The Idol Smasher
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,” he went on. “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.’ “
“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. “The same book enticed professors at Beijing Normal University to invite me to China, from where my partner, the choreographer and author Carla Blank, whose most recent project was a collaboration with Robert Wilson, just returned. When I read from a song I wrote, at the Blue Note in Tokyo before it was sung, I couldn’t get past the first two lines in Japanese before I was interrupted with applause. The same thing happened in Nigeria. On the basis of my study of Yoruba, I was able to read a poem before an audience of Nigerian writers. People began to sing and give me gifts. That’s the way to reach citizens around the world. Learn their cultures. Communicating this way is superior to the old Eurocentric way of bombing those who are different from us.”
Reed defies easy labels. “I don’t join movements,” he said at one point in the interview. He is deeply critical of black power movements that glorify violence, including the Black Panthers, but, he said, after “watching the Oakland police for a few decades I can understand what they [the Panthers] were up against, originally. They were organized to oppose police brutality, which in those days meant cops who were recruited from the South and who had a proven track record of handling niggers; the same reason that Southern officers were chosen to command black troops in Italy during World War II. When the Panthers turned to electoral politics, they elected a mayor, congresspeople, and filled local positions with blacks. The Panthers, unfortunately, were caught in a lovers’ quarrel between the white left and right. The right [and] the FBI destroyed the Panthers by using informants, including one who supplied them with weapons. The white left used them as proxies in a war against the establishment, their mothers and fathers. Some of them married movie stars or became well-paid gurus or made millions by being race baiters like David Horowitz. The white left was treated differently from the black left, just as the Black Bloc is treated differently from black kids.”
“The Bloc’s latest rampage through Oakland resulted in no arrests,” he said of one of the Black Bloc protests that occurred in that city in 2012. “When I interviewed Mark Rudd of the Weather Underground, he described his experience underground as ‘cozy.’ He was supported by rich progressives and though he participated in an armed robbery, a jail break and other crimes, when he surrendered the prosecutor testified on his behalf! He didn’t serve a day in jail, while some members of the Black Panthers still languish in prison.”
Reed attacks and explicates the institutional racism that keeps the poor trapped in internal colonies such as Oakland, but he has also mounted protracted campaigns to get the police to shut down crack houses and bring a semblance of safety to city streets. He confesses to being “very law and order” when it comes to criminal activity in inner-city neighborhoods. He calls the drug dealers, gang leaders and pimps in Oakland and other inner cities “neighborhood fascists.” But he ultimately blames “white pathology” for creating the violence and disorder. He points out that not only do most of the guns in Oakland and other cities come from the suburbs, but so do the customers for the drugs and prostitutes. The vast majority of the absentee landlords who rent properties to criminal enterprises in Oakland are, he notes, white or Asian-American. Nearly all live outside the city.
He said that the news and entertainment industry, while ignoring the crimes of the big banks and corporations, focuses instead on blacks in the inner city whom he describes as “the underpaid mules in urban vice.” He cites “The Wire” and what he calls “the pro-NYPD series ‘NYC 22.’ ” [Neither of the TV shows are in production now.]
“Indians of subcontinent ancestry run the hotels where the lucrative prostitution business takes place, and immigrant Muslims run the liquor stores, the front of which are outdoor offices for gangs, and the Chinese and Mexicans deliver the drugs to our neighborhood,” he said.
“I’ve lived in Oakland for over 30 years,” he said. “I have seen a steady stream of whites coming to the city for vice. The police and the white power structure look the other way. They are tacitly involved. Also unnoticed by the Yale and Harvard graduates who have made a good living writing columns about black failure is the sorry record of the police in solving ‘urban’ homicides. In Oakland, it’s below 40 percent. Eighty-five percent of the police force in Oakland are white and from the suburbs and probably view black-on-black homicide as a form of sunocide — my term for fraternal extermination — as a form of population control. They permit these urban centers of vice to operate. But don’t expect to read about this in The New York Times or see it on CNN, this huge contribution of the white power structure to black pathology. Black people, when they do appear in the media, are usually dressed in orange jump suits while whites are shown doing altruistic deeds. We often get these racist stereotypes handed to us by colored mind doubles. And these colored mind doubles, like Barack Obama or [Henry Louis] Gates, never mention the white complicity in sustaining the black underclass, especially when they give their ‘tough love’ talks. The Talented Tenth, which includes the president, have made gains by distancing themselves from the less fortunate blacks.”
Reed said that in researching his novel “Reckless Eyeballing” it became shockingly clear that Nazi stereotypes of Jews paralleled U.S. stereotypes of American blacks.
“Jewish men were portrayed in the Nazi press as sexual predators,” he said. “They raped Aryan women. They were sexual deviants. They were violent. They engaged in criminal behavior. They were a force for vice, contamination and corruption. They could not be trusted. They were disloyal. Even Jewish schoolchildren were a problem because they supposedly disrupted classrooms. Now look at how Jewish writers like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow depict black men as flashers. I have a cartoon in which the Nazis depicted Jewish males as exposing themselves. David Mamet’s ‘Edmond,’ about black sexual predators, and which kind of endorses vigilante action against them, is consistent with the portrayals of Jewish men by the Nazi media. David Simon, Steven Spielberg, Richard Price and David Mamet in his play ‘Race’ have profited from refereeing the conflict between black men and women.”
“Spielberg’s treatment of the character Mr. in ‘The Color Purple’ even drew protest from author Alice Walker,” Reed said. “But where is the Jewish ‘Color Purple’? I read a Jewish feminist magazine called Lilith where Jewish feminists complain that the abuse of Jewish women by Jewish men has been greeted with silence. When I visited Jerusalem for the first time, I found that the misogyny among Jewish men was rampant. While there, Israeli women picketed the Knesset over the issue. In the Jewish magazine Tablet, Jewish women criticized Jewish producers for assigning roles to Gentile women that were meant for them. So if Steven Spielberg took off from producing profitable Black Bogeyman pictures to produce a Jewish ‘Color Purple,’ one of those blond Rhine maidens who appear in Woody Allen’s films will probably get the leading role.”
“Critics object to my drawing a parallel between the treatment of black men in the United States and [Jews] in Nazi Germany,” he went on. “The parallel never occurred to me until I attended a lecture sponsored by the San Francisco Holocaust Museum. In a pamphlet they said that the treatment of Jewish men in Nazi Germany was similar to that accorded blacks in the United States. I went out and found examples, [including those I cite from] the outtakes of a film called ‘Boogie Man, The Lee Atwater Story,’ 2008, which can be ordered from Netflix.”
Reed despairs of the decline of the black press, especially black newspapers, which once gave blacks a sense of their own identity. “During the black power movement the Panthers and the Nation of Islam and figures like Muhammad Ali would only talk to black journalists, so these white publications hired them,” he noted. “But once these black journalists eventually went to work for white publications they had no power and no voice. According to Richard Prince’s ‘Journal-isms,’ these reporters, correspondents and commentators are being fired en masse, even at NPR. Those remaining have to apologize when they get out of line.”
He sees the assault on ethnic studies, especially African-American studies, as another way to ensure that blacks do not know their own history or the abuses and atrocities carried out by whites during slavery, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, as well as in contemporary society. Without an understanding of how white power works, he says, blacks who are trapped and ultimately disenfranchised, especially in our massive prison complex, cannot connect the dots.
Reed believes something has to be done soon to fight against the rapid reconfiguration of the United States into a corporate, feudal state. But he is not sure the Occupy movement is the answer. He wants something more politically defined.
“This is a white movement,” Reed said of Occupy. “They are exclusive. They don’t concentrate on central issues that affect African-Americans. San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia says that they have the same attitude toward Hispanics. In Oakland they [Occupy members] were mostly middle-class kids from out of town; at least 75 percent were not from here. They didn’t have any control over the Black Bloc anarchists, or these so-called anarchists. These Black Bloc kids, all dressed in black, which was the only thing black about them, went around smashing windows, trashing City Hall and destroying private property. They trashed Obama’s campaign headquarters. We are a poor city. And now because of them we have to find millions of dollars to pay for their damage. Our police, which is an occupation force, take every opportunity to do overtime. They get paid well. And now we have to pay it. Why didn’t these Black Bloc kids go smash the neighborhoods where the 1 percent live? Why didn’t they march on La Jolla, one of the wealthiest zones in the United States? Every other car in La Jolla is a BMW or a Mercedes. Mitt Romney has a home there. Why didn’t they go to Hillsborough or Palm Springs where rich people live? And what about the spectacle of a mostly white group booing Oakland’s mayor, an Asian-American, off the stage? I wonder how that played around the world? They get American television in Beijing.”
Meanwhile, Reed is hard at work shattering yet another idol.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years working on a big book on Muhammad Ali,” he says.
“This is probably the most balanced portrait of the champion yet written,” he said.
Reed’s latest books are “Going Too Far,” “Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media” and “Juice!” More information can be found at IshmaelReed.org.
A different version of this column appeared on Truthdig earlier.