READING MUMBO JUMBO
Mumbo Jumbo is a novel about writing itself – not only in the figurative sense of the postmodern, elf-reflexive text but also in a literal sense It is both a book about texts and a book of texts, a composite narrative of subtexts, pretexts, posttexts, and narratives within narratives. It is both a definition of afro American culture and its deflation.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Author of The Signifying Monkey
Mumbo Jumbo is Ishmael Reed’s third novel and by many critics, it is considered as his best. The novel is about a large set of characters, and in the center there is a neo-hoodoo practicer, Papa LaBas. The book is in fact about the struggle between the Christian Ethics and Afro-American Aesthetics. The book’s story is based on this main idea, and it was presented as the struggle over the “Jes’ Grew” and the characters’ pursuit for key book to it: “The Book of Thoth”. As stated above by Gates, Mumbo Jumbo is a significant piece of art in the postmodern literature. With its style and themes, it carries all the important aspects of a postmodern book. If we are to understand why this book has an important place in the American literature we have to study this novel through these aspects: Its style, and more important, the all familiar themes which are taken up through a new vision successfully by Reed.
The first aspect that makes Mumbo Jumbo a postmodern novel is its style. First of all Mumbo Jumbo is an experimental novel that actually employs more textbook than novelistic conventions. It contains illustrations, footnotes, and a bibliography. In many pages you can find Reed jump from the main story to a radio reporter’s voice and back to the conversation again and places an anagram of the word SATAN in the page:
Even a poem is placed among the pages of the novel (Reed, 158-159). No one can say that Mumbo Jumbo carries the characteristics of a conventional novel style.
Another important sign of postmodernism in literature is the abandonment of strict time lines, sometimes called discontinuous time. Often an author will construct a sequence of events that have no time relationships to each other. In the novel, we see this discontinuous use of time in many places: At one point it talks about how WW (Woodrow Wilson) leaves his hometown and in another section Reed carries us to a bombing scene. But in one point this break in the timeline is very obvious when without any implication of a flashback or anything that warns you that is a reference to the past events, the scene changes and we are carried to the past. On page 44, we see the murder scene of Schlitz “The Sarge” who plans and carries out the bombing murder attempt of Buddy Jackson, days after the bombing which actually took part on page 23. But on page 45, we are introduced to the court scene of Papa LaBas, which would end at the bombing scene when LaBas drives to the bombing scene.
The Locomobile with the 2 men and dog occupants moves toward the vicinity of explosion. When they reach it they see people milling about. The fire trucks, police and cars are parked haphazardly about the street. (Reed, 49)
The narrative of the book is also significant as a part of its being a postmodernist novel. He does not focus on one single plot or a character and writes a straight story. From point to point voices of the characters jump into or out of the plot, as if they have their own will other than the narrator’s. One of the consequences of this kind of narration is the unmediated use of the dialogues. The dialogues are given without any markers. The reader has to figure out for him- or herself who “speaks,” who it is that one is reading (or “listening to”):
NEGRO VIEWPOINT WANTED
As soon as Woodrow Wilson enters the office of the Benign Monster holding the .sign, Hinckie Von Vampton starts licking his chops.
Yes young man, what can I do for you?
I came about the Negro Viewpoint job.
Yes, what is your experience?
I have read all the 487 articles written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and know them by heart.
The perfect candidate, Hinckie Von Vanpton decides. He doesn^t mind the shape of the idol: sexuality, economics, whatever, as long as it is limited to 1.
But don’t you want to hear about my contributions to the County Seed packages, my descriptions of the bulbs and the germs?
That’s enough. You’ve convinced me. (Reed, 76 )
All of Reed’s voices exist in the direct dialogue with the voice of the narrator, which is also another one among them. As a result, his style confuses reader about who was who. These are the unmarked voices of Black Herman, PaPa LaBas, the Black Muslim Abdul Hamid, and the narrator:
What do you think this Jes Grew is up to?
It’s up to its Text . . . . It must find its Speaking or strangle upon its own ineloquence.
I don’t quite agree with it, in fact I think it’s a lot of Bull.
Black Herman and PaPa LaBas direct their attention to the man standing against the wall. (Reed, 33-34)
The second and the more important and significant aspect that makes Mumbo Jumbo a postmodern novel is the themes and issues it is dealing with, more correctly, the way that these issues are taken on by Reed. As we have stated in the beginning Mumbo Jumbo is a struggle between the Christian Ethic and what Reed calls the Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic. The mediator for the struggle is a an “anti-plague” called “Jes Grew,” a “disease” that forces its “victims” to dance and let their inhibitions go. Through this story plot Reed takes on many themes that has been played on in the African-American literature but elaborates on them in a very different manner, deconstructing the long settled ideas about the hoodoo, identity, humor, race, etc. Reed puts in new points of view onto these subjects. But before examining these issues we should better try to explain what “Jes’ Grew” is and where the term comes from.”Jes Grew,” is the psychic epidemic of the 1920s which pursues its way from New Orleans to Chicago and from there to New York, is an “X” factor,” as neo-hoodoo “detective” Papa LaBas calls it. Although Reed takes the term Jes’ Grew from James Weldon Johnson (who wrote that “‘the earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew’ “, he traces it as far back as an ancient Egyptian dance craze that reappears in New Orleans in the 1890s.
Throughout the book the hoodoo, or better, the philosophy behind hoodoo is paid a lot of attention. This is significant, because in the postmodern aesthetics there is a turn to the hyper-realism. The practices that Papa La Bas carries out are related to magic and reading minds etc. The word Hoodoo came to America when the Voodoo of Haiti was imported into French Louisiana by planters and slaves that were escaping the Haitian revolution. When Voodoo was banned in New Orleans as “insurrectionary,” it went underground. It became Hoodoo when it came out of New Orleans into the southern black community and it became the term for a set of African magical and religious practices that had been practiced among slaves. For Reed, this is an important aspect, because he believes that there is a rise of the old African beliefs in America and this brings forward new understanding in culture and identity of the African-Americans:
African religion was suppressed, often brutally, in the United States, more so than anywhere in the African Diaspora. Despite the ridicule it received from Hollywood and an ignorant media, which still uses terms like “voodoo economics,” the Hoodoo people of the South were able to sustain the faith. Today, African Religion has reemerged in the United States stronger than ever, with followers, students and writers, who are influenced by this powerful force, no longer finding it necessary to camouflage the “Saints,” from the Santeria people in Miami, to the Ghedecelebrants in Brooklyn, to the upscale women in Berkeley who dance to Yemanja.
Reed calls this rise as Neohoodooism, which is, in many ways, a truly “black” art, but at the same time, it is a mixture with the culture of the New World, and that’s why it is also “something else.” Unlike those who argue for a black essentialism, Reed sees this hybridity as a virtue, rather than a defect or betrayal; Africa helped to make America; and, considering this mixture of many other cultural influences, it is also an experience of multiculturalism. But still, Reed favors keeping the African roots alive, in the voice of LaBas, implies that losing your African characteristics is losing your identity:
Evidence? Woman, I dream about it, I feel it, I use my two heads. My Knockings. Don’t you children have your Knockings, or have you New Negroes lost your other senses, the senses we came over with? (Reed, 26)
For him, over many years the Americans made the African Americans lose their own identity. They simply made a stereotype of the African American. They took them as a whole bunch of people and omitted the individual identities. Thus Reed takes the issue of identity along with the issue of ethnocentricity. He rejects all kind of ethnocentrisms. According to Reed ethnocentricity is a rigid subject. It limits the people from thinking freely:
But blacks in Mumbo Jumbo are frequently lampooned with the same jabbing invective as whites. Reed signifies on the ethnocentric tendencies of any group, because is another rigid form: an identity formulation which limits rather than liberates and which reduces rather than enriches. A real danger in ethnocentricity is its tendency to view all members of an ethnic group as homogeneous and to ignore differences among members of the group. (Jessee)
Mumbo Jumbo is a text which refuses all ethnocentric identities. In the novel, Reed draws our attention to such differences. Hinckle Von Vampton, a leader in the movement to vipe out “Jes Grew,” utters the fact that all African American writers don’t write in the same stereotyped manner, to which a young artist, “Major Young,” replies:
Nathan Brown happens to be a very accomplished poet and a friend of mine. Is it necessary for us to write the same way? I am not Wallace Thurman, Thurman is not Fauset and Fauset is not Claude McKay, McKay isn’t Horne. We all have our unique styles…. (Reed, 102)
Young’s words are significant in the novel in many ways. It despises the stereotyping of black artists by whites. It also comments on what Reed finds absurd; the critical tendency to enforce rigid standards on all African American writers, as if they must all be “social realists.” In the Reed’s eye also “Atonists,” in Mumbo Jumbo, who love order and the repression of natural instincts, are not exclusively white European. Black nationalists are also portrayed as being hypocritical and contradictory. In a 1974 interview Reed said, “Some of the people who call themselves nationalists and revolutionaries are your worst enemies because, in many ways, they’re sicker than the mainline critic who’s a superficial expert on blackness. You get those blacks who feel that just because you’re the same skin color . . . shit! Most of the time I’m cherry red. I’m beginning to see why black writers flee this country. Political and artistic forms of “social realism”, and single-visioned ideologies advanced in the name of Black American progress are criticized, too. For example, Abdul Hamid’s Black Nationalism and Woodrow Wilson Jefferson’s adherence to Marxism is significant in this sense. Abdul Hamid is a harsh racist and a woman beater and W.W. Jefferson is a stupid village boy whom doesn’t even know that Marks and Engels are already dead.
The word “lampooned” we have read in the quotation from Sharon A. Jesse above signifies another issue that has to be examined throughout the novel. The word here signifies the African sense of humor, for the fact that Reed accomplishes his criticisms through the use of satire in many places. Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo uses humor to critique Western concepts of self and identity. Reed’s humor is multiple sides. One face of the humor that is taken on in Mumbo Jumbo is the ethnic humor that runs throughout Mumbo Jumbo. Mahadev Apte in his Humor and Laughter says: “An Anthropological Approach, ethnic humor functions psychologically as the catharsis of some primordial emotions and the strengthening of others’ and functions sociologically to emphasize the relevance of boundaries between groups and to ensure survival of individual groups’ ” (Apte, 140-141). Indeed, Mumbo Jumbo humorously targets white males who cannot dance in the way of the “Jes’ Grew”: Financier Walter Mellon is secretly paying for dance lessons.
Reed always mocks with European Civilization. He uses a certain kind of play with words to mock with the American dream of Progress:
“What is this American fetish about highways?” Black Herman asks Papa LaBas. “They want to get somewhere,” La Bas replies. “Because something is after them,” Black Herman adds. “But what is after them?” says La Bas. “They are after themselves. They call it destiny. Progress. We call it haints. Haints of their victims rising from the soil of Africa, South America, Asia.” (Reed, 135)
But it is also important to be able to see that the humor in Mumbo Jumbo has some very serious objectives, too. This work re-educates its readers on many points of history, politics, art, and the sciences. The critical tradition surrounding the novel is varied in approaches. Nichols’ statement can make us understand the general critical field: Mumbo Jumbo “is a hilarious introduction to the deep imprint of the Afro-American imagination on American civilization,” and a satire which “also restores reason and faith” (Nichols 123-25).
Indeed Mumbo Jumbo takes on many serious issues, too. For example, it shows how history has been manipulated and revised by the white power structure. Reed spends a lot of time talking about the 1915 U.S. invasion of Haiti, and the efforts of the Atonists – Reed’s term for defenders of the Christian ethic – to suppress knowledge of the occupation. The men holding the power, ruling the state even ban a big newspaper from giving accurate information of the ongoing war in Haiti:
We tried to give you a chance, pops, but now you are through. We had orders from the Occupation Forces that no news of this war would be printed on the mainland. You give it a full banner headline. VooDoo Generals Surround Marines at Port-au-Prince. We warned you, pop, but now you’ve really done it. Your style was too fancy anyway. We like strong lively short verbs and present tenses and you can’t adapt to this American style, pops.
Another historical theme of the novel is that some well known blacks were used by whites to achieve whites’ hidden agenda. Many of the white characters attempt to manipulate black characters in order to stop Jes’ Grew. The white characters’ primary aim is to get their ideas imposed by having black authority figures speak to other blacks. The word “Talking Android” is used as one way whites speak “through” blacks in Mumbo Jumbo.
But as soon as he received the book he would burn it. And if that didn’t dissolve it the Talking Android would certainly remove its steam.
He has already interviewed 3 candidates for the position of Talking Android, the 2nd phase of the plan to stamp out Jes’ Grew. They had declined; explaining that as potential victims they did not feel that they would be immune to its drawing power. Well, there are 3 months left; surely someone will turn up. Hinckle’s disguise in Manhattan circles is that of Negrophile, patron-of-the-arts and of course controversial publisher of the Benign Monster magazine. (Reed, 78)
By using this theme, Reed not only exposes the white power structure, but condemns black leaders at the same time.
There is another theme in the novel that is pointed out by Reed. Reed compares the colorfulness of the African Culture to the Anglo-Christian view of life. To obtain this, he uses the motif “dance” as a metaphor. Dancing becomes the significant sign of the livelihood of the African life. The use of the dance metaphor in the novel becomes most clear when Reed clarifies the distinction between dancing/laughter and not-dancing/seriousness in the history of the foundations of Christianity: “No where,” we read in one of Reed’s expository texts, “is there an account of Christ laughing,” and “no where does Jesus Christ dance”(Reed, 171)
Dancing in the novel is a parallel metaphor for “Jes Grew”; and Reed resembles specific forms of dance to body laughter. The dances of the Roaring Twenties, like the dances for Osiris and Isis in ancient Egypt, are free, vibrant, and, most significantly, not “serious.” As with the “Jes’ Grew” metaphor, it is “shaking” and “hully-gullying” which takes its part in the pages of the text, not classical ballet or ballroom dance. The numerous textual citations from Meerloo’s The Dance are formal dance criticism:
Dance is the universal art, the common joy of expression. Those who cannot dance are imprisoned in their own ego and cannot live well with other people and the world. They have lost the tune of life. They only live in cold thinking. Their feelings are deeply repressed while they attach themselves forlornly to the earth. (Reed, 60)
No one can deny that Mumbo Jumbo is based on some kind of a detective, which places PaPa La Bas as the detective of the story. But in no means this is a classical detective story. La Bas never relies on scientific truths, rather he relies on his own “Knockings”, which are his hoodoo intuitions. And in the pursuit of The Book of Thoth he hardly achieves an achievement worth to celebrate. The Book of Thoth is destroyed at the end.
The colorful and diverse, sometimes adverse way of taking on the issues of Reed and his efforts to establish an identification through the difference, his deconstructive way and how he handles the issues in such manner has always been harshly criticized. But of course there are voices that speak in the favor of Reed. As Robert Elliot Fox states:
Using analogies from comedy and music, one could argue that Ishmael Reed is much closer to Richard Pryor and In Living Color than he is to Bill Cosby, more akin to George Clinton or Sun Ra than to Wynton Marsalis. Does this help us to place him within the black tradition? At the least, it forces us to relinquish any notion of “the” black tradition; there are, and always have been, several black traditions, sometimes conflicting, sometimes intersecting, but nonetheless coexistent. One of the reasons Reed’s reputation has suffered over the years is that he has steadfastly refused to toe any party line with regard to African American authenticity, aspiration, and achievement. (Fox)
We can say that we can clearly make our point that Mumbo Jumbo is a postmodernist novel, under the light of issues we have discussed above. In the manner of style, the postmodern characteristic of the book is unavoidable. The use of narrative technique, the use of the hyper-texts and anagrams and illustrations, and the establishment of plot through the lacking of a strict time line makes it very postmodern. What makes it also postmodern is the post-structuralist mode of handling the issues by Reed. His use of hyper reality through the theme of HooDooism mirrors the search of the postmodern aspect of trying to resolve problems in metaphysics, escaping from reality for the fact that there is no such thing called as the absolute reality. He searches the true African American identity through the difference unlike the classical binary oppositioning of Black and White. He succeeds to show us that there are black that are whiter than whites and there are whites as black as blacks. He also points out the unwritten history and shows how the people at power manipulated the course of history. He also deconstructs the roles of good and evil, Christianity vs. Heathendom. He shows us that being colorful is not so dangerous as the classical teachings taught us. He uses the postmodern theme that points out that there is beauty in difference. With all these aspects the novel Mumbo Jumbo is a unique work of art. And as it is a book that it was published at the rise of postmodernism, its effects on the other writers are undeniable. As put forward in his essay “Ishmael Reed: Fighting the Good Fight” by Lee Hubbard, the novel is non the less striking:
You have just been hit by Ishmael Reed, one of the most prolific black writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Part cultural detective, part bloodhound, part trickster, the Oakland resident’s 30-year career has been a roller coaster ride of both accolades and literary antagonisms.
1.Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. 1972. New York: Antheneum, 1988
2.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
3.Apte, Mahadev L. Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.
4.Ludwig, Sami. “Ishmael Reeds Inductive Narratology of Detection.” African American Review 32 (1998): 435-44. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2838/is_n3_v32/ai_21232164/pg_1
5.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs and the Racial Self. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
6.Jessee, Sharon A. “Laughter and identity in Ishmael Reed’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo.’ – Ethnic Humor” MELUS, Winter, 1996 by
7.Fox, Robert Elliot “About Ishmael Reed’s Life and Work”