Biography of Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed is a prominent American poet, novelist, and scholar, best-known for the satirical and ebullient novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972). Of the language he employs in his works, the poetry Foundation explains, “Reed [uses] ‘Neohoodooism’ in his work. Based on Hoodoo, a syncretic religion that absorbs West African religious practices, Reed turned this concept of syncretism into a literary method that combines aspects of ‘standard’ English, including dialect, slang, argot, neologisms, or rhyme, with less ‘standard’ language, taken from the streets, popular music, and television. By mixing language from different sources, Reed employs expressions that can both evoke interest and humor through seeming incongruities and creates the illusion of real speech. Reed’s combinatory, or syncretic, method extends to his poetry as well. Reed’s early poems draw from Afro-American and Anglo-American historical and popular traditions—two distinct but intertwined sources for the Afro-American aesthetic. Reed’s work has always sought to combine traditions, approaches, and values.”

Reed was born on February 22nd, 1938 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and raised in Buffalo, New York. He attended the University of New York at Buffalo. Though he did not finish school for financial reasons, the University awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 1995.

In 1962 Reed moved to New York and founded the East Village Other with Walter Bowart. He was a part of the influential Umbra Writers Workshop, whose members helped found the Black Arts Movement. He was very immersed in the jazz community and began experimenting with the music himself.

Reed’s poetry collections include Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church 1970), Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970 (1972), A Secretary to the Spirits (1978), and others. His novels include The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Terrible Threes (1989), Juice! (2011), and others. He has also written notable works of nonfiction, such as Blues City: A Walk in Oakland (2003), Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War (2003), and The Complete Muhammed Ali (2015).

Reed is the recipient of numerous awards for his writing, such as the MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, fellowships for writing from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, and the nomination of Mumbo Jumbo for a National Book Award. He was named the first SF JAZZ Poet Laureate in 2012. He also founded and cofounded presses, journals, and organizations in the literary world; two of the most notable are the Before Columbus Foundation, which presents the American Book Awards, and PEN Oakland. '

Reed taught at the University of California, Berkeley for over 30 years as well as teaching at other colleges and universities. Now a professor emeritus, he lives in Oakland with his wife, the author, choreographer, and director Carla Blank.


Study Guides on Works by Ishmael Reed

Published in 1976--the year America was celebrating all the nice history making up its bicentennial--Flight to Canada is a parody or satire or pastiche of the slave narrative by Ishmael Reed that draws attention to the inherent flaws in a genre...

Mumbo Jumbo is the third novel by Ishmael Reed and is considered by many to be his best. Ostensibly a mystery set in 1920’s New Orleans and New York City, Mumbo Jumbo is representative of Reed’s distinctly creative literary process. The...