IMAGE BY KAT AILEEN
Join in on any 21st-century witchy gathering, and you’ll most likely take part in rituals from all over the world. At the last goddess worship session I attended, we sang in a pastiche of chants and spiritual practices that had wide-ranging origins—Kundalini, Santeria, Japanese Reiki—and at the end of the night they all blended under the muddled banner of “New Age.”
While a lot of modern witchcraft tends to be an amalgamation of practices from varying folk magic traditions, there are some witches who insist on purity. On Tumblr, the earthly world, and beyond, contemporary practitioners of Hoodoo, a folk spirituality with African American roots, are fighting against cultural appropriation of their craft.
Hoodoo, also known as rootwork or conjure, was brought to the Americas by African slaves. Due to its origins, Hoodoo was first a tradition of protection and practicality. “In the era of slavery, questions of security loomed large in African American experience,” writes Yvonne Chireau in Conjure and Christianity in the Nineteenth Century: Religious Elements in African American Magic. “For its part, Conjure spoke directly to the slaves’ perceptions of powerlessness and danger by providing alternative—but largely symbolic—means for addressing suffering. The Conjuring tradition allowed practitioners to defend themselves from harm, to cure their ailments, and to achieve some conceptual measure of control over personal adversity.”
According to the iconic author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who embedded herself in the Hoodoo culture of the South in the 1930s and wrote about its history, the practice itself evolved from a combination of African spirituality and Christian rituals that slaves newly encountered in the Americas. In New Orleans, for example, she writes, rootworkers incorporated altars, holy water, and blessed oils from the Catholic church.
Though Hoodoo itself (not to be confused with Voodoo) stems from an appropriation of sorts, the southern folk magic is still intimately tied to its uniquely African American history. This is particularly apparent in the specific uses for Hoodoo spells, many of which are for security, stemming from the violence and disregard that enslaved blacks endured. Common rituals include carrying “a little bag of garlic and brimstone on the person to safeguard you” and walking backward into your house and then forward to ensure that no one will harm you, Hurston writes in Hoodoo in America. Today, this manifests in reblogging sigils—a painted symbol said to have magical powers—like that which circulated on Tumblr among Hoodoo practitioners to protect the people of Ferguson during the unrest following police violence and the killing of Mike Brown in the