In The Gift of Black Folk (1924), W. E. B. DuBois asserted that the meek in the new world “not only inherited the earth but made their heritage a thing of questing for eternal youth, of fruitful labor, or joy and music, of the free spirit and of the ministering hand, of wide and poignant sympathy with men in their struggle to live and love which is, after all, the end of being.” Strip DuBois’s sentimental prose of flowers and sugar, and one comes to the core: the descendents of African peoples in the United States gave this nation the gift of humanity, a gift that burns the hands of people who have no color. Those who chirp endlessly about their sympathy for peoples of color have much to learn from Ishmael Reed.
Since 1969, Reed’s writing has been an essential tool in my thinking. I first read The Free-Lance Pallbearers in Pleiku, Vietnam and laughed at its humor in that alien Asian landscape of horror. Almost five decades later, I live in a vernacular landscape of massive destructive horrors and still need Reed’s cartography to understand the multicultural territory. Reed’s words have made me too wise to laugh.
As an American thinker and writer, Reed has chosen to provoke recognitions. This he does with gusto in his novels and collections of essays and, most importantly, in the anthologies he has edited. Beginning with 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing for the 1970s (1970), he included contributions by Frank Chin and Victor Hernandez Cruz. His gesture of inclusion was one way of saying to Afrocentric Americans that excluding people was tantamount to being white. He explained in a brief editor’s note: “I have called the authors in this anthology ‘Black,’ ‘Afro-American,’ ‘Chinese-American,’ or ‘Indian’ because, with the possible exception of one, this is what they would call themselves if polled.” Nine years later, Reed made his case for the plural nature of American literature by editing Calafia: The California Poetry, “the most comprehensive multi-cultural anthology of a State’s poetry ever compiled.” He strengthened his case by including authenticating introductions from Bob Callahan, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Simon Ortiz, Shawn Hsu Wong, Wakako Yamauchi, and Al Young. Reed operated from the premise that “if, as they say, California is the United States’ window on the future, then the prospects for a diverse national poetry, instead of the various sects of the moment, are good”(xliii). Using the conditional mode, Reed floated like a Muhammad Ali butterfly to avoid jabs from the left and the right.
Redefining American Literary History (1990), which I co-edited with A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, was a pure product of the American academy. It was sponsored by the Committee on the Literatures and Languages of America of the Modern Language Association and published by MLA. Nevertheless, it was influenced indirectly by the conversation Reed began in founding the Before Columbus Foundation in 1976. Working from the field rather than the classroom, Reed was much ahead of the academy in recognizing the diversity of American literary tradition. As he insisted in his introduction for The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology (1992): “Multicultural” is not a description of a category of American writing — it is a definition of all American writing (xi). The same declaration appears in the companion The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology (1992). Both anthologies contain selections from the American Book Awards 1980-1990, and both challenge the draconian hegemony of the American publishing industry. Reed’s sentiments are echoed in J. J. Phillips’s introduction for the poetry volume: “Whether or not one likes to acknowledge it, America always has been a multicultural society, and any literary canon which presents but a narrow band of the spectrum of American letters and claim to be representative is itself a fiction of the first water “(xv). For reasons that have more to do with power than with education, America’s public schools and colleges have yet to renounce the fiction.
Reed has been very clear-sighted about the limits of his interventions as they pertain to literature and literacy and about the necessity of continuing interventions. As Reginald Martin remarked in Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics (1988), Reed is like “the ultimate Trickster of Hoodoo legend,” who through “his collation of myth, fact, and apocryphal data into a history” conducts a quest to formulate “a different, and more humane, way of experiencing and influencing the world” (108). In his anthologies, I would argue, Reed places the burden of proof on fact. To provoke deeper thinking about the pitfalls of American monoculturalism, Reed edited MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), a book that is seminal for understanding the contested territory of multiculturalism. Most recently, Reed has edited From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas (2003) and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience –Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009). It should not be lost on us that these titles allude to indigenous traditions.
In their chapter for The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011), Madhu Dubey and Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg noted that Reed had reservations about the institutionalization of multiculturalism in the academy when he underlined “the profitability of racial and cultural differences to commodity capitalism”(575) in his novel Japanese by Spring (1993). And no doubt, Reed has reservations about the illusions of multiculturalism in everyday American life. Reed uses his intelligence to provoke for the public good; unless one is a confirmed dunce, one welcomes his provocations with choice grains of skepticism. Few of us want, I suspect, to be permanent guests at a tea party in a Platonic cave. The probity of Reed’s writing and anthologizing clears the mind of crap. As one of the contemporary gifts of black folk to our nation, Ishmael Reed helps us to see a bit of the actual that “reality” would have us evade.