Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mumbo Jumbo is an experimental novel that blends fiction and history. In it, Jes Grew, an epidemic of ecstasy originating in New Orleans, is rapidly taking over the United States, making people dance, laugh, and love life. It can be the blues, jazz, ragtime, or slang and black vernacular. Jes Grew needs its Text to survive, and apparently the Text exists somewhere in Manhattan.
The novel takes place in 1920’s Harlem. PaPa LaBas’s search for the Text and the murderer of Abdul Hamid is linked to the ancient past of Egypt. Reed gives a revisionary interpretation of the rise of Western civilization, one based on an Afrocentric worldview. The conflicts in the novel revolve around a basic split in human consciousness. Osiris, the Egyptian god, created a sect of life-affirming principles that resulted in Jes Grew. Set, his brother, instigated an antilife sect determined to destroy the world—the Atonists. Osiris’s dances of fertility are recorded in The Book of Thoth, the original Text of Jes Grew. The lost Text was discovered in 1118 by the Knights Templar, a secret Christian society formed during the Crusades. Hinckle Von Vampton, an original member of the Knights Templar, steals the Text. In 1307, Pope Clement outlaws the Knights Templar, and Von Vampton escapes with the Text. Wherever Von Vampton goes with the Text, there are spontaneous outbreaks of Jes Grew as people sense the nearness of the sacred book.
The latest outbreak of...
(The entire section is 639 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
One night in 1920, the mayor of New Orleans is drinking bootlegged gin with his mistress when a messenger announces the outbreak of Jes Grew, a “psychic epidemic” causing African Americans to thrash in ecstasy and to lust for meaning in life. By the next morning, ten thousand people had contracted the disease, which is spreading rapidly across America.
PaPa LaBas, a conjure man who carries “Jes Grew in him like most other folk carry genes,” runs Jes Grew Kathedral and represents the old ways of Jes Grew, specializing in “Black astrology charts, herbs, potions, candles, talismans.” His former assistant, Berbelang, moved away from old ways and worked to expand Jes Grew to other non-Western peoples such as Native Americans, Asians, and Muslims, as well as to more people of African descent. Berbelang leads the Mu’tahfikah, a radical group of Jes Grew Carriers who loot Centers of Art Detention (museums) to return treasures to their native lands in Africa, South America, and Asia.
Attempting to halt Jes Grew, the Wallflower Order of the Atonist Path (Western culture) forms a two-step plan. Its first step is to install Warren Harding as anti-Jes Grew president of the United States; their next step is to implant a Talking Android within Jes Grew to sabotage the movement. Atonist Biff Musclewhite gives up his job as police commissioner and becomes a consultant to the Metropolitan Police to qualify for a higher paying job as Curator for...
(The entire section is 1349 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Reed’s characteristic use of fluid time, effective in other novels, is particularly apt in Mumbo Jumbo. The Harlem Renaissance, the setting of the novel, has striking parallels to the African American experience of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The fact that the 1920’s were called “the jazz age” indicates how much black culture was affecting the white majority. Mumbo Jumbo traces that influence; the rhythms, the dances, sometimes the words of ragtime and jazz songs came from rituals of the African vodun religion, transplanted to America by the slave trade. Reed documents those connections by footnotes and a partial bibliography at the end of the novel.
The novel is not a documentary, however. The quick-spreading influence of African culture in America is represented as an epidemic, “Jes Grew” (a phrase from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin referring to the character Topsy, whose origins were unknown). The Wallflower Order, a secret society dedicated to maintaining the power of white Western rationalism, seeks to stop the disease. Unlike other plagues, however, instead of harming the hosts, Jes Grew makes them feel better. Thus, the Wallflower Order shows itself to be an enemy of pleasure.
Yet Jes Grew has powerful friends as well as powerful enemies. PaPa LaBas, the HooDoo detective in Harlem, tracks down Jes Grew in order to find it a sacred text and to protect it...
(The entire section is 775 words.)