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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón Session Author and Literary Works: Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed

Author Bio

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 insideand 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.

Synopsis of "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man"

In “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man,” Ishmael Reed explores the changeable nature of a legendary figure. The poem, a non-traditional ballad, describes how Bill can change himself into different forms to escape entrapment: either entrapment in a specific time and place, or entrapment in a single identity.

“High John de Conquer” — from Zora Neale Hurston’s The Sanctified Church, a collection of essays on African American folklore, legend, and popular mythology — is a literary interpretation of an African American folktale which celebrates a trickster figure. (Both Railroad Bill and High John are legendary characters who appear in numerous stories and poems.) In Hurston’s work, as in Reed’s poem, the trickster appears as a kind of spirit — a “whisper” — that inhabits a body and a community when the need arises. For Hurston, the trickster is the gleeful spirit of laughter and triumph, imported to African American culture directly from Africa. Through her celebration of High John and, in particular, of the way that High John’s story brings hope and a spirit of rebellion to those in need, Hurston reflects on the revolutionary importance of folkloric tales and oral tradition.

Audio Clip with Ishmael Reed

When we went to school, we weren’t taught about the lives of average people. I didn’t read slave narratives until I graduated; I read them on my own. Didn’t know such a thing existed where African Americans who were in bondage talked about their experiences. We were exposed to Jefferson and Lincoln, I mean our whole thing was a Mt. Rushmore type of education. And then in the 1960s, when the Black Consciousness Movement began, Black Cultural Revolution, which led to a multicultural revolution, which … the feminist revolution originates in the Civil Rights Movement. Then we began to study our origins and find that there were a lot of people, a lot of great people, who were produced by people who resembled us. And so Railroad Bill is one of these characters.

Audio Clip with William Cook

There are songs and ballads, poems about Railroad Bill before Reed writes his own. Sterling Brown is one of those people who precedes him. The question is why Reed gives us another Railroad Bill. He wants to take that legend and that figure and bring that figure into our present and into our prophesying the future. So that while the earlier forms, the songs and the Sterling Brown, were fairly consistent with traditional ballad structure, Reed goes on to play loose with, to jazz up, to improvise on, that structure, to pull the story then out of past into our present, into our future, so that you must always return to our traditional themes, our traditional characters, and re-adapt them for a new time, for a new place, for new aspirations. And one of the things that Reed likes about the whole African religious tradition is it is what he calls “syncretistic.” It does not have an orthodoxy. It will take whatever comes over time and adjust itself to that. As opposed to resisting change, it absorbs change

Q & A with William Cook

What is the historical relevance of “Railroad Bill”?
The whole legend of Railroad Bill is, of course, built on a historical character, Morris Slater. Reed goes back to the story of Railroad Bill in order to talk about the present, within which he is writing, and to use his words to prophesy the future … We need to constantly return to our cultural past in order to know the present, in order to know the future. Who was Morris Slater? How did Railroad Bill emerge?

Morris Slater was working in the piney woods of Alabama … the turpentine camps. And these men were in what was literally peonage — they could not leave. You can’t leave when you’re in debt, and they were constantly in debt, as were sharecroppers farming. Bill is a figure — at that time, he’s Morris Slater — who goes into town with his gun. The sheriff says, “You’ve got to give me your gun, you can’t carry your gun here.” Bill refuses to surrender the gun, and he outdraws the sheriff — he kills the sheriff, and he then takes off for the piney woods, hiding in those woods. They sent a deputy after him. Bill outdraws and kills the deputy.

Then he adopts the name Railroad Bill while he’s hiding in the piney woods. He becomes Railroad Bill because he breaks into boxcars, steals the contents of the boxcars, and sells them at very low prices to the poor blacks of the area. And so Morris Slater is now Railroad Bill. Needless to say, the [new] sheriff does come after him, and again he is killed. But Bill is trapped finally and shot to death at a crossroads country store. The funeral is huge. But the ballad, the song that grows up about his life and his exploits, begins to spread all throughout the South. And Bill physically dies, but he becomes “Bill, A Legend”: He lives on forever. And Reed is trying to show us how much he is relevant to our present and future, not how interesting he is as a part of a past.

Where do you position Ishmael Reed within the African American literary tradition?
In reading “Railroad Bill,” we need to be aware how much Ishmael Reed works within a major tradition in African American literature, and that tradition is a tradition which turns to music as the source for its references, not to other poetry. So Reed is following a tradition that has been clearly marked before him by Langston Hughes, in 1926, in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Hughes talks about the importance for poetry, the importance of jazz as a source.

There are movements, cultural movements, that are important to the study of literature, music, art — and there are two that I think that are central to understanding what African American writers are attempting to do as artists.

One of the things [Hughes’ essay] returns to is African-based music, literature … and religion as its sources. But we get a second major contribution, this one edited by Addison Gayle Jr., and its title is The Black Aesthetic. We sometimes refer to it as the “second renaissance,” because it takes another direction.

What ties the two together is the presence in both of Langston Hughes: His 1926 essay is found in The Black Aesthetic because those artists see Hughes as, in the ’20s, beginning the project; they are bringing it to flower. So their attitude toward language, toward subject matter, toward music, and certainly toward politics and religion is going to differ from that of the earlier group. And we need to pay some attention to these movements, because they will shape the way artists do and do not work, and it is no accident that we find Ishmael Reed in The Black Aesthetic.

What is the role of satire in Ishmael Reed’s work?
Satire is at the very heart of most of Reed’s writing, if we keep in mind that satire, at its most vicious, is very moral. Satire is a tool of the moralist who wants to fight immorality and wrong. Reed makes fun of the powers that be. He speaks from the position of the outsider, the marginalized. He brings into the center that culture which has been erased, ignored, or mocked, and he changes the joke. He reverses the mockery, and suddenly, we find the indignity of what had considered itself very dignified. He is, at heart, a satirist.

When you read “Railroad Bill,” you notice in the very beginning of the poem [that] you are reading Reed telling you that Railroad Bill, the trickster, the bad man, is a shape changer. He takes many forms. We look, in the beginning of the poem, at forms he may have taken in the past, forms he’s taken in the present. At the end, we see a form he takes in the future: He becomes that editor at the studio who is editing that film, erasing, or at least distorting, black history. And this editor gets in there and re-edits that film. He pulls what Reed calls a “demystification act.” We take their history and distort it, change it, so that there’s a space for our own.

Information About Key References

African and African American Tricksters
African trickster figures are both folkloric and mythic. Mythic tricksters – such as Esu-Elegbara – facilitate communication between people and the Orishá(spirits). These mythic figures can also create problems. For example, if Esu-Elegbara is not appeased through proper ceremony, he can cause chaos by garbling communication. African American trickster figures, on the other hand, are most often folkloric and are generally concerned with maintaining community by subverting immoral social structures.

A traditional ballad consists of quatrains written with a standard rhyme scheme: ABCB. It can contain any number of quatrains, but it often repeats one of these stanzas (the chorus) throughout the poem. The ballad often carries with it a whiff of folklore; rhythmically and sonically, it can feel like a nursery rhyme.

Reed describes Hoodoo as the American practice of Voodoo, the traditional West African religion. Hoodoo relies on language and incantation to promote change and draw communities together.

Morris Slater
The character of Railroad Bill is a mythic version of Morris Slater, a man who robbed the railroads in order to feed poor Blacks. Like the trickster figure of African folktales, Slater – or Bill – effects justice by doing morally questionable things.

The term “gris-gris” comes from the French gris, meaning gray; gris-gris is a blend of white and black magic. In particular, it refers to a small leather sack filled with herbs and natural matter that one wears around the neck to bring good luck – or to keep away bad luck. But these days, it can also simply mean magic or “mojo.”

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man"

Teaching “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man” from a cultural studies perspective involves a variety of activities to get students reading intertextually and thinking critically. Teachers can also explore Reed’s poem through a reader response approach. Using reader-response pedagogies will allow students to explore their personal feelings and their reactions to the text. For example, the teacher could read the poem with students using a think-aloud approach. In this activity, the teacher reads the poem aloud with students once, then has students read it aloud together in groups or in pairs, stopping at regular intervals to articulate what they are thinking about when they reach designated points in the text. Students can also write down their thoughts and then use the information for discussion in pairs, groups, or with the whole class. The idea is for students to read the poem and respond honestly and sincerely. Later, teachers can employ various activities to help students develop their personal responses for critical and creative thinking.

Students can also benefit by performing an inquiry into aspects of the poem that they find interesting or especially troubling. An inquiry can extend the reader’s understanding of the content of the poem by allowing deeper exploration of ideas on a personal level. For example, Reed references specific names of people and places, historic events and activities in “Railroad Bill.” Students can pick from these as they read and do preliminary research, form specific questions that will guide further research, and then report back to the class on what they have found about their chosen topic. Teachers should make a mental note when students ask about ideas, pronunciations, names, etc., in the poem during general discussion. In this way, when students need assistance coming up with ideas for their inquiry, the teacher can offer suggestions gathered from the students rather than handing out preconceived topics.

Students should feel free to apply the word “research” broadly, as inquiry is not limited to the traditional forms of library study. For example, a student might “read” a photograph or work of art related to the topic of inquiry and make notes on his or her speculations and growing understanding. Students can assemble archives and reflections from their inquiry in digital or paper portfolios. The teacher can assemble all of the material and make it available for the class to review to build a broad knowledge about the poem.

A critical exploration of Reed’s poem will require students to see and understand the specific and the general political commentary Reed is offering for consideration. In this case, teachers can assign specific activities or allow ideas to be generated from the classroom. The end product should be an effort to address a current issue, related to Reed’s poem, that somehow affects the students’ lives. Reed’s commentary on the media’s portrayal of African American males and African Americans generally is one possible issue to consider. Students can record and analyze how various media portray African Americans or some other marginalized community, then decide as a class how to express their concern over the issue. For example, they might create a critical viewing guide for younger students, the PTA, or their school. Reed also takes up the issue of racial profiling in the poem. In this instance students might examine racial profiling within their school by interviewing students, parents, and administrators, and examining whatever public records exist on disciplinary actions taken at the school. Findings can be analyzed and reported in the school newspaper, to the PTA, to the school board, etc.

In all of these activities, traditional and progressive reading and writing activities should apply. Students should be required to produce or participate in some reading, writing, and speaking activities and assignments. However, these activities should be related to the literature and offer personal, investigative, and political elements.

Author and Literary Works

Dick, Bruce and Amritjit Singh (eds). Conversations With Ishmael Reed. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995.
This collection of interviews and thoughts provides a good introduction to Ishmael Reed’s works and literary philosophy.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.
Reed wrote the introduction to this book by Zora Neale Hurston, another preeminent African American figure in literature. Tell My Horse is a firsthand account of Voodoo ceremonies and customs in Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s, based on Hurston’s personal investigations.

Reed, Ishmael. Airing Dirty Laundry. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.
A provocative collection of 36 essays, each one focused in some way on what Reed calls “the pillorying of black males.” Topics include: George Will, Pat Buchanan, feminists, NPR, The New York Review of Books, The Color Purple, Oprah Winfrey, Desiree Washington, the FBI, and Anita Hill.

—-. Flight to Canada. New York: Atheneum, 1976.
In this satirical historical novel, a slave named Raven Quickskill — named for Raven, an American Indian trickster — escapes slavery on a jet plane.

—-. Japanese by Spring. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International,
In this satirical novel, Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt, a black junior professor at a white Northern California college, tries to emulate the dominant ideology of the school in order to attain tenure.

—-. Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Simon & Schuster Trade, 1996.
Historical and fictional characters intermingle in Reed’s sharp-edged novel dealing with culture wars throughout history. With subjects ranging from ragtime music to Greek philosophy, Reed makes fun of the narrowness of Western culture, using the satire for which he has become famous.

—. “Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man,” From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. Reed, Ishmael (ed). New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002.

—-. The Reed Reader. Colorado: Basic Books, 2001.
This compilation showcases Reed’s celebrated work, including his novels, poems, plays, and essays. The author’s unmistakable prose style and unique storytelling capacities are evident throughout.

—-. Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
In this collection of essays, originally titled This One’s on Me, Reed discusses issues of artistic and political freedom.

—-. Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1990.
This collection includes essays, reviews, and editorials detailing Reed’s witty, combative take on American culture. Topics include: monoculturalism, The Color Purple, illiteracy, playwrights August Wilson and Wole Soyinka, the “American literary-industrial complex,” and white South Africa.

—-. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.
Written in 1969, this novel brings a cast of characters together in an unlikely parody of the Old West.

—- (ed). Multi-America: Essays on Cultural Wars & Cultural Peace. New York: Viking, 1997.
Americans from widely varied ethnic backgrounds offer 52 essays dealing with racial identity in America.

—- and Nicolás Kanellos (eds). Hispanic American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
This collection includes work by Tomás Rivera, Miguel Algarin, Denise Chavez, Albert Rios, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Pat Mora, Helena Maria Viramontes, and others.

—- and Gerald Vizenor (eds). Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
This primer includes writing by N. Scott Momaday, Paula Gunn Allen, James Welch, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Ray Young Bear, Leslie Marmon Silko, Wendy Rose, and others.

—- and Shawn Wong (eds). Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996.
This anthology presents writings by Hisaye Yamamoto, Bharati Mukherjee, Jessica Hagedorn, Cathy Song, Marilyn Chin, Woo Ping Chin, Yelina Hasu Houston, and others.

Young, Al. African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996.
Works by Ishmael Reed, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jerome Wilson, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, and others are included in this collection.


Personal Problems. Directed by Bill Gunn and Ishmael Reed.
Personal Problems portrays the life of a nurse’s aide as she negotiates her husband, lover, work, and family.

The Only Language She Knows. A collaboration with writer, Genny Lim. Produced by Ishmael Reed.

Two-Fer. Co-produced by Ishmael Reed.
Directed by Cecil Brown, this film follows the fictional life of author and filmmaker Calvin Hunter as he tries to negotiate his way to tenure at a Bay Area college.


Works about the Author

Dick, Bruce (ed). The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
This reader includes critical articles on all of Reed’s major works, along with a thorough bibliography.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of Leroi Jones-Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1987.
This post-structuralist reading of Baraka, Reed, and Delany explores the connections between those major figures.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988.
The author reconsiders Reed’s aesthetics in the context of African American literary criticism.

McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.
McGee analyzes Reed’s work in the context of feminist criticism and race theory.

Ishmael Reed Publications
This site is an archive of the author’s magazine publications.

Modern American Poetry: About Ishmael Reed’s Life and Work
This site has further information about Ishmael Reed’s writings.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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  • ISBN: 1-57680-676-6