The Uses of Superstition: VooDoo and Luck as Art Forms in Ishmael Reed and Amy Tang
Mumbo Jumbo and The Kitchen God’s Wife are stories about productively processing injustice with folk magic. In Mumbo Jumbo, Papa LaBas understands and is motivated to fight the racism that denounces his craft by a religious epic that is part of his VooDoo religion. In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie understands and is able to push through being set up for failure by a patriarchal society by believing she has ‘bad luck’ that she can change. Furthermore, both novels’ total immersions in these traditionally denounced ways of thinking push their readers to adopt an open-mindedness to the main characters’ world-view. Mumbo Jumbo and The Kitchen God’s Wife spend time teaching the reader about the character’s different morals and assumptions often while directly calling out and deconstructing the Western judgments that might naturally run through the reader’s mind. Having a character to live vicariously through, the reader is initiated into the non-western worlds the characters inhabit and can therefore accept their ideals without judgment.
Despite its initial outlandishness, Papa LaBas’s creation myth productively embodies and explains the struggle for appreciation that fellow celebrators of non-western art experience. Throughout Mumbo Jumbo, black art is denounced as primitive or illegitimate. Forced to be judged by western standards while in western territory, black culture is scorned and disregarded: “The only thing they have in Haiti are mangoes and coffee… It doesn’t have any culture either. I didn’t see a single cannon or cathedral while I was there… Look at this ugly carving my wife gave me… The obtuse snout; the sausage lips” (22). For the western critics, cultural success is cannons and cathedrals; other styles of art are simply ‘ugly’ and must be put down. This situation could seem hopeless. Instinctual scorn towards a people’s achievements could make someone feel like there is no potential for their recognized success, but Papa LaBas does not fall into this thought pattern. Instead of internalizing western superiority, Papa LaBas incorporates the injustices he encounters into the framework provided by his religious epic:
“[T]he New York Sun… certainly paid its dues to the Atonist order which demands that it devote so many column inches per month to the glorification of Western Culture. ‘The most notable achievements of mankind.’ A story concerning the authentication of a Rembrandt jumps to page 60 where it runs parallel to a column describing Afro-American Painting which is described by the Atonist critic as ‘primitive,’ as best ‘charming’ and ‘mostly propagandistic.’”
Here a media outlet participates in the spreading of western superiority and Papa LaBas fully understands why: Set formed the Atonist order to gain power over Osiris, of whose popularity he was jealous and whose engagement with the arts he saw as pointless (162). Papa LaBas understands systematic racism as an active effort of this secret organization that has a codified mission statement to demean other cultures. It’s an unconventional thought, but under further scrutiny not only is Papa LaBas’s way of understanding his world completely tenable, but it helps him believe he can fight against his long-standing oppressors. Despite the constant efforts to shut him down, Papa LaBas continues to run his modest VooDoo therapy practice. Because he understands the implications of his livelihood in terms of his religious epic, LaBas is given the energy to fight the arbitrary exaltation of western art by not letting his be suppressed.
Similarly, Winnie uses her superstitions as a tool for understanding the injustices she doesn’t have the language to explain. “I was born with good luck. But over the years, my luck… dried out… I cannot explain exactly how this happened, these changes in my life. If I try to say what happened, my story would not flow… everything connected” (62). Even after Winnie’s struggles are over, she cannot figure out why her life was filled with hardship. Still tragically ingrained in Winnie is the belief that her life can be explained exclusively by her own actions. Winnie was never taught to protect herself from other people’s malice. Consequently, she ruminates on “the choices I took, the mistakes that are mine” (62). Winnie obsesses about what she could have done to change her luck. Winnie doesn’t consider the possibility that through neglect and apathy, other people caused her suffering.
“What my mother did was a big disgrace. That’s why they said she died, to bury her scandal. That’s why no one would ever talk about her to my father. That’s why they sent me away, so I would not remind him of her” (100). “My aunties did not care if I was the oldest… Everything they gave to Peanut was always better: better clothes, better praise, more spending money, better charms for attracting good luck… they did not mistreat me. They just treated Peanut better (138). “So that was the kind of family I had. What advice could they give me? If I had not lost my mother so young, I would not have listened to Old Aunt. And maybe I would have married that boy Lin when I was young… And maybe we would have had difficulties in life, just like everyone, but not the kind that would make me hate myself and think that my own heart was my worst enemy” (65). “I was sure that my life had changed… that my happiness would never stop… Imagine me in that store, smiling, sitting at the long, long table with all my things… I found out later: San Ma had bought a dowry five times bigger and better for Sz Ma’s daughters. I found out: My father knew all along the Wen family character was not so good. So by allowing me to marry into the family, he was saying I was not so good either” (150).
Winnie is repeatedly cheated out of a good life by her own family. Reminding her family of her disgraced mother, Winnie is treated as an outcast within the family. Through no fault of her own, Winnie is denied the guidance that would have insured her well-being. She is pushed into a tragic life because her family gives her the minimum amount of care: they pressure her into a bad marriage with Wen Fu so that they achieve culturally perceived success as the caretakers of a woman. Beyond that false courtesy, her family neglects her personal needs. But Winnie finds the reason for her struggles elsewhere:
“Peanut found a fortune-teller she liked… ‘This is the local man you were supposed to marry, but now I’ve chased him away, sent him to someone else’… then she peered at my face… ‘Ai-ya!… there is a problem… It is not easy… But I can… remedy this before the new year’… Peanut was already pulling my elbow in another direction… Of course, I wanted to hear my fortune, get my charm, change my bad-luck future… what she said was certainly true about me: Unhappiness was coming my way, and I did nothing to keep that speck from blowing in my eye… And the local boy she chased away with a rhyming poem? Those leftovers went straight to me’ (121-123).
It wasn’t Old Aunt’s fault for arranging for Wen Fu to marry Winnie in order to protect Peanut from a bad marriage. Instead, Winnie believes that it was she who had the chance to change her fate through this fortune-teller. Instead of seeing injustice being imposed upon her, Winnie blames herself for a missed opportunity. At first glance, Winnie’s interpretation of her situation seems problematic and self-destructive. After all, it is quite a burden to blame oneself for receiving the level of abuse Wen Fu gave her. But without the language to describe how others took advantage of her, this viewpoint was the most productive for Winnie to adopt: “This time I was not blaming myself for having married him. I blamed his mother!… And perhaps this was wrong of me, to blame another woman for my own miseries. But that was how I was raised – never to criticize men or the society they ruled, or Confucius, that awful man who made that society. I could blame only other women who were more afraid than I” (257). Inundated with patriarchal ideology, Winnie could not even imagine that her struggles were due to the valuing of her gender role over her individual needs. So she explained the inexplicable with the language of luck. “No, I’m not being superstitious. I am only saying that’s how it happened…. Chance is the first step you take, luck is what comes afterward. Your kind of chance makes no sense, it is only an excuse not to blame yourself. If you don’t take a chance, someone else will give you his luck. And if you get bad luck, then you need to take another chance to turn things from bad to good” (123). Even though Winnie’s self-blame prevents her from protecting herself from her malicious family, it keeps Winnie believing that she can change her fate. Like Papa LaBas, she uses her beliefs to look for a chance to engender change. Her search for correlations between her every action and the tragedies that befall her pushes her to believe that her life’s trajectory can be changed by her every action. Taking Winnie’s ideological surroundings into consideration, Winnie’s beliefs are perhaps the most forward thinking they can be. They lead Winnie to believe that her actions create her own fate, and in the end it is this feeling of efficacy that lets Winnie get herself out of her abusive marriage.
Papa LaBas’s belief in VooDoo functions not only as an artful way of understanding racism, but also as a productive tool through which LaBas can spread Jes Grew and fight for what he believes in. “Jes Grew carriers came to America because of cotton. Why cotton? American Indians often supplied all of their needs from one animal: the buffalo… There was no excuse. Cotton. Was it some unusual thrill at seeing the black hands come in contact with the white crop?” Jes Grew, or an appreciation and participation in black culture, came with slaves from Africa. Its association with shameless, unstructured art forms connected Jes Grew to the values of Osiris’s teachings, which the Atonists want to destroy. So Atonists forcibly brought slaves from non-western cultures to the west and then punished them for it. They spent hundreds of years shattering the Jes Grew Carriers’ self-worth to prevent them from believing in and spreading the power of their own history. Thus, even before they were brought to the west, the cultural advancements that blacks would continue to develop under and after slavery were poised to be condemned: “A week before, 16 people have been fired from their jobs for manifesting a symptom of Jes Grew. Performing the Turkey Trot on their lunch hour… The kids want to dance belly to belly and cheek to cheek while their elders are supporting legislation that would prohibit them from dancing closer than 9 inches. The kids want to Funky Butt and Black Bottom while their elders prefer the Waltz as a suitable vaccine for what is now merely a rash” (22). The Atonists arbitrarily believe their values for structure and discipline to be inherently superior. Black arts are welcomed into their society with shock and shame. Through mass disapproval, the western world was out to destroy Jes Grew in its territory. For example, the VooDoo religion
“was first practiced in America and the Caribbean by slaves of African descent, whose culture was both feared and ridiculed. Slaves were not considered fully human. Their religion was dismissed as superstition, their priests were denigrated as witchdoctors, their Gods and Spirits were denounced as evil… One of the only successful slave revolutions in modern history occurred in Haiti in the late 1700s… Many slaves were Voodooists, and some of their military leaders were priests who inspired and organized their communities to fight for freedom. The Haitian Revolution provoked fear in other European and American colonies that were reliant on vast numbers of slaves as plantation labor. The imagery and vocabulary of Voodoo (and other Afro-Caribbean religions) became threatening and ingrained in those cultures as something horrifying, associated with bloodshed and violence. It was brutally repressed in most places. It became taboo” (Haas, huffingtonpost.com).
Furthermore, like many traditionally black art forms, the VooDoo religion does not have a leader or a structure (McAlister, britannica.com). The religion is always changing as deities enter the religious practice due to the world’s changing around practitioners. And VooDoo openly embraces parts of the human condition that the Judeo-Christian tradition treats with shame, such as sex and female empowerment (36). Consequently, those who treat western standards as pinnacles of human achievement don’t appreciate others’ cultural developments such as the VooDoo religion. This makes VooDoo the perfect vehicle for Papa LaBas to fight against western superiority. “The foolish Wallflower Order hadn’t learned a damned thing. They thought that by fumigating the Place Congo… when people were doing… the VooDoo that this would put and end to it. That it was merely a fad. But they did not understand that the Jes Grew epidemic was unlike physical plagues. Actually Jes Grew was an anti-plague… Jes Grew enlivened the host… Jes Grew is the delight of the gods” (6). Papa LaBas practices VooDoo because it gives him deep fulfillment. It enlivens him. He appreciates the art and all of its quirks. And by keeping the cultural practice alive, Papa LaBas helps to spread Jes Grew despite the efforts of the Atonist order. By working with the religiously liberating VooDoo in New York, he influences people to carry Jes Grew and infect their surroundings with the freer ideas of VooDoo: “I would like to believe that we work for principles and not for self. ‘We serve the loas,’ as they say… No, LaBas, the New York police will wipe out VooDoo just as they did in New Orleans, but it will find a home in a band on the Apollo stage, in the storefronts; and there will always be those who will risk the uninformed amusement of their contemporaries by resurrecting what we stood for” (40). Papa LaBas uses the same ideology that helps him face the Atonist order to strike back at the Atonist order. Like luck in The Kitchen God’s Wife, folk magic in Mumbo Jumbo serves the dual purpose of productively shaping a character’s thoughts while also pushing him or her to take productive actions.
The realization that Winnie’s desire for divorce does not condemn her to a life of unhappiness catalyzes Winnie to use her superstitions as Papa LaBas uses his: to support her in her fight for freedom. At the start of her marriage Winnie’s belief in luck was used to avoid what she did not have the words to face. In the idea of being a good wife, Winnie, at first, excused Wen Fu’s abuse by blaming herself for the misfortune he brought:
“’Every once in a while, a foreign truck goes over… boys from different families climb down… bring back the bodies, also supplies… With our portion we cook the metal down and make scissors’… Why should I pay so much for such bad-luck scissors?… And that’s when I thought to myself, What harm would it do?… I leaned over to pick up those wonderful scissors… the end of the table flew up, then crashed down, and forty pairs of scissors fell to the ground! I stared at them, all their bird mouths flung open, all that bad luck pouring out… Wen Fu is hurt very bad, maybe dying… ‘Ai-ya, this is my fault,’ I cried. ‘I made this happen’… my husband had not had permission to take the jeep… He was driving too fast and when he almost ran into a truck coming the opposite way, he turned too fast… And then I heard Jaiguo talking about a girl. Who knows how that girl came to be in the jeep with him? In any case, she was killed, crushed underneath. That was the first time I heard about my husband seeing other women… back then I didn’t want to believe this… so I wiped his brow and forgave him before he even had a chance to say he was sorry” (246-249).
Continuing her habit of ascribing meaning to otherwise her mundane happenings, Winnie explains with her mistake why her husband cheated and ended a life. But Winnie only creates these stories as she is trying to be a ‘good wife’. She understands that she has to suffer and change herself for his sake. Winnie’s justifications only reflected a lifetime of pre-marital training: “Old Aunt and New Aunt… raised me to be afraid in different ways… So this is what my mother-in-law taught me… to fear him and think this was respect. To make him a proper hot soup, which was ready to serve only when I had scalded my little finger testing it. ‘Doesn’t hurt!’ my mother-in-law would exclaim if I shouted in pain. ‘That kind of sacrifice for a husband never hurts.’… A woman always had to feel pain, suffer and cry, before she could feel love” (168). Winnie was stuck trying to fulfill the gender role that had been set up for her. So, employing the language of luck, Winnie tried her best to take responsibility for the marriage’s well-being and trusted that this effort would bring happiness like her elders promised. Only as Winnie hits rock bottom in her relationship does she see the flaws in the expectations imposed upon her. While being raped and cheated on, the intimate friends who lived with her expect her to enjoy giving herself to her husband (187). While Winnie’s daughter is dying, Winnie’s closest friend insists Winnie needed permission to bring her daughter to the hospital and save her. And when her husband denies her this permission, none of the men and women in the room speaks up to help Winnie (266). All of this pain convinces Winnie that Wen Fu created struggles for her. Her pain was not her fault.
“Standing in the street, I remembered those stories about girls who disregarded their parents’ advice and then married for love… with scary morals given at the end: ‘Lose control, lose your life!’ ‘Fall in love, fall into disgrace!’… At that moment, and not until then, did I consider that all these stories were false – only stories… Perhaps my mother’s life was now filled with joy! Perhaps I too could still find the same thing… I can honestly tell you, that is exactly what I was thinking. This is why I have always thought that what followed next was not just coincidence. It was a sign that I had finally come to a true thought of my own… I recognized… Jimmy Louie” (340-341).
Finally, Winnie breaks free from the ingrained notion that a woman’s happiness is predicated on her suffering for a man’s love. And Winnie interprets her random meeting with Jimmy Louie as an ultimate validation of this realization. Winnie is finally able to imagine a successful life in which she leaves her husband. This is a turning point for how Winnie employs the language of luck. No longer using it to excuse the behavior of people around her, she uses it to motivate herself and to justify her fight for freedom. Winnie’s superstition develops a concrete role in helping her believe in herself. The sign of Jimmy’s coincidental arrival gives Winnie the confidence to act on her found truth. After Winnie stops limiting her mental possibilities, she is able to take the leap of faith and leave her husband. She is able to shake off the imposed fear of cultural disapproval (357). And most importantly, it reinvigorates her hope. “And then he [Wen Fu] found the visa and my airplane tickets, including the one for leaving the next day… I begged him not to tear up my tickets… ‘Beg me, beg me to let you be my wife.’… What could I do? I was weak. I was strong. I had hope. I had hope. I couldn’t give up my hope. And so I begged him… he went into the bathroom, left me on the floor crying. But then I saw the gun on the table… I pulled the trigger… [to] scare him a little… He scrambled out of his pants… Hulan found the tickets… Lucky for me. Six days later I was in America with your father” (392-394). Even while being raped and having all prospects of a better life threatened to be taken away, Winnie is enlivened by her hope. She is holding on to that freedom that her superstitions confirm will bring her happiness. Winnie takes her life into her own hands and understands she is lucky for it. Thus Winnie’s superstition not only helps her explain her life when she can’t, but also supports and inspires Winnie’s taking action when she needs it most.
Having proven the utility of VooDoo through Papa LaBas’s perspective, Mumbo Jumbo insures that readers understand its message of valuing non-western art and thought by inserting and addressesing us in the story. Seeing ourselves through Papa LaBas’s eyes, we are forced once and for all to reevaluate our tendency to dismiss his VooDoo ways. “You are no different from the Christians you imitate. Atonists Christians and Muslims don’t tolerate those who refuse to accept their modes… Why have you established yourself as an arbiter for the other people’s tastes?… there are as many charlatans in our fields as in yours” (34-35). Seeing Abdul dismiss the VooDoo religion and gruffly support western ideals of western shame and religious exclusivity is painful. From the perspective of the VooDoo practitioner, the representative of our western ideals sounds like an opinionated bigot. In these situations Papa LaBas and Black Herman, LaBas’s VooDoo practitioner colleague and real-life historical figure, take it upon themselves to confront western religion. They are able to criticize its flaws as much as their religion receives criticism, showing the reader that neither can be labeled as inherently superior: “For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing… like the… Buddha gaffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas” (97). These passages are confrontational and reductive of Christianity, and they are intentionally so; not only might they be have been cathartic for Reed to write and Papa LaBas to think, but they also force the reader to experience the aggressive disapproval ‘outsiders’ in the west have felt for centuries. By being put on the defensive, the reader understands the injustice of broad, unrefined criticism of a whole culture. Having learned this lesson, it is heartbreaking to hear a westerner attack the history LaBas so generously shares: “The Guianese art critic Hank Rollings finally speaks up. ‘I don’t believe a word of it. You made the whole thing up… Why, who would believe such nonsense; it’s the silliest, most fatuous thing I ever heard!…’ The Guianese stands with some of the other guests. He has his arms folded and is tapping his foot. That scornful, triumphant smile again” (191, 192, 196). The novel is structured such that when Papa LaBas tells his thirty page story to the crowd, the reader becomes a member of the crowd. The indications of dialogue fall away, the story is preceded by a signal that LaBas is about to speak, and then it begins in a new chapter that is both a part of the overarching plot and an essential digression during which we learn and silently make judgments about Papa LaBas’s religion. Unable to respond as an actual audience member would, we hear the Guianese critic speak for us. He echoes the concerns we voiced in our heads while reading LaBas’s story. And we realize that we, too, instinctively accuse the story of being over-complicated, frivolous, and just plain weird. Before asking if we can learn something from the story, we hold it next to our arbitrary standards and condemn it for not sizing up to them. Like the Guianese art critic, we damn it for being different. Thus the atypically structured novel Mumbo Jumbo forces us to make a choice: “Mumbo Jumbo [Mandingo mā-mā-gyo-mbō, ‘magician who makes the troubled spirits of ancestors go away’: mā-mā, grandmother+gyo, trouble+mbō, to leave.] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language” (7). The Mandingo definition of Mumbo Jumbo’s title ascribes a cathartic and pedagogical function to the novel. Reading the title with an appreciation for its African history makes us see the novel as valuable. But the western definition of the title labels the book as trash, garbage, inexplicable nonsense. It uses a comforting part of African culture as a synonym for rubbish and makes us see the book as such. And so even Mumbo Jumbo’s title begs the question: Does this novel, and all the other non-traditional and non-western arts it represents, serve the rich function indigenously awarded to it, or is it just primitive mumbo jumbo because it doesn’t convey a message in the way we were taught was best? Mumbo Jumbo’s title taunts the reader and further challenges his or her attitudes towards foreign cultures. These taunts effectively support the novel’s efforts to push the reader to see the value in the non-western.
Similar to Papa LaBas’s epic, Winnie’s life story, which comprises most of The Kitchen God’s Wife, is narrated directly at the reader within a frame narrative; this structure allows the reader to share the transition from judgmental to understanding of Winnie’s beliefs with Winnie’s daughter, who is the listener and the reader’s stand-in within the frame narrative. “Ying–gai was what my mother always said when she meant, I should have. Ying-gai meant she should have altered the direction of fate, she should have prevented disaster… To this day it drives me crazy, listening to her various hypotheses, the way religion, medicine, and superstition all merge with her own beliefs… According to my mother, nothing is an accident. She’s like a Chinese version of Freud, or worse” (29). Just like the Guianese art critic, Winnie’s daughter reflects the beliefs and prejudices of the western reader. Before making judgments, she does not consider what these superstitions mean to her mother, what history they carry, or how they may actually help her mother. When we westerners encounter a different world-view, our instinct is to find fault in it instead of looking for its value, and Winnie’s daughter, Pearl, gives that instinct a voice. “If you think I am only being superstitious saying this, then why did I drop all those scissors that day? Why did something terrible happen right after that?” (247). Aware of this instinct in her daughter, Winnie calls out her daughter for her potential doubt; and since her story is a monologue within a frame narrative, these remarks in the second person seem to break the fourth wall and bring to question to the readers’ own prejudices. By intermittently daring the reader to notice their judgments, Winnie makes her listener notice and question why their patience for Winnie’s mannerisms increases as we understand them in the context of her life’s story. As we are brought to understand Winnie’s quirks, we realize that she was deserving of our patience without having to explain her neuroticism about luck.
“And that’s when I named her after the lake in Nanking: Mochou, Sorrowfree, because she had never known even one sorrow…” (243). “Oh, that statue. See how nicely she sits in her chiar, so comfortable-looking in her manner… Although maybe she used to worry. I heard she once had many hardships in her life… Yes, yes, of course this is for you!… Don’t cry, don’t cry… But sometimes, when you are afraid, you can talk to her. She will listen. She will wash away everything sad with her tears. She will use her stick to chase away everything bad. See her name: Lady Sorrowfree, happiness winning over bitterness, no regrets in this world. Now help me light three sticks of incense. The smoke will take our wishes to heaven. Of course, it’s only superstition, just for fun. But see how fast the smoke rises – oh, even faster when we laugh, lifting our hopes, higher and higher” (415).
Finally, Winnie receives the respect she deserves. Pearl indulges in the rituals that are so important to her mother finally understanding their necessity in Winnie’s life. As our stand-in, she demonstrates just how far the reader’s ideas regarding Winnie’s superstitions have changed with the knowledge of Winnie’s struggles. Once hesitant to take Auntie Du’s altar home, Pearl now participates in the art her mother has created. By understanding the world through a symbol of her mother’s emotional past, Pearl not only acknowledges her mother’s struggles but also allows her mother to pass down her philosophy as Papa LaBas does. Pearl opens herself up to and internalizes the benefits of the good luck that inspired her mother thus allowing her mother to embody the position of teacher and creator that Papa LaBas embodies when shaping and passing down his VooDoo religion. Both Pearl and her mother grow as they share an intimate moment of understanding while worshipping together. Like the reader, Pearl allows her mother to teach her as she sees how Winnie’s beliefs push Winnie forward in life; they keep her happy and hopeful.
Both Mumbo Jumbo and The Kitchen God’s Wife guide the reader to an appreciation for non-western culture. Invoking folk magic and superstition, the novels let themselves be judged by the reader as they slowly the present these rituals’ validity and necessity in different characters’ lives. The novels demonstrate this value through the lives of Papa LaBas and Winnie, each of whom use religion not only to productively explain the world around them, but also to find support and hope that they can achieve what will make them happy. Furthermore, we, the readers, are recruited in this demonstration. Each novel represents and addresses us, calling into question the validity of our denouncement of non-western beliefs. In this manner, we are fully immersed in the novel. Not only do we get a full picture of the mental lives of Papa LaBas and Winnie, but we see our own probable reactions chronicled through their perspectives; ergo these characters serve as our mirrors. We watch ourselves question Papa LaBas and Winnie’s lives as they are taking the time to show us the value of their beliefs. As if looking into a mirror, we see ourselves judging them, demeaning what is clearly a respectable way of thinking. This powerful challenging of our conceptions insures that the readers understand the flaws in western superiority. Hence, the reader is brought to a greater acceptance and respect of other people’s beliefs.
Haas, Saumya Arya. “What is Voodoo? Understanding a Misunderstood Religion”. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/saumya-arya-haas/what-is-vodou_b_827947.html 12/3/16.
McAlister, Elizabeth A. “Vodou Haitian Religion”. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Vodou 12/3/16.