Ishmael Reed has spent the last five decades smashing idols -- idols of race, idols of capitalism, celebrity idols and the idols of national virtue and greatness. His essays, novels, poems, plays, songs and cartoons routinely shatter the delusions and myths of a nation stubbornly unwilling to confront its past or understand its present. He rips open a history that saw white Europeans exterminate one race and enslave another to create the nation's prosperity, a past that includes the violent plundering of nations around the globe -- Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan among them -- to show us who we have become. He names the corrosive disease of empire. He excoriates what Alexis de Tocqueville called our "perpetual practice of self-applause." He battles back against the sophisticated forms of propaganda -- especially from Hollywood -- that perpetuate patriotic fantasies and pander to the dark streams of paranoia, racism and fear that run like electric currents through white society.
Reed's righteous fury is a heartening antidote to the squeamishness of liberals and the lunacy of the right wing. He says the editors of The New York Times and most other major media outlets "sound like they get their instructions from Julius Streicher [the Nazi propagandist] when it comes to blacks." He calls the HBO series "The Wire" "a Neo-Nazi portrait of black people" and dismisses the movie "Precious" as a film that "makes D.W. Griffith look like a progressive."
"Lazy, no-good black people, who are welfare cheats, sitting around eating chicken, and having sex with their children, right out of the Lee Atwater-Paul Ryan playbook," he said of the portrayals in "Precious" when I reached him by phone at his home in Oakland, Calif...
"The wonderful novelist Diane Johnson was right when she said that 'largely white' audiences are thrilled by images of black people as dysfunctional. This has become a billion-dollar market which led critics to assert that Black Bogeyman movies sell better than sex, according to the critic C. Liegh McInnis. You even have a critic at The Root website, a post-racial 'Talented Tenth' hangout for 'exceptional blacks,' praising Quentin Tarantino's latest sick exercise into racial porn, called 'Django Unchained,' ... which I critique at the Wall Street Journal site Speakeasy. This movie is being praised by the same critics who loved 'The Color Purple' and 'Precious,' probably because it revives Stanley Elkins' discredited 'Sambo Thesis.'"
Reed has no time for Black Bloc anarchists, whom he calls "alienated, spoiled middle-class white kids from the suburbs" as well as "vandals and thugs." He calls the Oscar presentation "a white supremacist pageant." He detests the Clintons, who he reminds us sold out the poor and the working class. Hillary, he says, makes "Eva Peron seem benign." He predicts more tragedies like the recent Connecticut massacre, noting that many white Americans stockpile assault rifles because they are terrified of black people and that mass shootings in the United States almost always are carried out by estranged white men.
"'The Turner Diaries,' the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma, and assaults by gunmen including one against the North Valley Jewish Community Center [in Granada Hills, Calif.,] in 1999, are very explicit," he said not long after we were on a panel together at the Miami Book Festival...
"The [novel] tells whites they need guns because if they give up their assault weapons blacks will kidnap white women and Jewish men will be their pimps. This fantasy, however absurd, at least addresses the deepest, unspoken fears of whites. The white power structure looks around at what is happening. It sees we are going down. It is terrified of an uprising by a coalition of whites, blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics that elected Obama -- even though Obama with his pretty, multicultural face and elegant style and his spouse, who is more militant than he and who for that reason has been silenced, serve the empire. The only problem is that white crazies like [Michele] Bachmann and the others are so blinded by white supremacy that they won't go along with the script. She [Rep. Bachmann] said that Obama was costing the taxpayers $250 million per day on his trip to India, a lie, when Obama's taking over 100 CEOs along with him brought back billions in contracts."
"The other part of the white public, the underclass and working class, has proven that they will go to any lengths to uphold white supremacy," he said.
"Even when they had no fight in the Civil War, owning no slave assets like the planters, they caused the deaths of 640,000 Americans in order to uphold white supremacy. Then, as now, parts of the white working class, who are anti-union and get drunk on the cheap moonshine of racism, are willing to exercise self-extinction in order to uphold white supremacy.
"One part of the slavery deal was the patriarchal planter's ownership of black women's wombs. Now they [the powerful] are mandating this demand of all women. Yet, white women favored Romney by 14 points. They're intimidated I think by their husbands, brothers, fathers and employers, which is why they scapegoat the [black] brothers for worldwide misogyny."
"One report from SUNY Buffalo has it that 90 percent of middle-class white women who were interviewed report being battered or witnessing their mothers, daughters and sisters being battered. Nicholas Kristof, who is on a world tour for the purpose of blaming black and brown men for cruelty to women, probably missed this report. So the white power structure, at least the Northeastern part, hopes having a black man as president will save the empire, just as the Germans, who were considered the underclass by the Romans, continued the Roman Empire until the 1800s, according to some historians. But they can't sell this to the majority of white women, who voted for Romney, the kind of dated '50s face and style that alienates the rest of the world, instead of a president who is actually charming to those who hate the United States. The president, whom I have both admired and criticized, is good for business. His face is more welcomed in many parts of the world than the usual white Yalie or Harvard person who hasn't a clue about what's happening on the global streets -- the kind of people who constantly get us into international trouble and even wars because they can't read the values of other cultures ... while Obama can go to places and tell Muslims, 'Well, you know, I have Muslims in my family.'
"The reason that I supported Obama for re-election is because of the vitriol, bordering on the psychotic, aimed at him and his family," Reed said.
"Also, because he faced not only opposition from the neo-Confederate caucus in Congress, but from a tea party that was created by [Rupert] Murdoch and [Roger] Ailes and from CNN, which made a business alliance with the Tea Party Express, led formerly by Mark Williams, who was fired over his so-called colored people letter. He wrote:
'Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house.
'We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!'
"Williams went on to say blacks don't want taxes cut because 'how will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?'"
"That they [CNN leaders] would make an alliance with this scum explains how blacks are depicted on CNN usually during the time when they have black anchors. I feel sorry for these people. It's because of CNN and Hollywood that when I visited Palestinian schools in Jerusalem in October I was asked why all black people are on drugs. And he [former Tea Party Express Chairman Williams] was replaced by a woman named Amy Kremer, who said to a CNN interviewer that 'I just don't believe that he [Obama] loves America the way we do.' CNN's bonding with this outfit explains the way it portrays blacks. The network has Soledad O'Brien scolding black men for not showing up at their daughters' birthday parties, or blacks making excuses for not being successful, or it does a 24-hour show about blacks committing dumb street crimes, or black athletes doing DUIs, while the audience, described by [former CNN anchor] Rick Sanchez as 'angry white men,' are shown doing altruistic deeds. They ignore the widespread pathologies afflicting white women. They're always shown helping people with their homework or adopting kids from Africa."
"I hold up a mirror to our hypocrisy," Reed said. "This is a tradition among writers that goes back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who exposed the hypocrisy of the Puritans. In Haitian mythology there is a figure named Ghede. In West Africa he is called Iku. His role is to show each man his devil. He wears a top hat and smokes a cigar. That's what I do. I show each man, woman, or institution their devils."
"Satire is among many of the weapons available to me," he said...
"But when I took on the powerful white middle- and upper-class feminist movement, lampooning such extreme notions that Emmett Till was just as guilty as his murderers and that if, as Anita Hill says, 'the woman should always be believed,' what about Eva Braun? I was left for literary roadkill, boycotted and censored. This was the best thing to happen to me because I decided that, unlike black male writers of the '40s and '50s -- black writers of the 19th century were probably more independent since they self-published and were even more aggressive than the current crop, they even took on the country's presidents, which could get you killed in those days -- I would become a global cultural figure and never again be judged by the whims of a market dependent upon coddling whichever special-interest group is demanding that black writers exclusively render positive portraits of their constituency."
Reed plays jazz piano. He has performed at Yoshi's San Francisco and at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan as part of a series produced by Rome Neal, who has directed all of Reed's plays. He has a CD out, "For All We Know," and the band Conjure has been performing Reed's poetry and songs since 1983, most recently at the Sardinia Jazz Festival.
"My study of Japanese led to the creation of my novel "Japanese by Spring," which got a lukewarm reception here but was praised by Japanese critics and even got me a trip to Japan in 1995," Reed said...