Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald (review)
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Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System. By Katrina Hazzard-Donald. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 248, 10 black-and-white photographs, 3 charts, notes, glossary, bibliography, index.)

In the past few decades, scholars have traced the roots and branches of the African spiritual experience in the New World. Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion (Oxford University Press, 2004), for example, places the religious systems of Africa alongside the primarily Protestant Christianity of African Americans in the southern United States during antebellum slavery, while demonstrating the distinct spiritual traditions shared by both systems. Katrina Hazzard-Donald’s Mojo Workin’ expands upon Raboteau’s work and explores a system that has received intermittent scholarly attention: Hoodoo. Hazzard-Donald’s conception of Hoodoo marks it firmly as a religion (hence, its capitalization in her text and this review), albeit a religion that flared up as an integrated system only briefly during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then quickly segmented into distinct vernacular praxes. She does link the African American practice of Hoodoo with its African forebears, primarily through a set of criteria that she calls the African Religion Complex, but she then devotes the majority of the text to a general—if sometimes unfocused—study of Hoodoo’s evolution on American soil. She pays particular attention to expressive elements such as dance, water immersion, divination, and naturopathic medicine, and interprets belief through the lens of folklore, such as the hero tales of “High John the Conquer” (pp. 68-83). She provides special critique of modern “marketeered” Hoodoo, which she believes to be an appropriative and abusive dilution of a rich religion into “snake-oil” sales and “Gypsy palm reading” (p. 119). Hazzard-Donald takes great pains to chart the historical course of Hoodoo while simultaneously attempting to understand its recent modes and its potential future.

Mojo Workin’ is loosely divided into seven chapters with themes mostly distinct from one another, but occasionally blurred and overlapping. The first two chapters chronicle the African Religion Complex—or “ARC” as she calls it—and its key traits, which include the aforementioned divination, dance, water rites, and herbal-magical medicine. To these ingredients, she adds “spirit possession,” the “principle of sacrifice,” a “belief in [a] spiritual cause of malady,” and “ancestor reverence” (p. xi). She interpolates the evolutionary chart of Hoodoo with tales of its great heroes, primarily High John the Conquer (her spelling) and Dr. Buzzard, a conjure man from St. Helena Island. She recognizes that the Hoodoo religion was neither born fully formed on American soil nor did it survive its first bloom intact and unaltered, but instead, “[t]hough there was limited consistency, and no long-term, unmodified, sustainable traditional African institutional structures, certain practices survived long enough to take hold and become a breeding ground for new, transferable elements” (p. 45). She draws key connections between distinctive African American religious practices found in Protestant groups—such as the African Methodist Episcopalian Church—and the Hoodoo religious paradigm. One of her strongest examples is the Ring Shout, a dance that she believes to be a primary form of expression maintained from the old system into recent years, and preserved in African enclaves like the Gullah of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. One of Hazzard-Donald’s core tenets holds that the Hoodoo religion existed only during the days of the plantation, and that after the Civil War, it diminished and fragmented into three distinct regional zones: a “Southwest” region centered around the Mississippi Delta, a “Southeast” region, which includes the Sea Islands as well as Georgia and the Carolinas, and a final “Northeast” area around the Appalachian Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley (pp. 36–8). In each of these regions, she builds the religious system around its agricultural staples, such as tobacco in the Northeast or rice in the Southeast. She also charts the influence of other cultures, such as the Native American pharmacopeia and its effect on the medical practices of slaves, although she significantly downplays some of these interactions.

The chapters on Hoodoo heroes are particularly rewarding, with Hazzard-Donald’s emphasis [End Page 120] on resistance to white dominion and...


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