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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ishmael Reed Blasts Media for Stirring Fear of Black Men

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2011 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge ishmael_reed_juice_o.j._cover.jpg

When Barack Obama took the presidential oath in 2008, the media buzzed with the phrase "postracial nation. " Few believed it a reality, but hardly anyone attacked the assertion with as much contempt and encyclopedic evidence to the contrary as Oakland writer Ishmael Reed.

A novelist, poet, graphic artist, and cultural critic, Reed has since the 1960s wielded angry art at racism in all its permutations. In Juice! (Dalkey Archive), his recent novel, Reed aims his assault at America's media, the big (MSNBC, Fox) and small (the Huffington Post), left- and right-wing outlets alike for their bigoted, deceptive representations of black men. Specifically, he hates their treatment of O.J. Simpson.

The novel, which opens in 1994, gives us Paul Blessings, a black, diabetic cartoonist obsessed with Simpson and the murder investigations which soon lead to the "trial of the century."

Convinced of Simpson's innocence and exasperated by the inability of everyone around him to see it, Blessings draws inflammatory editorial cartoons for his local TV station to propagandize his opinions, losing his job, health, and family in the process. Why such careless, impassioned allegiance to the alleged killer? Because "in time of war," reflects Blessings, "my job was at the front."

From page one, Reed makes clear that Blessings' view of America as a racial battleground has a real-world application. The "novel" reads more like a work of nonfiction, or "faction," as Reed puts it. Here Reed has recorded the dates and key figures of the Simpson trial in cataloglike fashion, sometimes forgoing the fictional storyline altogether to recount with impressive detail moments of the trial he sees particularly pertinent to his critique of the way the media portrays African-Americans in general, and black men in particular.

During these passages, we're asked to see Simpson as a "decontexualized" figure, a man no longer an individual, but one made to symbolize all men who share his skin color, men who media-junkie Americans are then coerced into hating and fearing. In Reed's view, the media portray these black male symbols as one of two types: criminals or tricksters. Simpson became a particularly ogled and tragic curiosity when he was portrayed as both.

Reed's take on the trial coverage is compelling, but a reasonable question to ask is why the focus on Simpson. After all, it's 2011 and a jury acquitted the man in 1995 -- almost 16 years ago. According to Reed's line of thinking, we can better understand the media's present-day coverage of Obama by looking back at its treatment of Simpson. Reed suggests that Obama, as a black man in the national spotlight, risks a similar metaphorical lynching.

This argument might have been more effective if Reed had kept his narrative on track. Instead, Juice! strays from its point of contention and master storyline with frustrating results. Its fictional subplots -- Blessings' relationship with his wife and daughter, the ongoing struggle of his black friends to find and keep work -- don't always connect, to each other or to the novel's central concerns.

As Blessings unravels, his ranting and raving grows increasingly belligerent. At various intervals he blames the gay community for stealing the civil rights spotlight, then hates on women for their conniving nature and general inferiority. By story's end, he's spitting more epithets per 100 words than a Tourette's-stricken Muni rider.

Problematic, too, is the novel's satirical symbolism (the local paper bears the title The Anglo Saxon Explainer), which falls flat under Reed's heavy hand. Even the highly expressionistic ending, which should elicit genuine shock, aggravates more than excites with its overwrought reworking of the novel's main themes.

Still, Juice! should not be entirely dismissed. For a nation that has yet to heed Obama's call for a public and "grown-up conversation" about race, books like this are necessary to broach the topics that scare us the most. Yes, race in America has always been a fiery, polemical subject, but Reed, to his credit, boldly tackles it anyway.

Follow Amy Brady on Twitter at @amy_brady, us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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