Jes Grew and the New Negro: The 1920s According to ‘Mumbo Jumbo’
In Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the whole of America is struck by an “anti-plague” called Jes Grew. This viral phenomenon, at its height in the 1920s, brings about an upswing in dancing, jazz music, and a general sense of personal freedom, especially among Black Americans. Simultaneously, another artistic movement sweeps the nation: that of the “New Negro.” Members of the Wallflower Order, a secret society dedicated to eradicating Jes Grew in the interest of white supremacy, attempt to manipulate the mainstream perception of the “New Negro” to further their insidious agenda. Through the actions of the Wallflower Order, Reed satirizes the accepted Western understanding of Afro-American culture, and by contrasting the idea of the “New Negro” with Jes Grew, he proposes an alternative lens through which to perceive 1920s society.
The demarcation of the “New Negro Movement” as a sociological phenomenon is exactly the kind of impersonal, scientific categorization that Jes Grew resists. Reed writes that the Wallflower Order seeks “to drive it out, categorize it analyze it expell it slay it, blot Jes Grew,” indicating that to callously dissect and label such a cultural uprising is to kill it. Jes Grew is of an organic, improvisational nature, not meant to be observed and interpreted in an objective sense. Music, art, and literature should evoke something personal, emotional, spiritual. “The New Negro” is an incongruously artificial label which oversimplifies the realities of being a Black American in the 1920s. It cheapens the Black artistry of the time by forcing it into a specific intellectual framework, and bringing such work into the cultural mainstream with this superimposed identity restricts it to a narrow, almost stereotypical expectation. The reduction of Afro-American culture into a singular, one-dimensional mindset quickly proves itself problematic in the novel. The Wallflower Order, laboring under this widespread misperception, attempts to capitalize on the supposed homogeneity of the “New Negro” by installing a single “Negro Viewpoint,” that is, “a Talking Android; a Human Vaccine who will make Jes Grew seem harmful to the J.G.C.s; make certain that they don’t pick up on it.” Ultimately, this strategy fails due to the nonconformist property of the Jes Grew virus, which can be viewed as a representation of self-expression. The plan is not a complete flop, however, and in the process of its execution, the undercover Wallflower Order gains a following of “New Negro” intellectuals.
As the “New Negro” attempts to be recognized by white society, he succumbs to Eurocentrism. As stated by one enemy of the Wallflower Order, “Some of these people with degrees going around here shouting that they are New Negroes are really serving the Man who awarded them their degrees, who has initiated them into his slang and found them ‘qualified,’ which means loyal.” The novel essentially characterizes the “New Negro Movement” as a ploy to have Black Americans assimilate to a culture rooted in European ideals. The Wallflower Order hosts a gathering in affluent, suburban New York, where “Princes of Europe rub elbows with Harlem poets, tycoons from Tin Pan Alley have brought their stables, playwrights, painters, publishers, producers, sports figures, Negro delineators, middle-aged Byron-Shelley-quoting Negro professors thrilled by their newly found Negroness.” The atmosphere is one of ostentatious European elegance and decorum:
Inside the home, in 1 room, can be heard someone playing an étude by Chopin upon a 24-karat-gold-decorated white piano. The furniture is Hepplewhite and upon the walls hang paintings by Renaissance masters… Mingling among the guests, maids carry trays supporting succulent tidbits in blankets, anti-pasto, gherkins stuffed with nutmeats, marinated oysters in pastry, braised celery and shrimp puffs, cucumbers filled with crab meat. Champagne flows.
The highlight of the evening is a performance by a man in literal blackface, introduced as “the dominant figure in Negro letters today, a man who like no 1 else captures the complexity of Negro Thought.” The presented work, entitled “Harlem Tom Toms,” is a crude imitation of European verse, an awkward hybrid of “Negro” dialect and pretentious, antiquated Anglo-Saxon linguistic tics: “What is dat I see ova dare?…Polluting thy waves, dirtying thy crests…” The poem and its presenter are metaphors for white America’s expectation of the “New Negro.” This expectation discourages originality and asks Black Americans to try to prove their intelligence by producing art which mimics classical European styles. In the words of one agent of the Wallflower Order, “They’re the 1s who must change, not us, they…they must adopt our ways, producing Elizabethan poets; they should have Stravinskys and Mozarts in the wings, they must become Civilized!!!!” This racist mindset is placed in opposition with Jes Grew, which emboldens and inspires its carriers to pursue an “aesthetic freedom” unique and individual to each one’s self.
Furthermore, In the novel, “New Negro” art leans heavily on dark, depressing themes and focuses on anxiety and sadness. At the Wallflower Order’s gathering, a “New Negro” man describes “a film he is doing which allegorizes war death famine and pestilence.” Then, “Harlem Tom Toms” opens with the following lines:
O Harlem, great Negro sea of unrestAllow me to dip my feet into thy BlackWaters where chippies swim like sad-Eyed fishEngulf me, Harlem. Submerge me in thy wateryCabaret until one hand surfaces only…
In addition to venerating European culture, the Wallflower order desires the “New Negro” to repress his own emotions, presenting himself to the world only through a veil of gloom and despondency. The “New Negro” should be constantly troubled by his race, always facing some sort of existential anguish. Inversely, Jes Grew is a facilitator of personal satisfaction, “electric as life” and “characterized by ebullience and ecstasy.” It is an uplifting force that fiercely rejects the “New Negro” expectation of race-induced despair.
Despite being a work of fiction, Mumbo Jumbo has the capacity to enlighten its readers with a new, unique perspective on race and history. Reed’s imaginary concept of Jes Grew calls into question the narrative most take for granted, providing a method for thinking about 1920s Afro-American society that broadens the perception of culture instead of limiting it, celebrates African influences instead of demonizing them, and encourages positivity over pessimism.