Black History Month: “Flight to Canada”

Ishmael Reed’s 1976 novel Flight to Canada is many things: a slave narrative of escape (though it includes buses and planes), a satire, a comedy.

This is what the publisher says:

Brilliantly portrayed by a novelist with “a talent for hyperbole and downright yarning unequaled since Mark Twain”, (Saturday Review), this slave’s-eye view of the Civil War exposes America’s racial foibles of the past and present with uninhibited humor and panache.

Mixing history, fantasy, political reality, and comedy, Ishmael Reed spins the tale of three runaway slaves and the master determined to catch them. His on-target parody of fugitive slave narratives and other literary forms includes a hero who boards a jet bound for Canada; Abraham Lincoln waltzing through slave quarters to the tune of “Hello, Dolly”; and a plantation mistress entranced by TV’s “Beecher Hour”. Filled with insights into the political consciences (or lack thereof) of both blacks and whites, Flight to Canada confirms Reed’s status as “a great writer” (James Baldwin).

“A demonized Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that reinvents the particulars of slavery in America with comic rage”. — The New York Times Book Review

“Wears the mantle of Baldwin and Ellison like a high-powered Flip Wilson in drag…a terrifically funny book”. — Baltimore Sun

Here’s an excerpt from an interview:

RM: Addison Gayle, Jr., speaks critically about your perception of the relations between black men and women when he reviews “Flight to Canada” in relation to “Eva’s Man” by Gayl Jones. He writes: “Reed, of course, is an anomaly, and if much of his fiction, “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada”, proves anything, it is that black women have no monopoly on demons, real or imaginative. These two novels demonstrate that, like the ‘buyer’ in “Caracas,” like blacks in general, male and female, the web of folklore which has circumscribed much of our relations with each other from the days of slavery to the present time, have been impervious to the best efforts of conscientious men and women to tear it down. Thus, Reed’s central argument, as developed in both “Louisiana Red” and “Flight to Canada,” may be summed up thusly: since the days of slavery, collusion between black women and white men has existed in America. The major objective of this collusion has been the castrating of black males and the thwarting of manful rebellion.”

IR: Well, I think that anybody who reads that ought to go and read his autobiography, “The Wayward Child,” and pick up on some of his notions on black women and white women. As I said in a letter to “Nation” magazine recently, women in general make out better in my books than black men do in the works of black women and white women, feminist writers. And I gave the example of Gayl Jones’s “Eva’s Man”–not to mention “Corregidora”–in which black men are portrayed as brutes, apes, but also Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” in which the character Jude is burned alive by his mother, something I had heard of in black culture. And Alice Walker’s fascination with incest–which can always get you over, if you have the hint of incest. I mean, it got Ellison over; there are a lot of male critics who are interested in that, who are interested in black male sexual behavior–they’re fascinated. There was recently a review on Louis Harlan’s book on Booker T. Washington, by Malcolm Boyd–he used to be a hippie preacher or something; I don’t know what he’s doing now. And he spent a whole lot of the book–he spent the whole article on this story about Booker T. Washington being caned for knocking on a white woman’s door or something like that. Of all the things Booker T. Washington had done! This man was just fascinated with this. He spent three or four paragraphs talking just about that! So there’s an obvious fascination with incest and rape, and Alice Walker picks up on things like this. I tried to get my letter published in “Nation” magazine. I finally had to go to the American Civil Liberties Union here in northern California to get my reply published to what I considered to be a hatchet job done by Stanley Crouch. He had all the facts about my career and publishing activities wrong. They see Al Young and myself as leaders of some multicultural revolt threatening the things they’re doing–against their interests. But in “Nation” I wrote that the same charges that Alice Walker makes against black men were made about the Jews in Germany. I guess we don’t have a large organization like the Anti-Defamation League or a large pressure group or lobby–

RM: And remember it is a black criticizing another black, so others may not be interested.

IR: Well, when Hannah Arendt criticized the Jewish people for collaborating with the Nazis, saying that American Jews could have saved two-thirds of the victims if they had cared about them, there was a controversy. But when you look at the Pulitzer Prize committee, there’s a president from Dow Jones on it, and mostly white males–and on the American Book Awards, which we began out here, there’s still a dispute; we began the American Book Awards out here, and our American Book Awards are really more representative of what’s happening in American literature than theirs–but knowing these things, you can see the motivation behind some people making the black male into a pariah. I think that Addison Gayle hasn’t read my books carefully because he doesn’t consider that there are all kinds of women in my books; and although I may exaggerate, I mean use hyperbole, those people are real, they exist. And if you go out to the grass roots where I stay, I think those people will tell you that those characters exist.

The full interview is here.

Here’s a list of Reed links from the University at Buffalo.

Reed’s page.

Here’s a link to Reed’s online literary magazine Konch.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan


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