From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1984, Vol. 4.2
Ishmael Reed was born February 22, 1933, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When he was still a child, he and his family moved to Buffalo, New York, where Reed grew up, eventually attending the University of New York at Buffalo from 1956-1960. His first novel, “The Free-Lance Pallbearers,” was published in 1967, and his publications have now grown to include five other highly acclaimed novels: “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down” (1969), “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972), “The Last Days of Louisiana Red” (1974), “Flight to Canada” (1976), and “The Terrible Twos” (1982); four volumes of poetry: “Conjure” (1972), “Chattanooga” (1973), “Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church” (1970), and “A Secretary to the Spirits” (1978); two plays: “The Ace Boons” (1980), and “Hell Hath No Fury” (1982); two edited anthologies: 19 Necromancers From Now (1970), and Calafia (1979); and, finally, two collections of essays: “Shrovetide in Old New Orleans” (1978), and his latest work, “God Made Alaska for the Indians” (1982). This bibliography could not bear the amount of space necessary to include the numerous articles and individual poems Reed has published since “The Free-Lance Pallbearers”. He has been nominated twice for the National Book Award, once in poetry (Conjure) and once in fiction (“Mumbo Jumbo”), both in 1973.
Reed presently lives in Oakland, California, and in addition to the demands of his writing and teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, he presently runs a publishing enterprise with Al Young and Steve Cannon, which principally publishes Reed and Young’s “Quilt” volumes: volumes devoted to minority, West Coast, and student writers. “Quilt 3″ was published in 1983.
The following interview was conducted July 1-7, 1983, in Emeryville, California, a suburb of Oakland and San Francisco.
REGINALD MARTIN: Camus wrote in “Neither Victims nor Executioners” that the only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance. In many respects, I see you that way, but many of your critics, Houston Baker, Jr., and Addison Gayle, Jr., for example, seem to throw out any possibility that issues they support may also be issues that you equally support.
ISHMAEL REED: I saw Houston Baker, Jr., recently in Los Angeles. I don’t bear any ill feelings toward him. In fact, he was very cordial toward me. I feel that the piece published in “Black American Literature Forum” that was edited by Joel Weixlmann was irresponsible, and my point is that they would never attack white writers the way they do black writers in that magazine, and I still maintain that. All these scurrilous charges that Baraka made against black writers—and I’ve discussed this with Baraka—those charges were outrageous—he called them traitors, capitulationists.
RM: Did you see Baraka’s recent piece on PBS in which was outlined his recent battles with police, where they accused him of beating his wife in his car, when they were just having a domestic argument, disagreement—
IR: That kind of thing happens to black people every day in this country, and they don’t receive that kind of sentence he did, which was to go to prison on the weekends; I think he lectured there—an outside lecturer.
RM: What did Norman Mailer receive for stabbing his wife with a pen knife?
IR: Well, they all like that, they all love that kind of stuff in New York. This Son-of-Sam syndrome, where, I guess, this comes from an interest in Russian psychology, Russian literature, this Raskolnikov notion, that there are some people superior to other people, that Dostoyevsky trip, you know, and that these people are above the kind of rules that apply to you and me. And I think that people who indulge in bizarre behavior are existential heroes, like Jack Abbott, Gilmore, I think even Baraka had that kind of role in cultural hero. As a matter of fact, there was someone in France recently, and the Mitterand government intervened to get him out of jail, a poet, or so he called himself a poet, and he went out and robbed a bank again or something. I don’t know, there’s this fascination with this kind of character. And I feel that that is just a kind of an Eastern, Manhattan, intellectual obsession.
RM: It seems to me that black writers have to be marketed into neat little categories to sell books, and if you’re not able to fit into any of these slots, then you have a problem.
IR: Well, yes, that’s true. That’s definitely true.
RM: You mention in your interview with “Conversations” that certain people were in the right place at the right time and/or they were also “chosen” in the 1960s. Whites said to these people, “Here, we don’t understand this literature so you guys tell us how to understand it and you guys handle the boat as far as black literature is concerned—”
IR: I think there was a nonaggression pact signed between the traditional liberal critics and the black aesthetic critics. They were brought into the publishing companies about the same time that I was, about the same time that Doubleday—Doubleday didn’t renew my contract and this was about a week after I had been nominated for two National Book Awards, and then later I learned how these black aesthetic people had gone on. . . and I wasn’t the only victim—
RM: Those nominations would be for-
IR: Doubleday published “Free-Lance Pallbearers” and “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down,” for which I just got my royalty check beyond advance last summer.
RM: That was some years ago—
IR: Those books are still in print, all the books I’ve written are still in print, but I heard that other people had been victimized also. Cecil Brown, for example, who published “Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger”—he’s got a new book out called “Days Without Weather,” which hasn’t received a single review anywhere, well very few, except for the one in the “New York Times” by David Bradley, and I think that’s it. But the black aesthetic crowd came in and writers were required to perform their Marxist blueprints. But that’s happened to Afro-American artists throughout history.
RM: And if you didn’t conform to the blueprints?
IR: Well, what we’re trying to do is—the people who made people like Ellison and Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin and Baldwin, Norman Podhoretz and those kind of people, don’t have the power they used to have. And this is the reason for this kind of hysteria that, I believe, we have happening now. . . that the Afro-American writers seem pretty much dispersed, so that in any region in the country you might find writers, where before you wouldn’t, where before you would find these writers clustered around Manhattan; now it’s all over. And so the people who traditionally had control over Afro-American literature—which meant a lot of things, it meant hard cash for example; if I persuade you that I know something about Afro-American literature and I’m not black, well, that’s a very lucrative enterprise. I’m finding that the harshest criticism I’m receiving these days is from left-wing people who have convinced magazine editors and newspaper editors that they know something about black literature—they’re not black, but they see what I’m doing and what some of my colleagues are doing as a threat to this little hustle they had—a moonlighting hustle.
RM: You mean these people who go off to magazines and newspapers, and—
IR: Well, Robert Towers of the “New York Review of Books” wrote a review of my book and Alice Walker’s book in the same column and said that Alice Walker was the best practitioner of black English that had ever written. I challenged that and said that he hadn’t read much. I mean, how can you make that superlative statement? And he admitted he hadn’t read much. How can you make a statement like that when you haven’t examined the field? And then finally I said that he hadn’t read Ernest Gaines and Margaret Walker, and in the final exchange we had—we had this exchange in a series of letters—he said they were obscure writers. You know, here’s Ernest Gaines who wrote “Miss Jane Pittman,” which is probably playing somewhere right now in the country on television. What we’ve done by removing the scene from Manhattan—though we have an office in Manhattan, the main publishing office—what we’ve done is publish writers from all over the country, and we have challenged the traditional influence that the liberal community has had over Afro-American writing. And I think that this is the reason that Baraka has come forth, because Baraka has made up with them, and he’s the one who is saying all these things about Afro-American writing, that it’s not up to par and all this kind of thing.
RM: When I was younger, I was so fascinated that blacks were writing anything that I didn’t notice until later that the bent of writing seemed to shift in the direction of the economic climate of the country at the moment. The writing clubs would shift with the times. For example, we now have Alice Walker winning the Pulitzer—
IR:Well, I think that Alice Walker and some of the other women. . . there’s just a few of these black feminist writers who are playing this “hate black male” angle. Bill Cook, a friend of mine at Dartmouth, said that this “rape romance” was actually introduced by female writers in the nineteenth century. There are several books that have been written about this—there was this fascination by Anglo women for Afro-American males when there were none around . . . I’m thinking of Salem, Massachusetts, where I think there was only one black person in town, where these woman had hallucinated about black male lovers. So I think people like Alice Walker and those kinds of feminist writers who are supported by people like Gloria Steinem—you see how this patronage continues.
RM: That was last summer in “Ms.”—
IR: She has a new thing in which she said all those awful things about black male writers married to white women, John A. Williams, Baraka . . . awful things.
RM: Somewhat like that guy you worked with who said of your writing that it wasn’t quite civilized, you weren’t really black, because you were married to a white woman—
IR: Well, I feel I really paid too much attention to that whole thing. That was a case of overkill on my part, to even respond to anything like that. Anyway, these black feminists have very cleverly played to the . . . I think this has something to do with the economic situation in the country also; black males have always been the scapegoats. I’m sure that you could go back and make a graph showing that all the killings of black males increased in times of economic difficulty. As a matter of fact, a black man was lynched last year. He was killed first, then hanged from a tree. And so I think that some black feminists are taking advantage of this, so I call these black feminists, people like Alice Walker, the kind of novels they write, I call them “neoconfederate” novelists, the kind of writing that Thomas Dixon wrote in “The Clansman.” This kind of plantation literature, they’re just reviving these notions, whipping up hysteria, and they’re supported by people like Gloria Steinem—Susan Brown Miller was a judge on the committee which gave Alice Walker the American Book Award, and this was her reward for being the intellectual midwife of Susan Brown Miller’s terrible and really fallacious ideas about black men.
RM: Addison Gayle, Jr., speaks critically about your perception of the relations between black men and women when he reviews “Flight to Canada” in relation to “Eva’s Man” by Gayl Jones. He writes: “Reed, of course, is an anomaly, and if much of his fiction, “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada”, proves anything, it is that black women have no monopoly on demons, real or imaginative. These two novels demonstrate that, like the ‘buyer’ in “Caracas,” like blacks in general, male and female, the web of folklore which has circumscribed much of our relations with each other from the days of slavery to the present time, have been impervious to the best efforts of conscientious men and women to tear it down. Thus, Reed’s central argument, as developed in both “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada,” may be summed up thusly: since the days of slavery, collusion between black women and white men has existed in America. The major objective of this collusion has been the castrating of black males and the thwarting of manful rebellion.”
IR: Well, I think that anybody who reads that ought to go and read his autobiography, “The Wayward Child,” and pick up on some of his notions on black women and white women. As I said in a letter to “Nation” magazine recently, women in general make out better in my books than black men do in the works of black women and white women, feminist writers. And I gave the example of Gayl Jones’s “Eva’s Man”—not to mention “Corregidora”—in which black men are portrayed as brutes, apes, but also Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” in which the character Jude is burned alive by his mother, something I had heard of in black culture. And Alice Walker’s fascination with incest—which can always get you over, if you have the hint of incest. I mean, it got Ellison over; there are a lot of male critics who are interested in that, who are interested in black male sexual behavior—they’re fascinated. There was recently a review on Louis Harlan’s book on Booker T. Washington, by Malcolm Boyd—he used to be a hippie preacher or something; I don’t know what he’s doing now. And he spent a whole lot of the book—he spent the whole article on this story about Booker T. Washington being caned for knocking on a white woman’s door or something like that. Of all the things Booker T. Washington had done! This man was just fascinated with this. He spent three or four paragraphs talking just about that! So there’s an obvious fascination with incest and rape, and Alice Walker picks up on things like this. I tried to get my letter published in “Nation” magazine. I finally had to go to the American Civil Liberties Union here in northern California to get my reply published to what I considered to be a hatchet job done by Stanley Crouch. He had all the facts about my career and publishing activities wrong. They see Al Young and myself as leaders of some multicultural revolt threatening the things they’re doing—against their interests. But in “Nation” I wrote that the same charges that Alice Walker makes against black men were made about the Jews in Germany. I guess we don’t have a large organization like the Anti-Defamation League or a large pressure group or lobby—
RM: And remember it is a black criticizing another black, so others may not be interested.
IR: Well, when Hannah Arendt criticized the Jewish people for collaborating with the Nazis, saying that American Jews could have saved two-thirds of the victims if they had cared about them, there was a controversy. But when you look at the Pulitzer Prize committee, there’s a president from Dow Jones on it, and mostly white males—and on the American Book Awards, which we began out here, there’s still a dispute; we began the American Book Awards out here, and our American Book Awards are really more representative of what’s happening in American literature than theirs—but knowing these things, you can see the motivation behind some people making the black male into a pariah. I think that Addison Gayle hasn’t read my books carefully because he doesn’t consider that there are all kinds of women in my books; and although I may exaggerate, I mean use hyperbole, those people are real, they exist. And if you go out to the grass roots where I stay, I think those people will tell you that those characters exist.
RM: Well, satire is usually based on real types.
IR: Sure, surely it is. I think that was written early before Gayle made his confession in this remarkable book, “The Wayward Child,” in which he repudiates the black aesthetic, says he was put up to it. Just as Baraka said he was put up to anti-Semitism. Yeah, they all said that people like David Lorentz put them up to it. And David Lorentz is not here to say anything different. And Baraka said that nationalists and Muslims around him put him up to anti-Semitism. So all those people are backing out of their former positions. So I feel that if you asked Addison Gayle about this now, he’d probably say something different.
RM: Well, that’s what I was trying to get at earlier, that as the marketplace changes—
IR: Yeah, some of these people are opportunists—going for the cash and notoriety.
RM: Then it goes without saying that these people—not just the black critics but all critics—invent things that they say make up the black aesthetic, in fact that becomes a limiting label.
IR: They haven’t investigated Afro-American folklore, nor have they investigated voodoo. I call it Neo-HooDooism. So there’s a reference that goes back to shed light on the aesthetic I’m working out, which I consider to be the true Afro-American aesthetic. When I say Afro-American aesthetic, I’m not just talking about us, you know, I’m talking about the Americas. People in the Latin countries read my books because they share the same international aesthetic that I’m into and have been into for a long time. And it’s multicultural. The West’s Afro-American aesthetic is multicultural—it’s not black. That’s what they don’t understand. This black aesthetic thing is a northern, urban, academic movement—that’s why you have a fancy word like “aesthetic”, which nobody figures out. When you come to talk about standards of taste, everyone differs. It’s a vague enough word so that they can get away with it. And even though they try to make it sound like it’s really important—that’s the black intellectual pastime—discussing all these phantoms and things. You look at all these conferences for a hundred years, same questions.
RM: And probably the same type of people serving on the panels?
IR: Oh sure.
RM: How did the recent large conference on Afro-American literature, “Spiritual Strivings,” at UCLA turn out?
IR: I thought it went very well. I thought some of the speeches were predictable because I’ve been to some other conferences. My position was that all of us have to begin marketing our material in an attempt to see that Afro-American literature remains alive because there’s no billion dollar industry built around literature, and if there’s no literature, the industry collapses. That was my position. Baraka got up and spoke against the government, which I thought was interesting, since he’s receiving the beneficence of the government right now, and so his stuff was interesting too.
RM: We have all these former black aesthetics that get phased out, and then we bring in a new one. For example, the slave narratives, here’s what Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson and Northup had to say, and you find a small section in the “Norton” for this, and then you move up to the post-Civil War years and you get Chesnutt, and you move up to Washington and DuBois, and you move up to the Harlem Renaissance, and then to the post-World War II writers, people like Ellison and Baldwin, Margaret Walker to some degree, and then the 1960s. And then after the 1960s you get . . . something. What would you say that something is?
IR: You get more literary variety. There’s probably more literature being written by Afro-Americans now than was ever written before. It’s just that the kind of places you go to find out what’s happening in American literature are just ignorant; you have to go outside the country to find out what’s really going on. When you realize that there’s a big world out there, you don’t have to strive so much for the approval of your contemporaries. I was just interviewed by Korean radio for the largest literary magazine in South Korea. I just got a whole box of reviews from France, Africa, South America, all over. You don’t really have to depend on this country as a lot of earlier writers had to—Chester Himes had to leave the country. The publishers tell you that you have to aim for that middle-class audience. But there are a lot of extraordinary audiences out there. So you have to go out and find these markets.
RM: That was a great Chester Himes quotation that you included in “Shrovetide,” to the effect that he had searched all his life to find one place in the world where he did not have to be a nigger, only to find that there is no such place. And that he could have just developed his writing wherever he was and marketed it to those who were interested.
IR: Well, I think that the black male is a pariah all over the world—well, maybe not all over the world, but it seems in my experience that in South America, the United States, places like that, the black male is a pariah. That also gives you an advantage. Because there’s a certain desperation, a certain creativeness, originality, that comes from being at the bottom. A lot of our great art comes from the Afro-American male experience. Just think of all the great male jazz musicians. They’re innovators, these guys are hungry, Louis Armstrong and those guys were really hungry, they’re originals; and look at all the black males in politics now; all the feminists are criticizing black males now, black feminists and white feminists, but they got all their strategies from black men. The black males are the ones whose strategies are used all over the world—Martin Luther King in Ireland, Russia, these Pentecostalists in Russia singing “We Shall Overcome.” So black men are geniuses, and many times their desperation, their position as being pariahs, leads them to great originality. I heard a black female pianist who is a real man-hater, I think, but all the pieces she was playing were by Bud Powell and Monk. So that’s very important. But I don’t think you hear much about the black aesthetic anymore. Blacks are probably more American than any other group here. I know that a lot of blacks have Native American ancestry—I know I do, and it’s something to be paid more attention to. You see, this black aesthetic thing was not scientific, as I guess a lot of things which came from the English department are not. Social sciences are not—but this black aesthetic was a classic example in imprecision. Because Africans do not consider Afro-Americans in this country to be really black, because their ancestry is so mixed up—you know, Indian, European, African—so actually one could say that by singling out one part of your ancestry and labeling that might be considered racist. So that’s why I was always intrigued that these professors who are supposed to be scientists would try to peddle that.
RM: Bradley talks about that in an article he had in “Esquire” last spring—
IR: That neo-slave narrative—
RM: Well, he says that he has this new philosophy that he calls “achromism.” Let me read you this: “So for all practical purposes, I accept a belief that I have taken to calling ‘achromism’ (from the Greek a-, meaning “not,” and chroma, meaning “color”), which is that within the context of a society to which I belong by right—or misfortune—of birth, nothing I shall ever accomplish or discover or earn or inherit or buy or sell or give away—nothing I can ever do—will outweigh the fact of my race in determining my destiny.”
IR: Well, I just consider racism to be a medical problem now. I’m a layman in treating racism, and I think it’s a medical problem, because one of the reasons for black early death is stress—voodoo was saying this a thousand years ago. But racists need serious medical and psychiatric help, because they are killing themselves and making others suffer along with them.
RM: Have you seen that book by Ira Berlin, “Slaves Without Masters,” which tries to show that in certain Southern states black men and white women always had sex, kids from their unions, and that this was verifiable by checking the data on the free black caste?
IR: That happened early; that happened in Virginia where free indentured servants made it with white women in the fields. And at that time, the slave masters were so cynical that they made the child black by saying that the race and destiny of the child was shaped by the father and not the mother. They wanted to make money. I think that Gayl Jones in “Corregidora”, outside of all that anti-male stuff, I thought “Corregidora” was a powerful book, but I guess she’s right that our destinies are still being decided by the slave master. We use the language that he invented, and we have certain attitudes that he left with us.
RM: I have it firsthand that hiring boards at major companies who have minority recruitment drives will very often take the black woman over the black man, even if he is more qualified than she. And they always speak of “the ability to work well with others” that the women had over the men—not the ability shown on the vita.
IR: There was an article in the “New York Times” that was about black corporations, and black women said that black men have a harder time. So this goes on all the time. And when I brought this issue up in “Louisiana Red,” people wanted to come down on me, but now we see that black women are more acceptable to white men, who control all the jobs. They control the jobs, not because they are the best and brightest—I mean, you hear about all this corruption all the time. There is much more white collar crime, but it doesn’t get reported. The black guy stealing fifty cents or a dollar from a liquor store is what makes the news. But that’s a more dramatic type of crime than some guy taking something from a file cabinet in a bank. I think that’s a source of the black male’s weakness in this society, but it’s also a great source of strength, being the underdog. But if you find Europeans outside of Europe, they just have a settler mentality. They’re very paranoid and they hallucinate—the way the whole sections of America are left out of the textbooks for example.
RM: You’ve described this before as a “blind spot,” the inability to see others who are not like oneself.
IR: Yeah, but in mental institutions we have names for people with that problem. See, that’s what I’m suggesting: this is really a problem for specialists.
RM: You said earlier that the writing going on now cannot really be called a black aesthetic; it’s much more diffuse—
IR: I don’t know about aesthetic. I think people are going to write anyway. Aesthetic is like the Holy Ghost or something. People are just going to write.
RM: You have Abdul Hamid say in “Mumbo Jumbo” that what blacks need to do is organize around one central religious motif to get things done. How do you feel on that issue?
IR: I think that people who have a religious mandate have a great way to organize and motivate people. I think there’s something to be said about that. Speaking of that character, Larry Neal remarked that he thought I was very fair to the nationalists in that character. He’s a sympathetic character. He’s the one who knows the key to “The Work.” He translates it .
RM: Even though he’s also the one—
IR: Who burns it, burns it. I think there’s something to be said about that. It’s just that I have had difficulty with corporations. I find that a few people do all the work. I’m more inclined toward partnerships of two or three people.
RM: In “Louisiana Red,” the company there is going to dissolve—
IR: Yeah, this is all voodoo language, “company,” “business,” and I was surprised at the fact—you know, I put a bibliography at the end of “Mumbo Jumbo”—but black critics couldn’t understand what was going on in “Louisiana Red.” They thought this was a mandate for capitalism. But these guys were trained to be English professors, and when a black thing came along, they just weren’t prepared for it. Although a younger generation, like yourself, who have grown up with this material, can handle it better. They weren’t able to handle it very well because they’ve been trained to do Victorian novels.
RM: Why the shift from Egyptology to voodoo language and symbols?
IR: Well, there are a lot of parallels. Egyptology can be seen in voodoo. I’m just trying to modernize the whole thing, bring it out of the backwoods, use it as an approach to and a technique of art. I’ve been able to use some of the symbols and rituals associated with voodoo. I think this is a fundamental aesthetic of Afro-Americans, invented by Afro-Americans in this hemisphere. It doesn’t have that much of an African antecedent. There’s a new book called “Africa’s Secret Power,” and it shows that voodoo has now gone back to Africa to be used by them. Their religions have become very syncretic—Indian symbols, rituals, African, European cosmology. It’s a kind of synchronicity that you found in the West with the Greeks. But it was revived by people like T.S. Eliot, and they get the credit for it. Afro-Americans have been practicing synchronicity for as long as they’ve been here, but because Eliot was a white man, he gets credit for its revival.
RM: The subtext of “Mumbo Jumbo” seems to be saying that “there are many aesthetics in the world, lots of ways of doing things, and mine is just as good as yours—maybe better.”
IR: The thing about the Afro-American aesthetic is that they can prove that it is an aesthetic. The thing that became the settler phase of America is just a phase. The European phase in the Americas is coming to an end, and that’s why there’s all this paranoia and retrenchment mentality, and the so-called “back to basics” movement, which means we should emphasize American and European history. The president of Tufts—amazing for someone who runs a sophisticated, modern university—a woman, right?—trivialized African studies, saying it was like “basket weaving” or something, and how we ought to stick with “our” civilization. This is a big misunderstanding that the fundamentalists have in this country, cultural fundamentalists: that America is an extension of European civilization. A lot of people who should know better say things like this, like Chicano intellectuals I’ve talked to speak of “Latin” America, and there’s just as much African influence on South America as any other. The thing about the voodoo aesthetic is that it’s multicultural and it can absorb, while the settler thing is monotheistic and nonabsorptive. In other words, if you’re not on my side, I can do anything I want to do with you. Those are the forces that come together in “Mumbo Jumbo.”
RM: Would you trace voodoo from West Africa to the Caribbean, to New Orleans and up the river, or would you say it starts in the Caribbean?
IR: I think Haiti is internationally recognized as the origin of voodoo. I’ve decided that gospel music is just a front for voodoo. Mahalia Jackson had a difficult time getting her brand of gospel over to the orthodox ministers. And I think when they’re praising Jesus, they’re really singing about Legba or someone like that . . . Damballah. The rhythms are voodoo. The genius of voodoo is its camouflage. I’ll give you a very amusing example. In the 1960s, everyone was into these amulets, and in the 1960s I had a black ebony cross made up for me—not the Greek cross—and I was in Washington, D.C. staying at the hotel Intrigue—”Intrigue,” strange—but this Christian delegation was getting on the elevator and they said, “Are you with us brother?” And that shows the genius of it right there. It has elements that appeal to everyone.
RM: Some Afro-Americans who are interested in literature are turned off by your perceived liberal stances. What do you think about that?
IR: I think Afro-Americans as a group are probably very conservative. I think they are very suspicious of what has been called the avant-garde. Now, what I’m doing is not avant-garde, but a classical Afro-American form. And it’s been beaten out of them. They’re supposed to hate that, shun it, fear it. So I think that’s one of the problems. They used to say the same thing about Miles Davis thirty years ago. They thought bebop was crazy. They said that about all the jazz greats. So they don’t say you’re crazy anymore, but black men don’t have any credibility in this country. We steal, we mug, all the stereotypes.
RM: You said earlier that no one, not even those who do so for the sake of economy, can honestly say that there is any one “Black Aesthetic.” You said the writing that Afro-Americans writers are presently doing is too diffuse for such a label. Could you give examples of the diffuse themes, styles, etc., that you are referring to, and also mention a few authors and their works which exemplify this diffuseness?
IR: Well, I think there are certain similarities in phrasing and syntax, certain similar themes and subject matter. I’m sure if you put it through a computer, the computer could pinpoint certain areas of similarity. I would go back to the anthology I did in 1970, “19 Neuromancers from Now,” to really illustrate the similarities and the differences. At the time, people were saying that all Afro-American literature was the same, but the anthology showed that that wasn’t true—people were working with realism, surrealism, everything—yet there are certain similarities in style and approach.
RM: Could you name a few writers?
IR: I think if you look at Al Young, for example and Ted Joans, you will see that the styles are quite different, even though both are writing about music. Amiri Baraka and Robert Hayden, Toni Morrison and Jane Cortez; the writing is different and the aesthetics differ.
RM: So the differences are more than toying with phonetics and semiotics, which many critics have used as a negative criticism of all Afro-American writing—
IR: Oh sure, sure. Charles Davis wrote a book called “Blackness Covers the Cosmos,” which asserted that blackness was metaphysical, which means that you can’t examine it. People have a vague feeling of what blackness is, and maybe it’s better if it remains that way. I think there’s a lot of diversity. I think at one time, most writers were writing from a nationalistic vein, and from a Judeo-Christian background, but there have been a lot of changes since the 1960s. Unfortunately, these changes have been largely ignored by black critics—black and white critics. I encourage Afro-American critics to become multicultural critics because that’s the wave of the future as more and more the country becomes multicultural and multinational. I think Charles Davis, a man like that who was able to go back and forth between different traditions and examine Afro-American literature in relation to others—it’s very rare for an American critic to be able to do that, but more and more that’s going to be called upon as you move toward the end of the century. Black critics have got to break out of this mold. That’s what the battle was about in the 1960s and early 1970s, the white aesthetic happened to have the power in the universities, reviewing circles, and publishing houses, and that’s on the wane. What’s happened now is that the European and African critics have filled the void that was left by the absence of the black aesthetic and the white aesthetic. In other words, in order to get a total picture of what’s happening in American literature, you have to go to Italy and France and Nigeria and places like that. People like that know more about the total picture here than we do because they’re not impeded by this racism.
RM: You have often spoken of what “we” are doing in regard to your publishing and publishing partners. Would you name some of your co-workers and discuss some of your projects in which you are currently involved?
IR: We just completed the principal photography for “Mother Hubbard.” Steve Cannon is the president of the company; I’m more the business manger. We have an office in New York. So we get criticized by some of the white literary personalities because these white companies have offices all over the country, but we’re supposed to stay in our place. They also begrudge us because we’ve gotten grants, where I can’t think of any organization that’s gotten more grants than white males in the East.
RM: Where does Al Young fit into all this?
IR: Al Young is my partner on “Quilt.” Someone just said that we have the same board of directors for every organization I belong to. A professional crank just came out with an article that said that—a very salacious piece of material. He’s wrong. Al Young is director of “Quilt” magazine. The guy in the same article also said that we’ve only published eleven books, while we’ve really published seventeen or eighteen in nine years, which according to Edwin McDowell in the “New York Times” is the average for a press our size. As we continue to survive, we get more and more criticism from people who think blacks should stay in their place. This is the attitude of the avant-garde, as well as the right wingers.
RM: How seriously do you take Neo-HooDooism?
IR: I take it very seriously. I mean, I don’t practice any rites or anything; I don’t think of myself as a houngan or anything like that, but I take it from it what I can use. That’s the beauty of Neo-HooDooism: there are European influences in my work, as well as African, Native-American, Afro-American, and that’s what Neo-HooDooism is all about—
IR: Syncretism, right. So I think I do take it seriously.
RM: Could I throw out some names and titles and have you respond to them as we come toward the end of the interview?
RM: In “Mumbo Jumbo,” what plot did Theodore Dreiser steal from Paul Laurence Dunbar?
IR: “Sport of the Gods”, which came out before Dreiser’s book. It was about a Southern family going to New York and becoming wealthy. I say he “stole” it. I don’t mean that. He appropriated it. But you can’t say that to the American public. People say, “Aw nigger, you imagining things when you start saying white people steal from you.” Like Scott Joplin saying people were stealing from him, stealing his Rags, and Jelly Roll Morton inventing jazz and saying people were stealing from him; people said, “Nigger, you imagining things. You paranoid.” But they weren’t.
RM: Although, you don’t curb your words when you criticize Harriet Beecher Stowe.
IR: Well, I was having fun with Harriet Beecher Stowe, saying that she took her plot in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” from Josiah Henson. You know, they did meet when she was four, and Leslie Fielder, a man for whom I have great respect, said they didn’t meet, and I told Leslie he was wrong about that when I saw him recently in Buffalo. Anyway, she maligned Lord Byron in print, and then some scandal about her own life came out, and I was saying that this was Josiah Henson’s way of getting even. That’s all. Some critics maligned me for saying that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that book to buy a new dress. Well, that was what she said. A lot of my books, people say, are all fiction, but “Flight to Canada,” and some of the rest of them, are based on research. So there’s fact there too.
RM: In “Louisiana Red,” what’s your argument with Antigone?
IR: Self-indulgent female; solipsistic, I guess. Single-issue female. That was my attitude toward the feminist movement, some of the feminists at the time. Although I did not create Antigone, some professor wrote me and said that “Louisiana Red” had sent his students back to the original, back to Sophocles. So I don’t know. I had a patriarch in there and people objected to LaBas getting in his good lines. There are patriarchs and you can’t sweep them under the rug just because there’s a new political movement on the scene.
RM: What function does the chorus serve in that book?
IR: Well, he kind of keeps the stuff moving. In the TV movie I use a television newsperson, an actual newscaster from channel 4 here. The chorus’s beef is that Antigone has stolen his lines. I read somewhere that the role of the chorus decreased as the Greek plays evolved, and he blames this on Antigone when he wants to get his lines back. That was a very controversial book. One feminist jumped on me, and I’ve never recovered from that attack. She called me a misogynist. When I met her, I asked her how many black males were on the board of directors of “Newsweek.”
RM: In “Flight to Canada,” you continually attack the term “universal.” Would you define the term “universal” as it applies to a criticism of literature?
IR: Well, it’s not a criticism of literature. Lorenzo Thomas tracked the term “universal” to Tolstoy’s essay on art, in which he says that universal art is the art of the people. The other art is landlord art: ballet. They got it all wrong, and they use the term to dismiss works which they consider too local or too ethnic, critics from the East. Someone was telling me that a great book would never be written in Yiddish, and then about six months later, Isaac Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature. I think if Faulkner had been a black writer, he would have been considered ethnic. I would say 60 percent of Faulkner’s work is written in black English. People just seem to be blinded to reality when it comes to dismissing languages. I don’t think there is any standard English. I think there is such a thing as protocol English.