Culture & Conversation

Call Him Ishmael

It’s rare for Montreal to receive the visit of a top-level black American intellectual, but that’s exactly what happened when Ishmael Reed dropped by in mid-April. He was in Canada to promote his book Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media. For any Canadian who doesn’t know the history of our neighbors to the south, the Jim Crow laws were a series of measures designed to keep blacks “in their place.” As for Ishmael Reed, his place is everywhere.

Reed was a professor at the University of California Berkeley, as well as at such Ivy League summits as Harvard and Yale. He’s argued with the right wing on American television and radio, but his work doesn’t stop there. He’s the author of novels such as Mumbo Jumbo and has written songs for Taj Mahal, including The Devil Tried to Kill Me about his successful fight with cancer. But the mission that brought him to Montreal and Toronto wasn’t music – it was about attacking the “fantasy,” as he calls it, of post-race America.

The idea that the United States had entered a “post-race” period was put forward as far back as the 1980s by commentators such as Henry Louis Gates and Trey Ellis, says Reed. In his book, Reed attacks the idea, in essay after essay. He points to how the right-wing media has treated Barack Obama since his election as proof that race and racial politics are still the number-one issue in America. From the baboon iconography to the belief that Obama is a Muslim or the Anti-Christ, or both, race is at the heart of the hatred for the black president in a country where CNN has become the voice of moderation compared to a network like Fox News.

Reed is especially critical of movies like Precious that deal, according to him, in stereotypes about blacks, especially black men. “Forget Precious or The Color Purple. Go see a Spike Lee film,” is Reed’s advice, like Miracle at St. Anna. That is, if you can find it at your local moviehouse or video rental outlet. Accompanying what he calls the Hollywood view of blacks is the “personal responsibility argument,” according to which blacks are solely responsible for their own misfortunes in American society.

As for Obama himself, the object of the Jim Crow media, “he’s doing what he can considering that he’s trying to govern a neo-Confederate country,” says Reed. Though the optimism that accompanied his election still exists, it’s clear the president “has lost the propaganda war over the health care issue.”

Reed has built himself something of a reputation in the USA for being strident, which I suppose is a necessary characteristic if you intend to go on American cable network talk shows. But Reed sees the big picture in American history. Beginning with the fact that Muhammad Ali’s great-great-grandfather came from Ireland in the 1860s, Reed has traced the alliances between blacks and Irish in the uprisings that led to the American Revolution, most notably the Boston Massacre. Just when you think that Reed is exaggerating, or being one-dimensional in his analysis of racial issues, he’ll open another page of American history and show you something new.

DAVID HOMEL is a Montreal-based novelist and translator. His new novel with Cormorant will be out this year.

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