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  • Created in the ’60s
  • Ishmael Reed (bio)

The choices I made between 1960 and 1970 would determine how I would spend the next fifty years. My introduction to intellectual life came through an off campus group of black intellectuals, which included the poet Lucille Clifton. I also made the best of my years at the pre SUNY University of Buffalo, where the curriculum was limited, narrowly, to the works of Europeans.

Nevertheless, I was attracted to the works of Joyce, Yeats, and Pound. Yeats’s cultural nationalism; Pound’s multiculturalism. In fact, Pound’s example might fit one version of post modernism. That of expanding the experiments of the modernists. In a letter, Pound refers to the Nigerian god of thunder. Having studied Yoruba religion, I can identify that entity as Shango. Richard Wright wrote Haiku in English. Having studied Japanese, I have written a couple of Haiku and a song in Japanese. Another example of an artist extending the experiments of a modernist. Duke Ellington wrote “The Far East Suite.” In Anthony Brown’s version of Ellington’s piece performed by Brown’s Asian American Orchestra, authentic instruments of the region are used.

My first fictional effort was imitative of Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Nathanael West, who introduced me to collage making in fiction (Eliot in poetry). Especially, West’s The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931). I was also attracted to his critique of American society in A Cool Million (1934) and the worship of celebrity in The Day of the Locust (1939). I was also influenced by a book entitled The Tower and the Abyss (1957), a work about discontinuity, written by Erich Kahler and translated by W. S. Merwin.

For me Yeats’s writings were useful. The Celtic Revival seemed a reliable response to a nation under occupation. A way to preserve yet modernize the old ways and ward off assimilation. Later, in New York, I was to learn that the idea of blacks as members of a separate nation had been kicking around since the 1920s. The Celtic Revival led me to something I called “Neo HooDooism,” which was a primitive attempt to use a non-Colonial Neo African source for my work. A response to the cultural occupation of the black nation by those who desire to drive the arts of minorities to extinction or cooptation in the name of assimilation.

Yet, a traveling show, based upon my Neo HooDoo manifesto, published in The Los Angeles Free Press in nineteen sixty nine, showed the reach of Neo HooDooism, whose roots lay in Nigeria. The show, sponsored by Houston’s Menil Collection, not only included works by Hispanic and black authors but a piece by John Cage based on the Zen philosophy. As one Brazilian temple mother put it when attacked by a Catholic bishop, “All roads lead to god,” but as a writer, living in Buffalo, writing for a newspaper, all roads led to New York. I found a group of fearless writers, who, unlike the old days, were not seeking sponsorship.

Before the 1960s, black writers attracted white readers by being recruited by a sponsor. The sponsors keep changing. In the 1930s and ’40s some got their start by writing for the Communist Party. Currently, white feminists have the power in publishing and academia to influence trends in black literature, which has led to what critic C. Leigh McInnis calls the black boogeyman books in which saintly do-no-wrong women are surrounded by cruel and heartless men. What at one time were called melodramas. Toni Morrison, bell hooks, J. J. Phillips have commented about the power of white feminists, who, with their buying power, can decide which tokens might advance. They’ve been censoring me since the early 80s. **Ms. hooks even writes that white feminists told her that in order to get over she had to write for them.

But in the 1960s, the younger generation of black New York writers weren’t concerned with wooing white readers or serving a white constituency. With printing techniques that were becoming less expensive, black writers were able to publish their work using new formats. I joined them in 1962. Meeting Malcolm X...


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