Ishmael Reed, Juice!


I’m pretty sure that Ishmael Reed is my favorite living novelist from the United States.  I won’t dwell on whatever controversy Reed has engendered, above all accusations of misogyny or a tendency to characterize groups without nuance.  I read novels because I get something meaningful out of the process.  Gogol was an anti-semite, but Dead Souls is required reading, for example.  As far as whatever controversy goes, Reed has been assailed and defended himself, and that’s between other people I won’t even bother looking up to find links to.

Prior to reading Juice!, I’d read only two of Reed’s novels, Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.  Both had an absurd feeling that reminded me of the Marx Brothers, both demolished United States mythologies, and both posited a particular and at the same time open Blackness–not Reed’s specific word–as an alternative to white, racist capitalism.  I was particularly pleased at how Reed made ancestral religious practice current in both novels.

I’d read none of his later novels, until this most recent one.  Without doubt, times have changed and Reed’s approach has as well.  The novel centers (entirely–it’s from one perspective throughout) on an older Black cartoonist who becomes by his own admission obsessed with O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial, which he sees as a proxy trial for Black men generally, a sound perspective as far as I can tell.

I did not follow the trial when it happened.  I was in grad school and was more interested in playing jazz, drinking, drinking more (nothing glamorous about this, it screwed me up), and finding time in those last minutes to cram for class.  When he was acquitted, I figured there was a reason.  I didn’t know enough to say with certainty anything, but I know that things are stacked against a murder defendant, and if there’s an acquittal it indicates that there was some issue with evidence.

I mention this because much of the book reads more like an essay demonstrating evidentiary flaws in the prosecution’s case.  It’s interesting and I don’t feel that a novel need or even should be strict narrative.  Many people think O.J. murdered his wife, and might be upset with this discussion.  Don’t know what to tell you.

The real point of the novel, though, has nothing to do with whether or not O.J. murdered his wife.  Indeed, the narrator’s views on the subject change, though not as dramatically as some of his friends.  The point is the social use of the trial.  In this, I can’t but find Reed’s presentation of it flawless.  The Simpson trial made it safe for the white media–often called the “mainstream media”–to excrete all of its racist anxiety over Black men and call it “The News.”  This “Jim Crow media” hasn’t changed since the trial.  As almost an afterthought, as it falls chronologically at the end of the story, Reed points out that President Obama faces the same media.

The white media, Reed points out, does not by any means always present a white face to the public, even though the characters in the book who either own or manage the TV station at which Bear, the narrator, works are white.  The white media, like the British Raj, seeks collaborators from among the colonized to act as intermediaries with the public.  Three cases-in-point stand out: Princessa Bimbette, a Latina broadcaster who presumes O.J.’s guilt during the trial, and Jagid and Jagan, who host “Nigguz News,” which showcases Black people behaving badly and has some of the highest ratings on the station.  Reed in one passage puts it more broadly:

After two years, white women were over fifty percent of the employees at KCAK, but there was a growing number of Latinos.  The ‘right’ Latinos.  Those who were opposed to Latino Studies, bilingual education, and those who were not offended that the only consistent stories about Latinos KCAK broadcast involved girl gangs and Mexican immigrants.  (206)

The door is open if you fit the profile and can turn off some of the workings of your intellect.

One particular line stood out in the novel, because it throws the entire episode of the Simpson trial and its aftermath into proper historical context, that of the past 500 years or so:

In a settler society, when one of the settlers is murdered, the nearest native has to be burned.  (203)

This is not about whether or not Simpson did anything.  It is about the requirements of a settler colony, of which the United States continues to be one.

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Octavia Butler, Wild Seed

Octavia Estelle Butler signing a copy of Fledg...

None better.

I’ve read a number of Octavia Butler‘s books, and she’s never disappointed.  Wild Seed, picked up at the library, is in the same series as Mind of My Mind, also brilliant, read a few months ago, and on which I’ve previously written.  This is part of her Patternmaster series, so-called, which she wrote out of the larger narrative’s chronological order.  I loved Mind of My Mind, for example, but I can also see how Butler had developed as a writer by the time she wrote Wild Seed, though the events described in the latter actually precede those in the former.

Throughout her work, Butler examined the nature and consequences of modern ideas of race.  She took a Black and feminist perspective, as she explicitly put it in the brief, autobiographical passage at the end of the book.  As such, her work ought to be instructive to the Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys of this world.  Real Black feminists don’t adhere to white men’s stereotypes of who they ought to be.  Butler is analytical where an O’Reilly would be more comfortable if she were shrill.  Butler labels nothing: never, in her writing, does she condescend to say “this is racist” or “this is sexist.”  Rather, she shows it so impeccably that the reader’s understanding of our actually existing social and historical world is transformed.  Labels by their nature do not transform, but reify.

The book itself follows Anyanwu and her interaction with Doro.  Both are immortal, Doro older.  Doro’s spirit inhabits body after body, killing by necessity, while Anyanwu can change her body’s form at will, and heal others.  Taken together the two, the blurb on the back of the book intimates, constitute a destruction/creation dualism, but I’m not at all sure Butler would limit their relationship to a stasis such as that.

More interesting is Doro’s project.  Unable to die and required to kill, he got it in his head a few millenia earlier to selectively breed a race of “supernaturally” gifted descendents, partially, one imagines, to relieve boredom, partially to satiate his massive ego, and partially to provide an illusory relief from the solitude of immortality.  He uses people like cattle, and kills them when they’re past use.

Butler situates the novel in the broader context of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and while this could in lesser hands drive the point home so hard as to be annoying, her use of the context serves to increase the gravity of her argument.  She is interested in the effect of history on people, in particular their senses of self and relationships to each other.  Doro’s project is that of the slaveowner, mutatis mutandi.

The O’Reillys and Hannitys would posit that the effect of such a brutal process on people would be to strip them of their humanity.  This is a fundamentally white misconception of the historical process that formed our world.  Neither would come out and say that the Slave Trade was a good thing, and both will decry racism, but their view of who, in this case, Black people are is straight out of Moynihan‘s famous report: Black people are damaged goods, and therefore one can’t help but look down on them.

Butler deals with reality, and so she takes a contrary position: in this history, it is the oppressor rather than the oppressed that behaves in the inhuman way, though no-one in her novels is beyond humanity.  This is her entire point.  Doro’s victims, for lack of a better word, increase their humanity as a response, and do so defiantly.  Many of them die in the process, but theirs is a human death.

Required reading, if we’re doing to develop ourselves out of this historical mess we’re in.