A bad experience with the police lingers in the mind, whether the cop is friendly and professional—as many had been when they detained me numerous times over a six-month period in the early 2000s when I moved a car on street cleaning days in Harlem—or rude and unprofessional. That was the case one evening in the early 1990s when I stood on a Pittsburgh sidewalk looking through the window of an expensive bistro.
“What’cha doing out here loitering?”
The sharp insistent voice took me back to my childhood in the segregated South, a cantankerous neighbor chastising me and my friends for the suction-cup-tipped arrows clinging to his Pontiac’s windshield. But this wasn’t an irritated neighbor I turned to face in Pittsburgh. He was a tall cop, my color, medium brown, a bit older, early thirties. I was no child either. “Since when is it against the law to read a menu?” I shot back.
The cop’s hand went to his holstered gun. As he studied my collared shirt and expensive belt, I couldn’t help speculating about what he was thinking: Should I haul this uppity nigga’s ass to the precinct right now, or head on down to the diner and get my cinnamon roll? The friend I was meeting arrived, sending the cop sauntering down the sidewalk. But in the days following the Trayvon Martin shooting, I thought back to the encounter and wondered how it might have turned out differently.
It’s been two years since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida. Like most Americans, I could not avoid the heated debates surrounding Martin’s death and the trial of his accused killer, George Zimmerman, who was eventually exonerated of all manslaughter and murder charges. This case—a young unarmed black teenager shot dead by an older “security” worker in the deep south—was made for the Internet age. Martin’s alleged drugs-and-guns alter ego and Zimmerman’s public-servant persona supplied plenty of ammunition to debaters, on- and off-line. When the post-verdict conversation expanded to larger questions about the historical treatment of African-Americans and other minorities in America, the debate seemed stymied by the sheer complexity of the underlying issues. The result, even for those who are ardently committed to public discourse, can be fatigue. And what happens if we lose faith in the power of the free exchange of ideas to help ameliorate seemingly intractable social ills—a faith that is vital to a strong civic society?
My concern led me back to several works by the brilliant novelist, essayist, and social critic Ishmael Reed. I first encountered Reed one afternoon in the mid-1990s at the San Francisco Book Fair, when, shirking my volunteer duties aligning chairs, I wandered over to another panel where, rumor had it, the discussion was going to be quite stimulating. Among the panelists was a salt-and-pepper haired man in a windbreaker with a pair of bulky 1970s-style headphones hanging around his neck. At that time Reed, who fidgeted and harrumphed before settling into his chair, had been publishing for nearly four decades—satirical, multi-genre works that brought him prestigious awards but also spirited criticism. That day, as Reed branded the East-Coast literary media as elitist, racist, and sexist, several students lining the walls of the packed room scribbled notes, but a few older attendees sat with stern faces.
Reed had received less-than-favorable responses in the past. On one notable occasion, he claims that Ralph Ellison called him “a gangster and a con artist.” The confrontation took place at a reception after Reed accepted the prestigious Rosenthal Foundation Award For Fiction in 1975. Reed mentions the run-in in the introduction to The Reed Reader, a thick sampling of his essays, poems, plays, and fiction, including excerpts of two of his most important novels: his debut, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, and his most critically successful, Mumbo Jumbo. These novels highlight several of Reed’s literary preoccupations, which may have provoked Ellison’s vitriol, but also offer insight about America’s racial history.
The Free-Lance Pallbearers concerns a rebellion in a town ruled by a despot named Harry Sam, who issues commands from the bathroom. Reed says the novel critiques the Catholic Church and some black political movements. Mumbo Jumbo focuses on the ramifications of a “dance causing” virus called “Jes Grew” that invades New Orleans and explores the racism that accompanied the proliferation of Jazz, as well as colorism within the black community. Both novels rely on experimental elements that exemplify Reed’s self-described literary “gumbo style,” which incorporates history, popular culture, photographs, and borrowed texts. Adding to this complexity is Reed’s tendency to sometimes leave it to the reader to make connections among all these components.
However, Reed offers some navigational guidance by elevating certain elements—including the media, which turns out to be helpful when considering the Martin case. Characters in The Free-Lance Pallbearers produce and read literary magazines, mindlessly recite from a “Nazarene manual,” and watch television warnings and reassurances issued by their despot. In Mumbo Jumbo, a worker at one magazine asks the publisher at another: “Hey man, what was the idea of you putting my picture there last week without my permission. Those weren’t my views and you know it. And I didn’t like the lewd photos that accompanied the article.” The publisher’s reply, that he was merely trying to “boost circulation,” feels both timeless and timely. Media outlets have always jockeyed for the top spot among audiences. Today, that contest has exploded—in both speed and size. The images of Zimmerman and Martin zipping around the Internet were in service of a story, but it seemed to me that that story, like most news today, had been flattened simply to win clicks. And this, in turn, fueled much of my frustration.
Reed’s 2011 novel Juice! is filled with deeper lessons about the media’s role in the Zimmerman verdict. The book is set against the backdrop of another controversial acquittal—that of former NFL star O. J. Simpson in 1995. Focused on the struggles of Paul Blessings, a television political cartoonist who is ill with diabetes, Juice! unfolds within a complex media landscape in which Blessings is both consumer and producer. As round-the-clock cable news begins to proliferate, Blessings, who believes the media unfairly covers black men, channels his rage into a series of cartoons, offering his sharp opinions through a centuries-old form. But he also participates in the then-burgeoning new medium of Internet chat rooms. In this environment Blessings’s response to the spectrum of opinions begins to shift. He does more than simply acknowledge that people with opposing opinions have valid points—he comes to embrace ideas that at first seem anathema to him:
Back downstairs I entered my studio. I spent an hour at the board but nothing came. I turned on the TV. They were broadcasting a memorial from Oklahoma. I couldn’t get into the service. There was some nice singing from a white choir and a children’s singing group was thoroughly charming. A white singer tried to do a soul spin on Eric Clapton’s “When You See Me in Heaven,” accompanied by a guitarist. It was sincere but tepid. Then this sister got up and belted out “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America,” and I put my head on the table and wept.
Later, the highly Afro-centric Blessings admits that the images of black and white mourners helped him recognize how the suffering in a community he thought he cared little about can, in fact, unite the country. Though this scene could be read as a type of cautionary tale—Blessings softens only after he has been weakened by age, health problems, and psychological fatigue—his personal growth is also a product of engagement with those who challenged his ideas: friends, family, colleagues, his audience, and the very media he initially dismissed as baleful to society. Not merely a sound-bite pundit, like many in the Zimmerman debates, Blessings is emotionally and physically impacted by his struggles against societal problems.
Revisiting Reed’s significant body of work might have proven disheartening. After all, unlike Reed’s work, the conversation about Trayvon Martin’s death still relied on tiresome tropes. But Reed reinvigorated me. Juice! in particular demonstrates that in such environments, new learning is possible, learning that sometimes drains us physically and emotionally, but is indispensable for the progress of our civic society.
JEFFREY COLVIN's reviews and essays have appeared in Rain Taxi, The Millions, and Narrative Magazine, which also published an excerpt of his novel-in-progress, Africaville. He recently became a book reviewer for the Harvard Review and received a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency to teach writing at a senior center in New York City.