Mumbo Jumbo – Ishmael Reed (1972)

Mumbo Jumbo is a 1972 novel by African-American author Ishmael Reed. Literary critic Harold Bloom cited the novel as one of the 500 most important books in the Western canon. Mumbo Jumbo has remained in print for 45 years, since its first edition, and has been published in French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and British editions, with a Chinese translation currently in production. Set in 1920s New York City, the novel depicts the elderly Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas and his companion Black Herman racing against the Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to monotheism and control, as they attempt to root out the cause of and deal with the ‘Jes Grew’ virus, a personification of ragtime, jazz, polytheism, and freedom. The Wallflower Order is said to work in concert with the Knights Templar Order to prevent people from dancing, to end the dance crazes spreading among black people. The virus is spread by certain black artists, referred to in the novel as ‘Jes Grew Carriers’ or ‘J.G.C.s.’ Historical, social, and political events mingle freely with fictional inventions. … Mumbo Jumbo draws freely on conspiracy theory, hoodoo, and voodoo traditions, as well as the Afrocentric theories of Garvey and the occult author Henri Gamache, especially Gamache’s theory that the Biblical prophet Moses was black. The book’s title is explained by a quote from the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary deriving the phrase from Mandingo mā-mā-gyo-mbō meaning a ‘magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away.’ The format and typography of Mumbo Jumbo are unique and make allusion to several typographic and stylistic conventions not normally associated with novels. The text begins and ends as if it were a movie script, with credits, a fade-in, and a freeze-frame followed by the publication and title pages which occur after chapter one. This is followed by a closing section that mimics a scholarly book on social history or folk magic by citing a lengthy bibliography. In addition, the tale is illustrated with drawings, photographs, and collages, some of which relate to the text, some of which look like illustrations from a social-studies book on African-American history, and some of which seem to be included as a cryptic protest against the Vietnam War. Mumbo Jumbo both depends on and fosters the disorientation of the reader. …”
W – Ishmael Reed
Guardian – Mumbo Jumbo: a dazzling classic finally gets the recognition it deserves
NY Times (1972)
‘Ishmael Reed’ Category

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