Ishmael Reed goes on the offensive


Title: "Airing Dirty Laundry"

Author: Ishmael Reed

Publisher: Addison Wesley

Length, price: 284 pages, $20 Ishmael Reed once titled a collection of his essays "Writing Is Fighting." It is an apt title, for this novelist, poet, dramatist and all-around literary man is no stranger to the battleground of ideas. He has more than 20 books to his credit, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and twice nominated for the National Book Award.

He is on the offensive here, taking careful aim at liberals and conservatives, black and white.

More than half the pieces -- book reviews, essays, biographical sketches -- make their first appearance in this collection. They are thought-provoking, no-holds-barred commentaries on contemporary America. Many were inspired by a call he received from the New York Times Magazine to respond to Pete Hamill's "Letter to a Black Friend," a denunciation of "the underclass" that appeared in Esquire in 1988.

Mr. Reed's response was never printed but, as he writes in the preface: ". . . the experience of researching it was invaluable to me . . . leading me into a direction that changed my thinking about social pathology."

This questioning led him to examine much of the prevailing thought in the media about black America. Why, he asks in the preface, "is the underclass label always applied to blacks?" Why are blacks still seen as the problem people?

Part of the answer lies in a passage quoted from the Gospel according to Matthew: ". . . first take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." He believes the news media refuse to see that the problems that afflict blacks also afflict whites, Asians, Hispanics -- America in general. The result is a peculiar blindness that leads to scapegoating and denial.

A mountain of stories exists on young black men dying in the drug trade, but barely a molehill's worth on drug use among the white middle class, or on the suburban whites who venture into the black ghettos to buy drugs.

In the title piece, he takes the media to task for, among other things, coverage of last year's riot in Los Angeles. He questions the heavy focus on blacks and the fact that many organizations buried later reports indicating that most of those arrested were Hispanic -- and that a good number were white.

The essay ends with a call "to challenge the obsolete and unscientific blame-the-victim explanation of America's racial crisis. We need to encourage a new consensus that is not based upon fear, myth and hunger for ratings and profits, or upon some upscale opinion merchant's ambition, or the need to build the self-esteem of whites by promoting the disesteem of blacks and others, but a consensus that is built upon reason and probity."

Challenging perceptions is key to Mr. Reed's attack. He is like a wordsmith cum boxer, stepping into the literary ring to take on all comers. In the essay "Silencing the Hordes," Rolling Stone magazine takes a hit for saying Mick Jagger had the No. 1 rock and roll song of all time. How can this be, Mr. Reed wonders? Blacks virtually invented rock and roll.

For Mr. Reed, the decision of those at Rolling Stone exemplifies a larger effort to lessen, if not negate, the African-American contribution.

Not all the pieces here are in the mode of what might be called "attack journalism." The oldest piece, "The Fourth Ali," recounts the days in New Orleans surrounding Muhammad Ali's final success -- victory over Leon Spinks in 1978. One wishes Mr. Ali would have stopped fighting then.

"I got to be the black man who gets out on top," Mr. Ali is quoted as saying.

He did not. Two disasters followed. Larry Holmes knocked him out. Trevor Berbick beat him. And now we endure the heart-breaking sight of this great champion ravaged by Parkinson's disease, by two fights too many.

Those already in Mr. Reed's corner will have plenty to agree with here. His detractors, and they are many, will disagree with some of his bold assertions, with the zeal in which he goes about airing dirty laundry. But the serious reader will not be able to leave this volume with all the old assumptions intact.

Ishmael Reed is a questioning man. This collection challenges us to do the same.

Mr. Thompson is deputy chief of the Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun.

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