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Roaming Charges: Call Him Ishmael

Ishmael Reed in Detroit, 2019. (Cary Loren).

This weekend Ishmael Reed’s new work, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” will premier at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The readings are directed by Rome Neal and will be streamed live by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe via Zoom, YouTube and Facebook. Viewers can RSVP and access the Zoom link at bit.ly/ReedMarch20 (for the March 20th reading) or at bit.ly/ReedMarch21 (for the March 21 reading). A few years ago McSweeney’s invited me to contribute a piece to a special issue they were doing on Ishmael Reed. I was honored to do so and to reproduce it here.

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, anyway.) 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 around 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 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’s 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.

+++

+ The Really Bad Day defense: “Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did” — is the way an Atlanta-area sheriff rationalized Robert Aaron Long’s slaughter of 8 people, most of them of Korean descent.

+ Cue The Dicks (Or Mudhoney, if you prefer)…

But now I got a gun
You better stay out of my way
I think I’ve had a bad day
I’ve had a bad day
I’ve had a bad day

+ I think hate crime laws are redundant, tend to impose criminal sanctions on thoughts and have been used as bait to entice liberals to support morally dubious punishments, such as life without parole and, of course, the death penalty. On the other hand, the spectacle of a county sheriff smearing the victims and smugly explaining away the murders of 6 Asian women as the impulsive action of a sexually frustrated young man who, after a bad day, just snapped is pretty repugnant.

+ On the very same day Biden decried violence against Asians as “un-American”, his administration deported 33 Vietnamese refugees and immigrants…

+ Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), at Thursday’s hearing on violence against Asian-Americans, glorifying the great tradition of lynching in Texas: “There’s old sayings in Texas about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree. You know, we take justice very seriously, and we ought to do that. Round up the bad guys.”

+ The sheriff who said the Atlanta spa shooter had “a bad day,” previously posted a racist shirt saying the coronavirus was imported from “CHY-NA”…

+ Number of black people lynched in Texas: 700+

+ 6 more people were shot and killed in Atlanta in one shooting spree than committed voter fraud in 2020. Yet, more than 250 new laws have been introduced in the last two months restricting voting rights in the name of combating voter fraud.

+ The rationale for wrapping kids in cages with aluminum space blankets has changed from Obama (who us?) to Trump (so what?) to Biden (it’s for their own good), but they’re still using them and the kids are still getting locked up: “Mayorkas says the aluminized blankets given to kids in Border Patrol custody (same materials as under Trump & Obama) are used because they won’t “[breed] lice and other conditions.”

+ Despite “le grande reopening”, US jobless claims rose to 770,000 new applications for unemployment benefits, higher than the 725,000 claims reported the week before.

+ The homeless population in the US swelled for the fourth consecutive year,  hitting at least 580,000 in January 2020, a 2% increase from the previous year. And those estimates are from before the pandemic hit.

+ 32 million: the number of Indians that have been pushed out of the “middle class” in the last year.

+ Pay-or-Die Health Care: Pfizer’s lobbyists are desperately trying to block efforts to share vaccine intellectual property with the developing world, where it could be manufactured and distributed at low cost…

+ A Kaiser Family Fund analysis of COVID-19 vaccination data by state shows that White people are more than two times as likely to be vaccinated as Hispanic people (19% vs. 9%) But the size of that racial gap varies by state, with the rate more than 4 times higher in 5 states: GA, PA, CO, IA, & MN.

Kaiser Family Fund.

+ Biden is sending Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other progressive members of Congress out on the road to “sell” his COVID relief plan. Why re-sell something that’s already been sold, when you could get them on the road to sell $15 per hour minimum wage, a public option health care plan with expanded medicare, student & medical debt cancellation, an end to Afghan & Iraq wars, & a new green infrastructure program? Unless you don’t really want to do any of these things?

+ Bidenism in a nutshell: Set the bar low, then brag about beating it, even though the level you achieved is far below what is needed to meet the crisis engulfing the planet….(You can substitute Paris Accords for Covid vaccine.)

+ A study by SIPRI showed overall arms exports over the last five years have remained flat, with declines in the sales of weapons by Russia and China offset by rising exports from the United States, France and Germany to levels not seen since the Cold War.

+ After the Dodgers’ won the World Series, chaotic celebrations spilled out onto the streets of Los Angeles, prompting the LAPD to declare unlawful assemblies, dozens were detained. But the police only demanded that the city to prosecute one person for failing to disperse: Lexis-Olivier Ray, a reporter for LA Taco, who had accused the cops of assault that night…

+ De-Phone the Police: 81 percent of Oregon voters support funding any city or county in Oregon willing to replace police with trained non-police first responders…

+ A Capitol Police officer was suspended this week after he was found with a copy of the anti-Semitic tract,  Protocols of the Elders of Zion, at a checkpoint in the Longworth Building. And you thought cops didn’t read…

+ Old drug warriors never die, they just become meaner and more malicious…The Biden administration is firing and demoting staffers for past marijuana use.

+ If there’s going to be a purge of pot-smokers in the Biden White House, I hope it includes Kamala Harris, an admitted toker, who then cruelly prosecuted black teens for minor possession offenses…

+ A Texas legislator has filed a bill making abortions a crime punishable by the death penalty. We know many of the Right-to-Lifers hate women and that their consciences are unruffled by the thought of putting them to death, but in executing women who have sought abortions aren’t they also wiping out sacred eggs and killing future unborn children?

+ So, yes, despite their caterwauling and protestations to the contrary, it can be done…In the UK, more than 70,000 Uber drivers will be now guaranteed the minimum wage as part of the company’s agreement to grant workers’ rights.

+ Boris Johnson told the Greek government this week that he considers the Parthenon (neé Elgin) Marbles the property of the United Kingdom. Of course, his government made the same claims about Ireland…

+ There’s been a minor media tempest about the fate of Alexi McCammand, who either stepped down or was pushed out from her new job as editor of Teen Vogue, over a batch of racist and homophobic tweets she posted several years ago, which she belatedly recanted and apologized for. Another martyr of Cancel Culture?

+ On the other hand, her abrupt departure might be seen as a rare triumph of worker solidarity against a person with a documented history of bigotry, who ownership picked to manage them, and, some insiders have suggested, and defuse the outlet’s leftward orientation.

+ McCammand’s defense–that she wrote the offensive Tweets when she was a teenager (17-18)–is perhaps somewhat less exculpatory when the outlet she was set to run is called Teen Vogue.

+ As damage control goes, this salutation to the colony you violently abused and exploited for centuries makes for a pretty funny comedy routine…

+ That green plant behind these two royal nitwits looks like the Shrubbery from Monty Python and the Holy Grail…

Knight of Ni: You must return here with a shrubbery or else you will never pass through this wood alive.

Arthur: O Knights of Ni, you are just & fair, & we will return with a shrubbery.

Knight of Ni: One that looks nice…

+ So much for America first…Trump on Meghan Markle: “She’s no good  I said it and now everybody is seeing it. Piers Morgan is the best, he’s the greatest, and they went and tried to cancel him simply because he criticized Meghan Markle.”

+ Andrew Yang, in his quixotic quest to become mayor of New York City, has now resorted to bashing teachers and their union for what he contends is the “sluggish” pace of school reopening.

+ Rightwing prankster Milo Yiannopolous, who announced last week he is and “ex-gay,” is set to open a “conversion therapy” facility in Florida…a facility to convert their money into his.

+ Our kids used to run around all day long, quite joyfully, wearing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle masks with (some 30 years later) no deleterious effect, except an inexplicable desire for pizza for every meal of the day. (Naomi Wolf may be the most ridiculous person on the internet.)

+ The Guarani people in Brazil have been violently attacked this week by ranchers who invaded Guarani lands. Survival International has put together this short video of torture victims recounting what is taking place.

+ According to an amazing new research-based analysis of the logbooks of whaling fleets in the North Pacific, sperm whales communicated with other about the presence of whaling ships and changed their migrations and behavior in order to avoid them, resulting in a 58% drop in harpoon strikes within just a few years.

+ Threnodies for a lost world: Bird declines caused by deforestation are changing how survivors sing and, presumably, what they are singing about…

+ Christopher Heinz, the step-son of Biden climate czar John Kerry, has been paid more than $1 million since 2007 to lobby for the American Petroleum Institute.

+ Smoke from western wildfires wiped out all of the air quality gains made by the slowdown from the pandemic in the US….

+ “Clean coal” is one of the most destructive oxymorons of our time, along with sustainable development, smart bombs and humanitarian intervention….

+ Enbridge, the Canadian oil and pipeline company, is “funding and incentivizing” Minnesota police departments to crack down on its opponents, most of whom are female.

+ Is the Gulf Stream itself being slowly killed off? Sure as hell looks like it

+ On the collaboration between John Le Carré and his wife Jane Cornwall, written by their son Nick…

+ The Metropolitan Opera paid the recently departed (the planet) James Levine $3.5 million in a settlement for his alleged sexual abuses, but during the pandemic saw fit to pay its orchestra $0

+ Isn’t this a pretty blatant admission from FoxNews that whatever the hell Ted Nugent, Toby Keith, Kid Rock and that moron from Mumford Sons are doing it ain’t music….?

And clenching your fist for the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty
You fixed yourself, you said “Well nevermind
We are ugly but we have the music”

+ I watched Robert Bresson’s sharp little film (only 64 minutes long) Le Proces de Jeanne d’Arc on HBO Max this week, which he based on the actual trial transcripts. So much of her interrogation centered on two “heresies”: assuming the role of a man (clothes and war-making) and hearing the voices of God & three saints (Michael, Catherine and Margaret). These days you couldn’t get elected president as a woman unless you’ve worn a pantsuit, bombed several countries and had at least 3 or 4 preachers attesting that God personally told them that you were the anointed one. HRC had the first, but not the second. Denied a lawyer, Joan defended herself very skillfully, often turning the tables on her inquisitors. It didn’t matter. The English wanted her dead & burned her at the stake in Rouen. (Typically, Shakespeare villainizes her in Henry 6, when the real sadists were on his team.) 20 years after her execution, she was retried and found innocent, another victim of the death penalty gone awry.

+ Opening Day is a week away and once again I’ll be obsessively monitoring the box scores for Oakland, Baltimore, Colorado, Chicago (Southsiders, which is about as close as you can come to seeing the Cuban national team play these days) and Seattle. I’ve followed the A’s since the team moved from KC to Oakland in 1968 and mowed about 100 lawns to earn enough $$$ to special order a pair of white cleats from Em-Roe’s Sporting Goods after seeing the A’s play in theirs and was pelted with about every gay slur in the primative lexicon of Midwestern farm boys during Pony League games for the rest of that summer. I polished them every night after practice…

Oakland A’s players Gene Tenace, Reggie Jackson and Ray Fosse, 1975. (Doug McWilliams / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

+ Someone asked, why bother with the Rockies? I like Colorado as a state, Denver as a town, Coors Field (if that’s what they still call it) as a park, and baseball at altitude.

+ I wrote in my column last week that one good thing you could say about Trump is that unlike LBJ, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Romney, Cruz or Biden, he never exploited or abused a dog for political gain. I take that back and sincerely apologize to the canine community…

Phony Prophets Stole the Only Light I Knew

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

Tom Stoppard: a Life
Hermione Lee
(Knopf)

The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country From Corporate Greed
Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
(Beacon Press)

Committed Writings
Albert Camus
(Vintage)

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

Down Where the Valleys are Low: Another Otherworld for Judee Sill
Lorenzo Wolff
(Storysound Records)

77-81
Gang of Four
Matador

Obviously
Lake Street Dive
(Nonesuch)

To Petition Hopelessly for a Loan

“Funny fellow!” pronounced the innkeeper. “And why don’t you work, why aren’t you at your duty, if you are in the service?”

“Why am I not at my duty, honoured sir,” Marmeladov went on, addressing himself exclusively to Raskolnikov, as though it had been he who put that question to him. “Why am I not at my duty? Does not my heart ache to think what a useless worm I am? A month ago when Mr. Lebeziatnikov beat my wife with his own hands, and I lay drunk, didn’t I suffer? Excuse me, young man, has it ever happened to you… hmm… well, to petition hopelessly for a loan?”

“Yes, it has. But what do you mean by hopelessly?”

“Hopelessly in the fullest sense, when you know beforehand that you will get nothing by it. You know, for instance, beforehand with positive certainty that this man, this most reputable and exemplary citizen, will on no consideration give you money; and indeed I ask you why should he? For he knows of course that I shan’t pay it back. From compassion? But Mr. Lebeziatnikov who keeps up with modern ideas explained the other day that compassion is forbidden nowadays by science itself, and that that’s what is done now in England, where there is political economy. Why, I ask you, should he give it to me? And yet though I know beforehand that he won’t, I set off to him and…”

“Why do you go?” put in Raskolnikov.

“Well, when one has no one, nowhere else one can go! For every man must have somewhere to go. Since there are times when one absolutely must go somewhere! When my own daughter first went out with a yellow ticket, then I had to go… (for my daughter has a yellow passport),” he added in parenthesis, looking with a certain uneasiness at the young man. “No matter, sir, no matter!” he went on hurriedly and with apparent composure when both the boys at the counter guffawed and even the innkeeper smiled—“No matter, I am not confounded by the wagging of their heads; for everyone knows everything about it already, and all that is secret is made open. And I accept it all, not with contempt, but with humility. So be it! So be it! ‘Behold the man!’ Excuse me, young man, can you…. No, to put it more strongly and more distinctly; not can you but dare you, looking upon me, assert that I am not a pig?” (Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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