Recklessly Eyeballing Reckless Eyeballing Or, Why Reed is Still a Good Read in My Eye
Tyler A. Saunders
Published in 1989, Ishmael Reed’s controversial novel Reckless Eyeballing examines numerous themes, among them feminism, anti-Semitism, and racism. The novel is a social critique that is considered offensive by those who are critiqued, as well as an extended joke that purposefully tricks readers into reacting in the very manner that is critiqued within the novel. The narrative is complex in its endless indictment of “white” feminism, embodied in such critics as Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, and Betty Friedan. As a social critic, Reed helps us to understand the problems the author himself faced as an African-American male in the 1980s at the hands of white feminists who criticized his work as sexist and misogynistic. He discusses one of these problems in the title essay of Airing Dirty Laundry, a collection of articles published in 1993. In “Airing Dirty Laundry,” Reed recalls how a group of critics stopped protesting his campus visit when they were asked whether or not they had read his works, to which they replied they had not (4). Hypocritical actions such as this real life event and biased op-eds in popular newspapers, magazines, and other forms of media written, produced, and influenced by white feminists unjustly attacking African-American male writers represents ideas that Reed critiques in Reckless Eyeballing. Reed as trickster author purposefully writes an offensive and problematic text to elicit the very reactions that are critiqued in the novel. All of this does not excuse Reed from criticism, but rather posits that a conversation needs to start regarding what Reed believes is an ongoing controversy. Among other ideas, Reckless Eyeballing is Reed’s reaction to second-wave feminism and the connection that Jewish-Americans share with African-American oppression. In this essay, I will analyze the numerous characters who are loosely based on real life individuals as well as the actual events that help shape moments in the novel. I will also examine the gumbo-like style that Reed uses to articulate his ideas. Reed, who has had a well-established career since the 1960s, published other satirical novels before Reckless Eyeballing (1986), including The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Reed’s commitment to attacking stereotypes, clichés, and social norms demonstrates his talent as a social critic who is not afraid of controversy, danger, and baiting his readers and critics. His novels transport readers to a place that looks familiar but has been distorted by his aesthetic, effectively disregarding expectations of what a novel “should” be, according to literary critics. Reed creates characters with a mixture of real people in mind, which leaves readers questioning who he is actually critiquing or satirizing. A character analysis of Reed’s novels can be extremely useful, but also a dangerous road to traverse. His humor is unmatched, leaving readers both crying and laughing at its darkness. Critics typically either love or hate his work, and Reckless Eyeballing certainly has not elicited the best reaction from feminists, which is to be expected if one does not dig deeper and question why those attacked feel offended. The critics who have fallen into Reed’s trap of mistaking characters as his own mouthpiece are those who have not taken the time to dig deeper into the text to figure out the novel’s purpose. Third-wave feminism, concerned with intersectionality and addressing issues experienced by ‘multiply-marginalized’ groups, supposedly addressed the issues of white feminism prevailing in second-wave feminism, but we witnessed a development of ‘neo-white feminism’ disguised as progressive, according to some queer theorists, while still existing as the same white feminism of the 1980s. Some scholars argue that we are now in fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-wave feminism, but the feminism that Reed critiques is still very much alive and requires combative approaches to address it. Reed’s reimaginations of African-American identity, talents as a social critic and trickster, and his uniqueness situate him as one of the bravest and certainly most controversial African-American male authors since the 1960s. Reckless Eyeballing follows the daily escapades of an African-American playwright, Ian Ball, who tries to produce his second play titled Reckless Eyeballing, to recover from the critiques of his first play as sexist. In Manhattan, Ball grapples with the New York City theatre world largely controlled by white feminist producer Becky French, and the African-American female director of his new play, Tremonisha Smarts. Ball’s first director, Jim Minsk, a Jewish-American who is invited to give a talk at a supposed college in the South, is ritualistically murdered by white supremacists. Ball is emotionally and mentally torn between political views of the older generation of black male, anti-feminists and the new generation of white and black feminists. A major subplot of the novel focuses on attacks by the Flower Phantom, who ties up New York feminists and shaves their heads, leaving a chrysanthemum after each attack, claiming that those individuals deserve the same punishment as French women who sympathized with Nazis after World War II. Becky French largely ignores Ball’s play and, focuses instead on producing her own play titled Eva’s Honeymoon, which claims that Eva Braun and other German women were victims during the war when she kills Hitler and escapes with his chauffeur. Ball gives into French’s demands to move his new play to a less desirable venue and successfully stages his drama about an African-American male, Ham Hill, who was lynched for recklessly eyeballing a white woman, Cora Mae. His body is exhumed, put on trial, and found guilty of the false accusations. Two older generation African-American male playwrights, Jake Brashford and Randy Shanks, and critic Paul Shoboater criticize Ball’s play, as white feminists praise it. Ball returns to his mother’s house in New Oyo and reads a letter from Smarts, his director, who says that she’s headed to California, rejecting black feminism and the theatre in favor of a domestic life. At the end of the novel, Ball’s mother unpacks her son’s suitcase and finds a leather jacket, beret, black mask, and several different strands of hair, which situates Ball as the Flower Phantom. Reed masterfully creates characters in his novels who range from disgusting to knee-slapping funny. Like the characters in his other novels, characters in Reckless Eyeballing are likely influenced by real people. The Reckless Eyeballing characters convey “types” of people whom Reed has encountered and wishes to critique, praise, or serve in a minor role to help further the novel’s message. Critic Jeffrey Melnick reminds us in his essay to be careful in attaching real people to Reed’s fictionalized characters and suggests that the novel “flirts with being a roman à clef but never quite commits” (302). While it is true that attaching real figures to fictionalized characters is dangerous, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel is trying to figure out who Reed has in mind for each character. In this same vein, the flirtation that Melnick mentions is what has caused trouble with many critics and others to incorrectly view Reckless Eyeballing’s characters such as Ball, the Flower Phantom, Brashford, Shanks, Shoboater, and O’Reedy as mouthpieces for Reed’s personal beliefs. Even though the characters convey types, this should not trick the reader into assessing any of them as the author himself. For example, New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani falls into the novel’s “mouthpiece trap” and essentially criticizes Reed of blatant sexism and misogyny (164-66). Reed mentions Kakutani’s hypocrisy in a 1997 interview and how she gives credit to white men for black men’s inventions like jazz writing, the banjo, and rock and roll. He continues by saying that “she runs shows on black misogyny, but adored Phillip Roth who once said in Esquire “Fuck the feminists”” (Dick and Zemliansky 238). It seems that there are different criteria for white and black male misogyny, according to Reed, which begs the questions who makes the decisions, and why are there double standards? In fact, the character types are what illuminate the white feminists such as Becky French putting down black men. Arguably one of the most troublesome characters in the novel, Becky French, forces Ian Ball to constantly make changes to his newest play; she goes so far as to ruthlessly switch venues on him. Reed suggests that Becky French is somehow behind sending Jim Minsk to Mary Phegan “college” campus to be lynched, just to be able to change Ball’s director and have him create the play that she deems appropriate. When thinking of real figures who Becky French might be a stand-in for, Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem come to mind. Reed frequently references these two feminists who had a significant voice and presence in various forms of media during the time Reed was writing his novel. Readers of Reed’s novel must remember to not attack the individuals whom we think are being represented, but the ideas in of themselves. In terms of character types, Becky French is likely a blend of white feminists who have criticized Reed as well as the types of feminists who Reed critiques for using the media to bash African-Americans unjustly. Viewing Becky French as a blend rather than a stand-in is more fruitful and less dangerous in terms of resisting any traps Reed might set. Becky has aggressive opinions about male viewpoints, just as Brashford and Shanks have equally aggressive opinions about female viewpoints. However, Robert Fox argues that Becky’s play may be equating feminists with Nazis, which is counter-productive because all movements have some form of extremist politics, and feminism should not be so simply generalized (80). These character types help to elucidate and criticize extreme behavior and viewpoints that are dangerous and unproductive. Another major female character in the novel is African-American playwright Tremonisha Smarts, who many readers think represents Alice Walker. However, Tremonisha is most likely a blend of black feminists who Reed might argue had at the time given into the power of white feminists for the sake of financial security or some other motivation. Reed openly fights white feminism, but he agrees with most black feminists (Conversations 323). What he disagrees with is white feminists co-opting black feminists like Walker, whose ideas are not widely supported by many black feminists, and putting her as the figurehead of black feminism. For example, Gloria Steinem commented that The Color Purple “told the truth about black men” effectively generalizing an entire group of black males (Airing Dirty Laundry 56). No one blames Walker for writing imaginatively about her experiences, but one certainly can fight those who generalize and harm entire groups for the sake of gaining privilege. If nothing else, Smarts represents corruption and what happens if one sets aside his or her values in favor of popularity. In a letter to Ball, Smarts tells him that she wrote from her personal experience with a few terrible black men. But white women in the novel take her characters to represent ALL black men (Reckless Eyeballing 129-30). Scholars criticized Reed for having Smarts write that she plans to “get fat, have babies” because they believe her desires for a domestic life to be anti-feminist and misogynistic (130). When the line is taken out of context, it does sound harsh. But upon reading the entire letter, Tremonisha indicates that she is tired of white women keeping her down, and abusing her, and that all she wants is a simple, domestic life where she can return to her roots of writing about what she wants to write. When the letter is given more context, feminists who disagree with her choice are hypocritical because all types of feminist thought must support other lifestyle choices, including a ‘domestic’ one. Critics of the novel ignore that several lines above “get fat, have babies,” Tremonisha explains how no one equates violent white men and women to an entire racial group, but, according to Reed, they do make this criticism for black men and women. In the same vein that every character represents a type or particular viewpoint, the decision to set most of the action in Manhattan’s theatre world enhances the satirical quality of the novel and situates each short chapter as part of a larger play. Ian Ball frequently switches viewpoints, considering the narrator’s description of Ball’s feelings toward the Flower Phantom: his head condemns and his gut praises the Flower Phantom. Or, as Reed writes, “His head was Dr. Jekyll, but his gut was Mr. Hyde” (Reckless Eyeballing 51). Ian Ball’s desire to become a successful playwright forces him to decide between two diametrically opposed stances: those of an older generation of African-American males (Brashford and Shanks) and the new viewpoints of white and black feminists (French and Smarts). Ball spends much of his time with Shanks and Brashford, yet he silently ridicules them regardless of how much they have helped him or that Brashford is Ball’s “literary father” (107). No character in the novel escapes criticism. For example, Ball wants to successfully use the knowledge that he receives from Brashford but does not want to align himself with those “types” of African-American men. Ball’s first play, Suzanna, placed him on the feminists’ media sex-list, and now Ball wants his new play to convince feminists that he is not what he seems. Arguments and struggles aside, this is why Ball finally agrees to Becky and Tremonisha’s changes to his play. Furthermore, as soon as readers begin to believe that they understand Ian Ball’s character, we realize that we are being tricked by Ball’s questionable ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ state of mind. When Jim Minsk was alive, Ball criticized feminists and refused any alterations to his play. After Minsk’s murder, Ball decides to alter his play to Becky’s wishes and the changing of the venue, which Minsk never would have allowed. Arguably the only sympathetic character in Reckless Eyeballing is Jim Minsk. Early in the novel, Jim tells Becky that he will have Ball’s play “in the Mountbatten, and if you stand in my way I’ll break your neck” (Reckless Eyeballing 6). Becky has already decided that her play’s venue will be the Mountbatten. This tension and conflict between the two shows that Becky may be behind sending Jim to the “college” in Georgia, only to be ritualistically lynched. The elderly lady whom we meet early in the novel is the person who gives Becky the script for Eva’s Honeymoon (5). Later in the novel, we learn that the elderly woman’s chauffeur shares the same name with the character in the play – Otto. After Eva’s Honeymoon is performed, Ball eavesdrops on the lady and Otto’s conversation, in which she tells Otto, “I’ve always wanted the world to know. To know my side. What really happened” (102). Therefore, Reed suggests that the elderly woman is Eva Braun and not only connects white feminism with Nazi sympathy, but also gives another piece of evidence that shows how women may be involved in Minsk’s murder. An important indicator of Ball’s character is his general treatment of women. He is manipulative both professionally and sexually and will do almost anything to have the approval of feminists, including severing ties with male friends simply to have a successful play regardless of the costs to his social persona. On the other hand, the reader is invited into Ball’s many sexual fantasies, which effectively situate him as a womanizer. He will drunkenly sleep with any woman who gives him attention then cast her out at the first opportunity. Many of these sexual fantasies concern Becky and Tremonisha:
He thought of himself relaxing against a bedroom wall, a smile on his face, and arms supporting his head while she raised and lowered herself on his johnson, grunting and working hard as she tried to “earn” her orgasm, as Clarence Major would write. (Reckless Eyeballing 46)
These inner fantasies are contrasted with his open agreement for the feminists’ changes to his play. These fantasies are what some feminist critics latch onto, accusing Reed of using them to support “locker-room talk” and as demonstrating the novel’s poor representation of female characters. No character in the novel is without some type of flaw, however, flaws add humanity to Reed’s characters. Readers should not attack the author, but question the reasons behind his characters’ creations. It is not a stretch to say that many other male writers have similar experiences that influence their writing, so why criticize this author for writing what he deems realistic. At any rate, Ball’s fantasies should be seen as yet another example of his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality.
The key subplot of Reckless Eyeballing involves a figure referred to as the Flower Phantom, who hunts feminists that he believes have wronged black males. He ties them up and shaves their heads, similar to what the French did to female Nazi sympathizers. On the last page of the novel, we learn that Ian Ball has been the Flower Phantom all along. This is why scholar Daniel Punday refers to Ball and his alter ego as “two-headedness” (168). Ball’s split personality is shown through his struggle to side with either the older generation of black men or the rising radical feminists. In addition, Ball has split feelings about his alternative persona of the Flower Phantom in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ fashion. What is intriguing is the curse that the first wife of Ball’s father places on unborn Ian, which is revealed in the final chapter moments before we learn of Ball’s alternate identity. The wife cursed Ian to “be born a two-head, of two minds, the one not knowing what the other was up to” (Reckless Eyeballing 146). Ball’s origins are the town of New Oyo, which is set in the Caribbean. Reed’s study of other cultures is influenced by Zora Neal Hurston’s views in terms of a culture’s persistence to survive, thrive, and creatively adapt, especially in religion, dance, and music (Douglas 267). Perhaps through Ball’s dead father, Koffee, Reed suggests that white culture affects the black self, demonstrated by the mother’s repeated attempts to bring her son back to New Oyo as well as her descriptions of her late husband’s making her “tingle all over” during sex (145). Ball’s sexual treatment of woman is drunken sex, followed by having his partner cast out as soon as possible. Perhaps Ian gains some form of ‘power’ (physical, mental, or magical) when he transforms to the Phantom due to the two-headed curse or social factors in the theatre world affecting his mental state.
In the same vein of white culture affecting the black self, when Ball first arrives in New Oyo he immediately treats the natives poorly by insulting their lower socioeconomic status. His play has been successfully staged; thus, he is wholly assimilated into the white culture of the western theatre world. Ball tells the chauffeur in New Oyo, “Shut up, you black monkey” (Reed, Reckless Eyeballing 132). Ball demonstrates that he reinforces the socioeconomic differences between the New Oyo people who speak in creole and those like himself who speak in what the narrator calls “the mother tongue” (132). Also, Ball shows what happens when one severs ties to their roots, community, background, and heritage. Or, as Punday suggests, “generalizations develop from a loss of individual contact with the ethnic community and customs represented for Reed in ethnic literature” (170). In an unexpected twist, Ball’s mother, Martha, who has been gifted with precognition, treats the young generation of New Oyo just as badly as Ball treats the older generation. She calls her young servant a “black idiot” in the same language that Ball uses to insult the driver (Reckless Eyeballing 135). The narrator claims that Martha’s poor treatment of the younger generation stems from her disdain for them wanting to leave New Oyo for bigger cities, or to live overseas. All of the characters in the text take their viewpoints to the extreme, demonstrating what happens at the points of extreme. However, neither Ian nor Martha’s behavior is acceptable. Ian has lost contact with his roots, and Martha fails to recognize how her generation’s behavior has driven the younger generation to lose their roots. While Reed is a proponent for using multicultural literature to contact or regain one’s heritage, the consequences of the multitude of social and political actions cannot be ignored. Those actions are a likely factor in determining whether or not someone will have the desire to search for their roots.
My second aim in this essay analyzes the fictionalized events in the novel in connection with real events, which may have greatly influenced Reed’s fiction. Ball’s play Reckless Eyeballing refigures the Emmett Till/Carolyn Bryant case through Ham Hill/Cora Mae. What is eerie about this connection is that Reed’s writing was almost 20 years ahead of the reopening of the Till case. Just as the fictional character of Ham Hill is exhumed and put on trial, Till’s body was exhumed in 2005 for autopsy and to gather evidence for a reopening of the case. Moreover, in the novel Ball wants Cora Mae to admit to falsely accusing Hill, which Becky would not allow. In a 2008 interview made public in 2017, Carolyn Bryant admits to falsely accusing Till of whistling at her. On the other hand, Reed may be using the play as a response to Susan Brownmiller’s comments on the Till case in her 1975 work Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape in which she condemns Till (Melnick 301-02). Black feminists such as Angela Davis criticized Brownmiller for her work as being insensitive and ill-informed, and Ball’s play may also serve to attack Brownmiller as well. Reed comments on a feminist conference that he attended after publishing the novel in which presenters analyzed works of dead African-American male writers as being misogynistic. Or, as Reed puts it, “Like some kind of orgy of bashing” these writers (Conversations 354). He links this widespread practice as similar to digging up Ham Hill and having his misogynistic crimes read to his corpse. In either case, Reed exhibits some type of precognition in predicting events, even when their similarities are admittedly coincidental.
As much as the novel is a reaction to second-wave white feminism, Reckless Eyeballing is also interested in the discrimination and oppression that similarly happens between Jewish-Americans and African-Americans. Reed says that the novel “tried to address the absurdity of the Jewish-black feud” (Airing Dirty Laundry 41). He does not want to suggest that Jews and blacks are in the same boat, but he does suggest that New York intellectuals are wrong in trying to blame anti-Semitism solely on blacks. He believes that once this argument is understood, then there can be room for coalitional solidarity in certain movements that fight discrimination and oppression of minoritized groups. The first instance that illuminates the connection is how the Flower Phantom shaves Tremonisha’s head, just like the French Resistance did to female Nazi collaborators, but also accusing her of “blood libel” of black men (Reed, Reckless Eyeballing 4). Of course, blood libel is anti-Semitic thought -- that Jews used the blood of Christian children to perform rituals during holidays such as making communion during Passover, which was used to persecute numerous Jews from the early 12th century to today in one form or another. Reed advocates making oneself uncomfortable by moving out of the big city and living in another place to understand how people similar to sharing one’s ethnic identity live elsewhere, especially in rural environments. In “Is There a Black-Jewish Feud?”, Reed relates a story of a Jewish-American student who thought Minsk’s lynching was unrealistic, but then the student lived in the South for a few years and changed his mind. Reed’s point is that if one’s views are determined solely by experiences of living in “tolerant zones” like New York and California, then a disservice is made to those who attempt to thrive in rural areas not considered ‘tolerant’ (Airing Dirty Laundry 42). This notion challeneges the idea that urban is a haven and rural a place to avoid, but people seem to ignore the hate toward minoritized groups in large cities, whether the hate be from governmental policies, locals, or tourists.
The most obvious attempt at this connection is the bizarre, ritualistic, anti-Semitic lynching of Jim Minsk, which is a revisionist account of the real 1913 case of Leo Frank in Atlanta, Georgia. Frank was a Jewish-American who worked as a supervisor in a pencil factory and was accused of murdering a female worker named Mary Phagan. Most of his trial centered around suggestions of his sexuality and sexual behavior. For example, Frank was also accused of spying on females in the changing room in ‘reckless eyeballing’ fashion. Scholar Eugene Levy mentions that the case also entered into question whether or not Jewish-Americans ‘counted’ as white, black, or something else (Melnick 304). The case featured unprecedented testimony against Frank from an African-American male janitor in the factory named Jim Conley. Many thought that the two were involved in the death together, or that Jim was the actual murderer. Frank was convicted and two years later kidnapped and mob-lynched for Mary Phagan’s death. Most scholars today believe that Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted. Inserting this brief, tangential moment in the novel reminds readers of both the judicial similarities and differences among Jewish-Americans and African-Americans. However, this idea is not to suggest that the two should be seen ‘in the same boat’, as Reed suggests in the Truly Tasteless Joke in his epigraph --“What’s the American dream? A million blacks swimming back to Africa with a Jew under each arm” -- since the historical experiences are different. Before Minsk goes to Georgia, Ball tells him, “Brashford says that you’re not a white male, you’re Jewish” (Reed, Reckless Eyeballing 14). If nothing else, the characters treat Jewish-Americans who are giving into white supremacy assimilation just like African-American writers like Smarts and Ball giving into white feminists. Reckless Eyeballing has garnered criticism from feminists about its sexism and misogyny with the oftmentioned Tremonisha letter to Ian at the end of the novel, in which she denounces feminism and says that she’ll become a housewife. The feminism that Reed is opposed to, “white feminism”, is the type that views white women’s issues as the main objective while ignoring the many factors not only causing those issues, but the lives of non-white women. According to Reed, these feminists refuse to attack the issues within their own ethnic group, in favor of attacking men outside their ethnic enclave for their own agenda. The feminism in Reckless Eyeballing is one that benefits from keeping racism, sexism, and classism alive. Each serves the individual benefit of the white female figure upon a backdrop of the oppression of black and brown bodies. White feminism still exists within feminist studies and has evolved into a type of “neo-white feminism” that disguises itself as progressive, while hiding its racism and sexism deep into complex political policies, scholarly essays, and various news media. Reed has mentioned before that he has heard black women say the feminist movement “was interested only in issues like abortion and that it was not doing anything for women in poverty, white or black” (Conversations 345). Reed plays to feminist critics by giving them what they expect from black males, successfully eliciting the reactions being critiqued within the text. Punday argues that Reed “tricks his readers into reading the novel in a way meant to reveal their own cultural assumptions about the African-American tradition” (175). This notion makes sense because if a reader has such an initial reaction, does research, and learns that they have been tricked, then they may be more willing to address issues within their own ethnic group. If they decide not to dig deeper, then they simply become another hypocrite that Reed signifies on. In addition, Reed wants feminists to be willing to debate different viewpoints instead of jumping to label someone misogynist, especially dead black men like Richard Wright who cannot defend themselves (Another Day 19).
Reed uses Reckless Eyeballing to fight misogyny by overtly using it in Ian Ball to serve as a comparison to foil Tremonisha Smarts. This confusing concept may be the cause for feminist critics to label Reed misogynist. In the end of the novel, Smarts writes Ball a letter, mentioning of her decision to move from New York City in order to avoid white feminist control of her plays (128-29). On the other hand, Ball willingly gives up control of his play and now basks in the glory of his selling out. Whether or not Ball is conscious of his actions, he is the man who bends his works to the demands of feminists condemning black men, and profiting from it, while at the same time shaving their heads for producing works condemning black men. Patrick McGee says of the Ian Ball creation: “Reed paints a more unflattering portrait of the male African-American artist than can be found in any novel by a black feminist” (57). An important tool conceived after second-wave feminism is to question and attack the systems, institutions, and complexes which benefit from and perpetuate discrimination, oppression, and misogyny. The novel does not use this tool, but it does serve as an excellent starting point for discussion. However, discussion alone is not enough, evident by the constant reconfiguration of African-American identity and politics due to the rise of “neo-white feminism” and a growing popularity of “neo-white supremacy,” which McGee postulates as Reckless Eyeballing’s threatened political identity for black men even though he does not use the same terminology used here (70).
Reed relates a story in which a male friend accosted him about misogyny, to which Reed shot back, questioning what the friend was doing to help women of his own ethnic group (Airing Dirty Laundry 23). An important note is that Reed has openly stated that Reckless Eyeballing “got some of its best reviews from feminists” and that much of the writing is “based on feminist ideas” due to his study of feminism in which he “borrowed some of their ideas and characterizations” (Conversations 302). While his statement does not excuse criticism of his work, it offers a perspective that many readers do not know about or choose to ignore. Or, as Reed says, “You cannot learn about culture from one gender” (348).
One of the novel’s best examples that clearly defines white feminism comes when Brashford tells Ball what he thinks of his play Reckless Eyeballing. A major problem that largely was ignored during the 1980s feminism (and is still ignored today) was the racism among prominent white feminists. Many of these women were transphobic, racist, wanted to work within the existing status quo framework, focused solely on gaining more privilege for white women, and ignored the numerous contributions of women of color and transwomen of color. Brashford tells Ian:
Shit, a white woman was married to Robert E. Lee. There are white women in the Klan, and the Nazi party. I guess next you’re going to write a play praising white women in the Nazi party, claiming that they, the niggers, and the Jews are in the same boat. That all of them are victims. (Reckless Eyeballing 29)
Not only is Brashford’s humorous comment superb, but the fact that white feminist Becky French is producing a play situating Eva Braun as a victim adds the extra layer of humorous social commentary. There is a historicity of feminists and antifeminists alike that excuses the actions of white women who attended Klan lynchings or created propaganda for the Nazi party. These comments are mostly linked to men forcing women to do these acts against their will. However, a simple Google Images search of “lynching” turns up numerous graphic photographs featuring white crowds of men, women, and children laughing, smiling, and seemingly having a wonderful time. The white women in the crowds do not seem to be there against their will and if they are, they do not seem to be worried in the slightest. Reed gave a speech about female members of the 1920s Indiana Klan who shared views with some of today’s feminists, such as ending domestic abuse, but Reed points out that the connection here is the women’s “enmity toward black men” (Another Day 7-8). Ultimately, one’s actions cannot be excused simply due to the discrimination and oppression they face while there is a backdrop of oppression upon other marginalized groups, which benefits those with more privilege. On the other hand, some of the feminist criticism of Reckless Eyeballing does have merit because it makes equally valid arguments as those that praise the novel. Radical black feminist Michele Wallace published an article on the novel in The Village Voice in 1986. Wallace agrees with Reed’s views of white feminism in that black women are “the “Other” of the “Others”—and thus twice removed from power,” meaning that women of color have sound reasons for criticizing and distancing themselves from feminism, as in identifying with the womanist movement (185). Wallace views Ian Ball as a mouthpiece for Reed and that his views are excused, claiming the antifeminism views as part of the trickster tradition. In other words, Reed distances himself from his views by saying that once the reader believes the characters are genuine or are the author himself, then the reader has fallen into the trap and cannot be offended by the text. Wallace also believes that Reed is harsh on black feminists because he does not enjoy black women disrupting the status quo for black men, especially upwardly mobile black men who may believe that white feminists are making the intellectual decisions for black women (186). Following the logic of ‘attacking within one’s ethnic group’, Wallace believes that Reed willingly lashes out at black women, but “doesn’t relish the idea of black women making public judgments about black men” (184). On the other hand, Reed claims that the narrator of the novel “argues that black women writers aren’t responsible for white readers generalizing about black men on the basis of their portraits of individuals” (Another Day 29). Wallace is correct because everyone, regardless of their identity, can learn valuable information from people who have different experiences then use that information to teach people who share one’s same experiences. This type of self-education is necessary before being qualified to ‘attack within one’s ethnic group’. The reader who researches Reed simply must make the decision which viewpoint they believe to be more valid, because they are equally important and correct. The third and final aim of this essay is to briefly discuss the relevant aspects of Ishmael Reed’s writing style as it pertains to what Reckless Eyeballing conveys. As soon as the novel begins, Reed situates the story as an element of Western assimilation. The second page of the novel describes Ian Ball’s hotel studio:
A huge poster of Bugs Bunny…a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken…a quart bottle of Bombay Gin…on the floor lay a copy of Life’s World War II special issue, and a book about negritude poets…a Hagler vs. Hearns fight poster. An IBM typewriter…cover photos of Ronald Reagan laying a wreath at Bitburg…The Kronos Quartet playing Thelonius Monk…Sony 25-inch… (Reed 2)
This description of his living space shows how far Ball has assimilated into Western culture. This assimilation is juxtaposed with the next page, in which Ball’s mother, with precognition, scolds him for using “low-class vulgar Yankee talk” (Reed, Reckless Eyeballing 3). Tremonisha is another character who has assimilated into a culture of the white feminist theatre world. Reginald Martin tracks the Tremonisha character to someone with the same name to Scott Joplin’s opera, in which the character represented assimilation into American culture (106). When Reagan honored the S.S. at Bitburg, the media forgot it and never associated Irish-Americans with white supremacy, just as people can distance ‘white Christians’ from the Klan but label all Muslims terrorists. Even though the message of the novel is difficult to decipher, Reed’s humor is what makes his satirical social critique such a joy to read. In terms of deciphering the novel’s message, the text functions doubly as a ‘whodunit’ detective fiction novel (Melnick 300). In other words, throughout the novel we want to know who the Flower Phantom is, while at the same time witness episodic events that give the reader clues for the novel’s intent.
Just as Ian Ball is of two heads and two minds, a double, the satirical novel doubles as detective fiction in the whodunit style, which Reed has used before. The novel has a “double title,” meaning that the novel shares the title of Ball’s fictionalized play within the text. In addition, there is a double, surprise ending that the reader is left deciding whether or not to claim Ball as the Flower Phantom. In the vein of the whodunit style, there are two stories: one is of the crime, the other the investigation. The double narrative structure of the novel places both the story and plot of the whodunit style in the subplot of the overall satirical novel. A major theme of the whodunit style is that the characters do not act, but instead learn (Gates 228). O’Reedy accepts his son’s decision to study Irish-American literature and learn about his roots. He is still haunted by the visions of the men whom he has unjustly killed, but he seems to have accepted his fate, especially when the vision of the black jogger comes down from the ceiling when O’Reedy collapses at his retirement party and “O’Reedy lifted himself and touched the jogger’s outstretched finger with his” (Reed, Reckless Eyeballing 125). This final image of O’Reedy is undoubtedly connected to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, but O’Reedy is just like his son’s favorite author who is a “victim of change” (124). The ways of the older generation were created by their behaviors and values, but the newer generation challenges those values in favor of creating their own and even in some ways in favor of returning to their roots instead of continuing the work of their parents. Reckless Eyeballing (1986) is one of Ishmael Reed’s most successful novels because it demonstrates his skill at satire, humor, and social critique as well as being an important reactionary artifact or account of 1980s feminism from the perspective of an African-American male writer. Reed’s account is especially important because of the awkward transitioning from second-wave to third-wave feminism that occurred during the late 1980s and the growing emergence of radical black feminism. The novel is a call to change the practice of abuse in feminist circles toward radical feminists who want the movement to embrace intersectionality and challenge white female privilege. The feminist movement satirized in the text is the one that does not ask multiculturalists, radical intersectional feminists, and queer theorists for intellectual challenges in favor of dismissing and deflecting the challenges. Reed does have a personal stake in writing the novel, but it is one that is from his own experience. The personal experience of minoritized groups is what the feminist movement has notoriously neglected, and it is what Reed critiques. He has been labeled sexist and misogynist, but the evidence simply is incomplete. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. comments on personal experience another way: “Reed’s fictions argue that the so-called black experience cannot be thought of as a fluid content to be poured into received and static containers” (218). While some aspects of the novel may be deemed unnecessary after thirty years of digestion, Reckless Eyeballing’s message still resonates today, which is indicative of how much work is needed within the feminist movement. Reed is not one who likes being pigeonholed or given labels, but his writing on this topic situates him within some type of feminist thought. As mentioned before, he is quite familiar with radical feminist thought and the novel is certainly influenced by those ideas in one form or another. For all the above reflections, Reed is still a good read.
Dick, Bruce Allen, and Pavel Zemliansky. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
Douglas, Christopher. "Ishmael Reed and the Search for Survivals." A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2009. 260-85. Print.
Fox, Robert Elliot. "Ishmael Reed: Gathering the Limbs of Osiris." Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. 39-92. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "On "The Blackness of Blackness": Ishmael Reed and a Critique of the Sign." The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 217-38. Print.
Kakutani, Michiko. "Gallery of the Repellent." The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Ed. Bruce Allen Dick and Pavel Zemliansky. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 164-66. Print.
Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1988. Print.
McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Print.
Melnick, Jeffrey. ““What You Lookin’ At?” Ishmael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing.” Ed. Sollors, Werner and Maria Diedrich. The Black Columbiad : Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1994. 298-311. Harvard English studies: 19. Print.
Punday, Daniel. "Ishmael Reed's Rhetorical Turn: Uses of "Signifying" in Reckless Eyeballing." The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Ed. Bruce Allen Dick and Pavel Zemliansky. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 166-83. Print.
Reed, Ishmael. Airing Dirty Laundry. Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley, 1993. Print.
---. Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War. New York: Basic, 2003. Print.
---. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Ed. Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995. Print.
---. Reckless Eyeballing. 1986. Reprint. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2000. Print.
Wallace, Michele. "Female Troubles: Ishmael Reed's Tunnel Vision." The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Ed. Bruce Allen Dick and Pavel Zemliansky. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. 183-91. Print.