Who Ruined Hoodoo?

Katrina Hazzard-Donald, Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo System (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013) 248 pp., photos, index, $85 (cloth), $28 (paper), ebook available.


Hazzard-Donald teaches anthropology and sociology at Rutgers University-Camden. She is herself an initiate into the Orisha religion, but this is not a work of  ethnography or autoethnography.

Her notes list some conversations with informants — rootworkers, etc., but Mojo Workin’ is based more on published sources, many from the 1890s–1920s, than on systematic fieldwork, apparently.  She saves descriptions of eight informants, including two fellow academics, for the book’s end, rarely quoting them in the text by name.

She divides American hoodoo into two (mainly) chronological categories: (1) Old Tradition “Black Belt” Hoodoo, as practiced in the South from slavery days up until the “great migration” to Northern cities, and (2) “Snake oil” or “marketeered” hoodoo, which is more commercial.

Practitioners of traditional hoodoo collected their own herbs, diagnosed clients, and participated in a “hoodoo complex” that she describes as “folk religion” that “integrated psychological support, spiritual direction, physical strength, and medicinal treatment.”

This she contrasts with the “exploitive” second version, the hoodoo of “curio shop” and candle shops, dream books, ads for “Sister This” and “Mother That” in magazines and newspapers catering to black readers, and Internet sellers of hoodoo supplies, mojo bags, etc. And who is behind this “snake oil” hoodoo? The Jews.

“Outsiders,” these businessmen — such as Morton Neumann (Valmor Co.), who also produced cosmetics for the African-American market or Morris Shapiro and Joseph Menke of Memphis, founders of Keystone Laboratories — are accused of seeking “unchallenged control of the Hoodoo supply market” and to “shut out blacks.”

Today’s Internet-based supply businesses, such as Lucky Mojo (whose owner, Cat Yronwode, happens to be Jewish), receive her particular scorn. According to one end note, Hazard-Donald tried to interview Yronwode by telephone, flaunting her Orisha credentials, and got the brush-off, which made her furious.

I have some problems with such neat dichotomies — old hoodoo good, “marketeered” hoodoo bad. Real people cross such boundaries, and even the author admits that “some old tradition [root] workers have succumbed to pressure to use at least some commercial supplies.”

But is “succumb” the right verb? Any folklore scholar could tell you that the line between “traditional” and “commercial” is thin and mutable.  Hazzard-Donald, for example, makes much of the Sanctified black church’s traditional Ring Shout’s connection with African religion. Here, for instance, is a self-consciously folkloric Ring Shout, while here is one whose participants were trying for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Authentic? Staged? Commercial?

But my chief interest in Mojo Workin’ was as someone interested in esoteric, magical, and underground American religion. As an insider, Hazzard-Donald’s authorial viewpoint is both emic and “curatorial,” for she sees her book as a step toward a Hoodoo revival as it becomes “a healthy and rebounding supplemental spiritual system.”

She treats “religion” as a self-evident category, uncritically describing hoodoo as “religion” even after the “death of the gods,” that historical point (somewhere before 1740, but the paragraph is confusing) at which the cultus of the African gods had ceased. (In North America, that is, where a predominately Protestant society and smaller plantation sizes worked against the kind of African-Catholic syncretism that occurred, for instance, on the big sugar plantations of Brazil, Cuba, etc.)

Given that most definitions of “religion” are based on scriptural and credal traditions — and hoodoo is neither — I would have liked to see how it fits a category of “religion” even when blended with the Sanctified churches, as when psalms become incantations to accompany a working or when, as Hazzard-Donald describes, yesterday’s conjure man becomes today’s charismatic preacher.

“System” or “religion” — how do we talk about these things? Hoodoo, like polytheism and animism, challenges our ideas of what “religion” is?