Ishmael Reed’s ‘Flight to Canada’ (11/15/76)

History, as Ishmael Reed offers it in his new novel, Flight to Canada (Random House, $6.95): It is many years after Appomatox, and in the great Virginia castle of his late master, Arthur Swille, the black poet Raven Quickskill ponders the life of Uncle Robin, formerly Swille’s quiet house slave. In the days before emancipation, Raven had run away to Canada, leaving rat poison in the master’s Old Crow (and possibly sneaking back just in time to shatter the bottle with a bullet as Swille was about to pour Abraham Lincoln a drink—Lincoln being down at Swille’s to borrow gold to keep the Union solvent). Uncle Robin, though, had stayed behind.

“Robin, what have you heard about this place up North, I think they call it Canada?” Swille says, eyeing Robin.
“Canada. I do admit I have heard about the place from time to time, Mr. Swille, but I loves it here so much that… that I would never think of leaving here… Most assuredly, Mr. Swille. this is my Canada. You’d better believe it.”

Uncle Robin never made a move—until, with the war over, he fixed Swille’s will and inherited his property: his homes, his lands, his whips, and his collection of Mandingo-style porno movies. Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted the rights to Uncle Robin’s surprising story (back in the ’50s, she had considered him as a model for Uncle Tom’s Cabin but thought better of it ). Uncle Robin insisted the story was Raven’s to write. After all, he was part of it. Raven muses over the war, that incredible event. “It affected us all, one way or the other.” Uncle Robin had seen all around it. How, though? From over Raven’s shoulder Ishmael Reed supplies a hint of an answer, disarming, ominous. “Uncle Robin knows his place,” he says. “His place is in the shadows.”

From the grave, Swille would understand that. A man who lived on the two gallons of slave mothers’ milk delivered to him every day by Uncle Robin, and a decadent cousin to the demonic Colonel Sutpen who cut a swath through Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Swille was a monster—but he was no fool. Even after the success of his conspiracy to murder Lincoln, Swille realized his fate might well be out of his hands. He had railed:

Nigger fever, Niggers do something to you. I’ve seen white people act strange under their influence. First, you dream about niggers, little niggers mostly; little niggers, sitting, eating watermelons, grinning at you. Then you start dreaming about big niggers. Big, big niggers. Big, big niggers walking all over you; then you got niggers all over you, then they got you. Now they got white men fighting over land taken away from Indians—Rappahannock, Chattanooga. It’s spooky. As long as they’re in this country, this country is under their spell.

With Swille dead, the future would seem to belong to his bondsmen, and it would belong to them, except that Swille, too, casts a spell. His slaves had cursed him and won, but Swille had cursed the land itself. With Swille’s property in his hands, Uncle Robin feels that curse:

“The devil’s country home. That’s what the South is. It’s where the devil goes to rest after he’s been about the world, wearying the hunted and the haunted. This is where he comes. The devil sits on the porch of his plantation, He’s dressed up like a gentleman and sitting on a white porch between some columns. All the tormented are out in the fields, picking cotton and tobacco and looking after his swine, who have human heads and scales on their pig legs and make pitiful cries when they are whipped.

“And the devil just grins, sitting there on his devil’s porch. Rocking. Rocking like the devil rocks. And that old wicked… overseer, with his blazing Simon Legree blue eyes, is whipping a malnutritioned woman for the devil’s entertainment. And the devil laughs his ungodly laugh… And there’s blood coming from [her] mouth. This is the devil’s vacation spot, where he personally takes care of all the reservations and arranges for the tour buses to reach various parts of Virginia Hell. Immoral is too polite a word. Devildom. Virginia is where the devil reigns. Can we save ‘Virginia?'”

From his place in the shadows, Uncle Robin had lived up to his master’s fears; his secret song, if he had one, would be “The Blue-Tail Fly,” sometimes called “Jimmy Crack Corn.” It describes a slave whose job it is to keep the flies off his master’s horse, and who one day simply lets the flies have their way. “The pony jump, he toss, he pitch/He threw my master in the ditch/ He died and the jury wondered why/The verdict was the blue-tail fly.”

But it wasn’t quite a slave song. When race is involved, the American muse rarely keeps to one side of the fence. “The Blue-Tail Fly” seems to have been written by a white abolitionist who based it on slave music. The tune was often performed by black face minstrels; it was a favorite of Lincoln’s. After the war, freedmen, who would not have dared to sing the song as slaves, took it back as their own.

In just such a way Flight to Canada and its hero, Uncle Robin, constitute Ishmael Reed’s bid to take back the story of Uncle Torn from Harriet Beecher Stowe—probably because Reed thinks it too valuable to leave to a white writer.
Flight to Canada
Reed is perhaps our most adventurous novelist, black or white. The untold role of blacks as creators of American culture—or as keepers of a secret culture which, at appropriate moments invades the mainstream—has been a dominant theme in his fiction, particularly in his great 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. Here, to start things off, Reed tells us that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a black man’s testament to begin with, based on the brief published autobiography of Josiah Henson—a former slave and founder of the Dawn settlement in Canada. Mrs. Stowe’s brother Edward, an abolitionist minister in Boston, had brought the two writers together; Mrs. Stowe liked to say that God had done the rest.

Reed ignores Mrs. Stowe’s plot (though, for what its worth, one of the two slaves who escapes with Raven is named Leechfield, and Mrs. Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut). What’s at stake is not a story line but crucial personalities of American whites and blacks—of Swille, Uncle Robin, Raven, and even Lincoln (to Reed, “Abe the Player,” as in cardsharp). A good part of the novel is taken up by Raven’s adventures on his way to sanctuary north of the border, but they aren’t nearly so compelling as Swine’s evildoings or Uncle Robin’s sleight-of-hand sub-versions.

Raven, on the run, is a bewildered man, unsure of his role in history or of his place in the half-world of fugitives, copperheads, slave-catchers, freebooters, abolitionist groupies, and Confederate spies. But there is something flat about this side of the story, as if the fact that Raven has cut his roots makes it impossible for Reed to focus either his sorrow or his wit. When Raven finally makes it to Canada, Reed surrenders the tale to an actual quote from a man who ferried escaped slaves from Buffalo to Ontario, whose description of what he saw when his passengers reached the other side is so shattering—“They seemed to be transformed; a new light shone in their eyes, their tongues were loosed, they laughed and cried, prayed and sang praises, fell upon the ground and kissed it, hugged and kissed each other, crying, ‘Bress deLord! Oh! I’se free before I die!'”—that it lifts a reader right out of the novel, almost trivializing Raven’s story, capsizing it.

Swille and Uncle Robin give the book its life, and Reed can shape them with a line when he wants to. “People don’t know when the Swilles came to Virginia, and the Swilles ain’t talkin’,” suggests as much about the diabolical nature of Swille’s hold on his possessions as a list of his perversions. Uncle Robin’s response to the torments of Cato, Swille’s white bondsman (“So loyal he volunteered for slavery… The slaves voted him All-Slavery”), brings us closer to the kind of image Reed wants to fix in our minds than any of Raven’s perils:

“And don’t get smart, either, just because Harriet Beecher Stowe came down and taped you. Ha! Ha! She didn’t even use your interview. Used Tom, over at the Legree plantation. What did she give you?”
“She just gave me a flat-out fee. I bought a pig, a dog, and a goose with it.”
“Ha! Ha! Eeeee. Ha! Ha!” Cato stands in the hall and slaps his head. “One of the best-sellers of all time and you only received pig money. You are stupid, just like they say, you black infidel.”
“Yessir, Mr. Cato.”
Cato, whistling, skips down the hall toward the kitchen.
Uncle Robin stares after him. A stare that could draw out the dust in a brick.

Flight to Canada can be crude (Reed’s misogyny is as rampant as ever—and as incomprehensible—at least to me); it can be outrageously funny (as in a hilarious confrontation between Swille’s declining wife and the apparition of her dead son, all of it stage-managed by Uncle Robin). But I am drawn more to the book’s darker side. Reed is no more merely tossing off words when he tells us Swille’s origins are unknown than is Uncle Robin when he speaks of the devil in his rocking chair. Reed calls Edgar Allen Poe “the principal biographer” of the Civil War and, while he sometimes only plays with the idea (Swille keeps the poet on retainer as an expert on torture), his rendering of Swille’s death provides a sense of absolute and pervasive morbidity not very different from that of The Fall of the House of Usher.

For all his odiousness, Swille has previously appeared more as a buffoon than anything else. But, fighting off death—which appears in the form of the ghost of his dead sister, with whose corpse he has been carrying on a deeply satisfying necrophiliac relationship—Swille’s evil, his refusal of all human limits, suddenly becomes real. It is a great moment in the novel—perhaps the best. It is certainly the scariest.

Reed shifts rough farce into precise nightmare; he sets off an eruption of the deepest feeling into a casual scene that was not built to hold it. He mixes artifacts of the present into the past (along with Mrs. Stowe’s tape recorder, Swille’s porno movies, and scores of other transpositions, Lincoln is shot on live TV). He ignores historical chronology; when it’s convenient, he gives his characters knowledge of the future. The result, finally, is a broadly, bitterly comic work, defined by just those qualities identified by Constance Rourke, the great scholar of early American popular culture, when she wrote of the entrance of slave culture into the mainstream of American humor—an event that took place in the 1840s and 1850s, in the form of minstrel songs and narratives performed by whites:

“The note of triumph, dominant in all early American humor, appeared in these reflected creations of the negro, but not as triumph over circumstance. Rather, this was an unreasonable headlong triumph, launching into the realm of the preposterous. It could be heard in the careless phrasing of the songs, in the swift pulsations of their rhythms. Yet defeat was also clear. Slavery was constantly imaged in brief phrases or in simple situations. Fragments of cryptic work-songs were heard—‘Sheep shell oats, ole Tucker she de corn.’ Echoes sounded of forbidden devil songs—‘Oh, I’se sorry I sold my soul to the debbil.’ Defeat was hinted in the occasional minor key and in the smothered sidelong satire. In American humor the sudden extreme of nonsense was new, and the tragic undertone is new.”

Uncle Robin triumphs over Swille and finds himself ruling over a land poisoned by crime; Raven keeps his soul, but Leechfield, his fellow fugitive, sinks to making sex movies with white abolitionists and, in the end, hires himself out to Northerners as a “Slave for a Day.” But, if the hint of defeat is almost never absent from Flight to Canada, it is that note of triumph—of revenge, of glee, of breaking loose—that stays with a reader. Uncle Robin and Raven are out to save Virginia, not to bury it.

Flight to Canada plays fast and loose with plot no less than history, and it has already caused a certain amount of confusion. One reviewer got Raven mixed up with Swille. Another placed “Emancipation City,” where Raven hides while awaiting the money that will get him to Canada, in Canada. More than one writer has called the novel “the rock version” of the Civil War, which is as close to being meaningless as any statement about the book could be. Though Reed’s four previous novels have yet to gain him a very wide readership, this time around critics are treating him more favorably than ever—even if they still have trouble taking, or identifying, his writing for what it is. They have been too quick to tell us that when Reed writes of magic spells hanging over the land, he is engaging in “metaphor” or “irony”—to tell us, in other words, that Reed is only kidding—or to pry acceptable messages from Reed’s work. One approving reviewer has claimed, rather muddily, that Reed’s interpolation of 20th-century objects into a 19th century setting means that, like the slaves, we are, all of us, enslaved by conventions and things. (So much for the terrors of real slavery.) “It isn’t simple fun,” the reviewer concluded, “backdrops for a minstrel show.”

But it seems to me this is exactly what it is. Flight to Canada does come at us like a minstrel show—with Mrs. Stowe’s tape recorder as a sight gag there to keep the story jumping, Reed derives much of his style, and his work much of its force, from popular culture—from ancient superstitions, back-country hexes, narrative folklore, and minstrelry—and there’s no need to elevate his work with spurious profundities. If we do, both Reed’s style and his force will elude us.

It was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after all, which, after the Civil War, became the most popular minstrel play. Reed notes early in Flight to Canada that black minstrel shows about Mrs. Stowe—and the money she made from Uncle Tom’s Cabin—were not uncommon. The minstrel plays and “theatricals,” put on all over the country by troupes of wandering actors, were written about everything from John Brown’s execution to local scandals and they were often written on the run. Travelers on the Mississippi told of seeing skits rehearsed at night on drifting flatboats; black preacher’s sermons, animal fables, songs, Shakespearean fragments, tall tales, racial satire, and patriotic legends were set forth in barns, clearings, and graveyards, sometimes by candlelight and sometimes even in the dark, by moonlight.

This was the common coin of American culture in the days of which Reed writes—an improvised art, a very special, slightly surreal version of the American language. Reed has caught its spirit: the rough, overplayed humor and absurd coincidences; the frantic blackout plots with actors trundling on and off the stage, with perhaps three performers covering a dozen roles; the one night theatricals stripped to action, interlocutor, and a final stirring speech guaranteed to bring down the house; heroes and villains, and the odd, ambiguous character playing from the shadows.

Constance Rourke’s judgment on the minstrels tells us a good deal about Reed’s achievement: “If they had failed to exhibit subtlety, fineness, balance, they created laughter and had served the ends of communication among a people unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation; they had produced a shadowy social coherence.”

And shadowy remains the word: We are still unacquainted and unshaped. If Reed’s ambitions in Mumbo Jumbo and Flight to Canada are to exorcise the demons in our history while rescuing or reinventing those parts of our history that have been forgotten or ignored, his work is just beginning. In America, black history and white history have long since intermingled; we, each of us, carry a mystery of connections inside ourselves. As I read Flight to Canada, listening, in the kind of moment I wish I could invent at will, to my six-year old daughter sing “The Blue-Tail Fly” (“Where did you learn that song?” I asked; “I just know it,” she said), it seemed to me that Reed had drawn those connections out, made them visible, rendered their mystery tangible, and, thus, had raised the possibility that one might yet solve it.

But that is only how it seemed. The mystery of what it means for a young white child to sing “The Blue-Tail Fly” is surely beyond the ability of the singer to comprehend; it might also be beyond the power of the song—or of Flight to Canada, the story the song orchestrates—to reveal.

Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care
Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care
Jimmy crack corn and I don’t care,
My master’s gone away.

The Village Voice, November 15, 1976


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