Laughter and Identity in Ishmael Reed's 'Mumbo Jumbo.'(Ethnic Humor)

By Jessee, Sharon A. | MELUS, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Laughter and Identity in Ishmael Reed's 'Mumbo Jumbo.'(Ethnic Humor)


Jessee, Sharon A., MELUS


Fortunately Tutankhamen came to power and the people were allowed to do their stuff, working out this way on the wall in the hall every which-a-way.

Maybe the truest thing to be said about racism is that it represents a profound failure of the imagination.

In his article "Theories of Ethnic Humor: How to Enter, Laughing," John Lowe states what is the obvious but often overlooked condition of humor: "To be funny indicates a lack of seriousness" (439). It is an apt description of how Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo uses humor to critique Western concepts of self and identity. By signifying on the sign of seriousness, Reed chips away the conventions of unity and coherence from the sphere of identity formulation, thus making possible the conditions of instability and flexibility which can nurture a more fluid and expressive sense of self. But Reed's humor is never content with simply undermining the seriousness of Anglocentric notions of self and identity. Mumbo Jumbo's narrative also lampoons various dimensions of black essentialism, what Henry Louis Gates describes as "the Afro-American idealism of a transcendent black subject, integral and whole ... the 'always already' black signified" (251). Mumbo Jumbo is a text which refuses all ethnocentric identities, even as it celebrates the traces of a web of cultural energy that stretches between North Africa and North America. Indeed, the "Jes Grew" phenomenon, Reed's metaphor for this fluid energy in Mumbo Jumbo, lives within his recasting of thousands of years of black cultural history, from Egyptology to the Jazz Age, into a protean form of personal energy that authorizes self and identity. And the primary condition for maintaining that desired personal energy is laughter.

"Jes Grew," that psychic epidemic of the 1920s which wends its way from New Orleans to Chicago and on to New York where it senses its "text" awaits, is an "X" factor," as neo-hoodoo detective Papa LaBas calls it. It is an attitude, rather than a substance; a form, rather than a content; a characteristic which plays a part in Ishmael Reed's vision of individual and collective identities. Gates identifies Reed's novel as a work of "critical signification" not simply because it makes liberal use of the "signifying" trope of black verbal arts, but because "For Reed, it is the signifier that both shapes and defines any discrete signified. And it is the signifiers of the Afro-American tradition with whom Reed is concerned" (251). In the early pages of the novel, the omniscient narrator disparages those who seek "to interpret the world by using a single loa" [spiritual guide] and implies that fixed, rigid definitions of a black essence would be "Somewhat like filling a milk bottle with an ocean" (24). Gates notes the anti-essentialism in Reed's vision of African American experience with a similar image: "Put simply, Reed's fictions concern themselves with arguing that the so-called black experience cannot be thought of as a fluid content to be poured into received and static containers" (251). Nevertheless, through the dazzling and outrageous pages of Mumbo Jumbo ("ma-ma-gyo-mbo,' magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away"') (9), it is black culture which has historically been the primary "carrier" of this fluid energy, this "epidemic" that has "enlivened the host" ever since Osiris danced in Egypt.

Dancing in the novel is, in fact, a parallel metaphor reinforcing "Jes Grew"; and Reed likens specific forms of dance to body laughter. The dances of the Roaring Twenties, like the dances for Osiris and Isis in ancient Egypt, are free, vibrant, and, most significantly, not "serious." As with the "Jes Grew" metaphor, Reed's critique of seriousness through dance metaphors rests largely on his reversals of "high" and "low" culture throughout the novel; and so it is "shaking" and "hully-gullying" which make their ways into the pages of the text, not classical ballet or ballroom dance. …

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