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Poet adds black voice to discourse on terror attacks

By Alisa Weinstein Special to the Daily Planet
Sunday October 07, 2001

Three thousand miles away from the smoldering ruins that were once the World Trade Center, and the talk of war and terrorism in Washington, DC, Bay Area poet, Ishmael Reed, reminded a rapt Berkeley audience on Thursday that even in a time of crisis, it is OK to laugh at political absurdity.  

Reed, this month’s featured poet at UC Berkeley’s lunchtime poetry series, read to the standing-room only crowd from his most recent collection, The Reed Reader, and shared an as yet unpublished piece, “America Unite,” written in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  

The poem lampooned media pundits, politicians, capitalists and flag waving, describing New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani as the “king of racial profilers” and poking fun at the constant renaming of the U.S. plan for military retaliation.  

“I thought it was an amazing poem,” said Zack Rogow, who organizes the monthly poetry series. “It’s a very tough thing to say at this time because there’s a lot of pressure to just kind of fall into line with what’s happening politically. I think that was a very brave and thoughtful poem.”  

Reed, who lives in Oakland and has taught in the English department at UC Berkeley for 20 years, was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and raised in Buffalo, New York. He has written novels, poetry, essays, plays and songs and is well-known for his commentary on racial politics in America. 

After the reading, as Reed sat in a blue armchair next to the podium, he explained that he wrote “America Unite” to add a black voice to the discourse that has followed the terrorist attacks, something he said has been missing. 

“The images we see of African Americans are nurturing, hugging people and singing. We’re sort of like the station break stuff after the serious conversation of the wealthy white men who got us into this situation in the first place.”  

The poetry reading delighted long-time fan Suzanne Morse, a visiting UC faculty member from Bal Harbor, Maine. “I’ve heard of him for years and years,” said Morse. “What I am impressed by is his ability to walk into any situation and be very frank to whoever is there and not just taking one position or side.”  

Reed’s other poems addressed the black experience in America, including one about an aging couple in his Oakland neighborhood who could not afford proper medical care, and another about the closing of bank branches that serve black neighborhoods. He said that government moves to tighten security and expand surveillance in the wake of the terrorist attacks may be the first inkling most Americans have of what it is like to be black in the United States.  

“(Blacks) have a different point of view,” said Reed. “Somebody from the Chicago Tribune called me up and asked me if I thought there would be a tightening on civil liberties. I said, well, you know, we’ve been living in a police state for 300 years, it’s nothing new for us, so get used to it.”