Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) is an acclaimed American novelist, essayist, and poet, whose work often challenges mainstream culture and conveys the perspectives of minorities—especially African Americans—whose voices are underrepresented. He has been called “great” by novelist James Baldwin; Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times; Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic; and Harvard University Press Over the past forty years, Reed has published more white authors than white literary magazines have published black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American authors.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Reed grew up in Buffalo, New York. He studied at the University at Buffalo, which later became the State University of New York (SUNY), before moving to New York City, and later, California. For thirty-five years Reed taught at the University of California, Berkeley, while maintaining visiting appointments with several other institutions, including Harvard University, Yale University, Dartmouth College, and the University at Buffalo, SUNY.
Reed’s activities in 2012 alone exemplify his position among the most well-known international writers and performers. Conjure, a band that has performed his poetry and songs since 1983, with various personnel including Bobby Womack, Taj Mahal, Jack Bruce, and Allen Toussaint, presented a concert at the Sardinia Jazz Festival. At the request of the US State Department, Reed visited middle schools and universities in East Jerusalem. He attended the launch of his new book, Going Too Far, in Montreal, joining the city’s mayor and a member of Quebec’s National Assembly. And he delivered the keynote address at a literary conference in Beijing.
Reed’s songs have been performed and recorded by Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, the Roots, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Little Jimmy Scott, Bobby Womack, and most recently, Macy Gray, among others. His writing has become a favorite of musicians. Funk star George Clinton, for instance, cites Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo as an inspiration, and the late rapper Tupac Shakur cites Reed in his song “And Still I Rise.” In 2012, Reed was named the first SFJAZZ Poet Laureate. Reed has performed with his band at Yoshi’s, the landmark San Francisco jazz club, and as a solo jazz pianist at Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ jazz series at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City. Reed’s first album, For All We Know (2007), features Reed on piano, his partner Carla Blank on violin, and David Murray on saxophone.
In 1965, with counterculture activist Walter Bowart, Reed named and helped co-found the East Village Other, or EVO, a biweekly paper that was an early example of the alternative press. In addition to frontline journalism from the cultural underground, EVO featured collages and early comics by such notable artists as Spain Rodriguez, Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Reed was also a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop, a collective of young black writers living in New York, which included David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Tom Dent, Askia Touré, Lorenzo Thomas, and Joe Johnson.
Beginning with The Free-lance Pallbearers in 1967, Reed has published ten novels, including Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Flight to Canada (1976), and most recently, Juice! (2011). His writing spans other genres as well, including plays, essays, and poetry. In 1972, Reed was nominated for a National Book Award for Mumbo Jumbo and for his book of poetry, Conjure (1972). Conjure was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, while New and Collected Poems: 1964–2006 (2007) received a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California. Reed received the MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as the “genius grant”) in 1998.
Reed has attraced praise from such scholars and critics as Harold Bloom, for Mumbo Jumbo; Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, for his poetry; the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, for his songs; and critic Clive Barnes, for his plays. Backstage, the New York theater trade magazine, compared him to Molière. In 1979, he won a Pushcart Prize for his essay “American Poetry: Is There a Center?” Reed’s cartoons have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Black Renaissance Noire, and the New York Amsterdam News.
Reed has also served as an editor for numerous anthologies, small presses, and publications. In 1976, he co-founded the Before Columbus Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes overlooked writers of diverse ethnicities and “a pan-cultural view of America.” The foundation has presented annual book awards for outstanding American literature since 1980, when Reed founded the American Book Awards, which the Washington Post describes as the American League to the National Book Awards’ National League.
In 1989, Reed founded PEN Oakland, a chapter of the PEN Center USA, with Floyd Salas and Claire Ortalda. The New York Times calls their group “the blue collar PEN.” The organization’s annual awards are named for the late University of California, Berkeley professor Josephine Miles.
Reed’s prolific output is unified by an interest in African American life and its wider relationships to American society. His work at times deploys parody and biting satire, using these to dissect repressively Eurocentric narratives of history and culture, and to critique dogma of all kinds. Advocating for a fully inclusive art, and marked by stylistic variety and playfulness, Reed’s work is sometimes described as postmodern. Its humor, however, is married to a passionate candor about history and social issues.
Reed’s wife is author and director Carla Blank. Blank’s recent work includes directing a play at the Kennedy Center, and collaborating with Robert Wilson on a work called “Kool: Dancing in My Mind,” which was performed at the Guggenheim Museum and made into a film called The Space in Back of You. Reed also has two daughters. Timothy, his daughter by a previous marriage, is the author of the novel Showing Out about the exploitation of strippers at a Times Square entertainment theater owned by a crime family. His youngest daughter, Tennessee, is a poet and author of Spell Albuquerque, her memoirs. They all live in Oakland, California.