Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum
Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum
Title of work: "Railroad
Bill, A Conjure Man"
by Ishmael Reed
In "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man," Ishmael Reed explores the changeable nature of a legendary figure. The poem, a non-traditional ballad, describes how Bill can change himself into different forms to escape entrapment: either entrapment in a specific time and place, or entrapment in a single identity.
"High John de Conquer" -- from Zora Neale Hurston's The Sanctified Church, a collection of essays on African American folklore, legend, and popular mythology -- is a literary interpretation of an African American folktale which celebrates a trickster figure. (Both Railroad Bill and High John are legendary characters who appear in numerous stories and poems.) In Hurston's work, as in Reed's poem, the trickster appears as a kind of spirit -- a "whisper" -- that inhabits a body and a community when the need arises. For Hurston, the trickster is the gleeful spirit of laughter and triumph, imported to African American culture directly from Africa. Through her celebration of High John and, in particular, of the way that High John's story brings hope and a spirit of rebellion to those in need, Hurston reflects on the revolutionary importance of folkloric tales and oral tradition.
When we went to school, we weren't taught about the lives of average people. I didn't read slave narratives until I graduated; I read them on my own. Didn't know such a thing existed where African Americans who were in bondage talked about their experiences. We were exposed to Jefferson and Lincoln, I mean our whole thing was a Mt. Rushmore type of education. And then in the 1960s, when the Black Consciousness Movement began, Black Cultural Revolution, which led to a multicultural revolution, which … the feminist revolution originates in the Civil Rights Movement. Then we began to study our origins and find that there were a lot of people, a lot of great people, who were produced by people who resembled us. And so Railroad Bill is one of these characters.
There are songs and ballads, poems about Railroad Bill before Reed writes his own. Sterling Brown is one of those people who precedes him. The question is why Reed gives us another Railroad Bill. He wants to take that legend and that figure and bring that figure into our present and into our prophesying the future. So that while the earlier forms, the songs and the Sterling Brown, were fairly consistent with traditional ballad structure, Reed goes on to play loose with, to jazz up, to improvise on, that structure, to pull the story then out of past into our present, into our future, so that you must always return to our traditional themes, our traditional characters, and re-adapt them for a new time, for a new place, for new aspirations. And one of the things that Reed likes about the whole African religious tradition is it is what he calls "syncretistic." It does not have an orthodoxy. It will take whatever comes over time and adjust itself to that. As opposed to resisting change, it absorbs change.
Q & A with William Cook
What is the historical relevance of "Railroad Bill"?
The whole legend of Railroad Bill is, of course, built on a historical character, Morris Slater. Reed goes back to the story of Railroad Bill in order to talk about the present, within which he is writing, and to use his words to prophesy the future … We need to constantly return to our cultural past in order to know the present, in order to know the future. Who was Morris Slater? How did Railroad Bill emerge?
Morris Slater was working in the piney woods of Alabama … the turpentine camps. And these men were in what was literally peonage -- they could not leave. You can't leave when you're in debt, and they were constantly in debt, as were sharecroppers farming. Bill is a figure -- at that time, he's Morris Slater -- who goes into town with his gun. The sheriff says, "You've got to give me your gun, you can't carry your gun here." Bill refuses to surrender the gun, and he outdraws the sheriff -- he kills the sheriff, and he then takes off for the piney woods, hiding in those woods. They sent a deputy after him. Bill outdraws and kills the deputy.
Then he adopts the name Railroad Bill while he's hiding in the piney woods. He becomes Railroad Bill because he breaks into boxcars, steals the contents of the boxcars, and sells them at very low prices to the poor blacks of the area. And so Morris Slater is now Railroad Bill. Needless to say, the [new] sheriff does come after him, and again he is killed. But Bill is trapped finally and shot to death at a crossroads country store. The funeral is huge. But the ballad, the song that grows up about his life and his exploits, begins to spread all throughout the South. And Bill physically dies, but he becomes "Bill, A Legend": He lives on forever. And Reed is trying to show us how much he is relevant to our present and future, not how interesting he is as a part of a past.
Where do you position Ishmael Reed within the African American literary tradition?
In reading "Railroad Bill," we need to be aware how much Ishmael Reed works within a major tradition in African American literature, and that tradition is a tradition which turns to music as the source for its references, not to other poetry. So Reed is following a tradition that has been clearly marked before him by Langston Hughes, in 1926, in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Hughes talks about the importance for poetry, the importance of jazz as a source.
There are movements, cultural movements, that are important to the study of literature, music, art -- and there are two that I think that are central to understanding what African American writers are attempting to do as artists.
One of the things [Hughes' essay] returns to is African-based music, literature … and religion as its sources. But we get a second major contribution, this one edited by Addison Gayle Jr., and its title is The Black Aesthetic. We sometimes refer to it as the "second renaissance," because it takes another direction.
What ties the two together is the presence in both of Langston Hughes: His 1926 essay is found in The Black Aesthetic because those artists see Hughes as, in the '20s, beginning the project; they are bringing it to flower. So their attitude toward language, toward subject matter, toward music, and certainly toward politics and religion is going to differ from that of the earlier group. And we need to pay some attention to these movements, because they will shape the way artists do and do not work, and it is no accident that we find Ishmael Reed in The Black Aesthetic.
What is the role of satire in Ishmael Reed's work?
Satire is at the very heart of most of Reed's writing, if we keep in mind that satire, at its most vicious, is very moral. Satire is a tool of the moralist who wants to fight immorality and wrong. Reed makes fun of the powers that be. He speaks from the position of the outsider, the marginalized. He brings into the center that culture which has been erased, ignored, or mocked, and he changes the joke. He reverses the mockery, and suddenly, we find the indignity of what had considered itself very dignified. He is, at heart, a satirist.
When you read "Railroad Bill," you notice in the very beginning of the poem [that] you are reading Reed telling you that Railroad Bill, the trickster, the bad man, is a shape changer. He takes many forms. We look, in the beginning of the poem, at forms he may have taken in the past, forms he's taken in the present. At the end, we see a form he takes in the future: He becomes that editor at the studio who is editing that film, erasing, or at least distorting, black history. And this editor gets in there and re-edits that film. He pulls what Reed calls a "demystification act." We take their history and distort it, change it, so that there's a space for our own.
Information about key references
African and African American Tricksters
African trickster figures are both folkloric and mythic. Mythic tricksters such as Esu-Elegbara facilitate communication between people and the Orishá (spirits). These mythic figures can also create problems. For example, if Esu-Elegbara is not appeased through proper ceremony, he can cause chaos by garbling communication. African American trickster figures, on the other hand, are most often folkloric and are generally concerned with maintaining community by subverting immoral social structures.
A traditional ballad consists of quatrains written with a standard rhyme scheme: ABCB. It can contain any number of quatrains, but it often repeats one of these stanzas (the chorus) throughout the poem. The ballad often carries with it a whiff of folklore; rhythmically and sonically, it can feel like a nursery rhyme.
Reed describes Hoodoo as the American practice of Voodoo, the traditional West African religion. Hoodoo relies on language and incantation to promote change and draw communities together.
The character of Railroad Bill is a mythic version of Morris Slater, a man who robbed the railroads in order to feed poor Blacks. Like the trickster figure of African folktales, Slater or Bill effects justice by doing morally questionable things.
The term "gris-gris" comes from the French gris, meaning gray; gris-gris is a blend of white and black magic. In particular, it refers to a small leather sack filled with herbs and natural matter that one wears around the neck to bring good luck or to keep away bad luck. But these days, it can also simply mean magic or "mojo."
Black Arts Movement
Suggestions for applying other theories to "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man"
Teaching "Railroad Bill, A Conjure Man" from a cultural studies perspective involves a variety of activities to get students reading intertextually and thinking critically. Teachers can also explore Reed's poem through a reader response approach. Using reader-response pedagogies will allow students to explore their personal feelings and their reactions to the text. For example, the teacher could read the poem with students using a think-aloud approach. In this activity, the teacher reads the poem aloud with students once, then has students read it aloud together in groups or in pairs, stopping at regular intervals to articulate what they are thinking about when they reach designated points in the text. Students can also write down their thoughts and then use the information for discussion in pairs, groups, or with the whole class. The idea is for students to read the poem and respond honestly and sincerely. Later, teachers can employ various activities to help students develop their personal responses for critical and creative thinking.
Students can also benefit by performing an inquiry into aspects of the poem that they find interesting or especially troubling. An inquiry can extend the reader's understanding of the content of the poem by allowing deeper exploration of ideas on a personal level. For example, Reed references specific names of people and places, historic events and activities in "Railroad Bill." Students can pick from these as they read and do preliminary research, form specific questions that will guide further research, and then report back to the class on what they have found about their chosen topic. Teachers should make a mental note when students ask about ideas, pronunciations, names, etc., in the poem during general discussion. In this way, when students need assistance coming up with ideas for their inquiry, the teacher can offer suggestions gathered from the students rather than handing out preconceived topics.
Students should feel free to apply the word "research" broadly, as inquiry is not limited to the traditional forms of library study. For example, a student might "read" a photograph or work of art related to the topic of inquiry and make notes on his or her speculations and growing understanding. Students can assemble archives and reflections from their inquiry in digital or paper portfolios. The teacher can assemble all of the material and make it available for the class to review to build a broad knowledge about the poem.
A critical exploration of Reed's poem will require students to see and understand the specific and the general political commentary Reed is offering for consideration. In this case, teachers can assign specific activities or allow ideas to be generated from the classroom. The end product should be an effort to address a current issue, related to Reed's poem, that somehow affects the students' lives. Reed's commentary on the media's portrayal of African American males and African Americans generally is one possible issue to consider. Students can record and analyze how various media portray African Americans or some other marginalized community, then decide as a class how to express their concern over the issue. For example, they might create a critical viewing guide for younger students, the PTA, or their school. Reed also takes up the issue of racial profiling in the poem. In this instance students might examine racial profiling within their school by interviewing students, parents, and administrators, and examining whatever public records exist on disciplinary actions taken at the school. Findings can be analyzed and reported in the school newspaper, to the PTA, to the school board, etc.
In all of these activities, traditional and progressive reading and writing activities should apply. Students should be required to produce or participate in some reading, writing, and speaking activities and assignments. However, these activities should be related to the literature and offer personal, investigative, and political elements.