excerpts from an interview; frequently asked questions; about Karma Zain

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.

my great-great grandparents in Lowndes County, AL

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.

Courir de Mardi Gras in Mamou, Evangeline Parish, LA
But it was everywhere, and I was intensely interested in all these folk practices from an early age.  My mama would go down to the giant junk shop on Moffatt Road in the early 80s in Mobile, which was where most people went for lawnmower parts, used appliances, various hardware stuff, discount shoes, whatever – stuff was literally piled on top of other stuff in this space that had once been a nightclub – and she’d be looking to get the lawnmower fixed, or to get a new belt for the vacuum, and I would wander off to the counter where there were a few occult books tucked under the glass and a bunch of plaster statues and ceramic crosses and stuff, and if I stood there long enough, the owner would come by and ask if he could help me. I would tell him I wanted a bottle of Dragon’s Blood oil and he would go in the back. He’d come out 5-10 minutes later with an unlabeled bottle for me that he’d mixed up and/or poured out of a larger bottle.  My grandmother lived a block away from Professor Val, who did spiritual consultations and palm readings, and the little old neighborhood ladies would get out of church on Sunday and go straight to see Prof. Val every Sunday.
It was everywhere if you knew what you were looking at, just like all those million folk cures for taking off warts or keeping away the yellow fever with sulphur and fettidy or keeping the baby from getting colic were.  Maybe the rich folks could afford to take the baby to the doctor every time it got sick, but most folks couldn’t, and the sense of community resourcefulness and home remedies had the same kind of feeling as pragmatic spiritual practices a lot of times – maybe not everybody even believed in astrology, or even gave much thought to whether the kind of stuff they were doing at home was or was not compatible with official Sunday religion.  But even people who were a little skeptical would probably try to get the wart taken off.   So it was all around, to be absorbed – it just didn’t have a name, not in the circles I knew, not in conversation anyway.  Some people would even have those books but it wasn’t the kind of thing you really ever sat down to talk about.
back yard grotto for the Virgin Mary in Evangeline Parish, LA

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.

Saying a rosary to St. Dymphna can actually help a mentally distressed or stressed out or anxious person, not only because it addresses their trouble in a familiar way that validates their belief system and culture of origin and makes sense to them as a whole person who is part of a kin and social network wtih certain shared beliefs and vocabulary, but also because focused, repetitive activity like that can be relaxing, can lower the blood pressure and the level of adrenaline in the body by interrupting the circuit of stress and anxiety, giving the sufferer something soothing to do that gives them some agency and sense of being in control of at least some part of the situation.
That sense of agency is something that poor folks who go to the health center or the county clinics or who are on the state medicaid or medicare type insurance get taken away from them all the time; doctors reinterpret them and reinterpret their experiences to them and translate them into numbers and statistics and organs and systems and genes.  These are the good doctors.  The bad ones treat their poor patients with a barely-disguised sneer sometimes, especially if those patients are pregnant women.  It’s demeaning and dehumanizing.  Supplementing traditional medical care with faith-based treatments that are explicable in the person’s culture of origin and treat the person holistically in terms of mind/body/spirit can be very helpful and empowering, even if you don’t have any scientific evidence that St. Dymphna helped the panic attack, or St. Peregrine helped put the cancer in remission.  Then of course there is the whole question of the inherent healing properties of so many herbs in themselves. But I am not the one to talk about herbal medicine – there are better folks out there to talk to about that.  It’s not all malarkey though.
a spiritual bath as part of a communal spiritual event in central GA

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.

As a professional rootworker, you also have to know your client. My 60 year old African American clients from small towns in Louisiana, or my 40 year old Catholic clients of Spanish descent from a little town in Florida – they want what they know and what they grew up with. These two come to me and not some other worker, not because I am The Best Worker Ever, or even the best at her type of case, and not because I am a certain race or not a certain race or ethnicity, and not because I am or am not a certain religion, even, maybe.  I think a lot of times, they come to me because we speak the same language and grew up eating the same food and breathing the same air and scraping the same red dirt out from under our fingernails.  They don’t want me fixing something that isn’t broken, and why would I?  A city-born worker telling her to run out to Super Target or the health food store and buy a box of fancy chinese herb tea to make a bath from isn’t going to be the worker for her.  She wants a worker who knows good and damned well the nearest Target is in Metairie and it isn’t going to have the fancy chinese tea anyway.  But because I grew up in and around small towns where stuff isn’t open 24/7 and where nobody wanted chinese tea anyway, I can tell her what to go get at the Winn Dixie that will do just as well.  Similarly, I might be way too “country,” or way too snotty about Anna Riva oils, for a client who grew up in a city where Anna Riva oils are what they had and what she has used her whole life, and who the hell do I think I am to tell her to pee in a bucket and throw some brown sugar in there instead of buying a premade, nicely scented wash that she uses and that her mother used before her?  So some of it is “fit” – a shared perspective and vocabulary and culture rather than “one true way” or “this way superior to that way no matter what.”
my great-grandmother and some of her children, Pensacola, FL
But I’m not making these changes because I am trying to be some rock star to bring innovation to the practice, or because I think you can still call it conjure if you use a rose quartz and invoke the goddess and the horned god and don’t do any Old Testament style work because you’re afraid of the law of three (I wouldn’t call that conjure).  Or whatever.  I am making the changes because they are sensible, they are in alignment with the traditional principles and theories, and they are in response to available resources and the needs of the person doing the work.  Everybody has a different potato salad recipe, but potato salad in the southeast tends to have certain traits in common, a certain framework behind it that makes it what it is, a certain point past which innovation makes it hard to call it potato salad anymore.  Same with hoodoo I think.

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?

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