The Gospel According To Ishmael!
Droppin Science At The Nuyorican
When the group of international scholars and students from twenty nations who had gathered at the Sorbonne in February 1992 heard Ishmael Reed open his reading with lines from his new novel Japanese by Spring, which was then a work in progress, almost everybody cracked up with laughter. And as he continued to read from his manuscript–a hilarious tale about a Japanese takeover of Jack London College, a small, elite, private liberal arts college in Oakland, California–it became increasingly clear that we were witnessing the birth of yet another masterwork from the writer whom the Nation magazine has justly designated “the brightest contributor to American satire since Mark Twain.”
The finished product has justified our faith. For Japanese by Spring is a unique narrative that is at once a tour de force of literary innovation that violates nearly all the conventional wisdom about composing a novel, and an erudite fictive polemic satirizing both the intellectual pomposity and hypocrisy of the Eurocentric cultural elite, who have traditionally run our universities, and the vulgar opportunism and banality of radical feminists and Afrocentric ideologues.
Chastising the charlatans on all sides of a question while seeking to enlighten the untutored mob is characteristic of Reed’s literary oeuvre–a body of work that now includes nine novels, four volumes of poetry, two anthologies, three plays, two television productions, and three collections of essays, with another nearing publication. In his most recent essay collection–and most controversial–Writin’ Is Fightin’ Reed provides us an unabridged glimpse of his take on the writers craft:
“I don’t have a predictable, computerized approach to political and social issues in a society in which you’re either for it or agin it. Life is much more complex. And so for my early articles about black on black crime, I’ve been criticized by the left, and for my sympathy with some “left wing” causes I’ve been criticized by the right, though from time to time I’ve noticed that there doesn’t seem to be a dime’s worth of difference between the zealotry of the left and that of the right.”
Reed, who calls his career “Thirty-seven years of boxing on paper,” which is the subtitle of the book, believes that the writer must view all dogmas and orthodoxies with a jaundiced eye. “I think that a certain amount of philosophical skepticism is necessary,” he says. “I think it’s important to maintain a prolific writing jab, as long as my literary legs hold up, because even during these bland and yuppie times, there are issues worth fighting about.”
In Japanese by Spring, we get the kind of diversity of perspective that allows Reed to critically examine all of the issues that are of enduring interest to him: white cultural chauvinism, white and black feminist collusion in defaming black men, the need for a multicultural perspective, the duplicity of white liberals, the opportunism and ideological bankruptcy of many black nationalists, the viciousness of academic competition, and the absurdity of intellectual fashion. Two of his pet peeves–the unwarranted genuflection before black women writers by the feminist literati and their fellow travelers, and the conflict between pampered academic critics and struggling creative writers–are given a full airing.
In the following passage the narrator paints a vivid picture of the conflict between the critics and writers when Benjamin Chappie Puttbutt, an English teacher at the college, arrives in Paris to deliver a lecture at a conference that includes a contingent of creative writers:
“He was to be the featured speaker at the Nathan Brown Centennial celebration; the writers had been brought along for entertainment. The chauffeur held the door open for him. He climbed in. He instructed the chauffeur to drive past the writers. They were shouting at him. They apparently wanted him to give them a lift. He asked the chauffeur to speed up. Some of the writers had recognized him, but he didn’t wave. He pretended to be absorbed in Le Figaro, which had his photo on the cover.”
Reed explores the question of the white feminists’ role in the defamation of black men by constructing a heated exchange between Chappie Puttbutt and Marsha Marx, chairwoman of the women’s studies department. Prior to the Japanese takeover of the college, Puttbutt was just an unimportant lecturer working on a semester by semester basis, hoping to acquire tenure but frustrated in this effort at every turn. However, when Dr. Yamato–with whom Puttbutt had been taking private lessons in Japanese–suddenly becomes president of the college, there is a radical change in Puttbutt’s fortunes as he is selected to become the top assistant to the new president. The roles quickly reverse, and his former tormentors now seek his favor as the new Japanese owners begin to reorganize and reduce staff. Arrogant Marx, who has always treated Puttbutt with disdain, is forced to plead for the survival of her department, which is scheduled to be combined with the Department of European Studies.
“You’re moving us over there with those patriarchal pigs?”
“I’ll be frank about it, Marsha . . . . The Women’s Studies department is merely a front for European studies. You said so yourself.” Puttbutt picked up a sheet of paper that was lying on his desk. “Europe is the source of our law, our values, and our culture, yet little had been done to recognize the role of women, in the establishment of this great civilization.” He quoted from the MLA Speech she’d made. “The way I see it, there is no significant difference between your aims and those of your patriarchal allies. You just wanted in. What we’ve decided is to hire fifty percent men and fifty percent women.”
However, Ms. Marx would not hear of any such arrangement and protested,
“The members of my department insist upon working in a male-free department.” To which Puttbutt replied, “If you feel that way why don’t you move your people to Mills?. . . We will not tolerate any separation between the sexes.” Finally Marx begins to plead and tries to win Puttbutt to her position. “Look Chap-pie . . . We should be on the same side. United in our fight against white male patriarchy and its control of modes of production. Both sexism and racism are equal contradictions.”
But Chappie’s not buying it.
“Oh yeah, then explain to me why black and brown women are worse off than white women. Why there are few women of color in the main feminist organizations and why the black and brown women are always accusing you of racism . . . . You’re looking out for yourself. I’m going to look out for me . . . . You don’t jump on men of your background as much as you do the fellahs. You lynched Clarence Thomas . . . . You white gender-first feminists in the media and on the campuses have gone Clarence Thomas crazy . . . . The only difference between you and the women in the Klan is that the women in the Klan dress better.”
Here Reed has his finger on the pulse of the Afro-American community. All one need do to verify this is to view the Frontline documentary on the Thomas-Hill minstrel show produced by Ofra Bikel for PBS. Reed also uses the Japanese takeover to chastise opponents of a multicultural pedagogy by having Dr. Yamato assault the traditional Eurocentric canon:
“We’re going to close down the Department of Humanity and move it into ethnic studies. You have African studies, Native American studies, Chicano studies, Asian-American studies, and African-American studies. We will have a new department, European studies, with the same size and budget as the rest. My backers would like to eliminate all of these courses which allow for so much foolishness . . . . All they accomplish for these people is to promote such dubious claims that Europe is the birthplace of science, religion, technology and philosophy. I’ve been reading this so-called philosopher, Plato. All about such foolishness as to whether the soul has immortality. What nonsense. Hegel and the rest are full of such nonsense also. This ignorant man maintained that the Chinese had no philosophy. What rubbish. No wonder the Americans can’t make a decent automobile . . . . If one were to apply the empirical razor to all of these so-called theories, the entire history of Western philosophy could be covered in one week.”
Most of the arguments presently raging in America’s universities are scrutinized in this novel. And the ideologues on all sides are lampooned, or harpooned, by Reed’s irreverent, satirical wit. There are so many learned and insightful observations littering this text–including weighty lessons in comparative language and religion–that the thoughtful reader must leave it with the changed perspective of those who have heard the voice of a prophet.
It is a testament to his understanding of the ambiguity of truth, and the tendency to commit folly that appears to be an indelible part of human nature, that Dr. Yamato comes to Jack London College to correct the wicked ways of ethnocentric whites but ends up becoming a power-crazed Japanese chauvinist who renames the school and its major buildings after Japanese war criminals, demands that faculty and students take IQ tests, and commands all professors to learn Japanese by spring. In the end, Professor Puttbutt, who had at first welcomed the Japanese conquest, rejoins his colleagues and plots Dr. Yamato’s demise–evidently preferring the knaves he knew to the scoundrels he didn’t.
While Reed’s worldview can be considered Afrocentric–in the sense that he proceeds from the perspective of one who is conscious of what it means to be an African-derived person in the modern world–his Afrocentrism is cosmopolitan rather than provincial. Indeed, Leslie Fiedler’s description of Reed as a “highbrow ironist” and a “professional dissenter and baiter of the smug, black or white” is right on the money. Witness these observations of the narrator in Japanese by Spring:
“The English department and the African-American department were similar. They had the habit of weeding out dissidents. You just weren’t rehired. They were both paralyzed by theory, too. A famous black feminist reflected the thinking in her remark that she was more interested in representations than reality. (While thousands of black families were living out in the streets, the black intelligentsia at the New York Exegesis were obsessed with the questions of identity.) But nobody complained about these attitudes for fear of playing into the hands of the enemy (white people)”.
Reed’s cosmopolitanism is best evidenced in the extraordinary range of his reading and the skillful manner in which he weaves universal themes into his narratives about Afro-American life. With a highly eclectic interest in world history; art, music, languages, literature, politics, mysticism, and religious mythology, he employs a hyperactive imagination to produce some of the most erudite and inventive narratives presently being composed in the English language. This passage from his neoslave narrative Flight to Canada is a case in point. Here the protagonist and narrator, Raven Quickskill, a runaway slave and writer, chastises Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for stealing her plot from the story of ex-slave Josiah Henson.
“When Lord Byron came out of the grave to get her, the cartoon showed Harriet leaving her dirty stains all over Byron’s immaculate white statue. Did Josiah Henson do this? The man so identified with Uncle Tom that his home in Dresden, Canada is called Uncle Tom’s museum? Did Tom have the power the Brazilians say he has? Does he know “roots”? Umbanda pretos velhos, pai Thomas, pai Thomas. The curer. Did Tom make Byron’s ghost rise out of his undead burial place of romance and strangle Harriet’s reputation? . . . Do the old African and Indian gods walk the land as the old one said they would, too proud to reveal themselves to the mean spirited?”
The highly allusive, esoteric language gleaned from fragments of the lives of historical personalities and exotic cultures illustrated by the passage above is a pervasive feature of Reed’s novelistic technique. Hence, it is quite literally true that you will get from his books what you bring to them. His tendency to rely on obscure religious systems like the orisha voodoo of the Yoruba, or the Egyptian and Greek “mysteries”–often rendered utilizing all the devices available to the able poet (puns, allegory, and extended metaphors)–makes his symbol imagery incomprehensible to some wanna-be critics.
Reading him I sometimes get the feeling that he, like Harold Cruse and C.L.R. James, has read damn near everything of importance. One highly regarded professional critic of “black women’s literature”–a genre I am not sure actually exists–frankly admitted to me in Paris that “I just don’t understand him.” However, her comment does call to mind one clearly observable difference in the writing of black men and women: Black women generally write about interpersonal relationships centered around the Afro-American family and community, while black men seek to change the world by seizing cultural leadership and subverting the psychologically coercive icons that control the spiritual impulses of American civilization.
One critic who does understand the fiction of Ishmael Reed and has written intelligently on the subject is Bernard Bell, professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University and author of the seminal text The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. According to Bell,
“Ishmael Reed is not only one of the nation’s most gifted and controversial innovative artists but also the leading promoter of black post-modernist writing . . . . uppity, pretentious, pompous, sexist, and sophomoric are the most frequent if not the kindest names hurled by unsympathetic critics at Reed for the neo-hoodoo aesthetic he develops between 1967 and 1983 . . . . At the heart of Reed’s neo-hoodoo aesthetic, which is largely constructed from residual elements of syncretistic African religions (vodum, pocomania, candomble, Macumba, and hoodoo) in the Caribbean and the Americas, especially Haiti, Brazil, and the United States, is a belief in the power of the unknown, particularly as expressed in artistic freedom and originality.”
In a recent conversation with this writer, Reed explained the evolution of his novelistic style thusly: “When you encounter writers like James Joyce, Nathanael West, and Chester Himes, and you find out that there are various ways of writing, you become interested in new possibilities. I began with models like that–fabulist and prose writers, visionaries, cultural nationalists, and poets. Even then, in the 1950s we were searching for some kind of identity that was different from the one that was based on the standard school curriculum. So even then there were hints of going in another direction. Although because of our enforced ignorance of Afro-American history and literature we didn’t know that a lot of this had already been done.”
“Under those circumstances a generation starts out as if they are the only one to encounter the problems that they face. Then they find out that there’s a path, a tradition. We were told that there was not a tradition. I think a lot of African-American students today don’t realize how it was in the 1950s when there was no black studies. In those days if you wanted to learn about our history and traditions you had to do it on your own. When I was a kid I was deeply influenced by a pamphlet I picked up by Joel A. Rodgers: “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof.”‘
Reed’s last comment about the role of Rodgers’ work in raising his consciousness about the possibility of a hidden black tradition is revealing. Rodgers dealt with several black traditions, including Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America, and the Caribbean. His books was the path to racial enlightenment traversed by many of the black intellectuals and artists who were the avant-garde of the black power movement–on the cultural and political fronts–this writer included. Furthermore, Rodgers–like Benjamin Banneker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, Malcolm X, Harold Curse, Benjamin Franklin, and Ishmael Reed himself–belongs to the list of great American autodidacts who invented themselves.
They were men who followed their own star and blazed paths into unknown territory, whether in the arts or sciences. And the more I think about the gross liberties Reed has taken with the language, imagery, poetics, and narrative forms of English literature, the more I am persuaded that he is engaging in the same sort of artistic subversion and sabotage the careful reader will recognize in the fictions of James Joyce and the poetry of the negritude poets like Amié Cesaire, Leon Damas and, of course, Leopold Sedar Senghor. Just as the Irishman Joyce, and the Francophone West Indian and African poets, sought to subvert the language and literature of their imperial tutors, so has Reed reshaped the inherited language and literature of the Anglo-Saxon oppressor in America. And he has done a splendid job of it.
The subversive character of Afro-American art has been evident since antebellum days, when African Americans created a spiritual world of their own through their songs, tales, and folk religion–a religion that reshaped the great stories of the Old Testament into an instrument of liberation. This legacy of creative subversion was carried over into the post emancipation period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Fisk Jubilee Singers mesmerized European and American audiences with the first concert music developed from folk songs born on American soil; Bert Williams and George Walker conquered Broadway with the cakewalk; and Paul Laurence Dunbar produced his “Lyrics of Lowly Life.”
But Ishmael Reed, the quintessential modernist, has produced a body of work whose subversions of conventional wisdom is closer to the musical heresies of Theolonius Monk, Charles “Yardbird” Parker, and John Coltrane. However, both in terms of idiomatic rapport and the sweeping innovations he has introduced to the Afro-American novel, Reed’s subversion of Euro-American literary conventions is nearest to that of Coltrane’s in music. And like Coltrane, he has also redefined and extended traditional Afro-American forms.
Reed’s subversion of traditional novelistic forms–which is to say, his innovations–can be clearly seen in the way he has handled such well-established American genres as the western and the detective story. He has also taken considerable liberties with the slave narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down is Reed’s take on the western novel, and Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red are his significations on the detective story.
But Reed’s cowboy, the Loop Garoo Kid, and Papa La Bas, the detective who unravels mysteries of cosmic proportions, have something in common that is conspicuously absent from other American novels of this genre: They utilize the magical powers of hoodoo–African black magic, the authentic remnants of Afro-American spiritual heritage. As Reed imagines him, the Kid is part figure from the Afro-American tall tale like High John the Conquoroo, and part Elegba, the trickster voodoo God of the Yoruba who guards the crossroads of life. Witness this description: “A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bull-whacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women.”
In spite of the grand imaginative adventures of Yellow Back Radio–in which Reed obliterates time and nullifies the restrictions imposed by history and assaults our sense of reality with Indian chiefs who ride around in flying saucers and ranching barons who spy on their cowboys through closed-circuit television cameras–or a slave who escapes from his master on a 747 jumbo jet in Flight to Canada, or the epic clash of African and European cosmologies in Mumbo Jumbo, Reed claims that in Japanese by Spring he is finally writing the kind of novel he really wants to write, because all of the major themes that recur in his novels are present here, and some, perhaps, reach their apotheosis.
For instance, although Yoruba cosmology has long informed Reed’s neo-hoodoo aesthetic, in the present novel he raises the discussion of this religion to new levels of didacticism. In a series of remarkable passages in the final chapter of the book, Reed not only provides us with his vision of the ultimate multicultural society; but also instructs us in the Yoruba language and celebrates both the lack of pretension in orisha voodoo–by holding an important religious service in a shopping mall–as well as its openness to all comers, regardless of race. He even appears in the narrative as himself in order to demonstrate the difficulty experienced by modern intellectuals in accepting the truths embodied in religious myths; people whose cynicism regarding irrational spiritual phenomena has been nurtured by prolonged exposure to the scientific method.
He tells us: “After the song to Olódümarè, Sányá explains that Yoruba people were worshipping Olódümarè thousands of years before Muhammad and Christ. (Being a democrat and a populist, the worship part worried homefolks Ishmael Reed. Sányá wanted Reed to participate in the meeting in a more active way, but Reed begged off, saying that he was not a religious person and just wanted to observe.)”
This passage suggests that Reed’s relationship to orisha voodoo resembles that of many of the Iranian intellectuals who helped bring the Ayatollah Khomeini to power and then fell from favor. They embraced Islam because it supplied a counterpoint to the cosmology of their Western Christian oppressors, symbolized by America. But in the end they could no more submit to the religious dogma of the mullahs than Reed is prepared to prostrate himself before the orishas of his West African ancestors upon the instruction of Sányá, the voodoo priest.
Indeed, Reed has been criticized by true believers for half stepping. But these acolytes have misunderstood his purpose. Reed is primarily interested in voodoo as an indigenous African mythological system with which he informs his art, not as a path to personal salvation. And he is also deeply impressed with its philosophical approach to the relationship between man, God, and the things of this world; a relationship that is so plastic it allows the religion to continuously accommodate new ideas and anoint new Gods. This principle informs all of Reed’s novels but is exalted in Japanese by Spring to a sublime virtue.