Trickster Tales

The Terrible Twos

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 178 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Terrible Threes

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 180 pp., $16.95

The Free-Lance Pallbearers: An Irreverent Novel

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 155 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 177 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Mumbo Jumbo

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 223 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Last Days of Louisiana Red

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 177 pp., $8.95 (paper)

New and Collected Poems

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 231 pp., $22.95

Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper

by Ishmael Reed
Atheneum, 226 pp., $18.95

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 Jones’s Black Arts Repertory School. In 1965, the year Jones established his school in Harlem and turned away from interracial politics, Reed headed a black newspaper in Newark. (He was later to be associated with the magazine Yardbird and to run his own small press.) In 1968, he moved to Berkeley where he has been teaching ever since, and in 1979 settled into the kind of neighborhood in Oakland that, he says, his stepfather and mother “spent about a third of their lives trying to escape.”

Many black intellectuals in the 1960s sought to rehabilitate their identity through Islam, Black Power, or the principles of Ron Karenga, who held that black art must show up the enemy, praise the people, and support the revolution. Words were seen as weapons and whites were accused of “the intellectual rape of a race of people,” but Reed was too quirky to become merely a black separatist. At his most rhetorical he claims to have a multinational, multi-ethnic view of the United States. He concocted his personal brand of chauvinism, one designed to dispense with the black writer’s burden of interpreting the black experience.

The ground under the naturalistic problem novel of the 1940s, which depended on oppression for its themes, was eroded by the possibilities of the integration movement, and it led black writers in the 1950s to turn inward. But the black revolt of the 1960s brought a resurgence of protest literature. Though Reed shared its anti-assimilationist urges, maybe he didn’t want to sound like everyone else who was hurling invective against the injustices in American society. Reed’s work aims to dissolve or transcend the dilemma of the double consciousness of the black writer as an American and as a black that has characterized black writing since the slave narratives. Chester Himes, half of whose ten novels are hard-boiled detective stories from which Reed got a great deal, complained in his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1973), that white readers only wanted books in which black characters suffer. “Fuck pain,” Reed said. “The crying towel doesn’t show up in my writing.”

To disarm racism and make room for his comic sense of the irrational, to free himself from the tradition of the black writer’s double consciousness, Reed got rid of the confessional voice, the autobiographical atmosphere of Afro-American literature, “those suffering books” about the old neighborhood in which “every gum drop machine is in place.” His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), is a fitful, irreverent parody of the literature of self-discovery. The narrator, Bukka Doopeyduk, a luckless believer in “the Nazarene Creed,” lives in a place called HARRY SAM, which is ruled by SAM, who is rumored to eat children, has been enthroned on a commode in a motel for thirty years, and rants about “all the rest what ain’t like us.”

The novel is madly scatological, waste overruns everything. Doopeyduk, “a brainwashed Negro” of the projects who listens to Mahler, becomes, by accident, a media star until he witnesses the “sheer evil” of SAM—performing backroom anal sex. He then tries to grab power, fails, and is crucified on meat hooks.

Along the way to doom Doopeyduk meets opportunistic black leaders, voyeuristic white radicals, academics, slumlords, television talk show hosts, all of whom Reed lampoons. Given the climate of the late 1960s, with antipoverty programs like HARYOU and best sellers about the inner city in which self-exploration often had an element of self-exploitation, Reed’s baiting of almost everyone has the calculated exhibitionism of funky stand-up comedy. For outrageousness, Reed’s only peer is Richard Pryor.

There isn’t much in this novel that Reed won’t try to take the piss out of, including the legacy of Black Boy and Invisible Man; reports about the Vietnam War; the Book of Revelations; and militant rhetoric, which comes off as sell-out entertainment for masochistic white audiences.


Reed makes fun of VooDoo in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Doopeyduk’s wife’s grandmother takes conjure lessons through the mail under the “Mojo Retraining Act,” and while studying for her “sorcery exams” tries to shove her granddaughter in the oven to practice an exercise from the “witchcraft syllabus.” VooDoo is part of the pervasive corruption in HARRY SAM, one more ridiculous thing about life.

But in his second novel. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Reed is serious about possession and spells, at least as a pose, though he is capable of saying anything to be sensational. Here in order to get away from white fiction as a model, and to return to a “dark heathenism,” Reed puts Neo-HooDooism to the forefront in place of the crying towel of his experience as a black man in America. Anything that Reed approves of historically he says comes from HooDoo. “HooDoo is the strange and beautiful ‘fits’ the Black slave Tituba gave the children of Salem.” Ragtime and jazz were manifestations of HooDoo, messages from the underground, and in his own day Neo-HooDoo signs are everywhere, like charges in an electric field.

Reed’s Neo-HooDooism shares the syncretism of its model. Just as VooDoo absorbs Catholic saints to represent its spirits, Neo-HooDooism is comfortable enough with a California out-of-it-ness to become “a beautiful art form of tapestry, desire, song, good food, healthful herbs.” Tall tales of how the weak overcome the strong through wit, toasts of the urban tradition, “positive” humor, and other “neo-African” literary forms—the entire folk tradition is, to Reed, a vast reservoir of HooDoo ideas to which he, its conservator, hopes in Neo-HooDooism to add “fresh interpretations” by “modernizing its styles.”

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a full-blown “horse opera” (spirits ride human hosts), a surrealistic spoof of the Western with Indian chiefs aboard helicopters, stagecoaches and closed-circuit TVs, cavalry charges of taxis. The wish-fulfilment hero in this novel is the Loop Garoo Kid, a HooDoo cowboy, not only “a desperado so ornery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine,” but also a trickster Satan. Loop Garoo conducts “micro HooDoo masses” to end “2000 years of bad news.” He fights ranchers, the US government, and then Pope Innocent on behalf of the youth of Yellow Back Radio, an intersection of historical and psychic worlds, a beleaguered town where the rule of the elders has been temporarily overthrown by an anarchist revolt that resembles the counterculture of the late Sixties. The Pope wants Loop to “come home,” to make peace with the Big Guy.

Like Reed’s subsequent novels, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is about many things and all at once. Pages flash with allusions to great issues of the moment, the novel seems to unravel, to carelessly shed its best layers, in order to get to an impatient message: the hero must not suffer, must win out over the whites in power, or at least dazzle them to a draw. Black magic, and black culture, must be recognized as a force as powerful as any other. Pope Innocent concedes that the Catholic Church failed to change the pantheon of the African slaves because its own “insipid and uninspiring saints were no match” against the slaves’ juju, that “German Aryan scholars faked the history of the Egyptians by claiming them to be white”—all these assertions of black culture’s strengths, of theories that have as much to do with race pride as with scholarship, were heard on every corner in the 1960s.

But curiously, while Reed approaches historical black culture with the enthusiasm of one who has just come across an offbeat work that supports his anti-establishment convictions on current matters, like whether the police have a hard job or whether black militants are anti-achievement in their vilification of the black middle class, he does not hesitate to go against received black opinion, to deplore the lack of skepticism among his black critics, as if each side of his mouth were aimed at a different audience and his purpose were to discomfort both.

He can find the good fight anywhere, often with other black writers. “Even the malice and vengeance side of HooDoo finds a place in contemporary Afro-American fiction,” Reed says, a fish in its own water. Already in his second novel Reed is defending himself against the Black Aesthetic critics, the followers of the Black Arts movement, the “field niggers” who got “all the play” in the 1960s, denounced individualism, and endorsed the line that there was a uniform black experience, that blacks have only one language, that of their liberation. Reed has the Loop Garoo Kid meet up with Bo Shmo, a “neo-socialist” who tells Loop that he’s too abstract, “a crazy dada nigger” whose work is just “a blur and a doodle.” Loop says:

What’s your beef with me, Bo Shmo, what if I write circuses? No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of a wild man saddled by demons.

Bo Shmo says:

All art must be for the end of liberating the masses. A landscape is only good when it shows the oppressor hanging from a tree.

Reed says he uses “the techniques and forms painters, dancers, film makers, musicians in the West have taken for granted for at least fifty years, and artists of many other cultures for thousands of years,” but this seems a device to protect the structural weaknesses of his madcap novels. Reed does not create characters, he employs types to represent categories, points of view. Plot, however, he has in overabundance, ever since his most ambitious novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), in which he began to use the detective story as the vehicle for his history of the Western world according to Neo-HooDooism.

What Reed probably finds most congenial about the suspense genre, in addition to its law of cause and effect, is the recognition scene in the library where the hero makes arrests and explains how he solved the case, which in Mumbo Jumbo means a lengthy deposition on the mysteries of black culture. The exposition comes as a relief because of the complexity of the narrative, the noisy feeling of several voices going on at the same time. Mumbo Jumbo is dense with subplots, digressions, hidden meanings, lectures (“The Book of Mormon is a fraud. If we Blacks came up with something as corny as the Angel of Moroni…”). It is packed with epigrams, quotations, newsclips. The written text is interpolated with reproductions of drawings and photographs, illustrations that function as a kind of speech. Reed even appends a long bibliography about VooDoo, dance, Freud, art, music, ancient history, presidents, as if to say, “If you don’t believe me look it up.”

Mumbo Jumbo is set in the 1920s because of the parallels between the “negromania” that swept America during the Jazz Age and that of the late 1960s. A HooDoo detective, PaPa LaBas; tries to track down the source of the phenomenon Jes Grew, as the nationwide outbreak of dancing and bizarre behavior—“stupid sensual things,” “lusting after relevance,” and “uncontrollable frenzy”—is called. Jes Grew knows “no class no race no consciousness,” and causes people to speak in tongues, hear shank bones, bagpipes, kazoos. It is “an anti-plague” that enlivens the host, fills the air with the aroma of roses. This creeping thing, like Topsy, “jes grew,” as James Weldon Johnson said of ragtime, and in Mumbo Jumbo it could mean many things in black culture. “Slang is Jes Grew.”

In trying to give black feeling an ancient history, Reed reaches back to unexpected allies like Julian the Apostate who foresaw the “Bad News” of a Christian Europe, and eventually into Egyptian myth, to Set’s murderous jealousy of his brother, Osiris. Reed believes that the past can be used to prophesy about the future, “a process our ancestors called necromancy,” and in Mumbo Jumbo the earthiness of black culture and the repressiveness of white societies are a legacy of Set’s uptightness.

The message of Mumbo Jumbo is difficult to grasp because of an abstraction on which the action of the novel hinges. “Jes Grew is seeking its text. Its words. For what good is a liturgy without a text?” An elite military group that defends the “cherished traditions of the West” successfully conspires to contain Jes Grew, to keep it from uniting with its text, its key of truth, which Reed calls the Book of Thoth, “the 1st anthology by the 1st choreographer.” Jes Grew withers away without this text, but LaBas goes on with his obeah stick into the 1960s to tell college audiences about the good times that almost were and might be.

That the nature of the lost text is left for us to conjecture makes it hard to guess what Reed has in mind here as the written tradition for what he sees as the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic. The novel is anti-climactic, though Reed may mean that the mysteries of black culture can’t be written down, that Jes Grew must remain in the air, always possible, but beyond the page. In fact, the suggestiveness of Mumbo Jumbo has made it a rich mine among poststructuralists who see it as a handbook of signs, a textbook of signifiers on prejudices about the quality of blackness since Plato, and an example of black literary autonomy. It has also been read as a critique of the Harlem Renaissance for its failure to come up with a distinct Afro-American voice.*

Reed’s novels after Mumbo Jumbo are variations on the theme of a total license that is not as liberating as it would seem. In them the hold of Neo-HooDooism begins to fade, or sinks into their soil. The later novels resort more to riddles, and reduce the detective novel to a hasty cycle of situation and exposition. The targets narrow. The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) puts PaPa LaBas in Berkeley. He rescues a HooDoo business, the Solid Gumbo Works, which performs good deeds, offers its clients a cure for cancer, and almost finds a cure for heroin addiction. This time HooDoo doesn’t do battle with white theocrats, but with bad HooDoo, Louisiana Red, as practiced by the Moochers.

This is a satire on the hustlers of Black Power politics, with rallies and veiled references to posters of Huey Newton in his chair.

You can’t keep the Street Gang going forever…. All you knew how to do was destroy. Maybe destruction was good then, it showed our enemies we meant business. But we can’t continue to be kids burning matches while the old folks are away.

The plot involves opportunists in North African exile, a preacher who because he can’t preach uses $100,000 of audio-visual equipment, and Minnie the Moocher, a heroine oppressed by the exaltation of her followers. Included in the “Moocher high command” is a “Lit. teacher from New York,” a white man so caught up in his study of Native Son that he dreams he is Mary Dalton and longs to be molested by Bigger, who just wants to take his employer’s Buick for a joy ride.

Reed also draws on Antigone for this novel, offering a timid sister, brothers who slay each other, and a chorus, or Chorus, an “uncharacterized character,” a vaudevillian in white tails, like Cab Calloway, who complains that his role declined because Antigone talked too much. Instead of being one who would not yield to earthly authority, a woman who did not believe that a man’s death belonged to the state, Antigone, to Reed, is a selfish girl who wanted to have things her way. “You wrong girl,” Reed says in a poem, “Antigone, This Is It,” “you would gut a nursery to make the papers,” which makes her sound more like Medea. Nevertheless, she represents to Reed implacable hostility toward men and misuse of a woman’s powers. Minnie the Moocher, Antigone’s comic reincarnation, and her followers, dupes of the handed-down, hammered-in philosophy of the inferiority of slaves, are accused of not being able to “stand negro men attempting to build something: if we were on the corner sipping Ripple, then you would love us.” LaBas goes on to lose his cool completely:

Have you ever heard the term “pussy-whipped” or “pussy-chained”? These expressions may be crude, but they smack of the truth. A woman uses her cunt power to threaten and intimidate, even to blackmail…. Women use our children as hostages against us. We walk the street in need of women and make fools of ourselves over women; fight each other, put Louisiana Red on each other, about maim each other. The original blood-sucking vampire was a woman…. Your cunt is the most powerful weapon of any creature on this earth…. I can’t understand why you want to be liberated. You already free…. We’re the ones who are slaves: two-thirds of the men on skid row were driven there by their mothers, wives, daughters, their mistresses and their sisters. I’ve never known a woman who needed it as much as a man. Women rarely cruise or rape.

In Flight to Canada (1976), Reed’s takeoff on the antebellum South, black women are also prominent among the boogey persons who get theirs. A black mammy in velvet, loyal to the incestuous, necrophiliac master, claims that Jesus got tired of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who ripped off Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the narrative of Josiah Henson, and therefore caused one of her sons to be wounded in the war and the other to get “drownded.” The light-skinned overseer tells the master, “I armed the women slaves. They’ll keep order. They’ll dismember them niggers with horrifying detail.” The fugitive hero, Raven Quickskill, has a beautiful Indian lover and when they enter a tavern two of the female slaves help begin to “let out their slave cackle, giving them signifying looks.” No black matriarchy for Reed.

In a “Self-Interview” in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978) Reed asks himself,” “Why you so mean and hard?”

A. Because I am an Afro-American male, the most exploited and feared class in this country. All of the gentlemen, all of the ones who tried to be nice, are in the cemetery or sitting on a stoop humiliated and degraded and waiting for someone to hand them a bar of soap or waiting for the law some woman has called on them.

This is as much a flashback to the Sixties when the black male was an envied species as it is a reminder of current statistics about the low life-expectancy of black men.

Reed can’t resist excess, overstating his case, even when he has a valid one, as in Reckless Eyeballing (1986), another whodunit busy with plot, about the historical distortions of feminism. Whereas his quarrel in the books of the Seventies was with the Stalinesque rigidity of black aesthetic writers, he now takes on black women writers who have received attention, as if Alice Walker’s finding the goddess within her were a distraction from his story of black men versus white men. The title of his latest collection of essays, Writin’ is Fightin’, comes from Muhammed Ali, and Reed compares his own style of not mincing words to that of Larry Holmes in the ring. “A black boxer’s career is the perfect metaphor for the career of the black male.” Daily life is “sparring with impersonal opponents as one faces the rudeness and hostility that a black male must confront in the United States, where he is the object of both fear and fascination.”

The Terrible Twos (1982) and its sequel, his most recent novel, The Terrible Threes, are set in the not-so-distant future mostly to undress the Reagan years. The detective in both books, Nance Saturday, who gets lost in the thick plots, remains aloof from the madness of trying to make it in the new white world, and becomes celibate out of a fear of infection. Neo-HooDooism itself has been pushed offstage entirely by a sort of Gnostic sect of questionable sincerity.

Reed is aware of the shift in the country’s attention during the Eighties. The Terrible Twos opens with the “Scrooge Christmas of 1980,” when it feels good to be a white man again and whites aren’t afraid to tell blacks they aren’t interesting anymore. There are more pressing problems. Reed’s campaign to mention everything that has gone wrong in America results in a narrative that is all over the place, as if he were trying to work in everything from crime against the environment to offenses against the homeless. Instead of suspense or satire one is confronted with an extended editorial rebuttal.

The Terrible Twos is a souped-up version of A Christmas Carol. The northern hemisphere isn’t “as much fun as it used to be.” Hitler’s birthday has become a national holiday, but the White House is alarmed by the number of “surplus people,” worries that the world will turn “brown and muddy and resound with bongo drums” and the “vital people” will be squeezed out. A conspiracy unfolds to nuke New York and Miami and blame the destruction on Nigeria. Meanwhile, oil companies control Christmas, the Supreme Court grants one store exclusive rights to Santa Claus, and the economy depends on every day being Christmas for the “vitals.” The conspiracy is threatened by the followers of Saint Nicholas and his servant or rival in legend, Black Peter. Saint Nicholas converts the President, a former model, by taking him to hell where Truman is the most tormented. The President is declared incapacitated when he reveals the conspiracy.

America has worsened in the new novel, The Terrible Threes. The temperature has dropped, larceny fills every heart, mobs roam the cities in search of food, evangelists who believe Jews and blacks are the children of the devil control the government and hope to establish a Christian fundamentalist state. “Who needs the yellows, the browns, the reds, the blacks?” These people are “the wastes of history.” Saint Nicholas and Black Peter, a figure similar to Reed’s earlier renegade heroes, compete to enlighten and to help people, and nearly bring back an age of liberalism until Lucifer himself interferes. To top it off, extraterrestrials, contemptuous of human beings, have their own plans for earth.

In this latest novel Reed writes of a country that has lost its soul, but he, too, seems uncertain of direction. His picture of “Scroogelike” America, “kissing cousin” of South Africa, of yuppies for whom the buck is the bottom line, of black people marooned in drug neighborhoods, is extremely bleak. Even Black Peter is chastised, ambivalent, exhausted. The extraterrestrials come like an afterthought, as if Reed were making a last-ditch effort to deny power over the future to Neo-HooDoo’s opponents. His work has always had a certain bitterness, but that was part of its fuel. Compared to his reconstruction of recent American history as a sequence of Terribles (the first one, Reed says, began on November 22, 1963), of genocidal policies and coverups, his previous novels seem almost utopian.

But the problem with his parodies of the obvious and the obscure, his allegorical burlesques, pastiches of the fantastic—the problem with this gumbo (his analogy) is that he can’t move beyond their negations. Neo-HooDooism needs what Reed would call Anglo unfreedom the way Christianity needs Judas’s lips or, as the movie says, the way the ax needs the turkey. Similarly, Reed may have declined to take on the oldfashioned subject of the Afro-American’s double consciousness, but his fictions are as dualistic in their representations of the egalitarian versus the hierarchical, HooDoo versus the Cop Religion. They buzz with conspiracy theories that pretend to explain the world, with the determination to set the world straight about the hypocrisy of “patriotic history.” “Jefferson Davis died with a smile on his face.” Paranoia, Burroughs said, is just having the facts, but a few facts are not as dangerous as Reed would have us think.

Reed’s subjects involve large cultural questions, but often the transplant from the headlines is the quickest of operations. His novels are entirely of their day, nostalgic in their defiance of “the Judeo-Christian domination of our affairs,” and vividly recall the era when the lightness of blackness was a revelation, when blacks were the catalysts of social change. Neo-HooDooism gave Reed a way to work with this, to reimagine it. Back then, in the “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” Reed could describe it as the “Now Locomotive swinging up the Tracks of the American Soul.”

The shift in the cultural climate, the loss of that moment, may help to explain why in the Terribles Reed’s remarkable fluency has dried up. The supporting atmosphere is missing, without which his books are suddenly vulnerable. This fluency, this back talk, is what animates Reed’s work, for Neo-HooDooism is not the sort of mysticism or system that provides a language of symbols or infuses imagery, it has no widening gyres, no junkie codes. It is Reed’s language that carries his mission of exasperation—the old black faith in the power of the word. The police commissioner fronting as the Curator of the Center of Art Detention in Mumbo Jumbo is made to pay the supreme compliment:

Son, these niggers writing. Profaning our sacred words. Taking them from us and beating them on the anvil of Boogie Woogie, putting their black hands on them so that they shine like burnished amulets. Taking our words, son, these filthy niggers and using them like…god-given pussy.

Whether Reed’s fictions are arguments for the reenchantment of Afro-American literature, are unmaskings of Western culture by written formulation, or are self-congratulatory texts about HooDoo as an untainted supply of material does not change the fact that his literary separatism is doomed to obsolescence because Afro-American writing only comes to life as a junction of traditions. Reed questions not only the social reality presented in Afro-American literature, but also the narrative tradition itself. To do so, he takes shelter in the black oral tradition without realizing that it makes him no more free than contemporary white novelists. Reed often speaks of his hero as “scatting,” or uses Charlie Parker as an example of the Neo-HooDoo artist, free of the rules, blowing, improvising, and this wish-fulfillment hero becomes a stand-in for Reed himself, the black writer floating far above an alien tradition in which he doesn’t feel at home. But perhaps there’s no way back, for black writers, to an innocent folk state. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance inadvertently discovered that there is no literary equivalent to dance or music, and no reconciliation either.

Once it’s written down, the oral tradition becomes literature, as Neil Schmitz pointed out, and the experience of the black man in the library intervenes with the experience of the black man in the street, in Reed as much as it does in any other black writers. Reed’s Neo-HooDoo tales are not as tall as the ones blacks used to tell. Still there’s much to say for his own tales: after all, not to make fun of racist absurdities is to be still afraid of them.

  1. *

    See The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Oxford University Press, 1988); Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics by Reginald Martin (St. Martin’s Press, 1988); Conscientious Sorcerers by Robert Elliot Fox (Greenwood Press, 1987); and “Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed,” by Neil Schmitz (Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. XX, April 1974).