Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as himself in the recent Watchmen series on HBO. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo figures prominently as a primary object of study in Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey. Watchmen is a work of alternate history, as is Mumbo Jumbo. Both works help us remember our history, parts of which have been buried in the white political unconscious. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, is an event dramatically reenacted in Watchmen‘s opening episode, and the US invasion and occupation of Haiti reappears to consciousness in much the same way as one reads Mumbo Jumbo. The two works rhyme with each other — “repeat with a difference,” as Gates would say — in other ways as well. Reed’s secret, conspiratorial white-supremacist Atonist Order finds its correlate, its contemporary near-equivalent, in Watchmen‘s secret “Cyclops” conspiracy. Each work also features as its hero a black detective: PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, and Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night in Watchmen. Yet there are differences. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Attribution of that saying to Twain appears in print in 1970, as in “A Said Poem” by Canadian artist John Robert Colombo. But Twain’s actual words appear in The Gilded Age, a novel Twain co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” The old legends and their systems of order are in pieces due to migration, diaspora, forced separation of people from the lands of their ancestors. The crack in the cosmic egg. With these multicultural fragments let us assemble a mosaic — something colorful, like the drawing by Cuban-born artist Alberto del Pozo on the cover of The Signifying Monkey.
When the “Talking Android” makes his debut at Villa Lewaro in the affluent Westchester County suburb of Irvington-on-Hudson in Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo, many of those in attendance are wearing “Cab Calloway for President buttons” (156). (Villa Lewaro, by the way, was the home of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female self-made millionaire in America. Walker is the focus of a Netflix miniseries called Self Made, released this past March.) Reed’s novel opens a portal of sorts; it encourages readers to imagine an alternate history. During the act of reading, one enters a state of uncertainty. Details that appear to be fictions nevertheless rhyme across time — Calloway’s bid, for instance, reminiscent today of Kanye’s. One is led to conclude, as the novel does in its closing lines, that “Time is a pendulum. Not a river. More akin to what goes around comes around” (218). When PaPa LaBas and Black Herman interrupt the debut by revealing the Talking Android’s true identity as Hubert “Safecracker” Gould, an Atonist in blackface, they move to arrest Gould and his sponsor, Hinckle Von Vampton. LaBas and Herman are interrupted in turn, however, when a Guianese art critic rises from his seat and demands that they give an account. “Explain rationally and soberly,” he says, “what they are guilty of. This is no kangaroo court, this is a free country” (160). To satisfy the critic’s demand, LaBas and Herman launch into a tale of ancient Egypt. We learn of an ancient form of theater involving ritual magic — one that “influenced the growth of crops and coaxed the cocks into procreation” (161). In this theater, Reed writes, “The processes of blooming were acted out by men and women dancers who imitated the process of fertilization” (161). The best of these dancers was Osiris. History is reimagined here as an ongoing conflict across the ages between followers of Osiris and followers of Osiris’s brother, “the stick crook and flail man” Set (162). “People hated Set,” writes Reed. “He went down as the 1st man to shut nature out of himself. He called it discipline. He is also the deity of the modern clerk, always tabulating, and perhaps invented taxes” (162). The text over which these opposing groups fight is (of course!) “the Book of Thoth, the 1st anthology written by the 1st choreographer” (164).