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Ishmael Reed (b. 1938) is an acclaimed, multifaceted writer whose work often engages with overlooked aspects of the American experience. He has published ten novels, including Flight to Canada and Mumbo Jumbo, as well as plays and collections of essays and poetry. He was nominated for a National Book Award in both poetry and prose in 1972. Conjure (1972), a volume of poetry, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his New and Collected Poems: 1964–2006 (2007) received a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California. Reed has also received a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Blues Song Writer of the Year award from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the National Institute for Arts and Letters, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Reed taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for thirty-five years and currently lives in Oakland, California.
Little did I know when I wrote the poem "Flight to Canada" that there were so many secrets locked inside its world. It was more of a reading than a writing. Everything it said seems to have caught up with me. Other things are running away. The black in my hair is running away. The bad spirits who were in me left a long time ago. The devil who was catching up with me is slipping behind and losing ground. What a war it was!
Lincoln. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Douglass. Jeff Davis and Lee. Me, 40s, and Stray Leechfield. Robin and Judy. Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara. Mammy Barracuda. Cato the Graffado. Yankee Jack. Pompey. Bangalang. It affected us all one way or the other.
"So you're the little woman who started the big war," Lincoln was supposed to have said. Received Harriet Beecher Stowe in the White House, only to have her repay his courtesy by spreading the rumor that he was illiterate. They were always spreading rumors about Lincoln. That he and his son Todd were drunks. That Mrs. Lincoln was mad. That he was a womanizer. That his mother Nancy Hanks was a slut. The Confederates said that he was a "nigger." Who is to say what is fact and what is fiction?
Old Harriet. Naughty Harriet. Accusing Lord Byron of pornography. She couldn't take to Lincoln. She liked Nobility. Curious. The woman who was credited with ruining the Planters was a toady to Nobility, just as they were. Strange, history. Complicated, too. It will always be a mystery, history. New disclosures are as bizarre as the most bizarre fantasy.
Harriet caught some of it. She popularized the American novel and introduced it to Europe. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Writing is strange, though. That story caught up with her. The story she "borrowed" from Josiah Henson. Harriet only wanted enough money to buy a silk dress. The paper mills ground day and night. She'd read Josiah Henson's book. That Harriet was alert The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave. Seventy-seven pages long. It was short, but it was his. It was all he had. His story. A man's story is his gris-gris, you know. Taking his story is like taking his gris-gris. The thing that is himself. It's like robbing a man of his Etheric Double. People pine away. It baffles the doctors the way some people pine away for no reason. For no reason? Somebody has made off with their Etheric Double, has crept into the hideout of themselves and taken all they found there. Human hosts walk the streets of the cities, their eyes hollow, the spirit gone out of them. Somebody has taken their story.
Josiah Henson went away and fell in love with wood. Nobody could take his wood. His walnut boards. He took his walnut boards to England and exhibited them at the Crystal Palace. Met the young Queen Victoria.
Nobody could take away his Dawn, his settlement in Canada.
Harriet gave Josiah credit in her The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. What was the key to her Cabin? Strange woman, that Harriet. Josiah would never have thought of waging a plot-toting suit against her. Couldn't afford one anyway. Besides, he was bad at figures. His Dawn went broke because he was trusting and bad at figures. It's unfortunate when a man's Dawn goes broke, leaving him hopeless and frustrated. When I see those two men in The New York Times in a booth in a fancy restaurant—two bulb-faced jaded men, sitting there, rich as Creole Candy, discussing the money they're going to make from the musical version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and they have those appetizers in front of them and three kinds of wine—when I see that, and when I see their agent in National Era swimming in the ocean with his chow dog, I wonder why won't the spirits go out to Long Island and touch him. Touch him for what he did to Josiah Henson. Touch him like they touched Harriet.
Harriet paid. Oh yes, Harriet paid. When you take a man's story, a story that doesn't belong to you, that story will get you. Harriet made enough money on someone else's plot to buy thousands of silk dresses and a beautiful home, "One of those spacious frame mansions of bland and hospitable mien which the New England joiners knew so well how to build." A Virginia plantation in New England.
Henson had to sell Dawn, his settlement, to pay his creditors. Is there no sympathy in Nature? Dawn, that's a pretty name. Are people lost because the gods have deserted when they said they never would? They promised they never would. Are they concealing themselves to spite the mean-minded, who are too unimaginative to recognize the new forms they've given themselves? Are they rebuking us for our stupidity? They are mean and demanding. They want to be fed. But before you can feed you have to recognize. They told Josiah Henson to behave with "gentlemanly dignity." But the common people knew. Guede knew. Guede is here. Guede is in New Orleans. Guede got people to write parodies and minstrel shows about Harriet. How she made all that money. Black money. That's what they called it. The money stained her hands.
When Lord Byron came out of the grave to get her, the cartoon showed Harriet leaving her dirty stains all over Byron's immaculate and idealized white statue. Did Josiah Henson do this? The man so identified with Uncle Tom that his home in Dresden, Canada, is called Uncle Tom's Museum? Did Tom have the power the Brazilians say he has? Does he know "roots"? Umbanda. Pretos Velhos, Pai Tomas, Pai Tomas. The "curer." Did Tom make Byron's ghost rise out of his undead burial place of Romance and strangle Harriet's reputation, so that one biographer entitled a chapter dealing with the scandal "Catastrophe"? Do the old African and Indian gods walk the land as the old one said they would, too proud to reveal themselves to the mean-minded? The mean-minded who won't pay attention. Too hard-headed and mean-minded to see. Harriet's HooDoo book. "I was an instrument of the Lord." HooDoo writing.
Do the lords still talk? Do the lords still walk? Are they writing this book? Will they go out to Long Island and touch these men who were musing in the restaurant about the money they were going to make on the musical comedy Uncle Tom's Cabin? Will they get the old mummy grip?
Harriet said that Byron was fucking his sister. She said that she'd gotten it from her friend Lady Byron, who she felt had been slandered by Countess Guiccioli, Byron's last mistress and the tramp of the Tuilleries Gardens. Harriet accused Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh of sharing lustful embrace. Is that why Harriet, the spinster, referred to Lord Byron as a "brilliant seductive genius"? Watch what you put down on the page, Harriet. Did Harriet want to trade places with Augusta Leigh and transform Byron into her brother, Henry? History sure is complicated, or can you, like Stray Leechfield, cash your way out of history?
Why isn't Edgar Allan Poe recognized as the principal biographer of that strange war? Fiction, you say? Where does fact begin and fiction leave off? Why does the perfectly rational, in its own time, often sound like mumbo-jumbo? Where did it leave off for Poe, prophet of a civilization buried alive, where, according to witnesses, people were often whipped for no reason. No reason? Will we ever know, since there are so few traces left of the civilization the planters called "the fairest civilization the sun ever shown upon," and the slaves called "Satan's Kingdom." Poe got it all down. Poe says more in a few stories than all of the volumes by historians. Volumes about that war. The Civil War. The Spirit War. Douglass, Tubman and Bibb all believing in omens, consulting conjure and carrying unseen amulets on their persons. Lincoln, the American Christ, who died on Good Friday. Harriet saying that God wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. Which God? Some gods will mount any horse. Even the spinster schoolteacher crawling like an animal from the sightseeing bus toward an Umbanda temple with no a priori beliefs, as they say.
Dressed in white planter's pants, white waistcoat and white shoes, Raven Quickskill dines alone at the end of a long white Virginia table.
He has just consumed a good old Southern meal of plum pudding, wild duck, oyster soup and Madeira wine, the kind of meal Kentucky generals used to sup at Jeff Davis' "white house" in Montgomery before the South was reduced to corn bread and molasses. All of the boarders had left the Castle for the weekend. All fifty of them. Craftsmen from all over the South: blacksmiths, teachers, sculptors, writers. Uncle Robin had become exultant when Quickskill first made the suggestion. He hadn't been able to figure his way out of his inheritance.
He and Judy traveled a lot. Now they were in the Ashanti Holy Land. Their last trip out they had brought back some serpents. They had given Quickskill the whole first floor of their Castle. It was airy and had big spacious rooms. Mountains, meadows, and the Atlantic Ocean could be seen through the windows. Quickskill would write Uncle Robin's story in such a way that, using a process the old curers used, to lay hands on the story would be lethal to the thief. That way his Uncle Robin would have the protection that Uncle Tom (Josiah Henson) didn't. (Or did he merely use another technique to avenge his story? Breathing life into Byron.)
Raven has the Richmond newspaper spread out in front of him. Princess Quaw Quaw has been arrested carrying a fifteen-foot balance pole, two American flags at each end, while walking on the steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. In the photo, crowds were hurling pellets at the officers for interfering with Quaw Quaw's act. She was beginning to become an international event, and the media speculated about her every action. She was becoming the female Blondin, a characterization she resented. "Why don't they call him the male Quaw Quaw Tralaralara?" she once protested in an interview.
This is not to say that she became a media bug. She insisted on her privacy and occasionally there were photos of her wandering about her husband's yacht, nude, wearing sunglasses, as he docked off Trinidad, Majorca or Sausalito.
The note she had left Quickskill on the dresser of the Eagle Hotel had read merely, "Gone South," with her signature scrawled underneath.
He had sent a note to her in care of her agent:
Dear Quaw Quaw Wherever or Whoever:
Maybe one day people of your class will realize that people of my class must grovel, worm and root our way through life fending off the bad birds so we've little time to take those we love under our wing. And that we become like mythical Goofus birds, invented by lumbermen I think, who fly backwards and build their nests upside down. We get smashed and our endings are swift.
And she wrote back:
And I thought our people were bad, worshipping Bears, Turtles, Ravens, Coyotes and Eagles, but your people worship any old thing or make an "object of reverence" of just about any "new things," as in that HooDoo expression you once taught me, "Only Ghosts Hate New Things," and then that morning I saw you, in our berth, on the steamer, Lake Erie mumbling before it, the typewriter was sitting there and seemed to be crouched like a black frog with white clatter for teeth. You thought I was asleep.
And it went on that way until one day she signed a letter "See you soon." And that was that. She'd be back. She always came back. And they always had quarrels about "the human condition," as her Columbia Professors would say.
"Flight to Canada" was the problem. It made him famous but had also tracked him down. It had pointed to where he, 40s and Stray Leechfield were hiding. It was their bloodhound, this poem "Flight to Canada." It had tracked him down just as his name had. The name his mother gave him before she went away into the Fog Woman. It had dogged him. "Evil Dogs Us." Yes, indeed. His poem flew just as his name had flown. Raven. A scavenger to some, a bringer of new light to others. The one who makes war against the Ganooks of this world. As quick on his opponents as a schooner on a slaver. "Flight to Canada" had given him enough mint to live on. "Flight to Canada" had taken him all the way to the White House, where he shook hands with Abe the Player, as history would call him.
He had never gotten along with Uncle Robin in slavery, but away from slavery they were the best of friends. He would try to live up to the confidence Robin had in him by writing a good book. "You put witchery on the word," Robin said. He would try to put witchery on the word.
Uncle Robin had turned down an offer from Jewett and Company of Boston's best-known writer and had put his story in the hands of Quickskill: "Now you be careful with my story," Robin said. "Treat that story as precious as old Swille treated his whips." They both knew what that meant.
Bangalang came into the room from the kitchen. She was about to leave to return to the Frederick Douglass Houses where she and her husband lived. His carriage was outside waiting for her.
"Is there anything else I can get for you?" she asked Quickskill.
"No," he said, and then, "Bangalang?"
She had gotten a little grey. They had all gotten a little grey.
"Do you hear from Mammy Barracuda and Cato the Graffado?"
"Last I heard, she sang before the last reunion of Confederate Soldiers. They—"
"What happened, Bangalang?" She'd begun to laugh.
"She sang a chorus from 'Dixie.' Well, I have to tell you when she got to those lines that go 'Will run away—Missus took a decline, oh / Her face was de color of bacon-rine-oh!', the old soldiers took Mammy on their shoulders and marched her out from the convention hall. Cato was leading the parade like a cheerleader, I'm telling you. Well, if you need something else, there's an apple pie in the kitchen." She turned and walked out.
Curious. Even in the Confederate anthem there was a belle fading away and losing her color. What was this fascination with declining belles in the South? What was the South all about? I'll have to include all of this in my story, Quickskill thought.
Quickskill drank his coffee. He had a swell. His belly was up again. He spent so much time in thought, he forgot about his stomach. That was the writing business all right. He'd been writing since he could remember; his "Flight to Canada" was to him what blacks were to old Abe.
"Abe Lincoln's last card or Rouge et Noir" was the caption under the wood engraving printed in Punch magazine. It showed Lincoln beating a Confederate with his ace of spades. Inside the card's black spade was the grinning Negro. The engraving was by Sir John Tenniel, a Royalist. He'd have to write all of this in Robin's story.
Raven was the first one of Swille's slaves to read, the first to write and the first to run away. Master Hugh, the bane of Frederick Douglass, said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he'll take an ell. If you teach him how to read, he'll want to know how to write. And this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself."
Master Hugh could have taught Harriet Beecher Stowe a thing or two.CHAPTER 2
People don't know when the Swilles came to Virginia, and the Swilles ain't talkin. Perhaps that's why they live behind those great gates one reaches through mossy land and swamps full of so many swine that Swilles' land has been named Swine'rd, Virginia.
According to the family records we do have, we know that the first Swille, a zealous slave trader, breeder and planter, was "indescribably deformed." He did his business from the tower of a Castle he built on his grounds, said to be the very replica of King Arthur's in the Holy City of Camelot, the Wasp's Jerusalem, the great Fairy City of the old Feudal Order, of the ancient regime; of knights, ladies, of slaves; of jousting; of toasting; Camelot, a land of endless games. Seeing who could pull the Sword out of an anvil of iron. Listening to the convoluted prophecies of Merlin the Druid. Listening to Arthur and his knights, so refined and noble that they launched a war against the Arabs for the recovery of an objet d'art, yet treated their serfs like human plows, de-budding their women at will; torturing and witchifying the resistance with newfangled devices. Dracula, if you recall, was a count.
Arthur was England's Alfonzo of the Kongo, the Pope's native ruler who saw to it that the "heathen art" was destroyed. He was John Wallace of Hydaburg, the Christian native who persuaded the Tlingits to "cut down and burn" the great totem poles of Klinkwan. Arthur, whose father, Uther, according to Tennyson, was "dark," even "well-nigh black" and so "sweet" some took him to be "less a man."
Excerpted from Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed. Copyright © 1976 Ishmael Reed. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 12, 2009
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