The endless education of Ishmael Reed

The balls of the best male writers and critics weigh a minimum of 50 pounds. Those of Ishmael Reed — novelist, critic, educator, poet, essayist, playwright and musician — militate around 65.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. once snorted that Reed “cavorts like a black bull in the china shop of Western culture.” Reed, in turn, called Gates out for labeling him a misogynist then coming to the defense of “First Sexist” Bill Clinton when he was accused of pasting a streak of First Semen onto the dress of First Intern Monica Lewinsky.

Reed will discuss his career and read words of wisdom at Wayne State University on Wednesday, March 6 (7 p.m. in the Bethany Auditorium in the David Adamany Undergraduate Library, 5155 Gullen Mall, free). But to absorb him, you’d better be one dry sponge. Reed has, in the words of A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, “styles upon styles upon styles.” He’s made them all work.

Reed, 63, is easily one of the most versatile writers in U.S. history. He may also be one of America’s freest thinkers. This should be stated up front, because his unabashed criticism of people who register large and small on the American cultural radar has kept his literary star from shining as brightly as luminaries such as Ralph Ellison.

“They weren’t able to silence me because I was able to get a worldwide audience,” says Reed, referring to the array of black leaders, feminists and writers whose philosophies he’s frankly deconstructed. Take Ellison, the author of Invisible Man. Not that it was a bad book. But Reed once asked Ellison “whether he’d written a great book, as the critics had said, or whether it was praised because Freudianism was the vogue.” Ellison walked away. Later, he caught Reed at a reception for The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed’s fourth novel, winner of the National Institute of Arts’ Rosenthal Award for the best noncommercial novel of 1975. Inebriated, Ellison called Reed from across the room, accusing him of being a con artist and a gangster.

Reed’s commentaries are not offered to make friends. Nor is his writing meant to go down easy. He is a living challenge, the rare writer who remains open to the education that is the world, consistently seeking and applying new lessons.

Despite his critiques, however, he is open enough to take some cues from complaints about his work — at least when he agrees with the rebuttal.

“There’s a critic named Peter Nazareth who corrected my use of African language,” says Reed. “So I went out and studied the language. I’ve been studying it for 10 years, Yoruba, which is a West African language. And I went to Nigeria and wrote some of my poems in Yoruba.”

It obviously was insufficient to say, “Y’know, Pete, you’re right,” and let it go. Reed is to the written word what Miles Davis was to modern jazz. He fuses his experiences, so that even fiction like Mumbo Jumbo becomes part entertainment, part cultural experience. The result so far is nine novels, five poetry volumes, four essay collections, six plays and one libretto.

“I did the same thing as jazz musicians,” he says. “For instance, from jazz musicians you hear pieces of other tunes. I deconstructed the western in Yellow Back Radio Broke Down.” He rebuilt it too, much the way Alice Randall deconstructed Gone With the Wind and reconstructed it as the controversial The Wind Done Gone.

Reed’s work as an editor and publisher is also extensive. For instance, he published Terry McMillan’s first novel. McMillan was a student of Reed’s at the University of California-Berkeley, as was Mona Simpson, author of Anywhere But Here.

In one breath, he’s explaining the destruction and rebuilding process of Yellow Back Radio Broke Down. In the next, he’s discussing Conjure One, the album he recorded in 1983 with musicians including David Murray. In a third, he mentions a play he wrote using original songs. “I do write rhymes,” he says. “I’ve written songs. I did a musical in New York called Mother Hubbard. And Mary Wilson of the Supremes liked it so much she took a role and sang some of my songs.”

Reed sees no end to his career. It makes no sense to do so. He’s built it from California to New York, through radical journalism and freedom of expression. Maya Angelou once said that to say “I know” means one has stopped learning. Those words must be taboo to Reed, because for almost 35 years his education has continued.

Hot & Bothered was written by Khary Kimani Turner and W. Kim Heron. Send comments to [email protected]

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