T.J. Boynton: On "I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra"

Taken at face value, the third-to-last line of Ishmael Reed's "I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra" can be radically misleading with regard to the role of Christianity both in the poem and in Reed's larger fictional project of the early 1970s. This line refers to the Egyptian God traditionally associated with chaos, Set, as the "imposter RAdio of Moses' bush," thereby invoking the story of the burning bush from Exodus and seemingly establishing an equation between the Jewish diaspora out of Egypt and the poem's more immediate concern, the diaspora of African peoples in slavery to North America. If read straightforwardly, Moses' bush appears to be a biblical precedent and model for the liberation of African-American peoples in the United States from slavery, segregation and discrimination. Throughout the poem, however, as well as in the volume of poems from which it comes, Conjure (1972), and in his novel of the same year, Mumbo Jumbo, Reed opposes in stark and insistent terms his project for African-American liberation and the historical and teleological project of Christianity, which he in fact envisions as an impediment to that liberation.

In "I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra" and elsewhere, Reed identifies Set not as the god of chaos-"Egyptologists," Reed warns us, are "untrustworth[y]" and "do not know their trips" (4-5)-but as the god of the rage for order, control and repression, the god who, in other words, along with his Christian descendents, the pontiffs of the Roman Catholic church, and their cohorts in the superpowerful government of the United States and its capitalist counterpart, institute slavery and other forms of domination in order to contain the dangerous, volatile and vital energies of non-white peoples, especially African-Americans. For Reed, African- Americans, Africans, Asians and American Indians embody life, while Anglo- or Euro-Americans embody death. Accordingly, Set is an "imposter RAdio," that is, a source of what seems to be liberation but is in fact the origin of puritanical shackles on human freedom. Set is the "party pooper" and "hater of dance," the "vampire outlaw" (55-6) who seeks to drain the lifeblood of non-whites like "Sonny Rollins," who with his "ritual beard" and a "hawk" behind his head, generates Jazz as a subversive rite of performative fecundity (10-12). Reed's work in the early seventies maintains an Egyptian myth of origins that symbolizes history as an agonistic exchange between whites and non-whites, death and life. Set himself broaches this fictional history by reviving the worship of Ra and by killing his brother Osiris, who like Persephone in Greek mythology is god both of death and of life, the god, that is, on whom the changing seasons depend and who is associated therefore with the earth, with agriculture and the sustenance of human life. Sonny Rollins's "longhorn," which while he plays is "winding/ its bells thru the Field of Reeds" (10-12), connects American Jazz and dance with Osiris's "fecundation generation," to use Reed's term from Mumbo Jumbo, here alluded to by the image of the overflowing, fertilizing waters of the Nile River.

To be "a cowboy in the boat of Ra" is to be like Osiris and Sonny Rollins and to work subversively against both Set and Ra-who is sometimes referred to as "Aton," as in Mumbo Jumbo-who channel their nihilistic power through the scorching, searing, bleaching rays of the sun-symbolized by the circle of line three-and, in more recent times, through Euro-America's manufactured equivalent of the sun, the atomic bomb. These solar agents dominate non-white peoples both through physical possession and through the appropriation of non-white art, like the "slick Germans" who "chipped on the run" the "Nefertiti" statue which Reed calls a "fake" (8-10). The statue is a fake not because it is a copy of the real statue but rather because Nefertiti was consort to Akhenaton, the pharaoh who revived the worship of Ra, and who like Moses fell victim to Set's trickery and imposture and was duped into heeding that "usurper of the Royal couch" belonging rightly to Osiris (53). Both this statue and the burning bush record Set's subversions and subornations, and both mark moments in a historical development which for Reed extends from "Atonism"-the worship of Ra, the sun, and death-through Roman Catholicism to the United States of the present day. One must read Mumbo Jumbo, where Reed lays out this vision of world history in full, in order to understand the role that Set and Reed's other references play within the poem.

The "boat of Ra" is indeed a slaveboat, but it is also Christian and Euro-American teleology, an imposition on history of a fixed and ordered form of development which attempts to repress and kill the vitality and fecundity of non-white peoples, of which the women who "arrive/ on the backs of goats and throw themselves on/ [the cowboy's] Bowie" are yet another agency (32-4). Reed's cowboy is "boning-up in/ the ol West" and "bid[ing his] time" after having weathered the successive phases of this teleology, from the murder of Osiris to the machinations of American slavery, and he waits for the day when he is strong enough to reemerge and "Set down Set," to "sunset Set" and restore Osiris to his rightful place of worship (50-52). "Lord of the lash" and branded as a slave by "sidewinder fools" who "bit [his] forehead like O," the cowboy has taken refuge in the desert of the western U.S. in order to nurse himself back to full strength. As things stand when the poem begins, his efforts are incomplete and he is not yet ready to stage his coup: his "mouth's shooting iron g[ets] the chamber jammed" when he tries to exert his power, poetry, and although he is "an alchemist in ringmanship" he remains a "sucker for the right cross," that is, susceptible to the maneuvers of Christian and Euro-American domination (20-26).

More recovery time will be necessary before the cowboy can mount revenge and revolution. His own African- American powers are in fact insufficient in themselves to this task, so he borrows Native American rites to augment them, commanding "Pope Joan" to bring him his "Buffalo horn of black powder," his "headdress of black feathers," his "bones of Ju-Ju snake" and "eyelids of red paints" (40- 47). In the "shadow" and out from under the sun, the cowboy at poem's end sets off to set down Set with his newly- syncretic powers, powers which combine the rites and practices of African-Americans with those of other peoples oppressed by white "Atonist" teleology throughout history. It is this multicultural combination, along with Reed's insistence on shapeshifting fictional and symbolic practices that do homage to Osiris, which has led critics to label him a "postmodernist." One can only understand the "postmodernism" of "i am a cowboy in the boat of Ra," Conjure and Mumbo Jumbo, when one has carefully reconstructed from all of these texts Reed's historicist mythology. Reed attempts in the early 1970s to contribute to what he sees as a subversive tradition of non-white art, a counter-tradition which, in resisting restrictions of form, genre and ideology, disrupts and disturbs the historical mastery and control of "Atonist" figures from Set all the way to John Calhoun, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, all of whose actions reveal a grand design for the material manifestation of death, a manifestation whose human costs are evident anywhen or anywhere non-whites have been enslaved, colonized, or merely bombed into oblivion.


Copyright © 2004 by T.J. Boynton


Title T.J. Boynton: On "I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author T.J. Boynton Criticism Target Ishmael Reed
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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