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the expanding canon teaching multicultural literature
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Reader Response: Pat Mora and James Welch Reader Response: Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove Inquiry: Rudolfo Anaya and James Baldwin Inquiry: Tomás Rivera and Esmeralda Santiago Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón Cultural Studies: N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong Critical Pedagogy: Octavia E. Butler and Ruthanne Lum McCunn Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada
Theory Overview Teaching Strategies Authors and Literary Works Resources
Session 5 Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón - - Authors and Literary Works

Author: Ishmael Reed
Work: "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man"
Author: Graciela Limón
Work: Erased Faces

 

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Ishmael Reed

Within the growing body of African American literature, Ishmael Reed is one of the most celebrated and well-known authors now living. He has served on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley since 1968, and has taught and lectured at many other academic institutions, including Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Washington University in St. Louis, and the State University of New York, Buffalo. The recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, Reed has also been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award for both his poetry and fiction.

Reed was born in Tennessee in 1938, but he grew up in a working-class family in Buffalo, New York. He began his literary career while he was still a college student, writing for The Empire Star Weekly, an African American newspaper in Buffalo. At the same time, Reed co-hosted a local radio program, which was cancelled after he aired an interview he'd done with Malcolm X. In 1962, Reed moved to New York City and, in 1965, co-founded the legendary underground newspaper East Village Other. In addition, Reed -- along with other intellectuals and writers like Lorenzo Thomas, David Henderson, and Calvin Hernton -- became active in the Umbra writers' workshop. These thinkers ultimately established the Black Arts movement, a cultural counterpart to the Black Power movement.

Reed's involvement in the Black Arts movement has been matched by his advocacy of multi-ethnic and non-mainstream literature. Through his writing and publishing, and through organizations like the Before Columbus Foundation (which Reed co-founded in 1976 and which, in 1980, began sponsoring the American Book Award), Reed has doggedly fought for literary innovation; that fight is, in many ways, at the heart of his work. As scholar Robert Elliot Fox explains: "[Reed] is engaged in a project of emancipating an artistic heritage from predictable or predetermined forms and norms imposed by those who fail to fully comprehend the depth and complexity of that heritage, including its folkish inventiveness, hilarious undercurrents, and seasoned extravagances."

Reed's own writing tends to press toward innovation as well. His novels, poetry, and essays are widely recognized for their controversial satirizing of racism and political repression. Reed has often been called "a modern day Mark Twain" – a compliment that speaks to Reed's unusual position as an icon of iconoclasm in the world of letters.

Reed's work often addresses the concept of a contradictory cultural position; for example, in "Dualism," Reed's speaker describes himself as both inside and outside of history. Frequently, his work focuses on the ambivalence of such characters who are inside and outside their community; for example, in the poem "Judas," Reed's speaker questions Jesus about his relationship with the canny but cretinous Judas: "Funny about best friends / huh, Lord." Reed often seems to have a sort of wistful appreciation for cunning men, like Judas and Railroad Bill, who can be both inside and outside at the same time.

Reed's nine novels include The Terrible Twos, Mumbo Jumbo, The Freelance Pallbearers, and The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Among Reed's other literary accomplishments are four books of poetry, two collections of essays, and numerous reviews and critical articles. He also has edited two major anthologies.

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top NextWork: "Railroad Bill"


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