Ishmael Reed begins his novel Mumbo Jumbo with a dictionary definition of the title phrase. He does so to demonstrate that White Americans have appropriated this phrase. They use it ignorantly, disrespectfully, forgetful of its origins. The term derives from the Mandingo ma-ma-gyo-mbo, meaning “a magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away” (7). Mandingo or Mandinko is a language spoken in West Africa (Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and Senegal). Reed tells us with his title that his book is the work of such a magician. How would that work? Who are these “ancestors”? Are they black? Are they white? Why are they “troubled”? Where is “away”? I flip through old journals reading trance-scripts from the dawn of the Trump era (just after the election but prior to the inauguration). How was I able to write like that? Is it because consciousness is able to be in two or more places at once? Or is it on account of them loas? Nina Simone recorded three tracks based on originals by Bahamian artist Exuma: “Obeah Woman,” “Dambala,” and “22nd Century.”
I wrote about the latter song four years ago. Exuma called himself “the Obeah man.” The cover of his first album bore the message, “the future is freedom, the past a chain / the present, anybody’s game.” PaPa LaBas is described as an “obeah-man” (45) in Mumbo Jumbo.
Ishmael Reed’s depiction of race in his novel Mumbo Jumbo avoids essentialism by emphasizing culture and religion as collectively authored, orally-transmitted utterances — sayings that can be played with, jazzed with, riffed upon. Figures like Papa LaBas and Black Herman exist eternally, as do the novel’s Knights Templar characters. They possess a magical capacity, remaining of fixed age, archetypal, unchanging across the ages, as joyous people, the Jes Grews, battle the forces of repression, the monotheists, the Atonists.
Toward evening I retire to the yard and sit beside a fire. The fire brightens as the sky darkens. Crickets and cicadas trade rhythms. Beside them ride the sonic traces of cars along the nearby autobahn. From the sky above comes and goes the sound of a helicopter. Sarah and I burn dry branches of rosemary. As night falls, I pull my chair closer to the fire and admire its warmth. The heat relaxes me. Afterwards I sit beside Frankie as she plays at her music table in the living room, awake a bit past her bedtime.
I prepare a series of video mini-lectures on Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Julius Lester’s telling of “Stagolee,” and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. Along the way I glimpse the famous white patron of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechen, as depicted by the Jazz Age artist Florine Stettheimer in her 1920 painting Asbury Park South.
Van Vechen remains a controversial figure, in part due to his 1926 novel, the title of which I don’t wish to repeat (though it appears that Langston Hughes was one of the book’s defenders). Countee Cullen and W.E.B. Du Bois regarded it as an “affront to the hospitality of black folks.” Ralph Ellison condemned Van Vechen — as did Reed, given that he modeled Mumbo Jumbo‘s villain Hinckle Von Vampton after him.
We gathered in a circle, some of us in chairs, others of us on blankets, on a sunny afternoon, celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. It’s a lovely day — quality time with friends, all of us pleased to be together, laughing, telling stories, sharing observations and enthusiasms. Afterwards, I reflect upon Allen Ginsberg’s centering of Carrie Nation in the midst of the vortex in his antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Nation was a temperance zealot. She ran around cities like Wichita attacking alcohol-serving establishments with a hatchet in the decades prior to Prohibition. I recall there being a straightedge band named after her in the 1990s, as well as a fictional band in Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Is Ginsberg suggesting that Prohibition birthed Vietnam? What is a vortex? In his 1914 essay “Vortex,” modernist poet Ezra Pound described the latter as “the point of maximum energy.” But of course, Pound was a fascist. Is his essay one we need to read to understand Ginsberg? It’s a modernist manifesto, one that launched the short-lived movement known as Vorticism. (British fascist Wyndham Lewis is the other major figure linked with the movement.) Pound was obsessed with “race” and “race-memory” and attacked hedonism. Yet he’s widely considered one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. The “Vortex” essay ends with a quote from Pound’s lover and contemporary, the modernist poet H.D. The latter is a curious figure, for sure. H.D. experienced “visions,” sought treatment from Sigmund Freud, and dabbled in the occult. For further discussion of H.D.’s interest in the latter, see Matte Robinson’s book The Astral H.D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H.D.’s Poetry and Prose.
My thinking of late has involved listening to the 1920s. Knowledge of the decade mushrooms forth. Red Scare, Tulsa Race Massacre, Harlem Renaissance, Immigration Act of 1924. Here we are 100 years later, reimagining “the Twenties” anew. How will this one be remembered 100 years hence? What will it be known for, as the other is known for its roar? Let our dreams show us what to do next.
In my teachings, I praise the Haudenosaunee — the “People of the Longhouse,” the “Iroquois Confederacy.” They’re a matriarchal decentralized democracy. Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote favorably of the Iroquois in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, though his account relies heavily upon the work of Rochester-based American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. (Morgan, by the way, is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery.) Along with his work as an ethnographer of the Iroquois, Morgan served as a Republican assemblyman and senator in the 1860s. Time to dig in and study this history. Shango’s double-headed battle-axe appears, though, on the cover of Mary Daly’s book Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. That, too, is a book to study. The ordinary is itself the uncanny.
Julius Lester’s version of “Stagolee” adds to the musical tradition a voluntary descent into and subsequent takeover of the Christian Lord’s Hell. This is a powerful act of resignification. The story’s hero or antihero protagonist — a figure “beyond good and evil,” in a sense — is returned to his beloved community. Stagolee remains his own man, surrounded by people he loves. Hell is made a Heaven after Heaven was discovered to be a racist white country club. Hell is the “other side of town,” we might say — free of the Lord’s judgment. Cecil Brown wrote a book on Stagolee called Stagolee Shot Billy. He devotes a chapter to Black Power — yet neglects to mention Lester, author of Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, one of the first books on the subject. Brown claims that “The Stagolee paradigm has produced political figures such as Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, H. ‘Rap’ Brown, Robert Williams, and Bobby Seale” (Brown 14). Seale’s relationship to the Stagolee narrative is especially intriguing. When James Baldwin wrote a foreword to Seale’s autobiography, he titled the piece “Stagolee.” As Brown notes, “Seale not only named his son Stagolee but used the narrative toast version as a recruiting device to get young black men into the Black Panther party. It is also the paradigm for such literary figures as Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Richard Wright’s Native Son” (Brown 14). Brown also hints at some connection between Stagolee and the Yoruba god Shango. (The latter also figures centrally in Santaria.) Yet Brown only hints at a connection, never elaborates. I suppose Shango and Stagolee both teach through their example the importance of a well-rounded life, one that achieves balance between reality and pleasure. Both are passionate warriors who love love. One wields thunder; the other wields a gun. Both command respect.
Drafting a series of notes on Julius Lester’s telling of the “Stagolee” narrative, I ask myself: What can we say of the tale’s protagonist? Is Stagolee a hero, a superhero, a deity, an antihero, a villain? In what way is he a “rebel”? He’s not just a murderer. He’s a community hero. He cares for his victim’s wife and kids. Others love him and celebrate him at his funeral. He is what I think Ishmael Reed would call an “Osiris” figure, given his magical capacity for self-resurrection. Osiris both is and is not the same as Christ. He likes to party and dance and have a good time. He shares his love with others. Cecil Brown, however, recognizes in Stagolee Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder (Brown 3). He claims that there were field hollers and field blues that predate the 1895 shooting of William Lyons by Lee Shelton. The songs precede, foretell — prophetically conjure into being, we might say — the characters in the newspapers. The vibrational form of the song dreams the world into being. Religion is once again the site of battle. It is against one religion, a certain kind of Christianity, and in practice of another that Stagolee’s rebellion is staged. He rejects all higher authority, including that of the Lord of what Frederick Douglass called “the slaveholder’s religion.” Stagolee is a man who can say, as Douglass did, that he is his own master.
A book called Realizing the Impossible called out to me the other day, the title resonating with a phrase I’d recalled in an email the day prior. A friend had recommended an article commending the importance of utopian visionary thinking in times of crisis. I replied with a line of Che Guevara’s spraypainted on the walls on the streets of Paris during May ’68: “Be realistic — demand the impossible.” Opening the book, I came upon an interview with late 60s acid anarchist Ben Morea, central figure in New York freak-left political-art groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, as well as — to my surprise — a later, short-lived collective called International Werewolf Conspiracy. The name pricks up one’s ears, does it not? For a short time in the late 60s and early 70s the group made and printed posters and manifestos. They’d pass out leaflets to fellow heads on the streets. Morea was friends with Valerie Solanas, author of The SCUM Manifesto. Morea wrote a pamphlet in support of Solanas when she shot Andy Warhol, an act shunned and disowned by the rest of the left and the art world. There’s a character based on Morea in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. By 1969, he was heading the International Werewolf Conspiracy. The group’s broadsheets amplify the gothic element in Marx and Engels. The specter evoked in the first sentences of The Communist Manifesto has given way to a pack of werewolves birthed when American youth drink the era’s “magic potion,” LSD. These werewolves are thus in origin a bit like Frankenstein’s monster — one of capitalist science’s Faustian lab experiments gone awry. The pose strikes me as pure Attentat. Then again, maybe it’s just an American “horror-show” version of épater la bourgeoisie: an attempt to shock the middle class out of its complacency as the country transforms into Nixonland.