Analysis of Ishmael Reed’s “My Neighborhood”
Culture, being a way of life, also involves among many other things, how a society appropriates for itself certain conceptions regarding the distinctions of class, ethnicity, or race. This characterization of culture makes it difficult for a society to immediately integrate ‘changes’ which would involve changing previously established social conceptions. Racism is one such social conception. This conception immediately falls within the confines of social reality; that part of reality which is held fast both by systems of power and power relations.
Literature, as an art form, does not merely involve a particular society’s aesthetic conception. Nor is it a mere expression of the sublime. Like racism, the notion of beauty is a collective conception. Still, like racism, a society’s notion of beauty may also be the basis in and through which a society ‘discriminates’ and creates for itself certain standards of what counts as beautiful and what counts as not. Both racism and the notion of beauty reflect, to a certain extent, society’s culture, belief systems and values. These considerations form and explain, to a certain extent, certain biases that societies have.
Aside from being an art form, literature does not merely reflect an author’s point of view. It reflects the political, economic and social conditions of the author’s immediate society within which such an individual is necessarily a part of. In this aspect, we may plausibly say that literature may equally be as potent as history in providing us with an account of society; its culture, development and the future directions that it may chart. This essay examines Ishmael Reed’s work entitled “My Neighborhood”; the context of which, we have already characterized, albeit, very roughly. On a preliminary note, Reed’s stories and memories provide glimpses of what it means to live in his time, what it means to dwell in different places and most importantly, what it means to be black.
This analytical essay seeks to explicate Reed’s personality, the motivations and the rationale for his work via a thorough textual analysis. Mindful of certain layers of meaning present in literature and in various art forms, this essay also seeks to identify the basic elements of literature especially the theme, the author’s philosophy, and the tone of his work, to name a few.
Reed starts his essay by mentioning that his stepfather is an evolutionist and immediately points out the flaw behind such a view. While it is plausible to maintain that evolution entails a step forward, a progress or development, this assumption may not always be true. This is to say that there is a need to consider the context within which the term ‘evolution’ is being used. While it is true that this may be the case for biology and physical reality, one may plausibly argue that this is not necessarily the case for history and social reality.
The media plays a crucial role in the formation of values among the youth of today. It also plays a crucial role in how most of us acquire knowledge in the current globalized learning environment and market economy. The aforementioned power of the media is almost a truism nowadays. Reed also offers us a glimpse of how powerful the media is even during his time when he writes, in reference to his neighborhood, the settlement area bordered by Genoa, .Market Street, and 48th and 55th streets in North Oakland, that the media labels it as a “predominantly black neighborhood” (Reed 1). During this time, the Black Civil Rights Movement in the US has been able to stir a mixture of emotions and convictions both from human rights advocates and racist and conservative segments of American society who wants to salvage the status quo.
Let us try to reveal the historical context of his essay. The push for racial equality in the United States got a boast from the demands placed on all facets of society after World War II. There are, however, certain inconsistencies with the aforementioned push for racial equality in the US. First, the ideals of freedom and equality, which were the backbone of the Allied war cry and the foundation for the anti-communist Western movement, do not sit well alongside Jim Crow laws and public acts of racial discrimination. The Jim Crow System of “segregation” is a process in which white Southerners legitimize their racial supremacy over their black counterparts. Very clearly then, it is a system which is based on ethnic and racial “differentiation”. Differentiation, in this sense, entails the recognition that races are different and as such, it allows for the creation of a political setting which “separates” races such as the whites from the blacks. In addition to this, such a system also separates and ultimately, limits or confines races to a social sphere with corresponding social functions that are imposed on them. Nikhil Pal Singh adds to the idea of racism as social construction with social implications when he writes:
This maybe the most succinct definition of racism as a social and institutional fact: the construction of black people as subjects proscribed from participating in the social state in which they live, and that part of the public whose relation to the public is always in racial doubt” (Nikhil Pal Singh).
Such was the historical period within which Reed was part of. During those turbulent times, racism is not a mere issue. It is a fact; a fact lived and felt by the blacks.
As noted earlier, the Civil Rights Movements in the US was able to stir a mixture of emotions and convictions from different sectors of the American society. This is to say that there have been white Americans who were sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement. This provides us with an understanding that racism may be overcome; that it is possible to transcend the limited ways in and through which we usually view things. It is also important to note that Reed seems to see racism not in a plain black and white sense but in terms of degrees. This may be inferred from the fact that Reed himself confirms that he did not have any racial incidents in his stay at Santa Ynez, Los Angeles, California even if his neighbors were predominantly whites. It is important to note that Reed’s testimony is consistent with what we have been arguing so far; that there have been whites who were sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement. We have good reasons to believe that tensions existing between those who are for or against the Civil Rights Movement differ across states both in kind and degree. This may be confirmed by Reed’s testimony that he was able to experience incidents involving racial discrimination when he and his wife moved to Beverly Hills after he received a three-book contact from Doubleday in 1971. Even if one is a professional, this does not ensure the person with the immunity from racial discrimination. Reed and other professionals who happen to be blacks confirm that racism is deeply entrenched with the American political culture. “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” (Dubois 35). Dubois announced this dictum in 1903. Did he speak merely for that particular period in the history of American politics? The answer is a resounding no. Racial discrimination, in differing kinds and degrees continues to exist. The problem, as Dubois sees it, is the notion of “color-line”, which does not merely refer to addressing the social ills of American society especially in the realm of the political such as the prevalent inequalities. It is important to note that Dubois identifies the problem of the color line with racism.
As a writer, Reed allows the reader to visualize the settings of his essay by giving clear descriptions of the neighborhoods that he had been part of. He is very fond of observing people’s daily activities such as seeing retired white men getting inside their own cars just to spend the day snoozing, reading the paper or listening to the radio (Reed 5). This particular aspect of his writing gives us a glimpse on the lives of the common folk; ordinary people who are “in between” or those who are not primarily concerned with the tension between those who are for or against the Civil Rights Movement. Those people who prefer to do mundane things and choose not to get caught in the web of politics. Reed’s essay makes use of the first person point of view when he narrates his life experiences. In a certain sense, this reflects Reed’s maturity in terms of his commitment to the truthfulness of what he says. This also elicits, from the reader, a certain kind of effect which springs from an appreciation of the essay’s authenticity.
Reed also makes use of the concept of irony. As may be noticed, his introductory part is a brilliant way of expressing an irony. He is good at making use of the concept and without any hesitation explores on the idea of what counts as a step backward or a step forward. Apart from the introductory part about his stepfather being an evolutionist, irony is something that characterizes the life of the author and others who, like him, are blacks living in a period in time when the color of the skin matters. These are just some of the ironies of life, so to speak. There are even instances where one’s race or ethnicity limits one’s choices as in the case of segregation in the public school system. The foregoing case will give us an idea of how difficult those times had been for blacks who experience racial discrimination in the US.
Morgan v. Hennigan, a 1974 case ruled by Judge Arthur Garrity, was a class action suit on behalf of fifteen Black parents and 43 children which found the Boston School Committee guilty of maintaining a dual, that is, segregated school system. In a court order issued by Garrity, imposed or forced busing will be done on the city of Boston in order to achieve racial balance in public schools. The aforementioned court order was based on a complex system of racial parity and ignored previous busing solutions [as in the case of Milliken v. Bradley in 1974].
The Boston School Committee, according to the ruling of the court, through various means and capacities violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs by imposing segregation in terms assigning students to other areas, segregating residential patterns, transportation and grade system policies, to name a few. The School Committee thus, violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution because instead of ensuring that Black children be given equal protection under the law, the segregation policies instead placed the Black children in an unfair disadvantage. The proper course of action that schools should take according to the court is to enact policies that will eliminate racial discrimination and not its converse. It is indeed ironic that even if the constitution guarantees that there should be equal protection under the law; this is usually not the case in reality. This simply means that racial discrimination is very prevalent such that there seems to be an apparent inconsistency between theory and practice in the realm of law. Fortunately, the Supreme Court found the school guilty of the aforementioned violations.
It appears that Reed, at least in this essay, seems to allow a certain room for humor despite the fact that the theme of the essay is in itself a theme which seems to have no room for it. One may consider his encounter with the lady who gave him a snide lip at the Pacific Gas and Electric as an example (Reed 24). Reed’s remark on the lady, however, is not a mere joke. At a certain point, one may say that Reed was effective in getting the message across to the lady regarding what it feels like to be black; how inconvenient and difficult it is to be black in such a political setting that discriminates them. It is amazing how Reed is able to get his message across in a manner which seems to be light and yet heavy in terms of what it means.
Racism and racial discrimination are the themes of Reed’s essay. These are very serious themes. The positive thing about Reed’s essay is that he tries to offer “accounts” and not a mere “account” of racism. It is like looking at the same concept from different points of view; for it is plausible to maintain that we view the world from where we stand. It seems then that a fuller understanding of racism and racial discrimination stems from exhausting the very many different perspectives that we try to consider in trying to account for them. In this particular paradigm, every perspective should count if we are to be fair. In a manner of speaking, it is this particular effort to accommodate different views that a society may be considered as one such society which is politically mature.
Racism and racial discrimination are however, issues that are part of a wider scope; racial justice. The very issue of racial justice, the oppressive situations experienced by the blacks and other immigrants in the U.S. who were considered second class citizens with a very limited recognition by the state of their claims to fundamental rights especially in the spheres of education, representation in politics, equal opportunity and treatment in the workplace, is an issue that needs to be addressed in a liberal and democratic political setting. Martin Luther King, Jr. contends:
The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society… and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced (King 1969).
It is my intention to comment on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s public statement in 1969. As may be inferred from the above statement, King viewed the problem of the United States is one such problem which may be described as “systemic”; borrowing his terms, “…evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society…” Grounded on this assumption, he called for the necessity of what he calls a “radical reconstruction” of society.
The interrelated flaws that King identified were racism, poverty, militarism and materialism, respectively. The real issue, according to him is the need for a radical reconstruction of society. On a historical note, the said reconstruction began with the implementation of civil rights, the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Supreme Court rulings on segregation, the implementation of the affirmative action policy, the implementation of desegregation, etcetera.
Reed’s literary framework is pervaded by his rare blend of the visual and the verbal, prosaic and poetic, old and new, fictive and factual, serious and satiric, African and American, traditional and popular. His postmodern inclinations reflect even his views on racism and ethnicity and how it should be approached. Michel Foucault argues that “space is fundamental in any exercise of power” (252). There have been emerging interest on the concept of space in the past decades and Reed is but one of the many authors who are into what may be called as a “critique of dominant ideologies” (Keesey 50). Postmodern philosophies criticize what JF Lyotard calls the “grand narratives” as representing the truth. In a certain sense, postmodernists accept pluralism as best characterizing a proper way in and through which phenomena may be understood. In line with the aforementioned stance, Reed tries to present and embrace the multicultural and his “Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic” which comprises most of his works and also which may be summarized as:
“Voodoo is the perfect metaphor for the multicultural. Voodoo comes out of the fact that all these different tribes and cultures were brought from Africa and Haiti. All of their mythologies, knowledges, and herbal medicines, their folklores, jelled. It’s an amalgamation like this country” (Shrovetide 232-33).
Reed provides us with a new way of looking at things by challenging the kind of logic which characterizes Western thought for so many years. In the aforementioned tradition, contradictions or oppositions are marks of defeat. For Reed, however, this is precisely the mark of the multicultural; this is the product of cultural amalgamation. As a reaction to the Western tradition, Reed contends that “opposition is associated with vitality” (52).
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1903.
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Select Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon; trans. Colin Gordon, et al. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
Keesey, Douglas. “The Ideology of Detection in Pynchon and DeLillo.” Pynchon Notes. 32-33 (1993): 44-59.
King, M. L. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper, 1969
Morgan v. Hennigan, 379 F. Supp. 410 (1974).
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo (1972); rpt. New York: Antheneum, 1988.
_____. My Neighborhood. Writing Analytically with Readings. Eds. David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. Boston, MA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008.
_____. Shrovetide in New Orleans. Garden City: Double Day, 1978.
Singh, N. P. Black is A Country, Race, and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.