Ishmael Reed was born on February 22, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Joining the Great Migration of Black folk from the South during World War II, Reed and his mother Thelma Coleman moved to Buffalo, New York. His mother married a man named Bennie Reed and young Ishmael embraced his stepfather’s last name.
After completing high school, Reed was accepted into the University of Buffalo. He attended the university from 1956 to 1960 but never received his degree. In 1962, he moved to New York’s Lower East Side where he founded the Newark, New Jersey community newspaper, Advance. He also co-founded The East Village Other, an underground, innovative newspaper.
Reed joined the Umbra Writers Workshop which allowed him to develop his writing skills. He learned how to write better from fellow writers whom later formed the Black Arts Movement. While awaiting the publication of his first novel, ‘The Free-Lance Pallbearers,’ in 1967, he moved to San Francisco, California. He set up permanent residency there in 1970.
Throughout the 1970s, Reed wrote the novels, ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ (1972) and ‘Flight to Canada’ (1976). In the latter of the two novels, he coined the term “neo-slave narrative.” He also wrote lyrics for artists, like Bobby Womack, Taj Mahal, and later, Macy Gray.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Reed wrote and published several works of fiction and poetry, as well as collections of poems and essays. He also wrote several plays that were later compiled into a book titled, ‘The Plays.’
In the mid-1970s, Reed began teaching at the University of California Berkeley. In 1995, the University of Buffalo (now the State University of New York at Buffalo) awarded Reed an honorary Doctorate degree in Letters. By 1998, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellow. He also received the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame’s 2008 Blues Songwriter of the Year Award.
Reed has continuously written works, including poetry collections, biographies, and his latest novel, ‘Conjugating Hindi’ (2018). He continues to publish the work of other writers through the Ishmael Reed Publishing Company and the online literary magazine, Konch, as well as his non-profits, the Before Columbus Foundation and PEN Oakland.
Reed became an emeritus professor in 2005. He is currently a visiting scholar at the California College of the Arts. He has been married to Carla Blank since 1970 and has two daughters who follow in his footsteps as writers.
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