(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 639 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1349 words.)