Review: Writin' Is Fightin' by Ishmael Reed Print

Ishmael_Reed(San Diego Tribune August 26, 1988)

Pounding Away at Racism

White writers write. Black writers write. But black writers fight. The difference?

The opponent: racism.

Or, to put it his way: "Ethnic life in the United States has become a sort of contest like baseball in which the blacks are always the Chicago Cubs." Watch out—here comes Ishmael Reed, boxing his way through the color consciousness of white America with Writin' Is Fightin'.

These essays and reviews, written by a writer known primarily for his novels and poetry, engage the issues of racism and equality for America's "minorities" on two fronts: whites' insensitivity to the conditions of black America and the Reagan era's indifference toward acknowledging our ethnic cultures. Reed argues, as W.E.B. DuBois once did, that blacks in America possess a "double-consciousness": the experience blacks live daily, and the Euro-American interpretation of that experience, which is often arrogant about what whites know and ignorant of what blacks feel. Why is it, Reed wonders, that "over the years critics have often referred to me as a `black' without revealing their own ethnic backgrounds." (Reed's background—Afro, Irish and Native American—is multicolored.) Having to identify one's race is a form of prejudice which he sees aimed at black writers in the guise of liberalism: Whites set different standards for nonwhites even when they are trying to be sensitive. The message: White writers can't fight the black writer's fight.

We—including this Euro-American—have to listen and learn, in the process suffering an occasional fat lip. The main theme here is how the dominant culture marginalizes black and ethnic cultures in America.

Much of Writin' Is Fightin' attacks those "monocultural values" that spring from the "cultural astigmatism" of literary reactionaries like Allan Bloom or George Will. It is "their insistence upon intellectual obedience to what they ... refer to as `tradition' (which) has contributed to the United States' warped perception of the world and of cultures at home," Reed has no patience for those who promulgate Western Civ yet fail to acknowledge the debt, for example, of Arab and African cultures in preserving through their libraries and translations the Greek and Roman cultures the traditionalists avow.

Reed wants parity, an educational system more culturally democratic, forged out of diversity, hammered into shape by ethnicity, region, race. An example of the meaning of multicultural sensitivity occurs in "300 Years of `1984.' " Here he argues that Orwell's prophecy has already come true for Afro-Americans: "Every year they've spent in this country since they arrived in chains to perform forced labor has been 1984. That book was the "monoculturalist's nightmare," and it strikes Reed as typically myopic that whites see their own hell as always approaching but can't see others' hell as past or still going on. Although Reed's progressive agenda exposes the subtle evils of racism, the causes of illiteracy and the political "modeling" of minorities, he can occasionally become the victim of his own militancy.

In "Steven Spielberg Plays Howard Beach" he fires back salvos at "right wing" black feminist critics who objected first to Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple and then to Reed's assessment of their views. Reed states that the film and the feminists' problem is that both, much "like the Ku Klux Klan," "ascribe criminal sexual offenses committed against women and children by some black men to the majority of or to all black men." Many of his arguments about this stereotype are deftly reasoned.

But his tone, aggressive and self-vindicating, reveals the objection many have with Reed's opinion-making: He's too often too sure of himself, and consequently overbearing, a moralizer in a debate that when it gets heavily personal, becomes ludicrous no matter who's preaching. Among the best reviews are those on writer John Edgar Wideman and playwright August Wilson.

Reed's analysis of their family conflicts is emotionally compelling.

Also exemplary are the companion essays on Oakland, where Reed lives in a neighborhood he describes as a "black pogrom."

The contrast he draws between the multicultural, self-sufficient community of 1983 and the crack- and gang-ridden one of 1988 reveals the state of emergency many are telling us exists now in our inner cities, albeit thudding off the tin ear of government. There is much to savor in Reed's pithy eloquence, much like the poisoned apple sent to the wicked queen.

My favorite is his "Dream Ticket" for 1988—President Bernhard Goetz and VP Dan White, two men who shot first and to their benefit answered questions later.

As Democratic hopefuls these two "will send a clear signal to millions of virile Americans that the party is abreast of the times."

No wimps in the White House. And with the gloves on Ishmael Reed, there'll be no wimps left in the cultural ring, either.