The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939


Mumbo Jumbo.


IN no part of our globe are there so many curious customs, unknown or not understood by civilized and enlightened people, as in Africa. There, for instance, is a great river which comes down to regions inhabited for thousands of years by the ancient Egyptians, who built the most wonderful temples and pyramids, and carved in stone great statues, which have been the admiration of ages, and yet it is only within a few years that the source of this celebrated river, Nile, has been known to Americans and Europeans. Great lakes, which were not known to exist, have lately been discovered by African explorers, and tribes of people, not only unlike other human beings in their minds, but even in their bodies, have been met with. One of our countrymen, Henry Stanley, made a journey across the center of the African continent, and, in so doing, traversed vast regions never seen before by white men, and, although he saw and described so much, there are no doubt a great many strange things yet to be discovered in Africa, which country the ST. NICHOLAS boys and girls might well call "The Riddle-box of the World."

Among the most difficult puzzles in this great riddle-box are the customs of some of the African tribes. Of course, all savage and heathen people do very strange things in connection with their religion and their laws, yet, however odd and ridiculous some of these may seem to us, the people themselves believe them right and proper, because they are so taught by their priests and rulers.

But some African tribes have fantastic and absurd customs in which it would seem that they [illustration - Mumbo Jumbo setting out upon his search.] could not have any faith whatever; still, they really attach a great deal of importance to them.

Among these are the trials by Mumbo Jumbo, a character met with in many villages on the west coast of Africa. Mumbo Jumbo is nothing at all but a man on short stilts, with a sort of cloak wrapped about him, and a great false head fastened above his own head. All this, of course, makes
him look very tall, and a pair of wooden arms, which stick out below his big head, help to give him the appearance of a man about twice as big as anybody else.

Dressed up in this strange way, he stumps about through the village, and the people believe that he has the power to point out any person who has committed a crime; or, in case of family quarrels or disputes, he can show which party is in fault. Accordingly, when there is an occasion for the exercise of his wonderful power, Mumbo Jumbo, followed by a crowd of his fellow-savages, beating drums, blowing horns, shouting and dancing, sets out on his business of discovering the person who has broken the laws of the tribe.

It may be that a theft has been committed, and that the thief has managed his affairs so secretly and cunningly that the people of the village cannot find out who he is. So Mumbo Jumbo, with a great deal of twisting and stumping about, goes from house to house, and pretends to examine the faces of the people he finds within. When he has finished this examination, he looks at every man, woman, or child whom he may meet, and even goes among the crowd accompanying him, making believe to glare down, with his painted eyes, into the faces of the howling and dancing negroes, to see if he can discover the guilty person.

Of course it would never do for Mumbo Jumbo to give up the search without pointing out some one as the thief, and so, after he has led the crowd about, as long as he pleases, he settles upon some unfortunate person, who is as likely as any one else to have stolen the missing property, and declares him to be the thief. This man is then seized, tied to a post, and whipped, and everybody believes him to be justly punished, when, in reality, Mumbo Jumbo himself may have been the thief.

In disputes between families or individuals, Mumbo Jumbo lays down the law in the same way. He goes with his stilts, and his mask, and his noisy crowd of followers, to the place where the disputing parties are assembled, and declares which side is right.

Now the most curious thing about all this is the fact that these negroes know, all the time, that Mumbo Jumbo is nothing but a man on stilts, with a big false head and a long cloak. There does not seem to be any attempt to conceal this fact, for, when Mumbo Jumbo is not needed, his cloak, head, arms, and stilts are hung up on a convenient tree in the village. It is likely, also, that these foolish negroes know just what man among them is performing the part of Mumbo Jumbo, when that important person is stalking about. And yet they believe in the decisions of the false head, which could make decisions just as well when it is hanging on the tree as when borne about by one of their fellow-negroes.

Now does not all this seem very much like a riddle, and a pretty hard one, too? Why should these people believe in a thing which they know is all nonsense? But it is not easy to give answers to all the puzzles in the great African riddle-box.