Is the Holy Spirit from Africa?
The circumstantial evidence
By Ishmael Reed
First published in 1972
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In the opening scene of Ishmael Reed’s 1972 satirical novel Mumbo Jumbo, a pandemic is breaking out in 1920s New Orleans. As the white mayor attempts to calm the public, he begins to dance uncontrollably.
The Mayor feels that uncomfortable sensation at the nape and soon he is doing something resembling the symptoms of Jes Grew, and the Doctor who rushes to his aid starts slipping dipping gliding on out of doors and into the streets.
Jes Grew is a convulsive ecstatic dancing hysteria, similar to the dancing outbreaks in early modern Europe. As the novel progresses, the hysteria spreads northward (like the real world Great Migration), ever closer to New York City, spreading on a wave of ragtime, cakewalking, and jazz.
White leaders panic and attempt to contain the virus of joy, which threatens to overtake the whole country. The U.S. Attorney General, appealing to national security, announces a plague edict:
Do not wriggle the shoulders.
Do not shake the hips.
Do not twist the body.
Do not flounce the elbows.
Do not pump the arms.
Do not hop-glide instead.
Drop the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, the Bunny Hug, etc. These dances are ugly, ungraceful, and out of fashion.
The edict has little effect, and nothing seems to be able to stop the spread. As Jes Grew gets closer and closer to New York City, the secret powers that be are willing to do anything—even trigger a Great Depression—to stop the Jazz Age and keep the virus from taking over everything.
The art of possession
From one perspective, Jes Grew is a social contagion, an outbreak of mass hysteria. Something similar to memes, originally conceived, things “going viral,” or a so-called mind virus.
From another perspective, Jes Grew is a loa, a Voodoo god or spirit, that is unleashing its power and taking control of the population.
Not all Black people in the story have Jes Grew, but, in the vocabulary of the book, they are considered “carriers.” And Black culture, at its heart, the novel seems to argue, is a source of these loas, or has at least stumbled upon, and is controlled by, these spontaneous emergences of spiritual vibrancy that take possession of people. They are not planned or intended, they just grow (Jes Grew).
The blues, ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, dancing, and even slang—these are all forms of spirit (demonic or daemonic) possession that threaten the current order.
In his introduction to the 40th Anniversary edition, Reed describes his own experience of writing Mumbo Jumbo as a kind of possession:
But when writing Mumbo Jumbo, I was touched by the spirit. What have I distilled from African religion? The most important orisha is your mind, just as orishas welcome offerings, rum, fowl, perfume, rice, etc., one feeds the mind with knowledge because the greatest curse is ignorance.
(In the Yoruba religion the gods are called orisha.) Reed sets his aesthetic sensibility and artistic agenda in opposition to other Black writers who attempted to imitate white writers—”Ellison’s reliance upon Hemingway and Faulkner and James Baldwin’s use of Henry James as as writing guide.”
Go down Moses
To break free from white cultural norms and excavate a uniquely black pan-African cultural tradition, Reed rewrites the whole story of Western Civilization on African terms. The centerpiece of the novel is a story told by PaPa LaBas, a self-proclaimed American Voodoo priest who becomes “wise” to the deep history of Jes Grew by some visiting Hatians, and near the end of the book he passes on what he learned.
LaBas takes the story all the way back to ancient Egypt. On one side are the followers of Osiris and Isis, portrayed as a fertility cult of music, dancing, and sex.
On the other side are the followers of Set (Seth), who loves war and hates parties, dancing, drinking, sex, and…all that jazz.
In Reed’s telling, Set is behind the attempt at Atonism, a short-lived era of top-down monotheism in ancient Egypt, an attempt to quash the wild, disruptive, celebratory, orgiastic Osiris cult. The switch from Orisis to Aton never takes hold with the people, but Set has another idea up his sleeve: luring Moses to try and introduce Atonism again.
Moses is portrayed as a kind of Elvis figure, who learns the Black musical magic that has the power to turn rods into snakes, and then uses it for his own celebrity. Moses goes “on stage and began gyrating his hips and singing the words of the Book of Thoth.” The Egyptians know it isn’t the real deal, and so they push him out of Egypt, though he steals just one page of the Book of Thoth before he goes, and that’s enough to start his own religion.
However, the rest of Western history is a constant struggle for the Atonists (monotheists) who can never quite fully stamp out the possessing spirits. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai he “heard ‘heathen sounds’ (timbrel’d anthems dark, boogie, jazz, down-home music, funk, gutbucket) he hadn’t heard since the old days in Egypt.”
Jesus is portrayed as a kind of magician-healer (familiar enough with demons and demonic possession to be charged as follower of the devil himself, as blasphemer against the One God) who gets co-opted by the Atonists. Then the Atonists take control of the Roman Empire, but struggle to kill off the Dionysian pagan party cult. Once that is done, they are pestered by tarantism, dancing outbreaks, and witches that they have to hang or burn.
While all this is happening, however, says LaBas, the original Egyptian gods spread to West Africa and become the Yoruba orishas, then the Caribbean voodoo loas, and continue on through Black American folk spirituality, culture, and music in the “Egypt of America,” the South.
Though it mostly happens unintentionally, unwittingly, Black people carry on the cultural practices and traditions that summon their own possession by these spirits, who end up possessing white folk as well, and sparking terror in the hearts of the secret societies of Atonists (Think: freemasons whose only requirement is belief in monotheism) who control modern Western Civilization.
The conspiracy of white culture
The great irony at the heart of this conspiracy is that the white authorities desperately, secretly, need the loas. The loas are the source of creativity, cultural vibrancy. Black culture is the carrier of the loa, the perpetual engine of living culture, and without it, civilization is dead.
Throughout the novel, each of the white leaders—whose mission it is to stamp out Jes Grew—is secretly obsessed with, dependent on, and beholden to Black people, Black culture, or Black creativity. One minor white character is spotted throughout the novel snooping around Black gathering places, eavesdropping on conversations, in order to create new entertainment he can profit from. Another white man dies with a small idol in his pocket.
Black culture, Reed seems to argue, is the secret fountain of American creativity and cultural life. And so white people crave it, while they also try to contain, control, and oppose it. The great fear is society being overrun by the Black spirit, by the uncontrollable loas, and yet the superiority of white culture over them is something of an illusion.
How deep the rabbit hole goes
After reading this book, I began to reflect on the origins of a lot of the white culture that I grew up with and that surrounds me.
Lying on the floor of my grandparent’s living room as a child, watching Hee Haw every Sunday evening, featuring banjo player Buck Owens. (Where did the banjo come from?)
Watching Gene Kelly’s famous Singing in the Rain scene on television and renting a VHS of his movie An American In Paris. (Where did tap dancing come from?)
My dad ironing his work shirts as the Weather Channel plays Kenny G background music. (Where did jazz come from?)
Laughing at Jim Carrey in the movie The Mask putting on a brown mask that turns him into a confident, amorous, zoot-suit wearing criminal who has the power to make police dance uncontrollably to a Cuban beat.
Listening to DC Talk’s Free at Last hip hop album in elementary school, the epitome of 1990s Christian cool
My parents listening to the Gaither Vocal Band on Sunday afternoons. (Where did gospel music come from?)
Taylor Swift singing “players gonna play” and the “haters gonna hate.” (Where did those phrases come from?) And the woman over there with the “hella good hair.” (Where did hella come from?)
Using “cool” constantly throughout the day, in reaction to basically everything. (Where did the word “cool” come from?)
Talking about “tech bros.” (Where did “bro” come from?)
All the rest of “youth” slang and “internet” slang, past and present? Based, lowkey, fam, bae, no cap, da bomb, fly, home skillet, booyah, dawg, yo, chill.
And, of course, woke.
Once you start pulling on that thread, it seems to go on forever.
How we danced at Prom and Homecoming
“Youth” fashion trends of the 1990s and 2000s
The “Black Twitter” to Reddit front page pipeline
Popular Tiktok trends (in which dancing literally “goes viral”)
It’s only on reflection that I realize that my warmest family memories, my best friendships, my biggest laughter, the times I felt the most confident (“coolest”), my ideas of female beauty, even what it means to be “sexy,” have been mediated, directly and indirectly, by Black culture. (There’s only one thing we call “baby making music.”)
And then I started thinking a bit more about growing up in the evangelical church. I took it for granted at the time that the bulk of a church service would be dedicated to praise and worship music. Communion was rare. Bible reading was merged into the sermon. The offering was discrete. A church service was mostly music.
There was definitely pressure—peer pressure and pastor pressure—to really get into the music, to raise your hands, close your eyes, to sway, to sing loud. Sometimes even jump and dance. There was little sense that you could take it too far. And there was also this sense that you could/would feel something, but only if you really gave yourself over to worshiping God. God could literally heal your soul in that moment if you gave yourself over to the spirit in this special musical-spiritual encounter.
Theologically, we believed that, as a Christian, the Holy Spirit—part of the Trinity—was always with you. But then we also believed (implicitly) that there was this other kind of presence of the Holy Spirit, that happened almost exclusively during loud, passionate music, plus dancing, jumping, etc. And I felt it. And my friends felt it. And when you felt it, you wanted more of it, and you didn’t want it to stop. Most of the time it felt like being filled up with love or peace or joy or even ecstasy.
It was never clear what was God and what was the music; to think that way was to misunderstand, was to break the spell. You were encouraged to let go of your rational, critical mind and believe (have faith) that what the music made you feel was what God was making you feel, and that surrendering yourself to God meant surrendering yourself to the music.
There was even this one time when our pastor called for a revival at our church, a week-long series of church services to really get the Holy Spirit moving. And that was when we pulled out the real gospel music, and that was the big draw of the whole event.
I didn’t think much about it at the time. It’s just what it was. It was just how Jesus worked. It was self-evident.
Only years later did I start to wonder what was going on with the whole praise and worship thing. Because it wasn’t in the medieval monasteries, or the Catholic mass, or the Reformed theology, or the Lutherans, or the Presbyterians. But it was in one specific tradition in a very powerful way: the American South, specifically Black churches.
And then you have ask? Well, where did *that* come from? Why did their Christianity take on that form? Why did it express itself as music-based spirit possession?
And I think of my young suburban teenage heart, tears streaming down my face, begging the Holy Spirit to draw near and be present inside of me, to fill me with His presence and heal me…hungering desperately for something that, theologically speaking, I supposedly already had in full.
So, what’s really going on here? Was I participating in the trace remains of African ritual? A stolen page from the Book of Thoth to help the monotheism go down easier?
The spirit is life
The introduction of praise and worship music, even in its mildest forms, was a source of major controversy for churches across America for decades. There was a crowd that cringed at the loud music and the dancing—who didn’t see it as part of the Christian tradition they knew. And there was another crowd that argued that if we don’t embrace this, young people won’t come to church, and we will cease to exist at all. The churches that embraced “spirit-led worship” grew; the one’s that didn’t shrank.
Today most churches have a “traditional” early service and a “contemporary” later service to split the difference. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, this crisis never occurred in Black churches. (Though it may have happened in the 1920s as a result of the Great Migration. This paywalled article is intriguing.)
It is uncanny how Ishmael Reed’s book maps onto these “worship wars.” Spiritual possession, brought about through ecstatic music, spreading through white society—an unstoppable force, causing shock, fear, followed by the realization that they need it in order to survive. And so they must allow it, this worship craze, this spirit possession, while also managing it so it doesn’t get out of hand—this living spirit from which creativity and passion and joy flows.
Is this the end of Jes Grew?
Jes Grew has no end and no beginning. It even precedes that little ball that exploded 1000000000s of years ago and led to what we are now. Jes Grew may even have caused the ball to explode. We will miss it for a while but it will come back, and when it returns we will see that it never left. You see, life will never end; there is really no end to life, if anything goes it will be death. Jes Grew is life.
Even When I Can’t See It You’re Working: The Overlooked Authorship of “Way Maker” By Sinach (Center for Congregational Song)
Gen Z is fueling a jazz comeback (Axios)
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