Ishmael Reed’s writing is often funny. Ishmael Reed is very serious. He has written many books, essays and mischievous musings that utilize humor to make very serious points about racism, the manipulation of identity politics and the relationship of African-American history and culture in the United States of America. His most recent novel, titled Juice!, is another such read. Using the long-running show that was the OJ Simpson trial in the 1990s, Reed releases another relentless attack on the racist assumptions that underpin the culture, politics and economy of the United States.
His protagonist, a cartoonist named Paul Blessings, is one of the few men in a major media corporation’s offices that believes OJ is not guilty of the murder of Nicole Simpson. This position becomes unpopular very quickly, as bourgeois feminists, media moguls out for the biggest buck, and other elements around Blessings manipulate the trial and the accompnaying show to their own personal and (sometimes) political ends. The magazine itself is a metaphor for the pap that sells for news these days in a world where substance is a curse. Blessings perceives himself as one of the few people in the media business who believes that he should be doing something besides selling the corporate world’s goods and mindset. Naturally, this does not play well with his bosses.
As the story progresses, Blessings watches his friends and co-workers desert him, convinced by money or the overwhelming persuasive power of the corporate media. The guilt or innocence of OJ Simpson becomes less important than the racial bleaching of US society that Blessings sees all around him. Black nationalism of any kind becomes an anachronism, while a form of multiculturalism represented on opposite ends by a couple thug hiphoppers and a very bourgeois magazine editor becomes the new cultural paradigm. That paradigm reinforces the racist stereotype of the field hand and his opposite up in the master’s house. It also depoliticizes the true nature of the history of African Americans and denies that history’s often adversarial nature. The OJ trial itself recalled the white man’s fear of black sexual prowess, the phenomenon Angela Davis calls “the myth of the black rapist,” and sociologist Harry Edwards’ statement in his book The Revolt of the Black Athlete: “The only difference between the black man shining shoes in the ghetto and the black sprinter is that the shoeshine man is a nigger and the sprinter is a fast nigger.”
These sentiments are all supposed to be gone in this new post-racial world that we live in now. There’s a black man in the White House and that should make all the difference. So far, it’s only proven that a black man in the White House can wage wars and kiss corporate butt just as well as any white guy residing there. His presence hasn’t changed the racists’ minds and has probably created a few more, but it hasn’t changed the world for black people either. The bottom line of much of Ishmael Reed’s writing is this: the perception of change when it comes to the United States and its racist self is not the same as real change. Indeed, despite the fact that African-Americans and their history, culture, sweat and blood are essential to the culture and economy we call the United States, they have always been the outsider, the Other.
Recently, a New York Times online discussion presented their version of a debate about ending the fairly recently established tradition of Black History Month. In a piece that appeared in Counterpunch on February 22, 2011, Linn Washington wrote about a simmering movement among the mostly white-skinned right wing to do exactly this. In Juice!, some of the men running Blessings publisher may be black-skinned, but are ultimately in cahoots with the racists who perceive a post-racial world in much the same way Washington perceived the post-Soviet world in the 1990s. The post-Soviet reality was seen as a moment to achieve what Washington’s imperialist called unipolar dominance. The post-racial one becomes a moment to reassert the white man’s dominance.
In this new moment, the “white man” is both fact and metaphor. There are men of color and women that believe the new post-racial world has made them equals. Therefore, they believe their piece of the pie should be the same size as those who own the pie. Of course, those who own the pie have no intention of even considering this, understanding the inclusion of blacks, women and Latinos to be nothing more than a tactic to keep those angry hordes at bay. Eventually, some of those Others allowed into the party at the master’s house realize that the equality they thought they had been granted is just another tool in the ruler’s toolbox. Many more don’t. This is the domain Reed’s more recent work explores: that place where everyone is equal on paper, but some are certainly more equal than others. It’s not just class we’re talking about here, either. Juice! unsparingly explores this reality, exposing it for the sham it is.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org