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2019 Birthday Lecture: The Countercultural Vision of History

The American counterculture's desire to live irresponsibly is reflected in Ishmael Reed's work.

Published onJul 09, 2020
2019 Birthday Lecture: The Countercultural Vision of History

Ishmael Reed is back in the news these days. The writer, now eighty-one years old, got national attention for his latest play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Most of the headlines of pieces on the play are some variation of “Ishmael Reed Does Not Like Hamilton,” and indeed he does not. He sees the hit musical as whitewashing the Hamilton family’s involvement with slavery and the generally elitist politics of its subjects. Reed’s play is about the ghosts of the family’s slaves, as well as displaced Native Americans and indentured servants, coming to haunt Lin-Manuel Miranda, who whimpers piteously that he was basing it all off Ron Chernow. In interviews, Reed claims that Chernow, not Miranda, is the real target of the play. The Haunting sounds basically on the historiographical money, though perhaps a little dry.

The news pieces on Reed’s blast at Hamilton struck a chord with online people who associate the musical with gormless liberalism — some of you probably shared articles on it somewhere I could see them. Vice ran a video piece that followed Reed as he saw the play for the first time (he had previously only read the script), and he presents a likably irascible figure. Beyond that, though, Reed is in the position many of us know well, shooting rubber-bands at a cultural juggernaut. Thus far, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his people have not deigned to notice the play about his haunting, and Hamilton continues to be a big smash success.

Had Miranda wanted to take the offensive against Reed — and I’m not saying he should have, either morally or strategically — the materials are there. Ishmael Reed has had a long and let’s just say colorful career. In the sixties and seventies, he was a major literary star: one of his poems was the last in a volume of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry, literally the showstopper of the canon. He’s been feted by critics across the spectrum from Amiri Baraka to Harold Bloom, the latter of whom included Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo in his list of five-hundred canonical works in the western canon. It looked, for a while, like Ishmael Reed might be the future of American literature.

Then, the seventies happened. Reed was always pugnacious and individualistic, a hard combo in the cliquey world of literature at any time, but harder still in the heightened ideological atmosphere of the 1970s. He wasn’t a movement guy — Amiri Baraka might have praised him, but Reed had little but scorn for black nationalists, either in terms of their literature or their politics, and he received at least one public death threat for writings satirizing militancy. He had his own ideas.

Things really started to sour after he got into an acrimonious public feud with Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. A recurring pattern in Reed’s public beefs is that he starts out with a reasonable criticism. In this case, Reed began publicly wondering why it was black men were so often depicted as incestuous sexual monsters in the works of supposedly progressive writers. He gets in trouble with his conclusions: black women writers were in league with white men to bring down black men, all part of some literary-sexual conspiracy. Feminism, to Reed, was the political expression of a lynch mob mentality directed at all men but at black men in particular. He says stuff like that in his essays — still does, sometimes, though he tones down the conspiratorial aspects — and has his characters say this in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, where I first encountered this tendency in a chapter-length rant by the main character. It was a weird thing to stumble upon, to say the least.

Other writers reacted to Reed accordingly, drawing a kind of cordon sanitaire around him. This in turn led Reed to become increasingly bitter and small, and it showed in his books. Where once he wrote sprawling works packed with symbolism and crackling with strange energies, his books from the 1980s onward lose a lot of their creativity. They engage with a world derived from bad op-ed writing rather than one created from myth and poetry, and they always involve a Reed-substitute character giving the comeuppance to some deserving representative of the establishment, often enough including feminists. I’m not going to do Lin-Manuel Miranda’s publicity hacks’ jobs for them, but there’s definitely enough pull-quotes about Reed’s feelings on feminists, women and gays to go around.

If not to pillory Reed — if not to pull the old switcheroo, making you see the harsh truth behind a figure you might have briefly liked, clicking on some of those anti-Hamilton pieces — why else am I bringing him up? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, I don’t think it’s that simple of a story. Reed’s a complicated figure. It would be a lot simpler if he had never created anything worth our time, but that’s simply not the case. His work from the 1960s and early 1970s is first-rate and innovative, performing a high-wire act of drawing both from the highest and lowest ends of culture. Even in his lesser later works, you still see flashes of what made him great in between the silliness and superciliousness. In short, he’s not an ordinary troll, or that’s not all he is anyway. He’s also someone who partook in the construction of a particular vision of America’s past, present and future, and I think the liabilities in that vision help explain his troll turns.

Most of the ideas of the American past that we now receive come to us from a breaking point: the breaking of the American establishment consensus idea of what American history was (and hence what American society is). Expressed by the historians of the mid-20th century, this held that American history was characterized by a consensus on the worthiness of liberalism, democracy, free (but sometimes regulated) markets, orderly progress, etc. When conflicts arose, like the U.S. Civil War, they were over defining these concepts. In this, they argued, America was — is — exceptional.

That’s a ruthless simplification but I have a lot to get to. The point is, starting in the 1960s, there arose challenges to this Consensus School, and different conceptions of the American past gobbled like so many hungry, hungry hippos over the minds of the American people. Even conceptions of the American past that partook of many of the ideas of the Consensus School were incapable of putting it back together just as it had been. Liberal believers in progress had to make previously marginalized voices part of the story (this is more or less the stream Hamilton comes from); conservative believers in American exceptionalism had to explain away the parts of American history that seemed a lot like the grubby histories of every other country in the world, and, of course, there were other rival conceptions that undercut all of these assumptions.

It’s not just historians who create our concepts of the past. It wasn’t in the days of the consensus and it isn’t in our day or any time in between. In a sense, everyone who thinks or talks about the past, no matter how vague a notion they have of it, contributes to the creation of shared views of the past. This is true of actors with no intention of making a statement about the past: people looking to write a novel, say, or produce a TV show, or get elected to office, or make their kids grateful for some treat, etc. Conceptions of the past created largely by non-historians are important but much vaguer than those professionally crafted . . . so you’ll just have to bear with me.

One of the actors on the spot for the collapse of the consensus narrative of American historiography was the counterculture. Here, I want to define my terms, mostly negatively. When I talk about the counterculture I am not talking about the New Left, as defined by groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers, the anti-Vietnam War protests and so on. I’m referring instead to those who put emphasis on “dropping out” of a mainstream society they defined as being struck by a variety of largely psychological or spiritual ailments —boredom, hypocrisy, malaise, etc. Rather than tackle these problems or source them to a political or social structure that created them, the counterculture sought to escape them. They did this physically by establishing communes and spiritually by various “mind expansion” techniques: drugs, Eastern spirituality, rock music, so on and so on.

Of course, the New Left was on site to help redefine American history, too and was in many respects better equipped to do so. And they did. Many contemporary American historians from that generation were involved in the New Left in some way, and they pioneered historiography that stressed conflict, discontinuity and non-exceptionalism in the American past. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I want to talk about the countercultural conception of the American past.

In keeping with the differences between the counterculture and the New Left more generally, there was some overlap between their historical understandings but many important differences, most of them involving an emphasis on the political. If the New Left’s vision of American history has helped shape academic ideas of the American past, this is because it had a thesis about the sorts of things historians study, expressed the way they express things — articles, pamphlets, books, conference arguments. The countercultural idea of the American past was expressed indirectly, by inference mostly (but not exclusively) in works of art — novels, poetry, film, etc. The counterculture’s idea of history is affective and reticular. Affective in the sense of privileging structures of feelings and expression over structures of politics, economics, etc. Reticular in the sense of being a reticule, or, in plain English, a “grab bag” — instead of neatly laid out narratives, it has a basic shape and concepts bump up against each other and form connections within the basic shape. This makes it harder to pin down but by no means makes it less important.

Let’s get into specifics. Probably the easiest way to illustrate what I’m talking about is to talk about one of the ur-images of American history: the frontier. To the Consensus historians, the frontier was one of the things that made America exceptional, that guaranteed that old aristocratic hierarchies from Europe couldn’t reproduce themselves, that guaranteed democracy. This is the Turner thesis, named after Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the great granddaddies of the American historical profession, who first advanced the idea in the 1890s. To the New Left, the frontier was sometimes a promise — consider how many of them came to political awareness under the influence of John Kennedy, who called for a “New Frontier” — but mainly a site of conflict, brutal conflict, between Native Americans and whites, between the US and other countries, between social classes, so on and so on.

The frontier is also a key concept for the countercultural understanding of the American past. The Consensus School enshrined the frontier for what it created — modern American society. The counterculture held up the frontier as being what modern American society lacked — what it had lost, in fact. You can argue, in many respects, that the lost frontier — the ejection from the garden, the creation of mainstream society with all of its repressiveness — is the reticule, the grab bag in which the parts of the counterculture concept of American history coexist outside of much in the way of linear order or structural hierarchy.

Once you know to look for it, you see it all over: from the counterculture’s fetishization of Native Americans to the writings of the Diggers and others to the emphasis on small-scale technologies; from the acid blotter to the personal computer, as tools of liberation one can take with them out to a frontier as opposed to the big technologies, factories and room-sized computers and the like, favored by mainstream society at the time. They don’t call it “the Electronic Frontier Foundation” idly. Escape and transformation are key counterculture themes — for the American branch of it, anyway, it’s almost inevitable that they’d reach for the frontier as a key metaphor, as a space to escape to and in which to transform.

This trope produces some very strange visions of what went on in the American past. In many ways, it’s one of the more natural things you can imagine — a group of people projecting themselves into the past, locating an honorable lineage for themselves. This takes some strange shapes in the case of the countercultural past. A good resource for this is a book called Gone to Croatan, an edited volume put out by the anarchist press Autonomedia in the early 1990s. The essays are all about pre-20th century “dropout” cultures — various communalists, runaway slave communities, whites who ran off to join the Native Americans, etc. Taken together the essays in the volume produce a number of impressions: first, the sheer fecklessness of comparing the impulse to “drop out” of stultifying midcentury conformism with running away from one’s masters or facing genocidal violence; but second, the sort of affective, reticular approach to history I’m talking about. What binds the subjects of Gone to Croatan together is less any structural relationship or shared frame of reference but more the sort of mood or attitude that they conjure up in the reader, or, anyway, the intended anarchist reader of the early 1990s.

A lot of Gone to Croatan is taken up by an earlier effort that shows a strange intersection between academic history and countercultural historical vision. This is the strange story of the Ishmaels — not to be confused with the Ishamel, Ishmael Reed, we started with and to whom we will return.

The Ishmaels were a poor family in and around Indianapolis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Numerous and impoverished, they were a target for the active eugenics movement in the State of Indiana and made the subject of a once-famous ethnographical study that labeled them “the Tribe of Ishmael.” Oscar McCullough, the sociologist who “discovered” the Ishmaels, was something of an amateur orientalist on top of everything else and threw in various references to exoticize and other-ise this family, which soon suffered under Indiana’s eugenic sterilization regime.

Fast forward to the 1970s, and the Ishmaels are discovered by yet another supposed do-gooder, Hugo Leaming. Leaming was a grad student at the University of Illinois. He found McCullough’s research, took some giant leaps of logic on his own, and concluded that the Ishmaels were, in fact, a tribe — a part of an underground of tri-racial — that is, part-white, part-black, part-indigenous — society of secret Muslims that existed on the frontier before the forces of the Man — people like McCullough — shut them out. He further speculated that the Ishmaels and others from this posited Islamic subculture helped found groups like the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, which were gaining substantial attention at the time.

A good book on this is over in the “Ds” on my bookshelves, Inventing America’s Worst Family by Nathaniel Deutsch. It showed that both McCullough and Leaming were wrong, and there was little to separate the Ishmaels — a common enough name in Wales — from other poor white families who found their way to Indianapolis and other cities around that time. In fact, he tracked down the Ishmael family’s own genealogy websites and found bemusement and consternation at the range of mixed messages their family history had been made to tenuously support.

Lost tribes surviving — thriving, even — on the margins of society, staying under the radar of officialdom, living a truer and more authentic life than those accepting the rules of mainstream society, rebelling by their very existence — you can see how that would appeal. More than that, the countercultural vision of the American past was participatory. You could participate in finding these lost groups and reviving them, like Leaming and other participants in Croatan. You could emulate them in your own life. If the book was published in the ‘90s, it has the stamp of the ‘70s and ‘80s on it as well, the decades when participatory history, with its reenacting and craze for genealogy, first got underway.

This is where history gets conflated with art, and this is where we return to literature and to the work of Ishmael Reed. Reed called his approach to literature “neo-hoodooism,” in reference to the version of voodoo originated in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. Like the Afro-Caribbean religions, Reed’s vision is syncretic: black themes changed by the experience of the New World and intermixing with other traditions. His novels (especially his earlier, better ones) are less driven by plot or character in the traditional western literary sense and are more like “conjurings” in this hoodoo sense, sacred dramas that instantiate a vision of the world and a prophecy of the future.

This merges most clearly with the historical vision of the counterculture in his 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. In it, a society of children living in the wilderness and dressing as Native Americans are destroyed by the forces of land speculation, who create a town inhabited by figures representing the other evils of mainstream society — racism, organized religion and so on. The only survivor is the Loop Garou Kid, a Black cowboy and conjurer, who joins other outsider-types in raining surreal destruction upon the town created in this act of slaughter. It’s at once an allegory for the destruction of a frontier seen as a space of freedom from mainstream society and a prophecy of that society’s destruction and the frontier’s rebirth.

Reed’s historical vision is on display in other works, most notably Mumbo Jumbo, about a sort of jazz-brain-virus that threatens to loosen up society in the 1920s, and Flight to Canada, a similarly surreal novel about the Underground Railroad, but I won’t go too deeply into them. What all of them have in common is the vision of both a prior existence and a rebirth of a spiritually authentic, liberated, non-Judeo-Christian polyculture in America. The very form of his novels — surreal, discursive, self-referential, partaking more of spoken language than canonical literary form — merges with its content and themes in this case. Even if you don’t believe a word of it, historically or aesthetically, his early novels are significant achievements.

At much the same time Reed was accomplishing these things, he was squabbling with the Black freedom movement, praising capitalism and dictators like Papa Doc and eventually coming to his big blow-up with feminism. The connective thread of his more recent forays into the public is defending any black men who find themselves in controversy — including Barack Obama along with Mike Tyson, Clarence Thomas and OJ Simpson — from foes he inevitably compares to Nazis, be they feminists or actual white supremacists. Reed isn’t the only example of a right-wing strain in the counterculture. There’s the history of libertarianism, which we don’t need to rehearse here. There’s also a weird strain of Confederate apologia running through the countercultural idea of history, from Howard Zinn’s equivocating about who was right in the Civil War to the image of the Confederate as the great symbolic rebel against mainstream society in hippie writer Richard Brautigan’s The Confederate General from Big Sur. If it turns out the losers of the American past were all heroic underdogs, and the Confederates lost . . . most Confederate nostalgia can be traced to resistance to the Black freedom struggle but it’s been at least abetted by the romanticization of rebellion qua rebellion that the counterculture helped promote.

What to make of all this? The space of freedom imagined in the countercultural vision of the past is not a space of responsibility, and what all of the structural critiques we see in the aftermath of the 1960s have in common is a call to take responsibility for imbalances of power and the iniquities thereby created. Even using the phrase “space of responsibility” brings Reed’s literary villains, like Drag Gibson, the land speculator in Yellow Back or the Knights Templar from Mumbo Jumbo, to mind. The countercultural vision is a picture of freedom as escape — not just from specific oppressions, mainly not even that, but from the very existence of the sorts of structure that could be used to any purpose — oppressive, liberatory or otherwise. In short, it’s taking for the hills, fleeing for Croatoan, making like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress — or Siddhartha, for that matter — and leaving it all behind, even if “it all” includes a family and responsibility. Wherever responsibility rubbed up against this particular form of freedom in Reed’s work, responsibility lost out — and those who would be on that losing side were often viciously satirized.

Along with everything else, Reed was one of the early backers of multiculturalism, calling for ethnic studies departments in universities, publishing authors from all sorts of backgrounds (including some of the first collections of Asian-American literature in the U.S.), suggesting a bewildering array of ethnic literature from obscure slave narratives to assorted white-ethnic works as replacements for the conventional canon of American literature.

Taken together, I think Reed and the countercultural vision of the American past represents an early draft on the concept of multiculturalism. It partook both of the wide visionary nature and the fecklessness of movement culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Participants from Ishmael Reed to cranky Facebook-Boomers not only see an attempt to correct its fecklessness as an imposition but seem to interpret it as a threat to the whole project. Responsibility is just bringing back the structures that they sought to escape in the first place. The point of the polyculture, in this early draft of multiculturalism, is that it’s free and fun (well, for somebody, anyway), not necessarily that it’s just. I’m not certain anyone involved would see the distinction. As with so many Baby Boomer projects, we are getting stuck with the bill for fixing the situation.

I came to this subject because of my interest in how non-historians create involved visions of the past. This can tell you a lot not just how people see history but how they go about constructing their worlds more generally, what makes up their patterns of thought. There must have been a feeling of exhilaration, the sense of rediscovering a better, freer history, which can point to a better future . . . the rebels of the sixties sought to awaken society from the somnolence of the Cold War consumer society, but many of them sought to escape into another dream. These were dreamers who resented being woken up.

Peter Berard is San Antonio Review’s book review editor. Read more of his work at Too Much Berard.

John Bonanni:

For me, the enjoyment of this article is the opportunity to look again at HAMILTON, the musical. It’s popularity is unquestioned, its dramatic treatment enlightened. But it is safe. It sits on the precipice of acceptability from the “bridge and tunnel” crowd who are sympathetic to the cause of racial equality. As long as they can afford the hefty entertainment dollar, the show will sail through financial success. What’s most important to me is the fact that Equity members of color have an opportunity to earn a living wage. Apologies for this Equity member’s point of view, but the bottom line advantage here is that people, actors, are working.

That said, if we are considering renaming the very school Miranda attended, I think the responsibility of criticism of historical content interpretation lies with the director as well as the author. The issues of slavery, and feminist representation ought to have been included in the director’s statement.

Thank you for an enjoyable read.