Ishmael Reed and the Idea of Multiculturalism
We may agree that the concept of multiculturalism is concerned with one of several ways we have chosen to talk about how human beings live together. The most basic meaning of “multiculturalism” refers to conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices. Our literary discussions of multiculturalism often borrow ideas from the discipline of anthropology, just as our literary theories borrow freely from the domain of philosophy. If we have been trained to study literature rather than the subject matter of various social sciences, we need to be cautious. For American scholars, good critical thinking demands that we first examine de facto (actual, operative) conditions of the multicultural in tandem with de jure (abstract, legal) conditions. For all scholars, I believe it is prudent to identify the multicultural behaviors that obtain in our own countries before we produce ideas about the multicultural in “cross-cultural contexts.” We need to know the nature of local borders (both in the geographical and metaphorical sense) prior to embracing transcendent global perspectives.
The wording “cross-cultural” implies, for me at least, that the foreignness of culture A has been distinguished from the foreignness or strangeness of culture B. If we are not in possession of such distinctions, we fail to notice that we can be foreign (strange, dissimilar, marginal) in our “home” cultures. Recognition of that possibility is crucial.
We can easily fall into the trap of believing that our culture and its artifacts are superior to the culture and artifacts of the “other,” especially when “we” and “the other” share the same citizenship. Recognition of a problem that is at once cross-cultural and multicultural led to the publication in 1990 of Redefining American Literary History by the prestigious Modern Language Association. Those of us who produced that book found a theoretical model in the groundbreaking work of Ishmael Reed, even if we did not say as much at that time. I hasten to note that “theory,” as the word applies to Reed, does not refer to the kind of work done by Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, or Jacques Derrida. It refers to the explanatory suppositions Reed as a non-academic writer uses in telling us what is multicultural and why we should absorb the idea of multiculturalism in our everyday lives. Our work was based on that kind of theory. We did say that our redefining project eschewed “traditional, patriarchal thought about culture and literature” and sought “instead explanatory models that account for the multiple voices and experiences that constitute the literature and literary history of the United States”(4).
Failure to minimize disciplinary prejudices tends to defeat our objective of acquiring new knowledge. It would be a mistake, for example, to ignore the hidden dimensions of differences that have obtained historically in the evolving of American literature before making a dash to find the significant differences among a range of literatures written in some variety of English, in some variety of other languages. In the case of American literature, we can gain insights about multiculturalism as a combative process from a brief review of what Ishmael Reed has been working at for almost half a century.
Among contemporary American writers, Ishmael Reed is the major “informal” or “non-academic” theorist and “pragmatic” proponent of late 20th –century and early 21st-century “literary” multiculturalism in the United States of America. Since the early nineteenth century, America has embraced political myths of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” to minimize recognition of its multiethnic and multicultural identity. Reed has effectively challenged the validity of those myths by action that goes beyond “deconstructing.” He has consistently “constructed,” by way of his provocative essays, anthologies, and fiction, a rationale to maximize acknowledgement of the interactive presence of multiculturalism in the literary and social evolution of America.
My comments quite briefly address what might be designated Reed’s “combative conversation” with his nation. Reed’s anthologies ---- 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s (1970), Calafia: The California Poetry (1979), MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002 (2003), and Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience –Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009) -----provide subject matter as well as evidence for open-ended debate regarding theory and praxis of “literary” multiculturalism in American and global contexts. Reed’s introductions contain the theory; the works he selected for each anthology illustrate the praxis.
Reed opens a recent collection of writing, Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown, with two sentences that fundamentally establish his place in the history of black writing since the 1960s:
When they tell me “don’t go there” that’s my signal to navigate the forbidden topics of American life. Just as the ex-slaves were able to challenge the prevailing attitudes about race in the United States after arriving in Canada, I am able to argue from Quebec against ordained opinion that paints the United States as a place where the old sins of racism have been vanquished and that those who insist that much work remains to be done are involved in “Old Fights,” as one of my young critics, John McWhorter, claims in articles in Commentary and The New Republic, where I am dismissed as an out of touch “fading anachronism.” (11)
Reed is not an anachronism. He is a writer who provokes us into seeing what multiculturalism might be in the United States and why it is so often attacked
Reed’s evolving theory began with his assaults on restrictive monoculturalism associated with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. In his December 1969 introduction for 19 Necromancers From Now, Reed proclaimed
Perhaps at the roots of American art is a rivalry between the oppressor and the oppressed, with a secret understanding that the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter how inferior his art to that of his victims. Art in America may even be related to sexual competition. In the beginning was The Word and The Word is the domain of White patriarchy. Beware. Women and natives are not to tamper with The Word. (xix)
After much autobiographical testimony about America, Reed admitted that he “omitted White writers.” Having examined “the many exclusionary American anthologies that flood the market, I somehow feel that they will get by” (xxiii). With a slip of contradiction, he wrote “Indian People, Black People, White People, Chinese People, and Blue People unravel their experiences through its [the anthology’s] pages” (xxiv). At this stage of theory-making, Reed was himself exclusionary.
He was feeling his way into multiculturalism. By January 22, 1978, the date of his preface to Calafia: The California Poetry, he had arrived at a more mature idea of multiculturalism and how to represent it. He provides a quite “breezy” historical account of California as “the home of the multi-cultures,” the physically and linguistically different indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the blacks and, since the 1840s, Asian immigrants. To reflect all this mixing, tense state of difference, and cross-fertilization in poetry, Reed brought “together the poetry of different California cultures under one roof” without segregating “those cultures according to ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ or chronology. The erasing of categories makes it appear that poetry, in the words of Simon Ortiz, is “an all-inclusive singular event and idea throughout time” (xlii). I suspect Ishmael Reed was imitating the nineteenth-century practice of authenticating slave narratives with letters and testimonials. Thus, Calafia has “authenticating” introductions by Bob Callahan, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Simon Ortiz, Shawn Hsu Wong, Wakako Yamauchi, and Al Young. Their words give multiethnic credibility to the multicultural enterprise.
Reed’s speculations about multiculturalism take an instructive turn in his introduction to MultiAmerica. He was dealing in this anthology with the essay, a genre that contrasts with either poetry or fiction. For Reed, collecting essays facilitated a turn from multicultural expression as “proofs” to multicultural expression as an array of “weapons” to deploy in battle with American mass media’s efforts to promote monocultural thought, even as it gave lukewarm recognition to cultural diversity or cultural difference. Reed was fighting the persistence of the binary (the black and white characterization of American society) and highlighting essays by writers of many ethnicities to put “race” in its place and offer the American public alternative articulations, newer diverging and converging perspectives on the drama of being American. Reed recognized multiculturalism is “safe” between the covers of a book but often dangerous and threatening outside the book. That is to say, literary representation does not force us to deal with the palpable elements of the multicultural. The anthology was to some degree, Reed assured us, “an intellectual anti-trust action against the tyranny that communications oligopolies hold over public discussion”, an action conducted by writers “concerned about the future of the United State in which one ‘race’ or ethnic group is no longer dominant and where the pressures to assimilate are not as demanding as they were in a former time “(xxvii). Such multicultural battle still continues. It sponsors optimism and pessimism, or the branching of multicultural speculations that we find in Reed’s introductions for From Totems to Hip-Hop and Pow Wow.
The introductions to these recent multicultural experiments are less combative in tone, less devoted to speculation than to application. Their nuances call for very close reading. The shift is a warning about limits, about how radical discourses may get transformed over time into persuasive gestures and lose a bit of strident provocation. From Totems to Hip Hop is constructed as a textbook of multicultural poetry. Reed gives much more attention in this anthology to consequences of teaching multicultural literature and to the status of universal themes in his October 23, 2002 introduction. At the core of his Cinco de Mayo 2008 introduction to Pow Wow is a concession germane to thinking about cross-cultural contexts, because Reed asserts that
Deprived of or excluded from the normal channels of communication by media increasingly monopolized by a few companies, people from diverse background and from different time periods may have no other means but writing to engage in a cross-cultural or a cross-time dialogue with one another. No other means to comment on the important issues both historical and current: war, slavery, race, anti-Semitism, gender, class, dysfunctional family life, and the like (xi).
A few pages later, he reiterates:
Excluded from media power, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian American, and African American writers often use fiction to tell their side of the American story and to explore the fault lines that separate groups from one another. In the media it is left to outsiders to define members of ethnic groups, often with disastrous results like Birth of a Nation and the television series The Wire (xiii).
I sense that Reed has given us an important lesson about power in his introductions, that he warns us to exercise caution in how we go about engaging “multiculturalism” as conditions of existence in a defined space (nation or territory) that is inhabited by people who have, and identify with, different cultural assumptions, beliefs and practices. Scholars are neither exactly “outside” that space nor immune to its unpredictable conditions.
Reed, Ishmael, ed. Calafia: The California Poetry. Berkeley, CA: Y’Bird Books, 1979. Print.
____________. From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003. Print.
___________., Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown Montreal: Baraka Books 2012. Print.
___________. MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace. New York: Viking Penguin, 1997. Print.
___________. 19 Necromancers From Now: An Anthology of Original American Writing For the 1970s. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1970. Print.
___________, ed. with Carla Blank. Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience ---Short Fiction from Then to Now. Philadelphia: DaCapo Press, 2009. Print.
Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds. Redefining American Literary History. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. Print.