Satirical techniques in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

Published 11 Oct 2017

The phrase Yellow Back refers to the culture of different fiction novels that created the myth of the Old West at the end of the nineteenth century. Although some people describe old west as just a state of mind, “one had to describe in one word the books that transformed not only series publishing but all publishing in the last half of the nineteenth century, it would be ‘yellow-back'”. (Harry Rusche). Radio is the culture that followed that era and after so many years, it became the TV culture; then cable TV; then MTV and now, the latest technology of cyberspace. Broke-down is a phrasal verb that means to stop functioning. However, in this paper, the terms are different in some ways. Radio “refers to the novel’s oral, discontinuous form”. (Carl Brucker). The term ‘broke-down’ means, “dismantling”. Thus, the title of the novel means, “dismantling of a genre done in an oral way like radio”. (Carl Brucker). “Yellow Back Radio” can also be read as symbolic of a media broadcasting traditional American values of capitalism and monotheism back in the 60’s. That is how author Ishmael Reed defines it.

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Before proceeding to this paper’s main theme, brief information on Reed is a must. Born 1938 in Tennessee, a state in the southern part of the USA, Ishmael Reed grew up in middle class neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York-the working class people. He attended the University of Buffalo. When Reed moved to New York City, he co-founded an underground newspaper called’ East Village Other’ in 1965. It achieved a national reputation. Also in 1965, he organized the American Festival of Negro Art. A novelist, poet, and essayist, a songwriter, television producer, publisher, magazine editor, playwright, and founder of the Before Columbus Foundation and There City Cinema, among his many hats, Reed has been a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. He now lives in Oakland, California. The purposes of this book review are, one: to find the political or social message in the text. Two: to see the larger `truth` being satirized. Three: the use of incongruity throughout the novel’s power relationships between the Loop Garoo Kid and Drag. And four: the writers view for and against the novel’s critical message. Above and beyond that, this novel will also define words like: satirical, incongruity, vodoun, hoodooism and houngan to name a few.

In the novel “Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down”, the study of it involves incongruity. In this novel, the term incongruity refers to the act of being inappropriate and unsuitable. For example, in the 60’s, America still has not embraced the concept of accepting black people as part of their citizens. It was a time of transition for politics and new beliefs. It was “incongruent” at that time in a positive way because Reed was thinking ahead of his time. He saw that one day there would not only be equality among races in the USA but also a peaceful transfer of power from one white leader into another black leader as the case of today that there are now people-of-color policing different states across America. In Reed’s time of writing this novel, there was already black cowboys way before his time. The old west was in fact, a history of two races-black and white people. According to history, “in 1513 thirty Africans with Balboa hacked their way through the lush vegetation of Panama and reached the Pacific. His men paused to build the first large European ships on the Pacific coast. Africans were with Ponce de Leon when he reached Florida…” (William Katz).

William Loren Katz stated that the explorers used Africans as interpreters in trading and exploratory ventures. This was first the idea of Portuguese conquistadors in the fifteenth century. Prince Henry actually ordered in 1435 that interpreters be used on all voyages to stabilize peace upon docking. Portuguese ships even brought Africans to Lisbon where they would be taught the language that could be used to interpret on subsequent voyages to Africa.

As for the novel, it is filled with religious conflict on every page one will leaf through. The main character of the story is The Loop Garoo Kid-an African-American cowboy and Neohoodoo Houngan. Loop Garoo struggles to combat his nemesis in the person of Drag. Drag Gibson is an influential landowner who believes in Judeo-Christian Values. The United States, in all over the world, is the only country that defines itself as such. Judeo Christian, by the way is, “a belief in the biblical sense of Israel, in God’s Ten Commandments and His biblical moral laws. It is a belief in universal, not relative, morality. It is a belief that America must answer morally to this God, not to the mortal, usually venal, governments of the world”. (Dennis Prager). This means, in layman’s terms, that it is a monotheistic religion that believes in God and corruption. In more words than usual, this novel by Ishmael Reed is more political than storytelling. Another character in the novel is Chief Showcase. Based on the story, he is the last surviving Native-American in the Yellow Back region. When Drag slaughtered all of Chief’s people, the latter began writing prose against the sovereign of Drag in the town. This signifies the changes in USA when the white people eradicated the Native American tribes. Countless battles have been fought to relocate the ‘Indians’ into reservation camps. The 3 major characters showed most of the satirical humor of Reed.

One, Drag killed a total of 7 wives in the entirety of the novel. This symbolizes failed marriages and divorce with failing amicable settlement on both parties. Two, the country’s government’s greed to take over lands that were once owned by capitalists is present in Chief Showcase’s character of flying between two sides-landowners and the country’s bureaucracy. The novel’s minor characters also displayed satiric humor. Moustache Sal is the nymphomaniac mail-order bride of Drag. She does not have any racial discrimination at all in her persona. She even consorted with Loop Garoo and Chief. This signifies adultery and the trend of WASP’s to order strangers from another country and marry them. Another character is Zozo Labrique. She is a Mambo. A Mambo is the female version of a Houngan. Killed by Drag’s men, she reappeared as Loa-a spirit that guided Loop Garoo when summoned. This type of ritual signifies the idea that in Voduan, we are capable of calling forth the spirits that can guide us. Another character that best typifies human folly in the history of America is Pope Innocent. The Pope was just a very minor detail in the novel but the fact that he was invited by Drag meant that it is an epitome of how the Catholic Church suppressed the weaker cultures.

The novel tells us how every now and then the Catholic Church will fight an insurgent small group. The next minor character is Reverend Boyd: the minister of a minor religion-Protestantism. This character satirizes the fact that church leaders have more skeletons in the closet than ordinary citizens. An example of this is the minister’s resorting to drinking. It was very subtle of Reed to only state the drinking problem. In today’s global news, leaders of religious sects have sex scandals already. The last minor character worth remembering in the novel is Field Marshall Theda Doompussy Blackwell. Upon reading the novel, one will have a vision that Blackwell is homosexual. Viewed as weak, and petulant, he is a symbol of the corrupt laws of the government in the early years of USA at the height of the Yellow back era. Poking fun at the image that men in uniform are often tough and rough, Reed made sure that this arm of the law is a non-conformist of the norms in his own right.

The hidden truth in this novel is not a one item-one sentence description. There is the Loop Garoo who fights for his own beliefs; there is Drag Gibson who is the bully representative of the upper white class; there is Chief who, like a turncoat, flies between the eagle and the dove. Racial conflict is very much paramount in the novel too. The focus of the novel was the conflict between Loop Garoo and Drag Gibson: ebony versus ivory. Religious conflict: Neohoodooism against Judeo-Christianity. In the end, when Drag died because of Yellow Back’s steel jawed hogs, it could well mean that the fatty foods of rich people with tender love for meat and heavy meals might kill them or it could mean another thing like broken promises of white leaders. In truth, the novel is one-sided it is old and was published back in the 60’s. Leaders today, whether black or white, have failed promises as well. This novel could be a symbol of post war America but it does not speak of the American people’s voice anymore than it used to do. The good: amazing description on symbolism; good choice of words; tremendous plot and uniquely named characters. The bad: quite outdated. This novel however, will always be a good read for satire and symbolism lovers.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down makes fun of the Americans’ eagerness to suspend civil rights in response to student protests of the Vietnam War. The novel is a talking novel because it has more dialogues than scenes and plots and is narrated by Loop Garoo-the post-war hero who brought new ideas and different concepts.

Works Cited

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