Video: Black Magic Matters: Hoodoo as Ancestral Religion

December 14, 2021
Giovanna Parmigiani Event
A conversation with Yvonne Chireau took place on Nov. 10.

Does Black Magic Matter? A brief discussion of the African American traditions known as Hoodoo, Conjure and Rootworking, and practices of divination, spiritual protection and healing. We will discuss the origins of magic in the specific context of slavery in America and consider the meaning of black magic in the present day. Like their enslaved forebears, today’s practitioners cultivate ancestral spirituality in support of individuals and communities, and to heal diverse afflictions of the body politic, intergenerational trauma, racial and sexual violence, and economic impoverishment.“Black Magic Matters: Hoodoo as Ancestral Religion” is part of the CSWR’s new initiative, “Transcendence and Transformation.”

Yvonne Chireau is Professor in the Department of Religion at Swarthmore College, where she teaches courses on African American religions, Black women and religion, and New World African religions. She is the author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003). Her work focuses on the intersections between religion and magic and the diversity of Africana traditions in the United States. She writes on topics such as race, comics, and Voodoo memes at The Academic Hoodoo.



SPEAKER 1: Harvard Divinity School. Black Magic Matters: Hoodoo as Ancestral Religion. November 10th, 2021.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Welcome to our second gnosiology event. My name is Giovanna Parmigiani, and I am the host of the series, organized within the Transcendence and Transformation Initiative at the CSWR here at Harvard Divinity School.

This series focuses on ways of knowing that are often labeled as non-rational, traditionally referred to as gnosis in Western philosophical and religious traditions and often understood in contrary position to science. These ways of knowing are becoming more and more influential in contemporary societies, popular culture, and academic research.

What is this place of spirit possession, divination, and experiences perceived as out of the ordinary in our lives. How can we study and approach these types of phenomena. Going beyond dichotomies such as body and mind, ordinary and extraordinary, reason and experience, and matter and spirit, this series will help scholars of different disciplines and practitioners interested in exploring and expanding the boundaries of what counts as knowledge today.

So it is with immense pleasure that I introduce today's guests, Professor Yvonne Chireau. Professor Chireau is an HDS alumna and a professor in the Department of religion at Swarthmore College, where she teaches courses on African-American religions, Black women and religion, and new world African religions.

She is the author of Black Magic: Religion and the African-American Conjuring Tradition. Her work focuses on the intersection between religion and magic and the diversity of Africana traditions in the United States.

She writes on topics such as race, comics, and voodoo, means of the academic hoodoo. And there's a link in the chat to this blog. And today Professor Chireau and I will have a conversation on does Black magic matter: a brief discussion on the African-American tradition known as hoodoo, conjure, and root working.

So thank you, Professor Chireau for being with us today. And welcome virtually back to HDS.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Thank you for having me. This is really wonderful. This is really wonderful. I was there so many years ago. It's another lifetime. So I'm really, really happy to be here today to talk about my favorite things in the world, hoodoo magic, conjure, and their relationship to Africana religions. And I want to thank the Center for the Study of World Religions for the gnosiology series, Giovanna, and [? Ariela ?] for setting this up. It's really, really delightful.

I'm going to move very quickly, so that we can have our discussion and get through it. I have some images, and I'm going to share them now. OK, so I want to start by sharing a story that some of you might be familiar with, from the autobiography of the extraordinary African-American abolitionist, statesman, and former fugitive Frederick Douglass.

And Douglass was held in Maryland as a young man in the 1830s. He had attempted to run away from the farm where he was enslaved. And for days, he hid in the woods. He was hungry. He was cold. He was tired. He was scared. This was an everyday experience for many of runaways and fugitive slaves. And he was a young man.

So while he's in the woods, he meets-- and this is all in his autobiography-- he meets someone that he called a genuine African conjurer, by the name of Sandy Jenkins. And Douglass says that Jenkins had a religion for which he had no name. Douglass had no name. Sandy Jenkins gave him a root. We believe it was the high John the Conqueror root. And he said that carrying this root would prevent any white man from beating him.

Douglass is skeptical, but having no other options, he takes the root. And then eventually he's worn out, he returns home. And this is what he says next. "I took the root. And according to Sandy Jenkins direction, and I carried it in my pocket on my right side. When I entered the yard, out came Mr. Covey." Covey was the slave breaker. "On his way to the Sunday meeting. He spoke to me very kindly and then passed on toward the church. Now this singular conduct made me begin to think that there was something in the root that Sandy had given me. Had it been any other day but Sunday, I could have attributed this conduct to no other cause than the influence of the root."

Now those of you who are familiar with this narrative know that the very next day, Douglass was attacked by Covey. He was a notorious slave breaker. At which time Douglass says, he achieved a personal turning point. He defiantly fights back for the first time and draws blood from his abuser. This was, he says, in the very famous line from this story, when the slave became a man. The root, the magical route, which he wore in his pocket, is something of a metaphor for Douglass's newfound manhood, his act of his resistance, even his skeptical realization of the power he describes as the essential dignity possessed by all human beings.

Did that have something to do with magic. So Douglass gives us an important clue, in looking at alternative sources of spiritual empowerment and resistance that were known to Black people at the time. And this is the entry point that I want to make in talking about the world of Hoodoo and conjure.

Hoodoo is African-American magic. It is the spiritual tradition of the invisible institution. This is the term that was coined by the late religion historian Albert Raboteau to refer to the clandestine, sacred life of African-American people.

Now, I want to just start really quickly with a couple of images to think about this idea of religion versus magic. Because I don't want to spend too much time on theory, that's best left to the classroom and excellent teachers like Giovanna. But we see an image like this, religion or magic.

So these are pictures from the 19th century that depict Black people and their collective practices. And we see that Africana ritualism was perceived as irrational, exotic, demonic. It was a very primitive-- perceived as a primitive, strange spirituality. So labels and captions aside, are these images of magic, or are these images of religion or something else.

So it's important to note that onlookers during this period of slavery and thereafter, characterized Black religions as a spiritual other. Fetishism, sorcery, witchcraft, hedonism-- these are the terms emerging out of the Western imperial encounter in the early modern era that ultimately rationalized the enslavement and domination of Black people, conceived by Christian missionaries and other colonial authorities.

Many of these ideas carried over into the United States, where Hoodoo and conjure were viewed as retrograde superstitions and, at worst, evil, dangerous to the larger society. So unpacking the terms, I feel is really important when looking at this material, and it also makes for good discussion.

OK, so let me just move. I use hoodoo to describe African-American traditions-- it's an umbrella term-- African-American traditions of spiritual healing, ancestral devotion, and protection-- healing, ancestral devotion, and protection. Roots and root working specifically refers to the use of certain natural and organic objects in the performance of actions to make things happen, whether healings, poisonings, or supernatural prediction, which we call divination.

Conjure and conjuring refers to interactions with the spirits of humans or angels or saints or other spiritual beings, including the dead and the ancestors or the Christian God and Jesus Christ. So when you look at this, you think about this, hoodoo conjure has many of the same things that religion has.

So here we have the conjure man and the root doctor. It has devotees. It has adepts. It has authorities. You may recognize this particular authority, Zora Neale Hurston, the anthropologist and the playwright, novelist, and also the initiate into the hoodoo tradition. It has its people, spirit workers and so forth. It also has deities and supernatural beings.

OK, Blackhawk, who is a Saint or a hoodoo Saint, that's known in New Orleans, mainly, but elsewhere and High John the Conqueror, that I just mentioned. It also has its sacred books, books of magic, sacred texts for understanding, for interpreting the supernatural world. It also has its sacred holy, powerful artifacts, OK. And it has its herbs, organic material that are provided by nature.

OK, so I'm going to go back to the slides in a second. But I really do want to provide a quick overview. So how did this come about. How did this world of hoodoo conjure come about. Hoodoo developed hundreds of years ago, as enslaved people interacted with the local ecologies in which they found themselves. So instead of being reconstituted as other African-derived religions, hoodoo was born of the fragmentation of indigenous African religions.

OK. It incorporated elements from the environment. It adapted the spirits of nature and the land. African, Native American, traditions, practices, even European folk religion, and folk magic, as well as Christianity. But the dominant orientation was African. OK. So we can think of Hoodoo and conjure as a tradition of synthesis and hybridity. I would argue that the purpose of this tradition was to make life better for the enslaved Black person. So in that, we have specific things that were embedded in the practice-- ritual for healing, good fortune, and well-being.

The authorities that are associated with these practices-- and I write about this in the book-- go by a number of different names-- hoodoo doctors, two heads, root doctors, conjure men and women, spirit workers, and so on. The practitioner of hoodoo is seen to possess special knowledge concerning sacred arts and ritual. And in the slavery period-- and this is really where I focus most of my study-- plantation conjurers, local supernatural workers were well known within the Black communities.

So they were called upon to do different things-- heal physical ailments, retrieve lost objects, find threatening forces. This is what all good magic does, OK. But their roles in this tradition in particular, extended. Hoodoo really was about, and it became about defending enslaved people from aspects of embodied harm and suffering. OK. And this was done sometimes in acts of retaliation, aggression, and revenge. And this is where we get into a little bit of trouble with the-- what they would call the negative side of magic, which is always present. OK.

And we can talk about this-- the idea of cursing and aggressive magic is seen as something that's unusual. But of course, we find these sorts of harming practices in Christianity as well. One of my favorite New Testament stories, because it reminds me of something I would do, when Jesus is so angry. Jesus Christ comes upon this fig tree. Figs right now are growing, you know, they're really growing wild. Because they're getting ready to go dormant. And there's no figs. And we know in the story, Jesus was so hungry, he curses the thing, and it dies.

Now I wouldn't do that to my fig tree. But this sort of gives us an example of, not Christianity, of course, but an understanding that spirituality or aggressive-- what I would call aggressive magic-- some people will argue about the term-- was something that is not unknown to us. OK.

So just very quickly, the functions of hoodoo, they ranged widely, as with any good magic-- retrieving lost objects, predicting the future, causing people to fall in love, gain riches and good fortune, and other mundane, universal, and ordinary concerns. But I would note that there were concerns that were paramount for Black folk, particularly coming out of the experience of enslavement-- safety, defense against racial domination, protection against violence, and so forth.

So if we think of hoodoo and conjure as part of magic writ large, we can see that there are very particular needs that this tradition met. OK. All right, so fast forward today. And I'm going to put up my screen again. OK. Can you see. OK. Fast forward today. And I'm really interested in how this tradition has changed, evolved, grown over hundreds of years. Hoodoo conjure is still very much with us and is undergoing something of a revival and a resurgence in Black communities.

This is something that I came upon this year that we just came out of October, which is fast becoming branded as Hoodoo Heritage Month. And you can see that there are certain traditions. There are people that are really, really invested in the idea of hoodoo as a form of cultural heritage. Today's practitioners of hoodoo are predominantly, and again, I have to do some study on this, predominantly Black women. They are mothers, daughters. They are college-aged. They are elders. They are seasoned cultural workers and exemplars of the divine feminine.

They include artists, entrepreneurs, people who teach courses and conduct rituals, and those who honor the integrity of culture. So they're theologically diverse. They share a unifying principle in their belief that ancestral spirituality is foundational to community healing. Ancestral spirituality is foundational to community healing, not just the healing of bodies, but the healing of relationships-- connecting, restoring, and strengthening relationships between those who came before, those who are present now, between the dead and the living, between the natural realm and the social world in which all humanity moves.

So I spoke with one contemporary hoodoo practitioner, a Black woman in her 20s, who took part in the protest for racial justice last year across the United States. And as a hoodoo worker, she told me that she wanted to support the political movement in some way. First, she helped by creating public street altars out of respect for those Black Americans who have passed away as the result of physical affliction, as well as acts of violence. Then she invoked John the Conqueror, the heroic spirit that takes the form of a root.

She distributed the HIgh John roots to the activists and to front line protesters. This recalls an example from slavery of Gullah Jack, Couter Jack, Pritchard who provided crab claws and [INAUDIBLE] charms to members of the anti-slavery conspiracy in the fateful Denmark BC uprising in South Carolina in 1822. So in these suggestive ways, you can see that current day hoodoo carries on in a new social and historical context.

Contemporary hoodoo conjure workers draw from practices of collective struggle to address intergenerational trauma and healing justice. They perform ring shouts of mourning and celebration. In this season, in particular, they pray, they tend to the dead with herbs, tobacco, and sacred plants, in order to bless those who have come before. And they gather to sing, to pray, to dance together in the spirit of the ancestors.

So it's a very powerful reclaiming of tradition. OK, let me get out of here again. OK, so I want I want to close here with a few points. It's important to understand that for many of today's practitioners, hoodoo conjuring work are viewed as a kind of cultural heritage, of cultural heritage preservation. So the issue of ancestor veneration, ancestor reverence is paramount.

Now, this isn't ancestor worship, but this is something that most cultures and ethnic groups have, whether you're Italian or American or Mexican-American, Chinese-American, or Mormon-- OK, established traditions for honoring the dead. Because it elevates them in the consciousness. It reifies historical memory. And it empowers the living by connecting them to the cycle, the movement, the transmigration of the soul, whether they call it that or not.

So does Black magic matter. I think so, and this is why. It matters because hoodoo conjure and root working-- these are ways to preserve and recover traditions that have been lost or forgotten for Black American people. It matters because it's a way to uplift, honor, and celebrate the community, on behalf of our enslaved foremothers and forefathers. It matters today, I think, because it inspires a kind of aesthetic sensibility in its creative tradition of arts and forms that are inspired by Africa and its venerable religions.

It matters because hoodoo is epistemology of botanical and esoteric knowledge, with a curative system that includes sacred medicines that exist in partnership with nature. And from our insular, digital, cyber world, we're alienated from the natural realm and from each other. Hoodoo conjure draws us into the magical realms of nature itself, which is sacralized in the Africana style.

And then finally, I would say that the need for this kind of Black magic remains. And Black magic matters, because even though there's no slavery here, at least in the United States, the slavery continues on. Institutional state violence, incarceration of African-Americans has continued. And so the need for safety, protection, and healing is renewed.

Black magic matters to Black people who are engaged in anti-racist work, as it is also a tool to be wielded against terror. It is a power that enacts a culturally inspired sensibility and a spirit of resistance for our new age. Thank you.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Thank you so much, Professor Chireau. That was wonderful, and it reminded me why I'm such a fan of your work and my students as well. So I will carry with me, honestly, many of the things that you just said for a long time. I think it was a very useful introduction for the public of gnosiology, who is a public of academic and non-academic scholars at heart, let's say.

So if you don't mind, I have a few questions, maybe if you can delve a little bit more into some of the aspects that you already mentioned us. First, I really would like to have a conversation, a little conversation, on religion versus magic. I am, like you, I think, one of those who do not really distinguish between the two. I mean, I believe it's very much in the eye of who has the power to define what they see if something is labeled as religion or magic. Do you want to tell me more about your take on this.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Sure. Sure. My take has certainly-- it's changed since I wrote the book. The book was like all good dissertations, trying to prove how much I knew about theories of magic versus religion, but also using a really compelling case study. If-- and I probably wouldn't write it any differently-- but I think that in some ways, this argument over magic and religion-- it's a highfalutin argument. It's of no concern for practitioners today, except-- and there is a broader context here-- we have to consider that there is a kind of prestige, at least in our society, at least in our culture, to label something as magic.

And before I came on, I was talking about how young people are digital aged people. They love to brand things. They brand themselves. Representation is a way of branding. So the question for me now is, what's at stake in labeling something magic or labeling something religion. So this conversation would be very different even 30 years ago, when I started my research. Because now we really have-- we live in a world where there are many voices that are laying claim to the labels. We haven't even begun to talk about the prestige of science as a label, when we think about this.

So multiple levels-- as a category, I would say yes. The label magic versus religion breaks down. And I think to some extent, when we get to science, it breaks down. What is the value of the label? One of the things that I referenced in my talk was how to assign the category of magic to something, particularly in that early modern period of slavery and during the formation of this Atlantic world, to assign something magic is to other it. OK. And with that, othering of Afrikaner religions-- and I would argue that they are religions-- comes a kind of-- there's a hierarchy of civilization, of culture, of race, and so forth that goes with this.

So my friends have argued with me. And we just came out of a conversation. They said, oh, we have to decolonize magic. We have to make it OK. I think we should do the same for religion then and be fair. So I might have dodged your question a little, but it's a question that operates on several levels. What is the value? What would be the use for practitioners to say that this is religion versus magic. Of course, we in this society at least, religions are protected, in ways that the others aren't.

So what's nice is that even though I framed you this theory, these are conversations that happen on the ground too. People are arguing about it. But in the end, I think that there are other concerns that are more important to those who engage in these traditions.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Well, I absolutely-- well, thank you, of course, for your clarity. And I absolutely agree with you. As an anthropologist, of course, I'm always very interested in the performative aspects of labels. A lot's going on with what you want a label to do or also the perlocutionary, [INAUDIBLE] what you want a label to evoke, in terms of feelings and emotions.

And so I'm very much with you here. I'm really looking forward to see how your current research, the direction it goes, and you know, I'm very excited about it. So thank you so much. Another aspect, here my students are very interested, because I'm actually asking this on behalf of my students of magic course. They're very interested in the relationship between black magic and healing, that you mentioned is a central aspect, of course. Do you want to say more about this maybe.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Yeah, I would. And it's something I'm looking for more these days. So when I did my research, I'm looking mainly at slavery from maybe the 18-- as the United States is emerging, 18th century on to emancipation. And so as you know, in Black communities, healing is a paramount concern, a physical affliction, as it was in other communities. So it goes without saying that hoodoo conjuring would have a strong, domestic healing element. Because other-- poor folk use domestic medicine. They used herbs and so forth.

So that part, I was always look for it. I was looking out for it to see. Obviously, we know that enslaved Black people had very few options, when it came to healing. But what I found-- and this is the interesting thing-- that when we speak of healing, we're not just talking about healing of the physical affliction. So contraband hoodoo-- and I keep saying, like any good magic, you know-- because I think there are good magics, and there are not so good magics. But like any good magic, it will address a broader web of concerns.

So a lot of the healing that I see that went on had less to do with physical affliction and embodied sickness and disease. Although that was certainly a part of it and. It was usually spectacular kinds of healing, but healing of the social fabric, healing of relationships between people within these enslaved communities that were usually very tight knit. And norms were guarded and policed. Magic usually functioned in some very interesting ways to police some of the boundaries of community.

So when we talk about healing, we want to expand the definition. What I guess today we would say, well, it's holistic. It's not just physical healing, but it's mental healing. It's psychological healing. But I would argue that from the start, hoodoo is also about social healing. Fast forward to today, and this is something I really want to know more about. I simply don't know more about-- I'll say my preliminary research suggests that those people who are engaged in healing justice movement, they would embrace hoodoo conjure, as well as other healing modalities.

I also see this like a strong type of aggression, self defense, what again, has been demonized or labeled the dark side of magic. Is that-- can we see this as a form of healing. My friend, Theophus Smith, has written a book called Conjuring Culture. And I think it's really the first-- oh, I see Professor [INAUDIBLE]. Hello. I'm so glad to see you. [? Phi ?] Smith. It's a great reference, if you want to look at it.

He's taking the tools of religious studies in order to understand conjure in the United States. And he argues that even the way that rituals were used to-- he would call them exorcisms or people call them-- the way that civil rights practitioners would sing. That is a form of healing, but it's also a form of exercising. So it's interesting what one person calls aggression, revenge, the dark arts, others would say, no, this is the medicine.

It's the difference between-- and I'll close here because this is something a hoodoo worker told me-- what's the difference between curing and healing. Curing the surgeon cuts that thing out. OK, it's going to hurt. But you cut it out. Healing, OK, it may be removed, but it's about balancing out, OK, for the healer and the affliction. So there's a lot I think I need to learn about contemporary styles of hoodoo, with respect to healing. But certainly within the enslaved communities, this was a paramount concern for this kind of magic, as it later became for religion too.

So don't forget that in the invisible institution, religion and magic kind of go together. Everyone sort of understands what I say, when I say invisible institution. I know everyone's familiar with Professor [INAUDIBLE] work, right. You know, they go together. And the invisible institution was not a Christian institution, because what we know is that most enslaved people, they didn't come to Christianity until later in the 19th century. So good question. I rambled a little. It's something-- short answer is, I need to learn more about the contemporary styles of hoodoo conjure as they relate to healing. OK.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Thank you so much. I think that what you just said about healing somehow, transcending the boundaries of the self, in the way you address this question, reminds me how healing is actually central for the topic of the series, this transcending the boundary of the self, of course, implies a way of knowing and being in the body and imagining the boundaries of the body, the individual and community body, that are a bit challenging, right, are kind of demonic assumptions around it. Do you want to say more about, maybe, black magic and how you see it as a meaningful partner in conversation of gnosiology or ways of knowing.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Yeah. You know, I thought about the transcending the body thing. And you know, there's a lot of work, a lot of theoretical work being done on the Black body. And a lot of the things that I've seen talk about the objection of the body, not just in slavery but in the contemporary context I might have another take if I think about it long-- I wonder whether it's about transcending the boundaries or transcending the body or effacing what we call the boundary.

And I think that, not so much in this tradition, but I think that whatever kind of magic we're talking about, whatever kind of religion we're talking about, we really are speaking about ways that people navigate the body in the world, how they know the body, how they experience the body. So I don't want-- my sources don't give me too much about how Black folk thought about this, except-- and this is the one area that I think I wrote about, and I thought it was so fascinating-- where we have descriptions of healing practices. And these are, I mentioned it before, these are spectacular healing rituals.

One of my earliest sources, my earliest documents, I think it comes from the mid 1700s, talks about an enslaved-- another fugitive. Many Black folk ran away. And it's an advertisement, I want to say from 1750. And it's an advertisement for a runaway. And they didn't have the internet back then, so they posted these things in the newspaper and everywhere. And the source says, run away, an African born conjurer. He is said to be a skilled doctor. And there's one line that says-- and they always describe them. He pulls insects out of people. He pulls pig, you know, bones.

So it's really a very strange thing. It's this-- we have an African. We have a person who was known as a conjurer. He's also known as a doctor, just from this source, and what he did. So lots and lots of sources cluster around what we would call magical healing or etheric-- I'm utterly fascinated with these. And what we find in some of these documents is that, of course, there are people who say, oh, you know, they're faking it. There really are conjurers and jugglers. They're faking it.

But what we find is that Black folk envisioned physical affliction. And the metaphors and symbols that they use to visualize it, they are always from nature. They are insects. They are spiders. They are the things that we associated with the unclean. And the role of the healer-- the role of the controller was to actually remove these.

And I find these descriptions up to the mid 20th century. So from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. I'm not quite sure how I got here, but you can tell I'm really excited about these sources, because one of the things that-- and Zora Neale Hurston writes about this, as well as one of my favorite novelists, the late Gloria Naylor, in her book. The removal of affliction by the magician by the-- and this is classic shamanism, and the affliction is embodied.

It reminds me in some ways-- and this is my other life-- of the Pentecostal healer or the revival healer who goes in and grabs the affliction, and they hold it up. And it's a cancer, and it looks like, God knows what. This type of spectacular practice went hand in hand with hoodoo practices. And I believe-- and I'm on shaky ground here-- but I believe this has to do with the African orientation of these practices, that these types of healing rituals always conceived of the object for healing, the disease, as either an animal or some sort of unclean-- you know, frogs, salamanders, worms, and so forth.

So I have rambled a little bit. But the short answer is, the earlier sources give me a little bit more than what's going on today. Although you can see a lot of spectacular forms of healing, hoodoo and conjure healing, just go to Instagram. And people are doing the most remarkable things. I don't, again, this is not the realm that I'm working in. But I guess, I might have to. And there might be some sorts of parallels.

Did that get at your question, Giovanna?

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: I think so. And I was actually very interested in the internet space, and how this changed a little bit, the publics and conversations, and very-- I mean, a very, simple question, maybe even a banal one. So are there solitary hoodoo practitioners, or hoodoo happens mostly within communities and how we think about the internet as a community within this discourse.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Yeah, this was classic Durkheim that I wrestled with, right. So there's no church of hoodoo. There's no church of magic. And of course, you know, people, when they come together and pray and sing, that certainly-- and they sing, and they do the ring shout, in order to effect a change. Very magical. Very collective. And Durkheim was very, very useful in thinking about magic broadly. I found most of my sources or most of the sources from then speak of the individuals who were, as I mentioned, religious authorities or spiritual authorities.

So those were the ones who sort of made the cut. Fast forward after emancipation, when Black folk are moving out of the South and moving into the cities, hoodoo becomes more of a commodity. And so you can begin to go to shops and entrepreneurs. And I'm talking really about the early 20th century. So the individual is a client. They'll go to the store. They'll buy their conqueror root, or they'll buy whatever they need. And then they'll go back home and do it.

So I would say after emancipation, the thing opens up more. Hoodoo the authorities are still present. But it becomes-- to be sure, it's mass marketed, when we get to the 20th century, toward the end of the 20th century, and then, wow, with the digital world. The thing really does explode. So I don't really know many people who are authorities in the same way. Now, there are many people who practice this thing. They take part in it, as I showed you. I think there's a revival, in terms of communities, particularly among the younger people.

The thing that's interesting and really beautiful about this to me, is that they're multireligious. They come from different backgrounds. Usually people who practice this with others or who come together to take part in either rituals of protests or rituals of resistance, they might be practitioners of African traditional religions, a number of people I know. Or they might be Christians.

So that's one thing that's wonderful to me, because that wasn't always the case. It was actually, hoodoo was shunned. It was looked down upon post emancipation for a number of reasons. So nowadays, you can come in there. You can be a practitioner of whatever you want. The question of race and culture is fascinating, because we're seeing some lines being drawn, that this is because of-- and I think I alluded to this-- hoodoo is seen as a kind of cultural heritage.

This is not something that practitioners tell me that, if you don't have Black ancestors or Black ancestry, that you belong in. And as you can imagine, that's become a real point of resistance, because as a commodity, there are many, many people who sell hoodoo goods and services that aren't Black or do not have Black ancestry. So that's where there's a lot of tension going on. And I'm actually really interested in the tension. I'm drawn to conflict, because it's a question of the proprietariness of this culture. Who does it belong to, and who belongs to it.

And so that's what I'm examining right now. Because there's different ideas about this. There's generational differences between how people feel about this, particularly in these times, in these sort of polarized, racially and politically polarized times. So it's really fascinating. And I say I'm drawn to conflict. I don't love conflict. But it's one thing I would like to see that, sort of, resolved in our time. I think there's so much at stake in the preservation and the contribution of this tradition, right now.

I'm actually looking at the participants here. I see, OK, all right.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: OK, very good. I think you raised very important questions, obviously, and very many direction of studies. Also, if there are PhD students here interested in working on this, I think it's a very productive and generative avenue of study here. You briefly mentioned before a distinction between good and not so good magic. Do you feel like expanding on that, as I'm so curious, sorry.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Oh boy, good and not so good magic. I have strong opinions on this. And I'll just give a little bit of background. You know, I have very-- for someone who does the work I do, I have very tender sensibilities. And what I mean by that is, a lot of the work we do-- and you know this too-- in the earlier period, but even now, takes us into some dark material. OK, so and as scholars, we take the good, bad, and the ugly.

So the level of inhumanity that comes from looking-- when you read these sources from slavery-- and I've read from Frederick Douglass, who really, he captured it in his narrative. Well, he wrote several-- but he captures this, the level of inhumanity, human inhumanity, to others. It's not fun, sometimes, to read about that.

But I went looking to see how religion, how conjure magic addressed that. And this is where I found this story. One of the things that, as I mentioned, the hoodoo worker or the voodoo practitioner-- I'm trying to think of a way to put this in politically-- OK, all right, so physical harm, self-defense, and actual warfare. So we have an idea that practitioners in Christianity, because I think that's where we started, engage in a kind of spiritual warfare. OK, it's warfare against evil, in an abstract way, but also against the devil and so forth, whatever.

I see, there's a strong strand, in the hoodoo tradition, that involves a kind of spiritual warfare, yet in this tradition, coming out of the slave period, we see so much of it directed against slavery. This resonates with what we know about Ayiti, Haiti, in the 18th century and [? votu, ?] not voodoo, because that's-- no such thing as that-- but the use of spirituality as a kind of warfare. And when I say warfare, it's spiritual. But it's also very physical, very brutal, very, very hard.

We see acts of magic that exist in so many of the slave revolts and rebellions in the Atlantic world, from Haiti to Brazil to the United States, which is why I mentioned Gullah Jack and Denmark BC. So this is what others would call the dark side of hoodoo, the use of hoodoo conjure in order to harm, in order to retaliate aggressive magic and so forth. You know, I'm not judgemental, but as I said, I'm a new ager. I want to see uplift.

But what I see from the sources, and what I hear today, is that sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes war is necessary. There are others who say, no, we live in a realm of love and light. And this is the good magic. Good magic is about love and light. And what I keep coming back to is this idea, and it's a very African in its orientation, that there is not this sharp division that we have in Christianity, in terms theodicy, in terms of good and evil. There isn't, because these things are constantly shifting around.

So I kind of let that notion be my guide, with respect to hoodoo. Now for some, it's a cop out. For some, they would say, you should never do the left hand work. You should never harm. You should never do that. And then others that I've talked to, and I've interviewed a few people about this, they said, yeah, but if you don't know how to do it, how can you heal. How can you remove it.

So I forgot the question again, Giovanna. I think the point for me is that in this world, we as a society, people need to determine what's appropriate, OK, what's appropriate. It may be appropriate, in some circumstances, to do harm, to kill even. All right. And hoodoo magic, I would say even religion, might have something to say about that.

So that's the dark side. You can tell it's not something I relish. I like to think that as human beings who are evolving, and I know we are. We evolve beyond these things. But magic is also very real world. It's visceral. It's part of the world. So that sort of thing is present. I feel like I kind of dodged around the question, but you can tell it's something that it's not my favorite part of it. And yet I keep going back into this.

I'll just say, as an aside, one of my little goofy things that I do is I'm interested in comics. I'm interested in representations of voodoo and African religions in the comics. And when I started doing this, I started it because I'm a geek. But I began to look at horror. I never, I mean as a geek, I never looked at horror before. But this is part of the psyche. This is the repressed part of the psyche, right. So it seems to me that, that side of magic, what maybe we shouldn't call it the bad magic versus the good magic, but that side of magic is always present, right, the violent, the nightmarish, that side. Because we're human beings, and-- this part of the psyche.

But it's not my favorite thing.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Oh, I understand. And it's that we actually have lots of conversation around these issues, my magic course. And I'm sure that the students that are in my course, recognize some of the topics that we have been addressing a lot. Because again, you said, in a world that's polarized, complexity is sometimes difficult to hold, right, inside and outside, right of us.

So I really appreciated your explain a little more, giving more context around this. Thank you so, so much. But since you mentioned comic books, I have another question from a student that I think a lot of us would benefit from. So from a group of people who sought out a talk on magic gnosiologies, as all of us today, what comics or graphic novels should we be reading, according to you.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Oh boy. Oh, there's so much good stuff. But I'll just say, I'm looking at this historically. And I'm a 20th century person, but I've written about this. What should we be reading today. You know, I'm going to say, you should read-- this is hard. I do love some of the mainstream stuff. I was just reading the new green lant-- it's not new, it's two years-- the Green Lantern far sector, which is the Black woman sojourner. I love that stuff.

But I would say, because comics is undergoing a revolution, I would say you want to read independent comic creators. You really do. So it's great that DC, Marvel, a lot of the graphic novel companies, they're great studios. You want to support people. So I don't know if you would mind this. My friend-- can I make a plug for my--

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Of course. Of course. You can do it.

YVONNE CHIREAU: Greg Elysee, he has a comet called Anansi. It's about the-- well, it's a [INAUDIBLE] deity. But his comic, he has actually has a comic called Marassa which is about [? votu. ?] So independent artists creators, Black creators, Greg is of Haitian descent, Black women, people of color-- it's very hard to break into the companies-- the big studios. And again, nothing against them. We all love the Black Panther. But I think some of the best and coolest stuff is coming from independent creators.

And I don't have a list. And most of the stuff that I work on is in the 20th century, because I'm really interested in when voodoo became legitimate. Because in the 1920s, the comics are talking about voodoo. They're talking about the African voodoo priest and so forth. So when did that change. So I'll shout out to Greg and his comic. I'll put a--

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Yes, can we put the name of your friend in the chat.

YVONNE CHIREAU: But support independent creators, please. Because they're really at the cutting edge. OK, that was a good question.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: That's fantastic. Yeah. Yeah. My students are very good. I love my students very much. Yeah. Since you mentioned comics, and you know, there's a bit of a tension today between what happens within academia and outside the academia. There's obviously an interest in the general public around these type of topics that affect magic and hoodoo. So do you want to tell us a little bit about your academic hoodoo, how it came about, what--

YVONNE CHIREAU: Yeah. Thank you so much. Again, I said, you know, people today they brand things. And you know, I have three daughters. And they're like, oh, you know, mom, if you're not online, you're nobody. And I thought-- I mean, they weren't saying it to insult me. But it seems to be the case. So like I said, I'm a 20th century person. But came out of a place where I wanted to explore some themes that I probably couldn't get published as a scholar, maybe back then. Now, you know, yeah, there's comic studies, and people write about it.

So my blog really is exploring questions that intersect with what people are doing publicly and then some of the theoretical ideas concerning the relationship between religion and magic. So one of my favorite things that I wrote, and I haven't been that active. Well, I wrote a blog about hats. You know, what does it mean when African-American people wear hats as a kind of spiritual signifying. And so I focused on the Fez. And these things, you recognize them immediately. Oh, yeah. So it's a place for me to play with ideas that I probably couldn't get-- I don't deal with in the academic study.

And I actually enjoy that more, because sometimes in the academic study of religion, it can be so narrow. And there is this sort of theoretical turn in the field that it's not as-- it's important. It's certainly very important. But you don't get to play. That's what I'm saying. You don't get the play. So this is where my research on comics is coming out of. And again, I'm really still interested in Africana religions and visual representation.

So I showed you those images right at the top. And I asked you, is this religion or magic. And it'd be fun to hear what kind of answers you all came up with. But you kind of know, you're onto me. What happens when we try to represent religion or magic in these visual spaces. So comics was this sort of natural space for me to look at these sorts of things.

I don't know if there's going to be a book. People keep saying, oh, are you going to write a book. I don't / I might, I might not. But I will post whatever I do on my blog. So it's great fun.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: That's fun stuff. Is visuality, the visual aspect of hoodoo part of your current or future project. Will you write about it? Yeah, what are you working on. Yeah, I guess I'm curious, currently.

YVONNE CHIREAU: People keep asking me about comics, which is surprising. Because comic studies is sort of a critical field. And they don't want fans. They're very critical of fans, and I'm a fan. So I'm really looking at-- my big project is deconstructing voodoo. So everyone knows what it is, but it's nothing. It's a manufactured idea. And where did it come from. And why is it so resonant.

So I'm actually presenting at the pagan-- it's not pagan studies. It's the pagan con, a hex con in New Orleans next year. People who are practitioners, they don't want to hear all the big words. They want information that's useful. So I really want to talk about voodoo. And that's really-- in my blog, I'm always trying to dissect this notion. Voodoo, V-O-O-D-O-O, because it's become so many things to so many people, and yet it's completely created.

One can argue, Giovanna, about religion. That's the same thing, same sort of argument. I do enjoy that so.

GIOVANNA PARMIGIANI: Yeah, I think this is a perfect question to leave us and the audience with. I'm so sorry that it's time to wrap up, I guess. I love this conversation so much. And I want to really thank you, Professor Chireau, for being here, for this wonderful conversation, for sharing your knowledge and your beauty and your energy with all of us.

So to all the public here, please stay tuned with the activities of the CSWR with Dr. Chireau's work and blog, with the transcendent and transformation initiative and gnosiology. You can find all the information on the CSWR website for what happens at Harvard and the CSWR. And I think there will be a link in the chat right now.

So thanks again for everything. And have you all a lovely rest of your day. Thank you so much.


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SPEAKER 1: Copyright 2021. The President And Fellows of Harvard College.