University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

Ishmael Reed Papers

1964 - 1995
Supplements, 1962 - 2005

See below for collection citation and reference information.

Table of Contents

Biographical Note

Ishmael Reed, African-American novelist, poet, and publisher, was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on February 22, 1938. Reed moved with his mother to Buffalo, New York in 1942. His mother worked in various wartime industries and Reed attended public schools, graduating in 1956. He also played violin and trombone and began writing a newspaper column on jazz for the Empire Star Weekly when he was thirteen. He enrolled as an evening student at Millard Fillmore College, the night school division of the University of Buffalo, and worked as a clerk at the Buffalo public library during the day. His writing ability was quickly recognized, and he moved into the bachelor of arts program at the University of Buffalo. He withdrew in 1960 because of a "dire shortage of funds" (Gates) and a "wide gap between social classes" (Gates). To escape "the artificial social and class distinctions that he associated with American university education," (Gates) he moved to Buffalo's Talbert Mall Project. Daily exposure to systematic poverty cycles in the projects led him to political activism in the civil rights and Black Power movements.

Between 1960 and 1962, Reed worked as a staff correspondent with the Empire Star Weekly. He was also a co-host of the WVFO radio program "Buffalo Community Roundtable," which was canceled after Reed interviewed Malcolm X. He was also acting in plays such as Edward Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith, Tennessee Williams's Camino Real, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and Jean Anouilh's Antigone. He married Priscilla Rose in September 1960, and his daughter, Timothy Brett Reed, was born in 1962. Ishmael and Priscilla Reed separated in 1963 and were divorced in 1970.

When Reed moved to New York City in 1962, he was "ready to write." He served as editor-in-chief of Advance, a Newark, New Jersey, weekly, which was said to be the inspiration for the East Village Other, founded by his friend, painter Walter Bowart. Reed participated in planning and naming the East Village Other after Carl Jung's concept of "Otherness." He also participated in the Umbra Workshop, a black writers' group, and helped organize the 1965 American Festival of Negro Art. During this very creative period, he wrote his first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers (1967), which began as a satire of Newark politics and evolved into a more ambitious work which received a very good critical reception.

Reed moved to California in 1967 and began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. He married Carla Blank, a modern dancer, in 1970, and they have a daughter, Tennessee Maria Reed. His second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, appeared in 1969, and other novels have appeared regularly through the years: Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), Flight to Canada (1976), The Terrible Twos (1982), Reckless Eyeballing (1986), Terrible Threes (1989), and Japanese by Spring (1993). His novels have continued to be received respectfully by critics, and he was nominated for the National Book Award for Mumbo Jumbo in 1973.

In the same year, Reed's third volume of poetry, Chattanooga (1973), was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His previous volumes of poetry, Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church: Poems (1970) and Conjure: Selected Poems (1972) had also done well. Beginning in 1964, Reed's poems were reprinted in anthologies edited by Walter Lowenfels (1964, 1967, 1969) and Clarence Major (1969). Two of his poems, "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" and "beware: do not read this poem" were included in the 1970 edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and were subsequently reprinted in a number of other anthologies. Another poem, "From the Files of Agent 22," was selected by the Poetry in Public Places project to be displayed in New York City buses during the month of October 1975. More recent poetry collections include Secretary to the Spirits (1977), and New and Collected Poems (1988).

Reed has called the essay "the ditch-digging occupation of writing" (Gates); nevertheless, he has used the essay form to express his sometimes controversial views throughout his writing career. His essays have been collected in the following volumes: Shrovetide in Old New Orleans: Essays (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians: Selected Essays (1982), Writin' is Fightin' (1988), and Airing Dirty Laundry (1994). He has also been prolific in conducting and granting interviews, and a collection titled Conversations with Ishmael Reed, edited by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh, was published in 1995.

His opinions have provoked heated opposition at times. Feminists reacted strongly to his criticism of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple and its film interpretation by Steven Spielberg. Reed accused Walker and Spielberg of perpetuating negative stereotypes of black men and criticized black feminist writers who gained favor with white feminists and the general reading public by denigrating black men. These views are also expressed in his novel Reckless Eyeballing (1986). He has generally been an outspoken critic of the portrayal of black Americans, especially black men, in the media, and he formed a local splinter group of the national writers' organization P.E.N. in Oakland to spearhead a national boycott of network television news programs. He explains his opinions on this issue in the title essay of Airing Dirty Laundry (1994).

In order to promote a more positive image of African Americans and those of other ethnic minorities, and to present a broader and more balanced representation of their views, Reed has taken on the additional work of editing and publishing. In 1970, his first edited volume, 19 Necromancers from Now, presented the works of relatively unknown minority writers. After moving to the West Coast, he established the Yardbird Publishing Company with Al Young, which published the works of different ethnic groups in the five volumes of the Yardbird Reader (1971-1977). When Yardbird Publishing broke up, Reed continued in the same direction with Yardbird Lives! edited with Al Young in 1978, Y'Bird Magazine (Y'Bird, 1978), and Calafia: The California Poetry (Y'Bird Books, 1979). He was one of the founders of the Before Columbus Foundation, which promotes the work of unknown ethnic writers and presents an annual American Book Award to recognize the best ethnic work, and he has continued to be actively involved in the foundation's activities. As vice-chairman of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, he worked to broaden publishing opportunities for all writers.

Throughout his life, Ishmael Reed has found ways to promote and participate in many modes of artistic expression and performance. His collaborations with musicians resulted in two albums, Conjure: Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed, and Conjure II: Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, and he performed with musicians and dancers involved in these projects. A collaboration with composer Carmen Moore resulted in an operetta, The Wild Gardens of Loup Garou. He participated in workshops on African-American arts and folklore, and conducted an interview with artist Bettye Saar which was published in a catalog of her work. He wrote play scripts, including Savage Wilds and Hubba City, and was often actively involved in the production of his plays. With Steve Cannon, he formed the Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Company to produce a television soap opera, Personal Problems, aimed at a black American audience. Participating actors included Walter Cotton, Vita Mae Grosvenor, and novelist Terry MacMillan.

In addition to his writing and publishing activities, Ishmael Reed has had a distinguished academic career. Besides teaching at Berkeley, where he was eventually granted full-time lecturer status, he has accepted visiting lecturer appointments at a number of colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale, and many of his former students have gone on to successful writing careers. He has been continuously in demand as a reader, speaker, and panelist. He has attended numerous academic conferences, including those of the Modern Language Association (1982), and the College Teachers of English. He has crisscrossed the country speaking, reading poetry, and conducting workshops for writers. Opportunities to tour England, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico have come to him as a result of his strong literary reputation abroad, and his works have been printed in Britain and translated into many languages. A recent publication, MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), is a collection of essays by academics and creative writers, edited by Reed, on multiculturalism, a topic of intense debate in the academic community in the 1990s.

Reed and his family have resided in Oakland, California, for many years. Active in his own community and well as the international community of letters, Reed has worked to reduce drug dealing in his neighborhood and helped to organize a neighborhood watch program. He has given readings in local schools and libraries and conducted workshops in local prisons. He appeared in a television program entitled There with Ishmael Reed, which derived its title from a comment about Oakland by Gertrude Stein: "there is no there there." Local arts organizations such as There City Cinema have benefitted from his leadership and active involvement. His wife, Carla Blank, a dancer and dance instructor, has promoted and participated in local arts programs and sometimes collaborated with her husband in community arts endeavors. Ishmael Reed continues to be active locally as well as outspoken nationally in support of a new, multicultural model of artistic expression and community life.


Bokinsky, Caroline G. "Ishmael Reed." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 5, American Poets since World War II, Part 2: L-Z. Pp. 180-184.

Duff, Gerald. "Ishmael Reed." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 2, American Novelists since World War II. Pp. 417-422.

Gates, Henry Louis. "Ishmael Reed." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 33, Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955. Pp. 219-232.

Mercer, Joye. "The Improvisations of an 'Ethnic Gate Crasher'." The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 17, 1993. Pp. A5.

Nelson, Jill. "Fighting Words." New York Times Book Review. February 13, 1994.

Polak, Maralyn Lois. "Interview." Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Reed, Ishmael." Current Biography Yearbook, 1986. Pp. 454-458.

Note: Biographical information was also derived from the collection.

Scope and Content Note

The Ishmael Reed Papers is a substantial collection of the manuscripts, correspondence, business and publishing records, printed and multimedia productions, and other materials which document the multi-faceted career of Ishmael Reed. Using the materials in this collection, it will be possible for scholars to discover Reed's prolific and productive life of involvement in arts, letters, and politics. All of Reed's many activities are represented in this collection, which takes its basic organizational form and order from his works, activities, and achievements. In addition, the collection provides detailed documentation of Reed's creative and professional work on individual projects with extensive holdings in manuscripts, project records, paste-ups and galley proofs, audio and videotapes, calendars, travel records, and planning notes. Literary and professional correspondence, legal and publishing correspondence, and additional personal correspondence provide a framework for tracing the influence of personal and professional relationships throughout his career, as well as the ways in which Reed's multiple roles and projects are related.

The strength of this collection is in the manuscript holdings found in Series I. Works by Reed. Reed revised and rewrote continuously. Each published novel is represented by many folders of draft pages in typescript and holograph, multiple complete and/or substantial partial drafts, and revisions of pages and sections. Typewritten and holograph lists of corrections and changes to be made accompany many manuscripts. Even short essays and letters to editors are usually represented in this collection with multiple, corrected drafts. In addition to Reed's holograph corrections and revisions, some drafts bear comments and corrections in other hands. Paste-ups and galleys with printers' and editors' marks form part of the record of many of Reed's works, including essays and articles as well as novels and books. Where appropriate and convenient, correspondence concerning the publication and marketing of a particular work is housed adjacent to the manuscript holdings.

Series II. Interviews comprises material relating specifically to the many interviews Reed granted to others, as well as those he conducted himself. This series includes manuscripts and/or other related records, such as correspondence, notes, tear sheets, and photocopies for each interview. Reed granted interviews with representatives of diverse publications, ranging from college newspapers (Mwendo of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Ohio), to mass market publications (San Francisco Review of Books) and scholarly publications (American Poetry Review). Subseries II.2. Interviews by Reed contains one draft of a self-interview and interviews with writers, including Ralph Ellison, Rudolpho Anaya, Quincey Troupe, and John Edgar Wideman. Reed also interviewed African Americans in other areas of the arts, such as sculptor Doyle Forman, architects Max Bond and Carl Anthony, and mixed media artist Bettye Saar. The interview series represents a broad, but not complete, record of interviews with Reed. Indications of other interviews can be found in several series, including requests to respond to written questions in Series VIII. Literary and Professional Correspondence, and audio cassette tapes of interviews on radio and videotape in Series XI. Media.

Reed's work provoked many kinds of responses, and Series III. Writing and Artwork by Others, documents these various responses, ranging from academic writing on Reed's work and career to brief mentions of his work and opinions in articles on other subjects. The material is of two main kinds: manuscripts and clippings. Manuscripts were sent to Reed for comment by writers working on chapters in literary texts and dissertations which discuss or mention his work, and this series contains typescripts by academic scholars Henry Louis Gates, Reginald Martin, Peter Nazareth, Jerry Ward, Sämi Ludwig, and a number of others. This series also includes drafts and copies of Ishmael Reed: An Annotated Checklist, by Elizabeth and Thomas Settle. There are also some manuscripts which remain unidentified as to author or relationship to Reed. In addition, Series III includes the most comprehensive clipping files in the collection, although clippings can also be found throughout the collection with the works or events to which they refer.

Reed's editing and publishing activities are richly, although a bit unevenly, documented in Series IV. Little except references in correspondence and clippings exist for the earliest efforts, which include collaborating on the book The Rise, Fall, and...? of Adam Clayton Powell (1967) and editing the Newark, New Jersey, newspaper Advance. Information on Reed's activities during these years can be obtained from his autobiographical writing in Series I. Works by Reed. The anthology Reed edited, 19 Necromancers from Now, is better documented with some typescript and correspondence. Reed's later publishing activities, including publications of Yardbird Press, Yardbird Wing Editions, Reed Cannon and Johnson, I. Reed Books, and the magazines Quilt and Konch, are more fully documented with correspondence, business and legal records, publicity and advertising copy, draft and corrected typescripts from contributors, and paste-ups and setting copy. There is also a subseries of manuscripts, some designated "unsolicited," associated with Reed's multiple and sometimes overlapping publishing ventures. These include typescripts by Ntozake Shange, Jessica Hagedorn, and others.

Reed's teaching career is documented in Series V. Academic, mostly in the form of administrative records, including class lists and assignments, grading sheets, student evaluations of Reed's teaching, and administrative correspondence. Files include materials on his visiting lectureships at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Washington. The bulk of the academic series consists of material relating to his teaching at Berkeley, which spans the years 1969-1994. Of special note are the materials compiled by Reed to make a case for his tenure at Berkeley, which include letters of support from students and academic peers. In addition to these, the series contains some student papers with comments, notes on reading assignments (generally holograph), and resources for teaching, including files specifically related to African-American literature.

In addition to his regular and visiting teaching assignments, Reed traveled extensively to read his poetry and fiction, conduct writing workshops, deliver academic papers, and give lectures. These activities are well documented in Series VI. Appearances. Folders in chronological order for each clearly documented appearance contain correspondence, travel records, publicity, notes, and, in some cases, drafts of speeches or comments. Additional files contain undated or unidentified materials relating to appearances, as well as requests to appear.

Reed also participated in a number of other professional activities, which are documented in Series VII. Professional Activities. These files reflect his different levels of involvement in different activities. Notable among these files, for instance, are records of the Before Columbus Foundation (1977-1992), which Reed founded to promote publication of minority writers. Reed's involvement took many forms, and the files reflect his participation on the Board of Directors from the initial incorporation through 1992 with minutes, correspondence, and business records. Additional files document the creation of two Before Columbus anthologies and the annual American Book Awards sponsored by the group. Reed also founded There City Cinema to promote multi-cultural film, video, and artists of Northern California, and files for this organization are present for 1986-1989. Reed's efforts to promote new and lesser-known talent is also documented in the files of the Pushcart Prizes, which give awards to outstanding work from small presses. Reed was a longtime member of P.E.N., the national association of published authors, and the collection contains correspondence related to P.E.N. activities spanning the years 1969-1988. Dissatisfied with P.E.N.'s lack of support for Reed's proposed boycott of television news, Reed started a new P.E.N. chapter in Oakland. Reed served as a member of the Usage Panel for several editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, from 1976-1987. Files on other organizations in which Reed participated are less extensive, reflecting shorter periods of involvement or a more peripheral role. He served as a judge in a number of literary prize and grant competitions, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the MacArthur Fellowship. On the local level, he headed California Poetry in the Schools for a short time. Reed's awards and resumes, included in this series, also provide evidence of Reed's varied professional activities.

Additional evidence of Reed's literary and professional activities is found in Series VIII. Literary and Professional Correspondence. The chronological arrangement of the general correspondence subseries demonstrates the breadth of Reed's activities and influence, with letters ranging from fan mail and friendly notes to theoretical engagement with Reed's work. Although most correspondence relating to specific works, legal and publishing activities, professional organizations, and Reed's publishing companies are found with those files, there is a substantial amount of overlap, as there has been between the many activities in Reed's life. Researchers interested in any of Reed's specific activities should also consult the general correspondence files for that time period. Similarly, in the correspondence series itself, there is some overlap between different subseries.

Named individual correspondence files, a series formed from letters and other materials removed from the rest of the collection, do not necessarily reflect the extent of Reed's relationships, personal or professional, with the correspondents. Some of the named correspondents, such as Steve Cannon, Rudolpho Anaya, Shawn Wong, Henry Louis Gates, and Terry MacMillan, worked with Reed on specific publishing or creative projects, and the files on those activities should be consulted for a more complete picture of the relationship. Many other named correspondents are recognized and valued literary peers who are acquaintances rather than close friends. Such files may contain only one or two congratulatory notes or short letters acknowledging shared projects or concerns. A few files, including those of Walter Lowenfels, Sarah Fabio, and Jessica Hagedorn, represent more extensive and long-term correspondence, but there are only a few letters from Reed in these files.

Letters from Ishmael Reed (1970-1994) in the general correspondence subseries, mostly carbon copies, are useful in documenting his activities; however, they do not contain extended personal or professional commentary. Those few letters present in the collection which bear most directly on specific projects are generally to be found with the files for those projects. A file of Reed's letters to editors contained in the general correspondence is of particular interest. Most of these are drafts, many have Reed's corrections, and most were either not sent or not published. The remaining subseries in Series VIII -- Requests and permissions (VIII.3), Literary information (VIII.4), Invitations (VIII.5), and Rejection slips (VIII.6) -- contain chronologically arranged files of these specific types. The requests and permissions file is a particularly valuable supplement to other files which document Reed's career as a writer, teacher, and public figure, because the correspondence reflects some of the choices available to him. Letters in these files represent the many institutions, organizations, publications, and individuals seeking Reed's work for publication, his presence at events and conferences, his recommendations and comments on various issues and individuals, and his permission to reprint his work.

Series VIII.4. Literary information, consists of mailings, brochures, publications lists, advertising, announcements and other information of a more impersonal nature. These files are substantial, but not complete in themselves, however, because many similar items are filed with the specific works or projects to which they are most directly related. A request to speak, for example, may be filed in appearances with other information relating to that engagement.

Another rich source of information on Reed's literary career is correspondence in Series IX. Legal and Publishing Correspondence. These are the files of correspondence with his literary agents, legal representatives, and publishers. Their arrangement by type, correspondent, and chronology, make them convenient for checking the supplemental information they contain on various projects. Files of correspondence with Anne Freedgood and Ken McCormick of Doubleday, for example, contain letters from Reed with detailed changes and corrections in the manuscript of Mumbo Jumbo as well as the autograph original of the fictional letter which was a late addition to the text. These files also contain congratulatory notes, promotional materials, and royalty statements. Reed employed literary agents from early in his career: James Seligmann from 1966-1974, Barbara Lowenstein from 1978 to at least 1995, and various other agencies for short periods. Information in the agency files supplement that in the publications files by documenting negotiations and conflicts among Reed, his agents, and his publishers. The legal files also contain material pertinent to Reed's literary and publishing work, including the dispute over ownership of Yardbird Press. Taken together, the three subseries of the legal and publishing correspondence provide an especially broad and detailed account of the business aspects of his literary career.

Reed's personal life is less completely documented in this collection. Series X. Personal Papers is small, but even so, its contents are so intermixed with literary and business materials that the division is somewhat arbitrary. There is no material from Reed's childhood in the collection except the anecdotes in his autobiographical writings in Series I. There are almost no photographs of family and leisure activities. The different areas of Reed's adult life were interrelated on a daily basis, with his work at the center, and his visits to Alaska, Hawaii, Martinique, Japan, Europe, and the East Coast were work-related. He carefully guarded the privacy of his wife and daughters as a general rule, but he sometimes collaborated with his wife Carla, a dancer, on performance pieces, and his daughter Tennessee, a poet, at readings. The correspondence labeled personal which was assigned to this series contains a good deal of correspondence of a general literary nature as well as letters from his wife and mother. His calendars and desk notes are included in this series, but these also document the extent to which his work and personal life were deeply interrelated.

Ishmael Reed's creative work in various media and his roles as teacher, performer, and public figure are revealed in the audiotapes and recordings, videotapes, and related materials found in Series XI. Media. These include both audio and video recordings of the soap opera he wrote for and helped to produce with Steve Cannon, and the recordings of his poetry set to music, Conjure I: Music for the texts of Ishmael Reed and Conjure II: Cab Calloway Stands in for the Moon, both produced by Kip Hanrahan. Some of the interviews documented in Series II. have audiotape versions, and there are a number of interviews with Reed on audiotape, including radio interviews of excellent sound quality, for which there is no print transcription in the collection. There are also a number of audio and videotapes in which Reed was a participant rather than a subject, including the commercially produced videotapes, Oakland: There is a There There, in which Reed is interviewed about his adopted hometown, and James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, in which Reed comments on Baldwin's influence.

There is also a substantial number of books, magazines, and printed materials in the collection, which are listed in appendices at the end of the finding aid.

The arrangement of each series is explained in the series note at the beginning of each series.

Related Collections:

Ms 99 Miscellaneous Historical and Literary Manuscripts: Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church (F422)
Ms 131 Kay Boyle Papers (F21)
Ms 207 University Place Book Shop Papers (F15)
Ms 363 Edward Field Papers (F24)
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citation and reference information

Ishmael Reed Papers

1964 - 1995
Supplements, 1962 - 2005

Manuscript Collection Number: 398
Accessioned: Purchases, 1980-1995.
Extent: 65 linear ft.
Content: Correspondence, novels, plays, poems, essays, reviews, speeches, magazines, posters, clippings, brochures, flyers, broadsides, photographs, artwork, books, galley and page proofs, financial documents, catalogs, programs, photocopies, sound recordings, schedules, comic books, notes, transcripts, awards, certificates, minutes, audiovisual recordings, and miscellaneous ephemera.
Access: The collection is open for research. Two supplements to the Ishmael Reed papers have been acquired by the University of Delaware Library since 2001. Access to these supplements is limited pending completion of processing. Please contact Manuscripts Librarian in Special Collections for assistance.
Processed: 1998-1999 by Shiela Pardee, completed by Anita Wellner.

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