Reclaiming Hoodoo

Black girl magic been around a long time

Del Sandeen
Jul 9, 2019 · 7 min read
Illustration by Kyle Griggs

TThe world has always had magic in it. Depending on the time and place, magic and the people who practice it have been known by various names: witch, wizard, folk magic, witchcraft, voodoo, rootworker, conjurer, hoodoo.

Black magic is not the same as blacks’ magic, but the confusion surrounding hoodoo persists. Many people equate hoodoo to black magic and all of the negative underlying implications, which may explain the fear that some associate with it.

But hoodoo is, in the plainest terms, simply magic.

PPeople of the African diaspora have a long history with magic, starting with their diverse religious and cultural traditions. The transatlantic slave trade damaged the connection to their particular types of spirituality, but didn’t necessarily break it. As many Africans were transplanted to various areas around the globe, some of them forgot the magical ways of their homeland. Other times, they were stripped of it.

For many, their forced conversion to Christianity was to blame. Slave masters saw the superstitions of enslaved people as backwards and evil, in direct defiance of the Christian teachings they sought to impose on blacks. In some cases, this conversion to a new faith actually took root, but for others, they managed a surface appearance of piety as an appeasement to “Christian masters.” While some blacks readily accepted Catholicism or Protestantism, others quietly took bits of these religions and combined them with practices that were nearly lost to them, along with the deities and spirits from their homeland. The blending of these practices created a new type of magic.

For many in the American South, hoodoo was its name.

Enslaved blacks had no power — physically or legally. However, hoodoo gave them a sense of power. In Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition by Yvonne P. Chireau, the author notes that “Africans adapted their beliefs to the specific circumstances of their status as an enslaved people and utilized their traditions toward these ends for personal or collective empowerment.”

Unlike the religion of vodou, or vodun (more popularly known as voodoo, a word that calls to mind all kinds of malevolence to the uninitiated), hoodoo isn’t a religion at all. While priests and priestesses can initiate people into vodun, hoodoo is typically passed down from one generation to the next. This familial link is recognized in the ancestor altar that many practitioners create, a place where they arrange photographs and mementos of deceased family members. They may also place food offerings on the altar as a way to maintain a spiritual connection to those who came before.

Mawiyah Kai-El Jamah Bomani is a New Orleans-based practicing rootworker, writer, and playwright. Known as an “Iya,” due to her Ifa initiation, she describes her hoodoo practice as rootwork. And it is work. While she refers to herself by various titles — Yoruba priestess, black witch, ancestral healer — she says her titles are attached to her “learning, but none of them came without blood, sweat, and tears.” She uses her own incantations and words when working her mojo and tailors her words “to fit the need and to call forth a specific outcome.”

For Bomani, rootwork changes circumstances to get a favorable outcome for the rootworker. At the core of hoodoo is herbology and a working knowledge of essential oils. People turn to hoodoo as a way to solve a number of problems associated with love, emotional health, physical health, their job, or their personal life. Some tools in hoodoo may be uncommon, but many others are widely available in kitchen cabinets or around the home.

While there’s a community spirit surrounding vodou due to the rigorous study necessary to become initiated into it, Bomani says that hoodoo is a “practice that can be performed in a solitary environment with the most rudimentary set of items probably already on hand within your home.”

Lanny “Madame L” Anderson of Creole Conjure Rootwork calls herself a rootworker, hoodoo lady, or root doctor. She first began practicing her magic as a teenager in her native Louisiana. As a Priestess, she describes the importance of “candles, roots, herb, and different manifestation tools to achieve a specific goal or condition” — but these tools are used in combination with the elements. In her words, hoodoo is “closest to the work in Palo,” a religious tradition derived from the Congolese in Africa.

FFor those who believe that hoodoo is anti-Christian, and therefore a thing to be feared, consider this: “…the Christian Bible also provided fertile territory from which African American specialists could acquire conjuring materials,” writes Chireau, with many practitioners having a strong belief in one Divine Entity. As Anderson points out, “We DO NOT worship the devil. Hoodoo practitioners are the links and gatekeepers of the history and traditions of our West African ancestors.” She expresses frustration at people who only come to rootworkers when they have a problem and then ostracize them when they don’t have a need. This mirrors Bomani’s tales of plantation owners who turned to conjurers for healing or of the white women who sought counsel from the famed Marie Laveau of New Orleans to save their marriages.

There’s an ignorance in assuming that hoodoo must be evil, but it’s an ignorance that persists to this day, perhaps from a lack of knowledge or even from the still widely held belief that if it doesn’t celebrate a Judeo-Christian god, then it must be bad.

It’s often ignorance and a lack of appreciation for a culture that leads to appropriation, and hoodoo hasn’t escaped this issue that’s familiar to many black people.

When asked if someone outside of the African diaspora can be a rootworker, both Anderson and Bomani agree that it’s the link to the African continent that gives hoodoo practitioners their power. According to Bomani, “the heart of hoodoo, the spirit, and soul of it is deeply rooted in our need to wriggle ourselves free from ancestral oppression,” the very types of oppression that white people in America have never suffered. “Real hoodoo practitioners were birthed out of a need to balance the universe.”

It is this basis of oppression that makes hoodoo unique to black people, whether they live in the Caribbean or the Southern U.S. Because of the South’s painful history of chattel slavery, hoodoo typically has a stronger connection to this region of the country, but there are rootworkers everywhere.

For the new ageists who have appropriated the spells and rites of oppressed rootworkers for their own gain, it must be pointed out that their self-professed titles and even offered “classes” in hoodoo hold no weight with the practitioners whose ancestors provided them with power borne of their connection to Africa.

Without that link, it ain’t real hoodoo.

Therein lies the difference between true rootworkers and those who’ve packaged magic into a brand and showcase it on photo-heavy platforms like Instagram, where imagery is everything. These “new witches” may paint a pretty picture, but most don’t practice or show what true rootwork is — time-consuming work that gets your hands dirty, a naturally beautiful type of magic that has little to do with surface trappings, but everything to do with spirit.

In addition, Anderson and Bomani want to dispel the myth that many of those who are ignorant of hoodoo often believe: that hoodoo is black magic.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to a magic that has more to do with the earth, the wind, plant life, and the planet’s energy than it does with any type of malevolence. While some rootworkers may have sinister intentions, these bad outcomes often have more to do with the lack of understanding that comes about when they try to take shortcuts instead of putting in the long hours of study and practice.

There are no shortcuts to real magic.

WWhile a person may not wish to do harm through rootwork, it can still happen unintentionally, especially without a full understanding of herbal remedies and rituals. The best outcomes occur when a worker has a real respect for nature and the elements, while also using plain common sense.

To learn more about this particular type of magic that’s deeply rooted in diasporan culture, start by reading the works of authentic practitioners such as Bomani and Anderson, as well as writer Stephanie Rose Bird, author of Sticks, Stones, Roots & Bones: Hoodoo, Mojo and Conjuring with Herbs.

Instead of fearing hoodoo, you may find a deeper appreciation in using it to manifest your desires and goals. If that sounds familiar to you because you’re used to praying for what you want, that’s because prayer and hoodoo both rely on the concepts of faith and belief.

Black Girl Magic is nothing new, but it doesn’t only involve girls. Black people have a special kind of magic that’s not Eurocentric witchcraft, Appalachian folk magic, or Wicca. Instead, it derives from the blood of their African ancestors and a spiritual connection with their homeland, infuses it with unique strengths borne of oppression and pain, and transforms itself into a powerful type of magic that seeks to protect as much as it does to heal.

To embrace hoodoo is to embrace the very heart of who you are as part of the African diaspora.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Del Sandeen

Written by

Writer. Fiction and non-fiction. Family, coffee, books — in whatever order.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Del Sandeen

Written by

Writer. Fiction and non-fiction. Family, coffee, books — in whatever order.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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