I first met Ishmael Reed back in the early 1970’s when he, along with David Henderson and Calvin Hernton, came to New Orleans to visit their friend Tom Dent, a Crescent City (i.e. New Orleans) native. They had all met and formed Umbra in New York City in the early 60’s. Umbra was the first major writer’s workshop of the Civil Rights Era.
Uncle Ish, as I sometimes affectionally referred to Reed, became a long time friend. Perhaps it was Reed’s interest in African-heritage spirituality that attracted me. Reed was both intellectually deep and simultaneously as funny as Richard Pryor when holding forth on literature. Also Reed evidenced a serious investigation into our history and contemporary conditions. And when my man announced he intended to learn Japanese, that about sealed the deal. His intellect was second to none.
Reed had moved west to California and established the Yardbird collective and journal in tandem with Al Young. Reed’s subsequent literary output was humongous–over 12 books of fiction, 10 collections of poetry, 7 plays including broadway productions, 14 books of non-fiction, plus 10 anthologies. Additionally, Reed also produced three recordings, and was an early proponent and practitioner of video work. Check out this major interview with Ishmael Reed published in The Paris Review (Issue 218, Fall 2016).
Far too many students of Black literature, as well as American scholars in general, are unaware of and/or overlook Reed’s literary work. Fortunately, Reed is known and celebrated internationally because he never surrendered to American racism and has been warmly received overseas.