban, academic movement—that’s why you have a fancy word like “aesthetic”, which nobody figures out. When you come to talk about standards of taste, everyone differs. It’s a vague enough word so that they can get away with it. And even though they try to make it sound like it’s really important—that’s the black intellectual pastime—discussing all these phantoms and things. You look at all these conferences for a hundred years, same questions.
RM: That was a great Chester Himes quotation that you included in “Shrovetide,” to the effect that he had searched all his life to find one place in the world where he did not have to be a nigger, only to find that there is no such place. And that he could have just developed his writing wherever he was and marketed it to those who were interested.
IR: Well, I think that the black male is a pariah all over the world—well, maybe not all over the world, but it seems in my experience that in South America, the United States, places like that, the black male is a pariah. That also gives you an advantage. Because there’s a certain desperation, a certain creativeness, originality, that comes from being at the bottom. A lot of our great art comes from the Afro-American male experience. Just think of all the great male jazz musicians. They’re innovators, these guys are hungry, Louis Armstrong and those guys were really hungry, they’re originals; and look at all the black males in politics now; all the feminists are criticizing black males now, black feminists and white feminists, but they got all their strategies from black men. The black males are the ones whose strategies are used all over the world—Martin Luther King in Ireland, Russia, these Pentecostalists in Russia singing “We Shall Overcome.” So black men are geniuses, and many times their desperation, their position as being pariahs, leads them to great originality. I heard a black female pianist who is a real man-hater, I think, but all the pieces she was playing were by Bud Powell and Monk. So that’s very important. But I don’t think you hear much about the black aesthetic anymore. Blacks are probably more American than any other group here. I know that a lot of blacks have Native American ancestry—I know I do, and it’s something to be paid more attention to. You see, this black aesthetic thing was not scientific, as I guess a lot of things which came from the English department are not. Social sciences are not—but this black aesthetic was a classic example in imprecision. Because Africans do not consider Afro-Americans in this country to be really black, because their ancestry is so mixed up—you know, Indian, European, African—so actually one could say that by singling out one part of your ancestry and labeling that might be considered racist. So that’s why I was always intrigued that these professors who are supposed to be scientists would try to peddle that.
RM: You said earlier that the writing going on now cannot really be called a black aesthetic; it’s much more diffuse—
IR: I don’t know about aesthetic. I think people are going to write anyway. Aesthetic is like the Holy Ghost or something. People are just going to write.
RM: The subtext of “Mumbo Jumbo” seems to be saying that “there are many aesthetics in the world, lots of ways of doing things, and mine is just as good as yours—maybe better.”
IR: The thing about the Afro-American aesthetic is that they can prove that it is an aesthetic. The thing that became the settler phase of America is just a phase. The European phase in the Americas is coming to an end, and that’s why there’s all this paranoia and retrenchment mentality, and the so-called “back to basics” movement, which means we should emphasize American and European history. The president of Tufts—amazing for someone who runs a sophisticated, modern university—a woman, right?—trivialized African studies, saying it was like “basket weaving” or something, and how we ought to stick with “our” civilization. This is a big misunderstanding that the fundamentalists have in this country, cultural fundamentalists: that America is an extension of European civilization. A lot of people who should know better say things like this, like Chicano intellectuals I’ve talked to speak of “Latin” America, and there’s just as much African influence on South America as any other. The thing about the voodoo aesthetic is that it’s multicultural and it can absorb, while the settler thing is monotheistic and nonabsorptive. In other words, if you’re not on my side, I can do anything I want to do with you. Those are the forces that come together in “Mumbo Jumbo.”
RM: Would you trace voodoo from West Africa to the Caribbean, to New Orleans and up the river, or would you say it starts in the Caribbean?
IR: I think Haiti is internationally recognized as the origin of voodoo. I’ve decided that gospel music is just a front for voodoo. Mahalia Jackson had a difficult time getting her brand of gospel over to the orthodox ministers. And I think when they’re praising Jesus, they’re really singing about Legba or someone like that . . . Damballah. The rhythms are voodoo. The genius of voodoo is its camouflage. I’ll give you a very amusing example. In the 1960s, everyone was into these amulets, and in the 1960s I had a black ebony cross made up for me—not the Greek cross—and I was in Washington, D.C. staying at the hotel Intrigue—”Intrigue,” strange—but this Christian delegation was getting on the elevator and they said, “Are you with us brother?” And that shows the genius of it right there. It has elements that appeal to everyone.
RM: Some Afro-Americans who are interested in literature are turned off by your perceived liberal stances. What do you think about that?
IR: I think Afro-Americans as a group are probably very conservative. I think they are very suspicious of what has been called the avant-garde. Now, what I’m doing is not avant-garde, but a classical Afro-American form. And it’s been beaten out of them. They’re supposed to hate that, shun it, fear it. So I think that’s one of the problems. They used to say the same thing about Miles Davis thirty years ago. They thought bebop was crazy. They said that about all the jazz greats. So they don’t say you’re crazy anymore, but black men don’t have any credibility in this country. We steal, we mug, all the stereotypes.
RM: In “Flight to Canada,” you continually attack the term “universal.” Would you define the term “universal” as it applies to a criticism of literature?
IR: Well, it’s not a criticism of literature. Lorenzo Thomas tracked the term “universal” to Tolstoy’s essay on art, in which he says that universal art is the art of the people. The other art is landlord art: ballet. They got it all wrong, and they use the term to dismiss works which they consider too local or too ethnic, critics from the East. Someone was telling me that a great book would never be written in Yiddish, and then about six months later, Isaac Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature. I think if Faulkner had been a black writer, he would have been considered ethnic. I would say 60 percent of Faulkner’s work is written in black English. People just seem to be blinded to reality when it comes to dismissing languages. I don’t think there is any standard English. I think there is such a thing as protocol English.