Blind Man with a Pistol: Ishmael Reed’s Misguided Pow-Wow

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

Anyone who has witnessed affirmative action policies in play can tell you that bad apples are chosen to fulfill a quota, not unlike a cop who harasses every citizen who bears a vague resemblance to a wanted suspect.


Publisher: Da Capo
ISBN: 9781568583402
Contributors: Carla Blank
Author: editor
Price: $25.00
Display Artist: Ishmael Reed, editor
Length: 536
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2009-01

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.

“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”.

Next Page

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.