Ishmael Reed, the novelist, playwright, poet, knows a lot of things. Especially Higher Ed. In his novel, Japanese by Spring, Reed imagines a college taken over by Japanese businessmen who restructure the framework of curriculum debate. “Too white” gives way to not enough Zen Buddhism. Breathe deeply. It’s a satire, informed by Reed’s career as a now retired full-time lecturer at UC Berkeley.
Provocative flights of fancy where cultures and genres clash are in all his work. Read the first chapter of “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972) to see how a pandemic starts during the Jazz Age in New Orleans with a virus that makes people want to dance! It’s the spread of Black culture and white traditions are out to stop it. It was a finalist for a National Book Award, and a Pulitzer that year.
Satire from the outsider’s point of view, imaginative and dangerous. It would be even funnier still, if only the literal reality hadn’t caught up to Reed. Today, Louisiana is one of the worst places in the country on the vaccine front against COVID, with real doctors making up lies to suit their fantasies. But that’s all conspiracy theory compared to Reed’s literary art.
Now at 83, Reed is getting some much needed recognition for all that he has done and continues to do, whether he wants it or not. Reed is the recent subject of an expansive profile in The New Yorker. To read the piece is to get a sense of the good literary trouble he’s created as an advocate of diversity and multiculturalism in American life and letters.
I first met Reed when he was allowed to break away from UC to places like St. Louis, Missouri, where he was an “artist in residence” for Washington University’s first Writer’s Program. Designed to become a better Iowa, it had a circle of famous writers like the novelists William Gass and Stanley Elkin. The poets Constance Urdang, John Morris and Howard Nemerov. All white. Reed was the token minority writer-in-resident. I was the token minority voice. But I was there because of the great humorist Elkin. When he told me to stop writing about my Filipino family, Reed was there to tell me to put them back in.
Reed has been like that his entire life. And he hasn’t let up, even writing a play, “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” about the “Hamilton” creator who by using hip-hop, masks the fact that “Hamilton” was a slave-holder.
Though “writing is fighting” remains Reed’s credo, he’s all about reconciliation, he said to The New Yorker profile writer Julian Lucas. Another anthology is also on the way. “Bigotry On Broadway” will be published in September by Baraka Books.
I’m honored to have been asked by Reed, my former teacher, to contribute.
Lucas asked Reed about his legacy, and Reed’s answer was simple.
“I made American literature more democratic for writers from different backgrounds,” he said. “I was part of that movement to be heard.”
In 2021, at 83, Ishmael Reed continues to have an undying belief in the true power of diversity.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok