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Catherine Yronwode Whitesplains Conjure Culture to Me
Reading the Tea Leaves, Harry Roseland, 1910
Understanding the History of Healing and Magic from an African American Context
Let me start this piece by stating my stance on the hoodoo tradition: it has always been, and will always be, an African practice. The amalgamation of diverse West African cultures that were forced to work together against a common enemy is at the very core, root, and fruit of rootwork and conjure. To oversimplify it into a combination of African, Native American, and European concepts is misleading and unfair to the legacy of the practice.
Conjure and rootwork was brought with us during the transatlantic slave trade. It served as a protection for slaves suffering all manner of abuse and trying to find a way to cope with their unfortunate circumstances. Yes, African slaves came in contact with Native Americans and took pieces from their traditions because they knew of herbs that were unfamiliar to us, since we were used to working with different natural items. Yes, after WW1, Europeans began to migrate in large numbers to our established practice to add in and take away. But nothing of their influence bears witness to any claim they can make of adding anything of significance to hoodoo besides the Psalms and use of the bible, which is a forced inclusion into the heritage of rootwork that we had already created.
In the same way that many of us claim no ownership over sway over the legacy of hip hop, and white guests to the culture will say, hip hop is for everyone, the same went for conjure and rootwork. Now, the majority of those who profit from the sale and commerce of not only conjure tools and supplies but also the practice and legacy of it, are Europeans and other "outsiders" to the culture who have no connection to the origin or generational pass-down of this African or African American practice.
One of the most famous thieves of this African rooted legacy is the founder of luckymojo.com, which sells courses, classes, credentials, and products to many within the conjure community of all races and backgrounds. Ms. Catherine Yronwode, like so many before her and so many under her tutelage, has carved a sizable stake in conjure culture by peddling ideas that are not wholly authentic and tools that may not be either. She is a microcosm, though, of an ongoing legacy to remove the Africanness and blackness from cultural notions and artifacts, use them to build status and wealth, and routinely exclude those people and ideas who the notions and artifacts originate from.
Katrina Hazzard-Donald, author of Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System wrote on her own blog that "As long as we have peddlers the likes of luckymojo.com passing themselves off as 'experts' we will have this problem. No 'money drawing oil,' no 'jinx removing spray,' no 'war water' Just plain old PLANTATION hoodoo.They are distorting another people's tradition. They mix hoodoo with european witchcraft, they fabricate items and pass on fabricated traditions that 'their' ancestors used to exploit African American folk belief.Then they further attempt to justify and excuse their exploitation by blaming the victim."
In the late 1700s, Europeans were cutting, bleeding, and leeching the skin to cure diseases and ailments. While there may be some validity to those practices, they were overshadowed by our customary use of roots, herbs, powders, tinctures, and salves for healing all kinds of diseases. European medicine at this time was based on the four humors- blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Their study of cures was based on philosophy and guess work rather than actual science, except in the case of midwives, where healing traditions were actually passed down from family to family, but hadn't been accepted much in the mainstream just coming off of the witch hunts in both Europe and the U.S.
During the early 1800s, europeans began raiding tombs in Egypt, and simultaneously outlawing the practice of conjure and rootwork since so many rebellions were taking place where slavemasters were being poisoned by their slaves with roots, herbs, and powders. Around this time, those men who would become travelling salesmen, mobile doctors, and healing oil salesmen got smart and started taking the knowledge that Africans had of healing modalities and practices. They wrapped their bits and pieces of information up in a glass bottle and sold as much as they could. In the late 1800s, after much tomb raiding and studying under Africans and native people enslaved all over Europe and the U.S., a full fledged European system of medicine that was based on science and actually worked was in formation.
According to recorded European history, European midwives in the Christian colonies throughout the late 16th and 17th centuries were the main holders of European herb healing tradition (prior to this, Greek Hermetic philosophers had access to healing traditions that they learned from Ancient Egyptians, but much of that tradition was lost or moved underground prior to and during Europe's Dark Ages). Even though they were heavily persecuted by European men, they were more interested in taking what they could learn of African healing practice, not as much in participating in equal share of information due to racism on their parts. So when curators like Catherine Yronwode shares the narrative that hoodoo is a construct of African traditions mixed with European traditions, they are referring to their traditions mixed with what they stole from us, and our traditions mixed with Christianity that was forced on us. The reference of hoodoo as an admixture of European tradition and African tradition, again, refers to their version and practice of it, not ours as it was prior to its outlaw on the plantation. There wasn't much that they were interested in offering us, and inversely, not much that we needed from them. African Women had been delivering each other's babies on the plantation without the assistance of European midwives, so we had our own healing practices as it relates to pregnant and laboring mothers and the community in general.
Understanding the history of European medicine and magical practice gives some context for the references that many outside of the original practice of what we call hoodoo, conjure, and rootwork give to it. To give an example, while Europeans were also polytheistic people with a connection to nature for healing, the advent of Christianity saw many killed and persecuted heavily for utilizing nature and spirit within their contexts. Those who were able to preserve their cultural practices did, and during the Dark Ages, then the Crusades, and then later the witchhunts in the U.S. and Europe, many of their old ways were scrubbed out or hidden due to fear of further persecution.
Black people all over the diaspora had already had centuries of experience hiding our ways under the guise of Christianity, even though through years of persecution and conditioning we began to believe in it. We still knew that elderberry in hot bath water would knock out a cold or respiratory infection overnight, or that the 23rd Psalm would call the spirits to protect our families from the wrath of the slavemaster. So those Europeans who remembered the old ways and passed them down to their children utilized the knowledge and approach of the African slaves and incorporated what they learned into their dwindling, fading practice. They incorporated our ways into their ways of life, then went on to build entire industries in healthcare, the occult, science, and cultural appropriation from ancient Egypt to modern America. We have been the main influencers of every part of European lifestyle, and to believe anything else is to choose to be mis-led about your legacy as a black man or woman of African descent, no matter where you are in the diaspora.