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Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System

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Katrina Hazzard-Donald explores African Americans' experience and practice of the herbal, healing folk belief tradition known as Hoodoo. She examines Hoodoo culture and history by tracing its emergence from African traditions to religious practices in the Americas. Working against conventional scholarship, Hazzard-Donald argues that Hoodoo emerged first in three distinct regions she calls "regional Hoodoo clusters" and that after the turn of the nineteenth century, Hoodoo took on a national rather than regional profile. The spread came about through the mechanism of the "African Religion Complex," eight distinct cultural characteristics familiar to all the African ethnic groups in the United States.

The first interdisciplinary examination to incorporate a full glossary of Hoodoo culture, Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System lays out the movement of Hoodoo against a series of watershed changes in the American cultural landscape. Hazzard-Donald examines Hoodoo material culture, particularly the ""High John the Conquer"" root, which practitioners employ for a variety of spiritual uses. She also examines other facets of Hoodoo, including rituals of divination such as the ""walking boy"" and the ""Ring Shout,"" a sacred dance of Hoodoo tradition that bears its corollaries today in the American Baptist churches. Throughout, Hazzard-Donald distinguishes between ""Old tradition Black Belt Hoodoo"" and commercially marketed forms that have been controlled, modified, and often fabricated by outsiders; this study focuses on the hidden system operating almost exclusively among African Americans in the Black spiritual underground.

ISBN-13: 9780252078767

Media Type: Paperback(1st Edition)

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Publication Date: 12-17-2012

Pages: 248

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Katrina Hazzard-Donald is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Camden and the author of Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African American Culture.

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Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03729-0

Chapter One


A Thematic Overview

Gimme that old time religion Gimme that old time religion Gimme that old time religion It's good enough for me —Traditional Gospel hymn

Though some scholarship of the past four decades on African religion and culture has been fairer, broader, more objective, and more accurate in its examination and presentation than many earlier works, overall much traditional African and African-derived life and culture continue to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Nowhere is the mischaracterization of West and Central West African tradition more discordant with reality than in numerous early portrayals and interpretations of African traditional religion. As both the product of and the producer of pejorative misrepresentations of African traditional cultural life, some of the materials that degrade and misinterpret the religious core of traditional African society can be found in the private journals and other accounts by missionaries, traders, explorers, settlers, and agents of the Crown used as primary sources. Though this scholarship has often been racist and pejorative, it is still possible, however, to glean comparative factual information concerning traditional African religious practices that would carry over into the New World.

With the apparent exception of Kongo, where early conversion of the Kongolese nobility to Catholicism appears to have been voluntary, or at least without colonial pressure, the dual notions of Christianizing and civilizing "African savages" complemented each other; in some instances, the two processes, generally accompanied by colonialism, were one and the same, as a quote from a prayer by Rev. T. Muller, chaplain to the 1841 expedition up the Niger, illustrates:

Our help is in thee, O God! Who hast made heaven and earth. Undertake Thou for us, and bless Thou the work of our hands. Give success to our endeavours to introduce civilization and Christianity into this benighted country. Thou hast promised, Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God: make us, we pray thee, instrumental in fulfilling this Thy promise.

Similar attitudes would confront traditional African religious practice in the Americas and Hoodoo in the United States.

Of all the harmful labels attached to traditional West African religion, the labels idol worship and superstition and their association with evil or "dark" forces have been long-standing. The notions that the Christian god was the one "true God" and that West African spiritual practice was founded solely on ignorance and fear accompanied the numerous and influential outsiders entering Africa. African scholar John S. Mbiti, an astute observer on the attitude of both early and contemporary scholarship toward traditional African life and culture, speaking in 1990 of the early scholarship on African traditional religion, had this comment:

One of the dominating attitudes in this early period was the assumption that African beliefs, cultural characteristics and even foods, were all borrowed from the outside world. German scholars pushed this assumption to the extreme, and have not all abandoned it completely to this day. All kinds of theories and explanations were put forward on how the different religious traits had reached African societies from the Middle East or Europe.... These earlier descriptions and studies of African religions left us with terms which are inadequate, derogatory and prejudicial.

Even in the twenty-first century, unfounded prejudice, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding of traditional African religion, though challenged and somewhat abated, still continue. Unfortunately, contemporary popular images, with unlimited power to capture the psyche and imagination of the youthful observer through special effects and fantastic animation, have continued to be one of the most powerful tools in reinforcing the older misrepresentations. Where these images would be contested and challenged, the African as the human element is simply excluded from the portrayal, as with Disney's 1999 animated version of Tarzan. This full-length cartoon fantasy, which continues the insidious legacy of pejorative portrayals, may be even more harmful than earlier misrepresentations because it completely eliminates the African from his homeland and, through exclusion, silences and renders him invisible and inferior in his own environment. Because these types of misportrayals encourage a denial and erasure of African culture, the ideological implications of this vicious manipulation are potentially far reaching for those of African heritage as they further contribute to the already existing self-loathing.

The African slave trade to the New World would not only be an enterprise that extended nearly four centuries but would also deposit large populations of Africans in North America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. One result of this massive involuntary population transfer would be the reestablishment of traditional African religion in the new environments. Beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing until the late nineteenth, Spain, England, Portugal, Holland, and France would establish slavery as the dominant labor relationship producing the New World crops of sugarcane, pineapple, tobacco, indigo, rice, and cotton. In addition, slave labor would be used in mining gold, silver, coal, and saltpeter and would be used in quarries, lumber camps, and later in industries such as the production of liquor and iron. Nearly all forms of work, skilled and unskilled, domestic and professional, were performed by slave labor.

Of the African ethnic groups transported to the Americas, all believed in a supreme being. Traditional West and Central West African religion encompassed the totality of African existence; it was the medium through which explanation for all events was sought and given. It framed and gave meaning to daily occurrence as well as to events across the life cycle; it was the bonding agent that held the universe together, and it assured universal balance, the ultimate governing principle. Birth, puberty, marriage and family, death, illness and health, planting and harvest, herd size, and interpersonal relationship were all framed by, underpinned by, influenced by, and integrated into religious practice. Whenever illness plagued the individual or misfortune overwhelmed the community, an explanation and a solution was sought in sacred ritual, which restored both spiritual and physical balance. For the traditional African, there was no clear separation between sacred and secular as one finds in contemporary European and American society. This would also be true for the early practitioners of Hoodoo religion.

In addition to containing a socially penetrating and well-integrated religious philosophy, traditional life in West Africa was ordered around a rigid status hierarchy based on, among other allotment principles, age or seniority, exceptional personal accomplishments, and possession of needed skills. Many of the Africans brought to the North American mainland, like the Bambara, Akhan, Temne, Bakongo, Igbo, and Yoruba, came from highly organized, well-developed, and widely spread empires and kingdoms; they knew, firsthand, the power, durability, and importance of religious and ancestral tradition such as the secret societies. New World African captives came from these highly ordered societies that were structured to include a variety of both institutions and organizational principles. In traditional West African societies, status could be inherited, ascribed, or achieved, but however it was attained, the status hierarchy was expressed and reinforced in numerous symbolic forms, including clothing, body adornment, gesture, dance, as well as other indicators of status such as birthmarks. Life in West Africa was so governed by symbolic representation that the smallest feather, seemingly insignificant scarification, special hairdo, or simple bead might be the indicator of power or status in the social structure. West African social life was negotiated and ordered through a complex system of multilayered symbols that linked members to the society and formed the basis of ethnic consciousness. "Each color, each band of cloth, each design and pattern of textile, each article of clothing, each ornament, each number has religious significance. There is thus, no separation between artisanship, artistic creation and religious observance."

Significant numbers of traditional West African religions contained their own divination system or system of direct communication between humans and spiritual forces such as deity and ancestral spirits. Recognized as the only vehicle through which one can obtain information about one's destiny, divination governed all important decisions. Such a communication system is seen in the example of Ifa divination. Practiced by the Yoruba of Nigeria as well as others in the region, Ifa is seen as the superior form of communication with God and destiny. With this system, the diviner uses sacred Ikin nuts, kola nuts (specifically Obi abata), or cowry shells, known as the Meridillogun. Among traditional Yoruba, and among traditional West Africans generally, no serious decisions such as marriage or major financial dealings are undertaken without consulting a diviner to read the oracle. The inner workings of traditional West and Central West African cultures were negotiated within a sacred and highly symbolic universe imbued with spiritual significance; there was no secular realm and no atheism. Like village society, the universe was seen as ordered in a status hierarchy that arranged humans, ancestors, spirits, aspects of God, and intermediary forces according to a position between God and humankind. The use of such conceptualization enabled the adherents to move through life meaningfully while addressing challenges to universal order, balance, and survival while engaging God's direct intervention.

The traditional African religious world is populated by a variety of manipulable spiritual forces and spiritual beings capable of beneficial as well as malevolent actions that can be directed at any earthly entity, including plants, minerals, animals, or humans. Within the realm of spirits, there are different categories of supernatural existence. One such category of intermediary forces, what John Mbiti refers to as divinities, is a hallmark of many of the traditional African religions:

Divinities are on the whole thought to have been created by God, in the ontological category of the spirits. They are associated with Him, and often stand for His activities or manifestations either as personification or as the spiritual beings in charge of these major objects or phenomena of nature. Some of them are national heroes who have been elevated and deified, but this is rare, and when it does happen the heroes become associated with some function or form of nature.

Known by different appellations, these divinities are regarded as vehicles for or manifestations of God itself. Among the Ashanti, some are referred to as Abosom; among the Fon, Vodu; among the Yoruba, they are called Orisha. Divinities govern, guard, reward, and protect humans in their endeavors; they are similar in some respect to angels or saints. Among the areas of existence relegated to control by divinities are war, harvest, fertility and motherhood, smallpox, health, love relationships, wealth, rivers, oceans, volcanoes, farming, thunderstorms, and lightening; the proliferation may be elaborate, as in this observation made among the Fantee of Cape-Coast town: "[A]ll the fetishes of the place are mentioned by name, which, as in the case of Cape-Coast town, where there are seventy-seven guardian-deities, is sometimes a tedious enumeration." The traditional African divinities are petitioned for protection, healing, and favors; they are also propitiated or "fed" their favorite offerings. Speaking of the area now known as Ghana, one 1830s observer had this comment:

These deities are identified with many of the most striking objects of nature. They are suppose to inhabit rivers. The river Tando is a favorite fetish among the Ashantees.... Lakes as well as rivers, have a share of the public veneration.... Remarkable mountains and rocks are also regarded with religious veneration.... The animate creation, moreover, furnishes other objects of superstitious veneration. Some animals (as leopards, panthers, and wolves) and dangerous reptiles (as serpents) are believed to be the messengers of the gods; and others are worshiped as the living incarnations of certain deities.

Similar practices would find their way into Hoodoo.

The spirit world of the various African traditional religions has the commonality of being both multilayered and varied. Everything in nature, including plants, animals, and inanimate objects, is believed to have a spirit or soul or governing principle and a function in addition to a certain level of spiritual power. Some plants, because of their particular level within the hierarchical order in the universe, are believed to contain spirits, spiritual power, or governing principles that can influence, harm, or heal. The Bambara, for example, believe that plants as well as animals have souls and that herbal medicine derives its power from the soul force of the plant. The Yoruba of Nigeria refer to this soul force as ashe and, like the Bambara, believe it can be found in plants as well as animals. The people of the Kongo believe in the power and soul force of certain plants, such as the root of the munkwiza plant, which was ritually chewed to release power and the juice spit all around for protection from enemies. Centuries later, African Americans would witness a startlingly similar ritual practice in what would become a major part of Hoodoo's courtroom ritual. This notion of governing spirit or governing principle is often extended to inanimate objects as well. The use of designated plants, animals, and inanimate objects as flashpoints for harnessing supernatural power would continue in the Americas as part of the syncretic religious traditions of the African diaspora. These spirits or flashpoints are entities that enable the individual and the group to focus on, tap into, and use God's power, which can be found in individual personal effects as well as in hair, dead skin, saliva, bodily secretions, fingernail clippings, and clothing. Among some traditional practitioners, items such as hair or fingernail clippings are carefully guarded and disposed of lest they be obtained by an enemy and used against the owner, causing misfortune, sickness, or death, a tradition that would carry over into the twenty-first century among African Americans. Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau leaves this account from the nineteenth century:

If it be desired to obtain power over some one else, the oganga must be given by the applicant, to be mixed in the sacred compound, either crumbs from the food, or clippings of finger nails or hair or (most powerful) even a drop of blood of the person over whom influence is sought. These represent the life or body of that person. So fearful are natives of power being thus obtained over them, that they have their hair cut only by a friend; and even then they carefully burn it or cast in into a river. If one accidently cuts himself, he stamps out what blood has dropped on the ground, or cuts out from wood the part saturated with blood.

Speaking in the nineteenth century of the Mpongwe of the Gabon, Robert H. Milligan made this observation:

Sickness and death, they believe, may be caused by fetish medicine, which need not be administered to the victim, but is usually laid beside the path where he is about to pass. Others may pass and it will do them no harm. The pairing of finger-nails, the hair of the victim and such things are powerful ingredients in these "medicines." An Mpongwe, after having his hair cut, gathers up every hair most carefully and burns it lest an enemy should secure it and use it to his injury.

The same observer had this comment concerning the uses and power of hair, fingernails, and saliva among the Fang people of the Gabon: "A man who possesses a fetish-skull usually invokes its aid to prevent secret unfaithfulness on the part of his wife. He compounds a certain fetish the ingredients of which include a lock of his wife's hair, cuttings of her nails, or her saliva. ... It seems to be a fact that this fetish frequently proves effective without the aid of poison; that is to say, the woman dies." Among the Bambara, hair is believed to contain an important aspect of the soul. Saliva is believed to be spiritually potent and is used in making both talismans and amulets. Interestingly, we now know that both hair and fingernail clippings as well as bodily secretions contain the individual's DNA, the unique genetic key or "life code."

The spirits of the departed or the ancestors are universally honored among West and Central West African religious traditionalists. Performed in a variety of ways involving both the individual and the community, reverence toward the departed is a continuation of the relationship between family members. Conceptualized as having a full range of human motives and desires, including misdeeds, anger, and revenge, ancestors are remembered, honored, and spoken of so that the familial continuity is strengthened. Ancestral spiritual power is consulted and invoked as it was when the elders were in their earthly existence. This passage from the 1841 journals of Rev. James Frederick Schon and Samuel Crowther illustrates several points:

The first thing which the Natives usually ask for, is their favourite rum; ... But before he put it to his lips, he took care to pour out a few drops on deck, showing his attention to the superstitious notions of his heart ... this custom prevails among many of the tribes of Africa, and is observed with religious punctuality. Its origin or intention is uncertain; but I am inclined to think that the Sherbro People have given me the most satisfactory solution of it. In observing this ceremony, they generally say "Koo bana!" ("To the old people!") meaning their ancestors, now in another world.... They are in the habit of carrying rice and other eatables to the graves of their departed friends; and frequently, in cold or wet nights, they will light a fire on them.


Excerpted from MOJO WORKIN' by KATRINA HAZZARD-DONALD Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prescript 1

1 Traditional Religion in West Africa and in the New World: A Thematic Overview 19

2 Disruptive Intersection: Slavery and the African Background in the Making of Hoodoo 34

3 The Search for High John the Conquer 68

4 Crisis at the Crossroads: Sustaining and Transforming Hoodoo's Black Belt Tradition from Emancipation to World War II 84

5 The Demise of Dr. Buzzard: Black Belt Hoodoo between the Two World Wars 116

6 Healin' da Sick, Raisin' da Daid: Hoodoo as Health Care, Root Doctors, Midwives, Treaters 135

7 Black Belt Hoodoo in the Post-World War II Cultural Environment 156

Postscript 179

Notes 187

Glossary 205

Bibliography 211

Index 227