Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

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Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)


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(1969) is Ishmael Reed's second novel and the first to embody the themes and principles of neohoodooism, Reed's rubric for his African-originated but ultimately pan-cultural aesthetic practice.

Yellow Back Radio is a Western in a double sense, dealing with Wild West themes of lurid yellow-covered dime novels (cowboys, Indians, outlaws) and with Western civilization and its dominational tendencies (us versus them). One of the characters calls it a “horse opera, ” a colloquial expression for the popular genre of the Western, but also alluding here to Reed's creation of a “hoodoo” Western—hoodoo being the black American derivative of African traditional religious practices in which a state of possession may occur, occasioned by a “spirit ” mounting a devotee (its “horse ”). In Yellow Back Radio, in short, Reed exposes the “other ” character of the American West and of Western civilization by recasting their generic myths from a black, “magical ” perspective.

Analyzing the title can assist us in understanding Reed's purposes. “Yellow Back Radio ” represents the media and their broadcasts of “bad news ”—messages of monotheism, monopoly capitalism, and control— that Reed sees as destructive of Nature and a perversion of our fuller human potential. “Broke-Down ” indicates an explanation or deconstruction (what Reed would call a “reading ”) of Yellow Back Radio's functions and meaning, as well as referring to YBR's ultimate defeat by the book's hero, the Loop Garoo Kid—rebel angel, black cowboy, and writer of “circuses ”—and the forces of imagination and spiritual pluralism (Reed's “neohoodooism ”).

The debate in the novel between “neo—social realist ” Bo Shmo and the Loop Garoo Kid provides us with one of Reed's most succinct assertions of his aesthetic values (for which Loop is spokesperson and exemplar) and the manner in which these values differ from those of more restrictive “schools ” of art. For Reed, a novel can be anything it wants to be, and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is an excellent demonstration that Reed's novels typically want to be many things at once.

Reed's characters are not intended to be realistic; they are archetypes or stereotypes, embodying aspects of myth that need revamping or exorcising. Thus Loop Garoo, whose name, one of Reed's poems explains, means “change into, ” represents art as a free, transformative process and the artist as improviser, impresario of the imagination, while his principal adversaries, Drag Gibson and the Pope, epitomize monopolistic practices and rigid orthodoxy.

Neil Schmitz, in an essay on Reed's fiction in Twentieth Century Literature (Apr. 1974), judged Yellow Back Radio to exhibit a “simplistic ” focus and “diffused ” energy, although many readers found it to be a comic tour de force. But in apparent reference to some of the harsher assessments of his critics, Reed, in a famous self-interview published in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), asked himself if he was drunk or on dope when he wrote Yellow Back Radio, then “defended ” himself by stating that it was a “talking book ” based on old radio scripts. In fact, much of his style and many of his themes are drawn from folklore and American pop culture, and, to the degree that this has been misunderstood or unappreciated, Reed's fiction has been called cartoonish. But if a work like Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a cartoon, it is, in the tradition of Krazy Kat (creation of African American artist George Herriman), a cartoon with a brick in its hand, aimed at the head of the status quo.


Subjects: Literature.

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