Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: Challenging Hegemonic History

"History is written by the victors."  Winston Churchhill (or somebody who made an extremely obvious statement which Churchill appropriated).

“History is written by the victors.” Winston Churchhill (or somebody who made an extremely obvious statement which Churchill appropriated).

Winston Churchill suggests that: “History is written by the victors”.  Ishmael Reed seems to recognize this sentiment and employs it to lampoon the West’s attempt to shape culture by omission and suppression in his novel Mumbo Jumbo.  Reed uses sharp satire, most especially in the form of juxtaposition, to highlight how the language and practices of hegemonic institutions of the West attempt to stunt the growth of various cultures in order to maintain its own dominance and in the process creates a sharp, biting satire that tears apart Western ideologies and values.


Ishmael Reed: One of the great voices in literature.

Ishmael Reed: One of the great voices in literature.

One of Reed’s primary targets is the press.  One man, Woodrow Wilson Jefferson seeks to find Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (who were likely both dead well before Jefferson was born). Jefferson’s ignorance is highlighted throughout, notably when he boasts that he has learned terms by reading the New York Sun, a paper that is most noted for The Great Moon Hoax, The Balloon Hoax and a letter written in response to a questioned asked by a young girl assuring her that, yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause.  In his journey to find Marx and Engels Jefferson arrives at a newspaper only to find out that “they don’t work” (75) at the paper anymore.  It is clear from this that socialist sentiments are not present at the paper and that the paper clearly aligns itself with a capitalist approach, meaning that whilst it reports the news, its first function is to turn a profit.  Money over integrity.



Reed's Woodrow Wilson Jefferson seems to be the epitome of Frantz Fanon's 'Black Skin, White Mask'.

Reed’s Woodrow Wilson Jefferson seems to be the epitome of Frantz Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Mask’.

A paper hires Jefferson, however he is hired strictly because the paper wanted a “Negro viewpoint”, so long “as it is limited to” one such voice (76).  This voice seems to be strictly a means to validate the paper’s prejudicial coverage of whatever pieces of propaganda they are promoting.  Jefferson is something akin to the ‘Black academic’ that is used as a pawn to validate the Western agenda on behalf of people of African descent everywhere.  One is reminded of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks when reading the Jefferson character, or the obligatory Black pundit Fox News feels the need to trot out in order to agree with whatever bigoted view they are trying to promote as ‘fair and balanced’.  Some people seem to be of the mind that all people with African heritage share the same view on every issue and that by getting one single person ‘of colour’ to support a statement means it isn’t bigoted and that all people ‘of colour’ should in turn accept the stance.



MumboJumboFor Reed, one of the primary ways in which Western hegemony controls culture is through the suppression and alteration of history.  In changing or altering history (be it in the form of texts, art or any other number of instances), one changes how it is viewed, for better or for worse.  In Mumbo Jumbo it is noted that “editors… doctored… ancient texts” (Reed, 212-213).  The term ‘doctored’ is used earlier in the novel when it is stated that “legislators went through… texts… doctoring them” (174) to facilitate their agenda.  By describing this subjective process as ‘doctoring’, the hegemonic institution infers three things.  It implies that those who make the changes carry the authority of a doctor “who, by reason of his [or her] skill… entitle him [or her] to express an authoritative opinion” (OED: on a side note, the OED really needs to update its definition of doctor to include people who happen to have vaginas).  ‘Doctor’, therefore, not only implies that the person making the changes has authority, but fails to suggest that the person making the changes may have a bias.  As to the term ‘doctoring’, the OED notes that to doctor something is to “repaint, patch up, [or] set right” (OED).  Far from implying that such changes are instilled with a bias, this definition implies that such changes objectively improve the item being doctored.  It also implies that the object in question is flawed and need correction.  Working in concert, these two definitions suggest that those ‘doctoring’ history are authorities, that the changes made are an improvement, and that the object being ‘doctored’ is flawed.


MSS 398It is through his use of juxtaposition that Reed challenges notions of ‘doctoring’.  When mentioning the doctoring process, he notes that the editors worked for a tabloid (212), a tabloid being a “newspaper… usually… dominated by sensational stories” (OED).  This concept of sensationalization sits in sharp contrast with the dictionary definition of the term ‘doctoring’ and highlights the absurdity of using such a word to describe the process of making a text more sensational.  The integrity of the ‘editor’ is compromised by the need to sensationalize a story, and so, Reed undermines the ‘doctoring’ process by linking it with sensationalization.  The legislators, mentioned earlier in the novel, then become linked, through the term ‘doctoring’, with the editors of the tabloid and their own motivations and authority are in turn challenged and put on a par with the likes of tabloid editors.  The two have something in common: they hope to appeal to the majority, one in order to sell papers, and the other to garner votes.


mumbojumbo1Such juxtapositions is strewn throughout the novel, such as when Reed links a Southern congressman with Calvinist editorial writers via their attack on Jez Grew (17), suggesting the separation of church and state may yet to be fully realized.  This juxtaposition is reinforced when Reed links lynching, commonly practiced by Southerners represented by the congressman, with the burning of witches perpetrated by Calvinists (30).  In linking the two, Reed also demonstrates how the oppression of women is linked with the oppression of people with African heritage, demonstrating the comprehensive nature of the West’s oppressive hegemonic systems.  This concern for women is brought up again later in the novel when one of the protagonists, Papa LaBas, mentions how Islam and Christianity both agreed “on the ultimate wickedness of women” (35).  Islam, then, proves itself to be: “Intolerant just as the Christians are” (35).



Like Reed, Zora Neale Hurston sought to suggest that what some considered 'slang' was a legitimate dialect.

Like Reed, Zora Neale Hurston sought to suggest that what some considered ‘slang’ was a legitimate dialect.

Reed also juxtaposes slang (27) with the use of esoteric language (28), uplifting the status of dialects referred to as ‘slang’ to the status of esoteric language whilst simultaneously illuminating the communicative problems of elitist vocabularies.  Though most effectively used when attacking the language of the West, Reed’s use of juxtaposition is integral to his satiric lampoon of the west.


Irony is not lost on Reed.  In one sentence he states that Jefferson’s “grandfather had accompanied his slavemaster to New York” (29.  The irony, of course, is that the slavemaster is referred to as ‘his’, meaning the slave’s.  In employing a possessive pronoun on behalf of a slave when speaking of a slavemaster, Reed subtly manipulates the language to show the absurdity of possessive pronouns.  One is also reminded, in this context, of the line from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club where he writes that “the things you own end up owning you”.  Here we see the slave is awarded possession of the slavermaster by the omniscient narrator, suggesting that the slave system usurped the ‘master’ in a manner.  The implications are interesting if not problematic.



I have not read a voice with so clear an understanding of the nature of oppression since I read George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

I have not read a work of fiction with so clear an understanding of the nature of oppression since I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The work has a great depth.  It is a searing satire that displays a full range of understanding of Western culture and the hegemonic tools that are employed to sustain the oppression of a number of people.  For me personally, what is most telling is a passage early in the novel where the omniscient narrator speaks of Jez Grew and states: “It knows no class no race no consciousness.”  For me, this speaks the comprehensive nature of Western oppression.   Jez Grew is an entity that seeks to liberate the victims of Western ‘civilization’, an oppressive force whose exploitation is not based exclusively on perceived race, or gender, or class.  It will devour anybody, most voraciously those who are not conscious of the nature of their exploitation (see Jefferson).  Reed’s focus is on those of African descent, but he makes it clear that the monster that is Western hegemony will feed on anybody without regard to their skin colour, gender, or class.  It is a brilliant book that ranks with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Reed understands fully the implication of Orwell’s assertion that whoever “controls the present controls the past” and that whoever “controls the past, controls the future”.  In Reed’s narrative, there are no passive victims: each person is conscious of his or her oppression and fights it every inch of the way.  There are so many layers to this work that it would be impossible to offer a comprehensive analysis, even in the form of a monograph.


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Works Cited:

Reed, Ishmael.  Mumbo Jumbo.  Simon & Schuster.  New York, New York.  1988.  Print.

“Doctor, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 13 October 2013 <>. Web.

“Doctor, v.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 13 October 2013 <>. Web.

“Tabloid, n. and adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 13 October 2013 <>.  Web.


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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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