They call him Ishmael.
And what else would Ishmael Reed's legion of friends and admirers call him in his own hometown? No stuffy "Mr. Reed" would do, despite his status as one of the nation's pre-eminent literary luminaries, for it was here that his towering talents were first nurtured decades ago.
A renowned novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, lyricist, and, yes, librettist, Reed charmed and dazzled the crowd assembled at the Langston Hughes Center, 25 High St., on Sunday to hear him read from his latest work, "New and Selected Poems."
The Buffalo Challenger and just buffalo literary center were also co-sponsors of the event.
"I hope you will fight to defend this institution, as we are in Oakland," Reed said in reference to the 30-year-old Langston Hughes Center. "We're having a big battle in Oakland where they're trying to take the black repertory theater from us."
Such cultural institutions are the lifeblood of a community but are in danger of extinction in so many places because of a lack of funding and the gentrification of some inner-city neighborhoods, he explained.
"African-Americans and Latinos can't compete with 'hi-tech-ers,' who are making so much money that they can pay 20 percent down . . . in cash. So there's ethnic cleansing, and ethnic cleansing not only is happening abroad, but it's happening here, too," Reed said.
Reed, who was recently the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and its $375,000 Genius Grant, also paid homage to those who were among his earliest influences as a youth growing up on Buffalo's Near East Side.
Among them were Jesse Nash, a Canisius College professor, and his wife, Hortense, who first fed Reed's fledgling literary ambitions when he was a fourth-grade student at School 75. It was Mrs. Nash, then a teacher at the school, who
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first took an interest in stimulating and cultivating his precocious intellect.
The University at Buffalo graduate later moved to New York City's Greenwich Village, where he was to meet and befriend such literary giants as novelist James Baldwin and the namesake of the Langston Hughes Center.
"I'm glad that you are recognizing Langston Hughes, who is now being recognized in his own country," he told the operators of the center.
Reed recalled a 1960 White House dinner to which Hughes had been invited, and that despite his stature as the pre-eminent black poet to come out of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was practically unknown to his hosts. It was left to foreign dignitary, who was the guest of honor at that dinner party, to apprise the host of who it was that was in their midsts, Reed said.
Reed, who is the author of 18 books of fiction, poetry and essays, including "Flight to Canada," "Mumbo Jumbo" and "Japanese by Spring," has twice been nominated for the National Book Award and once for the Pulitzer Prize. During a brief interview Sunday, after a lengthy book-signing at the Langston Hughes Center, Reed revealed that he had only once let fame go to his head.
"I had a period there where I was trying to be uptown, but that didn't work out. I got all this notoriety and a swelled head," he said.
"Luckily, my instincts were right, and I left New York. I could have been the No. 1 token in New York. There are people who fight for that, but it's always a patron or some other group that's promoting you, and you don't have any independence. You have to write and say what they want you to say. So when I went to California, I was pretty much independent," Reed added.
A lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley for the last 30 years, Reed said his next project will be to mount a production of a "Gospera" he has written in collaboration with composer Carmen Moore, called "Gethsemane Park." Reed said he would like to see the premiere of his gospel/opera hybrid take place in his hometown.