Images of Subversion: Ishmael Reed and the Hoodoo Trickster

By Lindroth, James | African American Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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Images of Subversion: Ishmael Reed and the Hoodoo Trickster


Lindroth, James, African American Review


"HooDoo" explains Ishmael Reed in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, "might be called Vodoun, streamlined. In New Orleans it's all over town, invisible to all but the trained eye. Faced with curious and sometimes comical suppression by the police, it never went underground; it merely put on a mask" (10). As Reed makes clear in this illuminating discussion of the voodoo ritual pervading Mardi Gras, the principal mask behind which blacks perform in this orgiastic, white celebration is that of trickster. King Zulu and his followers wear this trickster's mask when blacks mimic the white parade led by King Rex, and what begins as an outrageous white caricature of a slave society with black victims "adopting the oppressor's parody of themselves" ends in the masked comic rebellion of the hoodoo trickster. "While you're laughing at us," comments Reed, pointing out how the black trickster appears to accept the roles demanded by white authority only to reverse them through disguised mockery, "we're laughing with you but the joke's on you" (29). Like King Zulu, each of Reed's protagonists - from Bukka Doopeyduk and the Loop Garoo Kid in his first two novels, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), to PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), Raven Quickskill in Flight to Canada (1976), and Black Peter in The Terrible Twos (1982) - assumes the trickster's role. Each is driven by a mocking wit that subverts white authority and destroys white illusions of superiority while simultaneously promoting numerous value-laden symbols of black culture.

A fundamental source of Reed's subversive imagery is hoodoo, with its rituals, conjure men and women, and its spirits, or loas, of whom chief examples are the trickster deities Legba, Guede, and Erzulie. In Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, Robert Farris Thompson traces the origin of the Haitian Legba to the Yoruba trickster deity Eshu-Elegba (151-52). As described by Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse, Guede, like Legba, is a "hilarious divinity" filled with the "stuff of burlesque"; Guede is also the only "loa which is entirely Haitian" (232). Erzulie, the Haitian goddess of love, is also a trickster who, according to Hurston, can be "gracious and beneficent" one moment and a "red-eyed" demon "terrible to look upon" the next (145-47). Two correlative sources of Reed's subversive imagery, sources tied closely to hoodoo, are jazz history, with its abundant depictions of the playful artist, and black Egypt, an Egyptology promoting the black Osiris over the white Nefertiti.

Reed, like his protagonists, dons the trickster's mask to expose society's hidden evils, and a weapon wielded with telling force is scatological parody bordering on the obscene. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, where Reed deflates the agents of tyrannical white power through their association with subhuman hairiness and the processes of decay and elimination. Reed introduces hairiness as a visual sign of brutish power through his invention of a white authority figure whose name, a pun, is Harry Sam. This white dictator has given his name to the city in which the protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, lives and also to Sam's island (alias Manhattan), the place from which he rules.

Harry Sam communicates with the public by means of TV, but he maintains order in the black ghetto of Harry Sam proper (alias Newark) through the offices of a henchman whose name, ABOREAL HAIRYMAN (25), with its play on boreal 'northern' and aboreal 'away from the mouth,' makes him not only the apotheosis of atavistic hairiness but his leader's cloacal son. This mordant identification of white power with hairiness and the excretory functions is a development of the figure of elimination introduced in the novel's first pages with Doopeyduk's comment on Harry Sam's peculiar withdrawal from the public eye: "SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness" (1).

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