Sunday, April 3, 2011
Ishmael Reed and the Jim Crow media
By Jill Nelson
Ishmael Reed is a novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, publisher, editor, composer, and teacher who taught at the University of California, Berkeley for 35 years. The recipient of numerous fellowships and wards, in 1998 he was given a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award.
Reed, a founder of the Before Columbus Foundation , which annually gives out the American Book Award, is a longtime champion of the work of other writers and has edited over a dozen anthologies. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch.org, in which a number of these essays first appeared, and also edits and publishes the online zine, Konch. The father of two daughters, also writers, he lives in Oakland, Ca. with his wife, writer, choreographer and director Carla Blank.
Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers is Reed’s fourth book of media criticism. We talked to Reed while he was on the East Coast on a brief tour to promote a book whose publication and scathing critique of racist, corporate controlled media has largely and not surprisingly been ignored by those whom Reed labels the “Jim Crow Media.”
Q. Your latest book was published last month. Would you explain its sub-title: “The Return of the Nigger Breakers”?
A: Edward Covey was a member of a profession whose job was to tame unruly slaves. Frederick Douglass was one of those men who was sent to him, a Nigger Breaker, to be disciplined. Douglass turned the tables on him and thrashed him. I argue that this is the aim of the media, and other institutions that are opposed to Obama. Moreover, with the firing and buyouts of hundreds of minority journalists, black institutions, blacks in general, black celebrities and even the president are being judged by a mostly white media and a handful of acceptable right-wing blacks, a few of whom are farther to the right than the white right.
Q. The book was published by a Canadian-based publisher. Why were you unable to get this book published in the United States?
A: This is attributable to the state of black letters. Serious fiction and non-fiction by blacks are becoming extinct, except for those which uphold the current line coming from the media owners and the corporations: that all of the problems of Africans and African Americans are due to their behavior. Terry McMillan, interviewed in the latest issue of Konch (IshmaelReedpub.com) says that black fiction that is selling is urban fiction that shows blacks at their worst. This is not to say that black criminals don’t exist. But that’s all we get from the mainstream media, television and movies. This is true not only for literature but for theater, film, art galleries and opinion columns as well.
At one time, blacks could respond through writing. James Baldwin served as a diamond megaphone for black aspirations and could debate critics of black people one on one. But with the disappearance of serious black fiction and non-fiction, this is no longer the case. Now this book, which my agent said no American publisher would publish, was published in Quebec. Between April 14 and 20, I did national media in Canada with front page stories in the major dailies and weeklies, a front page story in The Montreal Review of Books and was greeted by crowds in Montreal and Toronto. In Montreal, they had to turn people away. This must have been what it was like when the fugitive slaves traveled abroad and lectured. My advice to young writers is that they seek audiences elsewhere. It’s a big world.
Q. Much of your recent work has focused on media criticism. Why?
A: The segregated American media with its alliance with the right wing and racist forces like the tea party movement—which was created, organized, and amplified by the segregated Jim Crow media—are the most powerful opponents to black and Hispanic progress. It’s not surprising that they have, using the late Carl Rowan’s expression, “outpropagandized” blacks and white democrats and progressives as well. That’s because they have billions at their disposal.
The insurance companies put $350 million out to defeat health care reform and bank-rolled this faux grassroots movement, which is white men, among the most privileged groups in world history. The media have overblown the strength of this movement because racism is big business for them. The coverage of a gun rally that was held near Washington, D.C., on April 19 was typical. CNN didn’t do aerial shots because that would have revealed the small turnout. The media are the mob leaders. And they cater to a niche of people who are addicted to the need to believe in black pathology.
Q. On that point, you wrote very critically about the movie ‘Precious’, and took a good deal of heat for it. Did you feel compelled to speak out?
A: Most of the responses I received from whites and black men and women were 85 percent positive. This propaganda movie had to be challenged because powerful critics were saying that this family was the typical black family living in poverty. I never denied that child abuse occurs in American communities. What the supporters of this movie were suggesting is that incest is “prevalent” in African-American communities! And the media line was that only a few black angry men were opposed to the movie. I pointed out that a number of black women and even white women intellectuals spoke out against the film. In fact, the latest issue of my zine Konch publishes two articles written by white women who are vociferous in their opposition to the movie. Thirty years from now, Precious will seem like an odd throwback to the days when blacks were shown running away from the farmer’s shotgun with chickens in both hands.
Q. Ishmael, your information about the media seems encyclopedic. What do you read, watch, listen to, what sites on the internet?
A: I read three newspapers each day, where the typical portrait of a black man has him in an orange jumpsuit. I watch cable and monitor the opinion pages whose post-race line is usually challenged by reports and studies printed in the same newspapers. I do not come to criticism of the media empty-handed.
Q: Any advice on how to become more critical in news consumption?
A: I have an online magazine. I get useful information each day from those who write on Facebook, Counterpunch.com, Media Matters, FAIR. And Richard Prince’s “Journalisms” are essential.
Q: Do you think technology, particularly the Internet – is loosening the grip of corporate media?
A: Yes, that’s why they’re trying control it.
Q: Given your analysis in the “Jim Crow Media,” how do people of color, progressives and others critique Barack Obama without colluding with corporate America’s agenda?
A: I have some problems with some of Obama’s policies, but as long as these people are threatening to kill him and his family, and calling his mother, a distinguished Irish-American anthropologist, “white trash” and even worse, I’m on his side. All of the stored-up bile of white supremacy has exploded like airborne E-Coli as a result of Obama’s election. One Republican site just put up a photo depicting Obama and Michelle as characters in Sanford and Son. He’s not only the nation’s President but he’s also its chief exorcist, like a St.Patrick stoking the nation’s lizard brain.
The progressives are uncomfortable with Obama because they’ve been opposed to black leadership, historically. The progressive media is just as segregated as the corporate media which they are always criticizing from their glass houses. Richard Prince printed a photo of a Huffington Post Xmas party. One black staffer!! The opposition to Obama from people of color comes from the fringes. He has a 90 percent approval rating from blacks, over 60 percent from Hispanics and he carried the Asian-American vote. Yet these arrogant white progressives say they are his base and that he is obligated to them.
Q: Where do you think American media will be in 5 or 10 years?
A: Newspapers will be dead and buried and maybe some enterprising scholar will write a book about how they fomented racial and civil strife and helped the American government justify useless wars since the 1830s. Mao [Tse Tung] had a habit of sending intellectuals among the peasants from time to time so that they might understand what’s what. That’s what should happen with the “tough- lovers” and post-race entrepreneurs at Yale, Harvard and the Think Tanks. Send them to live in Detroit, Oakland, or Washington D.C. inner cities for a couple of years. See what happens. See what happens.