Authors: Ishmael Reed

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet, playwright, anthologist, and writer of novels and nonfiction.

February 22, 1938

Chattanooga, Tennessee


Ishmael Scott Reed is recognized as an important American satirist, an innovative poet, and a major part of the antirealist countertradition in black American fiction that includes authors such as Clarence Major, James Alan McPherson, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. He was born Emmett Coleman to Thelma Coleman and Henry Lenoir in Chattanooga, Tennessee; before he turned two years old, his mother married Bennie Reed and his name was changed. The family moved to Buffalo, New York, when he was four. After he graduated from Buffalo’s East High School, Ishmael Reed attended the University of Buffalo, but financial problems forced him to withdraw before graduation. He then married and moved into the notorious Talbert Mall Projects. The two years he spent there provided him with a painful but valuable experience of urban poverty.

In 1962 Reed moved to New York City. He participated in the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement, served as editor of Advance, and helped to found the East Village Other, one of the first and most successful underground newspapers. He was an active member of the Umbra Workshop, a black writers’ group. In 1967 he moved to California, began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, and published his first novel. The Free-Lance Pallbearers, a parody of the African American literary tradition of first-person, confessional narratives and an unrestrained attack on the corruptive potential of power in American politics, received surprising critical attention and praise. It was soon followed by Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, a fantastic parody of the popular Western in which Reed satirizes America’s repressive tendencies and argues for an aesthetic that gives priority to imagination, intelligence, and fantasy.

Ishmael Reed



By Nancy Wong (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1970s were a prolific period for Reed. In partnership with Al Young, he founded a series of publishing ventures designed to build a multicultural national literature by printing the work of minority authors. In 1976 Reed helped found the Before Columbus Foundation, a group devoted to redefining mainstream American literature to reflect the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of North America. In the 1970’s he also published volumes of innovative poetry that presented a sensuous black aesthetic in a hip, jazz-inspired voice, and several poems were reprinted in college literature anthologies.

During the 1970s, Reed published three novels that strengthened his reputation as a satirist but went beyond the literary dismantling of America to propose a cultural alternative for nonwhite Americans. Mumbo Jumbo—with its complex mix of erudite scholarly paraphernalia (illustrations, footnotes, diagrams, and bibliography), formula detective fiction, and jumbled “gumbo” structure—is a parody of traditional literary forms. In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, another parody of detective fiction, Reed defined an African American aesthetic based on voodoo, Egyptian mythology, and improvisational musical forms. In Flight to Canada, set in the Civil War South, Reed concentrated on the question of authorial control, the idea that nonwhite Americans must create their own “stories.” Reed’s fictional reconstructions of the American West, the Harlem Renaissance, the American Civil War, and contemporary American politics, interwoven with ancient myths, non-European folk customs, and the formulas of popular culture, are liberating heresies meant to free readers from the limitations of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The 1980s were a more difficult decade for Reed. Through essay collections such as God Made Alaska for the Indians and Writin’ Is Fightin’, Reed presented his political and aesthetic ideas directly. His poetry, particularly New and Collected Poems, continued to receive favorable reviews; however, the novels that he published in the 1980’s were poorly received by most critics, engendering accusations of sexism and anti-Semitism. The Terrible Twos and its sequel The Terrible Threes are heavy-handed satires of Reaganesque politics. Reckless Eyeballing was even more controversial, maintaining that the American literary environment was dominated by New York women and Jews. Although Reed’s ostensible target was a cultural establishment that created and strengthened racial stereotypes, portions of the book seem to be direct and somewhat mean-spirited attacks on the success of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).

Reed opened the 1990s with his novel Japanese by Spring, which satirizes specialized, politically correct academic disciplines such as Japanese American studies. Two major works of nonfiction followed: Airing Dirty Laundry, thirty-six essays on topics ranging from the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings to the Rodney King trial in which Reed excoriates the double standard of white versus black behavior, and Another Day at the Front, in which he exposes and decries the entrenched racism and violence perpetrated on black Americans even into the second millennium.

Reed produced several works in the 2000s and 2010s, including half a dozen nonfiction titles; a collection of poetry, New and Collected Poems 1964–2006; Ishmael Reed: The Plays, a collection of six plays, including Mother Hubbard (1979), Savage Wilds (1989), Hubba City (1989), The Preacher and the Rapper (1994), The C above C above High C (1997), and Body Parts (2007); and the novel Juice! (2011).

Reed is the recipient of many honors and awards, including a MacArthur fellowship, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, the Lewis Michaux Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, and grants from the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Having made his home in Oakland and at the University of California for more than three decades, he remains an insistent and provocative novelist, poet, social critic, and voice of the national conscience.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Free-Lance Pallbearers, 1967 Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, 1969 Mumbo Jumbo, 1972 The Last Days of Louisiana Red, 1974 Flight to Canada, 1976 The Terrible Twos, 1982 Reckless Eyeballing, 1986 The Terrible Threes, 1989 Japanese by Spring, 1993 Juice!, 2011 Poetry: Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church, 1970 Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, 1972 Chattanooga, 1973 A Secretary to the Spirits, 1977 Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon, 1986 New and Collected Poems, 1988 New and Collected Poems 1964–2006, 2006 Nonfiction: Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, 1978 God Made Alaska for the Indians, 1982 Writin’ is Fightin’: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper, 1988 Airing Dirty Laundry, 1993 Conversations with Ishmael Reed, 1995 Oakland Rhapsody: The Secret Soul of an American Downtown, 1995 (with photos by Richard Nagler) Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War, 2002 (essays) Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, 2003 Mixing It Up: Taking On the Media Bullies and Other Reflections, 2008 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 Complete Muhammad Ali, 2015 Drama: Ishmael Reed: The Plays, 2009 Edited Text: Nineteen Necromancers from Now, 1970 Yardbird Lives!, 1978 (with Al Young) Calafia: An Anthology of California Poets, 1979 (with Young and Shawn Hsu Wong) The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980–1990, 1992 (with Kathryn Trueblood and Wong) The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980–1990, 1992 (with J. J. Phillips, Wong, and Gundars Strads The HarperCollins Literary Mosaic Series, general editor, 1995–96 Multi America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace, 1997 From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2002, 2003 Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then and Now, 2009 (with Carla Blank) Black Hollywood Unchained: Commentary on the State of Black Hollywood, 2015 Miscellaneous: The Reed Reader, 2000 Bibliography Boyer, Jay. Ishmael Reed. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1993. A brief (fifty-two-page) installment in the publisher’s Western Writers series. Dick, Bruce, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of twenty-six interviews with Ishmael Reed, which cover the years 1968-1995. Includes one self-interview and a chronology of Reed’s life. Dick, Bruce Allen, and Pavel Zemliansky, eds. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Discusses Reed’s novels in chronological order; contains book reviews, essays, an interview in which Reed discusses works in progress, a chronology of his life, and bibliographical information. Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Post-Modern Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delaney. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Situates Reed within both the tradition of black fiction and the self-conscious style of contemporary postmodernist fiction. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The section on Reed examines his fiction, especially the novel Mumbo Jumbo, as an extension of the tendency of black English to play deliberately with language. McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Looks at Reed’s refusal to meet expectations associated traditionally with African American writers, and examines his use of satire and his antagonism toward political correctness. Reed, Ishmael. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Edited by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of twenty-six interviews with Ishmael Reed, which cover the years 1968-1995. Includes one self-interview and a chronology of Reed’s life. Reed, Ishmael. “Ishmael Reed, The Art of Poetry No. 100.” Interview by Chris Jackson. The Paris Review, no. 218, 2016, Reed’s interview covers his thoughts on politics, history, the future of America and the world, and other topics. Weisenburger, Steven. Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Discusses Reed’s use of encyclopedic Menippean satire in Mumbo Jumbo.

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