Ishmael Reed as 'Haute Couture'

The 81-year old Ishmael Reed (1938-) is becoming fashion(able) some 50 years after he made a name for himself with his innovative fiction and poetry.

In London around 1970 you could see people coming out of Foyles, the big bookstore, with a copy of John Cleland’s erotic classic Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, first published 1748, but only republished in England in an uncensored edition 1970; or you could go to one of the smaller avant-garde booksellers and buy Reed’s early novels The Free-lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), or his first chapbook of poetry, catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church (1969/70), published in London as volume eleven in Paul Breman’s Heritage Series of black poetry from Africa and the African diaspora.

Ishmael Reed has been busy ever since, and on 17 February 2019, as part of the London Fashion Week, the 28-year old Jamaican-British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner  (“I am a fashion designer making art”) made Reed part of her haute couture show calling her collection, Mumbo Jumbo – the name of Reed’s third and most famous novel – , including a white shirt with the name Ishmael Reed written across the chest (like the name of your favorite baseball-team).

According to an article in the Danish newspaper Politiken, 28 February 2019, Rodsøgning i en rodløs tid (looking for your roots in a time of rootlessness), the then ‘only’ 80-year old Ishmael Reed (born on February 22) even played an improvised piece of piano music for the occasion!

Ishmael Reed’s best reviewed novels are probably: Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Last Days of Louisiana Reed (1974), and Flight to Canada (1976), two of them recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics. Among the several other novels, the most innovative may be Juice! (2011) a satire on the obsessive media coverage of the O.J. Simpson-case (the Juice was an O.J. Simpson alias) and its aftermath, showing (or documenting, Reed calls his novel ‘faction’, referencing press  coverage extensively) that the subject of race and racism is ‘well and alive’ in America.

His poems are collected in New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006 (2006), a number of his plays in Ishmael Reed: The Plays (2009). But these days Reed is first and foremost a busy essayist, with numerous volumes to his credit. Titles such as Another Day at the Front; Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media; Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown; and the forthcoming Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico tell their own story.

For more on Grace Wales Bonner, see the interview in The Guardian, Saturday 2 February 2019; and for more on Ishmael Reed and his 50 years as a published writer, editor, publisher, lecturer, musician, activist and public intellectual, see all over the place!

And if a fan, you may find yourself on the lookout, in celebration, for that Ishmael Reed shirt!