Calling the Kettle White: Ishmael Reed Unbound

Ishmael Reed is one of America’s greatest writers. His fiction is both comic and surreal. His body of work reveals cultural and historical truths while keeping an insightful eye at the situation we currently exist in. Over the course of time, he has angered colleagues and critics, been championed and ignored by the mainstream media, written plays, novels and essays, and run a couple journals and a publishing company. His fictional works satirize US history while his essays attack it head-on. They have celebrated African and African-American culture and stripped the hypocrisy from white America’s presentation of that culture.

More pointedly, Reed’s novels, plays and essays reveal how mainstream (popular and academic) authors, critics, and journalists perpetuate the racist history and mythology that underpins so much of what residents of the United States believe about themselves and their nation. Obviously, those revelations are often not pretty. His most recent fictional work is a play titled The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is a work which shreds the myths and outright lies the popular play by Miranda titled Hamilton is based on. In classic Reed fashion, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda pointedly rejects the idea Miranda’s work rests on–that Alexander Hamilton and other founders of the United States were not just against slavery but were in favor of abolishing it; indeed, that they were abolitionists. Reed’s play has been attacked by mainstream critics and money-changers who not only hear the cash registers ringing with the sale of every ticket to Hamilton, but who are also convinced that Miranda’s use of non-white actors to play the roles of the slavers in his play is somehow revolutionary. As Reed points out in his newly released collection of essays titled Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico, the reality of the play is much closer to the understood racism of a minstrel show than something revolutionary. In his discussion of this misrepresentation, Reed does express the fact that part of the reason for the play’s lies are the lies about US history every school child is told repeatedly throughout their education. Foremost among them, obviously, is the lie that the founders of the United States were fighting for human freedom.

Reed’s new book, which is a collection of writings (mostly essays) published over the past decade or so, continues Reed’s critique of bourgeois feminism and its racism—sometimes deceptive and other times as obvious as the nose on one’s face. Like others who have written on the subject, Reed’s basis for his argument is the all too common portrayal of the Black male as a rapist and hoodlum by so many of this type of feminist. Although Reed provides the actors and even Lin-Manuel some leeway by acknowledging that they may be repeating the white rulers’ version of history in the play Hamilton, he does not excuse the feminists who perpetrate the racist “Black male rapist” myth. It is understood that they should know better by now—and they should. His approach to this and the other subjects he writes about in the text subject is both combative and contemplative. It is an approach that demands the reader might have to move beyond their initial reaction to listen to his consideration of the topic at hand.

One of the most interesting essays in Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico is titled “Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Me.” It is simultaneously a brief history of the late 1950s-1960s Black Arts Movement and its demise and a short biography of the Black poet/playwright/activist Amiri Baraka. In his telling, Reed puts the story of Baraka and himself inside the context of the cultural nationalism of Black America in the 1960s and afterward. Baraka’s journey that began with his involvement with the Beats is considerately chronicled in these relatively few pages. Other essays touch on jazz music and the attempt by some critics to whitewash its legacy, and the popularity of Reed’s works overseas, especially in China.

Reed saves some of his most piercing criticism for the end of the book. In an essay discussing Barack Obama’s August 2013 speech where Obama echoed white conservatives (and Patrick Moynihan) and attacked African-American men for their supposed failings as fathers, Reed destroys Obama’s claims and wonders why he would side with conservatives whose understanding of Black people comes from Bell Curve author Charles Murray. After all, Reed reminds the reader, it’s the Black people who will always remember Obama fondly, not the white racists he seems to want to please in that speech. That essay is followed by an examination of the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters—a phenomenon encouraged and propagated by the US media establishment since time immemorial. Ending the book with a fantasy of being a fly on New York Times liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof’s wall is Ishmael Reed’s coup de grace.

This book is cynical, critical, hopeful and incendiary. A worthy introduction to one of the sharper pens in the last seventy years, this collection of essays reveals the swift sword that is Reed’s rapier wit and comedic talent. Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico continues his unique perspective on history, culture and politics in the USA.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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