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 Jes Grew occurs during the 1920’s in Harlem. This is the period of the Harlem Renaissance, a great...
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 Art Detention.
One day, LaBas is in court facing charges that he allowed his “Newfoundland HooDoo dog 3 Cents” to defecate on the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Manhattan Atonists use charges like this, fire inspections, tax audits, censorship of writings, and other means to deter LaBas and Jes Grew.
Atonist Hinckle Von Vampton works in the copy room of the New York Sun, a Wallflower Order newspaper. One night, his landlady sees him performing secret rituals. At work, when he forgets to keep a headline in present tense, his boss thinks he is “losing his grip.” Later, Von Vampton is fired for printing the headline “Voo Doo Generals Surround Marines at Port-au-Prince,” violating the paper’s policy against mentioning U.S. military action in Haiti. Their reason is that “Americans will not tolerate wars that can’t be explained in simple terms of economics or the White man’s destiny.” Von Vampton is later seized at gunpoint and taken to Wallflower Order headquarters, which is buzzing with activity monitoring the Jes Grew epidemic.
The person in charge of the headquarters, Hierophant 1, explains to Von Vampton that the Wallflower Order needs The Text, the sacred Jes Grew writings. Von Vampton had divided The Text into fourteen parts and sent it to fourteen individual Jes Grew Carriers in Harlem. Only Von Vampton had the power to reassemble The Text, so the Wallflower Order agrees to let him control the project. First, he must burn The Text. Second, he must create the Talking Android that would infiltrate and undercut the Jes Grew movement. Von Vampton recruits Hubert “Safecracker” Gould to help run The Benign Monster, the magazine he will use to carry out the project.
Woodrow Wilson Jefferson, a young man who left rural Mississippi to begin a journalism...
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 from the Wallflower Order. The Wallflowers, under the leadership of Hinckle Von Vampton (after they kidnap him), seek to contain Jes Grew by sponsoring black poets, thereby limiting and defining what black literature is. To some extent, that happened in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920 s, though the motives may not have been so overt. Von Vampton is modeled after Carl Van Vechten, among others, who brought the Harlem poets into...