Saturday, July 2, 2011

How Ishmael Reed Defies A Fixed Place in Literary History

The first edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) presents the “Black Arts Movement” as taking place from 1960 to 1970 followed by the next section, “Literature Since 1970.” Actually, based on artistic output, the most defining and vibrant time period of the black arts era is arguably 1965 – 1976, but those dates do not fit as conveniently within a frame as 1960 – 1970.

That neat, yet flawed packaging (1960 – 1970) of the black arts era in the first edition of The Norton is likely the result of a larger belief and position in African American literary history that alleges that black poetry of the 1960s/70s, especially the verse associated with the Black Arts Movement, declined as readers became more and more interested in novels by black women writers. The suggestion is that the presumed man movement in poetry was surpassed by a woman movement in the production of novels.

The second edition of The Norton (2003) presents “The Black Arts Era” from 1960 – 1975.

In the first edition, Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) is listed in the “Literature Since 1970” section, and in the second edition, he is presented in the black arts section. Toni Morrison (b. 1931) is presented in the “Literature Since 1970” in the first edition of The Norton and in the “Literature since 1975” in the second edition.

Presenting Morrison, Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, Adrienne Kennedy, Alice Walker, Sherley Anne Williams, and Gayl Jones as effectively “post” black arts serves the ends of that larger argument about a divide between black men poets and black women novelists.

Perhaps the move to move Reed and his works from the post black arts section in the first edition to the black arts era in the second edition reflects a slight change of heart and mind by the editors.

As a poet, novelist, editor, publisher, and essayist, Reed is, in fact, a major contributor to the black arts era and to the production of black literature well beyond. Similar to Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Eugene B. Redmond, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, and several others, Reed ignored the memo about 1960s writers slowing down by the early 1970s. Like those writers, Reed defied the fixity of limiting historical markers. 

Indeed, beginning with the publication of his novel The Freelance Pallbearers (1967) up until the publication of his most recent novel Juice! (2011), Reed has published more than 40 books. In other words, on average, Reed has published about one book per year, every year for the last 4 decades.

Finally, Reed’s works haunt the pages of one our most popular and widely known African American novelists, Colson Whitehead. In interviews and public presentations, Whitehead often acknowledges Reed’s positive influence. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single black writer who has influenced Whitehead as much as Reed.

Whitehead (b. 1969) appears as the last and youngest author in the second edition of The Norton. The biographical sketch on Whitehead mentions that reviewers were impressed with first novel The Intuitionist (1999) and “compared its author to Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon.”
It was my exposure to Reed’s fiction that prepared me to appreciate Whitehead’s work as much as I have over the years.

Given his influence and productively, I wonder where Reed will be located when and if there's a third edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Maybe, Reed will remain in the black arts era section, or perhaps he’ll appear in segment entitled "Literature since 2011." 

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