Black Magic: Hoodoo Witches Speak Out on the Appropriation of Their Craft
We talked to modern Hoodoo practitioners about cultural appropriation in witchcraft and keeping the African American slave folk magic alive.
Image by Kat Aileen
Join in on any 21st-century witchy gathering, and you'll most likely take part in rituals from all over the world. At the last goddess worship session I attended, we sang in a pastiche of chants and spiritual practices that had wide-ranging origins—Kundalini, Santeria, Japanese Reiki—and at the end of the night they all blended under the muddled banner of "New Age."
While a lot of modern witchcraft tends to be an amalgamation of practices from varying folk magic traditions, there are some witches who insist on purity. On Tumblr, the earthly world, and beyond, contemporary practitioners of Hoodoo, a folk spirituality with African American roots, are fighting against cultural appropriation of their craft.
Hoodoo, also known as rootwork or conjure, was brought to the Americas by African slaves. Due to its origins, Hoodoo was first a tradition of protection and practicality. "In the era of slavery, questions of security loomed large in African American experience," writes Yvonne Chireau in Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic. "For its part, Conjure spoke directly to the slaves' perceptions of powerlessness and danger by providing alternative—but largely symbolic—means for addressing suffering. The Conjuring tradition allowed practitioners to defend themselves from harm, to cure their ailments, and to achieve some conceptual measure of control over personal adversity."
According to the iconic author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who embedded herself in the Hoodoo culture of the South in the 1930s and wrote about its history, the practice itself evolved from a combination of African spirituality and Christian rituals that slaves newly encountered in the Americas. In New Orleans, for example, she writes, rootworkers incorporated altars, holy water, and blessed oils from the Catholic church.
Though Hoodoo itself (not to be confused with Voodoo) stems from an appropriation of sorts, the southern folk magic is still intimately tied to its uniquely African American history. This is particularly apparent in the specific uses for Hoodoo spells, many of which are for security, stemming from the violence and disregard that enslaved blacks endured. Common rituals include carrying "a little bag of garlic and brimstone on the person to safeguard you" and walking backward into your house and then forward to ensure that no one will harm you, Hurston writes in Hoodoo in America. Today, this manifests in reblogging sigils—a painted symbol said to have magical powers—like that which circulated on Tumblr among Hoodoo practitioners to protect the people of Ferguson during the unrest following police violence and the killing of Mike Brown in the summer of 2014.
(There are fun spells, too, of course. Those looking for love can ask a Hoodoo witch to guide them through this charm: Save some of your menstrual blood and add it to the food or drink of the person you want to marry, without their knowledge. After they consume it they'll be forever in love with you.)
"Without an African ancestral link, the practice becomes something other than Hoodoo," says Madame Omi Kongo, a rootworker who comes from a long line of female practitioners. I found Kongo through her Tumblr, Kalunga Avenue, where she blogs about Hoodoo and the importance of its tradition and ancestry. Where black imagery is rare on the typical "witchy" blog that curates pastel photos of crystals and moon cycles, on Kongo's blog it abounds.
In "real life," Kongo is based in Illinois, and she offers candle work, spiritual baths, crystal consultations, and other services to her clients that seek her spiritual guidance. People come to her when they're in need of anything from love spells to healing and energy work to personal protection. For her, Hoodoo means "making something out of nothing." She uses the magical practice for herself and her clients as a way to overcome obstacles and attempt to gain a desired outcome with the help of spirits. "Hoodoo is the power of intention, confidence, and faith manifested," she explains. "Hoodoo broadcasts the beauty and power of black culture at its root." Practicing a mix of Hoodoo, Puerto Rican Spiritualism, and West African traditional religions, she incorporates different aspects of her heritage into her magic. "I do what works for me being that my ancestry is so diverse," she continues. "I work the way my spirits move me."
Kongo has been doing readings for seven years and refers to herself as a Juju queen. The women in her family lend her spiritual energy. "Ancestry is extremely important. It makes up your spiritual frame," she says. "It's where you get protection [and] strength and enhances the potency of your conjure and power to manifest! Ancestry is key." And Kongo's Hoodoo ancestry runs deep. Her maternal great grandmother was a rootworker and "prayer warrior." "She could do anything with the Psalms," Kongo says. Going back further than that, "Her mother worked the root as well and was a powerful healer known for laying the hands. If you couldn't come to her, she'd tell you to put the phone where the pain was so she could pray over it. And her mother was seasoned herbalist who knew how to conjure a remedy from anything. The list goes on." On her father's side, she says her grandmother could touch you with her hands and tell you your whole life story. "I have a pretty rich and magical background. All these divine and mystic women make up the blood that runs through my veins," she explains. Kongo's emphasis on ancestry is echoed in the many blog posts that can be found by people of color who are none too pleased by the appropriation of their traditions by white pagans and general magic practitioners.
"Our community isn't a trend," one practitioner writes on her blog, I Heart Freda. "We just do what is in our destiny."
Though unlike Kongo, whose roots run deep, Khi Armand is a black, queer, contemporary rootworker in Brooklyn who found Hoodoo after growing up in a strict Evangelical Christian home. "Hoodoo is the last place I thought my life would take me," he explains over the phone. "Growing up I was really active in my parent's church, but when I entered adolescence I couldn't shake my being queer. Despite all of my fervency as a Christian, the community didn't except me because I was queer. It made me question everything around me."
Once Armand left the church, he started on a path to forge a new relationship with spirituality. After dabbling in atheism, he finally found witchcraft when he was 17 years old. "One day I was with a friend, and he read from the tarot for me. It just felt so right, and I was like, 'Wow, I have get a tarot deck.'" He then started an apprenticeship with a queer shaman and herbalist, Eddy Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez grew up with the traditions of Santeria and Hoodoo, and it was his late mentor who advised Armand to give readings and do spell work for a living. Immediately, this clicked with Armand, who always felt in touch with the spiritual world.
Even before Armand consciously started his practice, he says he had a unique gift for channeling spirits. Growing up in New York, he started to see dead people around him in his late teens, and when he made a more formal connection to witchcraft it all made sense. "I started to be able to control it, rather than it controlling me."
While Armand, who authored a book on the power Hoodoo spells, didn't grow up in the tradition, as a black, queer rootworker he still maintains that authenticity in intention is important to his practice. "I live in New York City, and I grew up in New York city, but oftentimes when people think of Hoodoo they think of rurality and the south," Armand explains. "Some practitioners really perform that, but I've never wanted to do that because I'm a city kid and I've always been a city kid." He also believes that different magic traditions can work together, as long as it's done respectfully. "Folk magic is so practical, without dogma. Magic consists of tools to achieve an end. I think there's a difference between people who do some work in the Hoodoo, as opposed to people who say, 'I am a Hoodoo rootworker' but have no idea what they're doing. That to me is the line. I use the term because I apprenticed with Hoodoo rootworkers and I studied with them and my work has been found effective in this tradition.
"Some people will just read one book on Hoodoo and start selling oils online to make a quick buck," he says. "To me, that's appropriation."