FDL Book Salon Welcomes Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Mojo Workin’: The Old African-American Hoodoo System
I have always been fascinated by Hoodoo and other branches of African Diasporic Religions. Like many Americans, my first brush with African-based faiths was voodoo shown in books and media, and then because I lived in Los Angeles, Santeria became very noticeable; but it was always Hoodoo that clicked with me. Maybe it was because my family is from the South and my aunt would tell me about the Gullah people, she’d gave me books of folk tales and histories to read, plus superstitions ran strong in our family.
Katrina Hazzard-Donald’s Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System is a rich, academic study of Hoodoo, tracing the religion’s root back to the tribal people of Africa who were forcibly brought to America as slaves. They relied on their religious belief system, including charms and mojo bags to (successfully) protect them from often cruel masters. She follows Hoodoo through watershed changes in the cultural landscape of America which wrought significant changes in African American culture, society, family structure, and religion.
Hoodoo is a religion, one which has been preserved through oral tradition, a religion that has both spiritual and practical aspects. The spiritual aspects, the links to the gods of Africa have gradually been altered through the influence of Protestant Christianity (a difference between Voodoo and Santeria which syncretize the African gods with Roman Catholic saints) and the changes in society. But certain traditions remain, seen in the Sanctified and Spiritual Churches, as well as in those who still practice the traditional form of Hoodoo. The practical aspects include naturopathic cures, midwifery, and mental health work, and aspects of those are now being recognized within certain spheres of the African American health care community.
An associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden, Hazzard-Donald traces the origins of Hoodoo to three distinct regions she calls “regional Hoodoo clusters” in the South, and follows their transitions from the “black belt” into a more nationalized, homogenized form of the faith that developed gradually after Emancipation and through the urban and Northern migration of African Americans. During this time, Hoodoo goods began to become mass marketed by traveling salespeople who also sold a range of other products targeted at the African American community. Traditional beliefs were exploited by business people of other races with no connection to Hoodoo who market lucky charms, gambling tools and other snake oil products to a vast group of people cut off from their foundational traditions who longer form a connection to their roots.
Root workers, conjure men, and “midwifes” (an all-encompassing term for women healers/spiritual workers) were supplanted by retailers who marketed mass-produced goods lacking the religious traditions and sacred aspects. (This is how many lay people today see Hoodoo—brightly colored oils and candles, curios promising fast luck, love, or money).
Hazard-Douglas recounts the history of Dr. Buzzard, one of the most revered practitioners of Hoodoo, known for his ability to cause court cases to resolve in his client’s favor by chewing, then spitting galangal (Low John root) in court. (And I wonder if that is why today in courtrooms, people are admonished not to chew gum). She also interviews a number of followers and practitioners of the religion, giving a rich perspective on this vital, yet hidden faith. [cont’d.]
In post-World War II America, for many African Americans Hoodoo came to be viewed as incompatible with integration and upward mobility, while at the same time those who wished to practice the traditional ways were thwarted by lack of access to both traditional supplies and traditional practitioners. Meanwhile, products loosely based in Hoodoo were aggressively marketed to a growing white (and later Latino) clientele, expanding beyond the black press to magazines like True Confessions and movie magazines.
But still Hoodoo faith and traditions survive, in dance (it was her study of the traditional Ring Dance which spurred Hazzard-Douglas’s writing of this book), in certain African American churches and through the oral transmission that have maintained the old black belt style of Hoodoo. The loss of black-owned farmland has impacted contemporary black belt Hoodoo: Not only have Hoodoo harvest lands be lost, but the loss of farming land also means a loss of economic self-sufficiency and independence from wage labor. Despite expansion and development destroying much of the land where traditional herbs grow, some diggers can still locate the fresh herbs and roots used in conjure work, rather than relying on bulk items from major suppliers (and those suppliers are gradually being consolidated).
The overall shift in economies means the Hoodoo practitioners must also have regular jobs—a change from the post-Emancipation period over a century ago when conjure workers, freed from slave labor, were able to devote themselves solely to healing work in their communities. However, some children and grandchildren of old tradition workers have become educated in the fields of medicine and psychology, integrating Hoodoo beliefs and its role in African American community health.
The Internet, while allowing for the proliferation of Hoodoo hucksters, has also provided a way for genuine Hoodooists to connect and trade information. They assist their clients in traditional needs: Love, money, and health, as well as issues that have confronted African Americans since their forced arrival in America: black family destruction and mass incarceration.
The story of Hoodoo’s development, growth, and shifts, and its return to small traditional-based groups shows the changes in African American society as a whole. Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System is an important contribution to African American history and sociology, religious history in America, and to American history as a whole.