Born: Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S.
Ishmael Reed is a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, lyricist, and literary activist. Among his approximately 30 publications (not counting the many journals and anthologies he has edited) are the acclaimed novels Mumbo Jumbo, The Freelance Pallbearers, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Yellow Back Radio Broke Down. His work is known for its satirical, ironic take on race, literary tradition, American political culture, and oppression as well as its innovative, post-modern technique interwoven with the rhythms of jazz.
Reed’s poems, articles, and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, Time, Playboy, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the Yale Review, the Amsterdam News, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Life, Spin, Connoisseur, Scholastic Magazine, Le Monde, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and Slate, among others. His work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hungarian, Dutch, Czech, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese.
Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1938, but grew up in the working class neighborhoods of Buffalo, New York. He attended Buffalo public schools, and from 1956 to 1959 he took courses at what was then called the University of Buffalo (later a part of the SUNY system) but never matriculated; he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the university in 1995. Reed taught at the University of California-Berkeley for more than 30 years, retiring in 2005, and has held positions at California College of Art, San Jose State University, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of the Antilles in Martinique.
Reed is the winner of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the “genius grant”), fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, the Phillis Wheatley Award, the Langston Hughes Medal, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Poetry Association, among many others. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer and was a finalist for two National Book Awards. Just Buffalo Literary Center honored him with its 2014 Literary Legacy Award.
Reed’s texts and lyrics have been set to music and/or performed by a diverse group of musicians and composers including Macy Gray, Taj Mahal, Albert Ayler, Cassandra Wilson, David Murray, Allen Touissant, Olu Dara, Lester Bowie, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Harris, Billy Bang, Bobby Womack, Jack Bruce, Little Jimmy Scott, Mary Wilson, and others. In 2008, he received the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame award as Blues Songwriter of the Year. Reed is also a jazz pianist and leads his own quintet.
A decades-long supporter of writers whose voices have not been heard in mainstream America, Reed founded the Before Columbus Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting original, innovative, and neglected writing from the Americas.