Ishmael Reed

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Ishmael Reed
Ishmael reed 8635.jpg
reading at the 2015 National Book Festival
Born Ishmael Scott Reed
(1938-02-22) February 22, 1938 (age 77)
Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States
Occupation Poet, essayist, novelist
Education University of Buffalo
Spouse Carla Blank

Ishmael Scott Reed (born February 22, 1938) is an American poet, novelist, essayist, songwriter, playwright, editor and publisher, who is known for his satirical works challenging American political culture, and highlighting political and cultural oppression.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9]

Reed's work has often sought to represent neglected African and African-American perspectives; his energy and advocacy have centered more broadly on neglected peoples and perspectives, irrespective of their cultural origins.[10]

Life and career[edit]

Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and grew up in Buffalo, New York, where he attended the University of Buffalo, a private university that became part of the state public university system after he left. Reed withdrew from university in his junior year, partly due to financial issues, but mainly because he felt he needed a new atmosphere to experience with his writing and music. He comments on this decision: "This was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time because I was able to continue experimenting along the lines I wanted, influenced by [Nathanael] West and others. I didn't want to be a slave to somebody else's reading lists. I kind of regret the decision now because I've gotten some of the most racist and horrible things said to me because of this."[11] In 1995, the college awarded him an honorary doctorates degree.

In 1998, Reed spoke about his influences in an interview: "I've probably been more influenced by poets than by novelists — the Harlem Renaissance poets, the Beat poets, the American surrealist Ted Joans. Poets have to be more attuned to originality, coming up with lines and associations the ordinary prose writer wouldn't think of."[12]

He moved to New York City in 1962 and co-founded with Walter Bowart the East Village Other, a well-known underground publication. He was also a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop, an organization among whose members were some that helped establish the Black Arts Movement and promoted a Black Aesthetic. Although Reed was never a participant in that movement, he has continued to research the history of black Americans, and while working on his novel, Flight to Canada, coined the term "Neo-Slave narrative." He used the term in 1984 in "A Conversation with Ishmael Reed" by Reginald Martin.[13]

In 2005, Reed retired from teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for thirty-five years, and is currently Visiting Scholar at California College of the Arts. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife of more than 40 years, Carla Blank, the acclaimed author, choreographer, and director.[14] His archives are located in Special Collections at the University of Delaware in Newark. Reed's author-maintained website appears at

Published works[edit]

Reed's published works include his ten novels. Among his other books are six collections of poetry, including New and Collected Poems, 1964–2007; ten collections of essays, most recently Going Too Far: Essays About America's Nervous Breakdown (2012); one farce, Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon or The Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful (1970); one libretto, Gethsemane Park; a sampler collection, The Reed Reader (2000); two travelogues, of which the most recent is Blues City: A Walk in Oakland (2003); and six plays, collected by Dalkey Archive Press as Ishmael Reed, The Plays (2009). His most recent non-fiction work, The Complete Muhammad Ali, was published by Baraka Books of Montreal in July, 2015.

He has also edited 14 anthologies, the most recent of which is Black Hollywood Unchained (2015). POW WOW, Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009), a collection of works by 63 writers, co-edited with Carla Blank, spans more than 200 years of American writing. Reed in his "Foreword" calls it "a gathering of voices from the different American tribes." POW WOW is the fiction companion anthology to From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2002 (2003), in which Reed endorses an open definition of American poetry as an amalgamation, which should include work found in the traditional canon of European-influenced American poetry as well as work by immigrants, hip hop artists, and Native Americans. The 2013 Signet Classic edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn features a new Afterword by Ishmael Reed.

Bob Callahan, Ishmael Reed, Ishmael's wife Carla Blank, Shawn Wong in 1975

Since the early 1970s, Reed has championed the work of other contemporary writers, founding and serving as editor and publisher of various small presses and journals. His current publishing imprint is Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, and his online literary magazine, Konch, features poetry, essays and fiction.[15] Reed is one of the producers of The Domestic Crusaders, a two-act play about Muslim Pakistani Americans written by his former student, Wajahat Ali.[16] Its first act was performed at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Hall in Washington, D.C., on November 14, 2010, and remains archived on their website.

Honors and awards[edit]

Two of Reed's books have been nominated for National Book Awards, and a book of poetry, Conjure, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His New and Collected Poems, 1964–2007, received the Commonwealth Club of California's Gold Medal. A poem written in Seattle in 1969, "beware : do not read this poem", has been cited by Gale Research Company as one of the approximately 20 poems that teachers and librarians have identified as the most frequently studied in literature courses. Reed’s novels, poetry and essays have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Dutch, Korean, Chinese and Czech, among other languages.

External video
You can view a C-SPAN interview, in which Ishmael Reed discusses his life, work and career, right here.

Since 2012, Ishmael Reed has maintained the honor of being the first SF Jazz Poet Laureate from SF JAZZ, the leading non-profit jazz organization on the West Coast. An installation of his poem "When I Die I Will Go to Jazz" appears on the SFJAZZ Center’s North Gate in Linden Alley.[17] Litquake, the annual San Francisco literary festival, honored him with their 2011 Barbary Coast Award.[18][19]

Among Reed's other honors are writing fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation[20] and National Endowment for the Arts. In 1995, he received the Langston Hughes Medal, awarded by City College of New York; in 1997, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, establishing a three-year collaboration with the Oakland-based Second Start Literacy Project in 1998.

In 1998, he also received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award.[21] In 1999, he received a Fred Cody Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association, and was inducted into Chicago State University’s National Literary Hall of Fame of Writers of African Descent. Other awards include a Rene Castillo OTTO Award for Political Theatre (2002); a Phillis Wheatley Award from the Harlem Book Fair (2003); and in 2004, a Robert Kirsch Award, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, besides the D.C. Area Writing Project’s 2nd Annual Exemplary Writer’s Award and the Martin Millennial Writers, Inc. Contribution to Southern Arts Award, in Memphis, Tennessee. A 1972 manifesto inspired a major visual art exhibit, NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith, curated by Franklin Sirmans for the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, where it opened on June 27, 2008, and subsequently traveled to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, and the Miami Art Museum through 2009. Buffalo, New York, celebrated February 21, 2014, as Ishmael Reed Day, when he received Just Buffalo Literary Center's 2014 Literary Legacy Award.[22]


Ishmael Reed's texts and lyrics have been performed, composed or set to music by Albert Ayler, David Murray, Allen Toussaint, Carman Moore, Taj Mahal, Olu Dara, Lester Bowie, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Ravi Coltrane, Leo Nocentelli, Eddie Harris, Anthony Cox, Don Pullen, Billy Bang, Bobby Womack, Milton Cardona, Omar Sosa, Fernando Saunders, Yosvanni Terry, Jack Bruce, Little Jimmy Scott, Robert Jason, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Cassandra Wilson, Gregory Porter and others.

Reed has been the central participant in the longest ongoing music/poetry collaboration, known as Conjure projects, produced by Kip Hanrahan on American Clavé: Conjure I (1984) and Conjure II (1988), which were reissued by Rounder Records in 1995; and Conjure Bad Mouth (2005), whose compositions were developed in live Conjure band performances, from 2003 to 2004, including engagements at Paris’ Banlieues Bleues, London’s Barbican, and the Blue Note Café in Tokyo. The Village Voice ranked the 2005 Conjure CD one of four best spoken-word albums released in 2006.

In 2007, Reed made his debut as a jazz pianist and bandleader with For All We Know by The Ishmael Reed Quintet. In 2008, he was honored as Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Awards. A David Murray CD released in 2009, The Devil Tried to Kill Me, includes two songs with lyrics by Reed: "Afrika", sung by Taj Mahal, and the title song performed by SF-based rapper Sista Kee. September 11, 2011, in a Jazz à la Villette concert at the Grande Halle in Paris, the Red Bull Music Academy World Tour premiered three new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed, performed by Macy Gray, Tony Allen[disambiguation needed], members of The Roots, David Murray and his Big Band, Amp Fiddler and Fela! singer/dancers. In 2013, David Murray, with vocalists Macy Gray and Gregory Porter, released the CD Be My Monster Love, with three new songs with lyrics by Reed: "Army of the Faithful", "Hope is a Thing With Feathers," and the title track, "Be My Monster Love."

Before Columbus Foundation[edit]

Ishmael Reed is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which since 1980 has annually presented the American Book Awards; the Oakland chapter of PEN; and There City Cinema, an organization that furthers the distribution and discussion of films from throughout the world.



Poetry, plays, and non-fiction[edit]

  • catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church, 1969
  • Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon or D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful, 1970
  • Neo-HooDoo Manifesto, 1972
  • Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970, 1972
  • Chattanooga: Poems, 1973
  • A Secretary to the Spirits, illustrated by Betye Saar, 1978
  • Shrovetide in Old New Orleans: Essays, 1978
  • God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays, 1982
  • New and Collected Poetry, 1988
  • Writing is Fighting: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper, 1988
  • Airing Dirty Laundry, 1993
  • Conversations with Ishmael Reed (Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh, eds), 1995
  • Oakland Rhapsody, The Secret Soul Of An American Downtown, with photographs by Richard Nagler, 1995
  • Gethsemane Park, libretto; Carman Moore, composer (premiere, Berkeley Black Repertory Theater, 1998)
  • The Reed Reader, 2000
  • Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, 2003
  • Another Day at the Front, Dispatches from the Race War, 2003
  • New and Collected Poems, 1964–2006, 2006 (hardcover); New and Collected Poems, 1964-2007, 2007 (paperback)
  • Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections, 2008
  • Ishmael Reed, THE PLAYS, including Mother Hubbard, Savage Wilds, Hubba City, The Preacher and the Rapper, The C Above C Above High C, and Body Parts, 2009
  • Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the “Nigger Breakers”, 2010
  • Going Too Far: Essays About America's Nervous Breakdown, 2012
  • The Final Version, a play, premiered at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in December, 2013
  • The Complete Muhammad Ali, non-fiction, Baraka Books, July, 2015

Anthologies edited by Reed[edit]

  • 19 Necromancers From Now, 1970
  • Califia: The California Poetry, 1978
  • Yardbird Lives!, Co-Edited with Al Young, 1978
  • The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology, Selections from the American Book Awards 1980–1990, co-edited with Kathryn Trueblood and Shawn Wong, 1991
  • The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology, Selections from the American Book Awards 1980–1990, co-edited with Kathryn Trueblood and Shawn Wong, 1991
  • The HarperCollins Literary Mosaic Series, General Editor of four anthologies edited by Gerald Vizenor, Shawn Wong, Nicolas Kanellos and Al Young, 1995–96
  • MultiAmerica, Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace, 1997
  • From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2001, 2003
  • POWWOW, 63 Writers Address the Fault Lines in the American Experience, short fiction anthology edited with Carla Blank, 2009
  • Black Hollywood Unchained, non-fiction anthology edited and with an Introduction by Reed, October 2015


Kip Hanrahan has released three albums featuring lyrics by Reed:

  • Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed (American Clave, 1985)
  • Conjure: Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon (American Clave, 1985)
  • Conjure: Bad Mouth (American Clave, 2005)

David Murray has released several albums featuring lyrics by Reed:

Yosvany Terry’s latest CD New Throned Kings (SPassion 2014), nominated for a 2014 Grammy, includes lyrics by Ishmael Reed on “Mase Nadodo.”

Further reading[edit]

  • Sami Ludwig, editor. On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed: Contemporary Assessments. Huntington Beach, California: World Parade Books, 2012.
  • Sirmans, Franklin, editor. NeoHooDoo, Art for a Forgotten Faith. New Haven and London: The Menil Foundation, Inc., distributed by Yale University Press, 2008. (Includes Sirmans' interview with Reed, pp. 74–81.)
  • Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien, with a preface by Jerome Klinkowitz. The “Dark Heathenism” of the American Novelist Ishmael Reed, African Voodoo as American Literary Hoodoo. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd, 2007.
  • Ebbeson, Jeffrey. Postmodernism and its Others: the fiction of Ishmael Reed, Kathy Acker and Don DeLillo. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Nishikawa, Kinohi. "Mumbo Jumbo." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature. Emmanuel S. Nelson (ed.). 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. pp. 1552–53.
  • Spaulding, A. Timothy. History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Chapter 1: “The Conflation of Time in Ishmael Reed’s FLIGHT TO CANADA and Octavia Butler’s KINDRED," pp. 25–60. Columbia: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.
  • Hume. Kathryn. American Dream American Nightmare: Fiction Since 1960. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Dick, Bruce Allen, editor with the assistance of Pavel Zemliansky. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999. (Includes Dick's 1997 telephone interview with Reed, pp. 228–250.)
  • McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
  • Ludwig, Sämi. Concrete Language: Intercultural Communication in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” and Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo". Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, Cross Cultural Communication Vol. 2, 1996; reissued in 2015.
  • Joyce, Joyce A. "Falling Through the Minefield of Black Feminist Criticism: Ishmael Reed, A Case in Point," Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-centered Literary Criticism. Chicago: Third World Press, 1994.
  • Nazareth, Peter. In the Trickster Tradition:The Novels of Andrew Salkey, Francis Ebejer and Ishmael Reed. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Press, 1994.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
  • O'Brien, John, editor. The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Volume 4, Number 2, Summer, 1984. "Juan Goytisolo and Ishmael Reed Number". (Includes articles and interviews with Reed by Reginald Martin, Franco La Polla, Jerry H. Bryant, W. C. Bamberger, Joe Weixlmann, Peter Nazareth, James R. Lindroth, Geoffrey Green and Jack Byrne.)
  • Fabre, Michel. "Postmodernist Rhetoric in Ishmael Reed's 'Yellow Back Radio Broke Down.'" In Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer (eds), The Afro-American Novel Since 1960, Amsterdam: B.R. Gruner Publishing Co., 1982. 167–88.
  • Settle, Elizabeth A. and Thomas A. Settle. Ishmael Reed, a primary and secondary bibliography. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982.
  • McConnell, Frank. "Da Hoodoo is Put on America", in A. Robert Lee (ed.), Black Fiction, New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945. NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ishmael Reed Biography". Retrieved September 20, 2011. 
  2. ^ Ishmael Reed (November 9, 2011). "Trouble Beside the Bay". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ Ishmael Reed (December 11, 2010). "What Progressives Don’t Understand About Obama". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ Ishmael Reed (February 4, 2010). "Fade to White". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ Ishmael Reed (January 28, 2012). "Ishmael Reed on the Miltonian Origin of The Other". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ Bauch, Hubert (April 24, 2010). "Taking on the Jim Crow media". The Montreal Gazette. 
  7. ^ Ludwig, Samuel (December 18, 2002). "Ishmael Reed". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 6, 2010. 
  8. ^ Juan-Navarro, Santiago. "Self-Reflexivity and Historical Revisionism in Ishmael Reed’s Neo-Hoodoo Aesthetics" (PDF). The Grove: Working Papers on English Studies, 17 (2010): 77-100. 
  9. ^ Mitchell, J.D. (September 13, 2011). "At Work: Ishmael Reed on 'Juice!'". The Paris Review. 
  10. ^ Elliot Fox, Robert (September 20, 2011). "About Ishmael Reed's Life and Work". Modern American Poetry website. 
  11. ^ Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (3rd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc. p. 798-801. 
  12. ^ Steiner, Andy. "Media Diet: Ishmael Reed", Utne Reader (September/October 1998).
  13. ^ "A Conversation with Ishmael Reed By Reginald Martin" (interview conducted July 1–7, 1983, in Emeryville, California), The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1984, Vol. 4.2. At Dalkey Archive Press.
  14. ^ Carla Blank's latest publication is Rediscovering America: The Making of Multicultural America, 1900–2000.
  15. ^ Konch Magazine. An Ishmael Reed and Tennessee Reed Publication.
  16. ^ Laurie Goodstein (September 8, 2009). "A Pakistani-American Family Is Caught in Some Cultural Cross-Fire". The New York Times. 
  17. ^ "SFJAZZ Laureates - Jim Goldberg & Ishmael Reed", SF Jazz.
  18. ^ "Barbary Coast Award Honors Ishmael Reed", Litquake, October 2011.
  19. ^ "Barbary Coast Award Recipients", Litquake.
  20. ^ "Ishmael Reed, 1975 - US & Canada Competition, Creative Arts - Fiction", John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
  21. ^ "Two Blacks Named MacArthur Foundation Fellows", Jet, June 22, 1998, p. 8.
  22. ^

External links[edit]