Friday, October 21, 2011

Juice!: A Novel (2011)

Author: Ishmael Reed
Title Juice!: A Novel
Publisher: Dalkey Archive 
Price: $9.10 (Amazon)
LCC: PS3568.E365 J85 2011

In Bigger and Blacker, Chris Rock discusses what some have called "The Minority's Prayer." In the bit, Rock reenacts the experience of watching the local news. When Rock hears a reporter tell of a violent crime, Rock lowers his head and utters something along the lines, "Please, God don't let him be black. Lord, whatever he is don't let him be black . . . Puerto Rican? Hallelujah! He's Puerto Rican!" Admittedly, the joke loses something in print, but it helps explain Ishmael Reed's latest novel, Juice!

Juice! tells the story of Paul Blessings, a cartoonist who becomes obsessed with the O. J. Simpson trial. Blessings works for KCAK--a formerly left-wing, viewer-supported television station that has recently gone corporate and has become as a result, increasingly right-wing. Fed up with his station's anti-O. J. bias, Blessings does a series of O. J. cartoons that both defend the former football player and attack the media. Blessings encounters trouble when Princessa Bimbette, a conservative blonde anchorwoman in the mold of Fox News, complains that his latest pro-O. J. cartoon features Simpson sodomizing America. The image, featured on the cover, is meant to portray Simpson calling the shots of the American media, supplying them with the so-called "juice" to run. Censored from the airwaves, Blessing's work is banished to the station's new experimental blog.

While Reed's title identifies the work as a novel, the publisher's description on the back cover identifies the work as a "faction." This seems a more fitting appellation to me given the content of the work. Juice! tells us of Blessing's personal and professional travails, but the majority of the novel consists of Blessing's analysis of the media. For someone like myself, who is interested in exploring how postmodern fiction teaches media literacy to its readers, I could not have found a novel more apt for my research. Indeed, Reed himself has become a major critic of the media within the last decade. He has written two works of media criticism and has produced Konch Magazine, an on-line journal that publishes "those voices ignored by the American media." Juice! reveals that at its heart the saga of O. J. Simpson is simply a twentieth-century captivity narrative. As Reed informs readers, these types of narratives are as old as 1682. Captivity narratives tell of  white women raped (in all senses of the word) by Native American or African American men and are subsequently rescued and redeemed by virtuous white men. Often times there is a prurient interest in the story with the sexual desire of white readers displaced onto the offending racial other. O. J. Simpson thus becomes our nation's latest "vicious savage," Nichole Brown the picture of white womanhood, and Mark Fuhrman the white avenger. While the supposedly "all-black" jury failed to convict him, Reed tells us that the "lynch mob of the media" has done their best to hound and ruin O. J. Simpson.

Reed is spot on when he reads into the O. J. Simpson trial the structure of the captivity myth. However, the category of the "faction" produces some interpretive problems. When Blessings critiques the media is the reader to understand these views merely as the views of Blessings or do these views belong to Reed as well? Certainly, there are moments of self-reflexivity that would seem to call this into question. For instance, Blessings is often critical of what he might term the white feminist establishment. Reed has often been accused of harboring misogynist views and Juice! will no doubt raise similar accusations. Seeming to know this, Reed has a friend of Blessings stages a play that defames the Japanese princess Masako in protest of an article that Tsunehiko Kato wrote for MELUS that chastised Reed's view of women. Does this postmodern playfulness shield Reed from these allegations? Ultimately, readers will have to decide for themselves.

Fictional or not, many of Blessing's views correspond to Reed's earlier writing in Mixing It Up (2008) and Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (2010). In these works, Reed follows third wave feminists by accusing the Women's Liberation Movement of being riddled with white and middle class bias. For Reed, white (and usually Jewish) feminists attack black men like himself and O. J. Simpson for misogyny because as a class, African Americans have little financial power over the lives of white women. For some, the distinction between Reed's critique of the women's movement and women more generally will merely be academic.

More disturbingly however is that although Juice! critiques the collective guilt heaped on African Americans for the alleged actions of O. J. Simpson, Reed is just as likely as to partake in bestowing collective guilt himself. In an essay in Mixing It Up where Reed rightfully attacks the virulent racism of the Don Imus Show, Reed takes a moment to signal out Imus's sidekick Bernard McGuirk for his racist radio impersonations. Here, Reed points out McGuirk's Irish ancestry and the troubled history of Irish-Black relations:
McGuirk’s sexual obsession harkens back to the old Confederate fear of miscegenation. McGuirk is the son of Irish immigrants. It was an Irish immigrant named David Goodman Croly who, according to Harvard professor Werner Sollors, coined the term ‘miscegenation’ and perpetrated ‘the great miscegenation hoax of 1863.’ Croly was the author of a phony pamphlet that exposed a plan by Lincoln’s party to invade northern bedrooms with black women. Lincoln was forced to defend the party from the contrast. . . Contrast McGuirk’s reactionary bile with the views of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin Party. he told a U.C.-Berkeley audience about the renting of the alliance between the Irish and the blacks who worked on southern plantations by slave masters, who turned them against each other. When Gerry Adams visited the United States, he stopped off to see the late Rosa Parks to thank her for inspiring the Irish movement
What seems to motivate this passage, and others like it, is a sense of resentment. McGuirk and other Irish-Americans should know better than to disparage African Americans because the Irish themselves were thought of as less than white by more powerful white ethnic groups. Racial history in this interpretation would seem to demand that McGuirk and other white ethnics follow the example set by--of all people--the leader of Sinn Féin. However, the problem with McGuirk's racial caricatures is not that they are made by an Irishman, but that they are simply wrong on any scale of justice that tends to the universal and not the tribal. And so, Reed leaves us with the minority prayer. Please don't let Nicole Brown Simpson's killers be black and please don't let O. J. Simpson's critics be anything less than pure symbols of White Anglo Saxon Protestant Patriarchy.

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