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Our Man ‘Ish’: Ishmael Reed reflects on life, art, music and home

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MASTER OF CEREMONIES A mask could never muzzle Ishmael Reed, and that alone is a work of art. (Photos by Eric K. Arnold)

I first met Ishmael Reed nearly 30 years ago. After telling fellow San Francisco Writerscorp member—and East Bay Express contributing writer—Lee Hubbard that Reed inspired my move to the Bay Area from West Virginia, Hubbard drove me to UC Berkeley’s campus and introduced me to him. We exchanged numbers that day, and our conversation has been ongoing ever since.

“Uncle Ish” and I agree on most things, but not everything, which we both appreciate. During this interview at his home in Oakland, with fellow writers Eric K. Arnold and Malcolm Shabazz Hoover in tow, he looked at me and said, “You seem to be saying, ‘He wants to talk more about facts than art.’” And it was true. I’d told Ish specifically that this interview was for the Fall Arts issue of the East Bay Express, and I wanted to discuss his latest book of poems, Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues (Dalkey Archive), and Ish, in the same way he intentionally confuses Afrofuturism, Afrosurrealism and Afrocentrism just to get my goat, enjoyed deflecting my art questions with fact-based answers. But you know what? We’re still going to frame this interview as an art piece, because that’s what I wanted to do.

The centerpiece of Ish’s latest book of poems, Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues, is a long work-in-progress called “Jazz Martyrs: For Sonny Rollins, a survivor.”

It begins:

“If, as Ted Joans said, ‘Jazz is a religion,’ and some religions have martyrs, who are the martyrs of Jazz? Who are the ones who immolated themselves with heroin and alcohol, got cut, got shot, beaten up, jailed, tortured, denied accommodations, exploited by record labels, producers, promoters, night club owners, died before fifty and were laid out in a funeral where Jazz playing was forbidden, like Scott Joplin’s wish to play ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ at his funeral. His request was refused.”

I asked Ish how this poem came about.

“The place where you make it as a writer is New York,” he said. “I left New York because they tried to make me into what they’re doing with these other people now. I just didn’t feel I could get any work done, so I went to Los Angeles. We had a $7,800 advance from Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, but that ran out and we came up here to Berkeley. I could have run to Europe, going to a party every night and drinking too much and all that kind of stuff. I see it happening, too. That’s what I talked about with these jazz musicians. I was shocked by the fact that a lot of them didn’t live past the age of 40. I’ve traveled with musicians because of my band Conjure; you can see why, I mean—bad living conditions, not enough sleep and bad food.”

He pointed to a photo on the wall behind him, of himself and a group of musicians in front of West Oakland’s Orbit Room.

“That photo was inspired by ‘A Great Day In Harlem’—by Art Kane for Esquire magazine on Aug. 12, 1958—we expected around 12 musicians would come, and all of these people showed up,” he said. “So, they did an update on the ‘Great Day In Harlem.’ I think there were only two survivors left from the original photo. I checked the survival rate of these blues musicians for this article I wrote for Alta, and most of them are still here. ‘What’s the reason for that?’ I asked them, and they said, ‘Well, we are family.’ One of the women said that Little Milton would come over to the house and cook food. They hang out. They’re more of a family, and when you listen to their songs, it’s all about everyday life. These are our troubadours. These are the grassroots, and they talk about issues of everyday life: food, the departure of lovers, jambalaya, crawfish, all that. They talk about everyday stuff. They’re more bonded, these blues musicians. I think that probably accounts for that survival rate.

“When you listen to the blues, you think, ‘Somebody’s got it worse than I got it.’ It’s the poor man’s therapy. Baldwin talks about the blues all the time. He gets alienated from the United States, or when he’s homesick—he plays Bessie Smith. So, the blues are very important, and it could be both a happy, joyful blues, or down and depressed. The jazz musicians take standards and play elliptical versions of them. They play around them. They re-harmonize them. That’s the difference. They look at the music, they look at the bars and tune, and they play elliptically around it. Like we do with prose. I look at the situation [in the] United States, and I’m doing an elliptical version of it. Like my Terrible Twos and Terrible Threes novels. They hate those books. Those books are so hated, man. They’re all readings of the Age of Reagan. We are still in the Age of Reagan, no matter who they are. The meanness and the neo-liberalism, Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan: That’s Reagan, still with us.”

Some have called Ish a “trickster,” and Ralph Ellison—in a drunken rant at a gala in New York City when he was in his 30s—once called him a “criminal and a con-man,” but few call this poet, author, publisher, Before Columbus Foundation president, musician, playwright, founder of the American Book Awards, screen-writer and cartoonist a Renaissance man. When taking into account the many hats Ish wears, sometimes simultaneously and always effortlessly, one can understand why there are no straight lines when discussing anything with him.

Many of the poems in Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues are centered around California and the Bay Area. From “Moving Richmond” to “Gustav,” which begins at the Emeryville Marina, to “Hit and Run,” a poem dedicated to Iris Laronda Simons, a 26-year-old North Oakland resident who was killed, “All because someone was in 

a hurry / a big hurry.”

After re-hashing how we met, I asked Ish about California and the Bay Area:

“You had to be crazy to come out here,” he said. “Just think about the exodus from the South, coming out to California, being a minority in a state where the current Black population hovers around 4%. The Americans brought racism to California. It was a part of the the Spanish-Mexican territory, and they’d outlawed slavery in 1823. Racism came when the Americans came. These white-guy thugs, like the Bear Flag Revolt people, who were like the Bloods and Crips, went around murdering Hispanic people in California. The first American Governor came from Tennessee and tried to ban all Black people from coming here. People forget that the Confederates brought their slaves out here. Mary Pleasant used to hide them. I don’t call her ‘mammy,’ that’s what they called her. Dubois said that she was as significant as Harriet Tubman. Mary Ellen Pleasant: She hid the slaves until they finally broke her. They took her mansion and gave it to a white man’s wife. The Children’s Hospital here is built on a mansion that belonged to some Confederate Lieutenant who surrendered it after the war. If you look at the history of Children’s Hospital, it’s firstly a mansion. It belonged to a Confederate who married the daughter of some guy whose family came on the Mayflower, and they had a mansion there until he surrendered it when the Union defeated them. If you go out to Mountain View Cemetery, you’ll see a lot of Confederate people. They all came out here after the war.”

“I think there is secret money behind this recall and Elder, right? I know there’s secret money behind some of this other right-wing stuff. I tried to point out the fact that the Bell Curve was popular with the mainstream and it was funded by Nazis. It’s some kind of race-betterment thing, thinking like some of the industrialists that were hanged in Nuremberg. I just don’t think this generation knows about that. They’re not taught World War II and Nazi-ism, which makes them think it’s some kind of game. The Nazis exterminated about 39 million people. Even a right-winger like Pat Buchanan said that the white racial number comes from that loss. We’re dealing with some sinister thinking behind the scenes who believe in the non-violent extermination of undesirable narratives.”

Despite being beloved by everyone I’ve ever encountered, Ish has enemies. To them, he is that undesirable narrative he mentions. Through Dalkey Archive, many of his books have remained in print for 50 years, but he hasn’t published a book with an American press for decades, going instead to Baraka Books in Canada. Black Hole is a rare exception. I asked him why the support of Black cultural production, so valued by the mainstream, stopped at Black cultural producers like Eric, Malcolm, Ish and I. Why do they bury, defame, discredit and denigrate the very people who create the things they love to consume?

“A Black uprising,” he said, as blunt as a bat. “That’s what the gun issue is all about, too. There’s always a racial angle to the weapons issue, back to the colonial times. They didn’t want Native Americans and Blacks to get ahold of guns. That’s happening now. They’re so paranoid, like Nixon, who thought the Black Panthers were going to surround the White House. It used to be crazy Southern demagogues that came out of the white underclass, Scots-Irish mostly, but now you’ve got these demagogues that go to Harvard, like Ted Cruz and all of them. So the new terms for Black people are no longer ‘busing.’ I’ve got a piece coming out in Counterpunch where I quote Lee Atwater; he said, ‘You can’t say the N word all the time. You can’t say the N-word this, N-word that, you have to use euphemisms like ‘busing.’ They’ve gone beyond that. The new demagogues have gone to Harvard, Yale. I’m working on a piece right now about these New York Times columnists who have gone crazy over Black people and assault Black people in terms of ‘critical race theory,’ but support the insurrectionists right now. This is crazy. They’d rather go after a phantom. I miss the old days when it was just ‘busing.’ Jesse Jackson said, ‘The bus is us.’ He summed it up right there.’”

We talked for a little over an hour. Ish’s wife—dancer, choreographer and writer Carla Blank—and his daughter—poet Tennessee Reed—had stepped out for our talk, and were due to return to start the family’s day. My last question was, with all of these assaults, false accusations and erasures, did he see anything changing?
“Well, I mean, it’s happening,” Ish said. “It seems to be happening. It’s electing social democrats all around. Take Buffalo, New York [Reed’s hometown]; they’ve got a socialist running for mayor, and she might win. I get a copy of The Buffalo News every day, and they’re trying to smear her. They’re going all-out. She’s replacing a Black mayor. They’re shocked that he lost the primary. So, democratic socialism is gaining ground all around the United States. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Amiri [Baraka] said, ‘America’s going Communist.” [Allen] Ginsburg wrote The Fall of America. So I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not a prophet, but I think that they’re in a fantasy if they think this is going to be a white nation.”