Ishmael Reed

b. 1938

One of America’s most significant literary figures, Ishmael Reed has published over twenty books of poetry, prose, essays, and plays, as well as penned hundreds of lyrics for musicians ranging from Taj Mahal to Macy Gray. His work is known for its satirical, ironic take on race and literary tradition, as well as its innovative, post-modern technique. Critic Robert Elliot Fox described Reed’s work: “In his writing, Reed is a great improviser, a master of collage with an amazing ability to syncretize seemingly disparate and divergent materials into coherent ‘edutainments’—forms of surprise, revelation, and frequent hilarity. However, those who focus primarily on how funny or unfunny his works are miss the point of Reed's rollicking revisions, his apparently loony ‘toons’—which is to employ humor as a weapon in the very serious enterprise of exposing human excesses and absurdities, and, at the same time, to remind us of the dangers of taking ourselves and our cherished opinions too seriously.”

Reed’s books of poetry include Conjure (1972), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Chattanooga (1973), A Secretary to the Spirits (1978), New and Collected Poems (1988), and New and Collected Poems 1964-2007 (2007), which was named one of the best books of poetry of the year by the New York Times, and won the California Gold Medal in Poetry, awarded by the Commonwealth Club. Reed’s poems have been published in other forms as well. His work has been featured as part of poetry walks in Berkeley, California and Richmond, New York; it also appears as an installation in a BART station in Richmond, California. Reed’s many novels include the critically acclaimed Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Terrible Twos (1982), Japanese by Spring (1993) and Juice! (2011). Recent essay collections include Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, Or The Return of the ‘Nigger Breakers’ (2010) and Mixing It Up: Taking On The Media Bullies & Other Reflections (2008). Ishmael Reed: The Plays collected Reed’s six plays and was published in 2003. Reed has also edited numerous anthologies, most recently among them Powwow, Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience: Short Fiction From Then to Now (2008), which he co-edited with Carla Blank. He edits the online literary magazine Konch and blogs for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1938, but grew up in the working-class neighborhoods of Buffalo, New York. He attended the University of New York-Buffalo, but never matriculated; he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University in 1995. He also received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1998. He taught at the University of California-Berkeley for over thirty years, and has held positions at California College of Art, San Jose State University, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of the Antilles in Martinique. His many awards and honors include fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has won the John Oliver Killens Lifetime Achievement Award, the Barbary Coast Award, the 2008 Blues Songwriter of the Year Award, the Phillis Wheatley Award, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, the Langston Hughes Medal, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Poetry Association, among many, many others. Reed also founded the Before Columbus Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting original, innovative, and neglected writing from the Americas.

Though known for his provocative ideas and the controversy that has sometimes accompanied his public statements, Reed is not simply a voice of black protest against racial and social injustices but instead a confronter of universal evils, a purveyor of universal truths. Beginning in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Reed began using “Neohoodooism” in his work. Based on Hoodoo, a syncretic religion that absorbs West African religious practices, Reed turned this concept of syncretism into a literary method that combines aspects of “standard” English, including dialect, slang, argot, neologisms, or rhyme, with less “standard” language, taken from the streets, popular music, and television. By mixing language from different sources, Reed employs expressions that can both evoke interest and humor through seeming incongruities and creates the illusion of real speech. Reed’s combinatory, or syncretic, method extends to his poetry as well. Reed’s early poems draw from Afro-American and Anglo-American historical and popular traditions—two distinct but intertwined sources for the Afro-American aesthetic. Reed’s work has always sought to combine traditions, approaches, and values. Reviewing Collected Poems for the New York Times, Joel Brouwer noted that Reed’s “best achievements as a poet are rooted in his insistence upon the importance of cultural heterogeneity. Reed is among the most American of American writers, if by ‘American’ we mean a quality defined by its indefinability and its perpetual transformations as new ideas, influences and traditions enter our cultural conversation.”

Career

Writer. Empire Star Weekly, staff writer, 1960-62; freelance writer, New York, NY, 1962-67. East Village Other, New York, NY, cofounder, 1965; Advance, Newark, NJ, cofounder, 1965. Yardbird Publishing Co., Berkeley, CA, cofounder, 1971, editorial director, 1971-75; Reed, Cannon & Johnson Communications Co. (publisher and producer of videocassettes), Berkeley, cofounder, 1973—; Before Columbus Foundation (producer and distributor of work of unknown ethnic writers), Berkeley, cofounder, 1976—; Ishmael Reed and Al Young's Quilt (magazine), Berkeley, cofounder, 1980—. Teacher at St. Mark's in the Bowery prose workshop, 1966; guest lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1968—, University of Washington, 1969-70, State University of New York at Buffalo, summer, 1975, and fall, 1979, Yale University, fall, 1979, Dartmouth College, summers, 1980-81, Sitka Community Association, summer, 1982, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, 1982, Columbia University, 1983, Harvard University, 1987, and Regents lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1988. Judge of National Poetry Competition, 1980, King's County Literary Award, 1980, and University of Michigan Hopwood Award, 1981. Chair of Berkeley Arts Commission, 1980 and 1981. Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, chair of board of directors, 1975-79, advisory board chair, 1977-79. Executive producer of pilot episode of soap opera Personal Problems and copublisher of The Steve Cannon Show: A Quarterly Audio-Cassette Radio Show Magazine.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • Catechism of d Neoamerican Hoodoo Church, Paul Breman (London, England), 1970, Broadside Press (Highland Park, MI), 1971.
  • Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1972.
  • Chattanooga: Poems, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
  • A Secretary to the Spirits, illustrations by Betye Saar, NOK Publishers (New York, NY), 1978.
  • New and Collected Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1989.
  • New and Collected Poems: 1964-2006, Carroll and Graff (New York, NY), 2006.
  • New and Collected Poems: 1964-2007, Thunder’s Mouth (New York, NY), 2007.

FICTION

  • The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1967.
  • Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Doubleday, 1969.
  • Mumbo Jumbo, Doubleday, 1972.
  • The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Random House (New York, NY), 1974.
  • Flight to Canada, Random House, 1976.
  • The Terrible Twos, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1982.
  • Reckless Eyeballing, St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
  • The Terrible Threes, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1989.
  • Japanese by Spring, Atheneum, 1993.
  • Juice!, Dalkey Archive Press (Champaign, IL), 2011.

NONFICTION

  • Shrovetide in Old New Orleans(essays), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1978.
  • God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays, Garland (New York, NY), 1982.
  • Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper, Atheneum, 1988, revised and expanded edition published as Writing Is Fighting: Forty-three Years of Boxing on Paper, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1998.
  • Airing Dirty Laundry, Addison-Wesley, 1993.
  • The Reed Reader, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War, Basic Books, 2002.
  • Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, Crown (New York, NY), 2003.
  • Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media and Other Reflections, Da Capo Press (New York, NY), 2008.
  • Barack Obama and The Media Bullies, or The Return of the “Nigger Breakers,” Baraka Books (Montreal, Canada), 2010.
  • The Fighter and the Writer: Two American Stories, Random House, 2012.
 
PLAYS
  • Hell Hath No Fury... ,produced by the Playwrights and Directors Project of the Actors Studio in New York, NY, June, 1980.
  • Savage Wilds,produced at the Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley, CA, January, 1988.
  • Hubba City,produced at the Black Repertory Theatre, 1988.
  • The Preacher and the Rapper, produced in New York, NY, 1994.
  • Ishmael Reed: The Plays, Dalkey Archive Press (Champaign, IL), 2009.
 
 
EDITOR
  • (As Emmett Coleman) The Rise, Fall, and... ? of Adam Clayton Powell,Beeline (Albany, NY), 1967.
  • (Also author of introduction, and contributor) 19 Necromancers from Now,Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
  • (With Al Young) Yardbird Lives!,Grove (New York, NY), 1978.
  • (And contributor) Calafia: The California Poetry,Yardbird Books (Berkeley, CA), 1979.
  • (With Kathryn Trueblood and Shawn Wong) The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980-1990,Norton (New York, NY), 1992.
  • MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace,Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
  • From Totems to Hip-Hop (collected poetry), Thunder Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Carla Blank) POWWOW: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now, Da Capo Press, 2009.Contributor to numerous volumes, including Amistad I: Writings on Black History[HB1]  and Culture, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1970; The Black Aesthetic, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1971; Nommo: An Anthology of Modern Black African and Black American Literature, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1972; Cutting Edges: Young American Fiction for the ‘70s, Holt (New York, NY), 1973; Superfiction; or, The American Story Transformed: An Anthology, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1975; and American Poets in 1976, Bobbs-Merrill (New York, NY), 1976. Poetry also represented in anthologies, including Where Is Vietnam? American Poets Respond: An Anthology of Contemporary Poems, Doubleday, 1967; The New Black Poetry, International Publishers (New York, NY), 1969; The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Norton (New York, NY), 1970; The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1970, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970; Afro-American Literature: An Introduction, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1971; The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1971; Major Black Writers, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1971; The Black Poets, Bantam (New York, NY), 1971; The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century, Harper (New York, NY), 1972; and Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings, Random House (New York, NY), 1975. Also author of The Lost State of Franklin with Carla Blank and Suzushi Hanayagi, 1976.
 
OTHER
  • Ishmael Reed Reading His Poetry(cassette), Temple of Zeus, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1976.
  • Ishmael Reed and Michael Harper Reading in the UCSD New Poetry Series(reel), University of California, San Diego (San Diego, CA), 1977.
  • (With Al Young) Personal Problems(video script), 1980.
  • (Author of introduction) Elizabeth A. Settle and Thomas A. Settle, Ishmael Reed: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography,G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1982.
  • Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon,Bamberger (Flint, MI), 1986.
  • (With Richard Nagler) Oakland Rhapsody: The Secret Soul of an American Downtown,North Atlantic Books (Berkeley, CA), 1995.
  • Conversations with Ishmael Reed,edited by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1995.
  • The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress, Ishmael Reed(cassette), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1996.
  • Ishmael Reed and Garrett Hongo Reading Their Poems in the Mumfoud Room (cassette), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1996.

Also author, with wife, Carla Blank, and Suzushi Hanayagi, of a bicentennial mystery play, The Lost State of Franklin. Author of foreword, Dark Eros, edited by Reginald Martin, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 1997. Contributor of fiction to such periodicals as Fiction, Iowa Review, Nimrod, Players, Ramparts, Seattle Review, andSpokane Natural; contributor of articles and reviews to numerous periodicals, including Black World, Confrontation, Essence, Le Monde, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Playgirl, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Washington Post, and Yale Review; and contributor of poetry to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Black Scholar, Black World, Essence, Liberator, Negro Digest, Noose, San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Tribune, Life, Connoisseur, and Umbra. Cofounder of periodicals East Village Other and Advance (Newark community newspaper), both 1965. Editor of Yardbird Reader, 1972-76; editor-in-chief, Y’Bird magazine, 1978-80; and coeditor of Quilt magazine, 1981. 


Further Reading

BOOKS
  • African American Writers,Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Boyer, Jay,Ishmael Reed,Boise State University Press (Boise, ID), 1993.
  • Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook,Greewood Press (Westport, CT), 1999.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 8, 1980, Volume 32, 1985.
  • Contemporary Novelists,7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
  • Contemporary Poets,7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
  • Contemporary Southern Writers,St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, 1980, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, 1984, Volume 227: American Novelists since World War II, Sixth Series,2000.
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography,Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
  • Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century,St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • Joyce, Joyce Ann, Warriors, Conjurers, and Priests: Defining African-Centered Literary Criticism,Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.
  • Klinkowitz, Jerome, Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism,Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1985.
  • Ludwig, Sami,Concrete Language: Intercultural Communication in Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" and Ishmael Reed's "Mumbo Jumbo,"[New York], 1996.
  • Martin, Reginald, Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics,Macmillan (London, England), 1987.
  • Modern American Literature,St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • O'Donnell, Patrick, and Robert Con Davis, editors, Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction,Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
  • Ostendorf, Berndt, Black Literature in White America,Noble (Totowa, NJ), 1982.
  • St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture,St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
  • Settle, Elizabeth A., and Thomas A. Settle, Ishmael Reed: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1982.
PERIODICALS
  • Amerasia Journal, February, 1999, review of Multi-America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace,p. 181.
  • American Book Review,May-June, 1983; October-November, 1994, p. 17.
  • American Poetry Review,May-June, 1976; January-February, 1978.
  • Arizona Quarterly,autumn, 1979.
  • Black American Literature Forum,Volume 12, 1978; spring, 1979; spring, 1980; fall, 1984.
  • Black Enterprise,January, 1973; December, 1982; April, 1983; October, 1994, p. 169.
  • Black Issues Book Review, March, 2002, review of Mumbo Jumbo, review of The Free-Lance Pallbearers, review of Flight to Canada, p. 26; January-February, 2003, Clifford Thompson, "Call Him Ishmael: The Controversial (Some Say Reckless) Cultural Critic Ishmael Reed Returns a New Collection of Essays Appropriately Titled Another Day at the Front," p. 40, review of Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War,p. 52.
  • Black World,October, 1971; December, 1972; January, 1974; June, 1974; June, 1975; July, 1975.
  • Booklist, June 1, 2000, Vanessa Bush, review of The Reed Reader, p. 1838; December 15, 2002, Vernon Ford, review of Another Day at the Front, p. 713; February 15, 2003, review of From Totems to Hip-Hop, p. 1038; September 15, 2003, review of Blues City: A Walk in Oakland,p. 198.
  • Chicago Review,fall, 1976.
  • Chicago Tribune Book World,April 27, 1986.
  • Critical Inquiry,June, 1983.
  • Dalhousie Review, spring, 2000, review of The Reed Reader,p. 137.
  • Essence,July, 1986; July, 1994, p. 38.
  • Harper's,December, 1969.
  • Iowa Review,spring, 1982, pp. 117-131.
  • Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2002, review of Another Day at the Front, p. 1598; June 15, 2003, review of Blues City: A Walk in Oakland,p. 850.
  • Library Journal, April 1, 2003, Daniel L. Guillory, review of From Totems to Hip-Hop,p. 104.
  • Los Angeles Times,April 29, 1975.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review,April 20, 1986; June 4, 1989; April 14, 1991, p. 10.
  • MELUS,spring, 1984.
  • Mississippi Quarterly,winter, 1984-85, pp. 21-32.
  • Mississippi Review,Volume 20, numbers 1-2, 1991.
  • Modern Fiction Studies,summer, 1976; spring, 1988, pp. 97-123.
  • Modern Poetry Studies,autumn, 1973; autumn, 1974.
  • Nation,September 18, 1976; May 22, 1982
  • Negro American Literature Forum,winter, 1967; winter, 1972.
  • Negro Digest,February, 1969; December, 1969.
  • New Republic,November 23, 1974.
  • New Yorker,October 11, 1969.
  • New York Review of Books,October 5, 1972; December 12, 1974; August 12, 1982; January 29, 1987; October 12, 1989, p. 20.
  • New York Times,August 1, 1969; August 9, 1972; June 17, 1982; April 5, 1986; September 28, 1995, p. A1; February 7, 1996, p. C12; May 13, 1997, p. C14.
  • New York Times Book Review,August 6, 1972; November 10, 1974; September 19, 1976; July 18, 1982; March 23, 1986; May 7, 1989; April 7, 1991, p. 32; February 13, 1994, p. 28.
  • Obsidian,spring-summer, 1979; spring-summer, 1986, pp. 113-127.
  • Partisan Review,spring, 1975.
  • People,December 16, 1974.
  • Phylon,December, 1968; June, 1975.
  • Publishers Weekly, June 23, 2003, review of Blues City,p. 53.
  • Review of Contemporary Fiction,summer, 1984; spring, 1987; summer, 1994, p. 227.
  • San Francisco Review of Books,November, 1975; January-February, 1983.
  • Saturday Review,October 14, 1972; November 11, 1978.
  • Times Literary Supplement,May 18, 1990, p. 534; July 15, 1994, p. 22.
  • Tribune Books(Chicago, IL), April 11, 1993, p. 3; December 12, 1993, p. 4.
  • Twentieth Century Literature,April, 1974.
  • Village Voice,January 22, 1979.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review,winter, 1973.
  • Washington Post Book World,March 16, 1986; June 25, 1989, pp. 4, 6; November 12, 1989, p. 16; April 14, 1991, p. 12; January 26, 1992, p. 12; March 21, 1993, p. 6.
  • Western American Literature, winter, 2002, review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down,p. 325.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1978.
ONLINE
  • Center for Book Culture, http://www.centerforbookculture.org/ (February 11, 2003), review of The Free-Lance Pallbearers.
  • Publishers Group West, http://www.pgw.com/ (February 11, 2003), description of From Totems to Hip-Hop.
  • State University of New York at Buffalo, http://www.math.buffalo.edu/ (November 25, 2003), Mathematics Department, Professor Scott W. Williams, "Ishmael Reed."*

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LIFE SPAN 1938–

Biography

One of America’s most significant literary figures, Ishmael Reed has published over twenty books of poetry, prose, essays, and plays, as well as penned hundreds of lyrics for musicians ranging from Taj Mahal to Macy Gray. His work is known for its satirical, ironic take on race and literary tradition, as well as its innovative, post-modern technique. Critic Robert Elliot Fox described Reed’s work: “In his writing, Reed is a . . .

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