Black magic enjoying renaissance among whites — and blacks

Black magic is growing paler as the mysterious practices once used to “poison” evil slave masters attract a larger following among white Americans, who frequent conjure shops and seek voodoo rites on vacations, a new study finds.

From the University of Florida:

Feb. 24, 2003
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Black magic is growing paler as the mysterious practices once used to “poison” evil slave masters attract a larger following among white Americans, who frequent conjure shops and seek voodoo rites on vacations, a new University of Florida study finds.

“There is a new respect for black folk beliefs,” said Jeffrey Anderson, a UF history graduate who did the research for his doctoral dissertation. “Some practitioners even argue that the United States is in the midst of an African-American magical renaissance.”

Today’s interest is more of the upscale sort. Instead of gathering roots from swamps, making powders from toads or fashioning “luck balls” from pig blood and hen feathers as was once done, today’s conjurers or professional magic makers are more likely to rely on manufactured spiritual supplies from large mail-order companies, Anderson said.

The upsurge in the popularity of African folk beliefs is driven by increasing numbers of New Age religious proponents who turn to these belief systems for spiritual growth much as they did Asian mysticism in the 1960s, Anderson said.

In addition, an influx of Latin Americans of African descent have arrived in the United States in the past decade with similar faith in supernaturalism, such as voodoo-practicing Haitians and Santeria-worshipping Cubans, he said. Like voodoo, Santeria involves the worship of multiple gods or spirits, Anderson said, whereas hoodoo, a form of magic, uses gods or spirits, but not necessarily for worship.

“All forms of African-American spiritual beliefs are now being practiced by a large number of white people,” he said. “That wasn’t common in antebellum days.”

The original practitioners of black magic might be surprised at the variety of items in today’s conjure shops, which carry soaps, bath oils, candles, and magic guide books on the use of spells for such diverse purposes as making someone love you or stopping children from misbehaving, Anderson said.

“There are shops in most major cities,” he said. “Often they present themselves as New Age candle shop, or spiritual or religious supply shops.”

Unlike conjure shops and the mail-order supply business, the thriving industry of “voodoo tourism” is a distinctly white tradition, particularly in New Orleans, Anderson said. “Visitors can purchase voodoo dolls in many French Quarter shops, and a few shops sell nothing but tourist-oriented voodoo materials,” he said. Blacks used the dolls and practices in pre-Civil War days to protect themselves against abusive slave owners, he said.

“Conjurers helped slaves cope with lives of servitude by providing roots that allegedly prevented whippings, powders designed to give them control over their masters and a variety of similar charms,” he said. “Slaves could even buy poisons, which promised to sicken or kill their owners.”

Conjurers served as doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers for oppressed African-Americans, Anderson said. Poor blacks could seldom find doctors between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, for example, so root doctors often were their only alternative, he said.

The conjure profession itself allowed blacks to assume roles from which they were otherwise barred, Anderson said. Blacks denied the opportunity to study law during the Jim Crow era, for example, substituted as hoodooists, providing spells to sway juries and judges, just as hoodooists filled the role of medical doctors as herbal healers, he said.

The prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass included an account of hoodoo in his narrative, while author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston argued in her book “Mules and Men” that hoodoo was a vital part of blacks’ racial identity, he said.

Although conjure often carried a stigma of superstition prompting many conjurers to name their supply stores “candle shops” and other less-obvious terms, the field has enjoyed a resurgence among blacks, Anderson said. As they become more educated and affluent, they are afraid of losing an essential part of their heritage, he said.

Catherine Yronwode is a white woman who owns The Lucky Mojo Curio Company, a conjure shop in Forestville, Calif., that offers herbs, oils, powders, bath crystals and other items on the Internet. She said about 85 percent of her mail-order customers are black, many from the Deep South. “They don’t want their family lineage of magic to be lost,” she said.

But black folklore also has attracted a larger following, Yronwode said. “Since 1994 when we started putting our products on the Internet, the attitude has done a 180-degree turnaround,” she said. “All of a sudden the black experience in magic is respected.”

Although he grew up in the South, Anderson said he didn’t learn about many of these practices until he was in college and became curious about an element of black history that had been ignored by most historians.

One indication of conjure’s current popularity is while it was the subject of few entries in dictionaries of Afro-American slang in the early 1970s, current editions not only include missing terms but expand upon them in ways that emphasize the importance of conjure to black history and culture, Anderson said.

“Over the years, conjure has served a variety of functions in African-American society,” he said. “At the very least, it gave their clients hope for success.”

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