I first encountered Ishmael Reed in the mid-70s in a humid attic in Broad Ripple, the boho enclave of Indianapolis. (Or what passes for the demimonde in the Crossroads of America, any way.) I was carving my way through Thomas Pynchon’s rock opera Gravity’s Rainbow for the first time and stopped for breath on page 588 in the middle of a dizzying riff on the Masons, and the ever-expanding web of conspiracies surrounding their covert rites. Here the Master gave a rare parenthetical nod to a living writer. “(Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you’ll ever find here.)”
The next morning I pedaled furiously to the local bookstore/head shop to snag a copy of Mumbo Jumbo. No luck. For some reason, Reed’s novels didn’t reside on the shelves between Ross Lockridge, Jr. and Booth Tarkington. So I sped off to Indy’s central library, that once imposing neo-classical structure on St. Clair Street, named after a distant relative and incompetent (the best kind) general. Alas, card catalogue failure. I strode purposefully to the reference desk at the end of the spit-polished marble floor of the atrium and pestered a librarian.
“Reed, Ishmael. Famous writer. Hip. Funny. The black Twain, they say. Where are you hiding his books?”
She gave me a sour look. Perhaps it was my hair, which had, over the course of the last couple of years, knotted itself into a kind of chaotic and aromatic white ‘fro—more Abbie Hoffman, unfortunately, than my idol Sly Stone. “We don’t stock them any more. There have been complaints.”
“Complaints? From whom?”
Oh yeah, Them. The prude patrol, an ever vigilant presence amid the stacks in God’s Country. Or, perhaps, the censorious move stemmed from objections lodged by a more ominous entity, whose name, and even acronym, shall not be spoken in these parts.
Sorry, Tom, it seems it is impossible to “check out Ishmael Reed” here in the heart of the heartland, a few blocks from, yes, the Masonic Temple.
A few weeks later I was back in school in a leafy quadrant of Washington, DC. I made my way down to Georgetown and the now-extinct Olsson’s Bookstore, where my friend Ramsey had kindly set aside a packet of Reed’s novels. I plunged into Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down on the bus back to American University. From the opening paragraph, I was mesmerized by the voice. It was like hearing Charlie Parker for the first time: a brilliant new sound, a challenging new syntax propelled by intoxicating rhythms, a revolution in words. I was hooked.
* * *
Decades passed. It was early Bushtime and I was working on the Internet, co-editing the online journal CounterPunch with Alexander Cockburn. One morning amid the slosh of emails washing aground in my inbox came a message from someone with the rather strange sobriquet of “UncIeIsh,” implying that the sender was something like, but not officially, an uncle. The subject box was blank. Just another Nigerian email scam, most likely. My cursor hovered over the delete button, but I accidentally clicked the message open instead, revealing a surge of acidic prose from one Ishmael Reed. I read a few sentences. Not one Ishmael Reed, the Ishmael Reed. The piece was a vicious attack on the Iraq war and its cretinous cheerleaders in the media. I tidied up the prose, did some minor carving and mending and sent it back to UncleIsh. A few minutes later another message skidded into my Mac containing a savage critique of my editorial skills. UncleIsh closed with the retort: “Let Reed be Reed!” Seven years later, the admonition remains tacked to the wall in my office. (I ran the version with most of my edits, btw.)
It was the beginning of a fruitful, if contentious, relationship. Over the next few years, Reed’s articles became a regular and wildly popular feature on CounterPunch. The range of topics was encyclopedic. From a piece on the young Miles Davis to an unsparing attack CNN’s coverage of blacks, from an elegy to post-Katrina New Orleans to a compelling defense of Michael Jackson, from a gritty account of Buffalo in the 50s and early 60s to a demolition of the movie “Precious.”
These days books come in the mail from Reed directly in an unending parade of novels, essays, short stories, anthologies, poems, plays, lyrics. The man is an Oakland renaissance all by himself.
If the publication of Reed novels has slowed over the years, his production of essays has proliferated, his pen sharpened. Like the mature Twain, Reed has perfected the art of the polemic. And also like Twain, he targets all the right enemies: imperialists, prudes, smug liberals, racist commentators and the book review section of the New York Times—to which quarter is never given.
While Reed can at times be as prickly as Thelonious Monk, he is also incredibly generous toward other writers, young writers especially, such as Wajahat Ali and the Haitian poet Boadiba, who found a hospitable venue for their work in his journal Konch.
I finally met Reed for the first time in San Francisco at an upscale burger joint called Max’s at the Opera House. He arrived with his wife the choreographer and writer Carla Blank and their daughter Tennessee, a poet. Reed is tall, his hair fraying like an asteroid just entering the atmosphere. His neck was draped in a maroon scarf and he was wearing a polka dotted shirt. No graveyard clothes for Professor Reed. He had a gentle handshake and a soft, liquid voice. He covered his mouth when he laughed. And we snickered all through lunch, often at the absurd affectations of the San Francisco hipster elite sitting around us. As we were polishing off the sloppy remains of an outlandish Root Beer Float, Reed mentioned that Tennessee had written a memoir.
“A memoir? But she’s not even 30 yet,” I said, turning to Tennessee, who shielded her mouth as she chuckled.
“She’s already lived a huge life,” Reed replied.
The next morning Tennessee’s manuscript landed in my inbox. I read it that night. The writing was terse, gritty and intensely personal. It told the story of Tennessee’s brutal encounters with a dysfunctional educational system, from the time she was diagnosed with learning disabilities in grade school through high school, then to UC Berkeley and the Masters program at Mills College. It was a startlingly original book, unlike anything I’d read before. The memoir also presented a unique portrait of her father: doting, encouraging, and willing to fight fiercely for his daughter’s rights as a student against the insidious prejudices that confronted her at nearly every turn. We ultimately published the book with AK Press under the title Spell Albuquerque: Memoir of a Difficult Student.
* * *
A year later I was down in Oakland to give a book talk at the AK Press warehouse. As I walked into the cavernous building I heard someone playing a blues vamp on an old church piano. It was Reed. He’d taught himself to play in his spare time, natch. The chords sketched a subtle groove and the melody lines were precise and punctuated by elided notes and silent spaces, reminiscent of the early Ahmad Jamal. Reed would later record a CD with the celebrated Berkeley tenor-player David Murray. So many artforms, so little time.
I was sitting on a box of books (on their way to a pulp mill, probably), drinking a beer and trying to gather my thoughts, when somebody poked me on the back. It was Tennessee. “Dad says you’ve got to get this reading started. He wants to grab some ice cream before the store closes.”
Later we experienced something of a rift. Reed, I think, felt our political coverage at CounterPunch had become too harsh toward the young president, that our leftist critiques had somehow empowered the racist ravings that had ruptured into primetime since Obama’s election. There was a pause in Reed’s submissions for a few months.
Then out of the blue came a new email from UncleIsh. The subject box read, “Psychology Today actually posted (then pulled) this racist, misogynist crap.” I opened the message expecting to find an electric denunciation of the latest specious attempt to link IQ to race. There was a note from Ishmael: “Dear Jeffrey, I hope you can use this on CounterPunch.” The story wasn’t about Psychology Today’s racist, misogynist crap. Instead, it was a one-act play titled: “A Fly on the Wall: Two Tea Baggers.” The dialogue, which is set in a bar on Capitol Hill, was a ruthless takedown of the Tea Party and their noxious enablers in Congress and the media. The play gallops toward an exquisitely Rabelaisian denouement, where a Tea Bagger “pulls down his pants, bends over, and issues a foul gaseous cloud” aimed at Speaker John Boehner, who the Tea Party brain trust had just outed as a spineless compromiser of neo-confederate principles.
This time I didn’t change a word. I just let Reed be Reed.
This week’s playlist:
Ishmael Reed Quintet, For All We Know (Konch)
Booker T. Jones, The Road From Memphis (Anti)
Wilson Pickett, A Man and a Half (Atlantic)
Carmen McRae, Carmen Sings Monk (Bluebird)
Last Charge of the Light Horse, Curve (Curlock & Jalaiso)