Ishmael Reed

Review: ‘The Haunting’ Has a Big Problem With ‘Hamilton’

Jesse Bueno, left, and Monisha Shiva in Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. | Credit: Tanja Maria (The New York Times)

Jesse Bueno, left, and Monisha Shiva in Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. | Credit: Tanja Maria (The New York Times)

By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a character, and his hit musical is a punching bag, in Ishmael Reed’s didactic play about historical correctness.

In the four years since his musical “Hamilton” first opened at the Public Theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda has become one of America’s most successful and ubiquitous entertainers. There he is, serenading President Obama at the White House, triumphantly taking his show to a recovering Puerto Rico, portraying a chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins Returns.” And, in a true sign that he has made it to the top of the celebrity mountain, Mr. Miranda has proactively counterpunched potential critiques by playing comedic versions of himself, most notably in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

One way we have not seen him, however, is as a lazy, gullible dumdum — which is how he is portrayed in Ishmael Reed’s show “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” currently at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

That’s actually a pretty sympathetic take, considering how little Mr. Reed thinks of “Hamilton,” which he accuses of, among other things, turning a blind eye to the Schuyler family’s ownership of slaves and soft-pedaling Alexander Hamilton’s elitist politics and his attitude toward slavery. Mr. Reed’s views are shared by a range of historians, but he is deploying them by using an art form, theater, that only sets up unflattering comparisons to Mr. Miranda’s work — at least judged purely in terms of form rather than content.

In the play, Lin-Manuel (Jesse Bueno), his senses possibly altered by Ambien, is visited by the kind of people left out of “Hamilton”: slaves, Native Americans, Harriet Tubman (Roz Fox). As if in a cross between “A Christmas Carol” and a trial at The Hague’s International Criminal Court, each of the witnesses lectures Miranda on the reality behind the audience-friendly Broadway razzmatazz. Mr. Bueno spends a large part of the show looking befuddled as his character is being schooled.

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Ishmael Reed's new Play "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda" Opens at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

Ishmael Reed's new play "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda" will premiere at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in May, after four sold-out readings and coverage from the New York Times, New Yorker magazine, the Observer, the Paris Review and more. Like theater in the time of Bertolt Brecht or the WPA, Reed's new work (under the direction of multiple AUDELCO winner Rome Neal) challenges the narrative of commercial theater and mainstream historical accounts. According to historian Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist, even though the real Hamilton was involved in the slave trade in a variety of ways.His policy toward Native-Americans was "extirpation." Reed's play brings to the forefront those characters who are absent from “Hamilton, The Revolution": slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants and Harriet Tubman. Witness this David vs Goliath moment, as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Reed and Neal speak truth to power via "The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda

Click here for tickets.

Advance Tickets:$25

Door Tickets (If available): $30/$20 w/ Student ID

Personal Problems presented by Ishmael Reed and Steve Cannon

Produced by non other than the famous Ishmael Reed and the un famous Steve Cannon. The many award winning writer Ishmael Reed and the no award winning writer Steve Cannon. The full movie is now available on Click here to see the full movie.


The recent release of Bill Gunn's Personal Problems (Kino Lorber) marks a major intervention in correcting this limited history. Not much has been written about it. Nicholas Forster, a PhD student at Yale University, is writing the first biography of Bill Gunn. The few writings about Personal Problems understandably position it in an auteurist framework of Gunn's oeuvre since he has been neglected by film history. Yet the Blu-ray release of Personal Problems can also be seen as a major intervention in recovering "lost" videotapes representing an important black collective creative contribution of US grassroots videomaking.

As film and media historians like David James, Chon Noreiga, Devorah Heitner, and Cynthia A. Young have chronicled ethnic cinemas and media proliferated within the United States throughout the '60s and '70s in the wake of anti-colonial global resistance, Third Cinema endeavors, the civil rights movement, and student upheaval. The recently established Ethno-Communications Program at UCLA provides fertile terrain for the development of many skilled black filmmakers like Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, Julie Dash, and Haile Gerima. But even more broadly, the Black Arts Movement, the Chicano Arts Movement, the American Indian Movement, among many others, inject youth with a desire to produce new artistic forms that not only better reflected their communities, but also were more intertwined with and produced by those communities.

So when Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon, and Joe Johnson formed a small publishing house named Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications Co. to publish and distribute the works by black and other underrepresented authors, they were only one among a sea of independent ventures made by those coming from communities of color to own the creative means of production that allowed for a more diverse art and literature to spread beyond the confines that traditional cultural gatekeepers allowed. As time progressed, Reed suggested creating a black meta soap opera radio play since Steven Cannon hosted a show on WBAI in New York City and Reed hosted a show on KQED in California, where it could be broadcast. According to Cannon on a Blu-ray extra, "We were dissatisfied with the kind of stuff that was coming out of Hollywood, that Blaxploitation, Super Fly and that kind of bullshit. We wanted to do something ... more authentic and more realistic in terms of middle-class black people."

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We deserve more than a corny, highly processed past: Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda”

We deserve more than a corny, highly processed past: Ishmael Reed’s “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda”

During the 2016 election, I worked at a large, well known national nonprofit. The organization was firmly part of the political establishment, and among my colleagues, getting tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s frequently sold-out musical “Hamilton” was a marker of social status on par with visiting Cuba in the wake of the warming of Cuba-US relationships. I personally never really understood the appeal of Hamilton. It was everywhere, so I had of course listened to parts of the soundtrack, but it never appealed to me. Overdone. Corny. Yet it sparked something in others.

Did ‘Hamilton’ Get the Story Wrong? One Playwright Thinks So (The New York Times)

Did ‘Hamilton’ Get the Story Wrong? One Playwright Thinks So (The New York Times)

The 15 or 20 minutes before the performance ticked by the same way they do on nights when Rome Neal presides over jazz at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But this time Mr. Neal was directing a reading of a play. It takes aim at the sensation that is the theatrical juggernaut “Hamilton” and its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

In “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Ishmael Reed Revives an Old Debate (The New Yorker)

In “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda,” Ishmael Reed Revives an Old Debate (The New Yorker)

Consensus and bipartisanship seem like a distant fantasy in today’s America. “Hamilton,” the musical created by Lin-Manuel Miranda that débuted in 2015 and is well on its way to becoming a billion-dollar production, is a rare source of general accord. 

Black Male Writers for our Time (New York Times)

Black Male Writers for our Time (New York Times)

Through the institutional cultural cache garnered during these many moments, our literary ancestors carved pathways to success. Harlem Renaissance writers parlayed white patronage to create inroads to the apparatus of publishing. The Black Arts Movement brought about radical changes in university curriculums. New institutions were founded, including New York City’s Medgar Evers College, providing black writers with access to the support and stability of academia. The poet Gregory Pardlo points to the rise of the New York and Chicago slam poetry scenes in the ’80s as a conduit for many writers, including the novelist Paul Beatty. Jacobs-Jenkins discusses ’90s-era evolutions in black writing that produced “an incredible sea change of influence,” when writers like August Wilson and Toni Morrison “achieved black arts excellence and major status in the same breath.”

Review of Ishmael Reed's - "Conjugating Hindi"

Review of Ishmael Reed's - "Conjugating Hindi"

All little stories when they grow up want to be Ishmael Reed novels. They know that the nonpareil knowledge, freedom, and fun will be exhilarating. It’s the only place where in one paragraph you can bump into James Baldwin, John Waters, Chester Himes, Frank Zappa, Murphy Brown, Mary Richards, Beyoncé, Stephen King, Amiri Baraka, Edward Albee, Andy Warhol, and Snoop Dogg (11-12). You are privy to grappling with European and Indian mythology. You also get to visit art galleries and museums because plentiful graphic images are often part of the package. As Loop, a character in Reed’s 1969 Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, expresses it, “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be (36).” In Conjuring Hindi, Reed’s eleventh offering, the author reinforces this statement and buckles everyone in for a wild ride.

Mother Hubbard Goes to China

JUNE 12, 2015Mother Hubbard Goes to China by ISHMAEL REED

Both John A. Williams and Toni Morrison have commented about the trickle-down theory of minority tokenism. This is how it works. While there might be others who are just as talented or even endowed with more talent, an influential and powerful white critic nominates a black person in the arts, criticism or punditry as superior to all of the others and the choice is often accepted uncritically by whites and some black critics and academics. Sometimes the designator can go overboard like the white academic who described the black poet, who had been chosen as U.S. poet laureate, as “the best black poet living or dead. “I still haven’t read all of the black poets living or dead. And I’m one of those who pays attention.

When a leading literary magazine at the time chose me as the leading token, a sort of King for a day, I wrote and denied the dubious honor. I wish that other tokens would do the same so that all of the excellent writers who are not tokens get some space. I get dragged into the token free for all that takes place, historically, in the northeast. I live in Oakland.

In the United States, my role in mainstream letters is akin to that of a journeyman boxer, who might have had a couple of championships in the past but whose career is on the decline. Since two thousand four, I have been mentioned in the New Yorker (twice), the New Republic (twice), Commentary, and most recently, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Some of the citations are complimentary. In others, I’m mentioned mostly as someone against whom editors or token creators test the new crop of tokens. John Williams of the Times, in the midst of trotting out a talented young writer, even got into a shadow debate with me. Like Clint Eastwood, he was debating an empty chair. He cited a comment I made about the writer and rebutted it. He described me as a writer who belongs to a “previous generation. ”

Sometimes, a remark attributed to me is so wrong that I respond. Prof. Victoria Bond accused me of calling The Color Purple, “a Nazi Conspiracy.” I wrote a letter to the New Republic asking for a correction. The editor who commissioned the piece, Chloe Schama, answered that The New Republic doesn’t print letters but would welcome an article and so I wrote an article from Paris where I happened to be at the time. She rejected the article.

Mar 26,2015

Dear Prof. Reed,

Thank you for sending — I did receive it. Unfortunately, the piece is not right for our site, and I’m afraid we don’t have the resources to edit it into a form that would be appropriate for us. I encourage you to publish it elsewhere.

Chloe Schama

Prof. Victoria Bond, the author of the outburst, said that she got the idea of my calling The Color Purple (produced, directed and script written by wealthy white males) “a Nazi conspiracy” from Jacqueline Bobo, Professor of Film/Television, Black Feminist Cultural Theory, Cultural Studies, University of California at Santa Barbara. I asked Professor Bobo her source for the comment. She didn’t answer. The problem with bourgeois feminism is that its obligation to the corporate system puts it in a dilemma. They can’t jeopardize their careers by criticizing their wealthy patriarchal bosses and so vent their frustrations with men by dissing black males, or hiring the kitchen help to do the dirty work. Here’s is the circle in which Chloe Schama’s boss Facebook co-founder and the New Republic owner moves.

“[Chris Hughes] was marrying his longtime boyfriend, a tanned and chiseled Sean Eldridge.

“Several of the guests described the weekend to me. They had dined at a private rehearsal dinner on Friday night—a nine-course meal at Per Se, the three-Michelin-star restaurant run by the Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller. Then, on Saturday morning, they were transported up the Hudson Valley to a converted 19th-century farmhouse in Garrison, New York. Hughes and Eldridge had bought the house and the 80 acres around it in 2011, for $5 million.”

I asked Chris Hughes to issue a correction to Prof. Bond’s misstating me. No answer from him. In his world, I’m the guy in the white jacket, and black bowtie who passes out the hors-d’œuvres.

Since the New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker, where I was pitted against a young black playwright, don’t review my books, their readers will never know how I feel about this or that issue. Most of the books by black authors whom they favor, line up with the attitude toward blacks held by their columnists: David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, and Sam Roberts, who hold black behavior, especially that of black males, as responsible for the dire condition in which millions of blacks find themselves. Other factors, like the role of the banks and other institutions, which pilfer hundreds of billions of dollars from black communities, are ignored by the media. This has been the attitude of the capitalist system toward blacks since even before the Emancipation of the slaves. As an example of the Book Review’s reach, I was sitting in a tea house in the Bamboo Forest of China’s Anji country, sipping black tea and eating peanuts as my wife Carla, Prof. Huijuan Tan and others trekked to a lookout pavilion at the top of the forest. Across from me was a man swatting flies from an Ox. The loud speaker was playing “Desperado” by the Eagles. The young man who volunteered to stay with me said that he judged American literature from what appeared on the New York Times bestseller’s list.

Too bad because I have never seen the bylines of some of our major black American literary critics, Jerry Ward, Joyce Joyce, Mary Emma Graham, Reginald Martin, Trudier Harris, Brenda Greene, Bernard Bell, C.J. Innis, William Cook, etc. in the book review. Maybe, Pamela Paul, the book editor, is too involved in panels assembled by the white male owners of MSNBC to shame Bill Cosby to solicit this talent. She runs a book review where over ninety-five percent of the books reviewed are by white males. The black critics I’ve mentioned are well known by scholars in Asia and Europe.

This is how censorship is practiced in the United States. A largely white controlled media excludes the viewpoints of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans and indeed raises, historically, resentment against blacks. Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants and whoever might be the appointed enemy at the time. No wonder blacks and Hispanics, who are paying attention, regard the American media as the enemy.

Just as in the case of the New Republic’s rejection of my article, it’s difficult for the targets of the media to refute the daily one-sided portrayal of blacks and others. Cultural commentary treats works that might make middle-class white audiences uncomfortable with silence. This is why the great Amiri Baraka’s prolific output since 1964 has been ignored. He became a communist and as a result completeali alienated the United States’ cultural and arts establishment that rewards those artists who mimic its point of view. The Brooklyn Museum exhibited the work of a black artist, who gets most of the media play, by presenting a picture of plantation life in which there were no villains or heroes. For me Robert E. Lee, the leader of Confederate forces and Jefferson Davis leader of the rebellion, were villains. Those black artists who don’t make nice are dismissed as angry or “paranoid.” A Times critic dismissed my play, “Body Parts,” about big Pharma’s use of blacks in the United States and Africa as guinea pigs for their drug trials, as “angry.” He wanted me to serve him up a theatrical Slurpie.

While some white critics apply the term of “misogynist” to us, while performing a literary lap dance for Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, who boast about their misogyny, the F.B.I. was assigned to monitor the works of black writers who might be placed in “custodial detention” in case of a National Emergency. Richard Wright, John A. Williams, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni and other names are on the list. My name is spelled “Ismael.”

The literary patroller who has been assigned to track my movements says that I was done in nineteen seventy-two. His view has been picked up by other white critics who are apparently too busy to explore my work for themselves. One of them, an employee of Henry Louis Gate’s Jr,, whose morals are now being questioned by the very people who made him Head Negro In Charge, said that I have spent the last thirty years “explaining myself.’ All that this lazy sucker had to do was check my website, to find that it’s much more complicated than that. At least I made out better than the great Amiri Baraka. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature ends his career in nineteen sixty-four with “Dutchman,” which a critic, who represents the latest constituency to which a black writer must pander, called “deeply misogynistic,” a way that white educated and privileged feminists protect the powerful white male patriarchy, their patrons, by directing the blame for mistreatment of women to black men. bell hooks said that white middle-class academic feminists instructed her to write for them if she wanted to get over. They’re now in the driver’s seat when it comes to directing trends in African American literature. Some of them like Chloe Schama believe anything that their black feminist surrogates tell them, which is why Professor Bond’s false assertion wasn’t fact-checked. Could this be a form of literary reparations for the sorry conditions under which black domestics worked in the middle and upper-class homes of homes where privileged and educated feminists spent their youth? One of them announced in the Times that she had a nurturing experience with a black woman. A black feminist, one of those who can’t be controlled, asked whether that meant she had a black nanny.

Fortunately, with the advent of online criticism, critics and editors who get breezy with black literature no longer have the last word on a “minority” author’s career, which was the case in the nineteen forties and fifties. Moreover, while black authors are a “minority” at home, they’re regarded as world authors abroad.

I discovered this in the nineteen-seventies when I began traveling to Europe again. My first trip occurred in nineteen fifty-five. I was seventeen. There I met African students who were studying at the Sorbonne. They were unlike the Africa that was represented in American textbooks and films, such as the “Tarzan” movie series. I’ve been skeptical of the American curriculum and media’s interpretation of the world since then. In 1990, a conference about black literature organized by the late Michel Fabre drew critics from all over the world. One runs into trouble sometimes with white members of the American delegations to these conferences, who get offended by the fact that European scholars have written books and papers about American authors who are unknown to white members of American faculties. I remember an outburst from a white writer during my discussion of black Hispanic and Native American and Asian American authors. He denounced the titles. Turns out he hadn’t read any of them, a common attitude among members of the American critical and intellectual elite and an example of how anti-intellectual attitudes are the side effect of white supremacy. He embarrassed himself before a group of Icelandic intellectuals and writers, which included the son of a former president of Iceland.

On another occasion, an American conference member, a woman this time, appeared to be in an agitated state when she told those international delegates assembled for a conference in Freiberg, Germany that they were only interested in black literature because it was “exotic.” Well, “exoticism” of African American literature must be catching. There is growing interest in African American literature in Asia. After I violated the hard line set by the new constituency whose blueprint African American writers must please in order to gain mainstream sales, I decided that I would never allow whichever cultural special interest group prevails at the time to determine what I can and can’t write. This was after the censoring of my novel, Reckless Eyeballing. In one case, Kofi Notambu told me that women at the Detroit News prevented the novel from being reviewed and a boycott led by Emily Toth was prepared to greet me when I was invited to the University of Louisiana at Baton Rouge. The boycott collapsed when it was discovered that the feminists who had organized the boycott–all white–hadn’t read my books.

My study of Japanese, begun at the age of fifty, led to my novel Japanese By Spring. The novel received lukewarm reviews in the US, but was praised by the Japanese press and led to a tour of Japan, where I was well received. I also studied Yoruba, an African language, which led to my publishing two anthologies of Nigerian writers assembled by and edited by Toyin Adewale-Gabriel and Carla Blank. I even wrote a song in Yoruba that has been recorded. It was performed when Conjure, a group of musicians who have been playing my work since 1979, appeared at the Blue Note in Tokyo, August, 2004.

In 2012 I was informed by Yuqing Lin, a young scholar then preparing to begin her Ph.D. dissertation at Beijing Normal University, that Japanese By Spring had been selected as a National Project, which meant funds were made available for her to do research on the novel. She spent a year at the University of California at Berkeley to conduct the research. While my novel “Juice!” was ignored by the mainstream press, or regarded lightly, Yuqing Lin wrote a thorough review of the book. Also, The Nation magazine, where over 80 percent of the books reviewed are written by white males, even though the editor is a feminist, dismissed the novel in a flip review commissioned by feminist Elizabeth Pochoda, who sponsored two hatchet jobs on my books. By contrast, Professor Yanyu Zeng, dean of the school of Foreign Studies at Hunan University of Science and Technology, used a high standard of scholarship during her examination of the book in her “Towards Postmodern Multiculturalism, A New Trend of African-American and Jewish-American Literature Viewed through Ishmael Reed and Philip Roth.” While some black writers of talent have been ignored by the media progressive and otherwise, lavish treatment has been accorded white writers whose interpretations of the black experience are often insulting and replete with stereotypes. One of the most offensive treatments of the inner city )a dramatic series called “The Wire”) is being taught in universities, including the African-American Studies Department at Harvard, even though Professor Karl Alexander has criticized David Simon’s portrait of black Baltimore as “one sided.” The producer, a Jewish-American, David Simon, is apparently unaware that his portrayal of black males is consistent with the portrayal of Jewish males in the Nazi press. The practice of exalting the works about the black experience written by whites over those written by blacks can be hazardous. Michiko Kakutani, a Saul Bellow groupie, who did a hatchet job on my novel “Reckless Eyeballing,” praised a “memoir” that included the usual stereotypes. It was written by a young white woman named Margaret B. Jones, who claimed that she hung out with black gangs. The book was exposed as a fake. As the Times put it:

“In Love and Consequences, a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods. The problem is that none of it is true.”

Now there is a controversy about a book called On the Run, by Alice Goffman, which a Times report said drew “attention because of its timely subject matter — the lives of low-income black men and their interactions with the police — and vivid storytelling, based on six years of immersive fieldwork. It was the subject of dozens of articles and often-glowing reviews in publications including the New Yorker and the New York Times. An impassioned TED talk Ms. Goffman delivered in March has been viewed more than 800,000 times.

“But all that enthusiasm has curdled somewhat, as critics, in published reviews and anonymous online critiques, have debated not just her facts, interpretations and methods, but the fraught politics of privileged white outsiders’ studying minority communities.” Ms. Alice Goffman isn’t the only white writer cashing in on the lust that millions of white consumers have for products about black crime, like the television show “Empire” that was created by a white man, Danny Strong.

Cecil Brown, a friend of Richard Pryor, had to self-publish his book, Pryor Lives, about the actor. Brown wrote the screenplay for Pryor’s “Which Way Us Up,” Pryor’s most intelligent film. He says that the discussions about black culture during Black History Month are dominated by white writers.

“I hate Negro Month because this is when the whites who write about us come out. Yesterday on PBS, I saw a white man explaining Cab Calloway to us. This is the time when the ‘white Negro’ scholars have their dance. They flood the airwaves with their theories about Black history, Black literature, Black entertainment. They show you the stories they wrote about us. Yes, I really do hate this month because it disregards the work of Black writers.”

This pattern isn’t new. Langston Hughes commented that of thirty-seven plays written about black life in the thirties most were written by white men. John A. Williams, who wrote the best and most subversive novel of the nineteen sixties, The Man Who Cried I Am, put it this way :

“These writers were white; and at the top of the heap they command big fees and expenses. Some earn every penny; others don’t. The white article writer’s range is practically unlimited. He writes about white people, brown, black, yellow people; space shots, presidents. Everything. There are no barriers and, in fact, a number of white writers have become specialists in a writing about people who are not white—to the growing anger of a rapidly increasing number of nonwhite writers. There are two reasons for that anger, the first being at the arrogance of most white writers to in the first place undertake to delineate what they know so little of. And, second, there is both a subconscious and a calculated effrontery in dismissing, if even considering, the possibility that a nonwhite writer might be able to turn in a better piece on the subject.”

Another work of mine that got the Kakutani treatment was my play, “Mother Hubbard,” which was censored by feminists at The Public Theater and KQED TV. “Hubbard,” a play based upon the nursery rhyme included in Mother Goose Tales was given a green light for a production by PBS’s affiliate KQED, located in San Francisco, only to rescind the offer.

My Mother Hubbard goes to the bank to fetch a second mortgage on her cottage to feed her dog. Rejected, she begins knocking off banks. She organizes a group of misandrists, who order all of the men to leave California within sixty days, or they will be sent to camps. Inspired by black and Native American animal tales, two characters, a Rabbit and a Rat appear. The Rabbit is hated by his own kind because he has discovered a formula for turning rabbit fur into the mink. The Rat, his aide, is seeking a plastic surgeon who will give him Winston Churchill’s face.

When I wrote the play, I was under the influence of classics professors James Tate and William Cook at Dartmouth. They introduced me to a Latin playwright named Plautus. He wrote comedies that ended with the parties being reconciled. The early readings of the play were done at Dartmouth. There was a reading of the play at Actors Studio in 1981, which was directed by Jason Buzas. The lead role was performed by the film actor Clarence Williams III. I was encouraged, but the play was blocked from further productions before large audiences because of the kind of extremists who were depicted in my play. I guess they recognized themselves in my characters. There was also a movie production. It failed because the non-profit organization that supplied our equipment required that we use their sound man. He ruined the sound and Steve Cannon, and I lost thousands of dollars.

The play lay fallow for years until Carla Blank’s private high school students performed it in a theater loaned by U.C. Berkeley. In the audience was Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe producer Miguel Algarin. He produced it at the Nuyorican Cafe. It was directed by Rome Neal. Later it was performed at the Black Repertory Theater. In June 2015, it was produced in China.

Some of those who attended the Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College must have been startled when Yanyu Zeng got up during the question-and-answer period and told the audience that there were books about my work that had been published in China and more were in the works. When she returned to China, she sent me the copy of a literary magazine with my photo on the cover.

She invited me to come to China where there was growing interest in my work. And, oh. some university students would perform “Mother Hubbard”! This would be my second China trip. Through the efforts of Professor Liya Wang of Beijing Normal University, Carla and I had attended a conference held in Beijing in 2013.

When we arrived in Xiangtan, May 26th, we didn’t know what to expect. Hunan University of Science and Technology Professors Chenghui Wang, and Jian-e Ling had done a good job casting the parts. Though we had recommended the students do a staged reading, which would allow for their reading from the script, we found when we watched the rehearsal on the night of our arrival that they had memorized many of the speeches, including long and complex monologues in English. Carla took over from there, and I watched in amazement as the play grew from that night into a near full production. I asked Carla to delineate her contribution:

“So excited were the students that they had already come up with costumes, hand props, and music for scene transitions. The producer, Dean Zeng, had contributed the idea of creating rear projections to establish the scenes, necessitating only the most minimal of set pieces to complete each setting. In the two days we had to work together, I focused on getting the play on its feet, by finding ways to achieve a fast-paced rhythm and moments of strong action. We focused on quick pick-ups of cues, worked on entrances and exits and rapid scene changes, and inserted two moments where we could take advantage of the luxury of their double casting to create crowd scenes. As we ran through each scene, we asked the students what they thought was happening for each character, sometimes clarifying the playwright’s intent with them, until the motivations of all the actors were interconnected. I encouraged the actors to keep trying for new bits of action and assured them that the only way the audience would know a “mistake” had happened would be if they informed them, by their own actions. Within our instantly created backstage, as commonly practiced by professional athletes, we managed to find a few moments to join together to encourage and thank each other, while Professor Ling introduced the play to the audience, before music cued the play had begun.”

Of course, Carla is a miracle worker in the theater who has collaborated with such luminaries as Robert Wilson. In 2013, she spent ten weeks in Ramallah directing the Phillip Barry play, “Holiday,” whose cast included Syrian and Palestinian actors. Reviewing “Mother Hubbard,” Hunan Daily called it the highlight of the conference. This is a newspaper with 2.2 million circulations. Unlike the black playwrights were chosen by the mainstream to appeal to audiences who like their black theater tame or blame -the- victim, not once was I asked to censor my script.

From there we moved on to Hangzhou Dianzi University in Hangzhou, China where our host was Professor Huijuan Tan, and where I learned that sixty faculty members were devoted to translating works by African and African-American authors into Chinese. They plan to translate all of my works. This was the second trip abroad within two months. In March, I attended an international conference in Germany, France and Switzerland. Sämi Ludwig, who has published an anthology devoted to my works, organized this conference in my honor. Delegates from Poland, China, and other countries read papers.

Tennessee my daughter, a poet, and I performed with some students from the Jazz School in Basel, Switzerland. The performance was reviewed in China.

Not only are European, Asian and African scholars acquainted with the number one designated black, Native American and Asian American tokens, they know other writers belonging to these groups as well. One scholar whom I met in China is writing about the work of the brilliant Adrienne Kennedy whose writing is neglected here because she writes plays about subjects like police brutality. In her play “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” which was co-authored by her son, Adam, the victim of a police assault, did not receive the kind of recognition that has been accorded plays identifying black men in the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean as the source of worldwide misogyny. These scholars are also aware of Jewish avant-garde writers like Ron Sukenick, who is neglected by American critics who insist that all novels be written the same way in which the leading character arouses the sympathy of the reader, a character who you feel for and care about. Professor Wenping Gan of the School of Foreign Languages, Wuhan University of Technology is doing research on the late author.

I hope that my example inspires young black Hispanic Native American writers. They can break a pattern that began as early as the 19th Century, when William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass struggled over who would be chosen as the Talented One by the Abolitionists, the group that black writers had to please at the time. By learning African and Asian languages, they can enlarge their audiences. They can become global writers instead of depending upon the attention of those who require that they channel their attitudes. Before I left China, Professor Tan said that she would assemble a team to translate all of my works into Chinese.

When I returned home, I found an article that my friend Steve Cannon forwarded to me. It was a New York Times’ story about censorship in China. Undoubtedly, there exists censorship in China, but just as our country condemns the violations of human rights in other countries while running prisons where torture, solitary confinement rape, murder, medical malpractice, often deliberate occurs on a daily basis, it condemns censorship abroad while practicing censorship at home. Its secret police keep an eye on black writers, who are considered out of line, and special interest groups demand that black writers toady to their values or become boycotted and smeared.

Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

"Hamilton: the Musical:" Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders... and it's Not Halloween

“Hamilton: the Musical:” Black Actors Dress Up like Slave Traders…and It’s Not Halloween


Establishment historians write best sellers in which some of the cruel actions of the Founding Fathers are smudged over if not ignored altogether. They’re guilty of a cover-up.

This is the case with Alexander Hamilton whose life has been scrubbed with a kind of historical Ajax until it sparkles. His reputation has been shored up as an abolitionist and someone who was opposed to slavery. Not true.

Alexander Hamilton married into the Schuylers, a slaveholding family, and participated in the bartering of slaves. One of “Hamilton’s” actors, Renee Elise Goldsberry (“The Color Purple”), who visited the Schuyler home, said the Schuyler sisters, “were the Kardashians” of 1780 — superstars, but with dignity and grace.”[1] Maybe they were able to maintain “dignity and grace” because they had 27 slaves serve them. Black women whose labor assignments left them little time to preen. Is this actor disregarding, callously, that the sisters thrived on the labor of enslaved women? No, she probably attended the same schools that I attended. A curriculum that endowed slave traders and Indian exterminators with the status of deities.

Even Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, upon which the musical “Hamilton” is based, admits (kinda), reluctantly, that Hamilton and his wife may, [his italics], have owned two household slaves and may have negotiated the sale of slaves on behalf of his in-laws, the Schuylers. Chernow says that Hamilton may have negotiated these sales, “reluctantly?” How does he know this?

Like other founding fathers, Hamilton found slavery, an “evil,” yet was a slave trader. The creepy Thomas Jefferson also appears in “Hamilton.” He was even a bigger hypocrite in his 51haSf-ecnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_blaming King George for the slave trade, a contention that was deleted from the final version of the Declaration of Independence.

“Jefferson railed against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as ‘a cruel war against human nature.’”[2] Was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who designed this show, aware that Thomas Jefferson’s solution to the Native American problem was “extermination?” He told his Secretary of War, General Henry Dearborn (who was the primary government official responsible for Indian affairs): “if we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”[3]

Similarly, Andrew Jackson found slavery, “barbaric,” yet owned slaves. He might have been the founder of the false police report. “He concocted stories if discipline crippled or killed a slave. Of a beaten woman, he wrote to a partner in one such cover-up: ‘You may say to Dr. Hogg, that her lament was occasioned by a stroke from Betty [another slave], or jumping over a rope, in which her feet became entangled, and she fell.”’ [4]The same 1 percent establishment critics, who gave Andrew Jackson a pass, are praising “Hamilton.” One writer even hailed Jackson as a Rock and Roll star.

Professor Michelle Duross, of the University at Albany, State University of New York, is much more direct and shows what happens when someone from a class, whose voice has been neglected, invades the all-white male country club of historians. Unlike Chernow, her treatment of Hamilton as a slave trader is not couched in equivocating qualifiers that are favorable to this founding father. She takes to task the Hamilton biographies written by his awe-struck groupies:

“Alexander Hamilton’s biographers praise Hamilton for being an abolitionist, but they have overstated Hamilton’s stance on slavery.

“Historian John C. Miller insisted, ‘He [Hamilton] advocated one of the most daring invasions of property rights that was ever made– the abolition of Negro slavery.’

“Biographer Forest McDonald maintained, ‘Hamilton was an abolitionist, and on that subject he never wavered.’”

She writes, “Hamilton’s position on slavery is more complex than his biographers’ suggest.” Some historians maintain that Hamilton’s birth on the island of Nevis and his subsequent upbringing in St. Croix instilled in him a hatred for the brutalities of slavery. Historian James Oliver Horton suggests that Hamilton’s childhood surrounded by the slave system of the West Indies “would shape Alexander’s attitudes about race and slavery for the rest of his life.’”

She writes,

“No existing documents of Hamilton’s support this claim. Hamilton never mentioned anything in his correspondence about the horrors of plantation slavery in the West Indies.

“Hamilton’s involvement in the selling of slaves suggests that his position against slavery was not absolute. Besides marrying into a slaveholding family, Hamilton conducted transactions for the purchase and transfer of slaves on behalf of his in-laws and as part of his assignment in the Continental Army.”[5]

Another historian, Alan McLane Hamilton writes to counter the claim that Hamilton never owned slaves: “[Hamilton] never owned a negro slave… is untrue. In his books, we find that there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.”[6]

In the musical, black actors play Washington and other founding fathers. Are they aware that George Washington is known for creating strategies for returning runaways? That he was into search and destroy when campaigning against Native American resistance fighters.

“By 1779, George Washington had already earned the famous moniker ‘Father of His Country.’ Among the Iroquois he was known asConotocarious, or ‘Town Destroyer.’” [7]

Historians, who serve as lackeys for famous, wealthy white men term him a “merciful slave master.” An oxymoron.

“Washington authorized the ‘total destruction and devastation’ of the Iroquois settlements across upstate New York so ‘that country may not merely be overrun but destroyed.’ Under Washington’s orders forty Iroquois villages to ashes, and left homeless many of the Indians, hundreds of whom died of exposure during the following frigid winter.

“Chief Cornplanter, who headed the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois, stressed the durability of ‘Town Destroyer’ as the commander-in-chief’s nickname. ‘And to this day when that name is heard,’ the chief said, ‘our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers. To this day, ‘Town Destroyer’ is still used as an Iroquois name for the president of the United States.”[8]

Slave trading usually involved sex trafficking, where the planters

turned their plantations into enforced and involuntary harems, an enterprise that fugitive slave writer, William Wells Brown, found disgusting. George Washington’s Sally Hemings, according to black oral tradition, was a slave named Venus. Fifty percent of the slaves at Arlington, where Robert E. Lee lived with the granddaughter of Martha Washington, were “bi-racial.”[9]

So what’s the difference between Ariel Castro who kept three women against their will and Alexander Hamilton and other founding fathers? His groupies argue that despite his flaws–they don’t include the slavet-rading parts–he was smart. Well so was Ariel Castro. He was able to evade detection by even members of his family. For years. Moreover did he work these women from sun up to sun down without paying them? Maybe Broadway will do a musical about his life.

Already, the same 1 percent critics who drooled over “Bloody Bloody, Andrew” about Andrew Jackson, the Eichmann of American Native American policy, are already embracing “Hamilton.” They must be as ignorant as the black and Latino actors who have lent their talents to “Hamilton.”

Maybe that’s why the establishment critics leave out the slave parts. The idea that Black Lives Matter is an improvement over their slavery status, where blacks were treated as objects to be bought and sold, worked, beaten, killed and fucked. Though ignorant hateful people say that the Civil War was fought to uphold “states rights,” the slaveholders of the south, who kept Africans against their will, as a result of their free labor, were the richest white people in the world.[10]Maybe the country clubs of historians and Beltway critics still feel that way about African captives.

And why would President Obama lend his prestige to this thing? First he welcomes black pathology pimp, David Simon, to the White House, where he endorsed “The Wire,” a show in which black children are singled out as degenerate drug peddlers, when all of the heroin seems to be stashed in Vermont and other states with few blacks among their population. He honors this hustler even after Prof. Karl Alexander, who did an actual study of Simon’s black Baltimore neighborhoods, found Simon’s presentation to be “one sided” as he put it, politely.

Is this the president’s view of traditional African Americans? Criminals. People who sang and danced their way through slavery under the watchful eye of merciful slave masters? He went to Harvard. Didn’t he take courses from Martin Kilson? Doesn’t the president know that Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for the Native American problem was extermination?

Now The New York Times has appointed Simon the chief interpreter of the black experience. The honorary Head-Negro-In-Charge. Al Jolson without the black face. He’s doing a miniseries about Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s already lined up a couple of black writers to be in on the project, who will be there to defend the thing if black people become upset. It’s being sponsored by Oprah Winfrey who gave a green light to Precious, the worst black movie ever made. I can understand why some young black Americans are leaving the country. I met some of them in Paris.

Now I have seen everything. Can you imagine Jewish actors in Berlin’s theaters taking roles of Goering? Goebbels? Eichmann? Hitler?

When I brought up the subject of Hamilton’s slaveholding in a Times’ comment section, a white man accused me of political correctness. If Hamilton had negotiated the sale of white people, do you think that an audience would be paying $400 per ticket to see a musical based upon his life? No, his reputation would be as tarnished as that of his assassin Aaron Burr.

Benjamin Franklin wrote a satire, called “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade,”[11] in which he dealt with his contemporaries’ justifications for slavery only he, in order to spotlight the defenders’ hypocrisy, put these same arguments in the voice of a fictional Muslim, who justified the enslavement of white Christian slaves.

And here is the final insult: “The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is working with the producers on an effort to make it possible for large numbers of New York City schoolchildren to see the show.”

This is the best argument I know for the establishment of more Afro-Centric schools and Hispanic schools in order to balance the curriculum promoted by Euro-Centric schools, in which perpetrators of genocide and slave holders are honored. Was school integration a mistake? Were these the brainwashing schools attended by the Latino and Black actors who are performing in this thing?

The best argument that I know for the advocacy of such schools came from a Jewish professor who attended Hebrew School before public schools. When a public school teacher praised the Crusades, she was able to point out that the Crusaders set up pogroms.

In the heady times during the slave revolt of the 1960s, the rebels boasted about how they were using the enemy’s language and how they were “stealing his language.” Now things have been turned upside down. Now the masters, the producers of this profit hungry production, which has already made 30 million dollars, are using the slave’s language: Rock and Roll, Rap and Hip Hop to romanticize the careers of kidnappers, and murderers. People, who, like Jefferson, beat and fucked his slaves and spied on their fucking.

The very clever salesman for this project is Lin-Manuel Miranda. He compares Hamilton, a man who engaged in cruel practices against those who had been kidnapped from their ancestral homes, with that of a slave, Tupac Shakur. He is making profits for his investors with glib appeals such as this one. The first week’s box office take was $1,153,386.

Amiri Baraka, the master of irony, your voice is missed.



[1] “Actresses in ‘Hamilton’ Take a Trip to a Family Home for a History Lesson” James Barron, New York Times, July 13,2015

[2] “Letter From Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec.6, 1813.”


[4] Nixon’s Piano, Presidents And Racial Politics From Washington To Clinton Kenneth O’Reilly, The Free Press, New York, 1995




[8] ibid.

[9]Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, Elizabeth Brown Pryor.

[10] The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Kindle Edition by Edward E. Baptist.

[11]“ Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade.” Pow Wow,Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience-Short Fiction from Then to Now, edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank, Da Capo Press, 2009, New York.

Tell it Like it is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986 Feb 6-19



Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986
February 6-19
Includes work from filmmakers Pearl Bowser, Kathleen Collins,
William Greaves, Bill Gunn, Jessie Maple and Spike Lee
Collins’s Losing Ground (1982) will have its long overdue theatrical
premiere with a one-week theatrical run starting onFebruary 6
Cast and crew reunion screening of Personal Problems, with guests
including Ishmael Reed, Dr. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Sam Waymon

New York, NY (December 19, 2014) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986, a series of key films, starting with William Greaves’s seminal Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and culminating with Spike Lee’s first feature, the independently produced She’s Gotta Have It which launched a new era of studio filmmaking by black directors. This program includes major works by some of the great filmmakers of this (or any) era in cinema. During this time, activist New York–based black independent filmmakers created an exciting body of work despite lack of support and frequent suppression of minority film production. Programmed by Michelle Materre and Film Society of Lincoln Center Programmer at Large Jake Perlin, co-presented by Creatively Speaking. Tickets will go on sale Thursday, January 15, 2015.
Dennis Lim, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Director of Programming said, “This is a landmark program that sheds overdue light on an incredibly rich, varied, and undertold chapter of American film history. There are many groundbreaking works here by many singular figures, and we’re proud to present this essential series here at the Film Society.”  
In early 1968, William Greaves began shooting in Central Park, and the resulting film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, came to be considered one of the major works of American independent cinema. Later that year, following a staff strike, WNET’s newly created program, Black Journal (with Greaves as Executive Producer) was established “under black editorial control” and as home base for a new generation of filmmakers redefining documentary. (1968 also marked the production of the first Hollywood studio film directed by an African American, Gordon Park’s The Learning Tree.) Shortly thereafter, actor/playwright/screenwriter/novelist Bill Gunn directed the studio-backed Stop, which remains unreleased by Warner Bros. to this day. Gunn, rejected by the industry that had courted him, then directed the independent classic Ganja and Hess (which has been remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and will open in February),ushering in a new type of horror film, which Ishmael Reed called “what might be the country’s most intellectual and sophisticated horror film.”
Women filmmakers play a prominent role throughout the series, starting with the exclusive one-week theatrical premiere of Losing Ground, directed by the late Kathleen Collins, one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman. Collins’s first film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, also never released theatrically, will screen in newly remastered version created by the filmmaker’s daughter, Nina, along with a video interview with the filmmaker. Nina Collins will be on hand to present her mother’s films on opening night,February 6, along with co-producer/cinematographer Ronald Gray andLosing Ground star Seret Scott.
February 11, Madeline Anderson will present her films, including the classic I Am Somebody, her first documentary, as well as work fromBlack Journal. On February 13 filmmakers Christine Choy, Susan Robeson, and Camille Billops will discuss their work screened in the Women’s Work Program, a selection of films bringing to light the remarkable contributions of female storytellers and their image-making prowess. Trailblazer Jessie Maple, will be in attendance onFebruary 16 to present her films Will and Twice As Nice.

For their support and expertise, the programmers gratefully thank Pearl Bowser, Louise Greaves, Jane Fuentes, Marsha Schwam, Elena Rossi-Snook, Amy Heller, Dennis Doros and Ishmael Reed, and the filmmakers Jessie Maple, Charles Hobson, Madeline Anderson, Pat Hartley, Kent Garrett, Woodie King Jr., and Al Santana.
Thank you to Elena Rossi-Snook & Johnny Gore (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts), Nina Collins, Ronald Gray, Chiz Schultz, Anne Morra & Mary Keene (MoMA), Lisa Collins, Mark Schwartzburt, Amy Heller & Dennis Doros (Milestone Films), Shola Lynch (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), Kate Manion, Devorah Heitner, Brian Graney (The Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University), Seret Scott, Nellie Killian, Marilyn Nance, Judy Bourne, Livia Bloom (Icarus Films), Roselly A. Torres Rojas (Third World Newsreel), Kazembe Balagun (Rosa Luxemburg Shiftung NYC), Chris Hill, Rebecca Cleman, Kristen Fitzpatrick (Women Make Movies), Jane Gutteridge (National Film Board of Canada), Liz Coffey & Haden Guest (Harvard Film Archive).
For sale at the Film Society, beginning February 6, in conjunction with this series: Bill Gunn’s Rhinestone Sharecropping (a novel) and Black Picture Show (a play), published by I Reed Press, and How to Become a Union Camerawoman by Jessie Maple, published by LJ Film Productions.

Screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street)
and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (144 West 65th Street)

Black Journal Program
USA, 1968, digital projection, approx. 70m
The first nationally broadcast black newsmagazine, produced by William Greaves and hosted by Wali Saddiq and Greaves, was home to a who’s who of producers, directors, editors and cinematographers—Madeline Anderson, Kent Garrett, St. Clair Bourne, Charles Hobson, to name only a few—working in a diversity of styles: interviews, skits, commentary, investigative reporting, all with a degree of creativity and experimentation still unrivaled for TV.
*Wednesday, February 116:00pm (Q&A with Charles Hobson, Louise Greaves, Kent Garrett, and Madeline Anderson)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy
Kathleen Collins, USA, 1980, DCP, 50m
Kathleen Collins’s first film is an adaptation of a series of short stories by Henry H. Roth about three young Puerto Rican men whose lives are watched over by their father’s ghost. New York’s Rockland County serves as the setting for the magic that the urban-born trio encounters when they meet Miss Malloy, an elderly widow who owns a house in need of some tender loving care. Never released theatrically, airing only once on cable TV, and then disappearing from view, the film has been rescued and re-mastered by the filmmaker’s daughter, Nina and Milestone Films. Screening with a video interview with Kathleen Collins. A Milestone Films Release.
Friday, February 6, 6:30pm (Introduction by Nina Collins and Ronald K. Gray)
*Wednesday, February 11, 3:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
A Dream is What You Wake Up From
Larry Bullard & Carolyn Johnson, USA, 1978, 16mm, 50m
Three black families, observed in their daily lives, their thoughts, values, and aspirations expressed on the soundtrack, and their different approaches to the struggle for survival in contemporary society and their methods of coping with the contradictory stresses placed on the individual in the family environment.
Screening with:
Black Faces
Young Filmmakers Foundation, USA, 1970, 16mm, 1m
A montage of faces from the Harlem community. Black Faces is courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
*Thursday, February 19, 5:30pm (Q&A with JT Takagi of Third World Newsreel and Elena Rossi-Snook of New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
An Evening with Jessie Maple
A trailblazer and pioneer, Jessie Maple was the first African-American woman to gain entry in New York’s camera operators union, taking the case to court to fight discrimination after she was a member, and writing an invaluable book about her life and experience, How to Become a Union Camerawoman. After directing the film Will, and in need of a venue to premiere it, she and her husband Leroy Patton (also a cinematographer) built and founded the independent cinema 20 West in Harlem.
Jessie Maple, USA, 1981, 16mm, 70m
“I wanted to show the neighborhood—that everything was there, right in the neighborhood,” so says Jessie Maple in describing her feature debut. This is the story of Will, a basketball coach fighting demons, a full picture of dealing with modern urban life—uptown—is revealed. “No matter how low you are you can come back up. That’s what Willis. People can’t count themselves out that quick.” Preserved by New York Women in Film and Television’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund. Print courtesy of Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.
*Monday, February 16, 6:30pm (Q&A with Jessie Maple)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Twice as Nice
Jessie Maple, USA, 1989, 70m
Maple’s second narrative feature uses an intimate story—the relationship of twin college basketball players—to examine the nature of sisterhood, competition, and friendship. As with her documentary work, Maple looks at everyday events and ponders the visible but especially the invisible.
*Monday, February 16, 8:45pm (Introduction by Jessie Maple)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Ganja and Hess
Bill Gunn, USA, 1973, 35mm, 113m
Screened at Cannes in 1973 before being recut against the filmmaker's wishes for its U.S. release, Ganja and Hess was first made available years later in its intended version by independent distributor Pearl Bowser, and, now restored, is considered a classic. Conceived as a vampire tale, Gunn’s film is a formally radical and deeply philosophical inquiry into passion and history. “A film that was ahead of its time in 1973, and quite frankly, is still very much so today… maybe the rest of world will eventually catch up.” – Tambay A. Obenson. With Marlene Clarke, Duane Jones, and music by Sam Waymon. Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the Film Foundation.
Saturday, February 75:00pm (Post-screening discussion with film scholar Pearl Bowser and Sam Waymon)
Sunday, February 8, 8:00pm
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Dick Fontaine & Pat Hartley, USA,1982, 16mm, 95m
James Baldwin retraces his time in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, reflecting with his trademark brilliance and insight on the passage of 20 years. From Selma and Birmingham, to the battleground beaches of St. Augustine, Florida, with Chinua Achebe, and back north for a visit to Newark with Amiri Baraka.
*Thursday, February 12, 4:00 & 9:00pm (Q&A with Pat Hartley and Rich Blint at the 4:00pm show)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
I Remember Harlem
William Miles, USA, 1981, 16mm, 240m
“What really made Harlem ‘Harlem’” is what renowned visual historian William Miles, set out to explore when he produced and directed this epic work. Harlem has since become an intersection of cultures, classes, and colors that still maintains a distinctive sense of identity, which Miles lovingly illustrates with his personal connection and commitment to this epicenter of African-American cultural life. We lost this great voice in May 2013 when Miles passed away at the age of 82. Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
*Saturday, February 14, 4:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
In Motion: Amiri Baraka and The New-Ark
Amiri Baraka
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1983, digital projection, 60m
This video portrait, filmed in the days leading up to Amiri Baraka’s appeal of his punitive 90-day sentence for resisting arrest following an argument in his car outside the 8th Street Playhouse movie theater, documents Baraka at his radio show, at home with his wife and children, and performing at readings. It is a delicate vision of a revolutionary who has grown quieter—though never at rest, and as sage as ever.
Screening with a performance by Leroi Jones’s Young Spirit House Movers, broadcast on Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant (USA, 1968, digital projection, 10m).
Screening with:
The New-Ark
Amiri Baraka, USA, 1968, digital projection, 25m
Produced by Harlem Audio-Visual and part of the collection of cameraman and producer James E. Hinton at the Harvard Film Archive, this film, previously believed to be lost, depicts the activism, educational programs, and art taking place at the Spirit House community center in Newark, NJ. Digital preservation by Anthology Film Archives. From the James Hinton Collection at the Harvard Film Archives.
*Tuesday, February 17, 9:00pm 
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant Program
USA, 1968-1971, digital projection, approx. 70m
Produced by Charles Hobson and aired on WNEW (better known as Channel 5), this weekly show was originally conceived by Robert F. Kennedy’s organization and community boosters to counter images of black neighborhoods as presented in the mainstream news. It is considered the first African American–produced television series in the USA. Hosted by Roxie Roker and Jim Lowry, the program reflected the home of 400,000 people as it transitioned into a new era, featuring open and unscripted dialogues with residents, guest celebrities, and, most notably, a powerful public forum with Harry Belafonte. This program will feature a selection of episodes, presented by Charles Hobson.
Sunday, February 8, 3:00pm (Q&A with Charles Hobson)
Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
Spike Lee, USA, 1983, 16mm, 60m
Spike Lee’s NYU Masters program thesis (and the first student feature film ever selected for New Directors/New Films) is a precocious work from a major artist, irrefutable evidence that its maker would go on to become one of the greats.
Screening with:
A Place in Time
Charles Lane, USA, 1977, 16mm, 34m
Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
*Thursday, February 19, 7:15pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Kent Garrett Program
Two docs made for Black Journal, examining the perennial outsider status accorded to those ostensibly on the inside. In Central Harlem, at the height of the Black Power movement, a policeman discusses his role in and out of the uniform, contrasted with the experiences of a colleague in the LAPD. For African-American soldiers in Vietnam, the contradiction of being expected to defend liberties not granted at home is evident. Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The Black GI
Kent Garrett, USA, 1971, 16mm, 54m
The Black Cop
Kent Garrett, USA, 1969, 16mm, 15m
*Friday, February 13, 8:30pm (Q&A with Kent Garrett andKazembe Balagun)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
The Long Night
Woodie King, Jr., USA, 1976, 35mm, 85m
One night in the life of a young boy on the street, encountering the denizens of mid-1970s Harlem, while commenting on Vietnam, marital discord, paternal relationships, substance abuse, schooling, and unemployment—in short, the life of an American family.
*Thursday, February 12, 6:30pm (Q&A with Woodie King, Jr.)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Losing Ground
Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982, DCP, 86m
Finally receiving a long-overdue theatrical run, Losing Ground, one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman, is a groundbreaking romance exploring women’s sexuality, modern marriage, and the life of artists and scholars. But most of all, it is a great film, one that firmly belongs in the canon of American independent cinema in the 1980s. Sara (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn) is a painter. With their personal and professional lives at a crossroads, they leave the city for the country, experiencing a reawakening, both together and separately. Also featuring Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead), the film is honest, funny, and wise. Losing Ground is a testament to the remarkable playwright, professor, and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, and a reminder of the immense talent that was lost when she passed away in 1988 at age 46. A Milestone Films release.
Friday, February 6, 1:00pm, 2:45pm, 4:30pm & 8:30pm (Q&A with Nina Collins, Ronald K. Gray, and Seret Scott at 8:30pm show)
Saturday, February 7, 3:15pm
Sunday, February 8, 1:00pm
*Monday, February 9, 1:00pm 
*Tuesday, February 10, 3:30pm
*Wednesday, February 11, 1:00pm
*Thursday, February 12, 2:00pm 
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Madeline Anderson Program
Madeline Anderson’s classic documentary I Am Somebody depicts the strength of, and the hardships endured by, a striking group of African-American women in Charleston, South Carolina. The program also features Anderson’s first documentary, as well as work fromBlack Journal. “I was determined to do what I was going to do at any cost. I kept plugging away. Whatever I had to do, I did it,” she said of her career. I Am Somebody is screening courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
I Am Somebody
Madeline Anderson, USA, 1970, 16mm, 30m
Integration Report #1
Madeline Anderson, USA, 1960, digital projection, 20m
A Tribute to Malcolm X
Madeline Anderson, USA, 1967, digital projection, 14m
*Wednesday, February 11, 8:30pm (Q&A with Madeline Anderson)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Namibia: Independence Now!
Pearl Bowser & Christine Choy, USA, 1985, 16mm, 55m
A revolutionary political moment is captured firsthand by two independent women filmmakers shooting inside refugee settlements in Zambia and Angola in 1985. Depicting the significant role of women in this struggle for independence, this film explores the lives of exiled women workers attempting to free their country from illegal exploitation.
*Tuesday, February 17, 5:00pm (Q&A with Pearl Bowser, Christine Choy, Al Santana, and JT Takagi)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
One Last Look
Charles Hobson, USA, 1969, digital projection, 60m
This rare film of Steve Carter’s play features many of the leading actors of the era before they went on to achieve international fame, was shown on WABC in New York, and has not been seen since. An emotionally charged drama of family, friends, and former lovers confronting the ghost of the family patriarch at his funeral.
Tuesday, February 17, 7:00pm (Q&A with Charles Hobson)
Personal Problems
Bill Gunn, USA, 1980, digital projection, approx. 110m
“What happens when a group of unbankable individuals tell their own stories? Actors who have final say over their speaking parts? A director found ‘too difficult’ for Hollywood? Two producers, who, having no experience, had the audacity to organize a production with the amount of money Hollywood spends on catering. Maybe less.” These questions by writer Ishmael Reed lead to the conception of this “meta soap opera,” the story of a Harlem couple, and their friends, made without “the middleman.”
Saturday, February 7, 8:00pm (Q&A with Ishmael Reed, Dr. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and Sam Waymon)
*Tuesday, February 10, 1:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Let the Church Say Amen!
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1973, 16mm, 67m
Voices of the Gods
Al Santana, USA, 1985, 16mm, 60m
A program on religion and ritual, highlighting two opposite ends of the spectrum in the role of religion in the black community. These modern classics represent two examples of the influential function and position that religious observation occupies as an essential part of African-American culture.
*Sunday, February 15, 7:00pm (Q&A with Al Santana)
*Tuesday, February 17, 2:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee, USA, 1986, 35mm, 84m
The one that changed the entire landscape of independent film and announced a genuine director-as-superstar, and the defining film of a new generation of American directors. But most significantly, She’s Gotta Have It possesses a confidence, vision, and grandeur of style that is almost as absent from the current independent film scene as the New York City where it takes place, only existing on film, and in memory.
*Thursday, February 19, 9:30pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
St. Clair Bourne Program
Producing or directing more than 40 films in a 36-year career, St. Clair Bourne is inarguably the most prolific black documentarian of his time. Bourne authentically documented critical aspects of the black community—its culture, resistance, and activism—images of which would have been lost if not for his chronicling. If comparisons are necessary to understand the significance of Bourne’s work upon the broader landscape of independent film, think D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles, and Jean Rouch. The films in this program find Bourne documenting black and Irish solidarity, representation in the Brooklyn Museum, and the options granted to high school students who want to attend college. St. Clair Bourne passed away at the age of 64; he would have been 73 this February. Something to Build On is screening courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The Black and the Green
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1983, digital projection, 45m
Something to Build On
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1971, 16mm, 29m
Statues Hardly Ever Smile
Stan Lathan, USA, 1971, digital projection, 21m
Sunday, February 8, 5:15pm (Q&A with Pearl Bowser, Crystal Emery and Sam Pollard)
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
William Greaves, USA, 1968, 35mm, 75m
A docufiction, a narrative experiment, a film about making a film, a crew without a director, a time capsule of New York, a barometer of the culture: process, form, and personality collide in Greaves’s classic, about which no superlatives can be overused and whose influence cannot be overstated.
Saturday, February 7, 1:00pm (Q&A with Louise Greaves and special guests)
Video Program – Free Amphitheater Event!
A program of video-based works that used television technology to bring public attention to Black American identity, through intervention, documentation, and parody, as in Anthony Ramos’s About Media, in which the artist uses his Portapak camera to turn a news crew’s visit to his home into media critique. Co-programmed by Rebecca Cleman and presented by Rebecca Cleman and Chris Hill.
Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison
People’s Communications Network, USA, 1973, digital projection, 17m
About Media
Anthony Ramos, USA, 1977, digital projection, 25m
*Sunday, February 15, 4:30pm (Post-screening discussion with Rebecca Cleman and Chris Hill)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
William Greaves Program
One of Greaves’s greatest, From These Roots is a crash-course in Harlem history, told entirely through the use of still images—rarely has so much information been condensed so gracefully. Paired with two early, rare Greaves docs, showing the incredible range of his work. A tribute to the Harlem-born teacher, mentor, and filmmaker, who passed away in August 2014.
From These Roots
William Greaves, USA, 1974, 16mm, 28m
Emergency Ward
William Greaves, USA, 1959, 16mm, 30m
Wealth of a Nation
William Greaves, USA, 1964, digital projection, 25m
*Saturday, February 14, 8:30pm (Q&A with Louise Greaves)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Women’s Work Program
A program from exemplary women filmmakers who were an integral part of the independent film industry during the period covered by this survey. The content of these women’s films are culturally and community-specific, and they tell stories of universal human interest, with social commentary at their core, effectively bringing to light the remarkable contributions of female storytellers and their image-making prowess.
Teach Our Children
Christine Choy & Susan Robeson, USA, 1972, digital projection, 35m
Hairpiece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People
Ayoka Chenzira, USA, 1985, 16mm, 10m
Ayoka Chenzira, USA, 1979, 16mm, 15m
Suzanne Suzanne
Camille Billops & James Hatch, USA, 1982, 16mm, 30m
*Friday, February 13, 6:00pm (Q&A with Christine Choy, Susan Robeson, Camille Billops and Neema Barnette)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Founded in 1969 to celebrate American and international cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center works to recognize established and emerging filmmakers, support important new work, and to enhance the awareness, accessibility, and understanding of the moving image. The Film Society produces the renowned New York Film Festival, a curated selection of the year’s most significant new film work, and presents or collaborates on other annual New York City festivals including Dance on Camera, Film Comment Selects, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, NewFest, New York African Film Festival, New York Asian Film Festival, New York Jewish Film Festival, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. In addition to publishing the award-winning Film Comment magazine, the Film Society recognizes an artist's unique achievement in film with the prestigious Chaplin Award, whose 2015 recipient is Robert Redford. The Film Society’s state-of-the-art Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, located at Lincoln Center, provide a home for year-round programs and the New York City film community.

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Ishmael Reed on the Life and Death of Amiri Baraka

ishmael I came to New York Monday to support my play,”The Final Version,” a work that touches upon the on again off again relationship between the white and black New York left from the 1930s to the 1965. My director, Rome Neal, directed five of Amiri Baraka‘s plays throughout the years, yet the obituaries, some of them mean-spirited and ignorant, confine the playwright’s creative output to 1964, when he wrote “Dutchman.” So why do the obituaries say that Baraka was through after 1964, even though he continued to write plays, poetry and publish books around the world?

I published two of his books, “Sidney Poet Heroical,” a devastating satire about black Hollywood and “Un Poco Low Coup,” a book of his cartoons. Baraka’s work is considered “short lived” by some because he exposed the attitude of the mainstream toward black writers, that no matter how technically adept you may be with craft, it’s what you say that counts. What he said offended the members of what he would call “the ruling class.” He used his talent to write scathing indictments of racism and the capitalist system.

The Black Arts Movement, which he founded with poet Askia Touré and the late Larry Neal, was considered “short lived” because the media rely upon scouts to tell them what’s happening among blacks as though they were members of a nation that has its own ambassadors,whom the media rely upon to tell them what the drums they hear mean. Like the proletariat arts movement of the 1930s, the establishment wishes that the Black Arts movement would just get lost. Though I get associated with the movement, I was living in Chelsea at the time, writing my first novel, a sci-fi surrealist take on what I had experienced in Newark as a twenty something editor of a newspaper there. I had problems with some of its actors. So did Amiri. But this movement did more to expand a black readership than its critics.

Amiri Baraka and I clashed. Often. He once called me a “jet plane flying lying n—–.” My response was that when Amiri, a communist, gave up his American Express card, I’d start riding the bus. We set a standard for young people with our arguments. They were conducted by using poetry and wit. Not once was an AK-47 employed. But as the years went by, we found ourselves members of the curmudgeon club. In fact, one of his final essays about corruption in Newark appears in the latest issue of my magazine, Konch. His comments about “Django Unchained” will appear in a forthcoming anthology that I have edited about film. Our final correspondence took place on Nov.17.

One obituary called Baraka “polarizing,” which means that he contributed to something they market called “The Racial Divide,” when many of his patrons and supporters were white. Many Europeans are white, and they treated him as they would treat a great writer. Broadway with its parade of black servants, prostitutes, and black bogeymen wouldn’t stage his post “Dutchman” plays, but a musical for which he wrote the book was staged in Paris a few years ago. Even though the obituaries refer to him as an antisemite because of the controversy around his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” he has two brilliant daughters whose mother is Jewish, the author Hettie Cohen. When I participated in a writers conference held in Israel a few years ago, the organizer expressed regrets that Baraka couldn’t attend.

All of his children are achievers including Ras, who is a Newark councilman. His daughter Dominique, whom he had with the great poet Diane Di Prima, is a first rate television host. His beautiful partner Amina Baraka is a poet in her own right.

Amiri Baraka was controversial because his was a perspective that was considered out of fashion during this post race ghost dance, the attitude that says that because we have a black president, racism is no longer an issue, when the acrimonious near psychotic reaction to his election only shows the depth of it. In one of two books of mine that were published in Montreal, I argue that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. He’s more like the catholic priest in “The Exorcist.” Drawing all of the demons of American racism to the surface. Was Amiri Baraka an agit-prop writer? What was left out of the indolent obituaries that I read was that he was a two-time American Book Award winner.

Baraka’s artistic peers thought enough of his talent to admit him to the exclusive The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Maybe they recognized that Amiri Baraka was the kind of writer who comes along once in a generation or so. I once said that he did for the English syntax what Monk did with the chord. He was an original.

Ishmael Reed’s play,”The Final Version” is on this weekend at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe. (212-780-9386). It closes next week.

Black Peter, Krampus and the Real Roots of St. Nick and Santa Claus

My interest in Saint Nicholas and his sidekick, Black Peter, began when I heard a party guest mention that there was an black element in the Dutch Christmas. Some accounts have Nick as Peter’s sidekick. Coincidentally, at the time, I was invited to the Netherlands to participate in a poetry conference. While there, I was able to witness the ceremony of St. Nicholas and Black Peter (aka Zwarte Piet) entering the Amsterdam port on a barge. They were accompanied by “Senoritas.” The presence of Senoritas suggested that Peter was of Spanish origin–perhaps a Moor who was introduced to the Netherlands when the Spanish occupied the Netherlands from 1556-1566.

When the party came ashore, the actor playing Saint Nick mounted a white horse and began a procession through the streets. Black Peter, a white actor in black face, rode along in a sports car. The children paid more attention to Pete than to Nick. One of the reasons was that it’s Pete’s job to distribute the gifts. At one time the bag containing the gifts supposedly held naughty children who were kidnapped and taken to Spain.

My curiosity about Saint Nicholas and his relationship led to two novels, “The Terrible Twos,” and “The Terrible Threes.” I’m currently working on “The Terrible Fours.”

“The Terrible Twos” was translated into Dutch by one of the leading Dutch poets, Hans Plomp. It received a rave in The New York Times by reviewer the late John Leonard, but was ignored in the United States, virtually. The Nation magazine said that it was proof that I was done as a novelist. But since I am considered a “cult” writer by some, maybe my cult has kept it in print since 1983.

My Christmas series was influenced by African American artists like Betye Saar and Joe Overstreet, who were transforming stereotypical images of blacks in popular culture. For example, Aunt Jemima, the smiling face on the pancake mix became armed. My Black Peter became a Rastafarian in “The Terrible Twos,” and a sort of recovery counselor in the “Threes.” My Saint Nicholas is a socialist in both books, but in the coming novel makes a deal with department store owners.

But just as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been toned down for popular consumption, the smiling rosy cheeked overweight white man in red suit is an American invention. Modifying Clement Moore’s rendition of a rotund Santa Claus, the great abolitionist illustrator Thomas Nast dressed him in a red suit for the 1863 Harper’s Weekly. This image covers up the real Nicholas who was a troublesome figure for the church because he is ubiquitous like Christ, and he could also be rowdy. In A.D.325, he slapped a man named Arius because he was upset with Arius’s claiming that Jesus was not God. Nick was arrested and thrown in jail, not exactly the kindly old gent upon whose lap parents aren’t afraid to place their children. Moreover,will these same parents leave cookies and milk out for Nick when they discover that he is the patron saint of prostitutes?

Nicholas has had an on again off again relationship with the Catholic Church. On February 14,1969, he was demoted by Pope Paul VI from the calendar of Saints.

So Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Black Peter are more complicated than how they are treated in the popular press.

Black Peter is controversial because the Dutch smear themselves with black face when performing that role. Still, Black Peter is one of the handful of positive traditional images of blacks in Europe. In the popular media in the United States, blacks are sometime portrayed as takers. Black Peter is a giver.

Now was Saint Nicholas white? A debate over the subject recently broke out on Fox News. Saint Nicholas was born in a part of the world that is now present day Turkey. Some say that he was Greek. Others say that we don’t know how he and his kinsmen looked.We’ll have to await the committee that decides such things for an answer. I imagine them to be blond and blue eyed. Maybe meeting in secret in Iceland. Inspecting a long waiting list of applicants and indignant about America’s slack compliance.

The advertising for an art show that I saw in front of a shop located on Ave. A in New York City indicates that the American Christmas is really going to get complicated. The ad carried a portrait of Krampus, Black Peter’s evil twin who goes around kidnapping European women and children.While my partner, Carla Blank, and I headed for the theater, where she was assisting director Rome Neal in the production of my new play,”The Final Version,” I paused and snapped a photo of it.

I also noticed some kids dressed as Santa migrating from bar to bar as part of something called SantaCon 2013, an annual pub crawl in which people dress up like Santa and other holiday characters.

SantaCon has occurred for years, but after a few particularly rowdy installments, the event has gotten some in the city in a tizzy. Many New Yorkers this year expressed concerns about the level of business at SantaCon, which reportedly draws 30,000 people to New York and has been known to feature Santas puking, shouting and urinating publicly all over town.

SantaCon evokes the image of the 19th Century Xmas as portrayed in an account on with “raucous, drunken mobs roaming the streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes.” With millions of people out of work, what will future Christmases look like, now that Krampus is back?

"Blues City: A Walk In Oakland"

Blues City: A Walk In Oakland
by Ishmael Reed

Crown Journeys Series, Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.,  New York

Review by Norman Douglas


      "Most of us spend our lives viewing our environment through a haze, but if we work hard enough, the haze lifts and the view becomes limitless"

-- from "The Universe," in Blues City: A Walk in Oakland by Ishmael Reed (p. 188)


Ishmael Reed's Blues City: A Walk in Oakland is perhaps best summed up as the author's refutation of the way in which famed scribbler Gertrude Stein once characterized the other city by the San Francisco Bay: "There's no there there." While Reed calls Oakland home, he is a transplant, a native of Buffalo, New York. His first excursion Out West in 1958 ended up a kind of mixed blessing. Reed traveled there with two friends, David and Kirk, one white, the other an indigenous American -- a fact Reed (and David) learned only after they had arrived in San Francisco, where Kirk, who drove, "slammed the brakes in anger" at David's remark, "'Look at those drunken Indians.'" "Kirk said, 'You've been seated next to one all day.'"


Spending a couple of months around North Beach -- already Beatnik Central, USA -- the three travelers, "unable to find jobs, headed back to Buffalo." Thus, Reed's first encounter with the Bay Area not only bore no fruit, it skirted his future home in favor of the more reputable, culturally prominent, poetically renowned City of Seven Hills.


The blessing disguised by the first leg of Reed's trip did not take place in California, but in North Platte, Nebraska, on the way Back East. Stranded after Kirk was arrested for speeding, Reed and David found themselves the recipients of an outpouring of hometown hospitality. Spotted by an American Indian woman and a black man, Reed found himself "a kind of celebrity, accorded the kind of treatment that black American celebrities received in Europe at the time." After enjoyments that included a show put on by "a man claiming to be Buffalo Bill's grandson," Reed and friend were granted an audience with the town's plug hat-wearing judge. He released Kirk from jail on hearing that the trio were students and needed to resume their studies. "After the coldness of San Francisco ... [the three friends] welcomed the warmth of North Platte."


Beginning his career as a writer in Buffalo, Reed headed for New York a few years later. Reed briefly documents his rise, beginning in 1962, through the city's cultural milieu. Without enumerating his string of literary accomplishments -- this is a book about Oakland, after all -- Reed claims that he was "not ready for early literary success. I messed up. Drank too much. Talked too much. Left a trail of hurt feelings. My poetry was quoted in the New York Times. My name was dropped in gossip columns. I wasn't up to the dinners held in my honor at Doubleday's townhouse, the adulation of women, the fame that accompanied being young, gifted, and black in the New York of the 1960s. The jacket of my first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was put up on the wall at Chumley's months before the book itself had even come out."


He lived with Carla Blank, a dancer/choreographer who became (and remains) his wife. Despite the success that the couple enjoyed (Carla worked on an equal footing with Meredith Monk, Elaine Summers, Sally Gross, and collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi), they both sought "new challenges." Loathe to wear out his welcome, he and Carla headed to Los Angeles in 1967. By September, they had moved to Berkeley -- no less a hotbed of social, cultural, and political activity in those heady times than New York (albeit with less chance of "murder by affection"). The following year, UC Berkeley English professor Thomas Parkinson invited Reed to teach. He never left. But ten years would go by before, in 1979 -- the year I arrived to live in West Oakland and finish my BFA at San Francisco Art Institute -- the Reeds found their home.


In 1979, when I moved to Oakland, the city was a model for black power, partially due to the efforts of the Black Panther party, which had helped transform the city from a feudal backwater run by a few families into a modern city with worldwide recognition. From the seventies through the nineties, there was a black mayor, a black symphony conductor, a black museum head, black members of the black city council and, in Robert Maynard, the only black publisher of a major news daily. Mayor Lionel Wilson ... and other black elected officials openly attributed their electoral success to support from the Black Panther party. The Panthers supported the campaign of our current mayor, Jerry Brown, too, and the scene at his commune after he'd won the mayoral election in 1999 resembled a Black Panther party reunion. But soon the Panthers and many other black supporters broke with Brown ... (pp.19-20)


My own sojourn in the Bay Area, from 1979 to 1982, were the most culturally nationalist years of my life. (Some might disparagingly argue that I should have better written "My Life As An Oreo.") I went around calling myself by the Swahili variant of my given (Scots) name. I avoided my white schoolmates in favor of the black artists (including several dancers) I met at Oakland's Everybody's Arts Center, Laney College and the Dimensions Dance Theater, where I served as technical director {1}. I taught poetry and photography at inner-city schools, at the aforementioned Opera House {2}, and with a program for incarcerated teens in the Haight. Something about the Bay Area -- about California, in general -- has always struck me as racially polarizing, a gut feeling I have never successfully explained to myself. Nor have I been able to shake it. Once I got Back East, the trappings of black nationalist rage I felt and openly expressed while Out West disappeared. I found myself graciously cleansed of the plastic burden of California consciousness -- of Jheri curl grease on the bus windows and seatbacks, of black men with wave hairdos; where being white was the penultimate achievement, while being of color was an obstacle to overcome through all one's waking hours. I also worried that California consciousness was creeping across the country, that it foretold the future of America. Barring the obvious sins of the Reagan era that chased me overseas to Paris in the late Eighties, the years since OJ's low-speed chase seem to have borne out my trepidation. While not prepared to declare myself a cultural nationalist, it is not hard to recognize the racial re-polarizing of the States (which is not to say it was even close to depolarized).


Naturally, Reed's book does not speak to my experience in the Bay Area, nor does it directly address my concerns regarding This Great Nation of ours. He does emphasize the relationship between Oakland's regional history -- its characters and characterizations -- in terms of America's history. He cites numerous texts to establish the connection, such as The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands: "In the aftermath of the Gold Rush, a new American dream was born -- the enduring conviction that sudden wealth was potentially within everyone's grasp." As a resident of Oakland, Reed writes to recreate his own experience there. And he has constructed Blues City following a strategy revealed in the subtitle, A Walk In Oakland. Over the course of a year or so, Reed is accompanied by family, friends, and assorted others who avail themselves of the city's easy layout, strolling through a host of civic and cultural activities and events: the Jack London Waterfront Walk, the black cowboy parade, Kwanzaa, a powwow, the Chinatown festival, a tour of Old Oakland, the City Center tour, the Peralta House, the Preservation Park picnic, the Black Panther picnic, El dia de los muertos (The Day of the Dead), an Oakland Heritage Alliance ceremony honoring the African American Museum and Library, the Black Panther tour led by former party chairman David Hilliard, a Fruitvale district tour, the BBQ, Beer, and Blues Festival, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex Pride Festival, Art and Soul Weekend ...


And what makes each of these events resonate is the fact that Reed makes contact with someone knowledgeable at each. In italicized passages, he revives these voices as they addressed him, capturing their candor as well as their selflessness. He has assembled a chorus of people who are committed to the city they live in. These are people whose work is not just a job, but a means to stave off oblivion. While not all of the people remember the histories and personalities they relate through direct contact, they have assumed the humanity of their social forbears as genuine.


Reed uncovers these qualities because he is the kind of teacher who cannot hide his lust for learning, his consummate skill as a listener. And as a listener, he writes for his subjects as much as for himself: "If I had not written this book, I would not have become acquainted with Oakland's many worlds. Nor would I have met the many volunteers, the true heroes and heroines of the city who strive to keep Oakland alive in the face of fierce and often malevolent forces of development." Deftly delivering these anecdotes and vignettes in subtly varied stylistic shifts, Reed is a proven craftsman whose forty-plus years of promoting American letters comes across in crisp, pointed prose. He conveys ideas as well as images, embellishing his vivid imagery with appropriate ideas. Avoiding clutter, he constructs information-loaded paragraphs that are deceptively brief.


In one exemplary passage, he visits the Chabot Space and Science Center, a facility affiliated with both NASA and the Smithsonian. He writes:


After touring the classrooms and the mock Challenger space station, after crossing a sky bridge to the Dellums building from the Sprees building, Tennessee and I join Sprees in watching a movie in the Tien MegaDome Theater. It shows an exploration of the inner body, and Tennessee finds it hard to take at certain points. After watching the stomach break down foods like some sort of washing machine, I vow to chew my food more carefully. The next morning, while swimming at the YMCA, I see myself as a movie skeleton moving through the waters, an image triggered by having watched moving about in everyday activities the day before. The Chabot Center is a gigantic, transformative teaching tool; when you exit, you're not the same person who entered.


Without the literary pyrotechnics that plague many writers, Reed transforms the reader using straightforward language. He neither talks down to his reader, nor sucks up to the literate acrobats of too many postmodern prose writers. {3}



"The city" as inspiration for literary memoir may be approached from any number of perspectives. The last such book I read was Colson Whitehead's \italic{Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Chapters}. Whitehead writes about a mythic New York; the great city that arouses wonder and hyperbole by the truckload. Whitehead accomplishes this mythologizing by relying on the sense of anonymity the city engenders. Not a beautiful portrait of New York but an ironic one, the writing nonetheless conveys the beauty of New Yorkers' anonymous unity. Whitehead, like Reed, has listened to the city's residents and molded the classical persona of the title through their voices, their plaintive laments, their careful hopes, their controlled despair. His subtitle, A City in Thirteen Chapters, suggests an episodic television broadcast, one starring his Colossus at the center of a sit-com, a sardonic series somewhere between Sex and the City and The Honeymooners (in tone, rather than content), a program of comic paradoxes.


Reed, on the other hand, has written a memoir full of history. He does not pretend that history -- even when nearly forgotten -- does not matter. He sets forth to challenge whatever recent received ideas we now circulate regarding this city; he is not separate from this "we." Further, he does not claim to discover his identity through his narrative. But Reed wants to demystify Oakland; he has long written from the position of a debunker of myths. While the fog of ignorance can be quite familiar, its dispersal is ultimately greater; even -- as cited in this essay's epigram -- "limitless."


While Reed never answers my Californiaphobia, he has painted a tableau that portrays a modern city with historic roots I scarcely saw (or sought). Whitehead's New York is ahistorical; a city that -- maybe through the arrogance of its willful deracination, its secret law of everything at once -- develops and assumes a peculiar character precisely because it is so archetypical.


In the end, neither city can belong to either author. More to the point, no city belongs to any one person. Both writers cannot avoid creating composites; this is how a city reveals itself. The Blues, which Reed invokes throughout his book, and the mythic, which Whitehead evokes through his Colossus, differ in form. But like cities, they represent cultural composites. Made of so many, it is remarkable that anyone would dare to speak for such monstrous hydras as cities present.


To convey as clear a picture as Reed does -- building his image one walk at a time, one encounter after another, each citizen leisurely recalling those before and around him or her -- is a laudable achievement, to say the least. To do so in so few pages (both books come in at under two hundred pages) is what makes Blues City read like poetry. Reed mentions that he reread Homer's Odyssey -- among several other books -- while at work on Blues City. And Blues City, while written as prose, reminds one of the measured style that one hears in narrative verse. Having listened to -- and heard -- Mr. Reed speak and read on numerous occasions over the past twenty-five years, I mentioned to Steve Cannon, his erstwhile partner and colleague, that Reed's voice jumps off the page, comes through the printed text -- its cadence, its rhythm, its intonations and inflections -- as if he was in the room reading aloud. "That's what a writer's supposed to do," remarked Cannon. "Isn't it?" That may be enough, but in Blues City, the writer has accomplished (or has he revealed?) so much more. However true or untrue Gertrude Stein's statement may have been regarding the Oakland of the early twentieth century, there is definitely a lot of "there" in Reed's book. Read it and go there.



That Reed left the Bay Area in the company of the same two guys with whom he arrived, that the high point of that first trip was the time spent in North Platte, suggests the writer's aversion to irresponsible antics. Reed, the first African American writer to inspire my literary ambitions with his second novel, Yellow Back Radio Brokedown (which had me devouring the two other novels he had done --  The Freelance Pallbearers and Mumbo Jumbo -- in quick succession), has long channeled his adventurous side -- the Call of the Wild {4}, if you will -- into his writing. While idiots like myself have shipwrecked any promise we may have hoped for in the pursuit of negligent recklessness, Reed wisely chose the course of an adventurous recluse. Experience takes us along many paths, but a productive and inspirational output like Reed's requires a degree of consistency that escaped countless colleagues and peers of all three generations. The obscurity, the spare and spotty records, the mediocrity of much of the Beat Generation of writers may amuse us, but their works lack the craft that their crafty lives pretended to; their oeuvres are like footnotes to the biographies of their queer, fucked-up lives. In the end, the tight, concise, content-rich texts that Ishmael Reed has consistently completed over the last forty years comes of a dedication to communication, rather than a muddle of self-medicated speculations posing as meditative ruminations.



1 They still called me Oreo at the Bayview Hunters Point Opera House, where I was also tech director. But that's another story.


2 Actually a small facility in a predominantly black district "across the tracks" on the San Francisco side of the bay.


3 Indeed, as a writer, the book has been immensely instructive in terms of its technical feats. Reed's prowess is surprisingly understated, a fact that in no way suggests a lack of force. If anything, the low key "delivery" packs power into phrases that seem as calm as a mountaintop lake, and just as profound.


4 Radical writer Jack London plays a great part in Oakland history and, as such, in Reed's Blues City.


© 2003 Norman Douglas. New York City December 5, 2003