PaPa LaBas

Created by Ishmael Reed

Ishmael Reed’s headspinning Mumbo Jumbo (1972) is mish-mash of Black pride, righteous anger, fingerpointing and, um, Footloose?

It’s also, if you look at it in just the right light, a private eye story.

It’s the early 1920s, Warren Harding is president, membership in the Ku Klux Klan is growing, ragtime is morphing into jazz, and something weird (well, weirder than normal) is happening in the United States. Something highly contagious is spreading, epidemic-like, across the country. And that something is Jes Grew, a virus that makes even the meekest and most mild suddenly desperate to bop till they drop. Because, Lord knows, if people are allowed to dance, can fornicating, overturning social norms, demanding their cut of the pie, speaking out and essentially kicking out the jams be far behind?

Naturally, the tighty-whitey Puritanical powers-that-be, spearheaded by the Wallflower Order, are terrified that this plague could mean the end of the United States and  the world as we know it. This pandemic of Boogie Fever must be stopped!

So they hatch a scheme to plant a double agent into the Black community, where they suspect the virus originated, and quash the outbreak before everyone is affected. If Trump had been around back then, he’d no doubt have called it the “Black Flu” or something.

Meanwhile, in Harlem, private investigator, houngan voodoo priest and “astro-detective” PaPa LaBAS and his partner, Black Herman (a real like African-American stage magician and root doctor), are working out of their office in The Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, doing their bit to protect African culture, and to find a missing spiritual text that, like Hammett’s Maltese Falcon,  may not be exactly what it seems to be. Jes Grew? PaPa’s not just familiar with the centuries old virus–he’s a carrier, and he’s going to do anything he can, even without a client, to ensure the virus is allowed to spread. It’s a battle that’s been waging for millennia, and Papa knows damn well which side he’s on.

Hailed by Harold Bloom as one of the five hundred greatest books of the Western canon, Mumbo Jumbo is some kind of a read, a mindblowing, almost Pynchonesque (or possibly Monty Pythonesque) trip touching on everything that caught the author’s eye at the time: movies, academia, racial theory, history, national and cultural mythologies, working in asides and deep dives into ragtime, blues, jazz, Greek gods, the Harlem Renaissance, cameos by historical and Biblical figures, the Back-to-Africa movement,the U.S. occupation of Haiti, African campfire tales and liberal doses of Voodoo, but what the book, which the author once described as “Neo-HooDoo,” is really about is a personal and passionate history of American racism, told in kaleidoscopic prose with tongue firmly in cheek, at turns witty and sly, or pointed and angry. Mind-altering drugs may have been involved.

It’s remained in print since its first edition, and has been translated into multiple languages, a formidable task since the book itself plays fast and loose with traditional rules of layout, design and typography, beginning as a screenplay (complete with credits, fade-ins and freeze-frames) and wrapped up as though it were a scholarly work, citing a lengthy bibliography of books real and imagined. And in between it’s liberally laced with drawings, photographs, collages, copyright notices, hand-written letters, snippets of poetry, radio messages, and footnotes.


Ishmael Reed is an American  poet, playwright, screenwriter, songwriter, novelist and intellectual. His other novels include Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1970), Flight to Canada (1975), and Japanese By Spring (1998). He’s also tackled the OJ Simpson trial in Juice! (2011) and taken a dump on the Trump administration  in Conjugating Hindi (2018). He’s been nominated for a National Book Award for both poetry and prose, and a Pulitzer Prize, and has received a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California, a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Blues Song Writer of the Year award from the West Coast Blues Hall of Fame, a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the National Institute for Arts and Letters, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, for thirty-five years and currently lives in Oakland, California.


  • “If this does not sound like the plot material for a detective novel, that’s because Mumbo Jumbo is an unconventional one.”
    Scott Alderberg
    displaying a prime example of understatement
  • “If there exists a body of mysteries in Afro-American oral literature, then included among my works would be mysteries like Mumbo Jumbo, which is not only a detective novel, but a novel concerning the mysteries, the secrets, of competing civilizations.”
    — Ishmael Reed, in his essay “Serious Comedy in African-American Literature”
  • “From its title on, Mumbo Jumbo serves as a critique of black and Western literary forms and conventions, and of the complex relationships between the two.”
    — Henry Louis Gates Jr.
  • “Part vision, part satire, part farce . . . A wholly original, unholy cross between the craft of fiction and witchcraft.”
    — The New York Times
  • “Reed’s synchronous model defies the progressive linearity of much recent technocultural criticism”
    — Alondra Nelson
  • “An all-out assault on Western civilization . . .”
    — Saturday Review
  • “Highly comic . . . abounds with allusions to everything under (and over) the sun.”
    — Kirkus Reviews
  • “Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.”
    — Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)



Respecfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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