Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Mumbo Jumbo has been hailed as a revolutionary literary work and a masterpiece of literary imagination. As in his other satirical works of fiction, including The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Reed takes broad swipes at Western civilization. Mumbo Jumbo is his most successful novel in its breadth of vision and stylistic innovations.

Reed’s earlier novels have been criticized for the very elements that make Mumbo Jumbo so successful. The ludicrousness of his plots and the bizarre confrontations of allegorical characters have not always worked. In particular, Reed has been criticized for cardboard characterization that suggests to critics a furthering of stereotypes. Many feminist critics have taken offense at his depictions of female characters.

Reed’s ability to juggle these contradictions is most successful in Mumbo Jumbo. Reed’s confrontational style entertains while it instructs. Best of all, Mumbo Jumbo shows Reed at the top of his form in terms of scathing wit and humor.

The mingling of fact and fiction in Mumbo Jumbo works because it does not fall to either side. The politics of the novel resist propaganda, while the themes resist polemic. The central conceit of using a black HooDoo priest as a detective holds the novel together. It creates a narrative suspense often lacking in Reed’s other fiction. Detective PaPa LaBas is a clever blend of ancient and modern consciousness.

Finally, Mumbo Jumbo is most strong in its depiction of the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic. Reed’s philosophy of positive African American identity based on both the African past and the creative present is masterfully presented. Mumbo Jumbo continues the tradition of black detective fiction while showing the African American ability to create new forms out of old.