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|Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo
by Ted Gioia
In my writings on music, I have sometimes compared the dissemination
of a new performance style to the spread of a disease. This isn't just a
fancy metaphor. The mathematical models used to study the diffusion
of innovations come from medical science, and were originally developed
to predict the spread of epidemics. (Check out the work of Everett Rogers
for insights into this field of forecasting and trend analysis.)
In my twenties, when I worked as a management
consulting with McKinsey and the Boston Consulting
Group, I applied these formulas to plot the success
of new product launches and forecast the impact of
technology shifts. Later I found that these same
mathematical models could help me understand
the early spread of jazz, blues and other musical
'epidemics' of the past and present. A new cultural
meme is a kind of germ, and often the very same
conditions that foster one also help spread the other.
In other words, it’s no coincidence that New Orleans,
the birthplace of jazz, was also one of the unhealthiest
cities in the US at the time that this music came of age.
I doubt that novelist Ishmael Reed ever practiced
management consulting, but apparently he learned the same lessons
about the diffusion of new musical styles. In his 1972 novel Mumbo
Jumbo, Reed writes the story of an 'epidemic' of black culture—song,
dance, slang and other elements—spreading into mainstream America.
He calls his plague 'Jes Grew' and it is spread by 'Jes Grew Carriers'
(or J.G.C.s) who are responsible for outbreaks throughout the US, and
in some locations overseas.
Reed sets most of his story in New York during the Jazz Age. An earlier
outbreak of 'Jes Grew'—associated with the rise of ragtime in the
1890s—had been effectively contained. But now a new, stronger bug
is sweeping northward from New Orleans, and threatens to subdue
most of the population. There are "18,000 cases in Arkansas, 60,000
in Tennessee, 98,000 in Mississippi and cases showing up even in
Wyoming." Workers are dancing the Turkey Trot during their lunch break,
and singing in the streets. The authorities are alarmed. People want to
catch this new disease. Those who are still healthy gather around those
already bitten by the bug, and chant "give me fever, give me fever."
But if everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon of the new black plague,
who is left to stop it. Here Reed outdoes himself, offering the grandest of
conspiracy theories. The Knights Templar, apparently disbanded in the
year 1312, are actually still hanging around, and waiting for a chance to
stop the Jes Grew epidemic. But they need to get in line. The Teutonic
Knights, founded in the twelfth century, also want to block the disease.
And some Masons, a former cop, yellow journalists, Wall Street,
politicians the folks at the Plutocrat Club, and a mysterious group
known as the Wallflower Order, dedicated to implementing the world-
view of an even bigger conspiracy group, known as the Atonists, all
have skin in the game (literally and metaphorically).
And this conspiracy has been around for a long, long time. Take the
aforementioned 'Atonists', for example. Back in ancient Egypt, they
worshipped the disk of the sun, known as Aton, but now they represent a
coalition of angry monotheists, with everyone from Christians to Freudians
offering their support.
How can you keep a conspiracy this big a secret? And continue to
keep it secret for thousands of years? Reed doesn't tell us. Fortunately
a few brave souls have figured out the dark, dirty truth, and are willing to
take on this enormous coalition of evil doers—in particular, Papa La
Bas of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, an upholder of African spiritualism,
and his ally Black Herman, a real-life African-American stage magician
who performed through the United States during the 1920s and early
Other historical figures, from Warren G. Harding to King Tut, make
their appearance in cameo roles in this book. Three years after Reed
published Mumbo Jumbo, E.L. Doctorow released his novel Ragtime
to great acclaim, with particular praise lavished on that book’s mixture of
fictional characters and real personages from early 20th century America.
But Reed set the tone for this mashup up truth and fiction in his colorful
predecessor, and even anticipated Doctorow's reliance on black music
as an emblem for the flux and flow of the era.
If anything, Reed is more ambitious. He even includes footnotes and a
lengthy bibliography at the end of his novel—with citations of everyone
from Edward Gibbon to Madame Blavatsky. Photos and artwork are
also inserted into the text, which often seems intent on breaking free of
the constraints of the novel, and turning into a radical reinterpretation of
the last several thousand years of human society.
This book is packed to the brim with symbols and vaguely coded
references. For example, the leader of the Knights Templar’s efforts
to stamp out Jes Grew is a journalist named Hinckle Von Vampton.
Students of American literary history will easily recognize a parody of
white Harlem Renaissance advocate Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964).
Reed describes Von Vampton as having one blue eye, and wearing a
black eyepatch over the other eye—typical of the extravagant symbolism
that shows up again and again in this book, and a fitting way of depicting
Van Vechten's role as an intermediary between white and black culture.
But how many readers also pick up on the reference to Warren Hinckle,
a flamboyant San Francisco journalist who was at the peak of his fame
when Mumbo Jumbo was published, and cut a striking figure in town with
a black eyepatch?
Toward the conclusion of Mumbo Jumbo, Reed abandons his main
characters for thirty pages of revisionist history, ("Well, if you must know,
it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt…") The campy, over-the-top
style of delivery may convince you that Reed is offering a parody of
conspiracy theories. But his intensity and earnestness also send a
message that he believes in them too. This tension is unresolved,
and I suspect that choice is deliberate. Reed wants to have it both ways:
he demands us to take his Atonist conspiracy seriously, but also wants
to maintain the flamboyant, comic tone that makes it laughable as well.
Yet readers may be confused at the end result. Does Ishmael Reed
really believe that Scott Joplin was institutionalized and given electro-
shock treatments by enemies of black music? Does he really think
that Warren G. Harding was our first African-American president
before Barack Obama? Is he actually contending that the Roman
Emperor Julian was assassinated by Christians? Does he really
believe that space ships landed in pre-Columbian Mexico?
In other words, Reed has delivered a classic work in the literature of
paranoia. He joins an illustrious company, offering us a book that can
stand alongside—at least in terms of the breadth of its conspiracy
theories—Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Umberto Eco’s
Foucault’' Pendulum, Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Robert
Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus Trilogy, Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens
of Titan and other powerful literary evocations of our zeal to find hidden
enemies everywhere we look. Writers nowadays may do some things
better than their predecessors, but the generation that lived through
McCarthyism, the Cold War, Alger Hiss and Kim Philby had a much
better skill at capturing the exotic flavor of the paranoid mindset in
So you are best served if you come to this novel with a deep knowledge
of history—and not just American history, given the ever expanding
scope of Reed's concerns and conspiracies. The knowledgeable reader
will decipher many of the half-hidden references and apply good judgment
in deciding how many of Reed's "facts" can be believed. Others can
come along for the ride, and enjoy the color and pageantry of this novel.
But they need to remember the definition of mumbo jumbo, which (like
this novel, given that appropriate name) is a style of speaking in which
it's hard to separate gospel truth from good showmanship.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
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