As i try to make abundantly clear, in everything i write and teach, and in every radio show i am on, hoodoo is a form of magic that developed uniquely in black American culture, where it is well known under that specific name and common alternative and euphemistic names and terms such as conjure, rootwork, witchcrafting, laying tricks, throwing for, cleaning up that mess, helping yourself, candle burning, using that stuff, and tricking. If you are unfamiliar with this, please take a moment now to read my web page on hoodoo history.
Back in 2003, when i first began to offer a 52-week correspondence course in conjure, rootwork and hoodoo, my primary intention was to offer back to the American black community in the digital age the techniques and practices of black Christian folk magic which i was taught by root doctors and spiritual workers whom i sought out and met in candle shops and in their homes throughout the 1960s and 70s.
For reasons only God really knows, i, a lonely, intellectual Jewish girl who was working in the Civil Rights Movement as best i could, was also invited and allowed to learn, study, and annotate hundreds of hoodoo spells, prayers, customs, beliefs, and ways of working by a variety of kindly, friendly black women and men. I did the best job of it i could, starting as a 14-year-old child, and it is my regret that i was too reserved and too polite to ask people the age of my parents and grandparents for their full names, ages, and places of birth. I simply asked questions about the work and wrote down what i was told. Everyone who taught me was a person whom i met while i was a customer in a candle shop or during a paid spiritual consultation -- but i was also the child of academics who helped me in my studies, and the academic approach also contributed to my understanding of hoodoo.
My mother was a research librarian at the University of California and she and my step-father were the co-proprietors of a book store that specialized in scholarly out-of-print books of the 19th and early 20th centuries, where i worked after school. From the start i was provided by my parents with anthropological and ethnographic texts that facilitated my asking good questions of my black elders. Among the books i had at that time were "Voodoo Tales, as Told Among the Negroes of the South-West" by Mary Alicia Owen (1893), "Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro" by Newbell Niles Puckett (1926), "Mules and Men" by Zora Neale Hurston (1935), "Folk-Lore from Adams County Illinois" by Harry Middleton Hyatt, and an assortment of clippings and loose copies from old magazines and "The Journal of American Folklore." (Some of the materials that i collected as a teenager i have archived at my Southern Spirits web site, and they may be of interest to those who wish to follow my footsteps.) I also soon purchased all of the then-common hoodoo shop pamphlets and booklets of the 1930s - 1960s era, such as "The Master Book of Candle Burning" and "Legends of Incense, Herb, and Oil Magic."
As a kid, exploring the new (to me) world of black folklore by befriending people in candle shops and attending black store-front churches, i experienced incredible joy every time someone would tell me a trick that was similar to those in the books i had, because my friends and teachers were confirming the work of antecedent anthropologists and ethnographers. It was real! It was widespread! It was happening RIGHT NOW, in 1964, not back in 1893 or 1926! But i also noted with increasing excitement that many of the spells i was given by my teachers did not appear in my old books, nor in any of the candle shop pamphlets. Even in the 1970s, when Harry Hyatt finally published his five-volume collection of tricks and spells from 1,600 African American rootworkers and hoodoo practitioners of the 1930s, i still found that much of what i had collected was either unique or showed local or developmental variations from what was contained in the academic texts in my collection.
I became a practitioner at a young age. In 1965, at the age of 18, i first offered my professional services as a diviner, reader, and rootworker. This career -- reading cards and palms, casting astrology charts, crafting magical supplies, and performing spells and candle setting for clients -- has provided a portion of my income ever since. During the next decades, even as i did my own work, served clients, and developed my own favoured repertoire of techniques, i continued to collect and annotate the spell practices, herbal magic and medicine traditions, and formulas for making spiritual supplies of my peers and colleagues. In short, i continued to study and learn with and from African American friends, mentors, fellow-practitioners, church members, and candle shop acquaintances.
When i began to teach hoodoo, in the 1990s, after 30 years of practicing, it was reluctantly. My transmission of the material arose solely in response to requests from younger black people who had not been raised around their grandmothers, or who had come from broken families and felt therefore that a thread had been lost and that the fabric of their cultural inheritance needed mending. To these, my first black students, i supplied the patches -- the bits and pieces that i had learned, if not from their grandmothers, then from women much the age of, and very much like their grandmothers. In formalizing and systematizing my information, i realized that no one had yet produced a deeply structural overview of hoodoo, and so i set about to do just that. The result was a 432 page book that was organized into 52 weekly lessons with 8 homework assignments, and which i at first supplied at cost -- 50 cents per lesson -- to anyone who asked me for it.
What happened next was the internet.
I am a writer, and i have always earned my keep as a writer. People found my writing online and they liked it. They especially liked what i wrote about hoodoo. They wanted more. They wanted "the lessons." So i re-refined and typeset the lessons and offered them again, this time at $1.00 per week for each folded and printed sheet of paper. Eventually, more students appeared, and more, and more. I got tired of running the photocopy machine, so i re-typeset the material into 8-page chapters -- adding about 15% more text per week than in the electronic or paper forms of the course. I chose a nice hardbound book layout and raised the price to $2.00 per lesson -- and there the price has stayed, since 2006.
When i typeset the course book, i also made one change to the text which led to enormous and unforeseen consequences further down the line. I changed the instructions for Homework #2. Not much. Not very much at all. I simply changed the assignment from "Interview someone of another race or culture than your own" to "Because our topic is the folk magic and folklore of black Americans, either Homework #1 or Homework #2 must be conducted with a black American; you collected your own family customs for Homework #1, so if you identify as a black American, you can interview anyone else of any other race or culture for Homework #2, but if you are of any ethnicity OTHER than black American, then for Homework #2, please interview a black American."
I did this to honour my own teachers and i did it because i naively thought that other people, younger than me, would have the pleasure of going out into the black community to meet and learn from black elders, just as i had done. And it sounds so simple, doesn't it? Just, you know, "If you are NOT a black American, interview a black American."
Even after making that simple yet earth-shaking change in Homework #2, in my eagerness to please my readership i simply signed folks up for the course. I am being totally honest and out-front here: I used to send the course to everyone who requested it, without question, because i was so honoured and amazed that people wanted to learn about black magical culture from me.
Many years onward -- and especially after the development of our ever-growing collective digital knowledge base -- i have come to accept that my original plan was flawed. People just took and took, but they did not respect those from whom they were taking. They did not respect me (they have copied my materials endlessly, even offering for sale the texts that i wrote and am distributing online for free) and they showed no respect for my teachers and elders in this tradition, all of whom were African Americans, and most of whom were born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and have long ago passed from this world.
They sent in their money and i sent them the book. When they turned in their homework, i graded it. If the homework passed, they got a certificate. If the homework did not pass, i contacted them and showed them how to rectify it and make it pass, and then i sent them their certificate. I didn't ask my students why they wanted to study hoodoo or who their people were or why they thought that i held the key to the knowledge that they sought. It was only in 2008 that i began to realize that quite a few people were signing up for the course but not turning in their homework and graduating. I began to search these folks out, trying to understand why they had signed up for the course and then dropped out. I found out that most of the drop-outs were white -- and that the leading reason they dropped out was because they "could not do Homework #2."
I couldn't believe it. They could not interview a black American? No, they could not. As i talked with them, i was so ... i don't know how to describe what i felt! I was outraged, astounded, disappointed, and weirded out all at the same time. I was incredulous. I was shocked. I was fucking horrified! In reaction to my intense emotions, i began to note down their excuses in a little text document i kept on my desktop.
In time, because of what i knew was awaiting me in the document that contained the records of my conversations with failed students, i changed my tactics. I decided to head them off at the pass, so to speak, to prepare students for the course individually by discussing with them my expectations for their homework.
My first step was to place the Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence Course curriculum online. I figured that if what my white students were signing up for (a course in African American folk magic) was presented openly rather than as a mystery shrouded in salesmanship, they could decide for themselves if they really wanted to do the work. Unfortunately, placing the course curriculum online had very little effect on student graduation rates. My white students read it (or said they did), but still they could not turn in Homework #2.
My next attempt to help white people graduate from the class took the form of providing them with an alternative route toward understanding whose magic they were studying. With the help of my husband and some good graduates of the course, such as Edward Knapp and Joseph Magnuson, i assembled a series of You Tube videos which i titled "Your African American Video of the Day." These short clips did not center on hoodoo (although some did mention it), but rather, they took the form of a cultural immersion course in black history and contemporary black life. Using a collage of clips ranging from songs and folk tales to news reports, sermons, speeches, and documentary films, i sought to provide my white students with a form of surrogate experience, hoping that the continual, daily video presentation of black faces and black voices in their world would decondition them from fear and might lead them to actively seek out black friends, if only so that they could turn in that frustratingly simple Homework #2. This tactic produced really good results. It opened up a dialogue among the students about race and culture, and many of the white students began to see that hoodoo is black folk magic and not a generic name for "any kind of folk magic." Graduation rates increased among previously inactive and failed students who watched the videos.
A year later, i placed the contents of the the text of all eight Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence Course homework assignments online, along with a student-generated list of Frequently Asked Questions about the work. The idea behind this move was to get white prospective students to understand what the assignments actually were, ahead of time, and to forestall any questions white people would have about what i meant when i said that they would be interviewing a black American about folk customs and beliefs. Although all eight assignments were discussed, the online presentation of the text of the eight homework assignments was actually just my way of alerting white prospective students to the requirement of meeting, befriending, and talking with a black American. The effect this had on graduation rates was significant. I was pleased.
By 2009, the internet had become host to an increasing number of web sites and You Tube videos in which white appropriators of hoodoo claimed to teach "conjure," which they claimed was a special white-originated form of hoodoo. Removing the black history from candle burning, rootwork, and tricking, some even went to far as to add Neo-Pagan, Hispanic, and Afro-Caribbean concepts to their work, and claimed that their white grandmothers had taught them this way of working. The quality of white students approaching me to study dropped markedly once these misleading web sites and videos came on the scene.
Beginning in 2010, i decided to head the unprepared students off at the pass by holding obligatory telephone conversations with them in which i would describe the course and determine their fitness to study with me. These conversations ranged from half an hour to an hour in length, and were generally longer if the prospective student was white and thought i was offering a class in "powerful spell-casting" or "Voodoo" or anything other than the stated topic, namely African American folk magic.
As the same troublesome issues came up again and again in these conversations, i began to write about them on the course prospectus page. I added lines of bold type to the page, such as:
If, for any reason, you are not part of, or willing to become a friend to, the African American community, please do not attempt to enroll in this course.
If, for any reason, being known as a person who has studied African American folk magic is not comfortable to you, please do not attempt to enroll in this course.
But still the excuses kept on coming. I began to log the PRE-excuses in my text document as well -- the, "I was gonna ask you about that ..." requests for exemptions and work-arounds. And thus was crafted, over the years 2010 - 2014, "The Excuses," a list of reasons why people want to take my course in black American folk magic but do not want to know, hang out with, struggle beside, uphold, or show love to black Americans in person or on the internet.
To persons not of colour reading this page:
If, in reading the following list of excuses, you, as a person not of colour, see a comment that you yourself might have made, or that seems "over the top" to you, please do not think that i am being "snarky" or "angry" or that i am "mocking" or "rejecting" you or accusing you personally of "racism," or seeking to "stigmatize" or "victimize" you. This list is not posted as an attempt to shame anyone, or to make anyone feel like a target of "reverse racism." I am fair-skinned myself. If i can have black friends, you can too. If i can find that meeting and studying with people from outside my own culture is a joyful spiritual blessing, you can too. The excuses you are about to read are a mirror. If you see yourself in that mirror, please understand that i am simply showing you the excuses you will have to drop in order to study with me.
To black readers of this page and to those of colour and of minority ethnicities in general:
Herewith a trigger warning: What follows may upset you, for all the reasons you probably already know. My apologies.
And so, without further ado, here are the excuses and requests for exemptions presented to me by white, Hispanic, and Asian people who either enrolled in the course and failed to turn in Homework #2 or who wanted an exception made in their case so that they could enroll in the course without having a family or friendship connection to one or more black Americans.
Okay, there you have it, folks. This is the reality i am dealing with. If you are black, thank you for your patience. If you are white and wish to study with me, you now know what i expect of you and how to rectify any cultural oversights that may have led you to wish to learn black folk magic without befriending black people.
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