The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Ishmael Reed Mumbo Jumbo (1972)


‘In his 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed writes the story of an ‘epidemic’ of black culture—song, dance, slang and other elements—spreading into mainstream America. He calls his plague ‘Jes Grew’ and it is spread by ‘Jes Grew Carriers’ (or J.G.C.s) who are responsible for outbreaks throughout the US, and in some locations overseas.

‘Reed sets most of his story in New York during the Jazz Age. An earlier outbreak of ‘Jes Grew’—associated with the rise of ragtime in the 1890s—had been effectively contained. But now a new, stronger bug is sweeping northward from New Orleans, and threatens to subdue most of the population. There are “18,000 cases in Arkansas, 60,000 in Tennessee, 98,000 in Mississippi and cases showing up even in Wyoming.” Workers are dancing the Turkey Trot during their lunch break, and singing in the streets. The authorities are alarmed. People want to catch this new disease. Those who are still healthy gather around those already bitten by the bug, and chant “give me fever, give me fever.”

‘But if everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon of the new black plague, who is left to stop it. Here Reed outdoes himself, offering the grandest of conspiracy theories. The Knights Templar, apparently disbanded in the year 1312, are actually still hanging around, and waiting for a chance to stop the Jes Grew epidemic. But they need to get in line. The Teutonic Knights, founded in the twelfth century, also want to block the disease. And some Masons, a former cop, yellow journalists, Wall Street, politicians the folks at the Plutocrat Club, and a mysterious group known as the Wallflower Order, dedicated to implementing the world- view of an even bigger conspiracy group, known as the Atonists, all have skin in the game (literally and metaphorically).

‘Three years after Reed published Mumbo Jumbo, E.L. Doctorow released his novel Ragtime to great acclaim, with particular praise lavished on that book’s mixture of fictional characters and real personages from early 20th century America. But Reed set the tone for this mashup up truth and fiction in his colorful predecessor, and even anticipated Doctorow’s reliance on black music as an emblem for the flux and flow of the era.

‘If anything, Reed is more ambitious. He even includes footnotes and a lengthy bibliography at the end of his novel—with citations of everyone from Edward Gibbon to Madame Blavatsky. Photos and artwork are also inserted into the text, which often seems intent on breaking free of the constraints of the novel, and turning into a radical reinterpretation of the last several thousand years of human society.

‘Reed has delivered a classic work in the literature of paranoia. He joins an illustrious company, offering us a book that can stand alongside—at least in terms of the breadth of its conspiracy theories—Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy, Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan and other powerful literary evocations of our zeal to find hidden enemies everywhere we look. Writers nowadays may do some things better than their predecessors, but the generation that lived through McCarthyism, the Cold War, Alger Hiss and Kim Philby had a much better skill at capturing the exotic flavor of the paranoid mindset in narrative form.’ — Ted Gloria


Facsimile pages



Ishmael Reed Website
‘Mumbo Jumbo’ @ Wikipedia
‘Ishmael Reed and the Psychic Epidemic’
‘Mumbo Umbo: Wormholes through History’
Ishmael Reed @ Biblio
‘Ishmael Reed on the Life and Death of Amiri Baraka’
Ishmael Reed @ goodreads
‘Fade to White’, an Op Ed by Ishmael Reed @ NYT
‘Bad Apples in Ferguson’ by Ishmael Reed
‘All the Demons Of American Racism Are Rising From the Sewer’
Ishmael Reed on ‘Juice!’
‘Self-reflexivity and Historical Revisionism in Ishmael Reed’s Neo-hoodoo Aesthetics’
‘The Black Pathology Biz’ by Ishmael Reed
‘Mumbo Jumbo’ reviewed @ Autodidact Project
Ishmael Reed’s Top Ten Books List
‘A Progressive Rebuttal to Ishmael Reed’
‘Ishmael Reed on the Language of Huck Finn’
‘Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo: Afrocentricism, Philosophy, and Haiti’
‘Ishmael Reed: The Idol Smasher’
Buy ‘Mumbo Jumbo’



Ishmael Reed reads two poems and discusses his novel “Mumbo Jumbo.”

Meet Ishmael Reed

To Become A Writer, Ishmael Reed

Huey P. Newton, Ishmael Reed & Jawanza Kunjufu On Racism Again Black Men (1988)

Ishmael Reed at Litquake 2007




Let’s talk about writing. You’ve said before, “Writing is Fighting.” As you know, Miles Davis compared his musical exercise to the discipline of boxing. In fact, he said he respects good boxers so much, because they require and possess an intelligence; that, there’s a “higher sense of theory” going on in their heads. He compared it to his solitary exercise of performing.

ISHMAEL REED: Miles was also a boxer.

Right. So, we have this whole concept of boxing, writing, fighting. Why this philosophy of “boxing” as writing?

IR: I think I have a pugnacious style. My style is not pretty. I don’t use words like “amber” or “opaque.” (Laughs.)

Or Chrysanthemums? (Laughs.)

IR: (Laughs.) Yeah, yeah. My stuff is direct. Critics have compared my writing style with boxing all the way back to 1978 when my first book of essays appeared: it was compared to Muhammad Ali’s style. Others have compared my style to that of Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson.

As a writer, you explore all kinds of different emotions. My latest poem is about a tree in my backyard, which is from the Tropics. I’m trying to explain how it got there. I had a meditative poem about watching out over the Golden Gate Bridge from a mountain.

It was published in The New Yorker. I think when I write essays I’m out to do on the page what we can’t do in the media. We don’t have billions of dollars that are available to these people who do what amounts to a propaganda attack on us. We’re being out propagandized. When I look at the newspapers, I’m furious. Because I can see where the interpretation of whom we are and how people from the outside define us.

My friend Cecil Brown is very upset because the SF Chronicle is doing a Black History Month series and it’s all White male writers! I mean they assign Black History Month to all White writers with all these African American writers in the Bay Area and in California? I mean I’m here and I’ve written for them. And of course, they wrote about the kind of Black image that appeals to them: Athletes and Entertainers. Not a single scientist, or inventor. I was down at Lockheed Martin, addressing the Black employees: Engineers and Scientists last week. I told them that a lot of the space equipment used by NASA was invented by Black scientists, yet when Mailer wrote that ignorant book about the moonshot, Fire On The Moon, he said that Blacks were jealous of this White achievement.The formula for sending a shuttle into space and bringing it back was devised by a Black woman scientist.

Cecil also said he was pleased that there was a Hollywood writer’s strike so all these demeaning images of blacks would at least disappear for a while, for at least 3 weeks. Because, I mean the Writer’s Guild is only like 2% African American. I think there’s probably, what, no Pakistani American writers?

I think there is 1.

IR: Well, probably, he’s the one saying, “We all ought to assimilate.”

Or, he might try to hide it.

IR: Yeah, hides it. Right. So, that’s all we have. All we have is writing. Sometimes it’s very effective. I mean I’m organizing my neighborhood block with emails, because we have criminal activity on our block. Instead of the old days, where we had to confront these people, now we can do it through emails and cyberspace.

I did a book called Another Day at the Front which was my first critical book about the media, and I got on Nightline. I was able to challenge some of these assumptions of African Americans and their culture.

Is writing a solitary experience? Is it shadowboxing in a sense?

IR: Not for me. I have T.V. on all the time when I’m writing. I have music on. I’m engaged with the world. If the phone rings, I answer it. I’m not the kind of writer who sits around 8 hours a day writing. I’ll write in the morning, and sometimes I’ll get up 4 in the morning sometimes and do this Anthology I’m working on. (PowWow, releasing this summer by De Capo Press). I’m learning a lot. I wasn’t really a short story person, but now I’m reading about 140 short stories and there are a lot of good ones out there. I’m reading stories from different groups– like from the 19th century immigrant perspective which is really overlooked. In this country, it’s not good to be “ethnic.” Although, T.S. Eliot said, “Not all ethnic writers are great, but all great writers are ethnic.” I mean Eliot was the head of the modernist movement!

I don’t know about this solitary stuff. I mean I do plays and they are collaborative. My last play was called “angry” by the New York Times. Even though every line could be footnoted. I got a great review in the Backstage which is a theatre trade magazine, but the Times guy said I was “angry” about a lot of things. But, I mean, what was I angry about? I took on 2 issues. One was the pharmaceutical industry using African Americans as guinea pigs and colluding with psychiatrists, who get $40,000 kickbacks, and how they use these drugs in Africa for testing. They are fully aware of the bad side effects when they produce these drugs. The other issue is how think-thanks front these people like McWhorter to push this line that “all of African American’s problems are self inflicted.”

This is what we’re up against. See, our intellectuals don’t know what we’re up against. They think this is all about getting on the Bill Maher show. There is an orchestrated campaign that is tied to the Eugenics campaign. I just had a dialogue with John Rockwell from the New York Times, because we’re in the same anthology together. I said, “Look, the Eugenics movement came out of the United States.” “Where? Where? Where?” he said. So, I had to send him a book on this.

Let’s talk about Mumbo Jumbo your most famous novel. Many say this novel was about the forces of “rationalism and militarism” versus the forces of “the magical and the spontaneous.” Today, we find extremist groups rooting themselves in piety, religion, spirituality and faith. In the 1972 version of the novel, Abdul Hamid, a Black Muslim fundamentalist, burns the “Book” which contains the “key” to these ancient traditions of magic, dance, and creativity. If Mumbo Jumbo took place in the 21st century, who would burn the “Book”?

IR: I think there are fundamentalists all over the world. I think all religions have fundamentalists who have different interpretations of scriptures that are very vague. These books are written in metaphor, they are written with symbolism. A lot of it is outdated and tied to the times in which the text was written. So, you can do anything you want to with religion. Unfortunately, in the world today, we have dogmatic people entering into politics. I don’t think the two mix. But, we always believed in separation of church and state. But, I predicted there would be a theocracy in the 80’s in my book The Terrible Twos, where I had a preacher running the White House in 1982.

You see, I think when you’re an independent intellectual you’re going to get it from all sides. I get it from the Left, the Right, the Middle. When I proposed that people said it was silly, but now we have Huckabee and Bush, and others. I mean they’re all still players. But, when I said it, they thought it was silly.



Ishmael Reed Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo Jumbo is Ishmael Reed’s brilliantly satiric deconstruction of Western civilization, a racy and uproarious commentary on our society. In it, Reed, one of our preeminent African-American authors, mixes portraits of historical figures and fictional characters with sound bites on subjects ranging from ragtime to Greek philosophy. Cited by literary critic Harold Bloom as one of the five hundred most significant books in the Western canon, Mumbo Jumbo is a trenchant and often biting look at black-white relations throughout history, from a keen observer of our culture.’ — Scribner






p.s. Hey. ** michael karo, Hi, Michael. Thanks, man, and international hugs to you. Thank you for sharing those messages, and I hope you got some sleep. ** David Ehrenstein, Of course the Gus video is blocked over here. That happens more and more. Youtube is getting ever more nationalistic. ** Sypha, Hi. Oh, sure. I grew up in SoCal where the desert is just an hour-plus drive, and I’ve set many feet in the desert for forever. Big favorite type of place for me. Oh, shit, belated very happy birthday! What did you, get, etc.? My 40s were excellent years, so I suggest there’s nothing to fear from them if you do. ** _Black_Acrylic, Yes, I’m actually reading that Foucault in California book. Maybe it was an unconscious motivator to restore that weird post. Thanks! ** Corey Heiferman, Cool you liked the post. I can only see it from the inside, of course, and what I see is a ton of naive fumbling towards trying to do things with gifs that I would eventually figure out. I think all credit goes to the America lyrics. And maybe to the title. A kipod. Huh. Thanks, you learn something every day. Wow, Kippi Kipod is a lot trippier/scarier/better than Big Bird. But it might be the aged look of the clip too, I guess. I didn’t know ‘Hole in the Moon’ at all. Another learned thing. I’ll check the clip when I’m post-here. Thanks for that. This blog has a secret affair going on with gummis behind every other posts’ backs maybe. Thanks. I’m just anxiously waiting for enough of a break from everything else I’m committed to doing so I can start manhandling it. It: my ‘novel’. ** Nick Toti, Hi, Nick. If you’ve seen ‘Permanent Green Light’, and I can’t remember if you have, that gif has a prominent place in the film, but in a speedier version. So maybe you know it from that? ** Bernard Welt, Well, that’s interesting. About your antipathy to deserts. I feel like I’ve been given a key to you. I will ponder. You should do a Roussel and write a long poem or novel about a desert. No, yes? Ha, well, firemen’s balls, as it were, will be an easy go. I think they’re on the 13th, though. Ah, you’ll figure it out. People often especially seem to like the one at the fire station next to Point Ephemere, a mere stroll from the Recollets. Love from equally old apparently Dennis. Yikes. ** KeatonRollings, Keaton Rollings and Henry Rollins should team up and do something. Sing ‘I Got You, Babe’ or something. True, I’m kind of almost literally dying to ride that new Harry Potter Coaster at Florida’s Universal, just for instance. Are you recording yet? I send you ultra-ambience. Mmmmm, nachos. And love. ** Misanthrope, Man, if only we could not do aging. I think the best we can do is see it as ballet or something. Send that rain over here. ** Right. I draw today’s attention to Ishmael Reed’s first and incredibly excellent novel if you haven’t read it. So good. Be with it. I’ll be with you again, but without it, or with it as a fresh memory, tomorrow.


  1. David Ehrenstein

    The blocked Gus video was “Gerry” in its entirety.

    Ishmael Reed is an exceptionally important voice in African-American life and literature

  2. Sypha

    Ah yes, Dennis, this is one of the books in your top 50 list that I still haven’t gotten to yet. One of these days. I’ve just had so much to read recently… this has been one of those years where many of my friends have had books published, and sometimes I have trouble keeping up, ha ha.

    Yeah, after I posted my comment yesterday I went, “Wait, Dennis grew up in California, so he’s probably been to a desert before.” That’s cool though.

    My birthday was okay. My parents got me a new pair of New Balance sneakers, a Twin Peaks t-shirt, and 2 books, one a book of photographs of Kate Bush, the other being “Prince Zaleski” by M.P. Shiel (obviously, I told them what books to get me, ha ha). My brothers got me 2 boxes of STRANGER THINGS season 2 trading cards (that I plan to open in Maine, though that vacation is still up in the air at the moment), and a $25 eBay gift card.

  3. Steve Erickson

    Have you heard about Reed’s latest play THE HAUNTING OF LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, which is now being performed in New York? It’s a critique of the historical inaccuracies and centrist politics of HAMILTON.

    FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER is now streaming on

  4. Keatony

    As you know Sug leaves the studio open 24 hours.
    Recording began last night. And I ran into an old, familiar, friend. My voice, haha! You know how Pittsburgh was voted the worst accent in the U.S. Well, I’m from about 5 hours South of there. If I scream it articulates, otherwise, it sounds like a drooling Tom Waites or something. My drawl is sooo slow. Slow and fat, story of my life. I’m psyched! I’m catching some weird articulates here and there, Florida/PA/and Ohio, have done a number on my Southern charm. I’m hoping one of the members of Cannibal Corpse freaks out again and kicks in my door. I’m such a whore for a Strat. I have not yet explored The Mouse. Went to Sea World, they give out free beer there now. I kept telepathing this dolphin there “love” and he ran and told his trainer. The Beast is my favorite roller coaster. I like that feeling of wood and speed, haha. Really loved the desert Gifs. Absolute horror in my dreams last night. I was at a religious convention and it all just went wrong. My great-grandmother went to the bathroom and had a “fall”. I got pissed and dragged myself out of bed.

    Favorite studio joke:
    Hank shows up to record covered in mud.
    “Hank, what happened?”
    “I need a new Cadillac.”
    “What happened to the other one?”
    “It ran out of gas.” LOL

  5. _Black_Acrylic

    Wow I see this one is now out in a Penguin Modern Classics edition, good to know that it’s considered part of the canon eventually. The extracts are great and it’s been added to my wish list.

  6. Paul Curran

    Excellent reminder, Dennis. I haven’t read this yet, but got to change that!

    The desert post sure made me want to take acid in the desert!

    Yes, Dennis, Giselle seems to be in Kyoto a lot. A little far for me to catch usually. Hope something in Tokyo sometime, and maybe you get to come along as well if one of your collaborations…

    I’m good, thanks. Pretty busy with work this semester but winding down soon and quiet for a couple of months over summer. Still working ever so slowly on the j-novel. Figured out some structural things I wasn’t sure about, although still not sure about some tone things. But basically got to put in more time and work to complete the first draft, and then cut chunks that don’t fit or drag (smear) the right tone through the rest. Have you made much progress with your novel?

    I’ve been doing a bit of research into the Setagaya murders. Do you know about that case? The house is walking distance from my place and still abandoned from 2000. It’s wrapped in blue sheets with police signs and a guard on 24 hours a day. The police station dealing with it is also nearby. There’s a large sign offering a 20 million yen reward and still about 40 full-time staff working on it.

  7. Corey Heiferman

    Just ordered Mumbo Jumbo. Looking forward to having lots of reading time before starting school (fingers-crossed) in late October. Also watched On the Downlow. Got practical ideas about how to combine staged and verite elements in digital documentary in a matter-of-fact way.

    The America lyrics in the desert gif post sent me on a bit of a though spiral about the rise of Trump and the perception of the past. There’s a lot of lame or mediocre art from the 70’s and 80’s (before I was born) to which I once had a charitable “glad some people enjoy it” attitude but that now just look and sound like harbingers of Trump. The band America is one of these.

  8. Bill

    Good to see this Mumbo Jumbo day, Dennis. I remember reading it after your recommendation, quite a ride.

    Caught the doc on Freddie Buretti, who designed David Bowie’s outfits in the Ziggy Stardust era. Pretty thin unfortunately; I don’t think was much footage or documentation to work with. Two more docs coming up this week, one on San Francisco’s Mission district in the 80s/90s, and one on David Wojnarowicz, part of the gay film fest this year. Usually I’m only interested in one or two films in the festival, but there seems to be more intriguing items this time. We’ll see…


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