Ishmael Reed

"NeoHoodoo in the 21st Century, and Other Topics"

Spring 2012

Poet, novelist, and cultural critic Ishmael Reed was in Claremont on Thursday, February 16 as the Institute for Signifying Scriptures’ Distinguished Speaker for 2012. Set up as a conversation with ISS director Vincent Wimbush, the event explored diverse topics including race, gender, justice, the economy, class, religion, and hegemony. Reed’s anecdotal reflections on these topics were particularly focused on the structures and strategies of domination at work in America. His reflections also gestured towards opening up space where subjugated voices will supplement the “unfinished” history of America.
Some ISS research assistants reflected on the event.

Richard Newton:
In a room where Ishmael Reed speaks his mind, no one leaves unscathed. Titles, honorifics, and pedigree will not protect you. His cutting commentary does not hurt as much as it points out the truths that our significations attempt to obscure, and the truth can hurt. The beauty of Reed's NeoHoodism is in its equalizing. As Reed writes, "every man is artist and every artist a priest." For the critical student of scriptures, NeoHoodism frees us to see all humans as meaning-making folk, common in their desires but creative in their ways.

As a budding cultural critic, I found his life story particularly inspiring. Poets, rather than novelists (or scholars?!), were his muses. And everyman and everywoman has become his teacher. What happens when one's scholarly path breaks the spine and binding of canons?

Ishmael Reed was unrelenting in his incisive critique of the dominant meaning-worlds. His conversation touched on issues related to the academy, institutionalized religions and social formations, policy making, the media, and popular culture and politics. Where he was most caustic, he was even more articulate and compelling. The conversation also broached alternative meaning-making possibilities that crisscrossed a vast terrain and invoked diverse resources. This analytical template will be informative, if not directly applicable, for the student invested in the critical and comparative study of scriptures. However, I wished Reed had spent a little more time to unpack NeoHooDoo and its registrations in the twenty-first century. Given its potential for playful and artistic alternatives to staid but dominant epistemes, how might NeoHooDoo also address or dampen the “micro-fascisms” inside all of us? 

David Olali:
Ishmael Reed boldly confronts the denial which accompanies the making of modern histories in post-religious America. He privileges non-dominant religions such as are found among Nigeria’s Yoruba pantheons. But even though he tried using these as wedges of counter-colonial intervention, he did not delve into the structures and inner workings of these religions which, under critical examination, are in themselves problematic. I totally recognize the roots of Reed’s frustrations and anger with a purportedly “civilized’ and “educated” public, including the systemic manipulation of the judiciary and the economic apparatus to subjugate peoples of colour in the United States.  Reed questions the race subject as being by and large a determinative of socio-economic and political equations. After the presentation, I restarted asking myself a familiar question in a new way: what is the meaning of the human project without oppressive castes? 

Institute for Signifying Scriptures’ Distinguished Speaker: Ishmael Reed from Claremont Graduate University on Vimeo.

Jason Hiebert:
I found several points that Ishmael Reed raised to be thought-provoking.  For instance, his suggestion that "every man is an artist and every artist a priest," although penned several decades ago, can still speak to our project in the CCS program.  When Reed spoke about his muses, he made the point that corporate crimes are often covered up, while street crimes are featured prominently on the front page of the newspaper.  Talking and writing about subjects such as that which have often played a part in his continued presence on the outside of the establishment. Reed asserts, however, that in the US the outsiders become the establishment.  Rebels are tamed and put to work for the status quo.  This does not have to be, but it will continue to be as long as the academy is dominated by people with restricted vision, according to Reed.  It can change, and will change, as people expand their understanding of history, politics, and culture.  His point on the ten thousand years of American storytelling was especially compelling.  In the end, Reed's broader point on the necessity of eclecticism in reading, writing, and thinking not only encompassed the variegated topics he spoke on, but surpassed them.

Gregg Sherman:
Pulitzer Prize nominee, Ishmael Reed is an American poet, novelist, and essayist, whose social activism extends beyond the page.  He has shown his commitment to bringing about positive social change by moving to Oakland, CA where he has been a part of a cleanup effort in an inner city neighborhood. After the distinguished speaker event, I realized I was left with many questions regarding the definition of “white.” I was perplexed by the idea that Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans are not so much considered “white” because of the poverty and oppression they experienced. With our metropolitan societies, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish “white” from race and poverty. I am of mixed European descent, but I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Long Beach for the first decade of my life. My experiences led me to outcast myself from average social relationships once we moved to Orange County. I sought out other delinquents or impoverished peers who had lived through similar experiences because I could not identify or relate with this new society. So, the second half of my life I lived among the “white” society, but remained unable to appreciate and blend into the society. Now, I would like to ask Reed where that would leave someone like me based on his definition.


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