'Go and Reclaim Your Tools': Meet the Woman Behind Black Witch University

For Lakeesha Harris, being a Black witch is about reclaiming ancestral knowledge about witchcraft and using it to fight deep-rooted, systemic oppression. She explains why she founded Black Witch University, which will open its doors on 2017's spring...

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Oct 4 2016, 4:45pm

Photo of Lakeesha Harris courtesy Janea Watkins

These are busy, busy days for Lakeesha Harris. The harvest season is ending, and like any witch, she's occupied with bringing vegetables in from her garden and preparing for the veil between the living and dead to thin. Harris also works during the day as an educator for Chicago Women's Health Center. In the little free time that remains, the Chicago resident is diligently developing a curriculum, organizing committee meetings, and selling homemade bay rum to raise money for her biggest project yet: Black Witch University, a school for witches of the African diaspora.

The day 41-year-old Harris called herself a Black witch marked a turning point in her life. It happened five years ago, thanks to the mentorship of a Black witch coven in New Orleans. "I was like, yeah, I'm going to call myself a Black witch," she recalls over Skype. "Calling myself a Black witch is to understand the political nature and the power that title holds for me—as a woman and as a witch and as someone taking ownership of her magic and her whole body."

Read more: The Hoodwitch Helps Women Tap into Their Inner Goddess

Harris established Black Witch University in early September when she realized that the Black witch community needed structured guidance to reclaim ancestral concepts, like Àjé, a class of supernaturally-empowered beings associated with female entities in the Yorùbá tradition. She also hopes to teach them about customs like Lucumí, a Cuban variant of certain Yorùbá customs, which Harris has recently begun to practice.

Ineffable as magic may seem, it can be taught like any other subject you'd find in a classroom. Lorena Elizabeth Bostic Seals, a close friend of Harris and an instructor at the school, describes how she plans to teach students to read tarot. First, students will learn about the origin of the tarot deck; then, they'll memorize keywords for each card to deduce their deeper meanings.

That isn't the end of the lesson, though. "The cards are not only a tool that reaches into the future," Bostic Seals adds. "They're a tool for path working, for discovering more about you." She compares this process of self-discovery to the Seven of Cups, a Minor Arcana card in the tarot that represents the inner knowledge that comes with decisions and temptation. "There are so many choices in life, but really, only one of those cups is the right one for you. Everything that's in it is meant to empower you."

Photo of Lakeesha Harris courtesy Janea Watkins.

That empowerment has been at the core of Lakeesha Harris's work. Before working on the school, much of her time had gone toward leading Black Witch Chronicles, a growing digital coven that she founded in 2015 to serve as an inclusive space for Black witches and educate members about topics like gender and sexuality in spirit work; she also promotes community accountability through Facebook posts and a monthly web series. But within a year of founding Chronicles, Harris discovered a demand for a more structured form of magical mentorship.

"A lot of young and older Black people were like, 'Look we're interested, where do we start?'" Harris recalls. "And we just kept getting all these emails, emails, emails. I was like OK, it's time to set up some system in which we can formalize the learning process." And just like that, Black Witch University was born.

For the university's first academic year, which will start on 2017's spring equinox, the admissions committee will select seven students for its first incoming class. Harris and the committee will shortlist 14 applicants and use tarot readings to choose seven finalists. Then, between the spring equinox of 2017 and that of 2018, selected students and teachers will receive weekly instruction and mentorship via webinars online. The school year will also include three in-person gatherings: two in Chicago and one in New Orleans. Tuition for the program totals $1100, with scholarships available to those in need, which Harris and donors will provide out of pocket.

At Black Witch University, Harris hopes that students will further their knowledge of African and Afro-American magic through the trips to Chicago and New Orleans, mentorship, and homework assignments requiring tasks like crafting magical oils and, above all, growing food in a garden. "We're coming out of the kitchen and into the garden, then branching out into the universe," Harris says. "Where did all those herbs and spices come from? Where is that sacred energy, that goddess worship?"

The Black women in my family, we had a legacy of magic, but we never called it that

The garden is central to Harris's identity as a witch, since that's where she began her training in witchcraft. Harris considers herself a kitchen witch—someone who uses ordinary kitchen ingredients to cast spells and views gardening and cooking as forms of witchcraft. As a child in Kankakee, Illinois, she would observe the women in her family growing vegetables and herbs in their gardens. "The Black women in my family, we had a legacy of magic, but we never called it that," she says. Her Auntie Joyce was a particularly important role model. Harris watched as her aunt faced abuse from her husband, yet still provided for the family by working the earth and growing food.

"I would say to myself, how did Auntie Joyce do all of this?" she recalls. "How did she work, take care of the family, take care of all of us, [and] provide space and home and love? How did she take care of herself and navigate through abuse?"

Decades later, Harris concluded that it was herbal lore—the ritual act of growing and nurturing the land's plants—that gave her aunt strength. "I understood that the land held so much healing. But [my aunt] didn't call that magic. She knew that herbs could cure things or what have you, but you never call that magic."

Photo courtesy Janea Watkins.

Today, for Harris, being a Black witch is about reclaiming ancestral knowledge about witchcraft and using it to fight deep-rooted, systemic oppression. "Audre Lorde says, 'The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.' So what will dismantle the master's house? Your tools. Go and reclaim your tools. Your magic will dismantle the master's house." Harris adds that as a Black witch, she focuses on how police brutality against Chicago's black community has impacted what she calls the "vibration" of the city, and how can use her practice to combat that. "It would behoove us to use our own magic for the protection of ourselves and other people."

With the university, Harris and her fellow Black witches have another way to fight the ongoing colonization of African and Afro-American witchcraft by white culture, which frequently appropriates it and fails to credit those who created it. This appropriation is perhaps most obvious in the case of Haitian vodou, which is extremely popular among white witches and in mainstream white culture. "There is this thing about witchcraft being European," Harris says scornfully, pointing to the white erasure of Black witches from modern portrayals of witchcraft. "As if African traditions didn't have witchcraft!"

But the problem extends far beyond appropriation: Being associated with magic has threatened to erase the Black community itself. As Yomi Adegoke writes on Broadly, legislation in colonial Jamaica made the practice of African traditions like Obeah punishable by death. Harris acknowledges that this motivation to erase comes partly from the fact that white people recognize the magic that the Black community holds. In a post about a pair of $592,000 candelabra shaped like Black women featured in Architectural Digest magazine, she warns her fellow witches on Facebook: "Do your research honey pies and understand that our body parts and images hold so much magic. Why do you think body parts went missing during lynching?"

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Bostic Seals also describes the hostility she encounters from white people who are surprised to learn a witch can be Black. "Racism is rampant. Black Witch University is offering a safe space to people who feel left out or pushed out, who feel like they don't fit in anywhere or have a place." In addition, the university will help young Black witches navigate relationships with Christian family members who think their interest in the occult will send them to hell. "Those young people are alone," Bostic Seals says. "Their families are going to tell them that they're evil, or that [practicing witchcraft is] wrong. If they don't have a support system of like-minded individuals—that's going to hurt them. Black Witch University is something that the Black witch community really needs."

Harris is accepting applications to Black Witch University through its online portal until October 15. Between preparing course syllabi and raising scholarship money for her future students, she hardly has time for herself as the deadline approaches. When things get overwhelming, she returns to the magic she learned as a child—by putting her hands in the soil, harvesting plants, and sowing seeds for spring