Learning about hoodoo has taught me that Black people lived normal lives and that has allowed me to connect with my ancestors in a way that all of the extraordinary stories of Blackness did not.
By Donyae Coles
My mother really wanted me to be Afrocentric. She tried so hard, flooding my room with art and books that would teach me about my heritage and empower me with stories of people who have lived through some of the worst oppression and abuse in the world.
It didn’t work. I was more concerned with books that featured dragons and superheroes and for a long time, I felt completely out of touch with my heritage. It wasn’t until I discovered hoodoo and that I found the link that connected me to my ancestors.
Hoodoo is an African American folk tradition concerned with healing and protection (and a bit of hexing). It is also called conjure and rootwork. It was developed by enslaved Black people and takes many forms but is different from Voodoo. It is a type of magick practice but is areligious and does not invoke any deities, unless you want to. It is worked by using roots and herbs in conjunction with personal items and candles.
I had always been interested and involved with spiritual and pagan practices but in my early years, much of what I found was Wiccan based and dealt with European practices. I fell into tarot and other divination but when it came to being a practicing witch, none of what I was finding stuck with me any more than my mom’s early attempts at connecting me with my ancestors.
Then I found hoodoo. Or more correctly, it found me. After working with magick (as a solitary eclectic practitioner) for a number of years, I stumbled upon a “spell” (in hoodoo, work is called tricks, chores, or fixin’, not spells) for a honey jar about a year ago. It was simple and I liked the practice of building it and naming your intentions.
After putting together my first jar, I was hooked. I had to know more.
When I discovered that this practice had been developed by enslaved Africans, I started digging for more information. Much of the modern people who are published in this field are white and their work is surrounded by appropriation and issues with whitewashing. I wanted a non-white source to fully understand this practice.
I began to dig and found Zora Neale Hurston’s “Hoodoo In America” and then came the Southern Workman and Hampton School Records, the works of Harry Middleton Hyatt and for every large volume, there were hundreds of small pieces of hoodoo lore published, an old saying here, a small trick there. All of this became a tapestry of work that was slowly building my knowledge of this practice.
But more than that was happening.
Slowly I was learning more about what it was to be Black in America. What it was to have a shared experience in a diasporic history. The bits of folklore were reported from Black people all over the country but some would overlap and some were the exact same things my mother would say to me, even though she did not practice hoodoo.
From the types of work that people spoke of, I was able to see what they were concerned about and what they celebrated. Common spells were focused on finding work, keeping men and women home and safe, and keeping a home. Many of the work, “chores and fixins” had to do with issues centered around every day survival needs because these were a people who needed those cared for.
This is still true for Black people today. We have higher rates of poverty in our communities, more scarcity and have less to health care than white people, statistically. In short, we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues. What was most interesting was that this work wasn’t done against white people, instead it was put out in the universe to affect change in their lives in matters that were outside of their control. The practice of hoodoo was comforting and carried with it a sense of community and shared experience but it also dealt with everyday problems: neighbors that keep gossiping; a boy that doesn’t notice you; a dog that just keeps running off. Just life.
Reading through these records I could also see, clearly, the relationship that Black people of antiquity into the early 30s had with white people, and how their racist bias influenced the narrative of Blackness in very subtle ways. Many white anthropologists used the language of practices of Black people to continue to show them as less than white, even when they profess to be an “ally” (sound familiar?). These practices were misconstrued and showed as the acts of “simple and imaginative” people when in fact many of the herbal remedies are shown to have actual health benefits.
Hoodoo has become a way for me to connect with a history that I often felt disconnected from. Learning about the people who practiced and cultivated this type of work has allowed me to learn more about my heritage outside of slave and struggle narratives. Learning about hoodoo has taught me that Black people lived normal lives and that has allowed me to connect with my ancestors in a way that all of the extraordinary stories of Blackness did not.
So when I charge my honey jar with a new candle every week or throw together some work for protection, I smile because I realize the roots that I’m working are the ones that lead me back to my heritage.
Author Bio: Donyae Coles is a freelance writer. You can find her work surrounding spirituality and witchcraft on Spiral Nature. She also been published on Resist and Guerrilla Feminism. You can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @okokno. She blogs at www.freenightsandweekends.org.