Ishmael Reed to present 'Black History through Poetry'
Renowned poet and writer daughter appearing at Firehouse Arts Center
Call him neither black nor African American. Renowned poet Ishmael Reed, who is appearing Sunday afternoon at the Firehouse Arts Center in honor of Black History Month, thinks all Americans should be referred to as "Pan-Americans."
"'Black' and 'African American' are OK here but when I go to Dublin (Ireland) I refer to people here as Pan American," Reed explained. "African is only part of their heritage. One of the secrets of American history and culture is that the people are really mixed up."
Mohammed Ali drew tens of thousands when he visited Ireland in 2009, Reed noted, because his great-grandfather Abraham Grady was Irish.
"Numerous whites -- Irish and Italians -- have just recently been considered white," Reed said. "When Armenians came here they were called Asians."
"Whiteness is a relatively new idea. Around the 1860s-70s we started talking about it," he said. "Before that people were ethnically distinct.
"African American culture and history are an integral part of our common culture."
Reed is a novelist, journalist and playwright who has been cited by critics as among the greatest contemporary African American literary figures of his generation. He is the author of 27 books and editor of 13 anthologies and numerous magazines, as well as a publisher, blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle, and radio and television commentator.
Pleasanton Poet Laureate Cynthia Bryant hopes that people of all ages will come to this presentation to learn more about black history, which is why we have the month dedicated to it.
"There's a lot to know and understand," Bryant said. "It has to do with the kind of people we are and we become, how we treat each other and how we celebrate."
At the Firehouse, Reed will appear with his daughter, Tennessee Reed, who is also a poet.
The first of her four collections of poetry, "Circus in the Sky," was published when she was 11 years old.
"Reed writes with clarity, wit and wonder -- and with an open-hearted passion that disarms, refreshes and delights," California Poet Laureate Emeritus Al Young wrote about her.
Her name Tennessee is Cherokee for "bend in the river," Ishmael Reed said, explaining that her great-grandmother, his grandmother, was Cherokee.
"When we went to Chattanooga, I was able to show her the bend in the river," Reed said.
He was born in Tennessee in 1938; when he was about 4 years old, his family was part of the black migration to Buffalo. As a young man he moved to New York City where he hobnobbed with literary figures of the '60s.
After living in Los Angeles to write his second novel, he moved to Berkeley in 1967. The reviewer of his book "Freelance Pallbearers" invited Reed to teach writing and literature at UC Berkeley, where he stayed until 2005.
"It's always stimulating to get to look at new materials," Reed said. "I always made it a practice of publishing anthologies in my classes, from totems to hip hop."
He would include students' works in the anthologies and would read poems by students and by famous canonized poets, asking listeners to identify which was by the professional. Often the student poem would be chosen.
"This shows how arbitrary things are," Reed said.
He does a lot of touring with his works. His novel "Japanese by Spring," a satire of academia as cultural battleground, is being studied in China, and he was invited to visit in November. He speaks Japanese and plans to start learning Mandarin before he visits in the fall. He also knows Yoruba, a language brought to America from West Africa, which is often heard in Cuba and parts of South America.
"When you go to different countries, speaking even a little of the language -- even signing an autograph in their language -- they will really open up to you," he said. "When I went to Nigeria, I spoke Yoruba and they started giving me gifts."
In 1990 Reed started a magazine called Konch, now an online publication, to publish voices that aren't heard elsewhere. He calls it, "A publication for the rest of us."
"We can get by on the basis of a little pocket money and donations, and we get a larger readership, from all over the world," he said. "I toured the Middle East, and in 2000 I was able to publish students from Lebanon, Israel, some who were never published before."
He said that books such as Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" and the movie script for Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" have outspoken critics because they were written by white people. The scriptwriter for the movie was Dutch, he noted.
"My point is that it seems like the white mainstream consumers are only comfortable when whites are writing about blacks," he said.
Reed's latest book is "Juice!" in which he argues that since 1994, "O.J. has become a metaphor for things wrong with culture and politics." Donna Seaman of Booklist said that Reed "is positively gleeful here as his irresistible trickster alter ego breaks down the toxic implications of the Simpson case and rails against American racism, hypocrisy, greed, and corruption."
Reed said his most popular novel is "Mumbo Jumbo."
"All my novel are still in print," he said.
Reed was described as "an unorthodox writer who has taken on the media, the writing establishment, feminists, politicians, blacks, whites and (the) American institution of higher learning," by Lee Hubbard in "American Visions."
"I'm 74 years old so even if I started out dumb I was bound to learn something along the way," he said.
He's known many literary greats throughout his life, and wrote a poem for Malcolm X when he knew him.
"He said it was like Virgil and like Dante -- which showed me that the prison library served him better than most schools," Reed said with a laugh.
Reed is looking forward to his appearance with his daughter at the Firehouse Arts Center, reading and commenting on his poems.
"I'm going to jump around a lot," he said. "I'm going to read from new poetry and my daughter will be reading from hers."
The program begins at 2 p.m. Sunday at 4444 Railroad Ave. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for students.
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