John A. Williams: Ishmael Reed, The Man Who Defied the Formula

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by Walter Mosley

title: The Man Who Defied the Formula by Ishmael Reed

The writer who has been appointed the perennial leading black writer by establishment critics was celebrating his receiving a major award by having dinner with two novelists. The scene was Paris. And the other two black writers, who were as good as the recipient of the award, or possibly better, were toasting the writer and offering congratulations. I imagine that the champagne flowed and the tongues became loose. “I guess you found the formula,” one writer said to the recipient. This was probably said in jest, but the winner of the award took strong offense. One could even say violent.

The winning novel was an outstanding achievement, but one could see why it would receive the praise of the literary brokers. Ironically, some of its strongest supporters, who were thrilled by the novelist’s hit at black nationalism, were and are nationalists themselves. The black writer who is chosen as Diva, or Divus, always feels uneasy about the praise heaped upon him. Maybe that was the reason for the violent response from the celebrant. As my grandmother used to say, his conscience was whipping him.

Whatever formula is necessary to please establishment critics has eluded John A. Williams. I have said that he is the best pure African-American novelist of the last hundred years. My judgment isn't based upon a theory, but upon writing everyday for over forty years. Among world novelists, he is one of the most cosmopolitan. As novelist Cecil Brown says, “Although he gives the world an intimate view of the life of the black American, he is capable of taking the reader outside of America, too. In my favorite of his many novels, The Man Who Cried I Am, he presented the image of black men living abroad, outside the pressure of racist America. His fiction is always suspenseful, well researched, and dramatic. As a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction (covering every genre), he is our Alexander Dumas.”

He writes fiction and nonfiction with settings in Europe and Africa as well as in the United States. He has delivered these scenes with knowledge of place and with craft. But the word craftsman doesn’t quite fit him. He is like the specialists who were called in to restore a Victorian house I toured last year. The house had been plundered by modernists, and the specialists were summoned to recreate this majestic dwelling with painstaking detail. Williams is like those artists. He turns over every sentence and pays attention to every word.

And so why has the recognition bestowed upon inferior writers been denied Williams? I think it’s because African-American writers are judged by a different standard from that used to judge other American writers. While white poets and prose writers are congratulated for their formalistic skills, African-American writers are judged on the basis of their content.

The works of John A. Williams, the late John O. Killens and Amiri Baraka, though of artistic excellence, come on too strong for some. Are too political. This is nothing new. Ida B. Wells was told by an agent that she could make fifty dollars per night, a fortune in those days, lecturing, if she’d just avoid the subject of lynching. bell hooks says that her white feminist audiences become uncomfortable when she brings up the subject of race.

While writers from all traditions have written about politics, including Blake, Shelley, Milton and Byron, the middle-class academics and critics who rule American tastes adhere to the bogus notion that art and politics don’t mix, unless, of course, it’s their politics. This is why both Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth have been praised for bashing Black Studies, a bone of contention among the kind of white academics who write for publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education. Others receive high praise for underwriting the neo-conservative philosophy that black male behavior is the source of the United States’s social problems.

John Williams and his colleague John Killens could never play by these rules, could not adhere to this formula. Williams’s best-known novel, The Man Who Cried I Am, exposes a government plot to round up black leaders in case of a national emergency. Dismissed as paranoia and fiction at the time, it was revealed years later, by the Miami Herald, that such a plan existed under FEMA. This is not the only literary hornet’s nest that he has stirred.

Miscegephobia might be at the core of our national psychosis, and so the relationships explored in Williams's novels were bound to anger miscegephobes, even those who’ve built careers by showing up to every freedom picket line.

One critic has said that the media images of black men today are similar to those that arose during the Reconstruction period: buffoons and rascals.

The men who run the Pulitzers rewarded a novel that attributed primitive motives to Nat Turner, motives that are regularly satirized in Woody Allen movies. It was as though the novel’s admirers had put a rope around the neck of a black American icon and sent it smashing to the pavement. The author has even become a martyr to “political correctness,” when even white scholars said that he hadn’t done his homework.

Nobody can accuse John A. Williams of not doing his homework. He traveled to Europe in order to research Clifford’s Blues, a novel that revealed to us that black Americans were also victims in Hitler’s concentration camps. Thorough research is also evident in Captain Blackman, a novel that reminds us that blacks have fought valiantly in every war, even when the enemy was their fellow white soldier. But lest one regard him as an uncritical booster of black heroes and culture, his book exposing the sometimes careless and compromising lifestyle of Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a vehement response from the kind of people who rejoiced when it was revealed that Thomas Jefferson had fathered black children. Williams has been even-handed. He has never played favorites. He calls them as he sees them.

By creating excellent prose and poetry, Williams has gone into territory that most American writers dare not go. By exploring the underside of the American experience, the virulent racism, the insistence upon white supremacy, by setting the historical record straight, one that has been shrouded by deception and propaganda, his vision has often been unwelcome, but nobody can accuse John A. Williams of shying away from the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts.

Ishmael Reed
April 16, 2003