Mumbo Jumbo

Jes Grew and the New Negro: The 1920s According to 'Mumbo Jumbo' 12th Grade

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...

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