Leslie Marmon Silko published a critique of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island in a 1977 issue of the Yardbird Reader. 1977 is the year she published her first novel Ceremony. And Yardbird Reader was a literary journal founded in 1972 by Ishmael Reed — a yearly anthology featuring writing by contemporary authors of color. Several of the writers I’m teaching this semester, in other words, wrote in dialogue with one another over the course of the 1970s. Silko titled her critique of Snyder “An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts.”
If I had a library, I’d visit it mornings, evenings, I’d look for books by David Henderson, co-founder of the Umbra writer’s workshop, a group that met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s. At one point Henderson was married to the black feminist scholar Barbara Christian. I have a book of his on Jimi Hendrix somewhere in my basement. By the 1980s, though, Henderson started publishing with North Atlantic Books, a press founded by Miranda July’s father, the writer Richard Grossinger. I retrieved a book of Grossinger’s from my basement earlier this week. He seems to be quite a character — a magician of sorts who apprenticed under Robert Kelly. At some point I should also look for work by Calvin Hernton, another of the writers associated with the Umbra group. Hernton studied with R.D. Laing, participating in the Institute of Phenomenological Studies and the Antiuniversity of London before returning to the US in 1970. Ishmael Reed once described him as “a modern-day warlock…the man faltering governments keep their eye on. The native who has his own cabala.”
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).
Either I’m noting and observing happenings and surroundings, exercising awareness, asking questions, entertaining thoughts — or what? Gardening, cooking, napping, hugging my daughter, texting with friends, reading, traveling, collaborating and conversing with others. The work of each day is to write and do all of the above. According to Black Herman, though, or the Black Herman who appears in Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo, “Doing The Work is not like taking inventory” (130). To PaPa LaBas, he says, “You ought to relax. […]. Improvise some. Open up, PaPa. Stretch on out with It” (130). Perhaps I should heed his advice.
What happens when Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is read alongside Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony? Both texts mingle mythoi and logoi. They tell tales and give accounts. Healers figure centrally in each novel. In Ceremony, we encounter medicine men like Betonie; in Mumbo Jumbo, we encounter PaPa LaBas, the novel’s “HooDoo psychiatrist” protagonist. Both characters rebel against Western teachings. Their cognitive maps are anti-colonial assemblages containing ancient wisdoms retained by their people — tools used to survive and resist in the age of Empire. Armed with these maps, protagonists interpret America as the work of evil magicians operating in secret across hundreds or even thousands of years. Healing requires use of sacred practice: a counter-magic of indigenous rites and ceremonies, story and dance.