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Ishmael Reed and the American War of Words

[By Jerry W. Ward]

The
October 3 presidential debate was a capital example of America’s war of words
and visualized rhetoric.  The spectacle
was ulotrichy.  Viewers are still at a
loss to determine whether either debater said anything substantive regarding
the economy, health care, the role of government, or a philosophy of governing.
Things
would have been different and clearer had Ishmael Reed rather than James
Charles Lehrer been the debate moderator. 
Reed would not have stayed out of the flow.  He would have directed the debaters into the
superdome of history.  Unlike Lehrer,
Reed understands that a presidential debate is predicated on America’s social and
racial contract and that one dividend of this contract is our nation’s contemporary
nervous breakdown.

Reed
opens his most recent collection of writing, Going Too Far: Essays about America’s Nervous Breakdown (Baraka Books 2012), with two sentences that
fundamentally establish his locus in the history of black writing:
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.”
Reed
is not an anachronism.  He is a
pre-future sage.
Trillions
of words have been spent in shaping and mapping the American mindscape since
1492.  Reed’s sustained efforts to keep
us somewhat honest about that fact have been commendable.  His fictions, poems, plays, and recordings
are a moral looking glass for envisioning what we might be.  His nonfiction, however, is at once testimony
and indictment of what we are.
Reed
turns 75 in 2013, and now is the time to give dedicated attention to his
writing, anthologizing, and selfless work in publishing the
multicultural/multiethnic writing of others. Special inquiries should be made
about his nonfiction:  Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982), Writin’ is Fightin’ (1988), Airing Dirty Laundry (1993), Blues City: A Walk in Oakland (2003), Mixing It Up (2008), Another Day at the Front (2003), Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers (2010),
and Going Too Far.  Fame has given Reed a few rewards, but the
reward he most deserves is knowing, within his lifetime, that his uncanny
intellect succeeded in making people a bit more honest.