Never miss a post
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields
Correct invalid entries


Current Affairs

Ishmael Reed on Tokenism

Ishmael Reed<<<
On Tokens and Tokenism

From George Washington to Jill Biden, Black literature has long been plagued by ignorant white patrons, who arbitrarily anoint a few writers as symbols of the Black experience



JULY 07, 2021

Tokens are the bane of Black literature, and for that matter, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American literature. They are often selected arbitrarily as symbols by those who know little about Black literary traditions or literature in general, and their work overshadows the production of writers who might write as well or better.

From George Washington, who anointed the poet Phillis Wheatley back in the day, to Jill Biden, who gave Amanda Gorman the nod earlier this year, a powerful white patron can offer a Black writer huge sales and exposure. In return, these writers become the go-to sources about the Black experience for readers as well as academics who are spared the trouble of viewing Black writing as a tradition that extends at least to the 1700s. This includes Black writer-slaves who wrote in Arabic. Instead, we are limited to renaissances, each generation canceling the previous ones.

Both John A. Williams and John Oliver Killens, who wrote as well as any of the tokens, agreed that once a powerful white literary trend-maker or institution selects a token, segments of the Black cognoscenti line up to ratify the choice no matter their politics. Before the decline of the Black newspapers, those writers who were neglected by the outsiders, who control the patronage networks, could get some space. Langston Hughes, John A. Williams, and Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote for newspapers. Dunbar’s newspaper, The Dayton Tattler, was supported by his classmate Orville Wright. Black writers had influence over which of the younger writers would receive support.

Then came the ascendancy of critics who are housed in universities and paid by foundations. These critics decide which writers will receive grants that might provide them the time to complete creative projects. Critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. controls the patronage of at least three foundations. He often provides grants to his Harvard colleagues instead of awarding them to creative writers. Contrast this with the generosity that Richard Wright extended to a struggling James Baldwin. In 1948, Wright used his influence to provide Baldwin with a Eugene Saxton Memorial Trust fellowship from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

For my part, after the publication of my novel Reckless Eyeballing I was left as literary roadkill because I took aim at some of the dizziest ideas of bourgeois feminists, among them women who regarded Valerie Solanas as a hero, viewed male ejaculation as “an act of war,” or argued that Emmett Till, who allegedly whistled at a Southern white woman—who confessed on her deathbed that she lied—was just as guilty as his murderers. Luckily, I received a cash award from the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks that helped to sustain me, financially.

Who are some of the writers that have been neglected by these guardians of patronage more likely to extend grants to fellow professors than to struggling artists? One of today’s most important Black female writers is homeless. Fortunately, her classic novel is in the midst of a revival as a result of a boost from The Paris Review. She could use a grant.

So could Louise Merriweather. Ninety-five-year-old Merriweather had to raise $36,000 through GoFundMe for round-the-clock care after she contracted COVID-19. Her 1970 Harlem novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, was as good as any Harlem novel including Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. But those who curated Black culture at the time might have found some of her characterizations uncomfortable. For example, her novel reports that Harlem girls had to submit to fondling by lecherous shop owners in exchange for food (a practice that still goes on in my Oakland inner-city neighborhood, except the predators might be Muslim immigrants who have a traditional family in the suburbs and a “baby momma” in the ghetto.) Merriweather might have also been obscured because of her role in halting the film production of William Styron’s 1967 Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the Black hero was subjected to trendy pop psychoanalysis by the author—to which she took objection.

Mrs. Merriweather is a writer who doesn’t hold back. She could have used the backing of Karen Durbin, the white feminist former editor at The Village Voice who takes credit for Gates’ rise as a public intellectual. A Black writer who worked there told me that the white women who had editorial positions were always encouraging her to attack Black men.

Durbin and her ilk are part of a tradition of token creators that reaches back to George Washington. So flattered was Washington by Phillis Wheatley’s 1775 tribute to him that he offered to publish her poem, a panegyric to his achievements, but decided that it would be vain and instead sought to have the poem published by another publisher. Washington sold a slave for rum, raffled off slave children to pay his debts, and was a dedicated fugitive slave hunter. Maybe Ms. Wheatley was not aware of Washington’s treatment of slaves who lived in miserable conditions, according to a visitor to Mount Vernon as he worked to have her poem published. Regardless, Phillis Wheatley became the most famous Black person of her time, and the first Black American literary token. I’m sure that some other poets and storytellers of her time were just as good.

I often get into arguments with liberals, Black and white, when I direct them to writers who write as well as the tokens. They are invested in the belief that because they’ve read Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) they have Black literature covered. Very few of the tokens had as much support from powerful sources as did Baldwin, whose champions were the members of the New York literary elite—literary modernists like William Phillips of The Partisan Review, and Philip Rahv, who was responsible for Baldwin’s receiving a contract for Giovanni’s Room. One of the reasons that Phillips published Baldwin’s Everybody’s Protest Novel, a fierce critique of notable Black protest novels like Richard Wright’s Native Son (albeit with an ironic title, since protest also runs through Baldwin’s novels), was because Phillips regarded Wright as lacking patriotism.

Phillips was the chairman of a literary organization of which I was a member. Without having read their work, Phillips deemed two of my nominations to the board to be unqualified. They were the late Toni Cade Bambara and Leslie Marmon Silko, both of whom are now part of the canon. Silko was just elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

If the champions of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which promised to redeem white liberals instead of harming them, had read works other than The Fire Next Time, they would have discovered that by the time he wrote Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a roman à clef, in 1968, Baldwin had given up on redeeming liberals. In this novel, he gave his sponsors on the white left the finger in such a scathing manner that Mario Puzo was hired to do a hatchet job on the book in The New York Times Book Review on behalf of The Family, the New York literary establishment, which has been laying tokens on Black writers for over 100 years.

After that rebuke of those who brought him fame, according to Truman Capote, who was interviewed by Cecil Brown, and published in Quilt magazine by the late Al Young and me, the New York establishment then treated him like “shit.” Baldwin was replaced by Eldridge Cleaver, who, according to Ralph Ellison, another token with powerful white sponsors, was also “publicity sustained.” The same issue of Quilt carries a story by Mona Simpson, then a student. She is now the publisher of The Paris Review.

Presently, there are more Baldwin imitators than Elvis impersonators. Every token and his brother are writing letters to their nephews. But Baldwin was shrewd. He was writing to the “Chorus of Innocents” who was looking over his shoulder. His was a variation of the old indulgences game that was promoted by the Catholic church in the late Middle Ages. Buy my product and you’ll only have to spend one year in purgatory instead of two. Of course, the Baldwin cult neglects to mention the Black writers that he stepped on during his ascendancy.

The newest star creator is Jill Biden, who heard Amanda Gorman read poetry and chose her as an inaugural poet. Predictably, the Black cultural elite swooned all over this choice, and powerful whites with media power who know little about Black literature chimed in. A chorus of academics and intellectuals, who display their militancy at every opportunity, endorsed Ms. Gorman’s trite, platitudinous high school patriotism, the poetic equivalent of the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Chinese American poet Genny Lim was called a “racist” for pointing out the flaws in the poem.
 from Tablet (July 7, 2021)

September 04, 2021

August 25, 2021

August 23, 2021

August 21, 2021

July 30, 2021

July 19, 2021

July 13, 2021

July 10, 2021

April 03, 2021

April 01, 2021

March 20, 2021

November 03, 2020

October 17, 2020

October 08, 2020

September 17, 2020

August 28, 2020

August 27, 2020

August 26, 2020

August 25, 2020

Best American Poetry Web ad3
click image to order your copy
"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

Click image to order


A creative communications, branding, and resources consultancy founded by Victoria C. Rowan


Reach a Wide International Audience

Advertise on the Best American Poetry Blog


  • StatCounter