Ishmael Reed and the hoodoo trickster

Images of subversion: Ishmael Reed and the hoodoo trickster

James Lindroth

“HooDoo” explains Ishmael Reed in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, “might be called Vodoun, streamlined. In New Orleans it’s all over town, invisible to all but the trained eye. Faced with curious and sometimes comical suppression by the police, it never went underground; it merely put on a mask” (10). As Reed makes clear in this illuminating discussion of the voodoo ritual pervading Mardi Gras, the principal mask behind which blacks perform in this orgiastic, white celebration is that of trickster. King Zulu and his followers wear this trickster’s mask when blacks mimic the white parade led by King Rex, and what begins as an outrageous white caricature of a slave society with black victims “adopting the oppressor’s parody of themselves” ends in the masked comic rebellion of the hoodoo trickster. “While you’re laughing at us,” comments Reed, pointing out how the black trickster appears to accept the roles demanded by white authority only to reverse them through disguised mockery, “we’re laughing with you but the joke’s on you” (29). Like King Zulu, each of Reed’s protagonists – from Bukka Doopeyduk and the Loop Garoo Kid in his first two novels, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), to PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), Raven Quickskill in Flight to Canada (1976), and Black Peter in The Terrible Twos (1982) – assumes the trickster’s role. Each is driven by a mocking wit that subverts white authority and destroys white illusions of superiority while simultaneously promoting numerous value-laden symbols of black culture.

A fundamental source of Reed’s subversive imagery is hoodoo, with its rituals, conjure men and women, and its spirits, or loas, of whom chief examples are the trickster deities Legba, Guede, and Erzulie. In Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, Robert Farris Thompson traces the origin of the Haitian Legba to the Yoruba trickster deity Eshu-Elegba (151-52). As described by Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse, Guede, like Legba, is a “hilarious divinity” filled with the “stuff of burlesque”; Guede is also the only “loa which is entirely Haitian” (232). Erzulie, the Haitian goddess of love, is also a trickster who, according to Hurston, can be “gracious and beneficent” one moment and a “red-eyed” demon “terrible to look upon” the next (145-47). Two correlative sources of Reed’s subversive imagery, sources tied closely to hoodoo, are jazz history, with its abundant depictions of the playful artist, and black Egypt, an Egyptology promoting the black Osiris over the white Nefertiti.

Reed, like his protagonists, dons the trickster’s mask to expose society’s hidden evils, and a weapon wielded with telling force is scatological parody bordering on the obscene. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, where Reed deflates the agents of tyrannical white power through their association with subhuman hairiness and the processes of decay and elimination. Reed introduces hairiness as a visual sign of brutish power through his invention of a white authority figure whose name, a pun, is Harry Sam. This white dictator has given his name to the city in which the protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, lives and also to Sam’s island (alias Manhattan), the place from which he rules.

Harry Sam communicates with the public by means of TV, but he maintains order in the black ghetto of Harry Sam proper (alias Newark) through the offices of a henchman whose name, ABOREAL HAIRYMAN (25), with its play on boreal ‘northern’ and aboreal ‘away from the mouth,’ makes him not only the apotheosis of atavistic hairiness but his leader’s cloacal son. This mordant identification of white power with hairiness and the excretory functions is a development of the figure of elimination introduced in the novel’s first pages with Doopeyduk’s comment on Harry Sam’s peculiar withdrawal from the public eye: “SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness” (1). This pernicious disease has the effect of transmuting Harry Sam’s flesh into liquefied decay, the foul smell of which is figuratively represented through the ever present gas masks worn by advisors, bodyguards, and the tyrant himself.

Reed continues to employ cloacal imagery as he prosecutes this satire of white illusions of racial superiority. He introduces a white academician who pursues his scholarly research on the role of the dung beetle in Kafka by pushing a ball of excrement across the floor with the tip of his nose, and he comments ironically on the corrupt use of power by presenting the commode as the tyrant’s crest. For instance, a frieze painted on the hood of Harry Sam’s lavender Rolls Royce depicts Harry Sam ruling from this fool’s throne:

It showed HARRY SAM the dictator … sitting on the great commode. In his lap sat a business man, a Nazarene apprentice, and a black slum child. These figures represented the Just…. Above the figures float Lawrence Welk champagne bubbles. Below this scene tombstones have been rolled aside and the Nazarene faithful are seen rising in a mist with their hands reaching out to the figure sitting on the commode. (59-60)

Through this parody of the Second Coming, Reed ridicules white justice by equating it with the process of bodily elimination, and he mocks the notion of racial superiority deriving from any identification of white authority figures with Christ. The corrupt Harry Sam issues all of his proclamations from this cloacal throne; moreover, when his political empire collapses, it is this bejeweled commode that furnishes the dictator with his escape route. Cornered by an aroused mob bent on retribution for his crimes, Harry Sam flushes himself down the commode and vanishes into the sewage emptying into the bay separating Sam’s island from the city of Harry Sam.

Unlike PaPa LaBas, Raven Quickskill, and Black Peter, who demonstrate the hoodoo trickster’s art from the beginning, Reed’s first two protagonists, Bukka Doopeyduk and the Loop Garoo Kid, discover the efficaciousness of trickery through hard experience. Doopeyduk is a combination of Candide, Daffy Duck, and Krazy Kat; he is also, like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, duped by the illusory values of an exploitative white society. Similarly, in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the Loop Garoo Kid begins his career as the guileless innocent who dresses “like Mortimer Snerd,” spills “french fries on his lap,” and moves “from town to town quoting Thomas Jefferson” (9). Both Doopeyduk and Loop Garoo are transformed from tyros into tricksters through their contact with hoodoo; both inhabit worlds in which the imagery of hoodoo juxtaposed to icons of white power produces a mordant satire of establishment authority.

At first, Doopeyduk confirms his status as innocent by accepting servitude and exploitation as the norm. A college student, he lives in a housing project in a black ghetto, works as an orderly in a hospital, and is married to a black woman who mimics white society and who exploits him in the manner of that society. Failing to meet the standards of his white professors, his white employer, and his white-oriented wife, Doopeyduk is successively dismissed from college, discharged from his job, and divorced. Despite his defeats, Doopeyduk remains the innocent, convinced of the rightness of the society which has so firmly rejected him. No longer able to live in the projects because of a white rule against occupancy by single people, the now-divorced Doopeyduk, reflecting on his predicament, wanders through the city streets: “I must have seemed a little bedraggled as I walked along the street with the bag containing my belongings. The bag was tied to a stick and I carried it over my shoulder” (94). Through this image of the wanderer starting a new life, Reed presents Doopeyduk as an ironic comment on those other American innocents, from Huckleberry Finn to Little Orphan Annie and Augie March, whose periodic successes demonstrate the possibilities of the American dream. To accentuate satirically Doopeyduk’s naive expectations of renewal in a society that has so thoroughly excluded him, Reed draws upon the imagery of hoodoo.

Doopeyduk shows his early potential as trickster when he comments that he has pulled a “few new tricks out of the hat” to persuade his wife not to seek a divorce. Significantly, one of his tricks is a consultation with a “hoodoo man” (34). Doopeyduk’s actual transformation into hoodoo trickster, a transformation not completed until the novel’s apocalyptic conclusion, begins with physical and attitudinal changes. He grows fangs and claws, his ears become pointed, and he no longer carries himself in the “proud erect style” of the disciples of Christianity, satirically labeled “Nazarene apprentices” (39). Distressed by these changes signaling the beginning of his rejection of the innocent’s role, Doopeyduk’s wife, her mother, his white professor, and a neighbor tell him that he has been hoodooed. Not satisfied with simply offering advice, Doopeyduk’s white professor administers an anti-hoodoo potion, temporarily neutralizing him as a threat to established authority.

Doopeyduk demonstrates the full power of the hoodoo trickster in the novel’s final scenes when he exposes Harry Sam as a malevolent fraud and brings about the government’s collapse. Then, even though the repressive power structure re-establishes itself, making the rebel’s political triumph short-lived, Doopeyduk is further validated as hoodoo trickster with the appearance of the Free-Lance Pallbearers of the rifle, hundreds of hoodoo spirits who claim him as their own. This final transformation from innocent into trickster is completed in a surrealistic scene parodying the Crucifixion. For three days Doopeyduk is “hung by meathooks” as the entire student body of his university, the mayor of Harry Sam, and even his parents congregate to observe his punishment for defying the old political order. A pall of excrement suspended above Harry Sam turns day into night; then, on the “third day,” announced by the darkness becoming a “horrifying yellow,” the Free-Lance Pallbearers arrive to rescue him. The gathering of these hoodoo spirits, manifested as “hundreds of eye-holes,” suggests not only the imminent release of the trickster but also his translation to the spirit world (154).

If Doopeyduk’s final transformation into hoodoo trickster is an implicit one confirmed by the arrival of the Free-Lance Pallbearers, Loop Garoo’s transformation in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is explicitly achieved through hoodoo ritual:

Loop Garoo was dressed in a white smock. He wore glasses black skintight gloves and held a knife in his hand. On the floor lay a dead cock. Behind Loop stood an altar covered with cloth. It bore photographs of victims dead of strange whammies. Above this was a tapestry of a heart to each side of which were drawings of serpents. (61)

Of course, the white smock is poetic, and the glasses and skintight gloves are Reed’s additions, but the altar with pictures of victims, the heart framed by serpents, and the sacrifice of the cock declare this a hoodoo ritual. According to Thompson, Damballah, the most powerful of all the Haitian deities, is represented by the snake (178), a symbolic identification also emphasized by Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse. “Everywhere I found an altar to Damballah,” comments Hurston. “I found either an iron representation of the snake beside the pool, or an actual green snake which lived in a special place upon the altar.” Damballah, she continues, “brings good luck to those who make offerings to him regularly and faithfully,” and “his sacrifice is a pair of white chickens, hen and cock” (141-42). In the novel, the transformation worked by this sacrificial rite is signaled as Loop, displaying the features of both cowboy and trickster, claims a magical green horse:

A white snake moved around Loop Garoo’s neck, green with envy. It frowned above its pink eyes and whistled its pink tongue. From then on the Hoo-Doo cowboy would hagride the night holding the horn of the lone green horse. (68)

Though playfully introduced, the snake image has the same symbolic content as the serpents framing the heart, and Loop’s metamorphosis is made explicit through the appellation HooDoo cowboy.

Prior to the scene in which Loop Garoo is transformed into a hoodoo trickster, one of his cohorts in a conversation with a friend offers further evidence of the ritual’s Vodoun origin when he reports what Loop Garoo has said of himself:

Says he’s practicing some religion that is so old that man left the caves with it. He said it’s magic. He says he’s a sorcerer and that by making figures of his victims he entraps their spirits and is able to manipulate them … but I have to agree he’s a little odd. Those expressions of his, Great Legba! and those chickens he’s always sacrificing…. (60)

Not only does this report further identify Loop as a Vodoun sorcerer, but it ties him directly to the trickster deities of Africa and Haiti through the invocation of Legba. Following Loop’s transformation into hoodoo trickster, as Reed continues to parody the genre Western, the Loop Garoo Kid demonstrates his newly acquired power through his undoing of a notorious white outlaw gang led by the villainous Drag Gibson. In an ingenious comic turn on the conventional Western showdown between hero and villain, Reed climaxes his parody by having the Loop Garoo Kid anticipate victory with an elaborate hoodoo curse:

Drag Gibson, wicked whiskey drinker, your Hoo-Doo Death will be a collector’s item, your head will lie in excrement, the flies will feast upon it and their wings will drop off. The maggots will eat and turn blue. Only your own kind will savor you and even for them you will be their laxative. (80)

Framed by the curse, the figures of decay and elimination become emphatic and, as in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, constitute a mordant dismissal of abusive white power.

PaPa LaBas, the protagonist of Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, represents a further evolution of Reed’s hoodoo trickster. Bukka Doopeyduk and Loop Garoo lose their innocence as they metamorphose into tricksters; PaPa LaBas enters as the hoodoo mumbo jumbo, the “magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away” (7). From the beginning, he is identified by various names for the trickster, not only PaPa LaBas (derived from Legba) but “noonday HooDoo,” “obeah,” and “2-headed man.” Illuminating the appellation 2-headed man in Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston explains that conjure doctors are always called “two-headed” because they have “twice as much sense” (210). It is specifically to his powers as 2-headed man that LaBas appeals when his daughter charges him with conclusions based on insufficient evidence: “Evidence? Woman I dream about it, I feel it, I use my 2-heads” (25).

Together LaBas and a second trickster, or mumbo jumbo, Black Herman provide dramatic evidence of their hoodoo power. In Mumbo Jumbo, Black Herman exorcises a harmful loa, or spirit, from LaBas’s daughter; in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, LaBas recovers a spirit from the world of the dead. This spirit world is ruled by an ithyphallic trickster deity, Blue Coal, who speaks in a “graveled cracked 7,000,000-year-old Be-bop voice” (169). The metaphorical identification of Blue Coal’s voice with Be-bop is part of a musical pattern first introduced with the comparison of the sound of underground winds to “the risque clarinet trills of the old Cab Calloway band” (168); both musical figures are part of a broader language of jazz within which the trickster operates.

As hoodoo trickster, Raven Quickskill, the protagonist of Flight to Canada, has more in common with PaPa LaBas than Bukka Doopeyduk and Loop Garoo, and Black Peter, the hoodoo trickster of The Terrible Twos, presents a synthesis of them all. Trickster is inscribed in Raven Quickskill’s last name, but in choosing his protagonist’s first name Reed crosses cultural boundaries. For the name Raven, he explains in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, he has drawn upon “the Southwest Coyote Stories” (2) and also the “raven myth” of the Tlinglit Indians of Alaska (228-29). Raven Quickskill has his identity as hoodoo trickster confirmed in a slaveowner’s complaint to President Lincoln:

“… the worst betrayal of all was Raven Quickskill, my trusted bookkeeper. Fooled around with my books, so that every time I’d buy a new slave he’d destroy the invoices and I’d have no record of purchases; he was also writing passes and forging freedom papers. We gave him Literacy … and what does he do with it? Uses it like that old Voodoo – that old stuff the slaves mumble about. Fetishism and grisly rites, only he doesn’t need anything but a pen he had shaped out of cock feathers and chicken claws.” (3536)

The slaveowner’s comment on literacy is particularly relevant, since it is through his trickery with words, his hoodoo artistry, that Quickskill makes good his escape, his flight to Canada.

Raven Quickskill achieves his freedom by writing a poem, “Flight to Canada,” whose financial success provides him with the money for the actual flight. This poem as summarized by the slaveowner’s overseer further establishes Quickskill’s identity as trickster: “‘The poem say that he has come back here to the plantation a lots and that he has drunk up all your wine and that he tricked your wife into giving him the combination to your safe'” (52). Not only does Quickskill give abundant evidence of the wit his name connotes, but his poem, with its theme of magical appearance and disappearance, suggests that Quickskill, like Loop Garoo, has the hoodoo power to come and go as freely as smoke. Moreover, like the tricksters who precede him, Quickskill employs both wit and hoodoo power in the subversion of a tyrannical white establishment.

In The Terrible Twos, Reed discovers his hoodoo trickster Black Peter in what appears at first an unlikely source, a major stream of European mythology and legend. Black Peter, a servant who, in the legend of Saint Nicholas, originally “carried Nicholas’s bags” (81), is transformed into the trickster through a recuperation of two pictures. The first shows Black Peter in a jester’s cap with its rooster’s comb: “An illustration of Saint Nicholas, but peeking from behind him is a cox-combed black figure with a bunch of rods sticking out of a pouch he carries on his back. Black Peter!” (121). As phallic images, the rooster’s comb and the erect rods also link Black Peter to Blue Coal, the ithyphallic deity of The Last Days of Louisiana Red. The second picture, from a Moscow art gallery, shows Saint Nicholas exorcising a devil, but the devil, a “tiny black creature with long body and a big nose and a rooster’s crown,” is another version of Black Peter as trickster. “Just like the Dutch,” reflects the narrator. “Instead of dissolving the devil, Saint Nicholas makes him carry his bags. Or is it Peter who makes Nicholas carry his bag? A close reading of the legend leads one to question who is the master of whom, and sometimes Nicholas and Peter are interchangeable!” (121).

Through this examination of the transformation of Santa Claus into a major icon of Western enterprise, Reed not only recovers the figure of Black Peter, but he finds a connection to the hoodoo spirit world by pursuing the icon’s earliest features in European mythology as he relates Christmas to the “dreadful Winter solstice” when the “undead, the half dead, and the near dead” roamed the world (120-21). A major point made through this examination is that the hoodoo trickster is omnipresent and irrepressible, something the narrator underscores: “The Americans would soon find out what the Dutch, French, and English had learned before. It’s hard to prevent Black Peter from going where he wants to go” (121).

Reed demonstrates this major point about the irrepressibility of this trickster by organizing The Terrible Twos around a modern Black Peter, a ventriloquist with red dreadlocks who displays his power through hoodoo. This ventriloquist is still another version of the black trickster who looks back to the African deity Osanyin. As Robert Farris Thompson reports, “Osanyin is the crippled king who, crushed to half his size, gained insight into the human condition. He comes not in the body of a possession devotee but in that of a tiny doll, given voice and motion by trained ventriloquists who are Osanyin priests and healers” (43). Reed’s Black Peter, a dwarf as well as a ventriloquist, is a conflation of Osanyin and the Osanyin priest.

Black Peter gives abundant evidence of his hoodoo power through a dramatic and continued subversion of oppressive authority. First, in a debate with the leader of the Nicolaites, a Christian sect, he astonishes the audience by “using the exact tone and inflection” of his opponent’s voice (59), wins the debate, and thereby becomes the sect’s new leader. Next, Reed’s trickster employs hoodoo to inspirit a corpse; then, speaking through this “dummy,” he takes control of a corporation for which Santa Claus functions as a symbol of ever-increasing profitability. Finally, he becomes the power behind the American Presidency. Throughout, Reed uses the hoodoo trickster to present a merciless satire of white infantilism pandered to by greedy bosses whose aim is to make each day a profitable Christmas.

At the center of this satirical portrait of infantilism and exploitation are two white icons: the Snow Man and Santa Claus. In a witty subversion of white middle-class sentiment, Reed shows how easily such images can be inverted. For instance, instead of evoking children at play, Reed’s Snow Man is transformed into a symbol of the rapacious drug lord, an assassin with “arctic blue eyes” (42) whose name is synonymous with cocaine, the “Inca’s revenge upon the Europeans” (53). Santa Claus, like the Snow Man, becomes an iconographic representation of white greed as Reed subversively emphasizes Santa’s original features in the “vulgar creation” of Thomas Nast (60). A sign of jollity in traditional white iconography, Santa’s enormous girth is not only satirized for its vulgarity but also for its sensuality. Reed prosecutes this latter aspect of Santa’s inverted image by returning again to an early picture: “There was an illustration of Nicholas, the jolly old man, with a laurel wreath on his head and a silver cup full of wine, naked from the waist up, surrounded by half-clad women, presiding over a decadent and voluptuous supper” (120).

Everywhere, as in his inverted image of a gross and salacious Santa, Reed subverts the white belief in a European culture superior to all others. Key to this subversion is the interpolation of the hoodoo trickster in scenes otherwise reassuring to a white middle class in their depiction of the familiar, the sentimental, and the stereotypical. For instance, in The Terrible Twos, a Nicolaite meal modeled on one from an English fairy tale consists of “turkey, goose, blackberry pie, and cherry pie … and three kinds of wine” and a “pig with an apple in its mouth,” but at the head table Reed places Black Peter, taking his ease like an oriental potentate on “red, black, and green satin pillows” and eating “fish and peppers, jerked pork and Dragon’s Snout” (44). Not only does Black Peter invade the world of domestic tranquillity, but his position of authority and his food of choice, particularly the Dragon’s Snout, make him upsetting and ominous. In the same novel, a painting depicts white sex goddesses of erotic fantasy, “naked, supple, pink,” in a moonlit cemetery where they copulate in abandon with Black Peter’s hoodoo doubles, “naked, midnight-black men with yellow eyes” (79). Finally, in a particularly subversive image, Reed transforms the familiar sight of Saint Nicholas astride a white horse entering Amsterdam into one in which the black servant as trickster changes roles with his master. In each case, Reed defamiliarizes and upsets the conventional; in each case, he demonstrates a major thesis: that Black Peter, the trickster, cannot be shut out.

As artist, Reed is as much trickster as his protagonists, and throughout his works he employs the imagery of hoodoo to subvert establishment bias. In line with this, he directs one of his heaviest and most subversive assaults at institutionalized Christianity. Reed begins his attack by satirically re-naming members of the Christian church. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, his first novel, they are sardonically referred to as Nazarenes; in subsequent novels from Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo, and The Last Days of Louisiana Red to Flight to Canada and The Terrible Twos, they are called Atonists. Duppy, a hoodoo word for the spirit “who returns from the grave and causes mischief,” is key to the satirical deflation of Nazarenes in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Reed’s definition, deferred until Mumbo Jumbo, where he contrasts the duppy to the “holy man” (91), derives from Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse. Hurston not only defines the word, but in a chapter entitled “Night Song After Death” she gives a full account of the duppy’s unholy activities (54-74).

In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed does not employ the full meaning of duppy, but, as a code embedded in the comic sound of the proagonist’s name, Bukka Doopeyduk, it is everywhere present, emphasizing the wrongheadedness of Doopeyduk’s unswerving support of the Nazarene cause. No matter how abused and exploited by the various Nazarene authority figures, Doopeyduk remains the convinced Nazarene apprentice. Chief among those who exploit him are Dr. Christian and nurse Rosemary D Camp, his superiors at a white hospital, who, after giving him a golden bed-pan inscribed with his name for zeal in cleaning slops and administering electric shocks to incurably insane white patients, fire him when his wages are troublesomely garnisheed. Doopeyduk remains the duppy until a final involvement with a Nazarene artistic fraud finds him performing in an Uncle Tom show, being pelted with baseballs for the entertainment of white cosmopolites. This final abuse precipitates a series of events transforming Doopeyduk from the duppy into the fanged hoodoo trickster.

Reed substitutes Atonist for Nazarene in his second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, but the intensity of his satirical attack continues at the same high pitch, and the weapons, once again, derive from the language of hoodoo. The Loop Garoo Kid, like Bukka Doopeyduk, begins as the victim of the Atonists, but through his contact with a conjure woman, Zozo Labrique, he discovers the efficaciousness of hoodoo spells in neutralizing Atonist power. A “charter member of the American Hoodoo Church” (10), Zozo Labrique dies after she, the Loop Garoo Kid, and other members of a traveling carnival are ambushed by an Atonist gang out to eliminate the threat to authority posed by black artists. With her last words, the dying conjure woman invokes hoodoo power as the only weapon with which to defeat the Atonists: “Flee boy, save yourself, I’m done for … and don’t forget the gris gris, the mojo, the wangols old Zozo taught you and when you need more power play poker with the dead” (26). In Hurston, wangols or “wanga,” mojo, and gris gris are synonyms for magic charms; in Reed, the words become more flexible, with wangol referring to spell, mojo to the power of a particular person or spirit, and gris gris to the substance used in conjuring. Wangol’s derivation from a play on Angola, one of the two African countries where the JuJu religion originated (152), gives it a highly charged subversive meaning, a sense employed by Loop Garoo in vowing revenge on the establishment: “This wangol will be so bad they will have to call in some of their top people …. It will be the strongest malice ever. Never again will they burn down carnivals and murder children” (62).

Employing the methods taught him by Zozo Labrique, Loop Garoo transforms himself into a conjure doctor and begins to defeat the Atonists with relative ease. One such defeat involves the wife of the Atonist gang leader, a woman whose sexual power makes her a formidable opponent. Loop Garoo’s newly acquired mojo renders him impervious to her sexual lures, and with the aid of gris-gris dolls he not only thwarts her attempt to dominate him but expels her completely. An awe-stricken Atonist reports this defeat within the framework of the novel’s overriding metaphor deriving from a telescoping of old radio scripts, paperback adventure stories, and the language of hoodoo: “The Kid put some kind of a cross on her, had some kind of gris gris dolls placed in her transmitter and the Woman had to sign off and get out of town” (129). Another defeat involves Drag Gibson, the Atonist gang leader, and it, too, is reported by a henchman:

… Drag is … a mere whisper of his former self. Each morning we find those effigies on the doorstep. Before you know it he’ll be making an appearance before the Riders of Judgment. He thinks the Loop Garoo Kid has put some kind of so-called magical spell on him…. (95-96)

As in the case of Drag Gibson’s wife, Loop Garoo introduces gris-gris dolls, the “effigies on the doorstep,” to nullify white power.

Loop Garoo demonstrates the trickster’s mojo with such effectiveness that the desperate Atonists finally summon the Pope in hopes of finding an antidote to his power. However, even the Pope is forced to admit that institutionalized Christianity is no match for hoodoo:

… when African slaves were sent to Haiti, Santo Domingo and other Latin American countries, we Catholics attempted to change their pantheon, but the natives merely placed our art alongside theirs. Our insipid and uninspiring saints were no match for theirs…. It’s important that we wipe it out because it can always become a revolutionary force. (153-54)

With the Pope’s appearance, Reed yanks the mask of religious benevolence from what is now shown to be an instrument of tyrannical white power, and the Pope’s specific fear of Haitian subversives prepares for Reed’s development of this particular aspect of the hoodoo trickster’s threat to Atonist power in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red.

Reed’s satirical attack on institutionalized Christianity in The Free-Lance Pallbearers is matched by his ridicule of university literature departments. His major target is a literature professor whose comic name, U2 Polyglot, with its allusion to CIA spy planes, uncovers the European bias of such departments. Polyglot is a fervent Christian who, like Dr. Christian and Rosemary D Camp, compliments Doopeyduk on his promise as a Nazarene apprentice and declares that Doopeyduk has an opportunity to become the “‘first bacteriological warfare expert of the colored race'”(4). Polyglot’s own specialty is literature, however, and Reed strikes particularly hard at the absurdity of pedantic research by stressing it as an anal activity. It is not Polyglot’s topic, “The Egyptian Dung Beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” but his manner of researching it that makes him absurd. As mentioned earlier, during their initial meeting in the professor’s office, Polyglot drops to his knees and begins “to push a light ball of excrement about the room by the tip of his nose” (5). From then on, whenever their paths cross, Polyglot is found similarly pursuing his research. Significantly, when Doopeyduk’s enthusiasm for the Nazarenes begins to be displaced by hoodoo awareness, it is Polyglot who administers a potion which allays the dangerous symptoms of Doopeyduk’s developing “hoodoo fever” (49).

It is not just the prejudice of professors that Reed satirically attacks, but the bias of Western culture, whose myths and legends he sees being propagated by university departments of art and literature to the exclusion of those emanating from other cultures. In his program to demystify these myths and legends glorifying whiteness as a symbol of racial superiority, Reed employs two more hoodoo words with striking effectiveness. These words, houngan and bokor, are most elaborately explained by Reed in Mumbo Jumbo in the course of his deconstruction of the Faust legend; however, houngan is first defined in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and both are central not only to Mumbo Jumbo but to subsequent novels as well. As first defined, houngan is a hoodoo priest whose power derives from his connections with the spirit world; a bokor, on the other hand, is a man who through deceit may appear to possess the power of a houngan but is really a charlatan. In Mumbo Jumbo, PaPa LaBas, the force behind the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, is a houngan, as are his close associates Black Herman and Benoit Batterville, a Haitian wise man. Houngans continue to occupy the center stage in the novels, with LaBas appearing for a second time in The Last Days of Louisiana Red and the artist-houngans having major roles in Flight to Canada and The Terrible Twos.

Bokorism is a term Reed applies to artistic dishonesty, something he discovers in abundance throughout popular culture. As examples, in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, he satirically addresses the imagery in Amos ‘n’ Andy, the immensely popular radio and then TV show by bokorist whites about blacks, and, in Flight to Canada, he turns his subversive attention to the bokorist fame of Harriet Beecher Stowe. To make his point about the dishonesty of black stereotypes, Reed clarifies the bokorist subtext of the show and then introduces LaBas, the houngan, whose unimpeachable dignity illuminates the stereotype’s falsity. First, instead of presenting them as loveable black fools, happily accommodating themselves to a superior white society, Reed transforms Kingfish and Andy Brown into leading members of the Moochers, a “special order of parasite” whose “drug is heroin,” whose song is “Willow Weep for Me,” and who “feel that generosity should flow one way: from you to me” (Last Days 17-18). Next, Reed transforms Amos Jones into a critic, the voice of moral reason, who proceeds to indict Kingfish and Andy as victimizers of their own race. Finally, it is LaBas, with his “million-year-old Olmec negro face” (34-35), who presents the most trenchant satirical comment on the image of Andy Brown, a stereotype, Reed scornfully suggests, deriving from the “consummate Brother Bear of Disney’s film version of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories” (45).

In Flight to Canada, Reed examines the case of Harriet Beecher Stowe. This time he makes efficacious use of Guede, another of the prominent hoodoo deities. To begin, Reed charges Stowe with the theft of black art, her piracy of The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave. Reed stresses the gravity of the theft by placing it in the context of hoodoo:

His story. A man’s story is his gris-gris … The thing that is himself. It’s like robbing a man of his Etheric Double. People pine away. It baffles the doctors the way some people pine away for no reason. For no reason? Somebody has made off with their Etheric Double, has crept into the hideout of themselves and taken all they found there. Human hosts walk the streets of the cities, their eyes hollow, the spirit gone out of them. Somebody has taken their story. (8)

This white piracy of black art has serious repercussions for the pirate, however. As Reed says, “Harriet paid. Oh yes, Harriet paid. When you take a man’s story, a story that doesn’t belong to you, that story will get you.” It is in the elaboration of the revenge taken for the theft of Josiah Henson’s story that Reed invokes Guede, the trickster who inspired people to mock Stowe’s success: “Guede knew. Guede is here. Guede is in New Orleans. Guede got people to write parodies and minstrel shows about Harriet. How she made all that money. Black money. That’s what they called it. The money stained her hands” (9).

As suggested earlier, Reed not only deflates the white pretension to cultural superiority, he simultaneously promotes black cultural achievement. And once again, the figures and language of hoodoo play important roles. Erzulie, like Legba and Guede, has a prominent place in Reed’s promotion of value-laden symbols of black culture. In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed merges Afro-American and Pre-Columbian imagery through the emphatic Olmec head in the depiction of LaBas; in Mumbo Jumbo, he invests Erzulie with value deriving from the rich figurative tradition of hoodoo and black Egypt through a conflation of Erzulie and Isis. He demonstrates brilliant iconographic wit not only through his identification of Erzulie as the “spiritual descendant” of Isis who displays the same “love of mirrors, plumes, combs” but also in his association of the conflated deities with the color red. It is this color that identifies Erzulie in the United States, where she is known as “the girl with the red dress on” (162); it is also this color which identifies Isis as Erzulie in the “Petro aspect of herself” when, wearing a “scarlet see-through gauzy gown” (180), she seduces Moses and later initiates him into the secrets of hoodoo. Regarding Petro, in Tell My Horse, Hurston distinguishes between “two classes of deities, the Rada or Arada and the Petro. The Rada gods are the ‘good’ gods…. The Petro gods are the ones who do evil work” (139).

As a descendant of Isis, Erzulie links black Egypt with hoodoo, but through ingenious additions Reed makes in the course of Mumbo Jumbo, she also facilitates their marriage to a third tradition – of jazz history. Reed identifies Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker, world-famous icons of this third tradition, as “2 aspects of Erzulie” (162); he cites W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Woman” as still another example of Erzulie (126); and he even goes so far as to identify Erzulie’s voice with that of a band’s “vocalizing trumpet which sings from mute to growl” (77). Of course, one of Reed’s concerns here and throughout his fiction is to place the black religious practices of hoodoo, deriving from the JuJu religion of Africa, on a level with those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Moreover, he places the products of the black creative imagination in all areas of endeavor, but particularly in music, on a par with the best that the European imagination has accomplished.

In Mumbo Jumbo, imagery of black religion and art converge in PaPa LaBas’s Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, which is divided into numerous rooms with names like Dark Tower, Weary Blues, Groove Bang, and Jive Around, and where a chief activity is communion with loas. Using cornmeal and water, artists in the Dark Tower draw veves, “markings” which are “invitations to new loas for New Art,” and dancers in Groove Bang and Jive Around bend “over backwards to admit their loas” (49). Names evoking jazz history – Weary Blues, Groove Bang, and Jive Around – are part of a musical pattern extending throughout Mumbo Jumbo. From its first pages, where jazz under the name Jes Grew is presented as a synonym for the black spirit and Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist, is identified as a major houngan “for whom there was no master adept enough to award him the Asson” (16), to its last pages, where Jes Grew is spoken of as having “touched John Coltrane’s Tenor” and “compelled Black Herman to write a dictionary of Dreams” (211), the merged streams of jazz and hoodoo are presented as the inspiriting sources of black culture.

The early reference to the Asson begins the formation of another emphatic link between hoodoo and jazz. This link is completed when in the last pages of Mumbo Jumbo LaBas states that in establishing the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral he has awarded the Assort to himself, with the implication that for him, as for the houngan of the jazz world, Charlie Parker, this is necessary because no other master has proved adept enough:

Jes Grew was jumpy now because it was 1920 and something was going on. A Stirring …. I was there, a private eye practicing in my Neo-HooDoo therapy center named by my critics Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral because I awarded the Asson to myself. Licensed myself. I was a jacklegged detective of the metaphysical who was on the case …. (211-12)

From the standpoint of hoodoo imagery, this is particularly witty since, as Maya Deren points out in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, the calabash which in the hands of the houngan becomes the Asson has a musical as well as a religious significance. Filled with “snake vertebrae” or “covered with a loose web of beads and vertebrae,” reports Deren, the calabash is the Asson, the “sacred rattle of houngans and mambos”; however, filled with seeds the calabash is the musician’s cha cha, “whose function is percussive accompaniment to dances” (325).

In Mumbo Jumbo, the witty figurative merging of music and religion receives further emphasis through the depiction of Osiris, the black Egyptian trickster deity, and through the image of the temple of Osiris, an analogue of LaBas’s Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. Osiris is linked to hoodoo through Isis, his sister, who is identified with the hoodoo deity Erzulie, and to music through activities identifying him as the first jazz improviser. Not only are Osiris’s experiments with dancing so successful that in Ethiopia he gains renown as “the man who did dances that caught on,” but he tours “Egypt with his musicians,” demonstrates “his basic dances,” and eventually travels throughout “the world with his International Nile Root Orchestra” (162-65).

Each of Reed’s protagonists, then, from Bukka Doopeyduk and the Loop Garoo Kid to PaPa LaBa, Raven Quickskill, and Black Peter, wear the trickster’s mask; each is shaped by subversive wit so improvisationally rich and boldly vital that what one character in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down says of Loop Garoo’s hoodoo art might be applied to Reed’s own: “Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily… He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker – improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes …” (154). In Reed’s case, these changes are subversive, and it is through the subversive imagery of his fiction that he makes abundantly clear his own powers as conjure doctor, mumbo jumbo, two-headed man.

Works Cited

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. 1953. New Paltz: McPherson, 1983.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. 1935. New York: Negro UP, 1969.

—–. Tell My Horse. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1938.

Reed, Ishmael. Fight to Canada. New York: Random, 1976.

—–. The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Garden City: Doubleday, 1967.

—–. The Last Days of Louisiana Red. New York: Random, 1974.

—–. The Terrible Twos. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.

—–. Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City: Doubleday, 1972.

—–. Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. Garden City: Doubleday, 1978.

—–. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Garden City: Doubleday, 1969.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random, 1983.

James Lindroth is Professor of English at Seton Hall University. His articles on V. S. Naipaul and Adrienne Rich recently appeared in Modern Fiction Studies and The CEA Critic, respectively.

COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review

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