Places: Mumbo Jumbo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Harlem

*Harlem. Mumbo JumboDistrict of New York City at the north end of New York City’s Manhattan Island. Harlem has long been known as a center of African American culture, but at the time in which the novel is set, most of New York’s African American residents are living to the south in Lower Manhattan. However, Harlem’s black population is steadily increasing and white residents are moving out. Meanwhile, the influx of newcomers to New York is creating a rich cultural mix, one of the most outstanding manifestations of which is music. Clustered between Harlem’s 125th and 135th Streets and between Lennox and Seventh Avenues are clubs in which New Orleans Dixieland music is evolving into jazz.

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Louisiana’s largest city, in which the African musical heritage of the region’s former slaves has developed into what becomes known as Dixieland jazz, a uniquely American form based upon the melodic lines and tempos of African American funeral processions and parades. New Orleans is the principal setting of Mumbo Jumbo and an important venue throughout Ishmael Reed’s fiction, poetry, and essays. Reed is concerned with the African American tradition of the supernatural known as “HooDoo,” and New Orleans is its home. There, what appears to white people to be the devil’s work is in effect something else. There and elsewhere HooDoo steps aside a white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian tradition and looks to a different set of deities predating Christianity, extending back at least as far as the African god Osiris and the Atonists. With its wellsprings in New Orleans, HooDoo is a movement that recognizes that America is on a path that will turn it into a spiritual wasteland, and the movement means to turn that around.

*Washington, D.C

*Washington, D.C. As the capital of the United States of America, Washington is virtually synonymous with the federal government. The land on which it is built was initially ground held sacred by local Native Americans. Building the young nation’s capital was an undertaking of gargantuan proportions that needed cheap labor. One advantage of its location is that it was set between Maryland and Virginia–states with large numbers of slaves. Thus, Washington has at its historical heart the dominance of powerful white men over people of color. Reed picks up on this in Mumbo Jumbo, which associates the city with Reed’s version of the military-industrial complex and the Neo-Atonists, the Bokors. These forces can only remain in power if they can destroy the sacred text of HooDoo, thereby limiting its spread to the masses. The competition to control the sacred text drives the novel’s complex plot.

BibliographyByerman, Keith E. “Voodoo Aesthetics: History and Parody in the Novels of Ishmael Reed.” In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Focuses on Reed’s use of parody and reworking of history. Analyzes six novels and traces the development of a new aesthetic of African American sensibility that Reed calls Neo-HooDoo art.Carter, Steven R. “Ishmael Reed’s Neo-Hoodoo Detection.” In Dimensions of Detective Fiction, edited by Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1976. Reed’s parody of detective fiction leads readers from the mysteries within the text to the mysteries in life, to consider the culprits in history, to question the alleged truths of Western culture, and to discover distortions of reality in written history.Cooke, Michael G. “Tragic and Ironic Denials of Intimacy: Jean Toomer, James Baldwin, and Ishmael Reed.” In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Recognizes Mumbo Jumbo as a high-spirited satire but criticizes Reed for not developing the concept of the Jes Grew Text into something more positive for African Americans.Fox, Robert Elliot. “Ishmael Reed: Gathering the Limbs of Osiris.” In Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Fox studies in depth seven of Reed’s novels and finds that each work builds on the previous one.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “On ‘The Blackness of Blackness’: Ishmael Reed and a Critique of the Sign.” In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Recognizes Reed’s importance in the tradition of African American literature. Finds Mumbo Jumbo to be an elaboration on the detective novel and a postmodern text because of its use of intertextuality.Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Martin closely analyzes Reed’s evolving notion of Neo-HooDoo aesthetics and how it relates to black aesthetic critics such as Clarence Major, Houston Baker, Jr., Addison Gayle, Jr., and Amiri Baraka. Comes to the conclusion that Reed refuses to acknowledge any mode of criticism. Discusses Mumbo Jumbo as a satiric allegory that is in itself the Text that is searched for in the novel.Mason, Theodore O., Jr. “Performance, History, and Myth: The Problem of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.” Modern Fiction Studies 34, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 97-109. Reed’s use of fiction as performance in showing alternative histories/myths to the Judeo-Christian (Western) tradition is not calm; it is a violent struggle against dominant culture.Paravisini, Lizabeth. “Mumbo Jumbo and the Uses of Parody.” Obsidian II 1, nos. 1-2 (Spring/ Summer, 1986): 113-127. Explores how Mumbo Jumbo appropriates the narrative form of a detective novel but undermines Western culture’s obsession with rationality and order.Whitlow, Roger. “Ishmael Reed.” In Black American Literature: A Critical History. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1973. Covers the early work of Reed, including his poetry, and makes a strong argument for Reed’s inclusion in the absurdist literary tradition. Whitlow sees many connections to the style and satiric content of such American writers as Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and J. D. Salinger. Finds Reed’s work entertaining.
Categories: Places