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Ishmael Reed's Civil War Slavery Novel 'Flight To Canada'

by Frank White 6 years ago in history / literature / pop culture / politics
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In an era still filled with racial divide, Ishmael Reed's Civil War slavery novel, 'Flight To Canada' is a classic.

In an era where racial tensions have risen and the country seems more divided than it has been since the 1960's on issues of racial divide, immigration and the lost white middle class, Flight to Canada seems as relevant today as it did when first published. We are living in a world of a counter culture renaissance. Most importantly the biggest counter cultural issue of the early 21st century is the legalization of marijuana.

Legalization of marijuana first found itself as a part of the battle against racism. It should be no surprise that many of America's archaic drug laws have a common root in racism. The war on drugs is racist. Today's new generation of drug users are trapped in a sea of drug laws and enforcement bureaucracies which were designed not for medical, religious, or moral reasons, but to harass and persecute America's racial minorities—Asian, Latino and African Americans. Ironically, the oldest of the racist drug practices is tied, not to stopping drug use, but to promoting it.

Ishmael Reed's Civil War slavery novel, Flight To Canada is a classic look at the culture of slavery. It lends further insight into the roots of racial divides that are a part of a centuries old battle that has suppressed drug use due to inherent fear, insecurity and the hypocrisy of white America.

Reed is a ruff’n ready poet from the old ruff'n ready sixties. He’s been there. He's come back. He's going for the whole thing this time. “I’m a high roller,” Reed tells me. As such, he writes novels (this is his fifth) like some men testify. He tells you facts (Lee surrendered to Grant). He tells you fiction (Lee surrendered to Grant over the telephone). He tells you any damn thing he wants to tell you (Charm, the physicists say, is real.) But his major concern is to wow you into admitting, "Sly devil!"

Fact or Fiction?

Image via Baraka Books

Indeed, and I also admit that this style of narrative, which I hereby label mock'n mold history, at times disorients me. You can't tell the fact from the fiction (Did Jeff Davis surrender in drag?) You can't tell the fairy tale from the irony (Did Jeff Davis surrender in drag?). And, you can't tell the imagination from the footnote.

“It’s true! He did!” Reed says. Reed's are cartoon characters in a cartoon plot enduring cartoon fates while scoring cartoon points. You're supposed to chuckle at the infamy that was (and is) slavery. You're also supposed to take these cartoon situations deadly seriously.

But okay, Ishmael Reed does it so well that those Ragtime flacks who hyped E. L. Doctorow into seven figures and an imminent cinematic catastrophe never caught on that in Flight To Canada (and, more importantly, in the earlier Mumbo Jumbo), Reed's deft use and abuse of history in order to make the point that slavery is abolished but the problems it created are far from over, makes Ragtime sound exactly like what an ethnic rip-off of Scott Joplin's gris-gris should sound like-muzak.

Raven Quickskill, our hero and fugitive slave author of the poem Flight to Canada is on the run from his Massa Arthur Swille. Quickskill’s aim is to make it across the border to Canada, which he mistakenly believes is a heady place where he'll not only be free, but also differentiated from a bentwood rocker-it being true that in the Old South a slave was as inanimate as furniture. Quickskill is a slave with great education and greater angst, and it's fairly clear that Reed more than casually identifies with Quickskill's dilemmas.

Flight To Canada was responsible for getting Quickskill to Canada. His writing was his HooDoo. Others had their way of HooDoo, but his was his writing. It fascinated him, it possessed him, his typewriter was his drum he danced to.

A Distorted History

Image via Wikipedia

While Quickskill dances his way toward what shall be revealed to be no release in Canada, Massa Swille entertains the likes of Queen Victoria (whom he whips), and Edgar Allan Poe (whom he emulates by humping his own sister's corpse) in his Virginia castle wherein the mood is Camelot and the motive is 'Anglican Grand Design'. Abe Lincoln himself sneaks behind Rebel lines to hit Swile for a loan, as the Union can't pay its bills. There ensues an exhilarating, two chapter debate between sly Lincoln and sly Swille, who is so apolitically rich that he plays usurer to both sides. Swille's flag is gold, energy, and power. Swille (for whom Reed has great affection) tries to convince Lincoln to abandon his ideals and become something like the Marquis of Springfield. Lincoln Snorts and retorts enough so that Swille, springing for the loan, admits, "I like your style. You're really demanding, aren't you?” Lincoln, you see, is, in Reed's words, "a player, and that is very, very good.

The plot never really gets beyond these two set-ups, with Quickskill suffering Weltschmerz and Swille just plain insufferable, but then again, Flight To Canada is only 179 pages long. "If anything, I could've made it shorter", Reed said.

Reed's is a poet, not a melodramatist. He'd rather turn a phrase than plot an 800-page kiss-and-go-crazy tale. He’s got the stuff of the biggies (Heller, Vonnegut, Gaddis, Pynchon), but not the need.

Quickskill gets redeemed, and Swille gets damned. And Reed knows how to reach for the characters for a long book. Quaw Quaw Tralaralara, an indian princess with a Barnard education who can also fuck; Stray Leech field, another fugitive slave who makes domination porno movies with a Jewish name of Leer; and Uncle Robin, an Uncle Tom figure, who slowly poisons Swille with Coffee Mate.

Truth in Word Play

Image via Black Past

And Reed's got language that makes you want to sing along. In fact, Flight To Canada is always threatening to break out into song.

But Reed's got other things on his sly and devilish mind (which would get lost in the shuffle of an 800-page rip) like civilization:

"The difference between a savage and a civilized man is determined by who has the power. I'd like to bring the old cults back This Christian thing isn't going to work for us. It's for desert people Grey, arid, cold. It's a New Mexico religion. There’s not a cloud there. and when they do come, it looks like judgement."

and, particularly (Reed was born in Tennessee and lives in Berkeley), like the meaning of the South:

"Ezra Pound was right, 'A half savage country.' Raised by mammies, the South is dandyish, foppish, pimpish; its writers are Scott, Poe, Wilde, and Tennyson. An immoral land. The devil’s country home. That's what the South was back then. It was where the devil goes to rest after he's been about the world wearying the hunted and the haunted. The land of the hunted and the haunted."

Whatever he's was up to with mock’n mold history (and it might just be gonzo journalism), Reed's certainly wasn't looking backward for angles or angels. "Evil dogs us," he announces.

Reeds talking about redemption for all of us slaves: You know who you are. Reeds talking about American destiny.

Three slaves are on the run from the Swille plantation in Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reeds Civil War slavery novel. Among them, the most hotly pursued is Raven Quickskill, a poet who seeks freedom in Canada, and ultimately hopes to return and liberate others. But this particular Civil War–era landscape is littered with modern elements, from Xerox copiers to airplanes, and freely reimagines historic figures as sacred as Abraham Lincoln. A comedy flashing with insight, Flight to Canada poses serious questions about history and the complex ways that race relations in America are shaped by the past.

historyliteraturepop culturepolitics

About the author

Frank White

New Yorker in his forties. His counsel is sought by many, offered to few. Traveled the world in search of answers, but found more questions.

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