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Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed. Courtesy Baraka Books.

Ishmael Reed
Born Ishmael Scott Reed
February 22, 1938 (1938-02-22) (age 80)
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Occupation poet, essayist, novelist
Education University of Buffalo

Ishmael Scott Reed (born February 22, 1938) is an American poet, essayist, and novelist. A prominent African-American literary figure, he is known for his satirical works challenging American political culture and highlighting oppression.[1]

Life Edit

Overview Edit

Reed has been described as among the most controversial writers. While his work has often sought to represent neglected African and African-American perspectives, his energy and advocacy have centered more broadly on neglected peoples and perspectives, irrespective of their cultural origins.[2]

Youth Edit

Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, where he attended the University of Buffalo, a private university (that became part of the state public university system after he left).

In 1998, Reed spoke about his influences in an interview: "I've probably been more influenced by poets than by novelists — the Harlem Renaissance poets, the Beat poets, the American surrealist Ted Joans. Poets have to be more attuned to originality, coming up with lines and associations the ordinary prose writer wouldn't think of."[3]

Career Edit

Reed moved to New York City in 1962 and co-founded with the late Walter Bowart the East Village Other, a well-known underground publication. He was also a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop, an organization among whose members were some that helped establish the Black Arts Movement and promoted a Black Aesthetic, although Ishmael Reed was never a participant in that movement.

Since the early 1970s, Reed has championed the work of other writers, founding and serving as editor and publisher of various small presses and journals. His current publishing imprint is Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, and his online literary magazine, Konch, featuring poetry, essays and fiction, can be found at

Reed is a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which since 1980 has annually presented the American Book Awards; the Oakland chapter of PEN; and There City Cinema, an organization that furthers the distribution and discussion of films from throughout the world.

Reed’s novels, poetry and essays have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Dutch, Korean, Chinese and Czech, among other languages.

Reed is a producer of The Domestic Crusaders, a 2-act play about Muslim Pakistani Americans written by his former student, Wajahat Ali.[4] Its 1st act was performed at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Hall in Washington, D.C., on November 14, 2010, and remains archived on their website.

In 2005, Reed retired from teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he had taught for 35 years.

He lives in Oakland, California with his wife of more than 40 years, acclaimed author, choreographer, and director Carla Blank.[5] His blog appears at


Reed's published works include 10 novels; 6 collections of poetry, including: New and Collected Poems, 1964–2007; 8 collections of essays, most recently Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The return of the nigger breakers (2010); a farce, Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon; or, The hexorcism of Noxon D Awful (1970); a libretto, Gethsemane Park; a sampler collection, The Reed Reader (2000); 2 travelogues, of which the most recent is Blues City: A walk in Oakland (2003); and 6 plays, collected by Dalkey Archive Press as Ishmael Reed, The plays (2009).

He has also edited 13 anthologies, the most recent of which is POW WOW, Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience—Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009), a collection of 63 writers co-edited with Carla Blank. Spanning over 200 years of American writing, Reed in his "Foreword" calls it "a gathering of voices from the different American tribes." POW WOW is the fiction companion anthology to From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2002 (2003), in which Reed endorses an open definition of American poetry as an amalgamation, which should include work found in the traditional canon of European-influenced American poetry as well as work by immigrants, hip hop artists, and Native Americans.

A poem written in Seattle in 1969, “Beware Do Not Read This Poem,” has been cited by Gale Research Company as among the approximately 20 poems that teachers and librarians have identified as the most frequently studied in literature courses.


Reed’s texts and lyrics have been performed, composed or set to music by Albert Ayler, David Murray, Allen Toussaint, Carman Moore, Taj Mahal, Olu Dara, Lester Bowie, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Ravi Coltrane, Leo Nocentelli, Eddie Harris, Anthony Cox, Don Pullen, Billie Bang, Bobby Womack, Milton Cardonna, Omar Sosa, Fernando Saunders, Yosvanni Terry, Jack Bruce, Little Jimmy Scott, Robert Jason, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Cassandra Wilson and others.

He has been the central participant in the longest ongoing music/poetry collaboration, known as Conjure projects, produced by Kip Hanrahan on American Clavé: Conjure I (1984) and Conjure II (1988), which were reissued by Rounder Records in 1995; and Conjure Bad Mouth (2005), whose compositions were developed in live Conjure band performances, from 2003 to 2004, including engagements at Paris’ Banlieues Bleues, London’s Barbican, and the Blue Note Café in Tokyo. The Village Voice ranked the 2005 Conjure CD one of four best spoken word albums released in 2006.

A David Murray CD released in 2009, The Devil Tried to Kill Me, includes 2 songs with lyrics by Reed: “Afrika,” sung by Taj Mahal, and the title song performed by SF based rapper, Sista Kee. September 11, 2011, in a Jazz à la Villette concert at the Grande Halle in Paris, the Red Bull Music Academy World Tour premiered 3 new songs with lyrics by Ishmael Reed, performed by Macy Gray, Tony Allen, members of The Roots, David Murray and his Big Band, Amp Fiddler and Fela! singer/dancers. In 2007, he made his debut as a Jazz pianist and bandleader with For All We Know by The Ishmael Reed Quintet.


The University of Buffalo awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1995.

2 of his books have been nominated for National Book Awards, and a book of poetry, Conjure, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His New and Collected Poems, 1964–2007, received the Commonwealth Club of California's Gold Medal.

LitQuake, the annual San Francisco Literary Festival, honored Ishmael Reed with their 2011 Barbary Coast Award. Among Ishmael Reed's other honors are writing fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts. In 1995, he received the Langston Hughes Medal, awarded by City College of New York; in 1997, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, establishing a 3-year collaboration with the Oakland based Second Start Literacy Project in 1998. In 1998, he also received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award. In 1999, he received a Fred Cody Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association, and was inducted into Chicago State University’s National Literary Hall of Fame of Writers of African Descent. Other awards include a Rene Castillo OTTO Award for Political Theatre (2002); a Phillis Wheatley Award from the Harlem Book Fair (2003); and in 2004, a Robert Kirsch Award, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, besides the D.C. Area Writing Project’s 2nd Annual Exemplary Writer’s Award and the Martin Millennial Writers, Inc. Contribution to Southern Arts Award, in Memphis, Tennessee. A 1972 manifesto inspired a major visual art exhibit, NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith, curated by Franklin Sirmans for The Menil Collection in Houston, where it opened June 27, 2008, and subsequently traveled to P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, and the Miami Art Museum through 2009.

In 2008, he was honored as Blues Songwriter of the Year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame Awards.



  • Catechism of a Neoamerican Hoodoo Church. London: Paul Breman, 1970; Highland Park, MI: Broadside Press, 1971.
  • Conjure: Selected poems, 1963-1970. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.
  • Chattanooga: Poems. New York: Random House, 1973.
  • A Secretary to the Spirits (illustrated by Betye Saar). New York: NOK Publishers, 1978.
  • New and Collected Poems. New York: Atheneum, 1989.
  • From Totems to Hip-Hop (collected poetry). New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.
  • New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2006.
  • New and Collected Poems, 1964-2007. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007.


  • The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.
  • Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972.
  • The Last Days of Louisiana Red. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Flight to Canada. New York: Random House, 1976.
  • The Terrible Twos. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
  • Reckless Eyeballing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
  • The Terrible Threes. New York: Atheneum, 1989.
  • Japanese by Spring. New York: Atheneum, 1993.
  • Juice!. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.


  • Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (essays). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.
  • God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected essays. New York: Garland, 1982.
  • Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-seven years of boxing on paper. New York: Atheneum, 1988
    • revised and expanded as Writing Is Fighting: Forty-three Years of Boxing on Paper. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
  • Airing Dirty Laundry. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.
  • The Reed Reader. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the race war. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • Blues City: A walk in Oakland. New York: Crown, 2003.
  • Mixing It Up: Taking on the media, and other reflections. New York: Da Capo Press, 2008.
  • Barack Obama and The Media Bullies; or, The return of the “nigger breakers”. Montreal: Baraka Books, 2010.
  • The Fighter and the Writer: Two American stories. New York: Random House, 2012.


  • The Rise, Fall, and... ? of Adam Clayton Powell (as "Emmett Coleman"). Albany, NY: Beeline, 1967.
  • 19 Necromancers from Now (also author of introduction & contributor). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.
  • (With Al Young) Yardbird Lives!. New York: Grove, 1978.
  • (And contributor) Calafia: The California poetry. Berkeley, CA: Yardbird Books, 1979.
  • The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980-1990 (edited with Kathryn Trueblood & Shawn Wong). New York: Norton, 1992.
  • MultiAmerica: Essays on cultural wars and cultural peace. New York: Viking, 1997.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[6]


  • Hell Hath No Fury... (produced by the Playwrights and Directors Project of the Actors Studio in New York, NY, June, 1980).
  • Savage Wilds (produced at the Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley, CA, January, 1988).
  • Hubba City (produced at the Black Repertory Theatre, 1988).
  • The Preacher and the Rapper (produced in New York, NY, 1994).

Except where noted, information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[6]

See alsoEdit

Ishmael Reed, "Beware Do not read this poem"

Ishmael Reed, "Beware Do not read this poem"

Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum

Ishmael Reed at the Brockport Writers Forum


  • Sirmans, Franklin, editor. NeoHooDoo, Art for a Forgotten Faith. New Haven and London: The Menil Foundation, Inc., distributed by Yale University Press, 2008. (Includes Sirmans' interview with Reed, pp. 74–81.)
  • Nishikawa, Kinohi. "Mumbo Jumbo." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 1552–53.
  • Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien, with a preface by Jerome Klinkowitz. The “Dark Heathenism” of the American Novelist Ishmael Reed, African Voodoo as American Literary Hoodoo. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd., 2007
  • Hume. Kathryn. American Dream American Nightmare: Fiction Since 1960. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Dick, Bruce Allen, editor with the assistance of Pavel Zemliansky. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999. (Includes Dick's 1997 telephone interview with Reed, pp. 228–250)
  • McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
  • Ludwig, Sämi. Concrete Language: Intercultural Communication in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” and Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo". Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, Cross Cultural Communication Vol. 2, 1996.
  • Joyce, Joyce A. "Falling Through the Minefield of Black Feminist Criticism: Ishmael Reed, A Case in Point," Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-centered Literary Criticism. Chicago: Third World Press, 1994.
  • Nazareth, Peter. In the Trickster Tradition:The Novels of Andrew Salkey, Francis Ebejar and Ishmael Reed. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Press, 1994.
  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
  • O'Brien, John, editor. The Review of Contemporary Fiction Volume 4, Number 2, Summer, 1984. "Juan Goytisolo and Ishmael Reed Number"(Includes articles and interviews with Reed by Reginald Martin, Franco La Polla, Jerry H. Bryant, W.C. Bamberger, Joe Weixlmann, Peter Nazareth, James R. Lindroth, Geoffrey Green and Jack Byrne.)
  • McConnell, Frank. "Da Hoodoo is Put on America," in Black Fiction, New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee. NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

Fonds Edit

His archives are located in Special Collections at the University of Delaware in Newark.


  1. "Ishmael Reed Biography," fan page. Accessed Sept. 20, 2011.
  2. Fox, Robert Elliot. "About Ishmael Reed's Life and Work," Modern American Poetry website. Accessed Sept. 20, 2011.
  3. Steiner, Andy. "Media Diet: Ishmael Reed," Utne Reader (Sept./Oct. 1998).
  4. Muslim American play prepares for premiere
  5. Carla Blank's latest publication is REDISCOVERING AMERICA: The Making of Multicultural America, 1900–2000
  6. 6.0 6.1 Ishmael Reed b. 1938, Poetry Foundation, Web, Nov. 21, 2012.

External linksEdit

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