Modern-day America is constantly witness to the blatant oppression of black culture and black communities. There are clear groups dedicated to this action who are outright in their intentions. But if it were only these less subtle groups acting against the black community, would they be so successful in their oppression? In Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, he argues that it is not only those overt groups who are a part of this act but that American society at large is built on a foundation of conspiracy and mythology dedicated to reinforcing the superiority of their own race.
From page one of the novel, Jes Grew is spreading throughout the US. It is a virus that contains the amalgamation of black music and the surrounding culture – including song, dance, and the emotions associated with these. It is taking over white communities and white leaders, turning them into unapologetic appreciators of black culture. There is a push against this and a desire to stop it which we see coming from the usual sources – the police and the president to name a few. These characters, although they do impact and directly end the lives of many black individuals, keep failing in their attempts to stop the spread itself. We then learn of deeper foundations – Reed’s take on a deep state level of conspiracy ranging back to Egyptian mythology all the way to a modern-day Knights Templar.
What is Jes Grew accomplishing? A simple appreciation of the contemporary black culture surely won’t change all that much. As he stated before, the culprit is the foundation that America was built on. And so Reed rewrites history. He shows us how so much of white mythology, whether biblical or Egyptian or Greek, could have been whitewashed to create a sense of historical importance among Europeans and, later, Americans. It gives them a reason to purport their superiority, to dismiss other cultures as weak or unnecessary. He takes back and revises this history, placing the stories into a single book of text which the Jes Grew virus is seeking out in order to cement itself in the mind of America and to expose the falsity of the monotheistic religions.
The text shows how Jes Grew was around and celebrated with Bacchus and with Moses, both of whom have descended from a polytheistic Egyptian line. The revelation of this history would crush all hope that white Americans have to impose their history, their “Great Books”, their myth. And so the Knights Templar, the underbelly and protector of the white world, must stop Jes Grew from finding this text. Is this rewritten history true? Well to Reed and hopefully the readers, it doesn’t matter; it is no more true than what we have been taught. What does matter is that the text exists just as the Bible and the Egyptian Book of the Dead exist. It is there to be read, interpreted, and trusted to the same extent as those texts our nation was founded on. Yet in the end, the text which Jes Grew seeks is hidden away and Jes Grew itself stops the search for the moment. The Knights Templar did not succeed in eradicating this threat – they have simply slowed it down, forcing it to wait for a more opportune moment.
Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is an underappreciated postmodern classic. It is a novel that should be read alongside the more typically lauded authors of the movement – from Pynchon (who himself recommends Reed after breaking the fourth wall in Gravity’s Rainbow) to DeLillo. He takes the typical postmodern trend of media-related information overload and expertly uses it to critique why this bombardment of the same old history, told and retold over time, has been one of the main roots of black oppression. With that, the place the novel could have improved upon was the relentless satire and comedy. While there are a few moments of more intense emotional writing, the novel could have connected far more with a better-balanced approach between satire and tragedy. But despite this, the novel does a better job looking at the roots of racism in America, and why they refuse to disappear, than almost any book I have ever read.
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