Ishmael Reed is a major American poet, novelist, editor and publisher. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, worked as a reporter for a black newspaper, and since 1967 has lived in Berkeley/Oakland. For the last three decades he has worked tirelessly for a rainbow-colored American literature.
He and poet Al Young founded the influential magazine Yardbird, and then in 1976 he founded the Before Columbus Foundation, "a mutli-ethnic organizing dedicated to promoting a pan-cultural view of America." The Before Columbus Foundation gives annual American Book Awards to promote multi-ethnic American literature. He also served as general editor for HarperCollins's four-volume "Literary Mosaic Series" which further promoted multi-cultural American literature. Reed along with Gundar Strads and Shawn Wong also were editors of Before Columbus Poetry Anthology, an anthology of poets who received awards from the annual Americal Book Awards.
In his poem "I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra" Reed creates a black hero who fights through the centuries against opressors of blacks. The poet uses Egyptian mthology about the black God Ra/Horus who fights Set, the god of foreign opressors. In Eyptian myth the Sun God passes through the waters of the underworld in a boat each night so he can emerge in the morning without being extingished by the waters. Also, the Egyptians had to drive out the foreign opressors and their God Set in order to resture their true black Sun God. Reed combines Egyptian mythology with American Western outlaw stories and with African-American culture including boxing, jazz greats such as tenor saxaphonists Sonny Rollins etc. Reed also contests in his poem the "untrustworthiness of [white] Egyptologists" views about African dieties.
In the open stanza Reed uses one of of us puns in the "saloon of fools," play on "ship of fools" and "saloon" of the old west. The hero, the cowboy in the boat of Ra, is in the saloon of fools, and gets bit by a sidewinder, a rattlesnake, and rides out of town, but isn't recognized by ignorant Egyptologists who are, of course, fools and school marms with bad breath. The black hero moves back and forth between many centuries in the whole poem, from bedding down with the great Egyptian mother Goddess Isis to sticking up Wells-Fargo stagecoaches in the 19th century West, to becoming a great black boxer as well as jazz great in the 1950s America in stanzas 3 and 4.
Reed's poem has a plot: the Set, evil god of foreign opressors, has driven the black god hero out of town (both Egyptian temple and Western town), and the cowboy's face is one a wanted poster. He spends his time in exile "[b]oning-up in the ol West i bide my time" by shooting at tin cans and "write the motown long plays for the comeback of/Osiris." Motown was the black music company in the 1960s which produced some of the most wonderful black popular music. The black god hero is plotting the return of the true god of Egypt Osires.
This voice is exile tells us he is half-breed son of the stars but "I hold the souls of men in my pot/I do the dirty boogie with scorpions" as he dances with scorpions. He asks for his magic elements he needs before returning to combat evil Set who drove him out:
bring me my Buffalo horn of black powder
bring me my headdress of black feathers
bring me my bones of Ju-Ju snake
go get my eyelids of red paint
Had me my shadow
I'm going tonto town after Set.
Here Reed has the black God prepare himself with the Buffalo horn of gun powder from the West, the Ju-Ju snake from black folklore, the red paint of Native Americans before going into battle with Set. The poem ends with a war cry against Set as the cowboy promises "to Set down Set" in another wonderful pun. The poet calls Set the "usurper of the Royal couch/imposter RAdio of Moses' bush ... vampire outlaw of the milkway." The poem ends with a war cry against Set, calling him usurper God of Egypt, imposter taking over Moses' prophet's burning bush to vampire outlaw of the whole galaxy. The whole poem is a battle dance/song before the cowboy goes back into town to get the bad guy and right wrongs.
Reed in his poetry, his editing and his publishing has tried to replace the old opressive Gods with new more accurate vision of American life and literature.