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The slave narratives tell of spirits riding people at night, of elixirs dearly bought from conjure men, chicken bones rubbed on those from whom love was wanted, and of dreams taken as omens. Harriet Tubman heeded visions which she described in the wildest poetry. VooDoo, magic, spirit worship as the concealed religious heritage of the black masses, and literacy, control of the word as a powerful talisman, are among the folk sources of what Ishmael Reed calls the “Neo-HooDoo aesthetic” of his polemical essays, contentious poems, and pugnacious, elliptical fictions.
Reed’s “Neo-HooDooism” is so esoteric that it is difficult to say what he intends by it, whether it is meant to be taken as a system of belief, a revival of HooDoo, the Afro-American form of Haitian VooDoo, or, as he has also suggested, as a device, a method of composition. Mostly Neo-HooDooism seems to be a literary version of black cultural nationalism determined to find its origins in history, just as black militants of the 1960s invoked Marcus Garvey or the slave rebellions. Neo-HooDooism, then, is a school of revisionism in which Reed passes control to the otherwise powerless, and black history becomes one big saga of revenge.
Black writers, Leslie Fiedler once pointed out, have been attempting to “remythologize” themselves and black people since the time of Jean Toomer, but in Neo-HooDooism writing itself becomes an act of retribution. Reed puts a hex or a curse on white society, or on any group in black life that he doesn’t like simply by exposing them to ridicule: the whammy hits Rutherford B. Hayes, Millard Fillmore, Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, black nationalists, black Maoists reading “Chinese Ping-Pong manuals,” black feminists, white feminists, white radicals, television, what he conceives of as secret societies of Anglos, the master caste, and those who control the canon, the dreaded C word, and ignore Asian-American, Native American, and Hispanic literature, and get Afro-American literature all wrong. There is also much beating up of Christianity and the Catholic Church.
Fantastic in plot, satirical in tone, colloquial in style, and always revolving around what Zora Neale Hurston identified as the “wish-fulfillment hero of the race” in folklore, Reed’s novels, with one smooth black after another blowing the whistle on covert forces that rule the world, are latter-day trickster tales with enough historical foundation to tease.
Reed came of age in the 1960s, “the decade that screamed.” His family roots are in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was born in 1938, grew up in Buffalo, New York, dropped out of the university there in 1960, worked for a local militant newspaper where he defended black prostitutes against the brutality of the police, wrote a play, and in 1962 took his belongings in a plastic bag to downtown Manhattan. The black movement was beginning to heat up; avant-garde black magazines appeared on the scene. Leroi Jones, Reed’s contemporary, had been to Cuba and had ceased to be a Beat poet. Reed joined the Umbra Workshop, a forerunner of …
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