March 2009


Mixing It Up ­ Taking on the media bullies and other reflections
by Ishmael Reed
Da Capo Press

Review by W. C. Bamberger

Ishmael Reed’s writing is a nearly irresistible force. Anyone who wants to read Reed seriously — that is, not just agree or disagree with him, but engage with his ideas — had better come prepared with facts, an open mind, and perhaps even a seatbelt. To read Mixing It Up is to be buffeted on every page.

Reed’s writing often proceeds by thematic links. In one paragraph in his introduction he begins with an observation about a 60 Minutes broadcast, in which

“[Leslie] Stahl used a sledgehammer to flatten the black woman who alleged being raped by Duke University lacrosse players, introducing the woman’s sexual and psychiatric history, even to the extent of identifying her medication. White and black feminists, who defended Kobe Bryant’s accuser even when exposed by the Los Angeles Times as a liar, expressed no outrage.”

From there he proceeds to dismiss the idea that “prosecutorial misconduct is rare” and goes on to comment on racial profiling, affirmative action, discriminatory drug laws and exonerations of death row inmates, all the while naming names, offering statistics and — mixing it up — taking a good verbal shot here and there: He claims “Police plant evidence as they probably did in the O. J. case”; calls Tucker Carlson “a smarty-pants demagogue and media bully”; and notes how the matter of teenage pregnancy being identified with black women inspires “comments that influence public policy and play into the hands of a neo-Nazi agenda lurking underneath the tricky rhetoric of the far Reich.”

Reed’s intent here isn’t to claim automatic innocence for such defendants as Simpson, Bryant or Michael Jackson, nor does he indulge in any cardboard depictions of “whites vs. everyone else.” Rather, he seeks to point out how the “facts” in such trials and other media events are often blatantly warped by cultural and racial preconceptions. He will occasionally take a moment to defend his own ideas and facts — “I think I have a good record for accuracy. Why else would NBC call me after I appeared on a network show and request that I share my data with them?” — but most often he expects readers to come to the page as prepared as he does. If we don’t, such pieces as the last essay here, “Going Old South on Obama: Ma and Pa Clinton Flog Uppity Black Man,” can make for upsetting reading.

An adept mix of documentation and outrage shapes most of the pieces in Mixing It Up, which range from a first-person account of being discriminated against when applying for a loan, to an informed and well-reasoned analysis of the Don Imus “nappy-headed” incident, to an essay pointing out the parallels between the Patriot Act and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. But this is not to say that Reed is a one-note writer. His observations come in many registers, from the strident to the cool, as when he writes that black writer Charles Chesnutt is among those who sometimes alienate white readers because they “expose hypocrisy” and “explode popular myths.” His pieces on Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins are generous-hearted and informed by Reed’s own study of jazz (he has recorded a CD of jazz piano and compares jazz improvisation to “high-speed chess”). True to the subtitle of this collection, he takes a hard look at how the achievements of even such musical giants are to a degree limited by the kind of criticism they receive: “I sometimes feel that jazz criticism is a new form of white-collar crime.”

In thirty-plus years of reading Reed’s work I have not always been convinced by his words, and I have at times winced at some of his more outrageous figures of speech — here I wonder how far such phrases as “the far Reich” are from Imus’ slurs. But I have never read an opinion or an assertion (or in his fiction, a fantastic-seeming bit of narrative invention or conspiratorial connection) that I felt could simply be dismissed. I most often come away from Reed’s work smarting at my own lack of conviction and less-than-complete grasp of the facts, and suspecting that I too often settle for a simpler answer to big American questions than might be found.

In his ability to pull the comfortable rug out from under his readers and make us aspire to a higher ground of understanding, Reed is one of our most essential and irreplaceable voices.


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