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Writin' Is Fightin'

In battle with Ishmael Reed.

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Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War

By Ishmael Reed

Basic Books, 169 pp., $24

hat is it about novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and anthologist Ishmael Reed that invites every comparison under the sun? Henry Louis Gates Jr. has him cavorting "like a black bull in the china shop of Western culture." The Baltimore Sun has him wearing "the mantle of Baldwin and Ellison like a high-powered Flip Wilson in drag." Jazz drummer Max Roach once called him "the Charlie Parker of American fiction," and The Nation once called him "the brightest contributor to American satire since Mark Twain." But it's the sport of boxing that gets the blurbmeisters really metaphorically speaking, as in: Reed the "knock-out artist" (The Amsterdam News), Reed the inheritor of "Ali's ring style" (The New York Times), Reed the iconoclast with "punches swift" (Commonweal), and Reed the pugilist delivering "powerful jabs at America's long tradition of racism," when he isn't "feinting deftly among past and present, government and media, personal and political" (Reed's own publisher, Basic Books).

"Feinting"? What's to pretend when there's a war going on, it's Another Day at the Front, and Reed's aiming at injustices past and present, in government and in the media, both personal and political and not above name-calling himself, as in:

Wallace Stevens ("unreadable"); Gloria Steinem ("the gatekeeper for black feminist Divas"); NPR's David Isay ("another producer ... promoting images of black people as incorrigible deadbeats, parasites, addicts, criminals, and woman haters"); NPR's Nina Totenberg ("arrogant"); PBS's Ray Saurez ("the kind of malleable Hispanic with whom the people at PBS and NPR are comfortable"); NBC's Tim Russert (a "more benign" version of minority-basher Don Imus); public intellectuals ("sluts ... paid by think tanks to recycle the same old lies about African-Americans"); Salon.com ("a hip online zine ... that seems to find space for every out-of-work, has-been hack writer whose main business is preaching tough love to blacks, exclusively"); John C. Calhoun (states' advocate and slave owner; 19th-century "prototype of the neoconservative"); Philip Roth ("defender of high culture, which he views as being under assault by the black hordes"); Tom Wolfe ("whose black characters have less of a vocabulary than your Stanford laboratory monkey"); plus a passing shot at Andy Rooney and Jimmy Breslin ("racists").

And in case you think Reed's color-blind, read on, as in: Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among the self-annointed Talented Tenth to be sure and, what's worse, they're "elitist" East Coasters, members of the "black intellectual vanguard," so read: purveyors of mainstream public (read: white) opinion; Colin Powell, white America's "head Overseer for black Americans"; certain Bay Area black rappers, "cynical, amoral capitalists who know what turns on their white audience," an audience in need of its "'nigger' fix"; and Stanley Crouch, "a pit bull [to borrow from the opinion of writer Quincy Troupe] ... kept chained in a dungeon by some members of the neoconservative Jewish right, only to be let out once in a while to attack famous blacks or those literary blacks whom the neoconservatives feel are their main competition in the world of New York literary politics, as well as in the literary marketplace."

So much for Stanley Crouch. (And so much for Wallace Stevens?)

But wait, there's more, and it boils down -- across the 17 essays collected here, culled from such sources as The Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the San Diego Reader -- to the mistreatment of black males by "gender" feminists black and white; the misrepresentation of contemporary black male literary figures by academics male and female; the misunderstanding among blacks of Booker T. Washington, who Reed believes has been unfairly eclipsed by W.E.B. DuBois; the misjudgment of opponents of affirmative action, when Reed writes it's women (not African Americans, not Asian Americans per se) who are the true beneficiaries of that controversial program; and the mischaracterization of blacks generally, especially in the media, as a race of troublemakers but a race of very convenient scapegoats for every last American ill.

Targets multiple, then, but clear. Reed's shots, though: scattershot, from the hip, every which way, which makes for fast reading, depressing reading if you happen to share in Reed's outrage, less persuasive reading if you're unconverted and looking for hard numbers, sounder arguments. Nonexistent proofreading doesn't help, it hurts the cause: "waded" for weighed in. Edgar "Allen" for Allan Poe; Thomas "Moore" for More; a certain "phenomena." Still, for this, Black History Month, see under "State of the Union." Look up Reed. For boxer, read: marksman.

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