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Pragmatic pugilist: The social and cultural thought of Ishmael Reed. / Wendy Hayes-Jones
Swansea University Author: Wendy Hayes-Jones
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This thesis examines the social and cultural thought of the acclaimed and controversial African American author Ishmael Reed. It explores the ideas that have informed Reed's essays and novels since the 1960s, placing his works within the American social and cultural contexts to which he respond...
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This thesis examines the social and cultural thought of the acclaimed and controversial African American author Ishmael Reed. It explores the ideas that have informed Reed's essays and novels since the 1960s, placing his works within the American social and cultural contexts to which he responded. Reed often envisions himself as a prize-fighter, taking on the hypocrisy and racism which he detects within mainstream American journalism and in academia. But Reed is a pragmatic prize-fighter in the sense that he consistently varies his punches according to the contexts in which he finds himself, and in reaction to the different antagonists which are the targets of his critiques. By exploring how Reed grounds his work in controversy and paradox my study aims to reveal a complex cross fertilisation and synergy between Reed's novels and essays. To this end I consider the contrast between Reed's emphasis on the vitality of African and American oral and literary traditions, and his simultaneous declaration of war on the persistence of race and black and white stereotyping in the USA. He sets American cultural and political ideals in opposition to Afncan American realities, thus allowing his writings to function as counter-narratives that foreground the racial tensions still inherent in American society. My focus is on some of the central contradictions in Ishmael Reed's writings. This thesis is divided into three main sections which have allowed to me to analyse, within Reed's complex and interpenetrating prose works, some of the main thematic areas of his fiction and some of the key arguments developed in his essays. The first section explores the role of the intellectual and Reed's conception of his own vocation as a writer. The second engages with issues of race, ethnicity and multiculturalism, while the final section explores Reed's interventions in debates around gender. Rather than seeking to establish a single position that can be associated with Reed, I draw attention to the ambivalences and paradoxes within his thought and writings. Reed presents himself as the committed radical engaging enthusiastically with the complex relationships between ethnic groups, whilst simultaneously championing the Black community. Yet this self-image conflicts with the conservative and misogynist strains in his work. This thesis aims to explore, explain and understand such paradoxes and thus to shed a new light on one of the most fascinating writers of the last fifty years.
College of Arts and Humanities