Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed, together with Toni Morrison, is one of today's pre-eminent African American literary figures--perhaps the most widely reviewed since Ralph Ellison, and, along with Samuel Delany and Amiri Baraka, probably the most controversial.  Ishmael Reed began writing his own jazz column for Empire State, a weekly African American newspaper in Buffalo, NY.

Since the publication of his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, in 1967, Reed has thus far produced seven novels, four books of poetry, two collections of essays, numerous reviews and critical articles, and has edited two major anthologies. Reed's literary style is best known for its use of parody and satire in attempts to create new myths and to challenge the formal conventions of literary tradition. Reed's works have alternately been criticized as incoherent, muddled, and abstruse, and hailed as multicultural, revolutionary, vivid, and containing a deep awareness of mythic archetypes.

Born 1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Ishmael Reed grew up in working class neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York. He attended Buffalo public schools and the University of Buffalo. He moved to New York City, where he co founded the East Village Other (1965), an underground newspaper that achieved a national reputation. Also that year he organized the American Festival of Negro Art. As well as being a novelist, poet, and essayist, he is a songwriter, television producer, publisher, magazine editor, playwright, and founder of the Before Columbus Foundation and There City Cinema, both of which are located in northern California. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, and for twenty years he has been a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, He lives in Oakland, California.

Since the publication of his first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Reed has devoted himself to the production of a substantial body of literature - fiction, poetry and essays - which has as its consistent objective the satirizing of American political, religious and literary repression. His literary subversion has expressed itself in parodies of political realities: the racism and greed of the Reagan era in The Terrible Twos (1982) and the recent Japanese by Spring (1993), fundamentalist Christian white supremacist values in The Terrible Threes (1989) and parodies of literary forms themselves, western pulp novels in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), slave narratives in Flight To Canada (1976), and detective fiction in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) which pits proponents of rationalism and militarism against believers in the magical and intuitive, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974).

Mumbo Jumbo (1972) was the work that first achieved wide notoriety for the author, and it is considered by several scholars to be his best, along with Flight to Canada (1976). He has received numerous honors, fellowships, and prizes, including the Lewis H. Michaux Literary Prize, awarded to him in 1978 by the Studio Museum in Harlem.

He is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which annually presents the American Book Awards; the Oakland Chapter of PEN; and There City Cinema, an organization which furthers the distribution and discussion of films from throughout the world.  Two of his books have been nominated for National Book Awards, and a book of poetry, Conjure, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  A poem written for in Seattle in 1969, "Beware Do Not Read This Poem," has been cited by Gale Research Company as one of the approximately 20 poems that teachers and librarians have identified as the most frequently studied in literature courses.  Harold Bloom designated Mumbo Jumbo one of the 500 most important books of the Western canon.  He has received writing fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and National Endowment and New York State Council of the Arts fellowships for publishing and video production.  In 1991, he received an American Cultures Fellowship from U.C. Berkeley to produce an original television drama.  In 1995, he received the Langston Hughes Medal, awarded by City College of New York.  In 1997, he received the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Award; in 1998, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award; and a Fred Cody Award from he Bay Area Book Reviewers Association in 1999.


"In The Reed Reader, Reed's skills as satirist, parodist, comic, intellect and all-around provocateur are in full, glimmering display."  - The News and Observer

"Reed is a knock-out artist, a Roy Jones Jr. of the pen.  Reed's boxing ring is the world and his opponents are oppressors, racists, exploiters, tyrants and hypocrites of all sizes, colors and genders.  When Reed is at the top of his game, you can run, but you can't hide."  - The New York Amsterdam News

"Ishmael Reed is a genius and one of our most gifted and brilliant satirists, and hid fiction, non-fiction, and poetry alike resurrects the dead.  Much can be learned reading his works which stand the test of time."  - Terry McMillian, Author

"Ishmael Reed has elevated American satire to a new level, one that Mark Twain would appreciate.  The sweep of his work has both grandeur and genius, and even when you disagree with him, he has you laughing, often at yourself.  His always provocative writing has humanity, humor, power and vision.  A true original."  - Jill Nelson, Author