Historicizing Freedom, Fear, And Sexuality In Native Son And Mumbo Jumbo

ASU Author/Contributor (non-ASU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Chloe Taylor Womble (Creator)
Appalachian State University (ASU )
Web Site: https://library.appstate.edu/
Carl Eby

Abstract: Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) are both classics of African American literature, but they may seem to have very little else in common. Wright’s Native Son directly and explosively confronts mentally and emotionally weighty material. Following conflicted Black protagonist Bigger Thomas in the 1930s, it provides an intimate look into his thoughts and feelings as he commits, or contemplates, crime after crime. He plans to rob a delicatessen with several of his friends, he masturbates in a public theater, and he brutally murders a white woman, Mary Dalton. Disposing of her body by hacking her head off, first with his pocketknife and then a hatchet, Bigger then stuffs the severed head and body into the Daltons’ furnace. After trying to extort money from the Daltons with a ransom note for their missing daughter, he goes on to rape and murder his “girl,”1 Bessie, in an old abandoned building, beating her in the head with a brick and throwing her body down an air-shaft. It is later revealed that the beating did not fully kill her, but the fall down the air-shaft combined with the freezing winter temperatures of Chicago finished the job. This final act of violence turns out to be the last free decision Bigger makes, as he is subsequently captured, tried, and sentenced to death. The remainder of the novel concerns Bigger’s trial, as a communist lawyer takes his case and stands off with the city’s attorney general. The often-violent material reflects the general atmosphere of the Great Depression––one of fear, of uncertainty, of economic despair and disrepair. Like a ray of sunshine, Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo burst onto the postmodern literary scene in 1972. Its quirky tone could not be more different than Native Son’s. The novel is an entertaining whodunnit set in the 1920s, following the movements of several groups within New York involved in a massive conspiracy. Art is stolen from museums. A contagious dance sweeps across the nation, causing people to leave their jobs and houses in favor of moving their bodies in the streets. Characters are revealed to be thousands of years old and members of secretive societies. PaPa LaBas, who could be called the novel’s protagonist, practices HooDoo, a mixture of Haitian Voodoo and African American spiritual beliefs and folk traditions that was, and still is, practiced outside the novel in mostly rural Black communities across the United States. One of his employees and companions, Earline, is possessed by a HooDoo spirit––called a loa––and proceeds to seduce a married trolley man. The novel delves into Egyptian culture and religion, tracing the uncontrollable spread of Jes Grew’s roots back to the two gods Osiris and Set. Mumbo Jumbo is a witty satire on multiple levels, combining fact with fiction in a historical-creative hybrid. It critiques American culture in a clever and “often biting” way, but disguises it through humor (Reed, back cover). Reed sprinkles the book with entertaining and dryly sarcastic quotes such as “Fear stalks the land. (As usual; so what else is new?)” (50). One character goes to bed and “and spends a night dreaming of things too horrible to repeat. New Jersey. Things like that” (120). All in all, Mumbo Jumbo is a delightfully playful read, worlds away from the heavy material of rape and murder in Native Son.

Additional Information

Honors Project
Womble, C. (2021). Historicizing Freedom, Fear, And Sexuality In Native Son And Mumbo Jumbo. Unpublished Honors Thesis. Appalachian State University, Boone, NC.
Language: English
Date: 2021
Reed, Wright, sexuality, sexual expression, African American, Black, 1920, 1930, 1960, freedom, fear, dance

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