Papa LaBas

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Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868—1963) American writer, sociologist, and political activist

Souls of Black Folk


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Is a major character in Ishmael Reed's novels Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Insofar as these books fit into the detective genre, Papa LaBas is a hoodoo investigator trying to solve crimes; but since these novels also are mysteries in the metaphysical sense, LaBas is, as Gerald Duff notes, a “cultural diagnostician and healer.” Tracing his origins back to the plantation, W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) referred to such an individual as “interpreter of the Unknown,” “supernatural avenger of wrong,” and viewed him as the prototype of the preacher, the “most unique personality” developed by African Americans. On another level, Papa LaBas, like his Haitian counterpart Papa Legba, is descended from the West African deity known as Eshu/Elegbara, lord of transitions, conjoining the real with the unreal, a trickster who is also a communicator. This last connection is especially important because, in Mumbo Jumbo and Louisiana Red, it is generally Papa LaBas who “runs the voodoo down” by providing crucial explanations and analyses.

If the Loop Garoo Kid (Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, 1969) and Raven Quickskill (Flight to Canada, 1976) are the alter egos of a youthful, combative Reed, Papa LaBas may be said to be Reed's imaginative counterpart of himself as spiritual elder statesman, wise but still acquiring wisdom, not impulsive in struggle but settled in for the long haul, resolutely rooted in the ancient traditions of his people.

Robert Elliot Fox

Subjects: Literature.

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