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Last Days of Louisiana Red


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Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)

Richard Wright (1908—1960)

Native Son

Houston A. Baker (b. 1943)

 

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The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) is Ishmael Reed's fourth novels. Set primarily in northern California in the early 1970s, it deals with the efforts of Papa LaBas, the hoodoo detective first introduced in Reed's previous novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), to combat the insidious influence of Louisiana Red, symbolizing forces of discord, especially within the black community, that keep people at one another's throats. It is a stress plague and therefore an antidote to Jes Grew, the epidemic of “boogie fever” depicted in Mumbo Jumbo. Other important characters are Ed Yellings, owner of Solid Gumbo Works, who has found a cure for cancer and is murdered by Louisiana Red in order to prevent him from finding a cure for heroin addiction; Ed's son Street, a thug who wraps himself in the mantle of Black Power; Street's sister Minnie, leader of the Moochers, a gang of opportunists posing as radicals; and two personae “borrowed” from Greek drama: chorus, a “characterless character” who bears a striking resemblance to Cab Calloway, and his perennial antagonist, Antigone (Minnie the Moocher's prototype), who constantly seeks to upstage if not silence him. Antigone, whose name means “born against,” represents unmitigated energies of opposition in the community—a somewhat ironic target, given that Reed himself has been accused of being excessively “anti"—and she also stands for a too intense womanism that, in Reed's view, unduly victimizes men.

Once again, Reed offers us a divergent interpretation of a classic, for in Sophocle's famous play, Antigone represents a morally superior position to the authoritarianism of Creon, who found it repugnant that a woman should get the better of a man. Reed also puts a negative spin on a canonical work of African American literature, Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), making the surly, loutish Street Yellings a 1970s version of Bigger Thomas, and having a white character named Max become possessed by the spirit of Bigger, who then causes him to kill. In this novel, Reed seems to be exposing the bad side of the Business (the workings of neohoodoo) that goes under the name of Louisiana Red (the heckler in the audience, too much red pepper in the gumbo, Frankie looking for Johnny with her .44).

Gerald Duff, in his essay on Reed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (vol. 2), notes that in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Papa LaBas—who often serves as Reed's spokesman—takes a “stringently patriarchal” position with regard to women, which, interestingly, resembles that of the black militants Reed is satirizing, and which they claimed to be sanctioned by traditional African values. This novel, indeed, is one piece of evidence cited by those wishing to indict Reed for misogynistic tendencies.

Houston A. Baker, Jr., who praised Mumbo Jumbo as an exemplary work of black consciousness, condemned Reed for his putdown of cultural nationalists in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, implying that he was destroying black American culture with his unrestrained satire. This typifies the antithetical nature of Reed's enterprise, which has as its only consistency a refusal to recognize any sacred cows.

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Subjects: Literature.


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