Raven Quickskill

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Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)

Charlie Parker (1920—1955) American saxophonist


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A poet and runaway slave, Raven Quicksill is the principal protagonist of Ishmael Reed's fifth novel, Flight to Canada (1976). He is an activist, aesthetician, and a master of the arts of resistance in the lineage of the tricksters celebrated in African American oral tradition.

Raven is a synonym for black, but the raven also figures significantly in various Native American myths—especially those of the Tlingit people of Alaska—underscoring Reed's concern with multiculturalism. Quickskill resembles a Native American name (like many African Americans, Reed has Native American ancestry) but it functions here to highlight the creativity and resilience of all oppressed or “marginal” peoples. Quickskill suggests speed and dexterity, quick-wittedness, the ability to improvise on the spot. Quick also means living; thus, Quickskill possesses life-skill: he knows how to stay alive and he knows how to live. In connection with speech or writing, quick also means sharp or caustic. Like Ishmael Reed, Raven Quickskill is a satirist whose words are weapons.

Raven also brings to mind Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem “The Raven,” especially since Flight to Canada contains many obvious allusions to Poe's work. While the “Nevermore!” of Poe's raven signals an end to being, Ishmael Reed's Raven says “nevermore” to slavery and all that is antilife; he is “free as a bird.” The appropriateness of bird imagery is reinforced by the fact that Yardbird, or simply Bird, was the nickname of saxophonist Charlie Parker, who is for Reed one of the prime exemplars of neohoodooism, his name for the aesthetic practices he champions and that Raven Quickskill personifies.

Robert Elliot Fox

Subjects: Literature.

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