Blind Man with a Pistol

Ishmael Reed’s Misguided Pow-Wow

by Rodger Jacobs

25 February 2009

Image from the cover of Chester Himes Blind Man with a Pistol (Knopf, December 1989) 

The LAPD black-and-white slowed to a stop at the curb and the young police officer in the passenger seat shot a long, level glance in my direction. I shifted the bag of groceries to my left hand, keeping my right hand free to carefully reach for my wallet, as I knew I would be asked to produce identification.

“Where are you heading to?” the young officer demanded to know as he stepped out of the cruiser. His left hand rested on the baton strapped to his leather belt with just a hint of malice. With buzz cut blonde hair and cold blue eyes, I could easily imagine the cop as a German tank commander emerging from his hatch in the North African desert.

cover art

Pow-Wow

Ishmael Reed, editor

(Da Capo)

“I’m heading home,” I replied with as little tone or attitude as possible.

“Where’s home?”

“Up the street.” I fished in my back pocket for my wallet and produced my ID before it was requested. The officer gave thanks with a curt nod of his head and strolled back to the patrol car to call in my California I.D. for outstanding wants and warrants.

“There’s a reason we stopped you,” the blonde officer said after dispatch confirmed that I was neither a wanted murderer, rapist, bank robber, pedophile or anything equally unpleasant. The officer was suddenly unfolding a sheet of paper in my face.

“Does this guy look at all familiar to you?”

I gazed upon a Xerox of a slate-eyed criminal’s mug shot.

“No. Never saw him in my life.”

“You sure? Take a closer look.”

“I don’t know him. What did—”

“He’s someone we’re looking for and I think he kind of looks like you.”

A pathetic attempt at a laugh issued from my throat because right then I wasn’t feeling very well. I bore absolutely no resemblance to the man in the photocopied mug shot but this muscular tank commander begged to think otherwise.

“When did you get out?” the cop asked. His cold eyes took in every piece of my wardrobe one at a time: the baseball cap from a Palm Springs golfing resort, faded denim shirt with a ballpoint pen and a pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket, black jeans with a fashionable tear in the knee, scuffed-up tennis shoes.

“Get out of what?”

“Did you get out of prison recently?”

“Ummmm – no.”

“Ever been in trouble with the law?”

“Never been caught.” The cop didn’t think that was very funny.

“You have a job?”

“I’m self employed.”

“Oh really?” He said it as if I admitted to being one of L.A.’s thousands of homeless indigents. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Uh-huh.” Totally unimpressed. He studied the photocopy of the mug shot for a good 30 seconds and then rested his gaze back upon my face.

“Are you sure this isn’t you?”

“It’s not me,” I insisted.

He could scarcely conceal his bitter disappointment. “Thank you.”

The young officer stepped back into the cruiser. I hit the WALK button and waited to cross the street at the four-way intersection.

Give someone power and authority and abuses will inevitably occur. It’s basic human nature. Social injustice and public humiliation can happen to anyone at any time regardless of race, religion, gender, and class. I was a middle-aged white man in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood when the unnerving and Kafka-esque episode occurred. Had I been Iranian or Hispanic or African-American, racial profiling would have been suspected in the officer’s motives. Life is not always that simple.

In the new “multicultural anthology” Pow Wow, edited by controversial poet and novelist Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank, a vast number of the 63 short stories recall such frightening and humiliating incidents in the lives of the authors or their characters. Sholeh Wolpe’s My Brother at the Canadian Border explores racial profiling at a border crossing with biting humor and a somewhat bittersweet resolution. Tales Left Untold by Aphrodite Desiree Navab, on the other hand, is a narrative that boils over with anger and shame as the author recounts a humiliating incident with an airport customs agent; once Navab evokes those emotions on paper there’s nowhere for the reader to go except onto the next story because this attempt to create a “provocative survey of American short fiction” is bereft of anything resembling cohesion or structure.

Pow Wow is a literary Tower of Babel, a mostly remarkable collection of writers and poets gathered in one grand room together, each speaking at the top of his or her voice to get your attention, but with no one in attendance to moderate the affair the lavish party is a frustratingly pointless one. The intended moderator, Reed, opted instead to make this an “unrefereed, one-to-one encounter between divergent social interests” and then attempts to simmer the pot of gumbo into a political manifesto straight out of the halls of U.C. Berkeley (where Reed is a Professor Emeritus) when Patty Hearst was still a freshman: A white establishment controls the media and thereby stifles the voices of minorities and manipulates how (non-flattering) images of non-Caucasians are presented to the culture at large.

Reed believes, as he writes in the lengthy foreword that provides the framework for Pow Wow, that “the average members of the public … get all their information about the world from television and have their opinion of other groups influenced by Hollywood.” The internet and other aggregators of content and opinion have apparently flown under Mr. Reed’s radar. By invoking the straw man of Liberal Hollywood (“Some of the most damaging portraits of blacks,” Reed opines, “the ones that influence public perceptions, are created by those who view themselves as members of the liberal and progressive left.”), Reed escapes his original argument that the publishing industry is not diverse enough and unintentionally aligns himself with the sworn enemy of social and cultural advancement: the Conservative Values Club, otherwise known as The Republican Party or, if you prefer, Soccer Moms for Sarah Palin.

Is it unfair to judge the stories in this anthology under the harsh glare of Reed’s angry and somewhat twisted conceptual framework? Absolutely not, because this is a case where the stray components create a whole, and in their zeal to survey stories by writers from “different cultural, economic, racial, class, and gender points of view … to draw contrasts”, Reed and Blank have employed a form of literary affirmative action; anyone who has witnessed affirmative action policies in play can tell you that quite a few bad apples are chosen for no other reason than to fulfill a quota, not unlike a cop who stops and harasses every pedestrian and motorist who bears a vague resemblance to a wanted suspect. Some of the writers appearing in the pages of Pow Wow seem chosen not for their talent or merit but because they bear a vague resemblance to what the editors perceive as “multicultural”.

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