SPOOKY SEASON COULD NEVER: A Short History of Hoodoo
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
September 22 marks the first day of fall and the official start of SPOOKY SEASON! Although there isn’t an all-inclusive itinerary of tasks required for spooky season, you can bet your pumpkin spice latte, cozy sweaters, endless pumpkins, skeletons and friendly ghosts are included on the hypothetical list. Spooky season is cute, catchy and sellable. It’s a time when kids pull out their Ouija boards, dust off their witch hats, and say they practice Voodoo and Hoodoo (interchangeably) naively assuming they are the same practice.
There is a stark distinction in the two practices though—
Voodoo is a widely misunderstood religion and Hoodoo is an African American magic, medical (herbal) and spiritual tradition that was crafted by enslaved Africans after they were stolen from their homelands. Many enslaved African Americans were not permitted to practice the religions/traditions of their homelands and thus resourcefully forged a new path.
Hoodoo was hidden in plain sight. The roots were those available to the enslaved, the inclusion Bible verses and psalms kept outsiders in the dark and ancestors were always close—ready to tilt the odds in your favor. This is why Hoodoo is a uniquely African American folk magic system—it is a practice crafted in desperation.
Hoodoo has many names—Conjure and Rootwork are just a few. The closed practice also varies widely depending on the region in which it is practiced, but the Great Migration from 1916-1970 made Hoodoo prevalent within Black communities in the northern and southern states. As its popularity grew and became more public, practitioners of Hoodoo were targeted and often arrested for helping members of their community. Rootworkers were persecuted for mixing herbs and selling tonics that often worked better than traditional medicines that many African Americans did not have access to in the 1920’s-1960’s. Once again, the practice was driven underground and many of the priceless traditions lost as elders passed on.
In recent years Hoodoo has been exploited by mainstream media—especially during spooky season, often incorrectly linked to Voodoo or Witchcraft.
The helpful and easy aspects of the practice are highlighted with the tagline—look at what Hoodoo can do for you, instead of asking, how can I become more balanced, more centered and honor my ancestors. The problem with Hoodoo being seen as a something new and profitable by the mainstream is that shops sell products that are not ethically sourced, they take bark continuality from the same tree instead of being balanced and borrowing from many trees. They don’t care about leaving rare plants in the ground and therefore the energy on these tonics, candles and mojo bags are not balanced.
Toying with magic you know nothing about is not only naïve, but also dangerous.
If you want to practice Hoodoo you should find a teacher. One that has learned traditions that have been passed down their family lines. One that explains to you why you should cover your face when leaving a cemetery or why High John Root is powerful. You must get your hands dirty in when practicing, you must dig deep into your own roots and find your magic.
Hoodoo is featured in my YA novel in verse Me (Moth). I practice Hoodoo and I wanted to see it respectfully shown on the page. I wanted Black kids to know they had magic in their bones even when they think the world is against them. I wanted Black people to know what Moth’s grandfather said to her—I would never leave you trapped, defenseless. You have access to your ancestors and they will never give up on you.
In short, Hoodoo is not instagram-able. It is not a practice you visit for a season and then let sit on the shelf for the rest of the year.
Hoodoo is a life force, it is working with the roots, remembering the ancestors and tilting the odds.
There is a balance in the practice that is mediative and a signature that is unique to each individual Conjurer.
Books That Incorporate Hoodoo
Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith
Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can't seem to cast a simple spell.
Sticks, Stones & Bones by Stephanie Rose Bird
This book gives a comprehensive overview of Hoodoo/Rootwork and the importance of sticks, stones and bones in the practice. It is an excellent introduction into Hoodoo.
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
Moth has lost her family in an accident. Though she lives with her aunt, she feels alone and uprooted. Until she meets Sani, a boy who is also searching for his roots. If he knows more about where he comes from, maybe he’ll be able to understand his ongoing depression. And if Moth can help him feel grounded, then perhaps she too will discover the history she carries in her bones.
Root Magic by Eden Royce
Debut author Eden Royce arrives with a wondrous story of love, bravery, friendship, and family, filled to the brim with magic great and small.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Filled with mystery and an intriguingly rich magic system, Tracy Deonn’s YA contemporary fantasy Legendborn offers the dark allure of City of Bones with a modern-day twist on a classic legend and a lot of Southern Black Girl Magic.
—Simon and Schuster
Amber McBride is an English professor at the University of Virginia and holds an MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. Her poetry has been published in several literary magazines including Ploughshares and The Rumpus. Me (Moth) is her debut novel and is also long listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Amber lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Buy Me (Moth): https://bookshop.org/a/11866/9781250780362
ME (MOTH): A debut YA novel-in-verse by Amber McBride, Me (Moth) is about a teen girl who is grieving the deaths of her family, and a teen boy who crosses her path.