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Religion & Culture | Hoodoo: The life-saving magic of Southern slaves

Published:Wednesday | November 21, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
This image provided by the US Library of Congress shows Harriet Tubman, between 1860 and 1875.

History, long forgotten, bears witness to the genius of the many slaves of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina in the United States.

Amid the throes of terror they developed a mystifying art that was stealthily used to ease the burden of living.

At that time it was called 'Conjure', 'Rootwork' or 'Tricking'. In the post-slavery era the term 'Hoodoo' was adopted.

Hoodoo, not to be confused with Voodoo, the religion, is an admixture of Christianity and the magical practices brought by the captives of the Bantu regions of Africa.

Unlike Palo Mayombe, Santeria, Lucumi and Orisa, as practised throughout the Caribbean, Hoodoo is uniquely American. Interestingly, one does not need to be initiated into Hoodoo, neither is there a religious hierarchy or place of worship. Hoodoo organically emerged out of the instinctive cue to survive.

Although the environment was different to that of the continent, southern slaves adapted, learning the magical properties of new plants, trees, stones, animals, soils and streams. For example, in Africa, the burial ground was sacred, left untouched. On the plantations, though, the burial ground was weaponised for good and bad. Graveyard dirt became a potent ingredient in 'The Work.'




More startling is that slaves recognised that the Bible, the book that was used to rationalise their station in life, could be used against their oppressor. In other words, they reversed the spell of subservience that the clergy used, by invoking the very Bible. Many conjurors used particular verses of the Songs of Solomon, Leviticus, the Book of Psalms and even the Book of Matthew for spell work. Details are beyond the scope of this article.

For sure, out of unspeakable horror, Conjure (Hoodoo) was born.

The conjuror, male or female, was highly respected on the plantations. They cast spells for protection, vengeance and love. They healed the sick with herbs (hence the name root worker). In other cases they became the backbone of many slave rebellions.

The celebrated Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), one of the architects of networks that freed slaves (The Underground Railroad), was a conjuror, according to oral tradition.

In Old Style Conjure, author Starr Casas writes, "Harriet Tubman was a conjure woman and very gifted. It is well known that she treated folks with herbal remedies and healing work. Folks who were interviewed in 1860 believed that she had supernatural powers, (and that) she would walk in the graveyard around midnight praying and gathering roots and herbs. Yes, 'Mama Moses' (as she was called) was indeed a Christian, but she was just not a mainstream Christian, being more of a Conjure type worker."

The history of conjure is replete with slaves revolts organised and fomented by these gifted workers, none more than the fearsome Gullah Jack (d. 1822), an African conjuror who was sold to the Pritchard Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.

According to Casas, Jack, also a Methodist, was approached by Denmark Vesey who had managed to purchase his freedom for $600. Both men planned a sweeping revolt, interestingly on July 14, the day of the French Revolution. Vesey was known to use the Old Testament to incite the passions of hundreds of freemen and runaway slaves that had joined the rebellion.




Jack, on the other hand, was versed in conjuring, dispensing amulets and talismans to fighters as spiritual guards against harm. One such amulet was the crab claw. How this was prepared and dispensed is left for another article on the fascinating subject.

High John the Conqueror is another legendary conjuror in African-American history captured in Zora's Hurston's The Sanctified Church.

In Dinkie, The Goopher King: A Conjure Doctor in Mississippi 1840, first published in 1880, its author, William Wells Brown, a runaway slave who settled in the North, chronicles the life of Dinkie and the impact of conjure on plantation culture.

Brown wrote, "Nearly every large plantation, with any considerable number of Negroes, had at least one, who laid claim to be a fortune-teller, and who was regarded with more than common respect by his fellow slaves. Dinkie, a full-blooded African, large in frame, coarse featured, and claiming to be a descendant of a king in his native land, was the oracle on the 'Poplar Farm'. At the time of which I write, Dinkie was about 50 years of age, and had lost an eye, and was, to say the least, a very ugly-looking man.

"Although he had been many years in the Gaines family, no one could remember the time when Dinkie was called upon to perform manual labour. He was not sick, yet he never worked. No one interfered with him. If he felt like feeding the chickens, pigs, or cattle, he did so. Dinkie hunted, slept, was at the table at meal time, roamed through the woods, went to the city, and returned when he pleased, with no one to object, or to ask a question. Everybody treated him with respect.

"The whites, throughout the neighbourhood, tipped their hats to the old one-eyed negro, while the policemen, or patrollers, permitted him to pass without a challenge. It was literally true, this man was his own master. He wore a snake's skin around his neck, carried a petrified frog in one pocket, and a dried lizard in the other."

Such workers have since been immortalised in spell work using votive candles, oils, herbs and roots that bear their names.

Today, this craft, now called Hoodoo, is still practised in the South, in particular New Orleans. But finding an authentic conjuror is not unlike finding a needle in a haystack.

Alas, what is left for the unwitting public is a worthless, counterfeit version that is as frivolous as the masquerades of Mardi Gras.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of the audiobook, Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity.