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Hoodoo in America: Rediscovering a Forgotten African American Religion

Updated on October 12, 2016

Throwing the Wanga, Harper's Bazaar, 1889

Ostracized, Penalized, then Monetized

In the mid to late 1800s, slaves in the south were outlawed from meeting without the presence of an overseer or slave master. That's because so many insurrections- both loud and quiet, all violent- were taking place all over not only the southern United States, but all over the Caribbean and South America as well. Slaves gained knowledge of what indigenous herbs and plants could poison their captors and would use that knowledge to kill or maim. In addition to that physical threat of danger, Europeans believed that African religious rituals and practices brought with slaves were responsible for their misfortunes, failures, and often deaths as well. Manipulation of the elements, especially fire, was feared and called "devil worship," with slaves being killed for burning fires in their homes in the winter on many plantations out of fear of the strength of fire magic or fire conjure to harm slave owners and their families for generations to come.

Slave religion, often called conjure, rootwork, or juju, was diluted by newly emancipated slaves for survival purposes in the late 1800s. Europeans in America were still in fear of retaliation by magic, so many rootworkers were made examples of by execution or confinement to keep others from developing interest and passing those beliefs on to their children. In the early 1900s, laws were enacted to keep conjurers and healers from prescribing herbal remedies for their communities and those who wished to continue to practice had to either bribe law enforcement or purchase medical licenses from white occult organizations, state and county organizations, and other outside groups that had no connection to African religion in America. This marks the beginning of the commodification of conjure work by whites in religion, occult groups, and government. Curios that were both brick and mortar and mail order began popping up all over the country, and even found in China where tools were manufactured and then sold back to the people who originated their concepts.

In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the spiritualist churches welcomed rootworkers and conjurers into their fold and learned many techniques and practices that still lived on in oral tradition. From this space, many Europeans found their way to hoodoo and studied under conjure doctors who had plantation roots. From this point on, the narrative that hoodoo was a combination of African and European tradition was born. Prior to this time, hoodoo had remained largely African with some Native American influence since the indigenous people here had knowledge of herbs and plants that Africans did not. Christianity cannot be described as much as an influence on hoodoo, since Africans were coerced or forced into Christianity under the threat of torture, separation from families, and even death.

Understanding how West African cultures amalgamated to form into what we call hoodoo today gives a better contextual understanding of that expression of religion in America today. Our use of dancing and drums in the church, styles of dance and music within our community today, the reliance on Proverbs and Psalms for nightly prayers, and certain superstitions that are popular within our community all have roots in the old African American hoodoo system. Learning more about that past has an enriching and empowering effect on African Americans today.

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