Ishmael Reed was born on February 22, 1938, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was raised in Buffalo, New York, and attended the University of New York at Buffalo from 1956 to 1959.
Reed is the author of several collections of poetry, including Why the Black Hole Sings the Blues: Poems 2007–2020 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2020); New and Collected Poems 1964–2007 (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007), which won the Gold Medal in Poetry at the California Book Awards; New and Collected Poems (Atheneum, 1988); Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963–1970 (University of Massachusetts Press, 1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize; and Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church (Paul Brennan, 1970).
Reed has also written numerous novels, including Juice! (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011); Mumbo Jumbo (Doubleday, 1972), which was nominated for a National Book Award; and The Free-Lance Pallbearers (Doubleday, 1967). Also a playwright and essayist, he has published a collection of his dramatic works, The Plays (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009), as well as several books of nonfiction, including The Complete Muhammed Ali (Baraka Books, 2015). He has edited a number of anthologies, including From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900–2002 (Da Capo Press, 2002).
Reed has founded and cofounded several small presses, journals, and organizations, including the Before Columbus Foundation, Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, PEN Oakland, Quilt magazine, and Yardbird Publishing Company.
According to the New York Times, “Among American writers, Ishmael Reed is probably the one whose sensibility is closest to jazz.” In fact, Reed is also well known for his contributions to the jazz and blues music scenes, both as a lyricist and a pianist. In 2012, he was named the first SF JAZZ Poet Laureate, and in 2008, he was honored as the Blues Songwriter of the Year by the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame. He has released numerous CDs of jazz and spoken word.
Reed received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998. His numerous other honors and awards include the first International Alberto Dubito Award, an American Civil Liberties Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Award, and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. In 2022, he received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
Until his retirement in 2005, Reed taught creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, for over thirty years. He lives in Oakland, California.