By Dr. Ade Ofunniyin
Southern folk have for a long time now been afraid of ideas, traditions, and words associated with what some termed “old African ways.” Conjure is one of those words. There are others such as voodoo, hoodoo and juju. Racism clouds our view of conjure and of the other words that are oftentimes connected to the conjurer. The racism that I speak of is rooted in slavery and intricately connected to this hemisphere's political and social evolution. Conjurers were enslaved African priests and their descendants, whose culture was feared and ridiculed. Racism engendered a political and cultural climate where enslaved Africans were not considered fully human. Their religion was dismissed as superstition, priests (conjurers) were denigrated as witchdoctors, Gods and Spirits were denounced as evil. They were tormented, tortured and/or murdered if they were found worshipping their Gods or speaking their native languages. The language that they were taught to define their world were the language of their enslavers. Over time the new language shaped what they thought of themselves and naturally they believed and became those thoughts. Some words and ideas could not be vanquished or killed, and survived despite the sting of the whip or the snap of the neck as the noose tightened. Sometimes the last utterance was a conjuring, to invoke a peace to those who were left to suffer and a pathway to redemption for those who trespassed against them.
Still, African spirituality was condemned and placed in the narrow-mindedness of western thought and religiosity. The performative nature of African spiritual practices (drums, songs, dance) was misconstrued and defined as conjure or voodoo in the Caribbean Islands and conjure or Hoodoo in Southern USA.
Conjurers rightly contextualized are traditional African priests. Some take liberty and define them as Shamans. So, why the fear and misunderstanding? What seems to frighten people the most is conjure’s connection to the practice of voodoo. While it is not my intent to disconnect conjure from the historical or contemporary practice of African derived religions, including voodoo, I would like to help shape a clearer understanding of the role of the conjurer in USA southern and Caribbean contexts. Language usage and its manipulation is critically important to forging a new understanding and paradigm shift about how descendants of enslaved Africans have come to perceive themselves and their historical development through time and space.
Most people have an inaccurate understanding of what Voodoo is and where it came from. Voodoo is negatively portrayed in most movies, TV shows and books. Many acclaimed documentaries and non-fiction books are misleading. Voodoo is a “New World” spelling and appropriation of an old West African word, Vodou. 'Vodou' is considered a more appropriate spelling by the author and other scholars.
The Standard English dictionary defines voodoo, as a noun: voodoo1. A black religious cult practiced in the Caribbean and the southern US, combining elements of Roman Catholic ritual with traditional African magical and religious rites, and characterized by sorcery and spirit possession; as a synonym. The definition offers this example of how the word voodoo is used in a sentence, "the elders still practice voodoo." Necromancy is defined as “alleged communication with the dead” and devilry as “reckless mischief.”
Of course I can go on to delineate black magic, sorcery, wizardry, dark arts, hoodoo, mojo, and more, but I believe that the point is made. The intent of the English language is to debase and insult Vodou as an African religious tradition through the bastardization of the word to voodoo. So let us insert several historical corrections beginning with the accurate spelling of the word Vodou. Furthermore, Vodou is not a cult. Practitioners do not believe in black magic or devil worship. Vodou priests are not witchdoctors, sorcerers or occultists. Believers do not practice their faith to hurt or control others. Most have no use for "Voodoo dolls" (like you, they have only seen them being used in movies).Vodou isn't morbid or violent. Voudou isn't the same everywhere. Not everyone who practices Vodou does it in exactly the same way or agrees on exactly the same things.
It is very insulting to ride north on highway 17 in the West Ashley area of Charleston, South Carolina and see a bar or other types of businesses not related to African or African descended people’s spiritual or religious practices misusing the word Voodoo as the name of their business. It was equally troubling when former President George W. Bush termed his failed economic policies, voodoo economics, or when a beer brewery selected to brand their beer voodoo. While it is a fact that Vodou as practiced by many in America is a derivative of African religious traditions and Catholicism, very few intentionally debase the Catholic church for its attention to occult practices. However, that is not nearly as troubling as the misunderstanding that many African descended people and whites in the USA have about the nature and essence of African derived traditions and spiritual practices.
So, what is Vodou ?
Vodou is a religion that originates in Africa, specifically Benin, West Africa. In the Americas and the Caribbean Islands (including Cuba, Brazil, Trinidad, Jamaica, Venezuela, etc.), it is thought to be a combination of various African, Catholic and Native American traditions. Although it is practiced around the world, there is no accurate count of how many people are Vodouists. Vodou has no scripture or world authority, but there is a growing body of scholarship that is related to Vodou and the study of African derived religions and spiritual practices. It is community-centered and supports individual experience, empowerment and responsibility. Vodou is multivariate in different parts of the world, and varies from community to community. Vodou embraces and encompasses the entirety of human experience. Practitioners in Oyotunji African Village in Sheldon, South Carolina, USA practice a particular brand of worship known as Orisa-Vodou and have been in existence for nearly a half-century. Like other religions or spiritual practices, Vodou is practiced by people who are imperfect and may use religion for their own purposes.
What do Practitioners believe?
To understand what practitioners believe, you have to first understand how an African spiritualist sees the world. Those who practice African centered religions believe that there is a visible and an invisible world, and that these worlds are intertwined. Death is a transition to the invisible world, so our ancestors are still with us in spirit. They watch over and inspire us. In addition to our ancestors and loved ones we knew in life, there are the Orisa, which can also be understood as archetypes of human personalities, such as the warrior and others that embody more specific concerns or localities. There is the spirit of Marie Laveau in New Orleans or of Erzulie in Haiti, Oxum in Brazil, Ochun in Cuba, Sango in multiple locals throughout the African diaspora. These terms or names given to supernatural forces do not engulf the complexities and beauty that is found in understanding African spirituality.
Practitioners develop relationships with the Orisa to seek their counsel with concerns in the visible world. In some ways this is not dissimilar to the secular practice of studying and honoring remarkable historic figures. For example, someone wishing to effect social change might find inspiration from some significant historical person and feel a kinship with them. They may invoke their name in prayer, read their books, keep a photograph on an altar, place significance on their day of birth or death and try to live by their example. In a similar fashion, practitioners of African based religions or spiritual practices develop relationships with particular Orisa and ancestors. They are encouraged to understand and embody the principles they represent and to connect spiritually to guiding ideals in order to affect personal transformation and manifest constructive energy in the visible world to help the living.
Like Catholic saints or Hindu deity figures, the Orisa are familiar and accessible whereas the "the supreme God," although loving, is distant, and somewhat above individual human concerns. Orisa/Vodou practices has ordained clergy, priests and priestesses that make a commitment to a spiritual path and can offer guidance when needed, but it is believed that each person is responsible for their own actions and capable of self-actualization. Practitioners place special value on the strength of community for support and enrichment.
Just as there are differences within other faiths, there is great variation within African spiritual beliefs and practices. Some turn to conjure and “root” medicine for answers and relief from illnesses and societal pressures. Most priests feel that part of religion is service to their community, so there is an emphasis on healing and social activism. We also have many artists and musicians in our community, further reflecting our connection to deep African cultural spirituality.
Why all the fear around African religion and/or conjure?
One of the only successful slave revolutions in modern history occurred in Haiti (Saint Dominque) in the late 1700s. Slaves of African descent overthrew European rulers and took control of the country. Many slaves were Vodouists, and some of their military leaders were priests who inspired and organized their communities to fight for freedom. The Haitian Revolution, executed by Toussaint Louverture provoked fear in other European and American colonies that held the system of enslavement essential to the plantation economy. Haiti’s formerly enslaved became an inspiration for people of African descent around the world, particularly those that remained enslaved. The imagery and vocabulary of Vodou (and other African centered religions) became threatening and ingrained in Euro-American cultures as something horrifying, associated with bloodshed and violence. Brutally repressed in most places, all things associated with African spirituality and freedom of the enslaved became taboo.
Some who fled Haiti to escape the perils of the revolution came to Charleston, South Carolina, while others were able to settle in the United State’s newest acquisition, Louisiana; famed for its representation of Vodou traditions and priestesses Madame Marie Leveau and her daughter also named Marie Laveau. Despite attempts to silence the memory of Louverture’s success in defeating the French, news of the power of conjure and of the wrath of the Gods of Africa against the French found its way to the shores of Charleston. Not long before the revolution, Captain Joseph Vesey brought a young enslaved boy that he owned named Telemaque (Denmark Vesey) from Saint Domingue to Charleston. Vesey’s life was filled with evidence of conjure and intervention by supernatural forces.
The following is a chronicle of the conjurer’s activities over several decades: Telemaque was believed to have been born on the Danish sugar island of St. Thomas around 1767. In 1781, Captain Vesey purchased 390 enslaved Africans, including Telemaque, at the port city of Charlotte Amalie for resale in the French Colony of Saint Domingue. In 1782, Captain Vesey returns to Cap Francois and is forced to repurchase a sickly Telemacque, who becomes his cabin boy. Joseph Vesey and his family arrived in Charleston during that same year. Fifteen years later, in 1797 Toussaint Louverture is officially named the Commander in Chief of all French forces in Saint Domingue. On November 9th,1799 at age thirty-two Denmark Vesey wins East-Bay lottery. On December 31st, New Years Eve of the same year, Vesey purchases his freedom with some of the proceeds from his lottery win. On his first day of freedom, January 1, he adopts the sir name of Vesey.
In 1816 five mid-Atlantic churches meet in Philadelphia to form confederated African Episcopal Church under the leadership of Reverend Richard Allen. In 1817 Vesey was “admitted to communion at Second Presbyterian Church. During that same month, 4,376 Africans quit Bethel Methodist church because of the destruction of an African burial ground. Also during that same year David Walker moved to Charleston from North Carolina. During the spring of 1818 Charleston’s African Methodist Church was erected in predominantly African Hampstead neighborhood. On June 7th of that same year Charleston City guard arrests 140 freed and enslaved Africans for worshipping in violation of city ordinances of 1800 and 1803; Vesey was probably included amongst the detained. In 1820, several Africans were arrested for holding late night services at the African church.
December 20th of that year, State assembly forbids private manumissions by deed or self-purchase. January 15th, 1821 Charleston City Council warns Reverend Moses Brown not to allow African Church classes to become schools for enslaved Africans. Soon afterwards, during that same year, Vesey begins to execute plans for the mass exodus out of Charleston. Like Moses, who was most definitely a proponent of conjure, with his turning of his staff into a serpent, parting of the Red Sea, and calling manna from heaven, Vesey and his adherents held fast to the belief that African powers would render them effective and that boldness in the face of adversity and certain death was a viable solution to end the brutal system of enslavement. While they believed in conjure and the efficacy of juju, they held God the supreme being at the helm of their will to gain their freedom.
Why do I suggest that these manifestations are evidence of conjure? Firstly, as I mentioned previously, young Telemaque was able to convince his former master that he was so sickly that he could not work. How was Captain Vesey persuaded to repurchase the young sickly boy and why did he make him his cabin boy? Why didn’t Captain Vesey resell Telemacque after he recovered from his illness? How did Denmark earn money to play the lottery? Why wasn’t he cheated of his money by the ticket vendor? Why didn’t Captain Vesey claim his winnings? Vesey was enslaved and had no rights that a white man was obligated to respect or honor. Why did Captain Vesey agree to grant Denmark, a valuable possession, his freedom?
I argue that Vesey’s destiny was tied to some supernatural vortex that even now continue to pull him to its center. Through his understanding of the power of conjure, Vesey aligned himself and claimed as his right hand man Gullah Jack, a well known Gullah conjurer. Some historians have suggested that young Telemaque feigned his illness. Even if that is true, how did he know that Captain Vesey would return to the island? More significantly, how did he know he would be repurchased by Captain Vesey? We can easily attribute these events to coincidence or some other slight explanation.
While Vesey’s experiences with conjure and supernatural interventions are not the only evidence of conjure in its African context in the low country, it is the most documented and celebrated case. It is also important to note that a blacksmith shop was the central meeting place for many of Vesey and Reverend Richard Allen’s organizing efforts. Blacksmiths were important members of the community in Africa and in free and enslaved communities in colonial America. In many African societies blacksmiths are not only craftsmen, but are deeply involved in the articulation of social and spiritual spaces. Smiths continue to shape social and spiritual spaces as intermediaries, and also function as priests, rainmakers, diviners, doctors, and creators of amulets and secret devices.
Vodou/ conjure continues to be widely practiced in the African diaspora, and it is still relevant in social and spiritual contexts. In some instances it intersects with politics and makes for a controversial mix. In that regard, Vodou is the same as any belief system. In the U.S.A, many Vodouists/priests are afraid of how they will be treated so they hide their religion and practices. While this is understandable, it also reinforces suspicion that they practice in secret to conceal something bad or violent. Fear begets fear. For these reasons, I have written and published articles that discuss several activities and initiatives which contemporary priests and adherents are engaged in.
In the low country, people still have knowledge of roots and some still recall being admonished for sassing an elderly person and having been told that that person “will put mouth on you.” In other words, they will conjure you. We aren't always aware of the origins of our beliefs; now and then we need to reassess what we know and how we know it. There were times in our nation's history that other groups (e.g. Jews, Catholics) were similarly misunderstood. It's only through education and getting to know those with different beliefs that we can overcome our fear and realize that they are extraordinary people who enrich our communities and our lives.
Yours in service,
To contact Dr. O call 843-422-7061 or email at Dr.O@Gsociety.org
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