Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Free-est Writer in America

Ishmael Reed
Alan West
An Ishmael Reed moment occurred a few weeks ago when a free-associating, mouth-running, retired Army Lt. Col. freshman Florida congressman Allen West, the only African-American Republican in Congress, the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a Tea Party electee representing a majority-white district—“Boca”, home of Jerry Seinfeld’s parents’ iconic condo—nominated himself as ”the modern-day Harriet Tubman, to kind of lead on the underground railway away from that plantation [of Democrats] into a sense of sensibility.” (Whatever a sense of sensibility means: it doesn’t really matter). West is reckless and freelance, to borrow words from his apparently favorite author.

The point is, Ishmael Reed is not just a poet and novelist, playwright, provocateur, anthologizer, publisher and essayist, but both historian and prophet, and beyond all that, collagist, myth-maker, surrealist and iconoclast, and he has been all of them since the start of his career. And he is a man of a certain city, Oakland, which was once the free-est city in America, before the Bay Bridge, where the trans-continental railroad ended (and still does). Shit-kickers like Jack London and William Saroyan (the free-est writers of their respective eras) wrote of the rawness of the city, its unparalleled diversity, the whorehouses by the docks, the music, the cheap and endless seafood, a downscale Fisherman’s Wharf for the working class, where the clientele resembled something out of the end-of-the-universe cantina scenes in “Star Wars”.

When I call him the free-est writer in America, I mean really free: free from the constraints of time and space and what sane people call probability. Reed is an eavesdropper on history, a re-mixer of its soundtrack, much in the tradition, but not the style of Ralph Ellison. For Ish, (thinking of Flight to Canada) nothing is impossible. Watching Lincoln’s assassination live on TV? Sure. The fugitive slave, Raven Quickskill, wins a prize at The Squaw Valley Writers Conference. Why not? It’s about freedom, and Raven’s a freedom writer, his freedom is his writing, it will pay his ticket for an imagined Canada, and besides, Abe Lincoln and Walt Whitman loved it.

The African-American timeline is on a playback loop, propelled forward by promises (like Emancipation), and by the poem it ignites in his soul, allowing Raven Quickskill to peer into the promised future, and to live in his oppressive present, except for the fact that the imagination is forever unfettered. Ishmael Reed is an Oaklander; there’s no “then” there. Free of time and space, it reminds me again of the fact, as articulated in Invisible Man, that the black experience of America is a profoundly different narrative from the white, and vastly more expansive.  -Clark Blaise

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