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The Importance of Being Ishmael

February 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr. Reed

Ishmael Reed – like Percival Everett – writes ferocious critiques of race, class and power dynamics with a keen eye towards the humorous and the profane. Though they may tackle similar themes, Reed is decidedly more controversial with a preternatural ability to anger both cultural insiders and outsiders with his blistering essays and fiction.

When tasked with assigning folks meaningful works by contemporary Black male authors I often suggest them in the following order:

• Percival Everett
• Julius Lester
• Ishmael Reed

Reed’s work is not for the unexamined. You have to be the kind of person who is more suspicious of your “allies” than your “enemies” and possess an Master Class understanding of the systems of privilege/oppression, otherwise you’ll spend an awful lot of time feeling butthurt, thus missing all the nuances of his work. This isn’t to suggest he isn’t accessible – he definitely is. Just with those noted caveats.

If you’re uncomfortable with someone “airing your cultural dirty laundry” in a compelling and unflinching way, Reed ain’t for you. However, if you’re craving sparkling prose, which actively demands a reader’s participation (again, it’s accessible) and challenges readers in ways that might harsh a mellow or five, then he’s definitely your guy.

I came to Reed via Airing Dirty Laundry and Japanese By Spring and was completely mesmerized by the subject matter and the writing. Reed is the kind of talent that challenges you to step up your own game. It’s all well and good to have complete command of your writing voice, but it’s intergalactic when you actually have something profound to say.

Selected Works

• The Freelance Pallbearers, 1967
• Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, 1969
• Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon or D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful, 1970
Mumbo Jumbo, 1972
• Neo-HooDoo Manifesto, 1972
• Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970, 1972
• God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays, 1982
Reckless Eyeballing, 1986
• New and Collected Poetry,1988
• Writing is Fighting: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper, 1988
• The Before Columbus Poetry Anthology, Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980–1990, 1991
Airing Dirty Laundry, 1993
Japanese by Spring, 1993

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 23, 2010 2:03 am

    Thank you! I put a few of these in my library Holds list.

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