- Swing to the White, Back to the Black: Writing and "Sourcery" in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 49, Number 4, Winter 1993
- pp. 117-138
- View Citation
- Additional Information
RICHARD HARDACK Swing to the White, Back to the Black: Writing and "Sourcery" in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo jumbo The mythology cleaves close to Nature; and what else was it they represented in Pan. . . . Such homage did the Greeks pay to the unscrutable force we call Instinct, or Nature. . . . [Pan] could intoxicate by the strain of his shepherd's pipe . . . aboriginal, old as Nature, and saying, like poorTopsy, "Never was born; growed." —Emerson, "Natural History of Intellect"1 The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, "jes' grew" . . . the tune was irresistible, and belonged to nobody. —James Weldon Johnson, quoted in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo1 I mean when the parody is better than the original a mutation occurs which renders the original obsolete. Reed's law. —Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans3 The last section of Robert Scholes' Fabulations andMetafiction is devoted to Ishmael Reed, the writer of science fiction.4 In various contexts, Reed has been treated as allegorist, satirist, science fiction writer, Black aesthetician, revisionist, radical chauvinist, and traitor. But Reed is more of a trader, a hybrid stylist not likely to be considered a traditional writer in any genre. This proliferation of personas leaves Mumbo Jumbo a disturbing text, whose aims and methodologies are hard to pinpoint. This book about constructing a future black aesthetic Arizona Quarterly Volume 49 Number 4, Winter 1993 Copyright © 1993 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 Richard Hardack winds up using nineteenth-century American pantheism—Emerson's and Stowe's projected versions ofTopsy, Black nature, or a self-growing Pan—as its most immediate epistemological source. Reed seems unable to decide whether to be Pan-African or Pan-American, an opposition he creates for himself at all turns. Trying to be a self-created writer, in imitation ofhis "self-propagating"Jes Grew, while simultaneously trying to acknowledge at least his Black sources, Reed by necessity winds up better at satirizing than at creating. In order to accommodate his vision ofJes Grew, Reed is forced to prophesy on the basis ofhis own prefabricated history, while simultaneously pledging allegiance to an alleged history; for Reed, all history is not simply restrospective, but retroactive . It is not just that Reed's cyclic chronology dooms us to forget the past, but that according to his elaborations the art which we create in the future must still stem from that past. In the end, Reed appropriates American Renaissance tropes to critique the modernist co-optation of the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, Reed often seems unable to determine whether the Harlem Renaissance is a parody of the American Renaissance or vice-versa, and to which he should pledge his artistic birthright . Though comic, Reed's myth of origins has tragic implications. The question is then how to situate Reed in relation to Black literature , and to his Black and white sources. For Reed winds up, at least in Mumbo Jumbo, attributing his voice not to Black culture, but to an American version of universal nature; Jes Grew ultimately seeks its text of Blackness in the way Emerson's nature seeks the voice of a representative American man. I argue that for Reed, the identity of nature in the American Renaissance comes to determine the nature of identity during the Harlem Renaissance. Jes Grew is ineluctably a form ofAmerican transcendentalism: nature's Oversoul, Pan, possessing and dispossessing individual wills. The crux of my argument is that Reed fences a white transcendental version ofnature or Pan, which he claims is stolen property to begin with, as a version ofBlackness. Many ofReed's rhetorical moves parallel Emerson's, whom I here use in shorthand as representative of transcendental American Renaissance writers. As Edward Said would phrase it, Reed gives Jes Grew an origin, a pre-cultural, pre-intentional source, yet must also argue that it has a specifically Black, culturally intended beginning. Toward the end of this essay, I trace Reed's reclamation of Pan, a "Jes Grew" aspect ofWestern culture, Mumbo Jumbo119 as Egyptian/Black, with an unannounced pit stop at the Masonic pyramids of mid-nineteenth-century America. Mumbo Jumbo ostensibly reconfigures all ofWestern history, including the birth oftheWest, as aperpetualrestaging ofthe conflictbetween "primitive," pre-Western, Black...