excerpt from unpublished paper written for induction into lambda iota tau (LIT), 2008:
Jes Grew: Healing in Mumbo Jumbo
“As the voice of a culture that has since its inception felt itself under mortal siege, African-American literature is fundamentally shamanistic and virtually concerned with communal health and empowerment.” (Flowers) Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, is a multi-dimensional story, employing African healing rituals, African-American spiritual philosophies, European secret societies, and American political agendas to narrate the African-American experience and link it with the African Diaspora. Mumbo Jumbo’s title is a Mandingo word meaning “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away.” (Reed 7) In this realistically-fictional novel, many displaced Africans, in America and Haiti, are suffering from spiritual dysfunctions due to losses of their traditional cultures and spirituality. Many healers practice their crafts to cure this widespread illness: Papa Labas, Black Herman, and Abdul Hamis. However, the most powerful healer in this novel is Jes Grew “the black cultural impulse...the original human libratory force…freedom of thought, of body, of language, of heart and spirit.” (Rootsie) Reed evokes spiritual and historical characters like Papa Labas, Benoit Battraville, and the Atonists; conjures ritualistic events like the healing of Earline, Hinkle Von Vampton’s nightly reverence to “some ugly nigger doll,” (Reed 55) and Osiris’s fertilization dances; and crafts symbols like the Loas, the Mu’tafikah, and Jes Grew to summon the African consciousness and begin the process of healing in the characters and readers of Mumbo Jumbo.
Before a Mumbo Jumbo can begin their healing process, the nature of the ancestor’s trouble must be determined, the Loas must be named; through ‘naming’ the characters Papa Labas, Benoit Battraville, and the Atonists, Reed reveals the nature of African-American’s spiritual illness and suggests methods of healing. Papa Labas is a voodoo healer and priest of Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. Although his family’s origin is unclear, his craft is trusted in Harlem, “Whoever his progenitor, whatever his lineage, his grandfather it is known was brought to America on a slave ship mixed in with other workers who were responsible for bringing African religion to the Americas where it survives to this day…People trust his powers.” (Reed 24-25) Papa La Bas is also the Voodoo name for Santeria’s Eleggua and Candomble’s Exu, the “mediator between humans and all of the other Orishas [Loas]… he is one of the warriors.” (Emick) Manifesting his name, Papa Labas renounces Christianity because of the effects it has on African-Americans, “under Christianity, many of them had been reduced to glumness, depression, surliness, cynicism, malice without artfulness, and their intellectuals, in America, only appreciated heavy, serious works,” (Reed 96) Papa Labas instead fights for Hoodoo as a self-appointed Babalawo, “I awarded the Asson to myself. Licensed myself,” protecting Jes Grew as a “jacklegged detective” by identifying, exposing, and capturing the opponents of the epidemic. (Reed 212) Benoit Battraville and Charlemange Peralte were Haitian guerilla freedom fighters during the Cacos’s opposition to America’s secret invasion, robbery of the treasury, and forced labor laws of 1915. (Haiti) In the novel, Battraville joins with Papa Labas and Black Herman to bring Hinkle Von Hampton and Hubert “Safecracker” Gould to justice, realizing these villains won’t be punished by American courts. Reed uses our memory of America’s politics towards Haiti to diagnose the illness caused by the “Holy War they’ve waged against us and others like us for 1000s of years.” (Reed 133)
Finally, the antagonists are identified as “The Atonist Path which is protected by its military arm the Wallflower Order.” (Reed 132) The Atonists are spiritual devotees to Akhenaton, the Pharaoh “who broke with the long-standing Kemetic religious tradition of acknowledging the Netcheru, and focused the nation’s attention on a singular personification of God whom he worshiped as Aton.” (Browder 94) Reed points us in the direction of the origins and ‘Stolen Legacy’ of Christianity when he mentions the Atonists and The Wallflower Order, as Anthony Browder suggests, “Moses was educated as a young priest and received his theological education at the Temple of Heliopolis, where he was a disciple of Akhenaton…after his death, Moses led a group of heretics out of Kemet and reestablished this new religious doctrine in Palestine.” Reed’s fictional account of the Atonists’ rise to power parallels Browder’s historical account. Both authors critique Christian’s worship of 1 God by contrasting the Afrikan tradition of worshipping the many laws or Loas in the Universe. African-Americans in the novel lost much of this history due to enslavement, omission and suppression by secret societies with alternative agendas, causing the Ancestor’s much discomfort.
A Poem for Ishmael Reed and The Afrikan Madonna, Aset
Momma say “Girl, you gotta wine yur wais’line to de bassline!”
Momma say “Real dancin in de sholders!”
Momma say “Lookin em in dey eye is rousing, smilin’ hypnotic!”
Afrikan rhythms, Booty music of the South:
Boom, Boom Tick!
Bass Drum, Stick!
Jazz, BeBop, Soul, Hip-Hop.
Thump,Thump in my trunk!
Heartbeats make me Crunk!
Most often imitated:
Recorded, pressed-up and duplicated
Distributed to a market near you!
Now, “Move ya body to our music”
Entranced in The Absolute Truth!