"To Ask Again": Folklore, Mumbo Jumbo, and the Question of Ethnographic Metafictions

Article excerpt

Why does Ishmael Reed's 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, steeped in questions about folklore, anthropological practice, and cultural preservation, receive little attention from scholars who put folklore at the center of their critical analysis? Nineteenth-century folklorist James Russell Lowell once suggested that ballad singers were not truly responsible for the songs that they sang, arguing that part of the "charm" of ballads was that "nobody made them." In Lowell's eyes, the ballads of late nineteenth-century singers seemed "to have come up like violets, and we have only to thank God for them" (qtd. in Bendix 81). This rendering of ballads as organic cultural artifacts, as flowers to be picked by scholars, indicates a type of colonialist thinking that naturalizes racial authenticity. Ishmael Reed's work, with its self-conscious attention to form and metafictional tendencies, does not fit the criteria established by such narrative tropes of organic racial authenticity.

To understand why Reed's work is largely overlooked by folklorists and anthropologists, I examine the intersections of several critical discourses: theories of ethnographic writing, scholarship about the relationship between folklore and literature, and the critical reception of Reed's work. First, I look briefly at the emergence of "new ethnography" in anthropology in the late 1970s and early 1980s in order to trace its impact on the study of folklore and fiction--particularly as this new methodology began to raise questions about the relationship of "fictions" to the project of translating the cultures of Others for a white, Western audience. Many of the debates about new ethnography in turn offer us crucial insight into the ways in which the study of folklore and literature has been, to a large degree, racialized so that novels by minority writers are often approached as "ethnographic fictions": that is, as sites of cultural translation and tourism, where nonwhite writers "translate" their culture so that white readers can learn "what life is really like" for an Other. Even more pointedly, the criticisms of new ethnography are directly related to the absence of Mumbo Jumbo from the scholarship of folklore and fiction. The novel's metafictional self-consciousness embraces many of the narrative techniques that critics of new ethnography feared--techniques that complicate the distinction between reality and fiction, thus making an easy cultural translation through fiction impossible. Finally, I argue that Mumbo Jumbo's absence from the discussion of ethnographic fiction offers an opportunity to begin unpacking the colonialist narratives that often underpin the study of folklore and literature.

Debates about the relationship between traditional ethnography, "new ethnography," and literary fiction began in earnest when anthropologist James Clifford questioned the "transparency of representation and immediacy of experience" in traditional ethnographic writing. In his introduction to the collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Clifford called for an acknowledgment of the fictiveness of seemingly objective works of ethnography, introducing to the discipline of folkloristics the concept of "new ethnography" and spurring scholars to theorize the process of writing ethnography--a task which had not been substantially undertaken before in the field of folklore studies (2). By calling for self-consciousness in ethnography, Clifford and his coeditor George Marcus placed new emphasis on the craft of writing: this move finally required ethnographers to examine the power dynamics involved in, as Robert Emerson argues, "writing" a culture "into being" ("Introduction" 22). Writing Culture therefore had an immediate impact on the study of race in anthropology, as the culture being "written" is so often the culture of an Other. (1) Writing Culture advanced a commitment to move beyond this static inscription of a culture--beginning with recognition of the inherent fictiveness of ethnography. …