Post-modernism and Ishmael Reed

[By Crystal Boson]

Utilizing a database of 100 novels reveals useful ways of considering the importance of literary postmodernism in African American literature. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo can be considered to be Black Postmodernism’s torchbearer. It provides the reader with a highly complex narrative that blends genre and theme.

Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo blends elements of the classic detective novel with African American Folklore, iconography, racial identity, music and language, and does not lack venues for interpretation. It has been examined as a work of folklore, pure and imaginative fiction, a reversed detective novel, under postmodernism. It does not, however, lend itself solely to any of these interpretations.

Mumbo Jumbo lacks the literary schizophrenia and binary constructs necessary for a deconstructive, modern reading; the presence of a partial bibliography alone indicates the deliberate nature of Reed’s text. Furthermore, within the traditional detective novel, the plot revolves around decoding a mystery, and the story ends as the villain is reprimanded and clearly punished; here these roles are reversed, and there is no concrete ending to the work.

A complete reading of Mumbo Jumbo necessitates a new form of criticism and teaching, one that takes into account all of the disparate elements within the work. In the past, the apparent overproduction of artifacts and of assumed escapism has led Reed’s text to be examined in several different modes. Its combination of the detective genre, the elements of racial identity, folklore, religion, and iconography makes it one of the most identifiable Black Postmodern texts.