Ishmael S. Reed, contemporary African American satirist, poet, playwright, and essayist, was born in Chattanooga, on February 22, 1938, and lives in Oakland, California. Having left Chattanooga as a child and grown up in Buffalo, New York, he attended public schools and the University of Buffalo. In Buffalo, Reed did newspaper work for a black weekly and cohosted a sometimes politically radical radio show. An interview with Malcolm X led to Reed’s dismissal from WVFO in the early 1960s, and his move to New York City in 1962 put him in touch with other young African American writers who offered encouragement and impressed upon Reed the need to break away from white writing models–Nathanael West, Ezra Pound, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats, for example–and focus on African American literature. As a result, his first novel, Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), a parody of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man which satirizes America’s Vietnam-era political scene, combined his admiration for the work of Ellison and his gift for satire. In addition to creative writing, Reed also edited a weekly newspaper in Newark, New Jersey, and helped organize, in 1965, the American Festival of Negro Art.
Aside from the publication of his first novel, 1967 also was a landmark year for Reed, his first wife, and their daughter, as they moved to northern California when Reed took a teaching job at University of California, Berkeley. His second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, a Western parody, followed in 1969. Following Yeats’s lead in establishing a personal mythology, Reed demonstrates in this novel his longtime interest in traditional Afro-Caribbean religion, namely Voodoo, or Vodoun. This traditional religion, imported by slaves, provides a rich source of cultural and narrative tradition which Reed has drawn on throughout his career as a writer. Reed calls his own version of Vodoun mythology “Neo-HooDooism,” a concept fully developed in his novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), in which the loas or Vodoun deities or spirits act through PaPa LaBas, a trickster in search of a sacred text. Like Ishmael Reed’s first novel, Mumbo Jumbo owes much to Ellison’s Invisible Man; in addition, many figures of the Harlem Renaissance are satirized.
The slave narrative, another traditional African American literary form, is the inspiration for Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), another satiric novel in which the “Uncle Tom” character, here called Uncle Robin, ends up inheriting his master’s plantation and refuses to sell his story to Harriet Beecher Stowe, thereby preserving his right to his own story.
Other novels include The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), The Terrible Twos (1982), Reckless Eyeballing (1986), The Terrible Threes (1989), and, in 1993, Japanese by Spring. Reed’s oeuvre includes several poetry collections, one of which, Chattanooga (1973), clearly indicates his ties to his native state; other poetry collections are Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church, A Secretary to the Spirits, and Conjure. His works range into drama: Mother Hubbard, The Ace Boons, and Savage Wilds; television productions: Personal Problems and A Word in Edgewise; anthologies: Calafia and 19 Necromancers from Now; and essay collections: Shrovetide in New Orleans, God Made Alaska for the Indians, Writin’ is Fightin’, and Airing Dirty Laundry.
Reed is an innovator in style–often called a postmodern experimental writer–who delights in playing with all literary forms. He is also a community leader and a supporter and mentor to younger multiethnic American writers, having cofounded the Before Columbus Foundation and coedited The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology, which features award-winning fiction written by various multiethnic American writers. Reed continues to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, and has held teaching positions in many major American universities.