Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639
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...
(The entire section contains 1988 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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 flowering of African American arts and culture. The action of the novel is played out against historical events such as the U.S. Marine invasion and occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and the politics of Warren Harding.
Von Vampton is an editor of the New York Sun and disperses the Text in installments to African Americans in Harlem. He makes a deal with the Atonists that he will turn over the text if they make the Knights Templar the leading eradicators of Jes Grew. The Text ends up in Abdul Hamid’s hands. Von Vampton tries to get it back. When Abdul resists, he is killed.
PaPa LaBas discovers Abdul’s body, his hand wrapped around a clue to the whereabouts of the Text. As a metaphysical detective, LaBas is intrigued by the philosophical implications the Text has for liberating African Americans. Concerned with protecting the ancient mysteries of Haitian hoodoo, LaBas is undergoing a crisis brought about by the defection of his assistants. He also has argued with Abdul Hamid, who urged a more pragmatic and stricter approach to African American organization and behavior.
Berbelang is a former assistant of LaBas. He and his gang of art snatchers, the Mu’tafikah, kidnap Biff Musclewhite, the former police commissioner. Musclewhite escapes and kills Berbelang, but the Mu’tafikah recover important pieces of ethnic art and deliver them to Benoit Battraville’s ship. Battraville is a Haitian rebel fighting for freedom in the line of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who gained independence for Haiti.
LaBas and Black Herman arrest Von Vampton for the killing of Abdul. They also arrest Gould, another Knight Templar, who is in blackface acting as a talking black android urging African Americans to resist Jes Grew. They deliver the two for punishment to Battraville on his ship. Jes Grew begins to die out. LaBas and Black Herman dig up an ornate box, in which Abdul hid the Text, from under the Cotton Club. The Text is gone, and in a letter Abdul explains that he burned the Text because it would be a bad influence on African Americans.
In an epilogue, LaBas lectures students at a university in the 1960’s. He predicts continued conflict between the Atonists and Jes Grew, a conflict in which Jes Grew will eventually triumph.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1349
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 career in New York City, is laughed out of the New York Tribune because of his ragged, rural appearance and because he wants to meet Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Later, Jefferson sees a sign outside the offices of The Benign Monster, stating, “Negro viewpoint wanted.” Von Vampton hires Jefferson and gives him an office in his estate, Spiraling Agony. Jefferson is like putty waiting to be formed and would have made a perfect Talking Android, except Von Vampton thinks his skin is too dark. The Talking Android has to be black, but Von Vampton believes people will not accept anyone too dark.
Von Vampton learns that Abdul Hamid has acquired and is trying to publish The Text. Von Vampton, Gould, and Jefferson go to Abdul’s office and offer to buy it, but Abdul refuses to sell. When Gould pulls out a gun and demands to see the safe, Abdul resists, so Von Vampton stabs him in the back. Gould opens the safe but finds it empty. The Sun headline distorts the incident by suggesting that Mu’tahfikah is responsible for Abdul’s death.
Charlotte, a young French translator at the Kathedral, quits her job to perform Neo HooDoo dances at the Plantation House cabaret, despite LaBas’s warning against using The Work for profit. She also entertains customers outside the club.
The Mu’tahfikah—Berbelang, Yellow Jack, Thor Wintergreen, and José Fuentes (whom La Bas had met during an art history class in college)—plan to recover some cultural artifacts. Biff Musclewhite is in Charlotte’s apartment when the Mu’tahfikah kidnaps him to gain access to the Center for Art Detention. As ransom, they demand the return of the Olmec Head, a Central American sculpture.
Left to guard the hostage, Thor Wintergreen is tricked into helping Musclewhite and the police ambush Berbelang, who is shot and killed. Musclewhite convinces Wintergreen that the Mu’tahfikah members not only are taking back their culture but also getting ready to take over the country. Once free, Musclewhite makes an appointment to see Charlotte, but before he arrives, she sees the headline announcing Berbelang’s death. When she accuses Musclewhite of having something to do with the incident, he strangles her.
Making his last run of the night, a trolley operator is seduced by LaBas’s assistant Earline, who had picked up a loa, the sensuous spirit of the Voodoo goddess Erzulie. When PaPa LaBas leaves to tell Earline of Berbelang’s death, she faints and LaBas calls Black Herman to exorcise the loa.
The next morning, Black Herman takes LaBas to see Haitian Benoit Battraville aboard the freighter The Black Plume in the harbor. Battraville explains the Atonist role in Haiti and reveals the Wallflower Order plot to install a Talking Android. LaBas and Black Herman volunteer to track the Talking Android.
Meanwhile, Von Vampton is still looking for someone to become the Talking Android when he sees an advertisement for skin bleaching cream. He is applying the cream to Jefferson’s face when the young man’s father rushes in and then takes his son back home to Mississippi. The skin-lightening plot failed. Instead, Von Vampton settles on an opposite plan when Gould accidentally falls facedown into black mud. Gould becomes the Talking Android.
Concerned about President Harding’s political blunderings and alleged black ancestry, the Wallflower Order decides to do away with him by sending him on a train trip to California and slowly poisoning him along the way. Harding dies in San Francisco. The order also takes defensive moves to combat the spread of Jes Grew. The federal government seizes control of the arts and decentralizes art objects away from the Centers for Art Detention to protect them from the Mu’tahfikah.
At a gathering north of New York City, the Talking Android is reading his epic poem “Harlem Tom Toms” when LaBas and Black Herman break in and expose Gould as a fake. Asked to defend their charges, LaBas gives an extended history of the mythology behind Jes Grew, dating back thousands of years to ancient Egypt. Having brought Jes Grew history up to the present, LaBas explains how he solved the mystery and located the box that should have held Abdul’s copy of The Text underneath the floor of the Cotton Club where Abdul had hidden it. A seal on the box reminds LaBas of Von Vampton’s pendant, connecting the Atonist to the mystery. Then Buddy Jackson, operator of several Harlem speakeasies, steps forward and announces that he had given The Text to Abdul. PaPa LaBas and Black Herman seize Von Vampton and Gould and turn them over to Benoit Battraville.
Jes Grew dies down, but PaPa LaBas continues telling its history, giving yearly university lectures. The novel ends with a philosophical discussion of the psychic power of blackness in the American imagination.