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Both John A. Williams and Toni Morrison have commented about the trickle-down theory of minority tokenism. This is how it works. While there might be others who are just as talented or even endowed with more talent, an influential and powerful white critic nominates a black person in the arts, criticism or punditry as superior to all of the others and the choice is often accepted uncritically by whites and some black critics and academics. Sometimes the designator can go overboard like the white academic who described the black poet, who had been chosen as U.S. poet laureate, as “the best black poet living or dead. “I still haven’t read all of the black poets living or dead. And I’m one of those who pays attention.
When a leading literary magazine at the time chose me as the leading token, a sort of King for a day, I wrote and denied the dubious honor. I wish that other tokens would do the same so that all of the excellent writers who are not tokens get some space. I get dragged into the token free for all that takes place, historically, in the northeast. I live in Oakland.
In the United States, my role in mainstream letters is akin to that of a journeyman boxer, who might have had a couple of championships in the past but whose career is on the decline. Since two thousand four, I have been mentioned in the New Yorker (twice), the New Republic (twice), Commentary, and most recently, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Some of the citations are complimentary. In others, I’m mentioned mostly as someone against whom editors or token creators test the new crop of tokens. John Williams of the Times, in the midst of trotting out a talented young writer, even got into a shadow debate with me. Like Clint Eastwood, he was debating an empty chair. He cited a comment I made about the writer and rebutted it. He described me as a writer who belongs to a “previous generation. ”
Sometimes, a remark attributed to me is so wrong that I respond. Prof. Victoria Bond accused me of calling The Color Purple, “a Nazi Conspiracy.” I wrote a letter to the New Republic asking for a correction. The editor who commissioned the piece, Chloe Schama, answered that The New Republic doesn’t print letters but would welcome an article and so I wrote an article from Paris where I happened to be at the time. She rejected the article.
Dear Prof. Reed,
Thank you for sending — I did receive it. Unfortunately, the piece is not right for our site, and I’m afraid we don’t have the resources to edit it into a form that would be appropriate for us. I encourage you to publish it elsewhere.
Prof. Victoria Bond, the author of the outburst, said that she got the idea of my calling The Color Purple (produced, directed and script written by wealthy white males) “a Nazi conspiracy” from Jacqueline Bobo, Professor of Film/Television, Black Feminist Cultural Theory, Cultural Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara. I asked Professor Bobo her source for the comment. She didn’t answer. The problem with bourgeois feminism is that its obligation to the corporate system puts it in a dilemma. They can’t jeopardize their careers by criticizing their wealthy patriarchal bosses and so vent their frustrations with men by dissing black males, or hiring the kitchen help to do the dirty work. Here’s is the circle in which Chloe Schama’s boss Facebook co-founder and the New Republic owner moves.
“[Chris Hughes] was marrying his longtime boyfriend, a tanned and chiseled Sean Eldridge.
“Several of the guests described the weekend to me. They had dined at a private rehearsal dinner on Friday night—a nine-course meal at Per Se, the three-Michelin-star restaurant run by the Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller. Then, on Saturday morning, they were transported up the Hudson Valley to a converted 19th-century farmhouse in Garrison, New York. Hughes and Eldridge had bought the house and the 80 acres around it in 2011, for $5 million.”
I asked Chris Hughes to issue a correction to Prof. Bond’s misstating me. No answer from him. In his world, I’m the guy in the white jacket, and black bowtie who passes out the hors-d’œuvres.
Since the New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker, where I was pitted against a young black playwright, don’t review my books, their readers will never know how I feel about this or that issue. Most of the books by black authors whom they favor, line up with the attitude toward blacks held by their columnists: David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, and Sam Roberts, who hold black behavior, especially that of black males, as responsible for the dire condition in which millions of blacks find themselves. Other factors, like the role of the banks and other institutions, which pilfer hundreds of billions of dollars from black communities, are ignored by the media. This has been the attitude of the capitalist system toward blacks since even before the Emancipation of the slaves. As an example of the Book Review’s reach, I was sitting in a tea house in the Bamboo Forest of China’s Anji country, sipping black tea and eating peanuts as my wife Carla, Prof. Huijuan Tan and others trekked to a lookout pavilion at the top of the forest. Across from me was a man swatting flies from an Ox. The loud speaker was playing “Desperado” by the Eagles. The young man who volunteered to stay with me said that he judged American literature from what appeared on the New York Times bestseller’s list.
Too bad because I have never seen the bylines of some of our major black American literary critics, Jerry Ward, Joyce Joyce, Mary Emma Graham, Reginald Martin, Trudier Harris, Brenda Greene, Bernard Bell, C.J. Innis, William Cook, etc. in the book review. Maybe, Pamela Paul, the book editor, is too involved in panels assembled by the white male owners of MSNBC to shame Bill Cosby to solicit this talent. She runs a book review where over ninety-five percent of the books reviewed are by white males. The black critics I’ve mentioned are well known by scholars in Asia and Europe.
This is how censorship is practiced in the United States. A largely white controlled media excludes the viewpoints of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans and indeed raises, historically, resentment against blacks. Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants and whoever might be the appointed enemy at the time. No wonder blacks and Hispanics, who are paying attention, regard the American media as the enemy.
Just as in the case of the New Republic’s rejection of my article, it’s difficult for the targets of the media to refute the daily one-sided portrayal of blacks and others. Cultural commentary treats works that might make middle-class white audiences uncomfortable with silence. This is why the great Amiri Baraka’s prolific output since 1964 has been ignored. He became a communist and as a result
alienated the United States’ cultural and arts establishment that rewards those artists who mimic its point of view. The Brooklyn Museum exhibited the work of a black artist, who gets most of the media play, by presenting a picture of plantation life in which there were no villains or heroes. For me Robert E. Lee, the leader of Confederate forces and Jefferson Davis leader of the rebellion, were villains. Those black artists who don’t make nice are dismissed as angry or “paranoid.” A Times critic dismissed my play, “Body Parts,” about big Pharma’s use of blacks in the United States and Africa as guinea pigs for their drug trials, as “angry.” He wanted me to serve him up a theatrical Slurpie.
While some white critics apply the term of “misogynist” to us, while performing a literary lap dance for Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, who boast about their misogyny, the F.B.I. was assigned to monitor the works of black writers who might be placed in “custodial detention” in case of a National Emergency. Richard Wright, John A. Williams, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni and other names are on the list. My name is spelled “Ismael.”
The literary patroller who has been assigned to track my movements says that I was done in nineteen seventy-two. His view has been picked up by other white critics who are apparently too busy to explore my work for themselves. One of them, an employee of Henry Louis Gate’s Jr,, whose morals are now being questioned by the very people who made him Head Negro In Charge, said that I have spent the last thirty years “explaining myself.’ All that this lazy sucker had to do was check my website, IshmaelReed.org to find that it’s much more complicated than that. At least I made out better than the great Amiri Baraka. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ends his career in nineteen sixty-four with “Dutchman,” which a critic, who represents the latest constituency to which a black writer must pander, called “deeply misogynistic,” a way that white educated and privileged feminists protect the powerful white male patriarchy, their patrons, by directing the blame for mistreatment of women to black men. bell hooks said that white middle-class academic feminists instructed her to write for them if she wanted to get over. They’re now in the driver’s seat when it comes to directing trends in African American literature. Some of them like Chloe Schama believe anything that their black feminist surrogates tell them, which is why Professor Bond’s false assertion wasn’t fact-checked. Could this be a form of literary reparations for the sorry conditions under which black domestics worked in the middle and upper-class homes of homes where privileged and educated feminists spent their youth? One of them announced in the Times that she had a nurturing experience with a black woman. A black feminist, one of those who can’t be controlled, asked whether that meant she had a black nanny.
Fortunately, with the advent of online criticism, critics and editors who get breezy with black literature no longer have the last word on a “minority” author’s career, which was the case in the nineteen forties and fifties. Moreover, while black authors are a “minority” at home, they’re regarded as world authors abroad.
I discovered this in the nineteen-seventies when I began traveling to Europe again. My first trip occurred in nineteen fifty-five. I was seventeen. There I met African students who were studying at the Sorbonne. They were unlike the Africa that was represented in American textbooks and films, such as the “Tarzan” movie series. I’ve been skeptical of the American curriculum and media’s interpretation of the world since then. In 1990, a conference about black literature organized by the late Michel Fabre drew critics from all over the world. One runs into trouble sometimes with white members of the American delegations to these conferences, who get offended by the fact that European scholars have written books and papers about American authors who are unknown to white members of American faculties. I remember an outburst from a white writer during my discussion of black Hispanic and Native American and Asian American authors. He denounced the titles. Turns out he hadn’t read any of them, a common attitude among members of the American critical and intellectual elite and an example of how anti-intellectual attitudes are the side effect of white supremacy. He embarrassed himself before a group of Icelandic intellectuals and writers, which included the son of a former president of Iceland.
On another occasion, an American conference member, a woman this time, appeared to be in an agitated state when she told those international delegates assembled for a conference in Freiberg, Germany that they were only interested in black literature because it was “exotic.” Well, “exoticism” of African American literature must be catching. There is growing interest in African American literature in Asia. After I violated the hard line set by the new constituency whose blueprint African American writers must please in order to gain mainstream sales, I decided that I would never allow whichever cultural special interest group prevails at the time to determine what I can and can’t write. This was after the censoring of my novel, Reckless Eyeballing. In one case, Kofi Notambu told me that women at the Detroit News prevented the novel from being reviewed and a boycott led by Emily Toth was prepared to greet me when I was invited to the University of Louisiana at Baton Rouge. The boycott collapsed when it was discovered that the feminists who had organized the boycott–all white–hadn’t read my books.
My study of Japanese, begun at the age of fifty, led to my novel Japanese By Spring. The novel received lukewarm reviews in the US, but was praised by the Japanese press and led to a tour of Japan, where I was well received. I also studied Yoruba, an African language, which led to my publishing two anthologies of Nigerian writers assembled by and edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and Carla Blank. I even wrote a song in Yoruba that has been recorded. It was performed when Conjure, a group of musicians who have been playing my work since 1979, appeared at the Blue Note in Tokyo, August, 2004.
In 2012 I was informed by Yuqing Lin, a young scholar then preparing to begin her Ph.D. dissertation at Beijing Normal University, that Japanese By Spring had been selected as a National Project, which meant funds were made available for her to do research on the novel. She spent a year at the University of California at Berkeley to conduct the research. While my novel “Juice!” was ignored by the mainstream press, or regarded lightly, Yuqing Lin wrote a thorough review of the book. Also, The Nation magazine, where over 80 percent of the books reviewed are written by white males, even though the editor is a feminist, dismissed the novel in a flip review commissioned by feminist Elizabeth Pochoda, who sponsored two hatchet jobs on my books. By contrast, Professor Yanyu Zeng, dean of the school of Foreign Studies at Hunan University of Science and Technology, used a high standard of scholarship during her examination of the book in her “Towards Postmodern Multiculturalism, A New Trend of African-American and Jewish-American Literature Viewed through Ishmael Reed and Philip Roth.” While some black writers of talent have been ignored by the media progressive and otherwise, lavish treatment has been accorded white writers whose interpretations of the black experience are often insulting and replete with stereotypes. One of the most offensive treatments of the inner city )a dramatic series called “The Wire”) is being taught in universities, including the African-American Studies Department at Harvard, even though Professor Karl Alexander has criticized David Simon’s portrait of black Baltimore as “one sided.” The producer, a Jewish-American, David Simon, is apparently unaware that his portrayal of black males is consistent with the portrayal of Jewish males in the Nazi press. The practice of exalting the works about the black experience written by whites over those written by blacks can be hazardous. Michiko Kakutani, a Saul Bellow groupie, who did a hatchet job on my novel “Reckless Eyeballing,” praised a “memoir” that included the usual stereotypes. It was written by a young white woman named Margaret B. Jones, who claimed that she hung out with black gangs. The book was exposed as a fake. As the Times put it:
“In Love and Consequences, a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods. The problem is that none of it is true.”
Now there is a controversy about a book called On the Run, by Alice Goffman, which a Times report said drew “attention because of its timely subject matter — the lives of low-income black men and their interactions with the police — and vivid storytelling, based on six years of immersive fieldwork. It was the subject of dozens of articles and often-glowing reviews in publications including the New Yorker and the New York Times. An impassioned TED talk Ms. Goffman delivered in March has been viewed more than 800,000 times.
“But all that enthusiasm has curdled somewhat, as critics, in published reviews and anonymous online critiques, have debated not just her facts, interpretations and methods, but the fraught politics of privileged white outsiders’ studying minority communities.” Ms. Alice Goffman isn’t the only white writer cashing in on the lust that millions of white consumers have for products about black crime, like the television show “Empire” that was created by a white man, Danny Strong.
Cecil Brown, a friend of Richard Pryor, had to self-publish his book, Pryor Lives, about the actor. Brown wrote the screenplay for Pryor’s “Which Way Us Up,” Pryor’s most intelligent film. He says that the discussions about black culture during Black History Month are dominated by white writers.
“I hate Negro Month because this is when the whites who write about us come out. Yesterday on PBS, I saw a white man explaining Cab Calloway to us. This is the time when the ‘white Negro’ scholars have their dance. They flood the airwaves with their theories about Black history, Black literature, Black entertainment. They show you the stories they wrote about us. Yes, I really do hate this month because it disregards the work of Black writers.”
This pattern isn’t new. Langston Hughes commented that of thirty-seven plays written about black life in the thirties most were written by white men. John A. Williams, who wrote the best and most subversive novel of the nineteen sixties, The Man Who Cried I Am, put it this way :
“These writers were white; and at the top of the heap they command big fees and expenses. Some earn every penny; others don’t. The white article writer’s range is practically unlimited. He writes about white people, brown, black, yellow people; space shots, presidents. Everything. There are no barriers and, in fact, a number of white writers have become specialists in a writing about people who are not white—to the growing anger of a rapidly increasing number of nonwhite writers. There are two reasons for that anger, the first being at the arrogance of most white writers to in the first place undertake to delineate what they know so little of. And, second, there is both a subconscious and a calculated effrontery in dismissing, if even considering, the possibility that a nonwhite writer might be able to turn in a better piece on the subject.”
Another work of mine that got the Kakutani treatment was my play, “Mother Hubbard,” which was censored by feminists at The Public Theater and KQED TV. “Hubbard,” a play based upon the nursery rhyme included in Mother Goose Tales was given a green light for a production by PBS’s affiliate KQED, located in San Francisco, only to rescind the offer.
My Mother Hubbard goes to the bank to fetch a second mortgage on her cottage to feed her dog. Rejected, she begins knocking off banks. She organizes a group of misandrists, who order all of the men to leave California within sixty days, or they will be sent to camps. Inspired by black and Native American animal tales, two characters, a Rabbit and a Rat appear. The Rabbit is hated by his own kind because he has discovered a formula for turning rabbit fur into the mink. The Rat, his aide, is seeking a plastic surgeon who will give him Winston Churchill’s face.
When I wrote the play, I was under the influence of classics professors James Tate and William Cook at Dartmouth. They introduced me to a Latin playwright named Plautus. He wrote comedies that ended with the parties being reconciled. The early readings of the play were done at Dartmouth. There was a reading of the play at Actors Studio in 1981, which was directed by Jason Buzas. The lead role was performed by the film actor Clarence Williams III. I was encouraged, but the play was blocked from further productions before large audiences because of the kind of extremists who were depicted in my play. I guess they recognized themselves in my characters. There was also a movie production. It failed because the non-profit organization that supplied our equipment required that we use their sound man. He ruined the sound and Steve Cannon, and I lost thousands of dollars.
The play lay fallow for years until Carla Blank’s private high school students performed it in a theater loaned by U.C. Berkeley. In the audience was Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe producer Miguel Algarin. He produced it at the Nuyorican Cafe. It was directed by Rome Neal. Later it was performed at the Black Repertory Theater. In June 2015, it was produced in China.
Some of those who attended the Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College must have been startled when Yanyu Zeng got up during the question-and-answer period and told the audience that there were books about my work that had been published in China and more were in the works. When she returned to China, she sent me the copy of a literary magazine with my photo on the cover.
She invited me to come to China where there was growing interest in my work. And, oh. some university students would perform “Mother Hubbard”! This would be my second China trip. Through the efforts of Professor Liya Wang of Beijing Normal University, Carla and I had attended a conference held in Beijing in 2013.
When we arrived in Xiangtan, May 26th, we didn’t know what to expect. Hunan University of Science and Technology Professors Chenghui Wang, and Jian-e Ling had done a good job casting the parts. Though we had recommended the students do a staged reading, which would allow for their reading from the script, we found when we watched the rehearsal on the night of our arrival that they had memorized many of the speeches, including long and complex monologues in English. Carla took over from there, and I watched in amazement as the play grew from that night into a near full production. I asked Carla to delineate her contribution:
“So excited were the students that they had already come up with costumes, hand props, and music for scene transitions. The producer, Dean Zeng, had contributed the idea of creating rear projections to establish the scenes, necessitating only the most minimal of set pieces to complete each setting. In the two days we had to work together, I focused on getting the play on its feet, by finding ways to achieve a fast-paced rhythm and moments of strong action. We focused on quick pick-ups of cues, worked on entrances and exits and rapid scene changes, and inserted two moments where we could take advantage of the luxury of their double casting to create crowd scenes. As we ran through each scene, we asked the students what they thought was happening for each character, sometimes clarifying the playwright’s intent with them, until the motivations of all the actors were interconnected. I encouraged the actors to keep trying for new bits of action and assured them that the only way the audience would know a “mistake” had happened would be if they informed them, by their own actions. Within our instantly created backstage, as commonly practiced by professional athletes, we managed to find a few moments to join together to encourage and thank each other, while Professor Ling introduced the play to the audience, before music cued the play had begun.”
Of course, Carla is a miracle worker in the theater who has collaborated with such luminaries as Robert Wilson. In 2013, she spent ten weeks in Ramallah directing the Phillip Barry play, “Holiday,” whose cast included Syrian and Palestinian actors. Reviewing “Mother Hubbard,” Hunan Daily called it the highlight of the conference. This is a newspaper with 2.2 million circulations. Unlike the black playwrights were chosen by the mainstream to appeal to audiences who like their black theater tame or blame -the- victim, not once was I asked to censor my script.
From there we moved on to Hangzhou Dianzi University in Hangzhou, China where our host was Professor Huijuan Tan, and where I learned that sixty faculty members were devoted to translating works by African and African-American authors into Chinese. They plan to translate all of my works. This was the second trip abroad within two months. In March, I attended an international conference in Germany, France and Switzerland. Sämi Ludwig, who has published an anthology devoted to my works, organized this conference in my honor. Delegates from Poland, China, and other countries read papers.
Tennessee my daughter, a poet, and I performed with some students from the Jazz School in Basel, Switzerland. The performance was reviewed in China.
Not only are European, Asian and African scholars acquainted with the number one designated black, Native American and Asian American tokens, they know other writers belonging to these groups as well. One scholar whom I met in China is writing about the work of the brilliant Adrienne Kennedy whose writing is neglected here because she writes plays about subjects like police brutality. In her play “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” which was co-authored by her son, Adam, the victim of a police assault, did not receive the kind of recognition that has been accorded plays identifying black men in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean as the source of worldwide misogyny. These scholars are also aware of Jewish avant-garde writers like Ron Sukenick, who is neglected by American critics who insist that all novels be written the same way in which the leading character arouses the sympathy of the reader, a character who you feel for and care about. Professor Wenping Gan of the School of Foreign Languages, Wuhan University of Technology is doing research on the late author.
I hope that my example inspires young black Hispanic Native American writers. They can break a pattern that began as early as the 19th Century, when William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass struggled over who would be chosen as the Talented One by the Abolitionists, the group that black writers had to please at the time. By learning African and Asian languages, they can enlarge their audiences. They can become global writers instead of depending upon the attention of those who require that they channel their attitudes. Before I left China, Professor Tan said that she would assemble a team to translate all of my works into Chinese.
When I returned home, I found an article that my friend Steve Cannon forwarded to me. It was a New York Times’ story about censorship in China. Undoubtedly, there exists censorship in China, but just as our country condemns the violations of human rights in other countries while running prisons where torture, solitary confinement rape, murder, medical malpractice, often deliberate occurs on a daily basis, it condemns censorship abroad while practicing censorship at home. Its secret police keep an eye on black writers, who are considered out of line, and special interest groups demand that black writers toady to their values or become boycotted and smeared.
Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.