- MOJO WORKIN’: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald
Hoodoo is the African-American system of spiritual practice based in the curative and protective power of roots, herbs, and other natural materials. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, also the author of Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African American Culture (1990), traces the history of Hoodoo from its African origins through the course of trends and events in America that had significant effects on developments in African-American culture, including spirituality and religion.
Hazzard-Donald argues that Hoodoo was originally a coherent religion based in pan-African traditions and preserved through the oral traditions of the enslaved brought to the New World. It gradually came to syncretize the spirituality of African Gods with the Protestant Christianity the enslaved encountered here. Voodoo and Santeria, in contrast, are the result of syncretism with Roman Catholicism.
Over the course of the antebellum era, Hoodoo was transformed into what Hazzard-Donald calls “old tradition black belt Hoodoo,” a folk system of spiritual belief, medicine, and control. A “golden age” of the practice came with slavery’s end. Hoodoo practice had three distinct centers or clusters in the deep South. From these a more nationalized, homogenized form of the faith developed gradually after Emancipation as recently freed African Americans were able to move to southern urban areas and to the industrial north. In the twentieth century, however, Hoodoo became “marketeered” and a debased form arose. These later, commercially marketed forms relied upon traveling salespeople and mail-order distributors who also sold a range of other products targeted at African-American consumers. The Hoodoo elements were often modified and even completely fabricated by outsiders, while authentic Hoodoo became a hidden system, operating almost exclusively among African Americans in a spiritual underground.
Commercial products took the place of herbs and other natural materials, and traditional beliefs were exploited to sell lucky charms, gambling aids, etc. As these Hoodoo goods began to become mass marketed, root workers, conjure men, and [End Page 147] midwifes (including female healers/spiritual workers) were supplanted by retailers selling mass-produced goods lacking religious tradition and sacred content.
In post–World War II America, Hoodoo came to be viewed by many African Americans as incompatible with integration and upward mobility, while at the same time those who wished to practice the tradition were hindered by lack of access to both traditional supplies and practitioners. Hoodoo faith and traditions survive in certain African American churches and through oral transmission that have maintained the old “black belt” style of Hoodoo. As some of the children and grandchildren of old tradition workers entered medical and related careers, Hoodoo beliefs became integrated into health care practice with the application of naturopathic cures as well as spiritually-based mental health and midwife practices.
Hazzard-Donald’s formulation of Hoodoo’s evolution represents a new chronology for its study and transformation over time. It’s a valuable contribution to the growing number of volumes concerned with African-based traditional spiritual beliefs in the New World such as Jeffery E Anderson’s Conjure in African American Society (2005) and Yvonne P. Chireau’s Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003).