I thought I’d share some excerpts from an interview I was asked to participate in recently, since I have it typed already, and since the questions that were asked are variations of questions I’ve heard plenty of times before. (This was from a university student doing academic research in anthropology.)
Q: How did you become interested in hoodoo?
A: I grew up on the gulf coast in Alabama as one of sixteen first cousins just on one side of the family, and spent a lot of time with my large, close-knit family all over the southeast — Scots-Irish Protestants in Texas; English Episcopalians and Irish Catholics in Alabama and Louisiana with lots of intermarrying and close “social family” connections in the SW part of the state, hence aunt who teaches French, Cajun siblings-in-law, and a cousin who did her anthropology thesis on traiteurs in St. Landry parish and thereabouts; English/Spanish/Native/Mexican/who knows Catholics in Florida, mostly Pensacola; Irish and Scots-Irish Methodists and Catholics a bit further up north in Butler and Lowndes Counties, AL; and lots of folks scattered in between. We’re a huge family of storytellers who collect lore and practice scores of family traditions, and we all crisscrossed the region several times a year for birthdays, concerts, and to trade around the kids for summer vacations and holidays. My grandparents lived in a tidy but dirt-poor Mobile neighborhood just down the street from a passel of palm readers who were standing room only after church on Sundays. My great grandmother in Pensacola lived in an immigrant neighborhood – well, Pensacola basically *was* an immigrant neighborhood – and between her church work and his work in a local deli, they knew *everybody* and got recipes and stories from everybody.
So for instance, my great grandmother had a houseful of home altars with fully dressed saints statues, holy water everywhere, rosaries all the time; she went to mass every day down the street, but you have to get that Jesus and the saints were full time members of the family, not some folks you just visited at God’s house on Sunday. This wasn’t special stuff you only did at certain times. It was all as everyday as bubblegum. When you are poor and live in the deep south and have a lot of folks around for whom folk traditions and “folk Catholicism” and folk cures and beliefs are woven into the fabric of their lives, these folk traditions and practices like hoodoo are everywhere. Mind you, nobody called it that, and my great-grandmother might have tanned my hide if I’d equated salting the porch and sweeping after the tax man came with hoodoo. Or it’s possible the word would have been meaningless to her.
Q: Is hoodoo something you believe in, or is it a nostalgic practice that you appreciate the history of?
A: I don’t think these two things are mutually exclusive, for starters. I do truly believe in it, and I also specialize in it rather than in any other kinds or strains or traditions of folk magic or spirituality because I appreciate the history of it; it’s in my blood, it’s in the food I grew up eating, with the baby Jesus in the King Cake and the silver dime in the black eye peas at New Year’s and the gifting the frankincense, gold, and myrrh to the baby Jesus on the Epiphany. I have studied and even been initiated into other kinds of magical or occult traditions, but I don’t even fool with much of that stuff anymore. I gave up all the fancy robes and secret passwords and now I work with my hands and the herbs and bones again, instead of a wand and sword. It’s just more natural to me, and easier, and much more effective, and plus my mama already grows half the herbs I need and I don’t have to go chasing down some rare expensive perfume from Timbuktu to make the stuff I need to make.
Q: So people still seek out conjure as a source of medicine today?
A: Sure. A combination of poverty, of less access to regular sophisticated medical care, of mistrust of the medical profession in some subcultures and areas, and often simply a truly different conception of the body/mind/spirit relationship than the bio-based perspective of the medical profession all feed into this – I’m sure you know more about this than I do as an anthropology student. There’s a lot of danger in some old folk practices – my grandmother used to let us play with liquid mercury and she was more likely to treat childhood illness with “monkey blood,” aloe vera, a cup of whiskey mixed with lemon and honey, and a heating pad than she was to go stand in line at the clinic, and we just didn’t know better then. But that’s not to say that aloe vera doesn’t heal burns, and that whiskey+honey+lemon won’t soothe a sore throat. There’s a lot of wisdom in the old folk practices too.
Q: Do you follow strict guidelines, or do you see hoodoo as flexible and open to innovation?
A: I’m not sure I understand this question, what you must be trying to get at by asking it. If you mean, do I always do a money drawing spell the same way, of course not. I think every community adds its own original components to things; as long as they emerge organically from and meet the needs of the community, I see it less as innovation and more as the adaptability that is critical to survival and that is the hallmark of any oppressed or underprivileged community. Hoodoo isn’t about individual practitioners exactly, though of course it’s had its superstars in legend and history. But it’s about communities and geography and local tradition. I use red candles for St Expedite but I know of a lady near Savannah who uses pink or blue, depending on the work. She and I come from different communities and if somebody were to sit down and really study it, they could maybe even figure out why one person from one region or with one type of ethnic background has a slightly different take on somebody from another region or ethnic background.
Another example – I don’t use mercury anymore – when I make a fixed nutmeg for a client, I might use tinfoil or even a cigarette paper or chewing gum wrapper with a shiny side instead. Mercury is dangerous, but aluminum has enough of the same properties to substitute for some of what mercury did. I might use other herbs or curios to make up for what aluminum can’t do. Or, if losing a key ingredient that can’t really be replaced with anything else, then I might use a different approach or trick or curio or spell instead. If you can’t get semen, there is no point substituting anything else and trying to do the knotted string trick to tie a man’s nature. You just have to use a different trick. Same with ritual disposal of spell remains. If I still lived in New Orleans, I would probably not use as much graveyard dirt for such a variety of things as I do now, living outside Atlanta where there is plenty of it to be had and the dead are not so crowded. Hoodoo is practical. You have to look at what you need, waht you want, what you have, what you can get, and how you can make do.
Q: [Referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s account of a conjure rite to dismiss an evil spirit, gathered in the Bahamas in the 30s. It involves killing a chicken and capturing a spirit in a bottle.] Is this a practice you are familiar with?
A: Not in US hoodoo, no. This happened in the Bahamas, as you know, and also in the 30s. The time and place and community and culture all matter, and while you may be able to point to some common ancestry in the family tree of this practice and the sorts of practices you’ll see in US hoodoo, that doesn’t make them interchangeable. When most folks where I grew up consider hoodoo in the US, they wouldn’t consider this hoodoo exactly. Some folks might allow it as conjure and make a distinction between conjure and hoodoo, but I can tell you that where I grew up, and for the majority of my clients that grew up with this versus learning about it over the last few years thanks to the internet and a few books, this isn’t something any of us would do. Maybe a modern day rootworker who practiced one of a few African Traditional Religions I can think of might do some rite like this – I’m not saying that the elements and principles aren’t explicable and even, singly, recognizable — but most rootworkers are still Christian, and most rootwork clients are still Christian too. US hoodoo has other ways of dismissing evil spirits, not least of all because we do not live on an island and we do not have easy access to live chickens these days, in most places. it would be needlessly complicated and needlessly expensive to do this rite in Atlanta, GA in 2010, and it would not be acceptable to the majority of my clients, were I to prescribe it, I don’t think. There are other ways of working that make more sense in this day, age, and place.
NB: These photographs are my own personal property from my own personal collection. They are NOT in the public domain, they did NOT come from some random website, they are not licensed under a creative commons license, and you may NOT use them without my express written permission.
Does anybody know how to make text wrap around images in livejournal?