‘The Black Arts Movement and Its Influences’ conference hits UC Merced Feb. 28-March 2: an interview with writer Ishmael Reed
by The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey
On Feb. 28-March 2 at UC Merced, “The Black Arts Movement and Its Influences” conference will be going down with a host of legendary Black artists who have contributed to the liberation of our minds over the last 50 years. People like Askia Toure, Umar Bin Hasan of the Last Poets, Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, Avotcja, Ayodele Nzinga, Ras Baraka and Ishmael Reed, to name a few, will be participating.
We sat down with the very outspoken multidisciplinary writer Ishmael Reed to get his comments on the period, as well as to catch up with him in the pages of the Bay View. Check him out in his own words.
M.O.I. JR: Can you speak about how the Black Arts Movement influenced your work?
Ishael Reed: Some mean the Black Arts Repertory Theater when speaking of the Black Arts. Others expand it to mean a nationwide movement. I first heard the term Black Arts in New York around 1965, when Amiri Baraka, Askia Toure, Charles Patterson and Raymond Patterson organized the Black Arts Repertory Theater. It didn’t last long, but while active it brought theater and Jazz to the Harlem community and was able to do this by fundraising and using government funds.
Amiri, because of his connections with the downtown white avant garde and the Allen Ginsberg machine, was the principal fundraiser, but the philosopher of the New York Black Arts Movement was Askia Toure, who was also co-author of the Black Power manifesto that was printed in The New York Times.
There are a lot of myths about New York Black Arts. One is that they ended contacts with white people. Not true. Yet, the problem with New York Black Arts was its adhering to the myth of Yacub. Yacubism was sweeping the New York Black intelligentsia at the time as a response to terrorism aimed at Blacks in the South.
I first heard the term Black Arts in New York around 1965, when Amiri Baraka, Askia Toure, Charles Patterson and Raymond Patterson organized the Black Arts Repertory Theater.
There was also animosity toward Jews because Jews were beginning to assimilate and abandon the coalition with Blacks that began around the 1901. Herbert Hill, former NAACP labor secretary, says that the Jews became white in the 1960s.
But the Yacub thing was always puzzling to me. That some of the brightest people I know would believe that whites were created by a Black scientist to do evil. It originated from the Nation of Islam, but for an unpublished book about Muhammad Ali, I interviewed a man who worked with Elijah Muhammad inside the mansion. He said that Elijah Muhammad had whites at his dinner table.
M.O.I. JR: How did the political revolution of the ‘60s in the Black community connect with the cultural revolution of the ‘60s? What did we learn out of this interaction?
Ishmael Reed: Well, the nationalists weren’t interested in revolution because they viewed themselves as a nation within a nation, an idea that originated in Moscow around the 1930s. The revolutionaries were the Black Panthers, but even they chose the ballot over the gun, eventually. They also showed the difference between the way white and Black revolutionaries are treated.
Some of the white ones married movie stars, made millions when they turned right. Weatherman Mark Rudd told me that he had a cozy time in the underground, because rich leftists paid his bills. There are still Black revolutionaries who are in jail; some of them have been in solitary confinement for years.
The problem with the white left is that they can’t seem to shed their “white chauvinism,” a complaint that was made by Claude McKay in Moscow in 1922 and one that Amiri Baraka made against the Revolutionary Communist Party, a weird outfit led by a phantom white man.
They’re busy criticizing my views about “Precious,” the worst film about Black life ever done, and one that fits with Oprah Winfrey’s view of welfare recipients, lazy welfare cheats, hanging around the house all day eating bad food and having sex with their children. That’s why she signed on as fake producer, yet Harold Weinstein, a Black dysfuction enterprenuer, made the money.
The revolutionaries were the Black Panthers, but even they chose the ballot over the gun, eventually. They also showed the difference between the way white and Black revolutionaries are treated.
I wrote that Walter White of the NAACP would turn over in his grave if he knew that the NAACP would give this vile film an award. The NAACP paid me back by doing an ignorant hatchet job on my novel “Juice!” in Crisis magazine. The Revolutionary Communist Party should be spending time trying to liberate the white working class from its racism, instead of spending energy taking me to task for my criticism of the neo-Nazi movie, “Precious.” Barbara Bush was so fascinated by the “Precious” incest theme that she organized viewings of it.
M.O.I. JR: Amiri Baraka, who many call the father of the Black Arts Movement, just passed away. What was his contribution to this movement and the political movement of Black people in general in this country over the time he was active?
Ishmael Reed: Amiri Baraka was one of the most innovative writers of our period. He received a lot of publicity when “Dutchman” and his other plays were published in the early 1960s. But if anybody is father of the Black Arts movement in New York it was Askia Toure. His poem “Dawn Song” is the essential Black Arts poem.
I got a lot heat for many years over that position, but it turns out that some of my detractors were hypocrites. I wasn’t one who was going to sign on to the obsessions of the Nazi Party and the KKK. The most scurrilous attack on my “lifestyle” came from the then editor of The Journal of Black Poetry. It was creepy and showed that he had no class, since Clarence Major asked me to contribute to the magazine for no compensation.
The editor aspired to be a writer but never achieved anything. I guess it takes discipline and work ethic to be a writer. Instead of condemning this demented attack on me, he was recently celebrated by Black intellectuals and poets.
These are the kind of people who’ve made a career of attacking white racism, which for me reveals a mentality of subservience, since they hold whites to a higher standard than they have for themselves. I might even call it a slave mentality. The only person who defended me against this attack was the late Addison Gayle Jr. It was then that I learned the cowardice of segments of the Black intelligentsia.
M.O.I. JR: Why is a Black Arts Movement conference important in this day and time?
Ishmael Reed: Black Arts did more to inspire Blacks to read and to write than any of its critics.
M.O.I. JR: What is your keynote speech about at the conference?
Ishmael Reed: I’m going to read from new work. I might read from unpublished fiction from Amiri that I published in my magazine, Konch.
M.O.I. JR: What else have you been working on recently?
Ishmael Reed: My play, “The Final Version,” closed on Jan. 19 in New York. Even though it was ignored by the mainstream press without a single review appearing, it did well. During that week, two plays about the Black experience written by white men were reviewed in the Times.
Things haven’t changed since the 1930s when Langston Hughes complained that most of the 37 plays about Black life were written by white men. Yet, because of word of mouth and support from the Black media and Blacks in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the box office receipts were good despite the “arctic vortex” which led to our canceling one performance.
The only theater that does my plays out here is the Black Rep. But this play has language that is too explicit for the Black Rep. The other theaters do Black Boogeyman plays, in which saintly do-no-wrong women are surrounded by Black brutes, the kind of genre that has made Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein millions in Hollywood.
My play, “The Final Version,” closed on Jan. 19 in New York. Even though it was ignored by the mainstream press without a single review appearing, it did well.
Steven Speilberg has done two Black Boogeyman films, “The Color Purple” and “The Help.” In “The Help,” the Black Boogeyman is Leroy. He doesn’t even appear on the screen. This movie takes place during the killing of Medgar Evers, yet none of the middle class white men belong to the KKK or the White Citizens Council.
The movie lets white men off the hook probably because a white man wrote the script and directed it, just as “The Color Purple,” a sacred film for some Black women and white middle class feminists, who have made a fetish of Black rape and incest, was written, directed and produced by white men.
The great writer bell hooks predicted that white male producers etc. would lift Black male characters from Black Boogeyman novels and make them even meaner on the screen. The Black Rep is the only theater in Northern California where an outspoken Black male writer can get a play done.
The mayor of Berkeley is hostile toward the Black Rep. Yet the city has awarded millions to the Berkeley Rep, the white rep. Every play about Black life that I have seen at the Berkeley Rep has been an embarrassment.
The Black Rep is the only theater in Northern California where an outspoken Black male writer can get a play done.
They did Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk.” I wanted to crawl under the seat. Not surprising that Zora Neale Hurston would write such a thing. She wrote a minstrel show that had Africans eating people. She wasn’t a feminist either.
In her works the women can be just as mendacious as the men. Check it out. One play made Bayard Rustin the architect of the March on Washington, when J. Phillip Randolph was the architect, and before him Louise Thompson, a Black communist, who was the first to suggest such a thing.
At the end, Bayard Rustin leaves the Civil Rights Movement because of its homophobia, a charge that continues to be made. It’s a slander. They point to the Blacks being responsible for the passing of Proposition 8 that passed in California, the one that prohibited gay marriage.
All ethnic groups – Asian, Hispanic and a religious group, Catholics – voted in majorities for the proposition. The Mormons put up the $1 million that got it through, yet they’re always blaming the Black church for homophobia. The media know better than to mess with the Mormons.
I sent my script for “The Final Version” to Steve Jones at the Lorraine Hansberry but I haven’t heard from him. He’s done a great job in resurrecting the Lorraine Hansberry, which Stanley left in a mess.
I can’t live in New York, but if it weren’t for New York, I wouldn’t have a career. We built the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN Oakland out here, institutions that have brought international positive publicity to Oakland, yet we can’t get grants or support. The Black Rep has the same problem, even though they take over a hundred kids off the streets each summer, feed them lunch, and get them to rehearse for a musical that takes place at the end of the summer – for under $50,000. I hate it when I hear middle class Blacks bad mouth the Black Rep. What are they doing?
I saw the kids do “The Wiz.” It was better than that awful thing that Diana Ross starred in – a racist disgrace in which they had Ebonics-talking crows and stuffed Mammies. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I saw it the other night. A disgrace.
My daughter and I did a weekly workshop for kids there a few summers ago, for $1,000, yet the California Endowment gave Scott Johnson of the Oakland Tribune, a white writer, $350,000 to write a study about whether violence is good for you. He even went to Uganda to find whether the key to Oakland violence could be found in Africa. Maybe he thinks that we inherited a jungle violence gene.
We built the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN Oakland out here, institutions that have brought international positive publicity to Oakland, yet we can’t get grants or support. The Black Rep has the same problem, even though they take over a hundred kids off the streets each summer, feed them lunch, and get them to rehearse for a musical that takes place at the end of the summer – for under $50,000.
Black violence is big business for white grantees, filmmakers, television producers. They’re always calling me up and asking me to lead them on a tour of Oakland violence. Sixty-two percent of Black on Black homicide is a result of wars over drug turfs, yet that is never mentioned.
You even have Blacks and whites supporting these projects. You should see the hate mail from Blacks that I got for criticizing neo-Nazi projects like “Precious” and “The Wire.”
All in all, however, 2013 was a good year for me if only that Macy Gray and Gregory Porter recorded two songs of mine on a CD called “Be My Monster Love.” I’m still trying to find a publisher for my big book on Muhammad Ali. So far publishers have turned it down because it gives more of a balanced view of The Nation of Islam than the hundred or so others written by white male writers who cast them as lunatics and thugs.
I’ve had to spend the last week trying to clean up the mess after one of Alice Walker’s groupies, Meredith May, posing as a journalist in the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted Sapphire, an author, as saying that I tried to prevent people from seeing the movie “The Color Purple.” Sapphire was one of those responsible for creating the hysteria that led to the incarceration of the Central Park Five – they were innocent – with her poem, “Wild Thing,” which placed them at the crime scene, used their real names and had them doing vile things to the stockbroker.
She said that I tried to prevent people from seeing the film “The Color Purple,” another one of her lies. The two Indian filmmakers, Shatteen Haq and Pratibha Parmar, so fascinated by Black rape and incest, didn’t bother to get my response to how I was depicted in the film during which my remarks were taken out of context – and I wasn’t the only one.
Though Ms. Parmar and I both work at CCA (California College of the Arts), she didn’t interview me. Though Alice Walker read some lovely poems during this American Masters portrait on PBS, the two filmmakers tried to create a martyr out of her. They portrayed the Blacks who were opposed to the film as bigots.
What they left out was that Alice Walker had problems with the film too. Is she a bigot? A martyr. I’m sure that some of the women in recovery at The Friendly Manor on San Pablo run by my friend, Sister Maureen, would like to have a nice house in the Berkeley Hills and a garden.
Now even though this column portraying me as some kind of Tea Party person going around trying to prevent people from seeing films was syndicated, Ms. May said that maybe they would print a letter of mine but it had to be 100 words. I said that I needed a retraction. Nothing doing, she said.
You should see the hate mail from Blacks that I got for criticizing neo-Nazi projects like “Precious” and “The Wire.”
I wrote that I wasn’t bereft of outlets and responded in Counterpunch and plan to do more in my outlets that have nationwide readerships. They wouldn’t even print J.J. Phillips’ letter defending me.
She is one of a number of Black women writers who’ve defended me against attacks coming from white middle class feminists, who, according to Harriet Fraad, writing in Tikkun, co-opted the feminist movement, and who, with their one or two Black surrogates, have been slandering me and censoring me at least since 1979, the most recent from The Tablet Magazine, where I urged David Mamet, Steven Spoiler, David Simon and others who’ve appointed themselves referees for conflicts which they see in Black male and woman relationships to take a little time out from making profits from the genre to address the misogyny aimed at Jewish women in the United States and in Israel. The Jewish feminist in the publication, Lilith, say there’s been a cover-up.
When I visited Israel for the first time, I discovered that the situation was so dire that feminists were picketing the Knesset. I worked my butt off on this piece and the editors said that they were enthusiastic, but then I got an email from the editor, Matthew Fishbane, on Sept. 14, 2013: “Sadly, I’m writing to say that we have decided not to go forward with the piece. We are deeply sorry about putting you and Emily [my agent’s assistant] through the wringer, but here at Tablet this turned into a girls versus boys thing – and, as you know, girls have the power.”
Now Native American, Hispanic, Asian American have praised me and even given me tributes in song, the media don’t care about what they say – only what corporate feminists say, people like Gloria Steinem, whom Toni Morrison says created “The Color Purple.”
Among those who have defended me against charges from white feminists have been Ntozake Shange, who refused when white feminists in San Francisco asked her to con Gwen Carman, who rebuffed some white feminists who kept me off of a panel organized by the National Writers Union. The great bell hooks, who wrote the most trenchant criticism of the film “The Color Purple,” defended me against white feminist criticism in her book, “Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics.”
One of the few Black feminists who’ve been used by Karen Durbin of The Village Voice and Gloria Steinem of Ms. against me show a double standard. Margo Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and NY Times writer, challenged to kick my ass during a question and answer period after a panel that was held at New York University. The women in the audience, who say that they are against battering, applauded and cheered.
This is because my panel members had said that Blacks were bigots who were against them because they were gay or light skinned, etc. I said to Jefferson’s friend who made the remark that Kathleen Cleaver had appeared the night before during a panel led by Amiri Baraka and she didn’t have any problems.
I said that the Black grassroots were among the most humanistic of American ethnic groups and that I lived in a North Oakland ghetto and across the street was a gay liberation house with the gay flag flying on the porch, and nobody burned a cross in front of it. Jefferson said that children cut her hair when she was a child because she was light skinned.
But was that a reason for her to threaten me with violence? Her bosses at the Times have been accused of misogyny and I’m sure that she wouldn’t address them in that manner. Besides, she confessed in a column that she had nocturnal erotic fantasies about John Wayne, the cowboy.
Finally, the two Indian women who did the Walker PBS Masters film are among women from other ethnic groups who are scared to reveal the misogyny in their groups because they know what they would get, and so they use the Black Boogeyman to vent their frustrations against the men in their groups. I’m surprised that some enterprising person hasn’t invented a punching bag with a Black man’s face on it. They would make a fortune.
Here’s J.J. Phillips’s letter, dated Feb. 5, 2014. She is an American Master whose novel “Mojo Hand” is a classic.
Dear Meredith May,
Sad to see you so casually quote Sapphire’s shallow, self-serving indictment of Ishmael Reed vis-à-vis “The Color Purple.” Anyone with any sense knows that to criticize a work of literature or the tenets a writer holds isn’t the same as trying to stop people from reading a book, and it’s irresponsible of you to use another writer to get in such a dig, without any but prejudicial context.
Are you one of the Alice Walker feminist/womanist fundamentalist jihadis for whom the slightest criticism of Alice Walker or her work is tantamount to blasphemy? I’m sure you’d agree that criticism is healthy and necessary; consequently, however one appraises Alice Walker’s writing and thought, it cannot be above scrutiny.
She’s not a deity (except to the fundamentalists), and it’s not just Black men who have serious problems with her. Many African American women find her writing unpalatable and deeply problematic as well (she certainly does not speak for me); but many (not I, though) have been intimidated into silence by the very kind of feminists and womanists who yak on ad nauseam about how the patriarchy “silences women.”
They do a superb job of silencing their own sisters. Most recently, Alice Walker has professed her enthusiasm for some exceedingly dangerous and mentally disturbed people – namely, David Icke, Arizona Wilder and Credo Mutwa – yet she seems to be above scrutiny for her espousal of their sick, sick beliefs. Whatever else Alice Walker has written or stated that can be considered controversial, anyone interviewing or writing about her after her profession of faith in these people and their doctrines cannot ignore this dangerous liaison and call himself or herself an honest critic or journalist (and that applies to PBS as well).
If you write about Ms. Walker, it is incumbent on you to familiarize yourself with this business and take a stand one way or the other. And you should also investigate the substance of what her critics have to say and not just join the peanut gallery to deride them uncritically out of blind loyalty.
Jane (J.J.) Phillips
M.O.I. JR: How do people keep up with you?
Ishmael Reed: I’m at IshmaelReed.org.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.