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

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”.

A Classroom with No Teacher in Attendance

Image from the cover of A Life of Pi (Harcourt May 2004)

The Odyssey of Chester Himes

There are absolutely no introductions to any of the 63 stories in this anthology, leaving the reader hopelessly guessing at times why the author was selected for inclusion. The previously-unpublished short story by the late, great Chester Himes, The Clochard, offers little to reflect on in its sparse rendering of an American tourist who is robbed while on a European vacation. It is simply an incident with no story and reflects none of the stunning, house a-fire writing on display in Himes’s visceral urban crime novels such as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) and Blind Man with a Pistol (1969).

Himes attended Ohio State University. He was convicted of armed robbery in 1929 and spent seven years at the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he began to write fiction. A number of his short stories from this period were published in Esquire. Upon release from prison in 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, Himes joined the Works Progress Administration and its local adjunct, The Ohio Writers Project.

His first two novels reflecting his encounters with racism within the defense industry and the US labor movement, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and The Lonely Crusade (1947), were greeted with favorable critical reception, but it was not until the mid-‘50s, when Himes joined other American expatriate writers in Paris, like James Baldwin, that he would find his greatest fame and success as a genre writer of tough and incredibly surreal crime fiction. (It was a French publisher who suggested that Himes should try his hand at noir. When Himes asked the publisher how to write that type of novel, the man told him to open the book with an incident of explosive, almost apocalyptic violence and then spend the rest of the plot unraveling what the hell happened. Every Himes novel featuring the unforgettable detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson follow this exact formula without fail.)

You have just been told more about Chester Himes than you can expect to find in the pages of Pow Wow, unless one scurries to the short alphabetically-listed biographies of the authors carelessly slapped together at the back of the book. This is a classroom with no teacher in attendance. (In Native American lore, a pow wow, or a gathering of tribes, is almost always moderated by a shaman or a tribal elder.)

It is not my intention to highlight or underscore the mediocre and downright sophomoric writing in this collection. That would be unfair to the writers; the examples are legion, in any event, and would stretch this analysis past the 3,000-word mark.

There certainly are some masterful works on display in Pow Wow, let there be no doubt about that. Frank Yery’s classic “The Homecoming” is here, the story of a decorated black soldier just home from World War II who is unmoving in his refusal to be subjugated by white society; the detail-rich world of a Massachusetts mixed-race trailer park is explored in the novella-length “The Guinea Pig Lady” by the modern American master Russell Banks. “Night of the FEMA Trailers” by Vivian Demuth addresses the Drunken Indian cliché with a light touch, nicely inserted, in a short narrative that explores how urban myths and folklore are created; and Wanda Coleman’s “Backcity Transit by Day”, an LA tale, reminds us of the small tragedies that intrude upon our lives – and our daily commutes – every day of the week.

“I Look Out For Ed Wolfe”, from the genius-laden pen of the late Stanley Elkin, is perhaps the most rewarding work in this anthology, an existential adventure into the inner-city underworld featuring a recently-fired collections representative who begins to downsize his life in some pretty spectacular ways. Here, in the opening pages of the story, are Elkin’s descriptions of the downtown office building where Ed Wolfe plies his trade:

The building was an outlaw. Low rents and a downtown address and the landlord’s indifference had brought together from the peripheries of business and professionalism a strange band of entrepreneurs and visionaries, men desperately but imaginatively failing: an eye doctor who corrected vision by massage; a radio evangelist; a black-belt judo champion; a self-help organization for crippled veterans; dealers in pornographic books, in paper flowers, in fireworks, in plastic jewelry, in the artificial, in the artfully made, in the imitated, in the copied, in the stolen, the unreal, the perversion, the plastic, the schlak.

At some point in my 50 years of life on this planet and in the dense urban jungles of Los Angeles and San Francisco, I have known and probably conducted business with most of Ed Wolfe’s “desperately but imaginatively failing” office-building neighbors; in fact, there’s scarcely a character in this multicultural collection that I have not encountered in one way, shape, or form, and that, of course, flies in the face of Reed’s contention that the writers assembled in this collection are shedding light on a divergent society that a homogenized white culture simply does not invite us to see. I would dare to suggest that American culture has become more integrated and post-racial than Reed is willing to believe.

America’s Classrooms Becoming Multicultural

Reed’s obsession with Hollywood in his framework forward is downright shrill and monomaniacal, peppered with occasional bashings for professional working writers and book critics. “Most American critics concentrate on literature authored by whites,” Reed complains, “regardless of right wing propaganda that falsely claims that in American universities and colleges Toni Morrison has replaced Shakespeare.” (The right wing propagated that?)

A Boston Globe article from May 2005, however, reveals that on high school reading lists in Boston’s western suburbs “dead white male writers” are being supplanted by more contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingslover, and Amy Tan. Further, the 20th century English class staple The Catcher in the Rye is being quietly removed from some required reading lists in Boston high schools “because working-class immigrants may find it difficult to relate to world-weary Holden Caulfield”, suggesting that a multicultural shift in how literature is being taught in public schools is happening right under Reed’s nose.

“The all-white male canon has been gone for quite awhile,” the director of a high school English program told The Globe. The reading list at Seattle’s Mariner High School, according to an April 2006 article by Lynne Thompson in The Seattle Times, now has about two dozen titles, many of them multicultural, among the 160 books approved by the school board:

They include Mi Vida Loco (My Crazy Life), the story of former world boxing champion Johnny Tapia; Children of the River, a tale of growing up in wartime Cambodia; and A Child Called It, about a victim of abuse … these stories share qualities to which students respond. They often are first-person narratives and seem true in a way the classics don’t. They focus on a young person, whereas the classics typically focus on adults. And because the contemporary books describe diverse cultures, the students, rather than just the teachers, can help interpret the texts.

Yet Reed insists, even positing such in his opening paragraph, that “most of the books reviewed are written by white males, whether the publication be The New York Review of Books, the American Book Review, or The Nation, even though the editor of the last magazine is a feminist.” If this is such an irrefutable fact, how is it then that books such as the aforementioned and novels like Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning The Life of Pi are making it onto high school and college reading lists across the United States?

Strange Bedfellows: Mark Fuhrman, Ted Haggard, and Farrah Fawcett

Reed blames what he calls “the middle persons” for boosting and perpetuating the fame of all-white male authors. The middle persons are “reviewers, academics, and publishers, who require that all writers belonging to a particular ethnic group or race write like the acceptable tokens whose sales at Bookscan are muscular. These middle people are depriving American readers of the variety of perspectives available to them.” Reed frets and fears that diversity is “missing from the world as depicted by the corporate media, where all men look like Tom Cruise and all women look like Farrah Fawcett.”

Farrah Fawcett? Is he pulling our leg? What kind of a late ‘70s time warp is this academic living in? Reed’s invocation of the former Charlie’s Angels star has even more grimly funny undertones when one considers that Fawcett starred in the groundbreaking 1984 television movie The Burning Bed about an abused white, middle-class housewife who answered her husband’s repeated beatings by setting their bed ablaze. The Emmy Award-winning motion picture is credited with bringing the issue of domestic violence into the public dialogue. But Reed, in hailing the Russell Banks short story “The Guinea Pig Lady”, foolishly asserts that Banks “shows that white men are capable of injuring women as well” as if this is news that has been hidden from the public at large by Reed’s most-feared demon, corporate media.

Reed writes that the trailer park protagonist of Banks’ story, Flora Pease, is “a woman who will never be played by Nicole Kidman” and that many of the writers in this collection “can present a variety of women who would never pass a screen test or recline on a director’s casting couch”, two of more than 20 mean-spirited swipes the author takes at Hollywood in his foreword like a conservative on crack, bashing Tom Brokaw and Steven Spielberg for presenting white-washed versions of World War II and Tom Cruise just for being Tom Cruise (perhaps we cannot fault Reed for that); he even manages to drag the ghost of disgraced LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman of O.J. Simpson trial fame into the mix, further cementing Fuhrman’s reputation as the worst human being on earth ever to utter the N word.

Reading the foreword, it’s hard to keep up with the sheer bombast of Reed’s statements:

As only a small percentage of writers earn a living from their craft, the majority who do not are able to address the issues of the day without stockholders peering over their shoulders or being held to the bottom line. They can tell the truth as they see it … A good writer can award hero status to those shunned by a mainstream whose heroes tend to be white and male … Unlike the 50-inch plasma TV screen, these writers offer three dimensional portraits of people of different ethnic groups.

In a recent appearance on CNN to promote her HBO documentary feature on disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard, filmmaker Alex Pelosi explained why she chose Haggard as a subject for her lens: “Real life is more dark and complex and twisted than what’s revealed in sound bites in the evening news.” Every one of us can recognize the truth lurking in Pelosi’s words, but Reed would have us believe that we are blind to this reality, enslaved to the false images of life given to us on TV and in the movies like we’re all a bunch of doddering middle-aged Indiana housewives serving up Best Foods mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder Bread and settling in before the Magnavox to catch an episode of Father Knows Best.