A review of Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
Date: Wednesday, November 03 @ 20:23:25 UTC
Topic: Book Reviews
MUMBO JUMBO by Ishmael Reed
Even arch-whiteman literary pundit Harold Bloom included this book on his list of the ‘500 most significant books in the Western canon’ even though it exposes the rigidity and fear at the heart of ‘white civilization.’ I guess Bloom could not ignore Ishmael Reed’s wildly inventive use of the novelistic form.
Mumbo Jumbo is a non-fiction novel. When a novel includes a 104-item bibliography, you know we’re in new territory. Reed uses a series of fictional, non-fictional, and thinly-veiled real characters (Hinkle Von Vampton/ Carl Van Vechten) running around 1920’s Harlem to present an elegant and eloquent explanation for the magnetic allure of African culture as it crossed the ocean and birthed virtually every modern musical form. Of course there’s a whole lot more to the music than music: that music carries within it the germ of humankind’s most basic relationship to the essence of All That Is.
Duke Ellington writes in his libretto to “The Drum is a Woman:”
Rhythm came from Africa to America.
Do you know what it does to you?
Exactly what it’s supposed to do.
The narrative of Mumbo Jumbo concerns itself with the ‘Jes Grew plague’ that sweeps the nation, putting the roar into the ‘Roaring 20’s,’ that giddy time when all the buttoned-up conceptions of the staid pre-war Western World came undone all at once, with a soundtrack of Ragtime. When asked about the origins of the sudden explosion of Ragtime music and dance, an unnamed witness shrugged and said “It jes grew!”
“The Jes Grew epidemic was unlike physical plagues. Actually Jes Grew was an anti-plague. Some plagues caused the body to waste away; Jes Grew enlivened the host. Other plagues were accompanied by bad air (malaria). Jes Grew victims said that the air was as clear as they had ever seen it and that there was the aroma of roses and perfumes which had never before enticed their nostrils. Some plagues arise from decomposing animals, but Jes Grew is electric as life and is characterized by ebullience and ecstasy. Terrible plagues were due to the wrath of God; but Jes Grew is the delight of the gods.” (6)
Needless to say, this alarming outbreak had to be put down, and quick. The forces of decency and sobriety and ‘Western Civilization’ turn to the Knights Templar to lead the covert countercharge. PaPa LaBas, a Harlem Houngan Voodoo Priest and proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Cathedral, foils them at every step. The protracted occupationn of Haiti by the U.S. during this period also plays an important part in the story.
At the surface of the narrative is a fast-paced comic thriller. But at its center is a brilliant and mischievous retelling of the suppression of humankind’s seed spiritual tradition from Africa, and the irony that slavery brought that sleeping serpent across the ocean and awakened her in new and surprising ways.
Jes Grew, the black cultural impulse, is not about a certain form or forms, not about ragtime, jazz, or hiphop. These are just ‘loas,’ or a few of the myriad forms the essential energy of blackness can take. It is the increasing sum of its unfolding history, and the one most potent counterforce to the repression and suppression so central to ‘white civilization.’ The original human liberatory force, it is indeed infectious, as the white hip-hop kids from the suburbs now attest. Freedom of thought, of body, of language, of heart and spirit—Ishmael Reed demonstrates the universally redemptive nature of blackness, and manages to re-vision the African-American tradition, including its literature, in the process.
I couldn’t put Mumbo Jumbo down once I picked it up, and it had me laughing and dancing for days after. It’s the natural earth magic of that Jes Grew, you know.