Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) is the winner of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (genius award), the renowned L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the National Institute for Arts and Letters. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer and finalist for two National Book Awards and is Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley (a thirty-five year presence); he has also taught at Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the California College of the Arts. He is a member of Harvard's Signet Society and founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which promotes multicultural American writing. The American Book Awards, sponsored by the foundation, has been called by The Washington Post, the American League to the National Book Awards' National League. He also founded PEN Oakland, which issues the Josephine Miles Literary Awards. PEN Oakland has been called "The Blue Collar PEN" by The New York Times. He is the author of over twenty titles such as The Freelance Pallbearers; The Terrible Threes; The Last Days of Louisiana Red; Yellow Back Radio Broke Down; Reckless Eyeballing; Flight to Canada; Japanese By Spring; Going Too Far: Essays About America's Nervous Breakdown; Juice!; Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers; and the acclaimed novel Mumbo Jumbo, as well as essays, plays and poetry. His New and Collected Poetry, 1964-2007 (2007) which received a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California was praised by his patron, the late Gwendolyn Brooks, he was inducted into Chicago State University's National Literary Hall of Fame of Writers of African Descent, in 1995, he received an honorary Doctorate in Letters from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and in 1998 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Johnson C. Smith University at Charlotte, North Carolina. His 2015 book, The Complete Muhammad Ali (Montreal, QC: Baraka Books, 2015, pp.440, ISBN: 9781771860406) charts Muhammad Ali's evolution from Black Nationalism to universalism, and gives due credit to the Nation of Islam and Black Nationalism in its influence on Ali's intellectual development. Second, he casts his inquisitive eye on a man who came to represent the aspirations of so many people worldwide and so many causes as he brings to bear his own experience as an African American public figure, born in the South in the same period, as well as an encyclopedic grasp of American history.
And third, he places the Muhammad Ali phenomenon in the history of boxing and boxers from before the times of Jack Johnson, through Joe Louis and Archie Moore to Floyd Mayweather. Reed also interviewed Marvin X, Harry Belafonte, Hugh Masakela, Jack Newfield, Ed Hughes, Emmanuel Steward, Amiri Baraka, Agieb Bilal, Emil Guillermo, Khalilah Ali, Quincy Troupe, Rahaman Ali, Melvin Van Peebles, Ray Robinson, Jr., Ed Hughes, Jesse Jackson, Martin Wyatt, Bennett Johnson, Stanley Crouch, Bobby Seale, and many more to document the importance and significance of Muhammad Ali.
Macy Gray, Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, and Bobby Womack have recorded his songs, and in 2008, he received the Blues songwriter of the year from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. He made his recording debut as a Jazz pianist on the CD "For All We Know," which features David Murray. Reed lives in Oakland, California.
Don: Can you talk to me about what was happening in the mid-1960s with regards to your work and the promise of the Black Arts Movement?
Ishmael: I knew some of the people who founded Black Arts Repertory Theater, the New York branch of what Eugene Redmond has documented as a nation-wide movement. They were my roommates-before they left the East Village to go to Harlem. This was 1965. Askia Toure, William and Charles Patterson and I lived in an apartment on East 5th Street. Our neighbors were Puerto Ricans. I paid the rent, and so you could call me the first patron of the Black Arts Movement, New York. Though the Norton Anthology of African American Literature dismissed the Black Arts movement as "short-lived," there still seems to be a big payroll in Black Arts products: conferences, academic chairs and courses, which involves costs for transportation, hotels, book sales, etc. not to mention profits gained from Kwanzaa and from vendors throughout the nation.
Though it's been co-opted by academics, I think that those who were in on the genesis of Black Arts, which, in New York, began downtown, lacked degrees. So, I think that's what happened to the Black Arts. It has become mainstream. In the sixties, people really believed there would be a transformation in the country and they used terms like "revolutionary," but capitalism has a way of absorbing the people on the outs and inviting them into the establishment. When Baraka died, he was a member of the Academy of American Arts and Letters, which is the most exclusive establishment artist's club in the country.
Don: The Black Arts Movement is said to have begun in 1965 and ended around 1976.
Ishmael: That's not true. Some of those who were prominent during The Black Arts Movement like Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, Jayne Cortez, Quincy Troupe, Eugene Redmond, Curtis Lyle, Lorenzo Thomas, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Aishah Rahman, Carolyn Rodgers, Ed Bullins, and Nikki, Haki and Amiri produced excellent work after the 70s; plus, some members of the younger generation like Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange were influenced by Black Arts. Black Arts is now so accepted that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who has been appointed the Czar of the Black experience, provided Kim McMillon with thousands of dollars to stage the New Orleans conference. He's the one who said that Black Arts was "short-lived."
He's been saying that for decades. You know I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal about the passing of Amiri Baraka in 2014. I was in correspondence with him until November 16th of 2013. We had our last correspondence then. It was a very on-again, off-again relationship because we had disagreements. Baraka didn't receive the kind of favorable critical reception when...