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Université Charles de Gaulle - Lille III









Note de recherche présentée

en vue de l’obtention de la Maîtrise

d’Histoire et Civilisation de l’Amérique du Nord


Anne-Claire MERLIN




Directrice de recherches :

Madame Catherine POUZOULET





Table of Contents




INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1


PART ONE: The Religious environment

of the slaves

Chapter 1: The African background

a) The Geographic origin of the slaves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

Methodological approaches for slave studies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14

New Perspectives on the origin of the slaves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16

The traditional civilizations of Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

b) The African eschatology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23

Chapter 2: The peculiar context of the Antebellum South, 1808-1865

a) The American slave system . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

b) Protestant America . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34

Chapter 3: African survivals in the United States

a) Revaluation of the concept of survival and of the status of Africanisms . . . . . 40

b) The two centers of African religious retentions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43


Part two: The slaves’ folk beliefs

Chapter 1: The slaves’ folk beliefs

a) A definition of folklore and folk beliefs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52

b) The slaves’ spiritual world . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53

Chapter 2: Conjuration: a magico-medical practice

a) Etymology and definition . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 66

b) Conjuration as a medical practice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71

c) Conjuration as a magical practice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77

Chapter 3: The value of this religio-magical practice

a) Religion Vs Magic in the Western World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86

b) The syncretic nature of conjuration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93

c) Conjuration as a religious act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97


Part three: Conjuration:

a means of resistance to slavery

Chapter 1: The leadership nature of the conjurer

a) The uniqueness of the conjurer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102

b) A leader on the plantation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105

c) A respected and awesome reputation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 108

Chapter 2: A means of survival on the plantation

a) A form of resistance to the master . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113

b) A guardian of social order . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

c) A psychological comfort . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123

Chapter 3: The representation of the conjurer as a folk hero

a) The folktales as an African survival . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126

b) The Conjure Tales . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128

c) The conjurer as a trickster figure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131


CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135


SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144




Annex 1: Scale of Intensity of New World Africanisms

Annex 2: Some Examples of folk magical products sold by the Lucky Mojo Company on the Internet

Annex 3: Marie Laveau’s tomb

Annex 4: Marie Laveau’s house



1. Map 1: West Africa in the area of the slave trade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17

Source: "History of African American cemeteries." Available from World Wide Web:


2. Map 2: Destination of African slaves . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18

Source: Available from World Wide Web: <http://longman.awl.com/garraty/visuals_2_1.htm>

3. Map 3: Culture clusters in Africa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

Source: Joseph E. Holloway, Africanisms in American Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, 3.

4. A midnight slave funeral . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57

Source: John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 36.

5. Kongo tomb with stone, bottles, vessels, and china doll figures,

early twentieth century . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60

6. Grave of a Kongo chief, with bottle-marked luumbu enclosing kettle . . . . 60

7. African-American burial enclosed in shells, tidewater South Carolina,

November 1975 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61

8. Grave with embedded lamp chimney, Western South Carolina, 1975 . . . . 61

Source of illustrations 5, 6, 7, 8: Joseph Holloway, Africanisms in American Culture, (Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1990), 168, 174, 176.

9. Various representations of Marie Laveau . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111

Sources: a) "Mysterious Marie Laveau" Introduction and History. Available from World Wide Web:


b) Cities of the Dead. New Orleans Graveyards. St Louis n° 1. Metairie and Lafayette Cemeteries. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.deliriummag.com/nograve.htm>

c) Legends and Speculation. Available from World Wide Web:


d) Cable, George W. "Creole slave songs." Century Magazine, 31, (April 1886): 819.




"Old Satan am a liar and a conjurer, too—

If you don’t watch out, he’ll conjure you."1.

Despised on the one hand as a devilish, impious, and evil figure, the conjurer is venerated, glorified and consecrated on the other hand. Frightening or fascinating, he thus never goes unnoticed. Whether good or bad, everybody has a little anecdote to recount about a conjurer and can recall having once experienced his mystical powers. Indeed, as real as he appeared to be—I mean that he was a slave in flesh and bones who lived with other slaves on the plantation—he was nevertheless inaccessible, cloaked in mystery and seemed to belong to another world, that of the supernatural. Would he make use of his powers for good purposes, he would be enshrined as a god-like figure; or would it be for evil purposes, he would be assimilated to the devil.

Actually, this awesome character did bring a colorful note on the plantation, as his singularity and exoticism illustrated his constant belonging to his mother country, Africa. Indeed, the conjurer was the living epitome of the African survivals in America.

Yet, his picturesque character made him quite inaccessible to the white people—to the planters as well as to the historians—so that to get full knowledge of this personage, we shall base our study on the slave narratives. Indeed, from a general point of view, those sources are of the greatest help to investigate slave life at its deepest level.

Actually, the history of slavery in the United States has suffered for a long time from the biased position of the historians. Indeed, they devoted themselves mainly to picturing slavery through the eyes of the white planter. Their studies rather focused on the 385,000 slaveowners of 1860, depicting every aspect of their behavior, ideology, social and economic position, customs and politics, and left the lives of the 3,954,000 black slaves aside.

Such a position consequently led to a distorted view of the plantation environment, that of an all-powerful, monolithic institution which stripped the slave of any meaningful and distinctive culture, family life, religion or manhood. Being thus left apart, the slave was stereotyped by the planter and was given the image of the Sambo, a submissive half-man, half-child.

Yet this one-sided view of the debate has proved to be inaccurate and we need to put the emphasis on the black slave. In fact, the negligence of the historians as regards the black man’s point of view was a mere reflection of the racist mood of American scholarship and of the American society in general, which prevailed in the Jim Crow South. In order to better understand the complex institution of slavery, one has to focus one’s attention on the most important figure that composed this system, that is the slave himself. One has to be acquainted with the slave’s feelings, thoughts, actions, self-concepts and personality, which would allow us to peep into the inner life of the plantation, far from the master’s big house and paternalistic policy.

To get full knowledge of slave life from the slave’s point of view, one has to rely on a "new" kind of source—one which has been for a long time underestimated—that is the slave narrative. The personal records left by the slaves are of two types. The first type is the written autobiographies which were published from the mid 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The second type of source is the oral accounts of ex-slaves which were recorded from 1936 to 1938 by the Federal Writer’s Project. This group of 300 interviewers collected narratives from 2200 black men and women who had once been enslaved in 17 different states. Even if the slave narratives are now fully recognized as historical data, this has not always been the case. The historian Ulrich B. Philips, for instance, declared in Life and Labor in the Old South (1929) that "ex-slave narratives in general … were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful."2 Yet by the 1960’s, with the Civil Rights Movements and the ensuing reconsideration of the status of the black man in American society, American scholarship also came to reevaluate the value of the slave narratives, which appeared as precious testimonies of the black man’s past and African heritage. The oral narratives of the ex-slaves, which had been deposited in the Library of Congress since the 1930’s, were only published in 1972 by George P. Rawick in 40 volumes entitled The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. It was then with John W. Blassingame in Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979) that an intensive use of the written autobiographies of the slaves was made, looking that way for the first time at the slave life and culture from the slave’s perspective.

Having considered the importance of the slave narratives in order to get a fuller understanding of slavery, we may try to evaluate how reliable and representative these sources are as historical documents, that is what their successes and failures are in retranscribing the reality of the plantation. The oral narratives have really succeeded in imparting the testimonies of the illiterate masses of slaves; in "represent[ing] the voices of the normally voiceless, the inarticulate masses whose silence historians are forever lamenting"3; those who did not have the chance to enjoy freedom before the Civil War and to be thus part of the educated elite who managed to publish their personal written autobiographies. They are thus a very reliable source of folklore and they shed a very helpful light on many aspects of the slave’s life.

Yet those sources tend to be limited in that, as they were recorded in the 1930’s, the ex-slaves were at least seventy-two years old at the time of the interview and a majority of them were thus younger than fifteen years old when the Civil War began, so that the view they gave of slavery was that of a child and one may wonder how reliable childhood memories can be. Then, another limit is that those narratives are not very representative geographically because the states from which the slaves came were disproportionately represented in the interviews. For instance, the slaves of Virginia, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and Kentucky who represented 23% of the total slave population in 1860 constituted only 7% of the blacks who were interviewed, whereas the 7% of slaves from Texas and Arkansas made up 45% of the whole set of interviews. Finally, as it is oral lore, one has to pay great attention to the context of the interview and wonder whether it was conducive to an accurate communication between the two parties. Indeed, the majority of the interviewers were white and performed their interviews in the segregated South of the 1930’s, so that one can imagine the mistrust of the blacks who played it safe when answering the white man’s questions and who replied most of the time that they remembered little about slavery or just spoke of it as "de good ole days". Moreover, the accounts are not strictly verbatim as the reports of the interviews were revised before being typed, and certain portions were sometimes deleted or the language altered as the interviewers tried to retranscribe it phonetically. Yet, as C. Vann Woodward concluded, "These interviews with ex-slaves will have to be used with caution and discrimination … The necessary precautions, however, are no more elaborate or burdensome than those required by many other types of sources [the historian] is accustomed to use." 4

On the other hand, the published autobiographies tend to be more advantageous in that they were written by slaves aged twenty-eight or older, who had been freed after their twenties, so that they could give a fresher and adult view of slavery. These narratives being longer than the average two-or-three-pages-long interviews, were more descriptive of the personality traits of the slaves. Despite the many accusations according to which they were strongly influenced by abolitionist claims, one can certify the integrity of the editors or that in any case, 90% of them had been published by the slaves themselves after the Civil War. Yet, they are deemed to be too elitist as they account for the most perceptive, gifted and exceptional slaves and are said to constitute a limited sample of the total slave population.

Yet, those two kinds of sources have to be seen as complementary, as far as the ages of the slaves, their origins, and the kind of information they deliver are concerned. The historian has to deal with both of them, taking into consideration their various limits but without neglecting the fact that the slave narratives are a very precious testimony of the slave system, of the heart and secret thoughts of the slaves which have been forgotten so often, for "the apparent "silence" of the slave was drawn upon a host of commentators as "evidence" of either the total brutal environment of slavery or else of an inherent mental deficiency within the slave." 5

Studying the slave narratives is thus a way to reconsider the personality of the slave, to eradicate the image of the Sambo and to put the emphasis on his agency and participation in the life of the plantation rather than on his submission to the white man’s desires.

In the 1960’s, the political and social movement of Black Nationalism emerged. This movement sought to acquire economic power and to infuse among blacks a sense of community and group feeling. With such slogans as "black power" and "black is beautiful" they also wanted to claim their pride as a people of African ancestry and to reassess the value of their black identity and of the African-American culture while stressing its African roots. The emphasis was put on the concept of Africanisms which was defined as "those elements of culture found in the New World that are traceable to an African origin" 6 by Joseph E. Holloway in Africanisms in American Culture (1990). Indeed, this thesis, which focused on the African origin of the slave and on the fact that the slaves had worked hard to preserve their culture and to make it adaptable to their new environment in the New World, took part in a long-running scholarship debate which tried to discuss the impact of slavery on slave culture.

On one side was an anthropologist, Melville Herskovits, who tried to demonstrate in his book The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), that there was a continuity between certain West African carryovers and elements of culture in the New World. Indeed, his thesis aimed at negating the following beliefs according to which:

"1. Negroes are naturally of a childlike character and adjust easily to the most unsatisfactory social conditions … in contrast to the American Indians who preferred extinction to slavery … 2. Only the poorer stock of Africa was enslaved, the more intelligent … having been clever enough to elude the slaver’s nests … 3. Since the Negroes were brought from all parts of the African continent, spoke diverse languages, represented greatly differing bodies of custom, and as a matter of policy, were distributed in the New World so as to lose tribal identity, no least common denominator of understanding or behavior could have possibly been worked out by them … 4. … the cultures of Africa were so savage and relatively so low in the scale of human civilization that the apparent superiority of European customs …did cause them to give up such aboriginal traditions … 5. The Negro is thus a man without Past." 7

On the other side of the debate was a sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier who demonstrated in many works like The Negro in the United States (1949) or The Negro Church in America (1963) that the slave system had been so brutal and devastating in America and particularly in the United States, that it prevented the slaves from maintaining elements of their African culture. Frazier put the emphasis on the family and social organizations of the slave which were primordial institutions in Africa but which had been crushed by the oppressing slave system and replaced by white social institutions such as the Church.

This debate is in fact rather complicated because it involved different fields of research which led consequently to divergent points of view, yet as J. Holloway demonstrated, both parties came to accurate conclusions. Considering this fact, we have thus to review the debate while shedding light on various questions which arise to our minds. We may wonder, for instance, to what extent the slaves perpetuated their African traditions; which cultural traits were the most preserved and which were totally eradicated; which conditions favored these various processes; under which form these traditions were retained, whether they remained identical or became influenced by other customs; and the reasons why the slaves tried to cling to their African past, that is to define what the function of culture in one’s life is.

From those various interrogations, we should then be able to give an appropriate

definition of slave culture, that is, as Sterling Stuckey in Slave Culture, Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America (1987) expressed, how a single culture was formed out of the interaction of the various African ethnic groups and bound the slaves together in order to meet the challenges of a common foe: the white man. We shall thus see that this slave culture knew several phases of development: first, the blending of African customs when the different ethnic groups came into contact and then, the interaction of African and Western cultures. The slave culture was thus not homogeneous in all the parts of the New World where slavery existed for it depended heavily on the various cultural influences which existed in the different regions and on the degree of fixity of the slave system. From a general point of view, the Caribbean and South America were more conducive to letting the slaves shape their own culture freely, whereas in the United States, the slaves found it harder to resist the strong wave of Americanization and the paternalistic behavior of the slaveowners. Nevertheless, some African survivals could be found in pocket areas of the Southern States in various fields, such as language patterns and vocabulary, techniques of storytelling, folktales such as Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby, music and dance forms, singing and rhythm, masking traditions, art, food or the extended-family concept and respect for elders. As we shall see later, the most important cultural survival was the African religious and magical systems which were primordial in African everyday life and which were marked by their great ability to accommodate and to be associated with various facets of other established religions.

We should now examine the specificity of the American system and wonder how the slaves managed to perpetuate their African beliefs and to try and resist to such an oppressive context. Indeed, the Antebellum South was not really favorable to the preservation of African survivals, particularly after 1808, when the slave trade was abolished, so that, except from some smuggled imports of slaves in a few isolated areas of the United States, no new arrival of fresh African experiences could favor the perpetuation of the slaves’ traditions. Those second or third generations of slaves began thus to acculturate and to blend their customs more and more with those of the white man with whom they were in daily contact. As far as religion is concerned, the Antebellum South was also characterized by the great wave of Christianization known as the second Great Awakening which took place between 1800 and 1830. During that period, missionaries were sent to the plantations to try and convert the slaves when at the same time the masters severely suppressed any form of African religious practices.

Yet, in spite of this very repressive context, the Antebellum South also saw the emergence of various forms of traditional religious practices such as Gullah Christianity, a form of Protestantism blended with African cosmology, which was practiced by the isolated Gullah community of the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia; Voodoo in New Orleans, which fused forms of Catholic practices with African theology, or what was referred to as the "Invisible Institution", which was a form of worship to which the slaves secretly devoted themselves in the woods at night.

Yet those African religious practices were only found in some particular spots of the United States and were not really widespread in the whole Antebellum South, so that they were not archetypal of the religious situation of the United States, as opposed to other places of the Caribbean, like Haiti or Jamaica, or Brazil in South America where the slave religions became nationalized.

However, another phenomenon came to be developed on the Antebellum plantations which was really representative of the types of beliefs one could find in Africa; it was the genuine epitome of a key figure in African communities, which performed a similar role among the slaves: this figure was known in the United States as the conjurer. The practice of conjuration was in fact the reflection of many converging influences: it could be linked with the medicine-man in Africa, the doctor-sorcerer who healed and advised the community, or the shaman who fulfilled more or less the same role among the Indians in America, and who came to be very helpful as far as the use of local plants and medicine was concerned, and finally it was also in keeping with some aspects of European Christianity. Conjuration in the New World context thus should not be confused with the English term which restricted it to an entertaining magical practice. It had here a fuller meaning as a living witness to the Africans’ experience of slavery in America. Contrarily to the many accusations which relegated it to the rank of superstitions, one has to take the slave’s point of view in order to understand how this type of belief was actually deeply rooted in the African worldview. It was part of the slaves’ eschatology and was thus harder to eradicate. Moreover, it was more difficult for the slaveowners to try and control it, for a belief is something which cannot be exteriorized and which the slaves could practice freely, as opposed for example to African drumming, singing, dancing, or even God worshipping which might have required the use of some external artifacts. The slaves’ folk beliefs were thus a shelter, somewhere they could hide and take refuge in order to escape the oppression of slavery. They were comforted by the fact that the master, who had their bodies at his disposal, could not possess and enslave their minds; so that this retention of African cultural traits was in a certain way a covert means of resistance to slavery, a way for the slave to refuse the total domination of the white man and of his culture.

This study of the conjurational practices in the Antebellum South is thus a clear example of the process of assimilation and acculturation enslaved Africans were faced with. Moreover, the subject is quite original in that it focuses on the United States, where the culture of black people has been said so often to be deprived of any African influence.

To bring this subject into light, we shall thus start to study the general religious background which brought the slaves to fashion this belief in conjuration; that is to investigate their African environment: their geographic origin, as well as the eschatology they brought to the New World; to examine the milieu of the plantation in which they evolved and the religious context of the Antebellum South from 1808 to 1865; and to show how those two came into contact, were blended and gave shape to new forms of religions. We shall then see that in the United States, the African survivals were rather found under the form of folk beliefs than of established religious practices, the main form of belief being conjuration, which was so pervasive in the slaves’ minds that it could be defined as a religious act. Finally, we shall examine the significance of such a belief, how the conjurer was thought of as a leader on the plantation, how this figure of authority represented a means of survival for the slave and how this glorification of the conjurer was then epitomized in the slaves’ folk tales, another form of African survival.


Part ONE:





The African background


a) The geographic origin of the slaves

Methodological approaches for slave studies

In order to have a better understanding of slavery in America and more particularly of the slave culture, it is necessary to inquire first into the African background and environment from which the slaves were torn. This approach has been elaborated by the revisionist interpretations on slave studies, which stressed the link between the diaspora and the mother country. Indeed, to put the emphasis on Africa and on the "African-ness" of the slave is a good way to discard the racial designations and stereotypes the masters had imposed on the slaves and to distinguish them as individuals with historical identities.

This new investigation aims at reviewing the "creolization" interpretation which, as is suggested by its name, rather focused its study on the slaves in America, once their acculturation had begun to take shape. According to this interpretation, the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the slave population varied too greatly, so that no common African core could be found among them, but just a set of common sub-cultures. Moreover, this type of investigation tended to draw inaccurate conclusions on the origins of individual slaves. Indeed, slave studies have been too often imbued with a-historical generalizations about the nature of the African past; firstly, because of the scarcity of the sources which were and are still widely scattered; secondly because they were dominated by a Eurocentric or American-centered trend; and thirdly because they tended to apply current ethnological accounts to historical facts, thus giving a false impression of a timeless character of African culture and ignoring that way the various internal and external processes which contributed to its evolution.

The failure to study enslaved Africans in America from the perspective of African history is thus largely the result of the way in which African history developed as a sub-discipline. As a consequence, the study of Africans in America has been separated from the history of continental Africa, and Afro-American Studies or Black Studies remained virtually distinct from African Studies. Therefore, as the Afrocentrist approach was neglected, the African-American behavior tended to be considered as a deviant form of the standard European-American behavior. Indeed, Molefi Kete Asante who coined the concept of Afrocentrism explained that:

"The greatest European scholars were classifiers, while African scholars have been holistic … Europeans sought to devise ‘universal laws of nature’ in order to make the rest of the world intelligible to Europeans in European terms. It is out of this development that we get the emergence of the peculiarly Western concept of culture. A science, or universal science of humanity became an instrument to impose Western cultural ideology rather than understanding of cultural experiences, on the diverse people of the world." 1

Despite the political implications it involves, the Afrocentrist approach should not be discarded from the slave studies. Indeed, the context of enslavement, that is whether an individual became a slave as a result of war, famine, commercial bankruptcy, judicial punishment, or religious persecution; the political, economic and social conditions of the various regions from which the slaves were taken, as well as the demography of the trade have to be deeply investigated in order to get a more relevant view of the slave system and more particularly in order to bear a different judgement on the slave and to see him rather as an active agent despite the oppressing setting to which he was subjugated.

New perspectives on the origin of the slave

A closer look at the demography of the slave trade is indeed very helpful to determine the geographic origin of the slaves and to identify the different civilizations to which they belonged and the various cultural traits they brought to America.

Indeed, some precisions have to be brought as regards the previous studies on the African origin of the slave. Melville Herskovits, in his pioneer work on African cultural survivals in the New World, The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), identified three major cultural zones in Africa: the basin of the Senegal River, the Guinea Coast and the Niger Delta. Yet those areas are too large to be representative of homogeneous cultural regions. What is referred to as "Guinea", for example, extends from the Gold Coast to Western Nigeria. A later scholar, Philip D. Curtin, in The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969), classified the different ethnic origins of the French and English traders’ slaves into the following regions: Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra and Central and Southeast Africa (cf. map 1), corresponding to the following present-day states: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, part of Zaire, Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar (cf. map 2). Another scholar, Joseph E. Holloway suggested to reorganize this new geographic area into nine culture clusters, the first six complementing Herskovits’s designation of West Africa (cf. map 3). This new analysis allows us to stress the two major failures of M. Herskovits’s work: first, to have seen West Africa as an homogeneous region and second, to have underestimated the importance of Central Africa. Indeed, he asserted that little was known about the regions of Congo and Angola and that their major influence only concerned Brazil and the Sea Islands off the South Carolina Coast.


However, many other scholars, in their revisionist interpretations, have stressed the prominent role those two regions had played in shaping the slave culture, and particularly, as we shall see later, the practice of conjuration. Indeed, while looking closely at the demography of the slave trade, one can but notice the rather significant importation of slaves from this region.


Per cent of slaves of identifiable origin

imported by

Coastal region of origin





South Carolina,



British slave trade,



Speculative estimate, all imported into North America (%)






Sierra Leone





Windward Coast





Gold Coast





Bight of Benin




Bight of Biafra


















* Included in Angola figure.

Sources: Table 45; Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, 157.

When we compare the figures given by this table, we could of course assert that the overall importation of slaves from West Africa is higher than that of Central Africa (represented here by the region of Angola). If we add the figures of Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra, we would get 80.2 per cent for Virginia, 59.6 per cent for South Carolina and 73.3 per cent for North America, compared to the 15.7 per cent, 39.6 per cent and 24.5 per cent of Angolan slaves. Yet, West Africa cannot be taken as one single homogeneous region, contrarily to what M. Herskovits had asserted and therefore except for Virginia, the rate of importation of Angolan slaves is higher than any part of West Africa: 39.6 per cent for South Carolina and 24.5 per cent for North America. Moreover, it is worth noting that in 1733-1744 and 1804-1807, those slaves reached peaks of 59.5 per cent and 52.7 per cent in South Carolina. The influence of Central Africa is thus largely confirmed, all the more as the South Carolina market also supplied slaves for North Carolina and Georgia.

Secondly, the great influence of this region can be asserted by the nature of its culture. Indeed, the Bakongo culture coming from the old kingdom of Kongo and the region of Angola, whose people were all Bantu-speaking, was much more homogeneous than the culture of West Africa (cf. map 3). This fact has been recognized by Winifred Vass in The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States (1979), in which she explained that:

"[The] Bantu Speech has a proven ability to move into a culture, to absorb it and to change its language. It has adopted and adapted each new culture group as it has spread from its original nucleus area, probably in the Nok region of Nigeria, down over almost the entire African subcontinent south of the Sahara." 2

Therefore, this entire region was characterized by a linguistic homogeneity, so that the Bantu-speaking slaves could enjoy a certain unity. In the same way, Joseph E. Holloway explained in Africanisms in American Culture (1990) how this Kongo-Angolan culture influenced African-American culture. In fact, slaveowners had specific preferences concerning the geographic origin of the slaves: house servants were recruited from West Africa, whereas field hands were mostly Igbos and Angolans from Central Africa. Therefore, the enforced isolation of those slaves in the fields, having hardly any contact with the white master, as well as the great proximity between them contributed much to the great impact this culture had on the other ethnic groups.

The traditional civilizations of Africa

The importance accorded to the Afrocentrist approach in the revaluation and reinvestigation of the role of Africa has thus helped us to examine more closely the geographic origin of the slaves, and it will allow us to analyze briefly the nature of their civilizations and to investigate the various influences they brought to the New World. Our study will thus concentrate on the culture of traditional Africa, that is on what early anthropologists have referred to as primitive culture—"any of numerous societies characterized by features that may include lack of a written language, relative isolation, small population, relatively simple social institutions and technology, and a generally slow rate of sociocultural change. In some of these cultures history and beliefs are passed on through an oral tradition and may be the province of a person or group especially trained for the purpose". This period lasted more or less until the European colonization, at the end of the 19th century—before, one can but notice a few localized spots of European presence—, which marked the beginning of foreign influences in Africa as well as its syncretized forms of culture.

Traditional Africa, which supplied millions of its inhabitants to be sent as slaves to America during the 17th and 18th century, was characterized by a great diversity of ethnic groups and thus of cultural backgrounds. Those could be classified into five large civilizations: the bow, the clearing, the granarian, the spear and the cities. Yet, beyond this diversity, one could acknowledge the existence of a common bond which made Africa a homogeneous entity and endowed it with a cultural and spiritual originality. This notion of Africanity or negritude which made Africa so peculiar had been favored by the fact that Africa had remained for a long time isolated, it was a big continent mainly surrounded by the sea; so that before the arrival of Europeans, it had evolved free of any other cultural influences. Moreover, the great contact between the various ethnic groups had promoted the diffusion of cultural traits and had thus generated a more or less important similarity between them. This similarity was merely found in the religion of these people which conveyed a universal problem, that of the definition of man’s relation to the society and the universe. Religious behavior is in fact the militant manifestation of the culture of a society, and thus it bears heavily the marks of its historical development, social and political transformation or technical evolution. Yet, this eschatological quest was characterized by a common African pattern, a common philosophy which was transported by the slaves to America and which constituted the basis of the African-American culture. A deeper investigation of Africa would also demonstrate that some slaves had been influenced by Islam and Christianity in their native country, yet these beliefs were still minor among them in the 17th and 18th century, so we will rather concentrate on the traditional African religion.

b) The African eschatology

The necessity to study African traditional religion comes from the fact that it was pervasive in every area of African philosophy, ideology and worldview. Indeed, African languages did not even have a word for religion because it was deeply embodied in their spiritual beliefs. John Mbiti expressed this view in his study of African religion and philosophy:

"Africans are notoriously religious, and each people has its own religious system with a set of beliefs and practices. Religion permeates into all departments of life so fully that it is not easy or impossible always to isolate it. A study of these religious systems, is therefore, ultimately a study of both the people themselves in all the complexities of both traditional and modern life … To ignore these traditional beliefs, attitudes, and practices can only lead to a lack of understanding of African behaviour and problems. Religion is the strongest element in traditional background and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned." 3

In traditional Africa, there was no such person as an atheist and everyone was religiously conscious, even children, who by instinct knew of the existence of the Creator. An Ashanti folk saying confirmed this idea as it went: "No one shows a child the Supreme Being." This feeling was so deep in the Africans’ minds that it was what defined their ontological being.

The African concept of ontological being was based on the notion of an omniscient, omnipresent "energy" referred to as the "vital force" or "life force". This life-force corresponded to what the Melanesians called mana, that is a supernatural force, which had existed since the beginning of time and which was the source of all beings. The ultimate source of all life-force in the universe was God, who existed as pure Force or Being. At the moment of the Creation, God manifested his force in all things and thereby became transcendent. Therefore, all entities in the universe were ontologically connected to each other at their deepest level of being and through their connection to the Creator. From this resulted an ontological hierarchy of beings which were interrelated and in constant interaction with each other in this natural order. This downward hierarchy emanating from the Source has been presented by J. Mbiti as follows:

"1. God, as the ultimate explanation of the genesis and sustenance of both man and all things", the source and creator of the universe, he cannot be approached or worshipped directly, only through a network of hierarchical forces or intermediaries.

"2. Spirits, being made up of superhuman beings and the spirits of men who died a long time ago." They can in fact be classified according to their spiritual refinement: first, the divinities or lesser gods who are associated with natural phenomena: the sky pantheon made up of the gods of thunder, lightning and rainstorm; the gods of the earth who govern fertility and punish wickedness by sending virulent diseases; the water divinities who dwell in lakes, rivers and the sea; and other nature spirits connected with trees, hills, mountains, winds or animals; second, the deceased ancestors, that is the founders of the clans who were the custodians of law and custom, and who had the power to intervene in present affairs, to grant fertility and health to their descendants.

"3. Man, including human beings who are alive and those about to be born.

4. Animals and plants, or the remainder of biological life.

5. Phenomena and other objects without biological life." 4

The phenomenology of existence resulted from the constant interaction and exchange between the various beings. Human beings were at the center of this ontology, so that nature and the supernatural worked under its direct or indirect control. God had created harmony in nature for man’s benefit, it was thus man’s duty to maintain that harmony. This could be achieved through faithful worship of the divinities or lesser gods, various rituals, sacrifices and obedience to the social and natural laws governing interaction between the forces. Yet, though envisioned as existing in ontological equilibrium with all other forces

in the universe, human beings were also seen as the only beings capable of disrupting this natural order. Any good or evil event was said to have its cause in a human agent whose action either enhanced or diminished the flow of life-force. Indeed, the African eschatology was unfamiliar with the concept of chance. No occurrence was accidental since all elements were linked to each other by a relation of causality.

This natural order was epitomized by the social order of the family or the clan. Indeed, the African philosophy put the emphasis on the concept of Collective Consciousness. In keeping with the notion of interrelatedness and interdependence of all elements, there was a basic belief that all the people in the tribe were related and had a function and responsibility to the larger group. Everyone from the same group had a relationship title—Aunt, Uncle, Mother, Father, or the all inclusive "Cousin"—, a characteristic which had been maintained among the slaves on the Southern plantations of the United States. Communal or social harmony depended thus on the individual’s respect of the socio-religious hierarchy which governed the community. Yet, an evil act could threaten this harmony as well as the natural order of the universe, on which human beings depended for the quality of their existence.

African societies thus entrusted religious specialists with the task of maintaining social harmony and welfare within the community. Those religious specialists possessed a superior life-force which made them capable of detecting the points at which ruptures of the natural order had occurred, that is to ferret out in the community the human agents of evil and to punish according to socio-religious law and custom. Despite the fact that they all possessed the ability to come into contact with the supernatural, those religious specialists fulfilled various functions within the community: for example, the rainmakers asked the supernatural forces or nature divinities to have an influence on the weather through incantations; the priests looked after temples and religious places, prayed and led

public worship, a function which could also be held by the community ruler; the diviner found out what was going wrong, who might have worked evil magic, which spirit was troubling a possessed person, what it wanted or what should be done, by means of pebbles, numbers, water, animal entrails, reading the psalms, throwing dice, etc…; the mediums got in touch with the spirit world by getting possessed through ritual drumming, singing or dancing; the seers had a natural power to foresee, elucidate visions and dreams; and finally, the medicine man diagnosed people’s troubles or deceases, cured them by the use of various herbs, religious rituals and the observance of certain prohibitions, and took preventive measures to assure the sufferer that the troubles would not come again. The medicine man was also a counselor who advised parents when children disobeyed or when someone was going on a long journey. His medicine was believed to drive away witches, exorcise spirits, bring success, detect thieves, protect from danger and harm, remove a curse, etc… in a word, to fight all the evils which brought disharmony to the community. His role is of the highest importance since it will be embodied in the New World by the conjurer. Those religious specialists were thus not to be confused with witches or sorcerers who used their superior life-force to work evil and saw discord in the community. Their power was respected, revered and even sought after. Indeed, their presence in African societies provided "the traditional African with the absolute and intuitive certitude that man [was] necessarily tied up with and dependent on his fellow-man and on nature." 5

The use of magic was thus part and parcel of the African belief system. Indeed, human beings were believed to be superior to animals because of their ability to use words in prayers, rituals or the offering of sacrifices to those in the supernatural realm, which permitted them to insure the flow of vital-force from God. On the other hand, the improper use of "word" disrupted the flow of vital-force and was therefore the source of much misfortune in one’s life. Generally speaking, magic was used to deal with the unknown and the supernatural. It was a way for man to fill a gap in his knowledge, when science was deficient in providing a possible explanation. Man used it to get control over the course of nature directly by means of rites and spells, as a difference to religion which was man’s appeal to higher beings, who in fear or hope, supplication or defiance, found his magical might limited. Malinowski, in his study of magic, science and religion among primitive people, suggested a classification of events or situations which required the use of magic:

"When knowledge was systematic and conditions predictable—in the construction of fences, the weeding of gardens, the building of houses, fire-making, fishing in a well protected inner lagoon—magic generally was not invoked. But activities and events over which there was limited knowledge and control—climate, blight, and insects in agriculture, incalculable tides, sudden gales … all fostered the practice of magic … We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident and the emotional play between hope and fear have a wide and extensive range.".6

To have full knowledge of the African traditional eschatology, one has thus to understand the close relationship between magic and religion, the natural and the supernatural, the secular and the sacred and between man, gods, ancestors and unseen spirits. One has also to recognize that the harmony of that relationship is the ground for good whereas its disruption is the source of evil. The key concepts of the African belief system are Oneness with Nature, Interconnectedness of all elements in a circular worldview, and Collective Consciousness. On the other hand, the Eurocentric worldview is based on a dichotomy between man and nature, separateness, linearity, competition, independence and individual rights.

The Afrocentric and Eurocentric worldviews are thus rather dichotomous, which explains the misunderstanding between the slave and his owner when they came into contact in the New World. This discrepancy was felt by the African slave who had to accommodate to this new and alien environment but also by the white master who completely underestimated the culture and potentialities of his slave and who turned this cultural difference into a racial inferiority. As a consequence, to better study the extent to which the slaves maintained their African traditions, one has to investigate the various environments into which the slaves were plunged in the New World.



The peculiar context of the Antebellum South, 1808-1865

a) The American slave system

According to M. Herskovits, the differences between the degrees of African survivals in the various areas of the New World depended on a great diversity of the environments. More precisely, he distinguished four significant factors: "the climate and topography; the organization and operation of the plantations; the numerical ratios of Negroes to whites; and the extent to which the contacts between Negroes and whites in a given area took place in a rural or urban setting." 7 Indeed, we will try to investigate the nature of the American slave system, which was so particular compared to the rest of the New World, in that it didn’t allow the slaves to perpetuate their African traditions much, and we will try to determine to what extent the environment contributed to the survival of these traditions.

In the first place, it would be interesting to identify whether the survival of African cultural patterns is connected to a certain extent to the harshness of the slave system. The first criterion of comparison between North America and the West Indies would then be the legal status accorded to the slave. Many scholars have traditionally praised the laxness of the Spanish and Portuguese slave laws which accorded "(I) the right to marry freely; (2) the right to seek out another master if any were too severe; (3) the right of owning property; and (4) the right to buy freedom." 8 On the other hand, the United States were famous for their slave codes which were established as early as the 17th century and which were hardened in the course of the 19th century. The color line was thus firmly drawn as any amount of Negro blood established the race of a person and the status of the offspring followed that of the mother; in the same way, their legal rights were largely restricted—in court their testimony was inadmissible in any litigation involving whites; they could make no contract, nor could they own property; and even if they were attacked, they could not strike a white person; then on the social level, they could not be away from their owners’ premises without permission; they could not assemble without the presence of a white person; they could not own firearms; they could not be taught to read or write; and they were not permitted to marry. Indeed, the West Indies and South America were generally seen as more paternalistic and more sensitive to the humanity of their slaves, whereas the United States were said to be too capitalistic and to favor a maximized production for commercial profit, thus considering their slaves as mere chattel and property. Yet, removed from those legislative theories, the reality and practice proved to be quite different. Indeed, the Southern planters in the Antebellum South were far more paternalistic as they wished to preserve the health and effectiveness of their "property", which represented for them a certain capital. Efforts were thus made to provide the slaves with food and health care and to allow them periods of rests and holidays before the harvest or at Christmas. In the same way, the kindness of the West Indian planters has to be minimized. Indeed, one can wonder about the conditions of work in the coffee and sugar plantations, when one knows that the life expectancy of a slave was just a few years or that the masters were allowed to kill their slaves under certain circumstances. In fact, no slave system can be characterized as all kind or all cruel. One has just to remember that slavery was nothing but a system of forced labor based on racial prejudice and which resorted to unjustified violences, tortures and cruelty. By nature, it is thus not the perfect context for the slaves to recreate their native environment.

Another factor which should be taken into consideration, concerning the degree of acculturation of the slaves, is the ratio of blacks to whites in a given area. Indeed, the comparison of the number of slaves which were imported to the United States and to the West Indies is rather significant. Of the ten millions of slaves transported to the New World between the mid 16th century and 1810, 94 per cent are said to have been sent to Brazil and the West Indies, whereas only 4 per cent were deported to the United States 9 (cf. map 2). Yet, the originality of the United States rests on the fact that it managed to increase its total slave population fourfold, from one million in 1810 to four millions in 1860—which might also be the direct consequence of the abolition of the British slave trade in 1808, whereas it extended in other parts of the West Indies and South America until 1870. This will to "breed" the slave population rather than to make new importations was another characteristic of the American slave system, which of course favored the acculturation and adaptation of the workers, contrarily to the West Indies, where the continuous importations of fresh African experiences put the slaves in a permanent contact with their native country.

As a consequence, the American plantations were rather small and the slaves were thus in great contact with their white masters. Indeed, one has to update this traditional belief which tended to praise the Southern domains. "One of the most common misrepresentations is in the matter of the size of estates. Almost unfailingly the romancers assume a great realm bounded only ‘by blue horizon walls’. There were, as a matter of fact some large holdings … but colossal estates were the exception, not the rule." 10 Concerning the ratios of blacks to whites, the slave population has always remained a minority. The historian Ulrich B. Phillips asserted, for instance, that "according to the census of 1860, one-fourth of all the slaves in the United States were held in parcels of less than ten slaves each, and nearly another fourth in parcels of from ten to twenty slaves." 11 The majority of the southern plantations, 49.5 per cent in 1860, possessed in fact between ten and fifty slaves, whereas one-fifth, 22.5 per cent had up to two hundred slaves and only 2.4 per cent had more than two hundred slaves, in comparison, for example with Jamaica which had 39.6 per cent of its slaves in plantations of more than fifty slaves and 35.9 per cent of more than two hundred.12

Indeed in the West Indies and South America, the commonplace was to find a single family ruling dozens or hundreds of slaves. Here, we get the testimony of a Haitian planter who expressed his feeling of helplessness and complained about his too great isolation.

"Have pity for an existence which must be eked out far from the world of our own people. We here number five whites, my father, my mother, my two brothers, surrounded by more than two hundred slaves, the number of our negroes who are domestics alone coming almost to thirty … And despite whatever pleasure may come from that almost absolute dominance which it is given us to exercise over them, what regrets do not assail us daily because of our inability to have contact and correspondence with others than these unfortunates, so far removed from us in point of view, customs and education."13

The very small concentration of slaves on the Southern plantations was thus a decisive factor concerning the degree of their acculturation. The proof is that on the Sea Islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, "where there were some two thousand slaves to a little more than two hundred whites"14, a community of slaves called the Gullahs managed to maintain their African traditions to a quite significant extent in many cultural domains. More particularly, they preserved a Creole language, the Gullah, which is still spoken nowadays. So even in this North American context, that is governed by the same "stringent" slave laws than the rest of the territory, those slaves were able to preserve their African beliefs.

Many factors have thus contributed to the acculturation of the slaves in the United States; a strict and paternalistic authority which held sway on the plantations, and prevented the slaves from enjoying much freedom; a small ratio of blacks to whites; and a high birth rate which filled the slave population rather quickly with African-Americans. Yet, another factor might also have contributed to the peculiarity of this North American context, regarding the shaping of slave culture, that is the religious influence.


b) Protestant America

The major difference between the degree of acculturation of the slaves in the West Indies and in the United States lies in their retention of African religious practices. Indeed, the emphasis has been put on the slaves’ cultural survivals in the West Indies because they managed to blend their traditional beliefs with Catholicism, which was more conducive to the survival of African religion. Indeed, the devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to the Saints offered a rich context of syncretism with the various African divinities; the use of sacramentals like statues, pictures, candles, incense, holy water, rosaries, vestments, and relics were more akin to African piety; and the Holy days, processions, Saints’ feasts, days of fast and abstinence recalled the sacred days, festivals and food taboos related to African gods. Albert Raboteau in Slave Religion: the Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (1978), offered a good survey of the various syncretized religions practiced in the Catholic French and Spanish areas. We could list for example Candomblé and Macumba in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad or Vaudou in Haiti. He also showed that some places had seen the emergence of practices which syncretized both Protestant and African beliefs. The Spiritual Baptists or Shouters in Trinidad, Cumina, Pocomania and various Revival groups in Jamaica enabled the slaves to perpetuate their African beliefs.

Yet, in the United States, American Evangelical Protestantism, while putting the emphasis on Biblical teaching and inward conversion found it more difficult to syncretize with African religions. Why was it so? In fact, the small amount of slaves scattered over quite a large geographic area, combined with an atmosphere of Puritan religiosity, made it impossible for the slaves to maintain their rites of worship. This was what made the religious situation of the Antebellum South so peculiar.

Indeed, the Southern planters have remained for a long time quite ambivalent concerning the conversion of their slaves to Christianity. In the first century and a half of slavery, only a small minority of slaves received instruction in the Christian faith. Many factors contributed to that: first because Christianity served as a justification of slavery and of the racial inferiority of the slaves, so that the planters feared that baptism would emancipate them; second because of the paucity of the missionaries and the linguistic barriers which made the communication between Americans and Africans quite difficult.

In the 1740’s a revivalist movement called the "Great Awakening", emerged which put the stress on inward conversion rather than religious instruction. This movement made Christianity more accessible to illiterate slaves and many of them were converted to Methodism and Baptism. Another big step in the conversion process was made in the 1830’s with the "Second Great Awakening" which organized an aggressive program of plantation missions with monetary support aimed at preaching Christianity to every slave, even in the remotest rural plantations. This program had planned to build chapels or "praise houses" on plantations; to circulate pamphlets, printed sermons, essays and addresses; and to recruit black preachers to proclaim the Lord’s name. The movement, far from being an impulse of Christian charity, reflected the situation of crisis of the South in this second half of the Antebellum period. Indeed, as many rebellions had burst out, like that of Denmark Vesey in 1822 and of Nat Turner in 1831, a great fear enveloped the whites. As a consequence, they demanded that the state legislatures pass laws curtailing the right of slaves to assemble, to worship, or to become literate, except under strict control. At the same time, they thought that to convert slaves to Christianity would make them accept their lot.

Yet, the slaves became aware of their masters’ hypocrisy. Indeed, their lives were sometimes made more miserable because they professed to be Christians or sought to practice their religion. The slave Peter Randolph confessed his painful feelings as he was torn between duty to his master and seeking a shelter with God:

"In some places, if the slaves are caught praying to God, they are whipped more than if they had committed a great crime. The slaveholders will allow the slaves to dance, but do not want them to pray to God. Sometimes, when a slave, on being whipped, calls upon God, he is forbidden to do so, under threat of having his throat cut, or brains blown out. Oh, reader! This seems very hard—that slaves cannot call on their Maker, when the case most needs it. Sometimes the poor slave takes courage to ask his master to let him pray, and is driven away, with the answer, that if discovered praying, his back will pay the bill." 15

The slaves condemned the whites for not letting them worship their God freely. More particularly, they stressed the fakeness of their masters who would pray with them on Sunday and would beat them on Monday. They were also strongly critical of the kind of preaching which was delivered to them, and which was obviously more motivated by a desire to keep them in their place rather than to offer them the freedom of the Gospel. Most of the time, the preacher was white but even if he was black, he was under the direct supervision of the white church, so he had to pronounce a white man’s sermon. This sermon often took the form of questions which the preacher asked to the audience and ready-made answers which the slaves had to learn by heart. It professed a pro-slavery doctrine and praised the need to work, obey the master and be right to him. Here is an example of such a preaching:

"Who gave you a master and a mistress?—God gave them to me.

Who says that you must obey them?—God says that I must.

What book tells you these things?—The Bible.

How does God do all His work?—He always does it right.

Does God love to work?—Yes, God is always at work.

Do the good angels work?—Yes, they do what God tell them.

Do they love to work?—Yes, they love to please God. (…)

What makes the crops so hard to grow now?—Sin makes it.

What makes you lazy?—My own wicked heart.

How do you know your heart is wicked?—I feel it every day.

What teaches you so many wicked things?—The Devil.

Must you let the Devil teach you?—No, I must not." 16

Some slaves accepted such gospel, but a considerable number of them thought this kind of preaching was a hypocritical perversion of the Holy Scripture. White preachers were sometimes described as "God in the face, and the devil in the heart." The slave Henry Bibb explained in his narrative the reaction of the slaves to that kind of preaching:

"And the slaves, with but few exceptions, have no confidence at all in their preaching, because they preach a pro-slavery doctrine. They say, ‘Servants be obedient to your masters;—and he that knoweth his master's will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’;— means that God will send them to hell, if they disobey their masters. This kind of preaching has driven thousands into infidelity. They view themselves as suffering unjustly under the lash, without friends, without protection of law or gospel, and the green- eyed monster tyranny staring them in the face. They know that they are destined to die in that wretched condition, unless they are delivered by the arm of Omnipotence. And they cannot believe or trust in such a religion, as above named."17

Many slaves refused to be preached to by a white minister because it was for them another expression of the white man’s domination and will to exert control over the slaves’ lives but even worse, over their inner thoughts and beliefs. Indeed, the only moments of

relief the slaves could get from daily toil was on the Sabbath day when they attended mass or when they could escape their earthly predicament and take refuge in the thought of Heaven. Consequently, as the American law also prevented them from practicing their African traditional rituals, they "were driven into infidelity", seeking another form of religion, which would console them and bring them a moment of hope and freedom. This religious experience of the slave community, practiced far from the supervising eyes of the white master was referred to as "The Invisible Institution" by Albert Raboteau. The slaves would gather on weeknights in the slave cabins or would hide in the woods, the "hush harbors", for those informal prayer meetings, where they would pray, preach, dance and sing, shaping Christianity to their own interpretation. Peter Randolph gave an account of this manifestation in his narrative:

"Not being allowed to hold meetings on the plantation, the slaves assemble in the swamps, out of reach of the patrols. They have an understanding among themselves as to the time and place of getting together. This is often done by the first one arriving breaking boughs from the trees, and bending them in the direction of the selected spot. Arrangements are then made for conducting the exercises. They first ask each other how they feel, the state of their minds, etc. The male members then select a certain space, in separate groups, for their division of the meeting. Preaching in order, by the brethren; then praying and singing all round, until they generally feel quite happy. The speaker usually commences by calling himself unworthy, and talks very slowly, until, feeling the spirit, he grows excited, and in a short time, there fall to the ground twenty or thirty men and women under its influence. Enlightened people call it excitement; but I wish the same was felt by everybody, so far as they are sincere." 18

By shaping their own version of Christianity, the slaves expressed their refusal to see God associated to their white master. This will to react to the domination of the white man was thus paralleled by a desire to maintain their culture. This defensive mechanism was part of the acculturative process, by which the two cultures interacted. Indeed, while adapting to this European-American culture, the slaves didn’t see the total abandonment of their African beliefs but rather a process of interpreting the unfamiliar by reference to the familiar. Through their conversion to Christianity, for example, they kept looking back at their African past. The notion of the trinity was well accepted, as God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit allowed them to refer to their pantheon which was made up of a supreme God and lesser divinities. In the same way, adoration and prayer being owed by man to god was also obvious to those Africans for whom the essence of piety consisted in propitiating gods and ancestors.

The peculiarity of the Antebellum South lay thus in the fact that it emphasized a strong will to eradicate any form of African culture. Indeed, the southern planters had done everything possible to acculturate their slaves—scattering them all over the country, thus favoring their contact with white people, and converting them to Christianity to prevent them from devoting themselves to their ‘wild’ and ‘heathenish’ rituals. This behavior was part and parcel of the Puritan environment that prevailed in the United States and which aimed at fulfilling God’s plan to civilize and educate religiously this ‘heathen’ black people, before tackling the Christianization of Africa, this great ‘heathen’ dark continent. Yet, the slaves managed to resist, and to perpetuate their African traditions, syncretizing them with European forms of culture. These new African-American manifestations were not purely African in nature, but nor were they entirely European.




African survivals in the United States

a) Revaluation of the concept of survival and of the

status of Africanisms

To investigate Africanisms, that is "those elements of culture found in the New World that are traceable to an African origin" 19, one has to analyze the process of adaptation and acculturation the slaves had to go through when they arrived in America. Indeed, this analysis is rather significant since the presence of Africanisms in the United States has been denied for a long time by earlier scholars. Most of the studies have been devoted to the West Indies and South America or to some scattered parts of the United States but not to the southern states. As we have demonstrated earlier, the underestimation of African and African-American Studies commonly led to the conclusion that the slaves came to the New World as a kind of tabula rasa, unable to recreate any aspect of their native culture. This position was held by several scholars like E. Franklin Frazer, in The Negro in the United States (1949), who denounced the brutality of the slave system; or like Stanley Elkins in Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959) who went even further, comparing the American slave system with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and demonstrating that they both had an annihilating impact on the personality of the slave. Indeed, he showed that the shock of capture, the long march to the sea, the auction sale, the Middle Passage and the introduction to the New World made the slave nothing but a "Sambo"; a docile, irresponsible, loyal and lazy being, a "perpetual

child incapable of maturity". Melville Herskovits, in The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), disputed this position and emphasized the presence of Africanisms in the United States (cf. annex 1); yet some revisionist theses have updated his conclusions, saying that he was misled by a false definition of Africanisms. Indeed, he tried to display the African survivals in the United States as specific artifacts, remnants of cultural traits which would have remained identical to their original country.

Yet, as Joseph E. Holloway and his collaborators have demonstrated in Africanisms in American Culture (1990), the acculturative process is a much more complex system than a simple retention or destruction of Africanisms. Indeed acculturation can be defined as "the processes of change in artifacts, customs, and beliefs that result from the contact of societies with different cultural traditions."20 In the case of African-Americans, this process knew several phases so that the acculturation was double. The first type of acculturation took the shape of a free borrowing and modification of cultural elements; that is a process of "incorporation", which took place with the contact and interaction of the various African ethnic groups, and which resulted in the blending of their customs and practices. Then, when the African slaves encountered American culture—I mean by that, European or Western culture as opposed to African culture—the process should be rather referred to as a "directed change", that is when the contact takes place with the dominance of one people over the other through military conquest or political control. This process often includes "assimilation, the almost complete replacement of one culture by another; cultural fusion, a new synthesis of cultural elements differing from both precontact cultures; and reaction against aspects of the dominant culture." 21 Indeed, the interpenetration of African and European cultures could have occurred according to four different ways: in the first case, the elements of African behavior and belief have been modified by contact with European

culture and have merged with it in a new syncretic form; in the second case, European traits have been shaped and reinterpreted by the slaves in the light of their African past; in the third case, some African elements have been reinforced through a great similarity with European culture so that it is now impossible to distinguish them; and in the fourth case, the African cultural traits have disappeared under severe prohibition and attack22. Following this acculturative process, one has to redefine the concept of survival. Indeed, George Brandon, in his essay on "Sacrificial Practices in Santeria, an African-Cuban religion in the United States" asserts that "speaking of Africanisms solely in terms of survivals is, in a quite literal sense to speak of them as a kind of superstition, for superstitions are isolated traits or cultural forms left ‘standing over’ after their original institutional supports and the whole system of ideas and values that gave them coherence have collapsed around them." Africanisms are better referred to in terms of adaptation because "a tradition … ", as he continues, " … that does not accommodate itself to changed circumstances in ways that it will allow it to persist will be unable to reproduce itself and will be extinguished." 23 The African survivals in the United States are thus not to be found as specific artifacts as M. Herskovits saw them but as general African patterns which would syncretize with other cultural traits. Indeed, what Africans brought with them on the ships was not any "outward" material things but rather "inward" non material things such as information, knowledge, belief and cultural material that enabled them to build new institutions in response to the needs of their everyday life, even under the limiting conditions that slavery imposed on them. Can we thus claim the death of African gods in the United States as many scholars had professed? Certainly not. Albert Raboteau in Slave Religion: the Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (1978) explained that "some elements of African religion survived in the United States not as separate enclaves free of white influence but as aspects hidden under or blended with similar European forms." This view was confirmed by Joseph Olupona who declared about the slaves’ conversion to Christianity that:

"The old worldviews are not entirely destroyed as whole systems and replaced by other complete worldviews. It is better to say that elements from the world views that ‘make sense’ are added while those who are proved inadequate are deleted … Conversion then represents both a continuity and discontinuity of the old tradition."24

One has thus to understand how the slaves used some African cultural traits to shape a new African-American culture. The emphasis has to be put, on the one hand, on the adaptation and accommodation of those African cultural elements, and on the other hand, on the agency and creativity of the slaves. It is important to understand that the slaves were not a tabula rasa but that they constructed themselves a new environment while keeping in mind their old worldview. To stress the agency and creativity of the slave is thus a way to eradicate the image of the Sambo who was passively undergoing his predicament and to show how the slave responded to his new everyday needs by preserving his native culture.

b) The two centers of African religious retentions

Despite the strong will of the Southern planters to eradicate any form of African religious practices, some managed nevertheless to survive in some "pocket areas" of the United States, where European institutions did not exist with a high degree of fixity. The two centers of African religious retentions are thus found in the Sea Islands which enjoyed

a great isolation and where the ratio of white to black was trivial; and in New Orleans which was famous for its very permissive atmosphere, far from the pervasive American Puritanism.

The first type of religion we will consider is not the most obvious one, yet it is all the same well known, for the place where it took shape has become famous for its high degree of African cultural survivals. Indeed, the isolation of the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia makes them a peculiarity in the Antebellum South, where the slave system was more like the West Indies and South America. There, the slave communities developed an original form of culture called Gullah. The origin of this name is quite ambiguous. It is said to come either from a shortened form of "Angola" for many slaves from the Kongo-Angolan region were imported in South Carolina during the 18th century, or from "Gola" or "Goulah" which is the name of a large group of Africans from the Liberian hinterland. The Gullah culture has thus emerged from the interaction of Kongo-Angolan slaves whose Bakongo culture was very influential, as well as slaves from Upper Guinea and the Windward Coast. The community of slaves dwelling in South Carolina was thus called Gullah whereas the slaves from the Georgian Islands were called Geechees but had essentially the same culture as Gullahs. In order to make it clearer and to avoid any comparison, we will concentrate our study on the Gullah community of South Carolina.

As we had demonstrated earlier, religion was of the highest importance in the life of African people; so was it for the Gullah community who preserved much of their African cosmology and ontology. As they became converted to Christianity, the Gullah slaves fashioned their own folk religion, which was termed Gullah African Christianity. Margaret Washington Creel in her book "A Peculiar People": Slave Religion and Community Culture among the Gullahs (1988), made a very comprehensive analysis of the way that

community reinterpreted Christianity and she explained that instead of being converted to God, they converted God to themselves. Indeed, what they retained first from their African heritage and in particular from the Poro-Sande secret societies of the Upper Guinea region was a strong sense of community. These secret societies served as kinds of rites of passage which introduced their members into adulthood. The initiates were isolated from the community for several years and were educated to their life’s work; familiarized with tribal history and lore; and schooled in social conduct and behavior according to their gender—the Poro educating the boys and the Sande the girls. The secret society functioned as the primary psychological and physical coercive agent for the common good of the community and established loyalty, bonds of attachment and unity which was also conveyed in the Christian fellowship. Its authority was said to emanate from God and thus it symbolized the community’s affinity with the spirits and the supernatural. This communal feeling expressed itself in America by a proclivity to transcend the individuals’ tragic situations through the preservation of their culture for the sake of the community. On the other hand, Christianity as a religion helped them to try and understand their present situation and condition. It also provided them with the certainty that within death, they would finally be awarded for their life-long suffering and find happiness by joining the kingdom of God. This comforted them with hope for a better life to come and a strong feeling of impending freedom. This creative combination of African ontological beliefs with Christianity, adapted to the peculiar environment of bondage, made the Gullah African Christianity a means of self preservation and a vital component of community life, which enabled the Gullahs to escape the white cultural domination and to achieve a kind of spiritual "elevation".


The second "pocket area" of the United States where one could find some African religious traits is Louisiana, and more particularly New Orleans, where African practices came into contact with Catholicism and syncretized in a rather original form of religion, Voodoo. The implantation of Voodoo in the United States was also peculiar for it followed the immigration of French Catholic planters who had settled in Cuba in 1804, fleeing Haiti, which had gained its independence following the slave insurrection led by Toussaint L’Ouverture; and had then joined New Orleans in 1809 because of the war between France and Spain. It was also carried by Santo Domingan free blacks, who had been forced to evacuate Hispaniola because they were identified with the white planters. This practice had emerged in Haiti where blacks were baptized and instructed in Catholicism but who remained nevertheless faithful to their ancestral beliefs. A Haitian observer, Doctor Price-Mars, commented that the blacks had "adopted a superficial allegiance to Christianity" 25.

Voodoo found its origins in the African religion of Vodù or Vodun, which was practiced by the Fon, Ewe and Yoruba people coming from the Dahomey kingdom in the Gulf of Benin. The name Vodun refers to an African word meaning "God" or "Spirit" so that Voodoo perpetuated the African belief about the world of the supernatural. As we had studied earlier, the African theology composed itself of a Supreme Being, similar to the Catholic God and of a whole pantheon of lesser divinities and spirits called loas which found their equivalent in the Catholic Saints—see for example the Dahomean Catholic serpent deity Damballa who became identified with Saint Patrick, who had chased the snakes out of Ireland; or the god of entrances Legba who was identified with the celestial gatekeeper Saint Peter; but also Saint Maroon, the patron of runaway slaves, who was created specially in the New World context. In Saint Louis Cathedral, an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary always attracted many black worshippers; yet one cannot assess if the offertory candles were burning for Ezili (Erzulie), the African goddess of love, or for the Mother of Jesus.

In the same way, the Voodoo ritual ceremonies expressed this syncretism of traditions. Indeed, they were based on the worship of the African snake God, Damballa, which was referred to as the Gran Zombi or Vodou in New Orleans. The cults were rendered by priestesses, the mambos, a tradition which was in keeping with the African matriarchal organization of Vodun. The most famous priestesses were Sanité Dédé, who officialized the 23rd of June, Saint John’s Eve, as the Voodoo celebration day; Marie Saloppé, Marie Laveau and her daughter Marie II who, during the whole 19th century, held sway over large crowds of worshippers , white and black, free and slave alike. In fact, the whites were less fascinated by the characteristically African elements of the rites, than mesmerized by the magical aspect which was not, after all, wholly foreign to the European tradition. One Voodoo song stated that Marie Laveau knew all kinds of gris-gris and charms and that she had a speaking acquaintance with the Gran Zombi who would come at night to teach her all the Voodoo mysteries. It went:

" ’L’ Appe Vini, Li Grand Zombi

’L’ Appe Vini pour fe gri-gri!" 26

On the other hand, the kings called oungan played a minor role in the ceremonies, contrarily to the Catholic tradition; they were just dancers representing the serpent-god. Yet, Catholicism was also prevalent in those meetings, as this witness, C. D. Warner, described at the turn of the 19th century: "It began with the reciting of the Apostles’s Creed, which was followed by prayers to the Virgin Mary." 27, and candles were burning everywhere on the altars. The ceremonies knew several phases: they often started with rites of entrance—salutations to the sacred objects, litanies to the spirits and Saints and

invocation of the snake God, the "Great Master"; then came the sacrifice of a fowl or the symbolical animals of the loas—to which various songs, tom tom rhythms and dances corresponded; finally, immolation of the victim as well as rites of communion and divination closed the celebration which took most of the time orgiastic aspects. The apex of the ceremony was the possession of the initiates by the spirit, when they were in total communion with it, a moment which was referred to as "monter Vaudou."28

Yet, various laws were passed between 1820 and 1850, which proscribed these practices and forbade the slaves to gather for dancing or any other purpose, except on Sundays or in places designated by the mayor like in the very famous Congo Square in New Orleans. From then on, the practice of Voodoo went underground, and the rituals took place clandestinely along the banks of the Lake Pontchartrain.

In fact, the practice of Voodoo was not restricted to those religious ceremonies or the worship of a God, but it also involved a whole environment which was in keeping with the African eschatology. Voodoo provided its initiates with a whole mythology which accounted for man’s origin and place in the universe, as well as rules of conduct and behavior for social and individual life. Just like in Africa, the Voodoo adepts believed in a supreme God, spirits, ghosts but also in magic, fortune and the efficacy of charms and curses. Whenever they sought to come into contact with the supernatural forces, they would either go and burn a candle in a Catholic Church or seek advice with a Voodoo doctor or priestess. Indeed, the many priestesses who dominated the Voodoo scene during the religious ceremonies were also famous for their divinatory powers and played an equivalent role to the religious specialists in Africa—telling fortunes; healing and removing curses like the medicine men; or casting spells like the witches. Yet, as the priestesses occupied the whole religious scene, men had taken over the domain of magic

and Voodoo doctoring. Hence, many of them, like for instance Doctor John, became very famous and made a fortune in New Orleans. All those activities, which differed from the religious practice of Voodoo per se, were referred to in New Orleans as Hoodoo. Yet, it was all the same part and parcel of the religious system, so that Voodoo and Hoodoo were connected in many ways and had much in common. On the one hand Voodoo connoted the positive religious rites while Hoodoo generally connoted the mystic and magical aspects that were usually evoked for negative purposes; but on the other hand, Voodoo was sometimes referred to negatively when one thought for example of the "death dance" or of the many sacrifices of animals if not human children—referred to as "the goat without horns", whereas Hoodoo is also used for as a protection against evil or an impending danger.

In keeping with the African tradition, Voodoo recreated a familiar environment for the slave as it functioned as a whole social system with three inseparable pillars: the priest—mambo or oungan; the magician or bokono; and the sorcerer, sometimes referred to as a werewolf. The belief in those three key characters as well as the Supreme God and the spirit world was for the African man but more particularly for the black slave, a defensive means to tackle reality. Voodoo has annexed the Christian representations in order to make the slaves’ new milieu more intelligible and reassuring but it also served as a cover for them to practice their African rites without being noticed by the masters. In the same way, all these developments accounted brilliantly for the accommodating and creative abilities of African people, which reflected another tradition and practice that was common among certain West African groups, that is the tendency to incorporate certain religious practices of the peoples they conquered or who conquered them.

Those two examples of religious syncretism, Gullah African Christianity and Voodoo, were fairly different in their manifestations, for the former knew a protestant influence whereas the latter blended Catholic practices. Yet, they both proved that African gods had survived the Middle Passage and had even reinforced themselves when settling in the New World. Their originality lay in the fact that they were exceptions on the American soil, due to their very specific environments and means of development. In comparison with the Baptist or Methodist churches in which many other black slaves took part throughout the Antebellum South, Gullah African Christianity and Voodoo really managed to maintain forms of religions with strong African notes. Those remained of course clandestine and were strongly criticized by whites but by blacks as well who had cut their bonds with their native country.

Yet, those two forms of religions were not the only Africanisms that could be found in the United States. The slaves had found another way to perpetuate their native beliefs far from the oppression of the white master. Indeed, the religious feeling of the African man did not amount to the worship of a god and ritual ceremonies; but it was pervasive in every area of his life. There was thus no need to utter the name of an African god to feel his presence. The African slaves had thus brought their religious environment with them but adapted it to the New World and more particularly to the plantation context in what was termed their "folk beliefs".


Part TWO:


The slaves’ folk beliefs


Chapter 1:

The slaves’ folk beliefs

a) A definition of folklore and folk beliefs

What is folklore? This is a question we need to ask in order to understand why one can classify the slaves’ beliefs as a piece of folklore. The origin of the term dates back to 1846 when it was introduced by William Thoms to replace the former designation of "popular antiquities" or "popular literature": "bien que—disons-le au passage—il s’agisse plus d’un savoir (lore) que d’une littérature et qu’il fût préférable de la distinguer par un mot composé bien saxon, folklore—le savoir du peuple … " 1 Indeed, in the early years, the study of folklore was restricted essentially to oral literature—the folk narratives, like the myth, fairy tale, legend, animal tale, etc…; the folk songs, ballads, and lyrics; the folk speech, which included proverbs, riddles, tongue twisters, etc…, and finally the beliefs and superstitions which were considered as wise sayings. Yet, nowadays it has extended to include new genres which we could classify into two groups: the ‘material culture’, which designates the physical objects produced in traditional ways as well as the folk arts, architecture and crafts; and the ‘customs and festivals’ which includes various actions, performances and paraphernalias, involved in rituals, dances, dramas, rites of passage, etc…2 At the beginning, it was said to deal exclusively with the uneducated classes, that is the peasants or "folks" of Europe; or the poor, illiterate, immigrant and enslaved classes of America. here we can understand how the

concept of folklore becomes significant when applied to the slaves’ beliefs. Indeed, the folklore of a given group, class or society develops when those individuals share common characteristics. Most of the time, this group is detached from the mainstream society, what Lévi-Strauss has termed the cultural discontinuity. The other culture shared by this minority group of people, which can be qualified as marginal, counter culture or subculture, is thus a way for the group to affirm its identity within the alien society. This "knowledge of the people" is thus a valuable way to explain how the community came in unity and how it perpetuated this "myth" through time.

The slaves’ beliefs and superstitions which were brought from Africa are thus a very relevant piece of folklore, for they are a clear testimony of the Africans’ collective experience in America. They used their African background to build themselves a new identity in the context of the plantation. Their folklore can also be classified according to the various genres we had previously defined. Indeed, the slaves did recreate various kinds of folk narratives, folk songs, folk speech and sayings; folk arts and crafts; as well as different customs, rituals, festivals and folk dances. Yet, our study will only be devoted to the beliefs and superstitions, customs and rituals which emanated from the African religious thought, that is the African spiritualism.

b) The slaves’ spiritual world

In keeping with their religious beliefs, the slaves had kept with them a whole environment and worldview where the supernatural was pervasive. Indeed, according to the African eschatological conception, next to the Supreme God dwelt a whole series of lesser divinities or spirits, which were present in the everyday life of the Africans. These beliefs in spirits and ghosts were thus perpetuated in the slaves’ minds, but were also reinforced as they merged with European and old English traditions which were also very familiar with this kind of folklore.

The world in which the slaves evolved was not confined to the plantation environment, in the same way as their existence and ontological representation was not limited by birth or death. Indeed, the Africans believed that every individual was endowed with two souls. The Ewe people, for example, believed that "every man has a second individuality, an indwelling spirit (kra) residing in his body … This kra existed before the birth of a man, probably as the successive kra of a long series of men, and after his death it will equally continue its independent career, either by entering a new-born human body, or by wandering about the world as a sisa, i.e. a kra without a tenement … The occurrences in dreams are believed to be the adventures of the kra during its absence." 3 This first soul called kra by the Ewe people was thus commonly referred to as the dream-soul. This belief had been strongly preserved among the black slaves as this Alabama informant explained: " A dream is regarded as a real experience in which the soul of the sleeper goes to another world. So you must never awaken a sleeping person lest his soul fail to find his way back." 4 The other soul was of a quite different nature since it was said to be immortal. This soul, called srahman by the Ewe people, "commences his career when the corporeal man dies, and he simply continues to exist in the ghost-world or land of dead men." 5

From this African heritage, the slaves kept thus believing that they were surrounded by a whole series of spirits, whose presence they could feel in their everyday life, as this Geechee slave from the Georgian coastal islands assessed: "Duh spirits is ebryweah. Dey peah mosly at duh fus dahk an in duh middle night." 6 Yet, some slaves were said to be endowed with a

special power that enabled them to see those spirits, as Jesse Williams, an ex-slave explained: "Did I ever see a spirit? ’Spect I has, and I sho’ have felt one more than once. ’Spect I was born wid a caul over my eyes. When de last quarter of de moon come in de seventh month of a seventh year, is de most time you see spirits." 7 This reference to the caul and the seventh day is very interesting as it marks a Euro-Christian influence that the slaves had blended with their native beliefs. The caul, which is "a thin, translucent tissue, a fragment of the amniotic membrane, covering the head [of a new born baby]." 8 was believed to bring good fortune to its owner in medieval England. This tradition extended with the blacks in the United States, for whom the caul was believed to bring the power of clairvoyance, as well as the ability to see and talk with the ghosts or to be a protection against sorcery, evil spirits and demons. Strangely, this tradition was not found in Africa but among people of New Guinea and Iceland; it was thus a European tradition which had been transformed in the minds of African people, who had more or less the same religious representation as the people of New Guinea and Iceland—as "primitive" people. On the other hand, the reference to the number seven is totally Christian, which proves that the slaves made no sharp distinction between their traditional spirit lore and a more formal religion. Indeed, they had no problem assimilating folk beliefs to Christianity and thus, they came to interpret ghostly visitations as evidence of immortal souls’ return from heaven or hell; prayerful funeral services were for them both Christian rites of passage and a means of placating spirits; invoking the name of the Holy Trinity kept ghosts away just as well as the old custom of leaving sweetmilk on the porch. 9

This general belief in spirits expressed itself mainly in the importance the slaves accorded to the observance of funeral rites. This tradition was also deeply rooted in Africa where "it [was] considered the greatest disgrace to a family not to be able to hold the proper ceremonies at the death of one of their member, a notion which is comprehensible when we remember how much the welfare of the soul of the deceased is supposed to depend upon their performance." 10 Indeed, what is important to stress is not the continuation of African ritual practices but rather the African understanding of the meaning of death. That way, the funeral rites were considered as the true climax of life, where the living and the dead were linked through this form of ancestral cult. Hence, this performance was as much a religious ritual as a major social event for the slave community, despite the strong restrictions which were imposed by the white masters who tended to fear any form of gathering of slaves. Yet, on some rare occasions, the slaves were left free to conduct their funerals without any white supervision, as Reverend Irving E. Lowery, who was once a slave in South Carolina, related in his autobiography:

"Death always made a very profound impression upon the slaves. They could not understand it. Their dead was invariably buried at night or on the Sabbath, at which time the slaves from the adjoining plantations attended in large numbers. Mary's funeral took place at night … Mary's baby was taken to the graveyard by its grandmother, and before the corpse was deposited in the earth, the baby was passed from one person to another across the coffin. The slaves believed that if this was not done it would be impossible to raise the infant. The mother's spirit would come back for her baby and take it to herself. This belief is held by many of the descendants of these slaves, who practice the same thing at the present day … A prayer was offered, the doxology sung and the benediction was pronounced. This concluded the services at the grave. No burial or committal service was read, for it was only now and then that one could be found among the slaves who could read well enough to do it. At a subsequent time, when all the relatives and friends could be brought together, a big funeral sermon was preached by some one of the ante-bellum negro preachers. And this practice has been brought over into the land of freedom, and is still observed in some places and by some colored people at the present day. 11

The importance the slaves conferred to those burials also expressed itself in the African-derived practice of the Memorial or second funeral which took place some two years after the first burial. Indeed, this rite was believed to be "one of infinitely greater importance, because it is a special memorial service held over the deceased in order to release him from the thralldom of the region of the dead in which all souls are confined … and to usher them triumphantly … into the abode of his fathers in the world of spirits … No human soul can attain to the peaceful ancestral habitations without this second burial. Hence the great aversion shown by a community towards those who fail to observe this holy sacrament." 12 This practice was thus performed in order to keep in touch with the recently deceased one and to content him, showing him that he had not already been forgotten by his family and community. Moreover, it also prevented him from becoming a "roving" spirit, confined to the immediate environment and who would seek revenge on the living ones, being thus an evil or troublesome spirit. This slave testimony explains us that there were in fact two kinds of spirits, the good ones and evil ones:

"Hants ain’t nothing but somebody died outen Christ and his spirit ain’t at rest, just in a wandering condition in the world. This is the evil spirit what the Bible tells about when it say a person has got two spirits, a good one and an evil one. The good spirit goes to a place of happiness and rest, and you don’t see it no more, but the evil spirit ain’t got no place to go. Its dwelling place done tore down when the body died, and it’s just a wandering and a-waiting for Gabriel to blow his trump …" 13

In the same way, the slaves kept in touch with their spirits by the practice of another African-derived custom, that of ornamenting the graves. An ex-slave from the Sea Islands recalled that practice: " I dohn guess yuh be bodduh much by duh spirits ef yuh gib em a good fewnul an put duh tings wut belong tuh em on top uh duh grave … Yuh puts all duh tings wut dey use las, lak duh dishes an duh medicine bottle. Duh spirits need deze same as duh man. Den duh spiritres an dohn wanduh bout." 14 Indeed, the custom was to think that "unless you bury a person’s things with him, he will come back after them." 15 The things used to decorate the grave were various and ranged from bleached seashells (cf. illustration 7), broken crockery and glassware, lamp chimneys (cf. illustration 8), vases, to various kinds of personal belongings like pieces of clothing, combs or a medicine bottle if the deceased person was ill. The beliefs and meanings surrounding these practices were different. Some said, for example, that the lamps were used because it was pretty, or to "make light" and "lead the deceased on into glory" 16; other assessed that the glass was broken to prevent it from being stolen or to indicate that the family had been "broken", but the most common explanation, which was rooted in Africa, was to say that it freed the spirit of the object and let it go to serve the dead owner. In the same way, the seashells were said to stand for the water of the sea which would take them back to Africa. This belief about returning to Africa after death was also confirmed by the fact that the slaves were usually buried east-west, with the head to the west, facing Africa. Indeed, this assortment of articles was far from being a "random assortment", they were rather "the distillation of a life." 17 A further explanation, in keeping with the spiritual belief of the Bakongo people from the old kingdom of Kongo, was that the tomb was defined as a nkisi, a magical charm. Indeed, it was believed that through spiritual transcendence, one could come into contact with one’s ancestors and ask for help or advice. 18

The meaning of those various practices was thus to remain at peace with one’s ancestors and to avoid any troublesome spirits. Yet, the spirits and ghosts which populated the slaves’ world were not only befriended or vengeful relatives. Indeed, the slaves represented those "han’ts" under various shapes and appearances. On some occasions, they were said to

take inanimate forms: "Han’ts kin te’k enny fo’m, w’ite folks, even a brickbat, clock, chair er ennything." 19 They could also be represented as white spots, vapor or balls of fire. Yet, in the main they were related to dead folks, taking some hideous forms. A slave from Georgia explained that the spirits "may appear as misshapen men or women, as sheep, dogs and cats." 20

Actually, those ghostly representations were not without meaning and they tended to illustrate what was deemed relevant in the slaves’ lives. As a consequence, a whole folklore of ghostly legends—a ghostlore—flourished on the Southern plantations in which the slaves projected their aspirations and desires. For instance, the most common type of ghostly stories was epitomizing the slave-master relationships. Sometimes the master was pictured as a supernatural benefactor: " … er heap er times in de day when I is by myself er hoein de cotton he talks ter me plain so’ s I kin understand, en he ax me if I is yit en still er good nigger, en tell me ter not be dis-couraged." 21 Yet, most of the time, dead masters were endowed with terrifying powers. Indeed, Lewis Clarke explained that he "was actually as much afraid of [his] old master when dead as [he] was when he was alive. [He] often dreamed of him, too, after he was dead, and thought he had actually come back again, to torment [him] more." 22 His fright was such, that he even put a boulder on his master’s coffin before filling his grave to prevent him from coming again. In the same way, the belief was common that a master’s ghost could whip his slaves’ ghosts, so that most of the time, they sought to be buried the greatest possible distance from their earthly persecutors. Still some other stories involved vengeance-seeking spirits of dead slaves coming to frighten their white masters. Sophia Word recalled this story that she had heard on a neighboring plantation:

"Hugh White wuz so mean to his slaves that I know of two gals that kilt themselves … He whipped another nigger most to death fer fergitting to put onions in the stew. The next day she went down to the river and fer nine days they searched for her and her body washed upon the shore. The master could never live in that house again as when he would go to sleep he would see the nigger standing over his bed." 23

Some spirits only sought to harass and torment the white masters, merely coming back to plead and scream, or just to stand and stare at them. Yet, some others resorted to physical violence, which expressed the slaves’ wish to see their masters dead. Another form of abuse which frustrated the slaves much and which expressed itself in the slaves’ supernatural world was the lack of possession. Indeed, the stories were frequent when a ghost came to point out the location of a concealed treasure, like that ex-slave explained: "I know wherever they’s a ghost, money is around some place! That’s what the ghost comes back for. Somebody dies and leaves buried money. The ghost watches over it till it sees someone it likes. Then the ghost shows himself—lets know he’s around. Sometimes the ghost tells where is the money buried …" 24 Finally, the plantation ghostlore also emphasized another theme which was dear to the slaves, that of the kinship bonds, especially when one knows how families were broken on the plantations as well as the importance it conveyed for African people. Many legends told how "han’ts" returned to give aid and advice, to rectify wrongs, take revenge, protect kin, complete unfinished tasks, or comfort the sick and lonely.

This ghostlore thus enhanced the slaves’ imagination and was for them a good form of entertainment which broke the monotony of the plantation work. In the same way, it allowed them to take a different look on their predicament and on death which was threatening them everyday. Indeed, it conveyed the idea that death was not the end of all things, as the spirits kept in touch with the living ones. Finally, it enabled the slaves to create an imaginative world where they could at last redress the injustices they were suffering in their everyday lives. It served as a kind of catharsis which comforted them, when they saw that the roles could be reversed; and as a kind of shelter where they could at the same time perpetuate their African traditions.

Yet, in spite of a strong African basis, the slaves’ folk beliefs also knew a strong European influence. To keep on with our ghost stories, we can cite as an example the belief in the Jack-o’-lantern which was deeply rooted in the European lore and which consisted in wandering flames, belonging to the souls of persons who were recently dead. The black slave’s belief is rather similar as Mr. Henry Holmes, an ex-slave from Georgia, explained: "One night me an’ two more fellows followed de Jack O’ Lantern. It looked like a light in a house or sumpin … All de while we followed it it jus’ kep’ goin’ further an’ further until it ju’ vanished." 25

Another belief which was both found in Europe and Africa was the belief in witches. Indeed, the slaves sometimes pictured them according to the conventional European form of an old woman dressed in rags. In the same way, they believed in the power of witches to transform themselves into animals, like birds, insects, lions or serpents which were familiar with the African environment; or into black cats or hares, which were rooted in the European lore. The representation of the witches also paralleled the African one as they were believed to ride people at night. Indeed, the Vais people held the belief that "witches come to your house and ride you at night,—that when the witch comes in the door he takes off his skin and lays it aside in the house. It is believed that he returns you to the bed where he found you, and that the witch may be killed by sprinkling salt and pepper in certain portions of the room, which will prevent the witch from putting on his skin. Just before they go to bed it is common to see Vais people sprinkling salt and pepper around the room." 26 Another slave from Georgia recalled a similar story: "I once heard a woman dat a witch come to a house one night an’ took her skin off an’ went through de key hole. Somebody foun’ de skin an’ sprinkled salt on it an’ when de witch come out she couldn’t git in de skin an’ she started saying: "Skinny, Skinny, don’t you know me?" 27 Finally, in order to show to what extent the slaves’ folk beliefs were marked by a strong Euro-Christian influence, we can mention the following superstition on how to get rid of a witch: "Mr. Strickland says that when the witches are riding anyone if that person can say any three words of the Bible such as: ‘Lord have mercy’, or ‘Jesus save me’, the witch will stop riding." 28

As a conclusion we can assert that those folk beliefs resulted from the syncretism of African and European traditions. Indeed, a considerable European influence was added to a strong African basis. Those two were blended as master and slave came into contact and as the slave had to adapt his beliefs to his new environment, so had the white master when he encountered the black slave. Such a fact can be confirmed with the testimony of Edward A. Pollard, who was said to be a true Southerner in education, opinion, sympathy and attachment, but who was nevertheless prone to share his slaves’ beliefs:

"I am intensely superstitious. It is one of the sweetest consolations of my life to think that those who have perished from the earth may still stand about me—to think that they may watch over me in the darkened hour of contrition—to feel, when night gathers around me in the lonely chamber, that I can almost stretch my hand in the darkness to touch the features of the precious dead … It is from the negro that I’ve learned my superstitions. It is the slave that has given me those precious consolations. It is he that has taught me and persuaded me that the spirits of those mourned as dead are with me still … It was in the days of my mourning that I first began to take into my heart those tender superstitions, that make the negro’s religion, to my consciousness, to my soul, a truer religion than that preached from the thousand pulpits of the land." 29

Those beliefs thus constituted the spiritual background of the slave with which he came to the New World, but which transformed itself through the contact of European traditions. They were thus perpetuated on the plantations and were passed on from generation to generation. As part of the African eschatological conception and religious thought, they were not put into practice through the performance of religious rituals but rather through magic. Indeed, spiritualism and the practice of magic—referred to as conjuration—flourished on the Southern plantations and generally survived better than the religious practices, because they constituted more independent forms of traditions, that is that they could be more effectively practiced by individuals and did not depend upon ceremonies, dancing, or other rituals that required the participation of a group of people and were more prone to catch the master’s attention.



Chapter 2:

Conjuration: a magico-medical practice

a) Etymology and definition

The term "conjure" is strongly rooted in the European tradition, as its meaning can be traced back to Middle English and Old French forms of the Latin word conjurare: "to swear together, to band together by oath". Whereas this meaning of "conspire" is now obsolete, we can still find nowadays the Old French meaning of conjurer: "to abjure, entreat solemnly or constrain someone by oath". Yet, it will only be in the 16th century, that "conjure" will have its more modern meaning of "to affect or effect by jugglery." "Conjure" in modern English can thus be defined as such:

"1) to invoke or summon (up) a spirit, as in sorcery

2) to effect by the use of "magical" arts

3) to summon up an image or an idea as an act of imagination" 30

In the same way, the modern definition of the conjurer, the one who conjures, is:

"1) A person who practises conjuration, a magician, a wizard, a sorcerer

2) A person who performs conjuring tricks (by sleight of hand or illusion)"31

Yet, those definitions do not render the full meaning of the concept, for if eludes the African-American folk meaning of the term. Indeed, the practice of conjure or "conjuration"—as it is called in the United States—also refers to the magical folk tradition of North American black slaves. According to the African magical tradition, religious specialists or magical practitioners are believed to be able to transform reality through the use of their extraordinary powers and by the operation and invocation of the supernatural. Yet, one should be warned against a too "Eurocentric" assimilation of the term to mean only witchcraft, as this commentator explained: "The role and function that conjurers served in the efforts of enslaved Africans to build a culture … cannot be understood in terms of an ethnocentric equation between conjuration and witchcraft." 32 Actually, this folk tradition differs from the European tradition in that it is also a kind of "folk pharmacy", which involves "the use of natural and artificial materials for medicinal and quasi-medicinal purposes." 33 The conjurer, on the top of being a magical practitioner, is also a "doctor", who "claims the power to heal by means of

[his] prescriptions—[his] pharmacopoeia of herbs and roots, human artifacts, and similar materia medica." 34 In that, he is the heir of the African medicine man. The practice of conjuration appears thus as a syncretism of African magical practices, similar European beliefs about witchcraft, but also American Indian knowledge which had very close traditions. It is peculiar to the United States as it developed on the Southern plantations and has thus to be distinguished from the traditional African religions on the one hand and from Caribbean and South American developments on the other. The major difference lies in the fact that "when referring to African ‘survivals’ among black folk communities in North America it is more appropriate to speak of practitioners than worshipers. Such practitioners focus typically on the employment of spells in combination with materia medica. They are much less likely to engage in the worship or summoning of spirits or deities." 35 Conjuration can thus be variously referred to as conjure, conjury, conjuring, but also rootwork, when the emphasis is put on the pharmacopeic practice; or Hoodoo, coming from the term juju which means conjure and which refers to a magical tradition, to be distinguished from the more institutionalized religious form of Voodoo. Yet, sometimes the confusion reigns in the minds of the informants, since New Orleans was looked upon as the prestigious center of conjuring, the term ‘Voodoo’ has been extended to conjuring and conjurers throughout the United States, so that we can sometimes see conjuration referred to as Voodoo, witchcraft, or sorcery.

Another original but rather significant way to introduce the practice of conjuration and to highlight its peculiarity in the North American context, that is as a folk magical and pharmacopeic practice, was to put it in relation with the Greek words pharmakos, pharmakon and pharmakeus. Indeed, the idea, which was suggested in Theophus H. Smith’s Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America, emerged from the fact that the English words

"pharmacy", "pharmaceutic", "pharmacology" and "pharmacopoeia", which can be applied to describe conjuration, all derive from those Greek words. To analyze closely their meanings will thus help us to draw a useful threefold schema of conjure phenomena.

The first variant of the word "conjure" derives from the meaning of pharmakos, which refers to a scapegoat or victim, in relation to the following Greek tradition of the purification rite: "If a calamity overtook the city by the wrath of God, whether it were famine or pestilence or any other mischief, they led forth as though to a sacrifice the most unsightly of them all as a purification and a remedy to the suffering city. They set the sacrifice in the appointed place, and … burnt him with fire … and scattered the ashes." 36 The pharmakos can thus be put into relation with the conjure client, "who may be seeking redress from, or anticipating injury from someone else’ s conjure." 37 Anyone who consults a conjure doctor, because he has been conjured or for protection against a potential trick, is thus a current or prospective victim. The second variant of "conjure" is double, just as the word pharmakon which can refer to "1. a drug, whether healing or noxious; 2. a healing remedy or medicine; 3. an enchanted potion or philter, hence a charm, spell." 38 Indeed, conjuration can be both medicinal and poisonous; through its "prescriptions, featuring a pharmacopeic repertory that includes both healing and harming substances … ; and practices [which involve] both benign and malign tricks and spells."39 Moreover, conjuration is also linked to the concept of the pharmakon by its third meaning, as conjuration is both a pharmacopeic and a magical practice. Finally, the third variant links the conjurer with the pharmakeus, who can be at the same time a poisoner or sorcerer and a druggist or apothecary. As a conclusion, we can say that we get here a very "wholistic" vision of conjure as the three poles of the practice are merged: the client, the practice and the practitioner. Moreover, those cut across each other, as the pharmakos (the

victim) and pharmakeus (the practitioner) may coincide in the same person for the practitioner can also be the target of malign phenomena and can thus require conjurational protection. Equally, we can say that the practice of conjuration is a pharmakos, that is a purification rite, where the conjurer (pharmakeus) through the use of its prescriptions and magical tricks (pharmakon), as well as the intervention of the client-victim (pharmakos), aims at purifying, and restoring harmony within the community.

This emphasis on the pharmacopeic aspect of conjuration aims thus at differentiating it from the European tradition; yet one should bear in mind that its therapeutic and benign elements are present in the same way as its occult and malign attributes, that sorcery or malign occultism, deception and manipulation coexist with herbal healing or other pharmacopeic practices. This equation of good and evil practices has been inherited from an African belief according to which "no dichotomy exists between good and evil in the realm of the supernatural, but that both are attributes of the same powers in terms of predisposition and control … The immediate African parallel … [is] striking because it contrasts vividly with the European habit of separating good and evil so strongly that the concept of the two as obverse and reverse of the same coin is almost nonexistent." 40 "Healing" conjuring versus "harming" conjuring marks thus the duality of the practice that Raboteau has summarized as following: "Conjure help is ‘defensive protection’ on behalf of the client; conjure harm is ‘offensive aggression’ on behalf of the client." 41 Yet, we should be careful here not to collapse the defensive and offensive distinction into the moral dichotomy of good versus evil, for the African tradition is, as we saw, unfamiliar with it. Melville Herskovits, later joined by other scholars, suggested another distinction between the divers forms of practices, which could also be used to differentiate the conjurers themselves, that is that we could find a medical and a magical practitioner.

"Two groups of practitioners are known and recognized not only by themselves but also by their peculiar clienteles, as distinct from each other. One deals in what may be termed ‘medicine’ that is, roots, herbs, barks and teas, while the other is composed of those who work by means of magic. So clear cut is this feeling of difference between the members of these two groups that there is reason for deep insult if a practitioner of the medical type is mistaken for one of those who practice magic." 42

Indeed, one could find in the United States two kinds of practitioners, the hoodoo doctors or conjurers who used certain ritual practices for both good and bad magic; and the rootdoctors, who practiced rootwork and were rather seen as medical doctors. Yet, those two practices were intrinsically linked to each other, as African medicine is holistic and thus involves the use of magic; whereas African magic also aims at healing surrounding phenomena, should they be natural illnesses or supernatural tricks. We should thus follow Zora Neale Hurston’ s definition to distinguish the two: "Nearly all of the conjure [hoodoo] doctors practice "roots" but some of the root doctors are not hoodoo doctors." 43 We shall thus first focus on the medical aspect of the rootwork and then study the practice of conjuration per se as a magical practice.


b) Conjuration as a medical practice

The practice of conjuration which flourished on Southern plantations was directly inherited from Africa. Indeed, the conjurer was perpetuating the ancestral tradition of the medicine man. Hence, the designation of conjuration primarily as a medical practice. In that sense, it was referred to as "rootwork", and the conjurer was variously called "root doctor", "conjure doctor", or "herbalist". As we have demonstrated in our first part about the African religious beliefs, the action of the religious specialists was beneficent, as their role was essentially to heal and soothe the ills which the community suffered.

The rootdoctor was often referred to as an herbalist because he was very well acquainted with the various properties of herbs and plants, which was the result of a long training and learning. This knowledge was inherited from Africa and transmitted from generation to generation by ancestral tradition, as the humid and tropical climate of the deep South enabled the slaves to recognize some plants they were familiar with in Africa. Yet, some of this knowledge was also transmitted to the African slaves by the Indians, firstly because they had a deeper knowledge of the local plants and secondly because they also had their medicine men or shamans who held similar healing practices. The medical practice of conjuration appeared thus as a syncretism of African and Native American lore. Indeed, the slaves were rather proud to have inherited this mixed knowledge: "My mammy larned me a lot of doctorin’ what she larnt from old folkses from Africy, and some de Indians larnt her." 44

In their retention of African cultural traits, the slaves put the emphasis on this medical practice because they frequently suffered from health problems. Indeed, this was due to the negligence of the masters regarding their slaves’ physical and material conditions. The living arrangements characterized by overcrowding, squalor, and a lack of sanitation contributed to the spread of diseases; which were in most cases unfamiliar to the slaves in their native country. In addition, the brutal physical punishment the slaves would daily receive, would left them with open wounds, ripe for infection.

Moreover, this African medical ‘survival’ was perpetuated by the slaves on the plantations because most of the time they refused to be cured by white doctors. Indeed, Frederick Law Olmstead, who traveled through the whole South, recalled how the slaves concealed their medical treatment:

"Frequently the invalid slaves neglect or refuse the remedies prescribed for their recovery. They conceal pills, for instance, under their tongue, and declare that they have swallowed them, when, from their producing no effect, it will be afterwards evident that they have not. This general custom I heard ascribed to a habit, acquired when they were not very ill, and were loth to be made quite well to have to go to work again." 45

Moreover, white doctors were too few and generally too expensive for the planters who could not afford to hire them for the treatment of each of their slaves. Yet, even when such doctors were available, their treatments often proved to be worse than ineffective. The slaves were also aware that many physicians would use them as guinea pigs for their pet theories and remedies. Indeed, a South Carolinian proverb expressed the lack of confidence of the slave community in white medical ability, as it went: "Black people rule sickness with magic, but white people get sick and die." 46

It was thus beyond the master’s and overseer’s eyes, back in their cabins, that the slaves took medical matters in their own hands. Some would try and make their medicine by themselves, as this slave testimony demonstrated:

"There were no doctors back there. If you got sick, you would go dig a hole and dig up roots and fix your own medicine … They would make their own pills and syrups, and so on." "They had remedies for almost everything at that time … Sometimes they would kill a cat and make soup out of it. I remember my uncle killed one once, and made a soup for one of us in the family who had the whooping cough. For babies, they make different kinda teas. One they called sheep’s apple, made out of sheep’s balls." 47

Indeed, the beliefs about the different types of cures were many, and changed from one plantation to the other, being merged sometimes with Native American or European beliefs. Although derived from serious knowledge of various herbs and roots’ properties, those personal cures were also made up of what we call "grannies’ recipes" which were transmitted through the generations. Here are a few example of such customs or "superstitions." 48

"If you has rheumatism, jes’ take white sassafras root and bile it and drink de tea.

When anybody git cut I allus burns woolen rags and smokes de wound, or burns a piece of fat pine and drops tar from it on scorched wool and binds it on de wound.

For headache, put a horseradish poultice on de head, or wear a nutmeg on a string, round you neck." 49

"Backache can be cured by rubbing a hot iron up and down the inflicted person’s back." 50

"If you got worms, take peach leaves and beat’em in a poultice and bind it around your stomacick, and it will turn ‘em back down’ards … Peach leaves is good for constipation too.

When a person’s got smallpox, buzzard’s grease is de bes’. Stew it up in lard and take de fat.

For warts, you take nine grains of corn, and pick dat wart until it bleed, and take dat corn, and wrap it up and drop it in de street. Someone pick it up and dey pick de wart off your hand … ’Nother way is to steal an Irish potato and put it in your pocket.

For swellings, you boil mullein and pine tar and rub de swelling. Rusty nail water didn’t help much. For fever and swelling, a poultice of cow manure mixed with water and salt is good. Chicken manure tea is good for scarlet fever. You sweeten it jus’ a little bit." 51

"Den if you has indigestion, wear a penny round de neck." 52

On the other hand, some other slaves would rather rely on a folk doctor, a conjurer or "root doctor" who would follow the traditional curing techniques, and who would be much more reliable than the white doctor, as this ex-slave from the Georgian Sea Islands explained: "Well, duh root doctuh wuz all we needed. Dey wuz bettuh dan duh doctuhs now-a-days. Deah wuzn all uh dis yuh cuttin an wen yuh sick, duh root doctuh would make some tea an gib yuh aw sumpm tuh rib wid an das all. Den fo yuh know it yuh wuz all right." 53 Those root doctors were consulted for various treatments and illnesses as the slave Patsy Moses described:

"De conjure doctor, old Dr. Jones, walk ’bout de black coat like a preacher, and wear sideburns and uses sich for he medicine. He larnt ’bout dem in de piney woods from he old granny. He didn’t cast spells like de voodoo doctor, but uses roots for smallpox, and rind of bacon for mumps and sheep-wool tea for whoopin’ cough and for snake bite he used alum and saltpeter and bluestone mix with brandy and whiskey." 54

Some masters were aware of those practices and tried to suppress them, mocking them as superstitions—even if they did share some of these beliefs about "miraculous cures"—; but

also for fear of ill treatment of the slaves, as they represented a rather significant financial investment ; and because they realized that certain illnesses could easily spread to their own families if not properly treated and contained. Yet, in some cases, the white masters recognized their slaves’ skills in medical practice and allowed them to perform it or even asked for some advice concerning their own cures, granting them some forms of rewards in exchange. The medical knowledge of the slaves, inherited from Africa, thus enabled them to tend to their own medical needs but also to contribute to the improvement of American health as a whole. Indeed, they made large contributions in health care—as they were far more used to the tropical climate than the Europeans—; in minor surgery, bloodletting, and the handling of snake bites; but also increased the American pharmacopoeia with the use of quinine, smallpox inoculation and various herbal remedies. Equally important was the role of African women as nurses and midwives, as they handled "some ninety percent of black deliveries in the American South and many white ones as well." 55 Indeed, "in the antebellum United States black women under the care of black midwifes experienced a lower mortality rate in childbearing than did southern white women with their expensive white practitioners." 56 In fact, the skill of the black midwifes was based on common African educational practice—like the Sande secret societies—where girls were instructed in both herbal medicine and midwifery. This knowledge was transmitted in the New World from generation to generation and thus women acquired great renown and respect in the slave communities for their well-approved medical skills. Some even stated that black women became more important folk medical practitioners in the United States than did black men as it was observed in the twentieth century: "The great mass of folk medicine is in the hands of women rather than in the hands of men. The women are the great practitioners, the folk doctors—the old Granny with her ‘yarbs an’ intmints’ does much to keep alive these folk cures and to make these beliefs much more a feminine possession than the context would seem to indicate." 57 This emphasis on women’s commitment to health care has in fact begun in Africa where, for example among the Ashanti, "The Fetish women [are] generally preferred for medical aid, as they possess a thorough knowledge of barks and herbs, deleterious and sanitive." 58

We have thus demonstrated the importance of the practice of conjuration as a folk medicine which managed to be more or less recognized as "a coherent medical system and not a ragtag collection of isolated superstitions." 59 Yet, one should bear in mind that this African-

derived medicine was holistic, and that on the top of some knowledge about roots, plants and some peculiar healing methods, those curing techniques were also based on magical practices, as they treated both physiological and psychological manifestations.

c) Conjuration as a magical practice

The practice of conjuration was thus directly linked to African magical beliefs. As we have demonstrated in our first part, the use of magic served to fill a gap in man’s understanding of the world and of his close environment, by relating every happening to the supernatural. In the same way, the slaves needed magic to be able to explain their new situation and to comfort themselves by sorting out everyday problems, such as suffering, accidents, diseases, death under obscure circumstances, and any other misfortunes. Indeed, in Africa, the Yoruba people were said "to consequently attribute sickness and death, other than death resulting from injury or violence, to persons who have for bad purposes enlisted the services of evil spirits, that is to say to wizards and witches." 60 The role of the conjurer, or medicine man in Africa, who was a practitioner of "white magic", often symbolized by the adornment of white chalk, was thus to restore the afflictions caused by these witches, practitioners of "black magic". In order to give the most comprehensive presentation of the practice of conjuration, we shall first focus on he conjurer’s duties and then on his use of tricks and other ritual artifacts, both of them combining the resort of magic for a healing purpose.

Indeed, the conjurer’s major functions were to cure persons who had been "conjured", "fixed", "crossed", "hexed", "hoodooed", or "put bad mouth on"; to protect them from a curse; to remove a curse; or to cast a spell or counter spell over someone. Contrarily to the

African medicine man, the North American conjurer could harm and cure, hence his appellation as "two-headed", "two-faced" or "two-handed". The conjurer was called for by a patient when it was decided that he had been conjured and that nobody else could cure him, as Rosa Millegan, an ex-slave, claimed: "Let me tell you right here, when you done been conjured, medical doctors can’t do you no good. You got ter get anudder conjure doctor ter get it off you." 61

In most cases, the conjurer had five different services to render to his patient. Firstly, he had to tell him whether he had been conjured or not. This was done by putting a small piece of silver in the mouth or hand of the sufferer. Should the silver turn black, there was no doubt about the diagnosis. Secondly, he had to find out who conjured him, that is who cast a spell on him. Yet, "the conjurer-doctors seemed to have an objection to name the enemy who had cast the spell. In some cases they would undertake to describe him; … [or they would] draw the image of the person …" 62 Thirdly, he had to search for the trick and try to destroy it, diagnosing at the same time the nature of the disease. It was said very often that the conjurer was able to find it immediately and without visiting the spot where the cause of the trouble was buried. If not, he would cut cards to find the truth. Fourthly, he had to cure the patient, through the use of various kinds of medicine or magic practices and prayers. Fifthly, the conjurer could, if the patient wished it, turn back the trick upon the person who made it. It was said that if you put the trick into fire, your enemy would be burnt and if you threw it under running water, he would be drowned. Finally, the conjurer could give some advice for protection against a potential spell. Those beliefs abound and differ a lot. Here are a few examples of them: "Silver in the shoe or hung around the neck seems to be the most universal countercharm. A horseshoe nailed over the door or even hidden under the sill will keep out conjurer’s spells as well as hags and witches. A smooth stone in the shoe was recommended in one case, in another case a goose quill filled with quicksilver worn below the knee." 63 Those beliefs are indeed rather interesting as far they do recall some European "good luck superstitions", like the use of the horseshoe; which demonstrates the merging customs which compound the practice of conjuration.

In keeping with the African tradition, the casting and removing of spells could be performed through the use of tricks which could be beneficent or maleficent. Indeed, those tricks can be directly linked to the religio-magical practices of the Bantu people of Kongo, who were mostly concentrated in South Carolina and in the Sea Islands among the Gullah and Geechee communities (cf. the discussion about the slave demography in the first part). Indeed, Raboteau stated that "the religious life of the Kongo focused not upon a pantheon [of divinities] but upon a large range of minkisi, or sacred medicines, embodying spirits who could harm or cure." 64 Theophus H. Smith in Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (1994), gave a very comprehensive description of the functioning of those minkisi: "Kongo charms or sacred medicines—minkisi (singular: nkisi)—are containers within which are placed materia medica that, in combination with the living entity or spirit of the charm, create its phenomenal power. The word nkisi is related etymologically to words used in other Central African cultures to mean "spirit". The container itself may be made of leaves or clothes, shells or ceramic, sculpted wood or statuettes, or may form various kinds of packets, bags, or sachets … These are lifeless objects until they host the ‘medicines’ that activate the power of the nkisi. The most crucial medicinal materials are grave dirt, kaolin or riverbed clay, or perhaps a funerary relic (for example a bone) of an ancestor, priest, or witchcraft victim." Another scholar, Robert Farris Thompson, who did massive work on Kongo, referred to these objects as " ‘spirit-embodying’ materials, as they ‘ground’ the living presence of the nkisi within its otherwise inert container. A second class of materials, such as seeds or herbs or chicken claws (vegetable, minerals, or animal materials), is described … as ‘spirit-directing’ because they instruct the spirit in its task." 65 The use of various kinds of materials for the making of charms was thus not haphazard and rather functioned on a metaphorical level, as the object could signify the nature or character of the indwelling spirit. Those metaphors could be verbal or visual. For example, a snail shell, the name of which rhymed with a Kongo verb meaning "to be strong", and the spiral shape of which symbolized long life, could be used in minkisi designed to support childbirth or to strengthen the body. 66

In the same way, the tricks which were prepared in the Antebellum South were made up of various containers and ingredients according to the effect desired. The ingredients used were plentiful, yet, one can set them into categories. There were the various herbs and plants used for their healing or poisoning properties—sampson snakeroot, devil’s shoestring, Jimson weed, John the Conqueror root (name of an ex-slave who ran away), clover or tobacco; the things connected with the body, such as nail clippings, hair, teeth, saliva, perspiration, dandruff, scabs, pieces of worn clothes, or dirt from a person’s track, which were used because they were believed to contain the spirit of the person to which they belonged; spices and condiments, like saffron, red pepper, sugar, salt, mustard seed or whiskey, employed to strengthen the spirit of the charm; minerals such as bluestone, lodestone or magnetite, prized for their ‘drawing’ power; sharp objects, like pins, needles or rusty nails, used for their hurting purpose; living, dried or powdered animals, usually venomous ones like snakes, lizards, scorpions or even toads—would it be a reference to our European witch(?)—; things connected with animals, like buzzard feathers, rabbit’s tail or foot, snake skin, snail shell, fish eye; and finally, the most evil of all ingredients was the graveyard dust or "goofer dust" which contained the spirit of the buried person, most of the time a vengeful spirit.


Those ingredients were mixed together in bottles or wrapped in wool, fur, silk or flannel bags, following certain rituals which aimed at activating the spirit of the charm. Here is one example told by an ex-slave from Texas: "Git snakeroot and sassafras and a li’l lodestone and brimestone and asafoetida and resin and bluestone and gum arabic and a pod or two red pepper. Put dis in de red flannel bag, at midnight on de dark of de moon, and it sho work." 67

Those tricks were generally of three kinds according to their forms and purposes. The first type which could be found is the poison which was administered in food or drinks. The most common form of poison was dried and parched animals which would come alive again inside of you. One slave asked a rootdoctor how this was done and reported that:

" … it was easy for folks to put snakes, frogs, turtles spiders or most anythin’ that you couldn’t live with and eatin’ on the inside of you. He said these things was killed and put up to dry and then beat up into dust like. If any of this dust is put in something you have to eat or drink, these things will come alive like they was eggs hatchin’ in you. Then the more they grow, the worse off you get." 68

Indeed, the accounts were many when people died with spiders running out of their mouths; lizards and serpents crawling up and down inside their bodies; or like this testimony is describing, frogs jumping about in one’s stomach:

"His stomach got so big everybody would ask him what was wrong. He told everybody that asked him and some who didn’t ask him ’bout the frogs in his stomach. The bigger those frogs got, the weaker he got … After he had been sick bout’ four months and the frogs had got to be a pretty good size, you could hear ’em holler everytime he opened the mouth … His stomach stuck out so far, he looked like he weighed 250 pounds … After these frogs started hollerin’ in him, he lived ’bout three weeks, and ’fore he died you could see the frogs jumpin’ in him and you could even feel ’em." 69

Sometimes also horsehair was said to be put in food preparation. A conjure-doctor said that if one would eat it, the hair would cling round the heart strings, so that one would be afflicted and it would kill him.

The second type of trick was the charm, which was used to cast a spell on someone. This was effected by handing some conjured articles to the victim or by placing the charm in some place where he could pick it up. The spell cast by the charm was thus transmitted by mere contact, it didn’t need to be eaten as with the poison. For instance, there was the case of "a pair of new shoes just com[ing] from the shoemaker [which] cause[d] such pain that the victim [couldn’t] walk. He continue[d] to grow weaker and thinner and to suffer even after the shoes [were] removed and at last die[d] of the effect of the conjured shoes." 70 Sometimes, the charm could be placed in some corner of the room in which the victim lived; or was buried under his doorstep; in his yard; or in the path over which he oftenest walked. This ubiquity of the charms’ shapes and locations requested the slaves’ highest attention, as Uncle Ben an ex-slave from the Georgian Sea Islands recalled: "Ef yuh ebuh see a cross mahk in duh road, yuh nebuh walk obuh it. Das real magic. Yuh hab tuh go roun it. It’s put deah by an enemy an ef yuh walks across it, duh ebil spell will cause yuh hahm. Duh cross is a magic sign an hab tuh do wid duh spirits." 71

The third type of trick is not an offensive one but is rather a defensive and protective countercharm. This trick is variously referred to as a mojo, jack, conjure bag, hand, lucky hand, mojo bag, mojo hand, root bag or gris gris bag. Most of the time the mojo was a red flannel bag, containing some magical items—the color red was said to represent the sacrificial

blood offered to the fetish in ancestral Africa or may perhaps be connected to fire, used to drive away spirits. They were made for individuals and had to be kept on the person, always out of sight, sometimes on a string around the neck, finger, wrist, waist or ankle; tied or sewed to garments; or carried in the pockets, shoes or hats. Some mojos were used to purify or protect a location and had to be placed near the door, under or around the doorstep or placed under the bed or pillow; hidden in such a way that they could not be seen by strangers. Keeping the mojo from being seen was extremely important because if another person touched it, the luck would be lost. Yet, one could also find other kinds of protective charms which could be either administered by the conjure doctor or were handmade. Here is an example given by Moslie Thompson, who explained how to be protected from people who intend to separate couples:

"In dis house, thar am always de p’otection mixture. To make it, yous do dis way. Put one half teaspoon of red pepper, black pepper, an’ salt together … Now, if someone comes to yous house as a friend, but come fo’ to cause trouble, sich as flirt wid de wife or de husband, or tries to do somethin’ dat will cause separation, use de mixture. When det leave de house, yous go to de back doah an’ take a pinch of de mixture an’ sprinkle it f’om de back to de f’ont of de house, an’ at de f’ont doah take a pinch an’ throw it aftah dem. If yous do dat, thar won’t be any effect f’om de powah … " 72

Still another testimony tells us about the most famous good luck charms, which was used by conjurers and individual people alike. The belief about the "black cat bone" is very interesting as it marks a convergence of influences. Indeed, the black cat is frequently present in the European tradition, yet it is often represented with a witch and is rather synonymous of bad luck. Interestingly, we can find in the Muslim tradition—and as we know some slaves were Muslims—the belief that a black cat is endowed with magical powers. Its flesh is given

to eat in order to be delivered from magic spells and its blood is used to write powerful charms. In Central Africa, we can also find a relation between the cat and magic as it is believed to give the power of clear-sightedness, and its skin is thus used to make medicine bags—which recalls the slaves’ mojo bag used as a countercharm.

"I have seen ’em take a black cat an’ put ’im in a sack an’ den dey took it an’ put ’im in a pot of boiling water hot water alive. Man de cat would almo’ tear dat pot tryin’ to git out. After dey had cooked de meat off de cat dey took one of his bones (I don’t know which one of ’em) and put it crossways in their front teeth while dey mumbled somethin’ under their breath an’ den dey took dis bone an’ throwed it ’cross de right shoulder an’ when dey wat an’ picked it up an’ put it in their pocket it was supposed to give ’em de bes’ kind of luck." 73

These beliefs in tricks, charms and spells were thus pervasive in the slaves’ minds, as this ex Geechee slave from the Georgian Sea Islands explained: "They jis don’t think bout nuthin but conjuh … Yuh heah all the time of folks havin spells put on em an findin cunjuh bags burird in the yahd. All the times some folks are fixin othuhs." 74 This was the most common way to explain life’s misfortunes as well as to fulfill one’s desires. Indeed, conjuration extended itself to all the practical affairs of life, and was even used to get control over persons. Here are a few examples of such uses: to injure or destroy enemies, to get rid of rivals and undesirables, to soften hearts, to win or hold the love of someone, to preserve marital peace, to break up homes, to call the absent, to protect property, to detect criminals, to gamble, to produce fertility or barrenness in women, to promote crops, to control the weather, to foretell the future, to locate lost or stolen goods, water or buried treasure—the use of the divining rod being also of European origin—or to protect oneself from the masters’ wrath and whippings.

Indeed, many slaves resorted to the practice of conjuration for various reasons, as Henry Bibb who sought to gain the love of one of his fellow slave:

"I wanted to be well thought of by [young women], and would go to great lengths to gain their affection … One of these conjurers, for a small sum, agreed to teach me to make any girl love me that I wished. After I had paid him, he told me to get a bull frog, and take a certain bone out of the frog, dry it, and when I got a chance I must step up to any girl whom I wished to make love me, and scratch her somewhere on her naked skin with this bone, and she would be certain to love me, and would follow me in spite of herself; no matter who she might be engaged to, nor who she might be walking with.

So I got me a bone for a certain girl, whom I knew to be under the influence of another young man. I happened to meet her in the company of her lover, one Sunday evening, walking out; so when I got a chance, I fetched her a tremendous rasp across her neck with this bone, which made her jump. But in place of making her love me, it only made her angry with me. She felt more like running after me to retaliate on me for thus abusing her, than she felt like loving me." 75

Indeed, those charms did not always prove to be successful, as the experience of Henry Bibb demonstrated. In fact, this belief in conjuration, although widely scattered on the Southern plantations, was not held by every slave and more particularly by the so-called "elite", who managed to escape and obtain their freedom, learned to read and write and were instructed in the Christian faith. Those slaves remained quite skeptic about these so-called "superstitions". Yet, we shall try to analyze why the slaves had different reactions about conjuration and for which reasons some of them did cling to these traditional beliefs, showing that this medico-magical practice can also come to be viewed as religio-magical.



Chapter 3:

The value of this religio-magical practice

a) Religion vs. Magic in the Western World

In order to better understand why some slaves and white people did not have much faith in this practice of conjuration, we shall try to consider how religion had influenced their beliefs, and we shall ponder on the notion of superstition, to see how far conjuration can be referred as such, and put it in the perspective of a larger debate, that of religion versus magic.

Indeed, the belief in conjuration was not held by everyone, and was even strongly criticized by white planters and slaves alike. The former held that it was either an innocent and superstitious behavior, testifying the naive and childlike character of the slaves, or sometimes described it as "Pagan darkness, idolatry and superstition, emanating from a savage African past"; something which was abhorred and deemed dangerous, and which needed to be repressed and punished. On the other hand, the accusations which were held by the Christianized slaves often expressed an aversion of African-born slaves and practices. The slave Charles Ball demonstrated in his autobiography how he differentiated himself with those "other" slaves:

"At the time I first went to Carolina, there were a great many African slaves in the country, and they continued to come in for several years afterwards … Many of them believed there were several gods; some of whom were good, and others evil, and they prayed as much to the latter as to the former … Far the greater part of them [were] either natives of Africa, or the descendants of those who have always, from generation to generation, lived in the south, since their ancestors were landed on this continent; and their superstition, for it does not deserve the name of religion, is no better, nor is it less ferocious, than that which oppresses the inhabitants of the wildest regions of Negro-land." 76

As a consequence, those Christianized slaves had a tendency to consider this difference in religious beliefs—which illustrated a larger degree of acculturation of some slaves to the European culture—as the mark of the Africans’ primitiveness and ignorance, hence the very common reference of the practice of conjuration as a superstition. Louis Hughes, for example claimed that "it was one of the superstitions of a barbarous ancestry." 77 Yet, as Henry Clay Bruce noted "the stronghold of ignorance, superstition and voodooism by the Colored people" 78, he claimed in keeping with the ex-slave, Reverend Irving E. Lowery, that "as the negroes advance[d] in education the belief [was] dying away." 79 Indeed, Bruce, in his autobiography, wanted to prove that conjuration was nothing but merely a form of superstition and he tried to demonstrate its ineffectiveness, as well as the strong deal of treachery that existed beyond it. Here is one example of a story he narrated:

"To show to what extent these people believed in voodooism, and could be fleeced, I will relate a story told me by Ike Cabel, of Brunswick, Mo. He said he was out with a surveying party about the year 1852, and camped near a large plantation in Louisiana. He gave it out among the slaves that he was a conjuror, and soon thereafter his camp was besieged every night by slaves with all kinds of aches and pains, which he cured with red clay, oak leaves and salt boiled, and collected fifty cents from each. A man came one night claiming that he had a scorpion in his leg, and that he felt it running up and down the leg. He told the man to come the next night, which he did. The next day he wanted a live scorpion, and being afraid of it himself, he got two young white men of the party to catch one for him, promising them one-half he was to receive for the job, and of course, let them into the secret … After rubbing the man's leg for a while with his other trick medicine with one hand, carefully holding his little animal in the other, and when ready for the final act, he looked heavenward, and in a loud voice commanded the scorpion to come out of the man's leg. Then in a few seconds he informed his dupe that the animal had come, and at the same time, and by a quick motion, freed the scorpion and brushed it from the leg to the floor, when the freed scorpion attempted to escape, and was killed and carried away by the patient after paying the three dollars." 80

Bruce thus acknowledged the very superstitious nature of the slaves, due to their lack of education, yet he also concluded that this behavior was not restricted to the African slave population:

"Superstition in some form has always existed, especially among illiterate people, regardless of color, and the more illiterate the greater the amount of superstition, and as a case of strong evidence of this, I point to the "spirit dance" by the Indians of the far West … While conjuring, tricking and gophering, and the like, were believed in by the slaves, and spirit dances and other forms of superstition were practiced by the Indians, the American white people believed as strongly in another form of superstition called "witch craft," that they burnt innocent men and women at the stake." 81

Indeed, "superstition" is a rather relative concept. To what extent can we assess that one belief is an "institutionalized religion", whereas another is a mere superstition? Actually, this word is very ambiguous and subjective and most of the time it is applied by people who claim they have certain knowledge or superior evidence for their own scientific, philosophical, or religious convictions, and who qualify other’s beliefs as having no rational substance. One can assert how relative this notion is when one takes the example of Christianity, that is here Protestantism and Catholicism, which regarded African religious beliefs and practices as superstitious; yet, we know that Protestantism also denounced

Catholicism as superstitious because of its veneration of relics, images, and the saints, which were considered as a deviation of the strict religion. What is then the difference between Catholicism and African religions if both are deemed superstitious? In fact, one should bear in mind that those appreciations are just based on different point of views which can be reversed. A superstition is nothing but another person’s religion.

The practice of conjuration was thus seen as an ignorant superstition in the eyes of the Christian black slaves and white masters because this belief differed from theirs. This belief was mainly based on the practice of magic, which was often deemed incompatible with the exercise of Christianity and more specifically, it was equated to witchcraft and other devilish practices. Charles Ball who was a true believer in the white man’s religion also made a correlation between the magical practice of conjuration and witchcraft:

"There is, in general, very little sense of religious obligation, or duty, amongst the slaves on the cotton plantations; and Christianity cannot be, with propriety, called the religion of these people. They are universally subject to the grossest and most abject superstition; and uniformly believe in witchcraft, conjuration, and the agency of evil spirits in the affairs of human life." 82

Indeed, historically, magic has always been set apart from other religious phenomena as it was said to be especially prevalent in archaic and primitive societies, and to be a mere superstition without any cultural or theological significance. This behavior was essentially found in the Western world where the Judeo-Christian beliefs predominated. Although the belief in magic had been pervasive among the rural people in Europe, the Church, after a papal bull in 1320, came to define magic as a heretical practice which made pacts with the devil and evil spirits. St Augustine and other early Christian writers had considered magic to be a relic of paganism which would be removable by conversion and education.

Indeed, some slaves who had been converted to Christianity, but more particularly to Protestantism, had adopted those Judeo-Christian views and fiercely condemned those magical practices. Martha Colquitt, who had been a house slave in Georgia—which might explain her high degree of acculturation—, recalled: "Us all de time heard folkses talkin’ about voodoo, but my grandma was powerful religious, and her and Ma tell us chillen voodoo was a no ’count doin’ of de devil, and Christians was never to pay it no attention." 83 In the same way, Frederick Douglass, also a true Christian, refused to believe in conjuration as he declared: "I had a positive aversion to all pretenders of ‘divination’. It was beneath one of my intelligence to countenance such dealings with the devil, as this power implied." 84 Finally, this conflict between conjuration and Christian beliefs and its equation with the devil could be sum up by this song recited by the young Willis Easter and which had been taught by his mother "to keep him from bein’ conjure":

"Keep ’way from me, hoodoo and witch,

Lead my path from de porehouse gate;

I pines for golden harps and sich,

I’ll jes’ set down and wait.

Old Satan am a liar and conjurer, too—

If you don’t watch out, he’ll conjure you." 85

Yet, the equation between the practice of magic and witchcraft has not always proved to be relevant. Indeed, the anthropologist E. E. Evans Pritchard, in his study about witchcraft among the Azande people in Africa, elaborated a distinction between magic, sorcery, and witchcraft, which has been recognized later by many other scholars. Magic is defined as "a technique that is supposed to achieve its purpose by the use of medicines. The operation of

these medicines is a magic rite and is usually accompanied by a spell." Magic is thus the manipulation of an external power for benefic ends, and is referred to as "white" magic; which is to be distinguished with sorcery, or bad magic, that is the manipulation of an external power for malefic purposes and which is referred to as "black magic". Witchcraft, on the other hand, is similar to sorcery in that it also works for malefic ends, yet it is defined as an inherent personal quality; "a supposed psychic emanation from witchcraft substance—a material substance in the bodies of certain persons which can be discovered by autopsy in the dead or can be diagnosed by oracles in the living." 86 The practice of conjuration can thus not be fully equated to witchcraft because it doesn’t always have evil purposes. Indeed, one slave who distinguished the medical and magical element in conjuration, claimed his belief in the former but not in the latter. The beneficent but nevertheless magical use of the roots was thus compatible with the Christian faith: "I am a great Christian … I don’t believe in conjurers because I have asked God to show me such things—if they existed—and He came to me in person while I was in a trance and said, ‘There ain’t no such things as conjurers.’[But] I believe in root doctors because after all, we must depend upon some form of root or wed to cure the sick." 87

In the same way, the said incompatibility between conjuration and Christianity has also to be reviewed, just as the old debate between magic and religion. Indeed, magic and religion have many things in common, the first one being the intervention of supernatural forces. Bronislaw Malinowski explained this great similarity in his work about Magic, Science and Religion:

"Both magic and religion arise and function in situations of emotional stress: crises of life, lacunae in important pursuits, death and initiation in tribal mysteries, unhappy love and unsatisfied hate. Both magic and religion open up escapes from such situations and such impasses as offer no empirical way out except by ritual and belief into the domain of the supernatural … Both magic and religion are based strictly on mythological tradition, and they also both exist in the atmosphere of the miraculous, in a constant revelation of their wonderworking power. They both are surrounded by taboos and observances which mark off their acts from those of the profane world." 88

Magic and religion have thus a common ground in that they are everything which is not profane. They are also common as they are said to emanate from the same supernatural force, called mana by the Melanesians, or "life-force" by the Africans. Yet, some other scholars have brought a distinction between mana, as an impersonal force immanent in nature which would be the basis of magic; and the sacred, a supernatural and transcendent force, which would be the basis of religion. Indeed, the main difference between mana and the sacred is that mana can receive orders whereas the sacred demands submission. Magic and religion are thus complementary in that they make up one side of the dialectic "sacred versus profane", so that we have "sacred-mana versus profane". This complementary relationship was thus built on the following oppositions:

"Classical anthropology distinguishes between religion and magic by saying that religion involves a deity whom man implores, magic involves forces which man commands … It may be added that usually religion postulates a deity who is good and who demands goodness, whereas magic is of two kinds, good and bad. Furthermore, a deity generally has at his disposal a diversity of blessings and punishments, whereas each special magic is directed to one narrowly circumscribed end … " 89

Having investigated this magic versus religion debate, we can thus understand how both magic and religion were fundamental for the African slaves and why their Christianization did not erase their beliefs in magical practices but rather how the two were syncretized.

b) The syncretic nature of conjuration

The belief in conjuration as a magical practice, was not only confined to the less acculturated slaves, who would have perpetuated it in keeping with the original African practice. As many slaves were converted to Christianity in the Antebellum South, they nevertheless preserved their old traditions, which became syncretized with Christians beliefs and practices. An in-depth study of conjuration shows in fact that religion was pervasive in this tradition.

First, we can cite the use of ritual artifacts in conjuration that were borrowed from Christianity. Those were of course largely dominant in Louisiana where the practice of Catholicism allowed the use of such paraphernalia, as candles, tapers, incense, statuettes, icons, etc... Yet, conjuration also adapted itself to Protestantism, with the use of the Bible as a "conjure book". The uses were in fact as various as the conjure charms. Here is an example of one way to find out whether one has been conjured: "You kin take a Bible and tie a white string aroun’ it, any kin ’a cord string around it, and lash a key onto it—whenever you tie dat string aroun’ dere let de key be hangin’ onto dat string … Take the Bible up and you say: "If Sich—and Sich—if anybody has did anything to me, let me know by movin’ " … "If dere’s anything here on me, swing and drop." 90 Other uses consisted of reading a special sentence or. chapter, or reading it backwards but those were limited due to the slaves’ illiteracy. Yet, some .scriptural quotations were sometimes mixed with conjure prescriptions for the making of a charm: "By some Peter, By some Paul, And by the God that made us all." 91 Among other Christian references, the symbol of the cross was often used to ward off conjure and to ask for heavenly protection. Yet, the use of the cross was also common in Africa, among the Bakongo people from Kongo who represented their cosmos in the shape of a cross inside a circle. The horizontal axis of the cross was called kalunga, and was a water line dividing the realm of the living from the dead; at the top was nsulu, or heaven; and at the bottom was nsi a fwa, or the land of the dead; on both sides were the good and evil spirits (at east and west). The four disks at the points of the cross stood for the four moments of the sun, and the circumference of the cross, the certainty of reincarnation. Here is a reproduction of a Kongo cosmogram, or Yowa, adapted from a drawing in Robert F. Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit
(p. 109):






The sacred meaning of the cross was transposed in the crossroads, which was in Africa as well in America, a favorite place for sacrifice and prayers, or to ask the favor of the cosmos. Indeed, in the African-American hoodoo tradition, the crossroads was a popular place to perform magic rituals, as for example to learn a skill—to play a musical instrument, or to become proficient at throwing dice, dancing, public speaking, or whatever one chose. This skill was said to be taught by the devil who would come at the crossroads to show you how to perform it. This reference to the devil was still another Christian influence, as this biblical character was syncretized with the African spirit Legba, or Elegbara, who kept the entry of the crossroads and who was said to share common characteristics with our Christian devil. The use of the cross as a transcendental symbol thus had a double origin and was frequently used by the conjurers, who would for example make a cross on a person’s breast to remove snakes from within him; or use two needles crossed in the crown of a hat to prevent any trick from harming.

In the same way, God was frequently referred to, to bless a conjured person; to frighten a ghost by simply saying "What in de name of de Lawd does you want?" or "Lawd hab mussy on me."; or even to cure a person, as was reflected in this song heard at a revival meeting:

"I know Jesus am a medicine man,

I know Jesus kin understan’;

I know Jesus am a bottle uv gold,

Hit takes jes’ one bottle ter cure a sin-sick soul" 92

The belief in the power of conjuration was thus coupled with the faith in God as George White, an ex-slave from Virginia explained:

"I know all de roots an’ I believe in dem because I only been sick an’ had a doctor two times … Dere’s a root for ev’y disease an’ I can cure most anything, but you have got to talk wid God an’ ask him to help out. I had a colic one time an’ I didn’t know what to do, an’ de Lord tol’ me to git dat root up on de wall an’ chew it an’ I did. I got all right. Now if you take a dime when de moon first rises, hold it up to de moon an’ thank God, an’ kiss it an’ put it in your pocket, you will get a piece of money before night … Dey call us fogy, but I tell you if you don’t talk to God, you ain’t gonna git far." 93

Finally, this syncretism between Christian beliefs and conjuration was epitomized by the emergence of the "priest-medicine man" on the plantations, who was a rootdoctor, in keeping with the African tradition but who preached Christianity at the same time. Frederick Douglass recalled such a man on his plantation:

" … he was called Doctor Copper. He was both our Doctor of Medicine and our Doctor of Divinity. [He] was always on the alert looking up the sick, and such as were supposed to need his aid and counsel. His remedial prescriptions embraced four articles. For diseases of the body, epsom salts and castor oil; for those of the soul, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, and a few stout hickory switches." 94

In the same way, W.E.B. Dubois recognized the great importance of this character on the plantations, being for the slaves an intermediary between their African past and their new environment. Indeed, the beliefs that were sacred within the worldview of enslaved Africans could thus be validated and amalgamated with their Christian religious worship.

" … the chief remaining institution was the Priest or Medicine-man. He early appeared on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people. Thus, as bard, physician, judge, and priest, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first church was not at first by any means Christian nor definitely organized; rather it was an adaptation and mingling of heathen rites among the members of each plantation, and roughly designated as Voodooism." 95

The practice of conjuration thus really managed to adapt itself in the New World and coexisted brilliantly with Christianity. The slaves held as much faith in their magical rituals as in Christian rites. We could thus conclude our debate about magic and religion, saying that

the two had blended in the conjure tradition and that the slaves had adopted it as their own religion.

c) Conjuration as a religious act

Conjuration can be defined as a religious act because it was based on faith. Indeed, it was for the slaves more than a simple belief or superstition—as the peripheral belief of a religious system—but it really determined their way of thinking and was part and parcel of their everyday lives.

Their faith in this "religious system" expressed itself primarily by the worshipping of occult forces, such as the devil. Indeed, they justified this practice as follows: "God is good, God is love and don’t hurt anybody—do as you please, God don’t hurt you; but do bad and the devil will get you sure! We need not bother about God, but we try to keep on the good side of the devil." 96 This behavior, which consisted in dealing with the devil as anyone would do with God, proved that they did consider him as a religious figure; and testified their great faith in him. Indeed, they did not represent the devil as the malefic biblical character of the European tradition, but rather as a friendly one who deserved respect. This was quite difficult to understand for white planters as Edward E. Pollard narrated:

"A minister was telling Uncle Jack, to work him to repentence, how the devil tormented those who went to hell. Junk hoped that ‘good Mass’r Debble’ wouldn’t be so cruel. The minister reproved him from speaking of Satan in such polite terms. ‘Well, you see, Mass’r’ replied the old negro, ‘no tellin’ but de enemy might cotch me, and den I trust he remember as how I spoke of him perlitely, and jes de same as if he was a white man." 97

This great importance accorded to the devil came from the fact that Africans generally put more faith in the working of black magic than white magic. Indeed, Evans-Pritchard explained that " Azande are usually confident that vengeance-magic will be successful. [Indeed], the test of magic is experience. Therefore, the proof of magical potency is always to be found in the occurrence of those events it is designed to promote or cause. Azande can point to the fact that people are frequently dying, that invariably an effort is made to avenge them, and that it is very rare for such efforts to fail. [In the same way, they] can give instances of stolen property having been returned after magic was made to avenge the theft." 98

Indeed, it is universally acknowledged that faith can be a determinant factor in the curing process, as it possesses a strong psychological power. Dr. William S. Sadler, an attending surgeon in Chicago in the 1920s, declared that "there is only one method by which any outsider can work a cure, and that is through the mind of the patient. If he can make the sufferer have faith that he is going to be cured he will be cured; and it won’t make any difference whether it is done by sugar pills, a surgical operation, baths, massage, or standing the patient on his head in the corner! It is the patient’s faith in the method, not the method itself that will heal him." 99

In the same way, the strong faith the slaves had in those magical practices influenced part of their working. Here is an instance told by a white planter which demonstrates clearly that it was faith in the charm and not the materials used or the ritual performed which were the important factors.

"A Negro woman on his plantation thought she had been tricked. For a long time, she had lain in bed without showing any improvement, and it seemed that she was about to die. As a last resort the planter got some skin from a turkey’s knee (a

scaly covering looking like a snake skin) and tied it up in a red flannel bag along with some hair and lodestone. He visited the sick woman and, without being seen, slipped it into a chink above her door. Then he suggested to one of her friends that the conjure-bag might be hidden about the room. A thorough search brought the bag to light. Great was the anger against the supposed conjurer and great the rejoicing that the bag had been found. The bag (along with $5) was taken to a ‘horse’ to have the spell removed. Within three days the woman was up and about, and great was her amazement when the subterfuge was revealed to her about a year later." 100

The black slaves were also aware of the strong power of faith in the working of their charms, for they recognized the ineffectiveness of conjuration on white people, as this ex-slave declared: "W’ite folks, hoodoo cain’t tech you ef you doan’ believe in hit, but it sho’ lam’s de gizzud out uv you ef you does believe." 101 Indeed, many were the stories when conjurers could not get the upper hand of masters and overseers. One slave from Missouri gave a funny explanation for that: "De negroes couldn’t hoodoo de white peoples cause det had straight hair. It wuz somethin’ bout de oil in de hair. White folks habe ta wash dere hair ta get de oil out, but negroes habe ta put oil on deir hair." 102

It was thus the good working of magic that confirmed the belief in it and to keep the faith alive, the conjurer did not hesitate to justify himself when a charm had failed. He would assess that he had been called for too late; that the trick had been made by a practitioner with stronger powers than his; or had been removed; that the client had failed to observe certain taboos which were necessary for his recovery; or that he had no faith in the charm and deserved punishment. The conjurer thus avoided any accusations of treachery or charlatanism and the client had still faith in the practice.

Nevertheless, a failed charm might rather lead a slave to lose faith in that particular charm, or in the conjurer who supplied it, but would not destroy his belief in conjure as such. Doubts were tempered by the prevalence of belief. Jacob Stroyer, for example, confessed: "I held the idea that there were such things, for I thought the majority of people believed in it, and that they ought to know more than could one man." 103

This was in fact what made the belief in conjuration so powerful and prevalent among the slaves. Everybody had a strong faith in it, for it served at the same time as a medical practice, as a way to handle everyday problems and misfortunes, and as a kind of religion. Indeed, we do not need to prove whether those practices were real or not; whether they were mere superstitions or scientific knowledge, but we simply have to understand to what extent the strength and pervasiveness of that faith comforted the slaves and helped them to endure the hardships that were their lot in slavery.




Conjuration: a means of resistance to slavery


Chapter 1:

The leadership nature of the conjurer

a) The uniqueness of the conjurer

In keeping with the African tradition of the medicine man, the conjurer who emerged on the Southern plantations was a unique character who possessed special powers and so he distinguished himself ontologically and physically from the other slaves.

Indeed, as we had demonstrated in our first part about the African eschatology, the religious specialists were believed to possess a superior "life-force", or "spirit", which endowed them with specific powers:

"there is generally a special person in a tribe who knows these things, and is able to work them. He has more power over spirits than other men have, and is able to make them do what he likes. He can heal sickness, he can foretell the future, he can change a thing into something else, or a man into a lower animal, or a tree, or anything; he can also assume such transformations himself at will. He uses means to bring about such results; he knows about herbs, he has also recourse in rubbing, to making images of affected parts in the body, and to various other arts … It is the spirit dwelling in him which brings about the wonderful results; without the spirit he could not do anything."

The African-American conjurer, who possessed the same powers as his African

counterpart, was also said to be endowed with a different ontological constitution. First, he was believed to be born under special conditions; either on Christmas day, or on the seventh month, or as the seventh son of a family whose father would also be a seventh son—we can notice here the Christian references: the birth day of Jesus, and the use of the number seven in the Bible as a magical number, which symbolizes perfection and divine power. Another common belief was to say that the conjurer would possess the power of sightedness if he was born with a caul over the face (we have already discussed this fact in our second part about the slaves’ beliefs in ghosts and spirits—the caul being a thin, translucent tissue, a fragment of the amniotic membrane, covering the head of a new born baby). Braziel Robinson who was a slave and conjurer in North Carolina explained that he possessed extraordinary powers because he was born with a caul:

"I can see spirits, I have two spirits, one that prowls around, and one that stays in my body. The reason why I have two spirits is because I was born with a double caul. People can see spirits if they are born with one caul, but nobody can have two spirits unless they are born with a double caul, very few people have two spirits … My two spirits are good spirits, and have power over evil spirits, and unless my mind is evil, can keep me from harm. If my mind is evil my two spirits try to win me, if I don’t listen to them, then they leave me and make room for evil spirits and then I’m lost forever …" 2

In the same way, James Washing, an ex-slave from Springfield in the Georgian Sea Islands, confessed: "I wuz born wid a double cawl wut wuz sabe fuh me till I wuz grown. Duh spirit show me ebryting. Ain many people hab duh powuh tuh see tings, but I got dis gif frum Gawd." 3 The conjurer was thus believed to be elected by God to perform his magical tasks. This declaration made by an African slave is very interesting since it marks the syncretism of African and Euro-Christian beliefs. Indeed, this slave expressed a conviction in God’s providence, a belief which was totally unfamiliar in the African worldview which held that God was too remote to intervene in man’s life and that man could change his fate. Yet, the belief in the conjurer’s predestination also found some African elements as he could be called for by spirits or ancestors that would appear in dreams or visions. The possessing spirit was also said to be the Holy Spirit, showing once again the Christian influence. Finally, in quite a strange way, some conjurers were said to practice their skill "by accident", as this story narrates: "One Georgia Negro picked up a hat that had been blown from another Negro’s head and handed it back to him. Within a short time the owner of the hat died. The Negro who picked up the hat drank from a bucket at the well. Another Negro followed him and shortly after died. Both these deaths were attributed to the innocent Negro … [who] had accidentally earned the reputation of being a conjurer." 4

When the conjurer became aware of his fate, whether this happened at his birth or later in his life, he had to learn the skills through long years of patient meditating, watching of the signs, learning about the roots, and training to lay the tricks. This initiation could be carried out either by the conjurer’s father or another specialist.

The conjurer thus differed from the other slaves spiritually but he also distinguished himself by his physical appearance, which showed that he was possessed by a spirit. Most of the time, he was described as a mysterious and fearsome man, having red eyes—being sometimes an albino—, or one blue and one black eye, blue gums, three birthmarks on the left arm—representing the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost—, or a luck mole on the right arm. Usually he was said to be coal black and to speak African languages. He wore different kinds of charms around his neck and body and walked with a crooked cane. William Wells Brown recalled that the conjurer on his plantation "wore a snake’s skin around his neck, carried a petrified frog in one pocket, and a dried lizard in the other." 5 His attitude is also revealing of his power as "he is always in a deep study, looking at some distant object, … never looking a person straight in the eyes." 6

Such a demeanor made the conjurer a quite exceptional being who would not go unnoticed among the other slaves. Indeed, every slave can recall the presence of a conjurer on his plantation. He was famous for his mystical and obscure appearance but also for the special role he held on the plantation, as he was considered a leader of the slave community.

b) A leader on the plantation

In the African worldview, the magician or medicine man was seen as an intermediary between man and the supernatural, and as such he was the most important element of the tribe, sometimes also fulfilling the role of priest or political ruler. So was it with the conjurer on the Southern plantations; his dealing with the supernatural gave him an incredible power; and compared to him, the master was nothing but a puny and powerless man.

According to the historian John W. Blassingame, the conjurer reached the top of the social hierarchy of the plantations. Indeed, he asserted that contrarily to what most scholars had demonstrated, the house servants, the driver, the artisan and the mulatto were not the top ranks of this hierarchy. Those scholars had tried to determine the social status of a slave according to "how much personal contact he had with the planter and how valuable his services were to the master." 7 Yet an in-depth analysis of the social structure would show that the "slaves reserved the top rungs of the social ladder for those blacks who performed services for other slaves rather than for whites." 8 This criterion is indeed well adapted to the conjurer’s occupations since he claimed the ability to make masters kind, to prevent floggings and separations, to cause or protect from pain and suffering, or to insure love and happiness for his fellow slaves. Blassingame added that "however much personal gratification a bondsman obtained from a job, occupations were translated into high social standing in the slave community only if they combined some of the following features: (1) mobility, which allowed the slave to leave the plantation frequently." Indeed, the conjurer as a medical practitioner was often requested (by his master) to visit ailing slaves on neighboring plantations, or he would simply go out in the woods to pick up the various roots and plants he needed for the preparation of his charm medicines. "(2) Freedom from constant supervision by whites." As a field slave, the conjurer was living in the quarters, far from the master’s house, but on top of that, he often remained isolated from other slaves and lived on his own. "(3) Opportunity to earn money." The conjurer did request some fees for his charms or his foretelling future. Indeed, this potential gain of money is rather important as some conjurers or rootdoctors managed to purchase their freedom with the money they had earned. "(4) Provision of a direct service to other blacks." The conjurer was central to the slave’s life for he served as a doctor and a councilor.

The conjurer did combine the four different features which made him a leader on the plantation. He found himself beyond the physicians and midwives, the preachers and the elders, so that one can say that he combined every characteristic of each of these class representatives—the scientific knowledge of the physician, the religious faith of the priest and the wisdom of the elders.

Yet, on top of the many services he rendered to the slaves, the conjurer had acquired such a reputation because of the great deal of independence he enjoyed from the master but also from the slave system in general. Indeed, the conjurer was said never to work, to be punished by the master, or even sold. William Wells Brown told of such an individual in his autobiography:

"Although he had been many years in the Gaines family, no one could remember the time when Dinkie was called upon to perform manual labor. He was not sick, yet he never worked. No one interfered with him. If he felt like feeding the chickens, pigs or cattle, he did so. Dinkie hunted, slept, was at the table at meal time, roamed through the woods, went to the city, and returned when he pleased, with no one to object or ask a question." 9

Indeed, the behavior of the conjurer fascinated the other slaves who regarded him with a kind of religious awe. He seemed to be invincible and unworried about the master’s authority, which the other slaves feared so much. The white masters were also aware of the influence of the conjurer on the slave community. Yet they also recognized their helplessness to control that influence and to intervene in the conjurer’s deeds. They saw the conjurer’s power as a challenge to their authority, as this master here complains:

"On every large plantation of Negroes, there is one among them who holds great sway over the minds and opinions of the rest; to him they look as the oracle—and this same oracle is, in ninety-nine cases the most consummate villain and hypocrite on the premise. It is more likely that he has seen sundry miraculous visions, equal to those of John on the Isle of Patmos; angels have talked to him,

etc., etc. The influence of such a negro is incalculable. He steals his master’s pigs, and is still an object commanding the peculiar regard of Heaven, and why may not his disciples?" 10

The conjurer ‘s leadership was in fact turned into a kind of religious worship. Indeed, the slaves would deify this individual who managed to challenge the master’s authority, doing whatever he liked; but also because they were aware of his supernatural powers, as this slave on William Wells Brown’s plantation declared about Dinkie: "Dinkie’s got de power, ser; he knows things seen and unseen, an’ dat’s what makes him his own massa." 11

The conjurer held sway over the slaves because he was able to master things they could not comprehend. Such powers frightened the slaves who thus expressed a mixed feeling of awe and fear as regards the conjurer.

c) A respected and awesome reputation

The conjurer’s mysterious appearance and supernatural powers brought the slave community but also the white master to treat him with great respect and consideration. Indeed, William Wells Brown recalled how whites and blacks alike behaved with the conjurer Dinkie:

"Everybody treated him with respect. The whites, throughout the neighborhood, tipped their hats to the old one-eyed negro, while the policemen, or patrollers, permitted him to pass without a challenge. The negroes everywhere stood in mortal fear of ‘Uncle Dinkie’. The blacks who saw him everyday were always thrown upon their good behavior when in his presence." 12

Indeed, the conjurer’s fame was partly due to the great fear he inspired to those who encountered him. People were threatened because they could not comprehend every happening, and thus they consulted him, as he had the key to solve any problem. As the priest was the intermediary between man and God, the conjurer was able to connect man with the Devil and had access to that occult force, which was far more mysterious and fearsome than God. Dinkie was one of those conjurers who attributed his supernatural power to the Devil. Here, we have an instance when Dinkie referred to him to avoid being whipped by the new overseer:

" … on the previous night, Dinkie had slept but a little, had closely inspected the snake’s skin around his neck, the petrified frog and dried lizard in his pockets, and had rubbed himself all over with goopher; and when he had finished, he knelt and exclaimed,—‘Now, good and lovely devil, for more than twenty years, I have served you faithfully. Before I got into your service, de white folks bought an’ sold me an’ my old wife an’ chillen, an’ whip me, and half starve me … Den I use to pray to de Lord, but dat did no good, kase de white folks don’t fear de Lord. But dey fear you, an’ ever since I got into your service, I is able to do as I please. No white dares to lay his hand on me; and dis is all owing to de power you give me …’ " 13

Yet, not every conjurer was believed to be a representative of the Devil on earth; nevertheless, they all had a fearsome reputation. To give an example of the impact a conjurer could have on the other blacks, I shall cite the case of one of the most famous conjure practitioner of the Antebellum South, Marie Laveau. There is a good deal of mystery about her life. Some would say she was born in 1796 in New Orleans, while others insist she came from Saint Domingue and was born in 1794. She was a free woman of color, possibly the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and a slave. She became the Queen of the Voodoos in

New Orleans in the 1830’s. Indeed, she was both a Voodoo priestess and a Hoodoo practitioner. As a free quadroon, she mainly practiced her skills in town; yet, she held sway over crowds of slaves who tried to flee the plantations to join her meetings. Everybody, black and white alike, knew her in the region, and recognized how threatening and impressive she was. An old gentleman who remembers Marie Laveau from his childhood days, will tell how she was held in dread by many of the residents below Canal Street, white as well as colored. He describes her as having a "Voltairian look, penetrating and taking in everything at a glance; an attitude quite disconcerting to the children of the neighborhood, who would listen with terror when their black nurses threatened to ‘give them to Marie’ if they failed to obey." 14 As a devout Catholic, Marie Laveau was the first to introduce Catholic practices in the Voodoo rites but she also devoted herself to merciful causes, like for instance, the visiting of prisoners before their execution—she would bring them some Gumbo, a traditional seafood stew, which was mixed with medicinal herbs that would soothe the convicts’ physical and mental pain. Yet, other saw her as a devil-like figure:

"Old Marie Laveau looked just like the devil herself, and she’s sitting on a throne in Hell today. She used to walk ’round this city like she owned every brick in the banquette, her. She walked like a queen, wit’ her head in the air and her eyes on the stars and all that jewelry she’d bought wit’ other people’s blood jinglin’ and makin’ a noise. She killed plenty of people. Sure, she did. She could do anything and get by wit’ it. She put curses on people to the fourth generation, and you know that’s a sin cause nobody but God is supposed to do that. It says so in the Bible. She was always breakin’ homes and families, and nobody could stop her. She could call up spirits from the dead. She would make pictures fall off the wall. I seen dat happen lots of time." 15


As a saintly religious woman, or a devilish figure, Marie Laveau was either glorified or abhorred. Yet, her character always remained cloaked with mystery and people would still remember her with a great feeling of awe.

As a conclusion, we can say that the conjurers relied much on their fame and reputation and took advantage of it, as they would use the fear they inspired as a weapon, a power to manipulate people. Robert Tallant explained how this happened in New Orleans, the capital city of conjuration:

"In most Negro neighborhoods there is a ‘hoodoo woman’ or ‘conjure man’ who enjoys to the utmost his superior position and the fear he inspires. Their neighbors fear them but should gris-gris appear on any doorstep in the vicinity of either woman they will receive a visit from the victim, who will immediately purchase ‘protection’ from them. And when a Voodooienne needs money all she has to do is to leave a small coffin or a black candle on a neighbor’s stoop one night." 16

The conjurer, conjure man or hoodoo woman were thus exceptional figures who managed to hold sway over crowds of people, slave and free, black and white, men and women. They were endowed with magical powers, either imparted by God or the Devil, which made them intermediaries between men and the supernatural. Admired and feared at the same time, those conjurers were elected as "leaders" in towns but more particularly within the rigid social structure of the plantation. Indeed, the concept of leadership in African-American communities was defined as such: "The qualities that one regards as the leadership qualities are those that sustain individuals, groups or peoples during times of tribulations and acute crisis, enabling them not only to endure their existing situation—often of hardship—but to challenge them sufficiently to transcend them." 17 This definition applies very well to the role of the conjurer on the plantations, as his practice was for the slaves a means of survival to slavery.


Chapter 2:

A means of survival on the plantation

a) A form of resistance to the master

As we have previously demonstrated, the conjurer’s leadership role on the plantation was perceived as a challenge to the master’s authority. His attitude of independence expressed a strong will to resist to the master and the slave system through indirect action. This "covert resistance" or "day to day" resistance to slavery, as opposed to overt rebellions and revolts, was indeed very common among the slaves who resorted to various means to express their contained aggression: they would slow down work, knowing that they had nothing to gain by hard work; neglect the tools or sometimes destroy them; feign illness or pregnancy; injure themselves; commit suicide or even infanticide.

This rebellious attitude was supported by the conjurer, who was himself a rebel by nature. Indeed, he had more authority on the slaves than the master, as they were commonly more frightened of the conjurer’s tricks than of the master’s punishment. As a consequence they would rather obey the conjurer out of fear of supernatural tricking and disobey the master for a mere physical punishment. Moreover, the slaves had great confidence in him as a rootdoctor, as most of the time, he was better skilled than the white physicians. The slaves would thus always request his remedies, in which they had faith as they perpetuated their African healing tradition. Being cured by their own doctor also enabled the slaves to avoid any white supervision for their health matters, so that they could sometimes cheat and feign illness for not going to work. Polly Shine, for example, explained:

"Of course, us Negroes soon learned to play sick lots of times to get out of work, and Maser would let us off until we got better, because if we got worse and died he would lose some money. If Maser caught on to us making out like we were sick, he would sure give us a hard punishment. But we would be very careful not to let him catch us. We knew that old black mama [our rootdoctor] would not tell on us, and if we thought that Maser was going to get the white doctor, we got better right away. It was seldom that Maser ever caught up with us." 18

Malingering was indeed rather frequent among the slaves who wanted to rebel against the hardships of slavery. Women would sometimes pretend to be pregnant to avoid work or slaves would feign a disability, or mental disorders for not being sold. The rootdoctor thus challenged the master’s authority as he allowed the slaves’ to cheat on him and as his traditional medicine competed with that of the white man’s.

The conjurer would also help the slaves to rebel against slavery, making use of his magical powers in the preparing of various charms and tricks. Indeed, nothing seemed to have led the slaves to seek the aid of magic more surely than their fear of being whipped. The conjurer would thus resort to various means to influence the mood of the master, making him kind and gentle even after a slave had run away. For instance, he would make them chew

roots or spit around the master’s front door which was believed to cool his angry passion. Amanda Styles recalled that "during slavery time, the master promised ter whip a nigger and when he came out ter whip him instead he just told him ‘go on nigger ’bout your business.’ De nigger had fixed him by spitting as far as he could spit as the master couldn’t come any nearer than that spit." 19 In the same way, Robert Williams from Virginia recalled how the conjurer advised him on how to escape whipping after one-year long runaway:

"I wandered over to Dr. Ned Reed’s quarters. He was a slave and a hoo-doo doctor an’ could help me out. I told him dat I had been away about a year; if I went back dey would kill me … He gave me some powders an’ tol’ me to sprinkle dem under de do’ mat an’ if I could, to put some in master’s hat an’ he couldn’t bother me … After while master saw me an’ said: ‘God damn! Where in de hell has you been an’ why didn’t you come home?’ I told him I thought he was goin’ to beat me … Master tol’ me to go down to the slave quarters an’ wait for him … He tol’ me to get to the field. From dat day on he never did bother me." 20

The slaves would also make use of the conjurer’s tricks to elude the white patrols and their dogs in case of runaway, the most common trick being "rubbing turpentine or fresh graveyard dirt on the slaves’ feet or on their tracks, which prevented the dogs from finding them". A more elaborate prescription called for catching a yearling calf by the tail and while running with it stepping in its droppings: "Den dat is sho conjure ter mark dem hounds loose de track, en dat nigger kin dodge de paddyrollers." 21

Sometimes the charms the slaves obtained from the conjurers bolstered their courage and caused them to defy their masters. For example, Henry Bibb recalled how he reacted after the powders and roots a conjurer gave him appeared to prevent him from receiving a flogging:

"I had then great faith in conjuration and witchcraft. I was led to believe that I could do almost as I pleased, without being flogged. So on the next Sabbath my conjuration was fully tested by my going off, and staying away until Monday morning, without permission. When I returned home, my master declared that he would punish me for going off; but I did not believe that he could do it, while I had this root and dust; and as he approached me, I commenced talking saucy to him." 22

The conjurer’s tricks thus helped the slave to thwart the master’s intentions and authority, yet they could be used for more evil means, as for example to try and kill the master. Indeed, the conjurer’s great knowledge about roots and plants made it an easy way for the slaves to resort to poisoning. As a consequence, the fear was so great among white people to be poisoned by their slaves that, as early as the colonial period, many black codes prescribed punishment for such happenings. In 1751, for example, an addition to the Negro Act of 1740 of the South Carolina Low Country, proclaimed that any black who should instruct another "in the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, herb or other poison whatever, he or she, so offending shall upon conviction thereof suffer death as a felon." 23. On top of that they also tried to prohibit physicians, apothecaries or druggists from admitting slaves to places in which drugs were kept or allowing them to administer drugs to other slaves. Although the slaves’ access to drugs decreased, they could not abolish it completely

nor could they prevent their access to various roots and herbs, whose properties were well-known to the slaves. As a consequence, cases of poisoning really did happen as many judicial cases can demonstrate. For instance, there was the case of State Vs Clarissa which took place in Alabama in January 1847, and which declared:

"The grand jurors … charged … that Clarissa … did administer to … Parsons [her overseer], and Bussey, … white persons, a large quantity of the seed of Jimson weed … with intent … to poison, … Chloe, the mother of the prisoner, … stated, that she cooked for the negroes … and was often in the kitchen, where the prisoner prepared the overseer’s meals … she had seen the prisoner put a small bag of the seed … in the coffee pot." 2474

The opportunity to poison the master was indeed greater for the house servant, who lived in great proximity to the master but who also was the one who had access to his food and drink, the favored means to resort to poisoning. Yet the influence of the conjurer should not be neglected as far as the knowledge of the poisoning herb is concerned.

Malingering to avoid work, preventing the master from whipping the slave, or attempting to poison the master thus constituted various means of indirect action to resist to the harshness of the slave system which were greatly influenced by the practice of conjuration. Yet, those magical folk beliefs did not only have an impact on the covert , day to day forms of resistance, but they also helped to launch some more overt forms of rebellions, like the two very famous insurrections of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. Indeed, the conjurer conveyed to the slave a feeling of invincibility which was much apprehended by the white masters, as Reverend Charles Jones expressed:

"On certain occasions they have been made to believe that while they carried about their persons some charm with which they had been furnished, they were invulnerable. They have, on certain other occasion, been made to believe that they were under a protection that rendered them invincible. That they might go anywhere and do anything they pleased and it would be impossible for them to be discovered or known; in fine, to will was to do—safely, successfully. They have been known to be so perfectly and fearfully under the influence of some leader or conjurer or minister that they have not dared disobey him in the least particular; nor to disclose their own intended or perpetrated crimes in view of inevitable death itself …" 25

It was thus in that frame of mind that those two rebellions were rooted, as they relied strongly on the sacred beliefs that constituted the slaves’ worldview.

In the Denmark Vesey conspiracy which was launched in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, the practice of conjuration did play a major role. On the one hand, as he was a member of the African Methodist Church, Vesey had justified his uprising against slavery as being deeply inspired by the teachings of the Bible. During his trial, his fellow slaves and rebels had confessed that "his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery, as for instance, he would speak of the creation of the world, in which he would say all men had equal rights, blacks as well as whites, etc … he read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage." Then, he also saw in the Bible a prophetic announcement of his coming struggle: "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword." 26 Yet, on the other hand, the Vesey conspiracy was strongly imbued with folk magical beliefs. Vesey’s co-conspirator, a slave called Gullah Jack was in fact an African-

born conjurer. In Charleston, Jack had the reputation to be invincible thanks to his minkisi, or Kongo charms. "Jack said he could not be killed, nor could a white man take him", one of his fellow rebels testified. Everybody regarded him with awe and referred to him as "the little man who can’t be shot." The rebels were thus made quite self-confident with the conjurer at their sides. Indeed, he transmitted his magical powers to the troop by administrating them various charms before the struggle, as one slave explained: "he gave me some dried food, consisting of parched corn and ground nuts, and said eat that and nothing else on the morning it breaks out, and when you join us as we pass put into your mouth this crab-claw and you won’t be wounded, and said he, I give the same to the rest of my troops—if you drop the large crab-claw, then put in the small one." 27 Moreover, the troop also gained confidence as another slave joined the enterprise; he was a blind man called Philip and was a preacher who said that he was born with a caul on his head so that he had the gift of second-sight. Those supernatural powers emanating from the African spirits coupled with a Biblical prophecy were thus what gave the Charleston slaves the strength and trust to embark in the undertaking of their insurrection.

In the same way, the rebellion of Nat Turner in 1831, expressed a syncretism of spiritual beliefs. As a devout Christian, Nat Turner was also brought to organize his slave insurrection out of prophetic announcement. From his early youth, he was made to feel that he was destined to be a prophet: he knew things that had taken place before his birth, he had special markings on his head and breast, and as he grew older, he heard voices and had visions:

"I had [a] ... revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose, in the hands of the Almighty ... About this time [around 1825] I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits

engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams.... And by signs in the heavens that it would be made known to me when I should commence the great work—-and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men—-And on the appearance of the sign (the eclipse of the sun last February), I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons. And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out before me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence (Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam)—It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th of July last." 28

Interestingly, Nat Turner who put such faith in those prophetic and spiritual beliefs had contempt for the practice of conjuration which he described as "sub Christian." Yet, his revelations, his portents, his signs, his sense of the supernatural, and his power, which gave him the strength to launch his rebellion, flowed organically from the slaves’ sacred beliefs in which magic and Christianity were integral ingredients.

Indeed, this belief in the supernatural was an extraordinary source of power for the slaves. With the conjurer as their supernatural leader, they felt invincible and even ready to overthrow the slave system but at the same time they felt comforted by his presence, as he embodied on the one hand the past traditions of their mother country, and on the other hand a successful adaptation to the new values of the Euro-Christian civilization. The slaves had thus managed to recreate a world of their own within the rigid system of the plantation, a world in which the conjurer was the guardian of social order.


b) A guardian of social order

The slaves’ desire to feel invincible thanks to the magical powers of conjure expressed a strong need to compensate for the injustices they had to face in their everyday lives. Indeed, white control was pervasive and inhibited the outward free expression of the slave community. The masters wished to govern every happening of their slaves’ lives in order to maintain harmony among them, and tried to impose their own values on them. "Many masters were determined to preserve order in the quarters, for the sense of ‘family’ hung in the balance. But in addition, all quarrels threatened morale, decorum, discipline, and productivity. From the master’s point of view, the defense of the family and the preservation of order and productivity complemented each other and merged into one image of what life should be. Thus they arrogated to themselves, when they could, the role of arbiter in this and other respects." 29 As a consequence, many aspects of the domestic and social lives of the slaves were put in the hands of the master. He would, for example, take an active role in the pairing of slaves and reserved the right to decide on what constituted an appropriate or "acceptable" marriage between his slaves by forcing them to seek his permission before they could unite. In the same way, he restricted his slaves’ power to protect, discipline or make decisions concerning the rearing of their children.

The slaves’ resort to magical practices thus emerged out a felt need to handle their own lives, whether at the family or communal level. Indeed, as masters strictly restricted overt fighting between the slaves, to protect their human property from serious damage and to preserve order on the plantation, the slaves resorted to the practice of conjuration to settle their personal tensions. It served thus as a perfect vehicle for expressing and alleviating anger,

or jealousy among the slaves. Conjuration as a means of social control had in fact been inherited from Africa, where the religious specialist was commonly viewed as an individual who embodied the spiritual knowledge that protected the community against forces that threatened its socio-religious values. This evil force which disturbed the harmony of the community was epitomized in the context of the plantation by the master, who was conceptualized in the African world view as a witch or a sorcerer—that is an individual who possessed a superior life-force and used it constantly for evil purposes. This interpretation would in fact give the slave an explanation for his present situation in bondage: the master would have conjured them to keep them as slaves. Indeed, in the Bakongo cosmology, any social dysfunction or cosmic imbalance was attributed to the sorcerer, or ndoki. The conjurer, or nganga, had thus the specific role to restore harmony and cosmic balance through the use of his charms. Conjuration was perceived as a pharmacopeic means to achieve this ‘wholism’ that the Bakongo cosmology represented. Indeed, Robert Farris Thompson explained in his study of Kongo that "charms and medicines were constantly produced in the search for the realization of a perfect vision in the less than perfect world of the living." 30 The conjurer’s role in the slave community could also be compared to that of the pharmakos, as he turned himself into a victim, a scapegoat who would bear all the misfortunes of the community in order to purify it and clear it from any evil influences.

As a consequence, around this figure of the conjurer, the slaves created a community which was based on a strong intragroup solidarity. Indeed, the slaves came to realize that, as individuals acting alone, they were defenseless and vulnerable to the whims of the master. However, as a community unified and acting in harmony, they enhanced the opportunities to overcome the harshness of the conditions under which they lived and improve the quality of

their existence through cooperation. Conjuration thus imparted a strong feeling of independence to the slaves, as they could exert some control over their lives, and handle their daily situations according to their own interests; which was of a significant psychological worth for them.

c) A psychological comfort

The practice of conjuration had a strong psychological impact on the slaves, as it was basically rooted in faith. Indeed, the significant success of the practice rested on the great ability of the conjurers as psychologists. They had a strong medical knowledge and they were able to anticipate the various reactions of their patients according to the different types of cures. Conjuration also served as a kind of moral suasion, as those who believed they had been conjured were in fact victims of the guilt they felt for concealed wrongs, hence the role of the conjurer as a pharmakos, who purified the community and got rid of its hidden evil members. The preservation of social harmony within the community was indeed an important means of survival for the individual. Indeed, as we have demonstrated in the first part, the African world view was based on collective consciousness rather than individual interests. The actions of the conjurer as a guardian of social order thus enabled the slaves to redefine their self worth and role within the community. Each individual was able to give a new meaning to his life and felt he could master it as well as fulfill his slightest desires. He would, for example, try to win the affection of the one he desired, seek revenge over an enemy, protect himself from potential harm, etc … Indeed, this great feeling of independence gave the slaves a necessary and salutary sense of competence and self-confidence. As a means of resistance to slavery, it represented a tactical withdrawal into the black world that offered joys and fears but more particularly it offered them a sense of existence as a people apart. Actually, it assured them that the possession of a black skin, contrary to what the masters preached, neither made them inferior beings nor rendered them incapable of influencing the force of nature for their own benefit. It also served as the least costly means, in physical terms, by which they could assert their power as "beings-with-force" in a socio-political system which defined them as "animals-without force". Actually, it served as a defensive mechanism against the psychological assaults of slavery and racial oppression. For example, Frederick Douglas really demonstrated this fact when he narrated in his autobiography how proud and freed he felt after having engaged in a fight with his master, and as the latter didn’t whip him any more afterwards—although he did not mention it, Douglass had kept in his pocket the magic root that had been given by the conjurer during the whole fight. He then confessed:

"Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey—undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is—was the turning point in my ‘life as a slave.’ It rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN … This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form. When a slave cannot be flogged he is more than half free. He has a domain as broad as his own manly heart to defend, and he is really ‘a power on earth.’ " 31

Moreover, this ability to handle the supernatural forces was part of a knowledge which they had inherited from Africa and which was unknown to the white man—a power which was very gratifying for the slave, as one declared: "I knows t’ings dat de white folks wid all

dar larnin’ nebber fin’out, an’ nebber sarches fo’ nudder." Similarly, Silvia King observed with condescension: "White folks just go through de woods and don’t know nothin.’ " 32 There were many things the whites did not know and because of this, their power, great as it was, was limited. They were neither omnipotent nor omniscient; there were things they did not know, forces they could not control, areas in which slaves could act with more knowledge and authority than their masters, ways in which the powers of the whites could be muted, if not thwarted entirely. The question, then, was not necessarily whether the conjurers had any power over their masters; what was more significant was that conjurers had powers the masters lacked, and that did convey to the slave a great feeling of self-confidence and dignity.

This world of the supernatural thus offered to the slaves an alternative to escape slavery. In a certain way, those magical practices could be equated to religion, in its equipping of the slave with a sense of individual value and a personal vocation which contradicted the devaluing and dehumanizing forces of slavery. Both gave to the slave a space for meaning, spiritual freedom and transcendence. Yet, the main difference was that the focus of religion was rather "otherworldly", in that the slaves would endure their sufferings, having in mind that this world and this life were not the end, and that they would be rewarded in Heaven for having "bore their cross" in this world. Magic, on the contrary, rather eased the daily life of the slaves by dealing with their everyday concerns. Indeed, the conjurer really played a positive role in the struggles of the quarters for psychological survival.

Finally, the conjurer did influence the slaves’ sense of dignity as he was a leader of the slave community, but also a model who demonstrated the ability of a black man to rise within the rigid social hierarchy of the plantation and to defy the authority of the white man. As a consequence, this leadership nature of the conjurer came to be epitomized in the slaves’ folk tales which enshrined him as a folk hero.


Chapter 3:

The representation of the conjurer

as a folk hero

a) The folk tales as an African survival

One of the most important cultural forms in Africa which survived in the New World was the folk tale. Indeed, story-telling was a real art-form which included acting, singing, and gestures that served as the favorite evening entertainment. In many ways traditional African tales were similar to those found in early European societies in their attempts to explain natural phenomena and various animal traits, giving the animal the power of speech, and containing gods, heroes, creation legends, magic, witches and morals. The animal stories were the most common type of folk tale with their ubiquitous trickster figures—the Nigerian tortoise, the Ghanaian ananse or spider, and the rabbit. Congenitally weak, slow moving, or looked down upon by the stronger animals, the tortoise, spider and rabbit were wise, patient, boastful, mischievous, roguish, guileful, cunning, and they always outwitted their stronger foes and triumphed over evil. 33

When arriving in the New World, the slaves perpetuated their tradition of story-telling

as a form of evening entertainment but adapted it to the context of the plantation. The trickster figures were basically the same but their teachings would rather inform the young slave of how to survive in this new environment. As a projection of the slaves’ personal experience, dreams and hopes, the tales allowed them to express hostility to their master, to poke fun at themselves, or to delineate the workings of the plantation system. Indeed, they identified themselves with the frightened and helpless creatures who, in their relation to the stronger animals, epitomized the slave master relationship. For instance, the Brer Rabbit Tales, which have been popularized by Joel Harris Chandler in the 19th century in Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, staged the hero, Brer Rabbit, as a small, weak but ingenious animal, who was a trickster, that is that he continuously outsmarted the bigger animals, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf and Brer Bear. In the same way, the John and old Master tales conveyed a very explicit and realistic portrayal of slavery. "John frequently makes fools of whites, pretends to be more ignorant and humble than he is, dissembles, longs for freedom, runs away, is threatened and beaten, and often defies his master and expresses a desire for revenge for his sufferings." 34 In one tale for example, John prays "for God to come and git him [master] and take him to hell right away because Massa is evil"; or on another occasion another character, Efram, prays: "I’m tired staying here and taking these beatings … kill all the white folks and leave all the niggers." 35 John represented in fact, as Zora Neale Hurston observed, "the wish fulfillment hero of the race." Indeed, those folk heroes did emerge in the folk tales out of a need of the slaves to exteriorize their frustrations. It enabled them to view themselves as an object, and so to hold on to fantasies about their status, to engender hope and patience, and at least to use rebellious language when contemplating their lot in bondage. Those tales had thus a therapeutic value, as they represented "an area of life independent of the master’s control, and as they constituted important psychological devices for repressing anger and projecting aggressions in ways that contributed to mental heath, involved little physical threat, and provided some forms of recreation." 36 On top of that, as an African survival, they constituted an excellent piece of evidence which confirmed the slaves’ creative energies, despite the rigorous context of bondage.

It is thus in this creative context, full of folk heroes and trickster figures, that the conjurer found his place in the imaginative world of the folk tales. The conjurer’s awesome reputation in the reality of the plantation was indeed transplanted in the folk tales where it was embellished.

b) The Conjure Tales

The folk tales which pictured the conjurer as a folk hero were commonly referred to as "conjure tales". Those tales were oral narratives which were related at "tale-telling" sessions in the community or were recounted in situations in which the consultation of a conjurer appeared necessary. "These brief, often first personal accounts served as an ideal expressive vehicle for transmitting a conception of conjurers as folk heroes. In these narratives, narrators recalled a specific instance in which a conjurer utilized his/her extraordinary spiritual powers to overcome a threat to the physical, social, or psychological well-being of an individual known by or connected in some ways to the performer and/or the audience." 37 Yet, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between those folk tales which were based on extraordinary happenings and the slave testimonies which related the real facts about plantation life, and thus about the practice of conjuration. Indeed, the slave narratives, as it was discussed in the introduction, sometimes suffered from factual distortion, or the informants could be found guilty of flattery and exaggeration. As a consequence, one cannot easily determine whether the slave tales are real or not, and whether one can classify them as folk history or folk literature.

Yet, quite certainly, the conjure tales which enshrined the conjurer as a folk hero served, as a piece of folk literature, a persuasive function to overcome skepticism about the efficacy of the practice and made it a major means to survive the hardships of bondage. To enhance the possible influence of making the audience believe in the practice, the narrators had a tendency to concentrate on the experiences of ordinary individuals who found themselves caught up in the extraordinary events that could result from the practice of conjuration and would focus on the most spectacular effects of an act of conjuration and the most dramatic actions performed by the conjurers. Indeed, the slave testimonies made quite frequent allusions such as "The funny thing ‘bout that [conjuration] was they could hoodoo each other, but they sure couldn’t hoodoo the white folks" 38, so that the belief was common that the success of the conjure tricks was limited to those who had faith in it. Yet, the conjure tales presented the conjurer as an invincible force who could exert his power and influence on both blacks and whites.

The favored theme of those tales, as well as that of the ghostlore, was revenge against the masters and overseers. Indeed, ghosts, witches and conjurers would redress the wrongs which the slaves could not. To illustrate our argument, we shall take the example of the conjurer on William Wells Brown’s plantation. Brown had described Dinkie the way he was in the reality, with all his fearsome paraphernalia, as well as his very independent behavior. Dinkie had thus acquired an awesome reputation and as a consequence a significant number of

extraordinary tales flourished about him on the plantation. There was one, for instance, which praised his immunity from punishment. A new overseer had arrived on the Gaines plantation, who wished to take him in hand, for he never worked. So, in the morning, the overseer took Dinkie to the barn in order to whip him, but the conjurer went out without having received any punishment. The legend related that: "Dinkie tole de oberseer to look in de east corner ob de barn. He looked an’ saw hell, wid all de torments, an’ de debble, … Dinkie tole Cook, dat ef he lay his finger on him, he’d call de debble up to take him away … Den de oberseer turned pale in de face, an’ he say to Dinkie ‘Let me go dis time, an’ I’ll nebber trouble you anymore." 39

Still another tale, recorded shortly after the Civil War, recounted of how a conjurer and his son took revenge upon an overseer by turning him into a bull and his son into a bull yearling and spent the night riding and whipping them:

"dey go to de overseer’s house, an’ give de sign an’ slip t’rough de keyhole. Den dey unbar de door on de inside an’ take out de overseer an’ his son, widout deir knowin’ it; an de conjeror tetch de overseer wid his switch an’ he turns to a bull, an’ tetch de overseer’s son an’ he turns to a bull-yerlin’. Den de conjeror mounts de bull an’ de boy mounts de bull yerlin, an’ sets off a long way over de creek to blight a man’s wheat what de conjeror had a spite agin." 40

The conjure tales, in staging a reversal of powers in the slave master relationship, appealed to the slaves’ frustrated sense of justice and thus constituted a genuine form of muted protest against bondage. Moreover, by perpetuating the African tradition of tale-telling, the slaves expressed their desire to resist acculturation and full domination by the white man’s world. Being physically in bondage, the slaves wished to keep their spirits free and maintain them connected to their mother country. Rather than engaging in overt rebellions which had proved to be useless, some slaves thus chose to resort to passive cultural resistance to slavery. The conjurer embodied this idea very well, both in the reality of the plantation and as a folk hero in the conjure tales, where he was metaphorically represented as a trickster.

c) The conjurer as a trickster figure

The trickster figure which emerged out of the trickster tales was a very important element in African-American folk literature. Indeed, the trickster tale is commonly found in oral traditions worldwide, and can be referred to as: "an anecdote of deceit, magic, and violence perpetrated by an animal-human with special or magical powers. Usually grouped in cycles, these tales feature a trickster-hero who within a single society may be regarded as both creator god and innocent fool, evil destroyer and childlike prankster. In psychological terms, the trickster may be said to serve as a sort of scapegoat figure onto which are projected simultaneously the fears, failures, and unattained ideals of the source culture." 41

Coming from African folk literature, the tradition of the trickster was thus perpetuated in the New World where it was applied to every area of the slaves’ life. Indeed, "tricking" became a watchword for the slaves as the scholar Kenneth Stamp explained: "The generality of slaves believed that he who knew how to trick or deceive the master had an enviable talent, and they regarded the committing of petit larceny as both thrilling and praiseworthy." 42 This argument was confirmed by the testimonies of the slaves, such as that of Henry Bibb who confessed: "The only weapon of self defence that I could use successfully, was that of deception. It was useless for a poor slave, to resist the white man in a slaveholding state." 43 In that sense, the conjurer was thus a trickster as he provided the slaves with various means to deceive their masters—feigning illness, avoiding being whipped, helping to runaway, thwarting the master’s plans, etc… Moreover, the practice of conjuration was based on ‘tricks’, which implied that the conjurer could sometimes be led to deceive his clients as well.

Yet, on the metaphorical level, the conjurer could be equated to a trickster, according to the following definition of the term: " ‘Trickster’ in the diaspora context should include transcendence as well as wit over force, … [it] suggests not only a literary figure who dupes for self-aggrandizement but also one who challenges an established social order and probes the question of fate." 44 Such a definition of the trickster refers to one of the most famous legend characters of the Southern plantations: "High John de Conquer". Zora Neale Hurston made a very comprehensive study of this trickster figure:

High John de Conquer had come from Africa. He came walking on the waves of sound. Then he took flesh after he got there … The sign of this man was a laugh, and his singing symbol was a drum-beat … It was sure to be heard when and where the work was the hardest, and the lot the most cruel. It helped the slaves endure. They knew that something better was coming. So they laughed in the face and sang, ‘I’m so glad! Trouble don’t last always.’ … High John de Conquer play[ed] his tricks of making a way out of no-way. Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. Winning the jack pot with no other stake than laugh. Fighting a mighty battle without outside-showing force, and winning his war from within … High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant. Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time … The thousands upon thousands of humble people who still believe in him, that is, in the power of love and laughter to win by their

subtle power, do John reverence by getting the root of the plant in which he has placed his secret dwelling … It is there to help them overcome things they feel that they could not beat otherwise and give them the laugh of the day. John will never forsake the weak and the helpless, nor fail to bring hope to the hopeless. 45

High John the Conqueror and the conjurer shared many characteristics as trickster figures. Firstly, through their use of magical tricks and their "making a way out of no-way". Secondly, they both held the function of diviners or fortune-tellers as High John had prophesied to slaves the emancipation a century before the war, as this ex-slave confessed: "Sho John de Conquer means power … He had done teached the black folks so they knowed a hundred years ahead of time that freedom was coming … John de Conquer had done put it into the white folks to give us our freedom, that’s what." 46 Thirdly, the conjurer and High John had in common to be African-born, so that they epitomized the slaves’ cultural resistance to the domination of the white man’s culture. Fourthly, a final point which takes all its significance in our demonstration about conjuration as a means of resistance to slavery, is the fact that those trickster figures did help the slaves in their daily toil, offering them an alternative way to cope with their situations as bondsmen. Both embodied a supernatural power which led the slaves to spiritual and therapeutic transcendence of their vicissitudes. High John functioned as a kind of psychological folk therapy that employed cathartic laughter and singing as a strategy of recovery from both physical and emotional injuries. In the same way, the conjurer as a pharmakos purified the slave community medically and socially, so that he also embodied a cathartic means to the welfare of the community.

All those common characteristics between the conjurer and the legendary trickster figure allow us to highlight how prominent the role of the conjurer was within the slave community. Awesome, fearsome, fascinating and venerated, he finally became immortalized in the slaves’ minds as a folk hero through the conjure tales. This glorious reputation could have been rooted in the fascination of his supernatural tricks, which, even if they implied some part of deception, were in fact directed against tricksters of the worst sort—individuals who attempted to manipulate the force in nature to rob others of their very being; making thus the supernatural trickery acting for the "positive good" of the community.

Yet, the conjurer also came to be dignified for he embodied a living survival of the slaves’ mother country, Africa. Indeed, the trickster figure incarnated by the conjurer recalled the sacred trickster of the Yoruba people, "Esu-" or "Eshu-Elegbara", who was the spirit messenger to the gods: "he who interprets the will of god to people … [who is] guardian of the crossroads, master of style and the stylus … of the mystical barrier that separates the divine from the profane worlds … the divine linguist, … with [whom] Olodumare (the Yoruba supreme being) created the universe." 47 Metaphorically, the conjurer can thus be perceived as a spirit messenger to the gods, for he behaved as an intermediary between the world of the spirits and gods, and that of human beings; between the sphere of the supernatural and that of the reality. So what about Raboteau’ s interrogation about the death of the African gods in the New World? The answer here lies in the conjurer himself, who is the personified reincarnation of those African gods, and the living representation of the continuity and essence of African religious thought and life.




The revisionist interpretations on slave studies have concentrated on the role of Africa in the genesis and ongoing history of the diaspora. Moreover, they have emphasized the continuities in African history and the extension of that history in the diaspora. Too often the African background was admitted but in a generalized sense, referring to a timeless Africa, and very few attempts were made to demonstrate how these cultural traits developed in the context of specific situations in Africa, from which identifiable groups of enslaved Africans actually trace their provenance. Indeed, one has to understand the full meaning of the concept of "diaspora" as a group of individuals who define themselves in opposition to their host societies, through the identification with their homeland and other diaspora communities. The diaspora thus ceases to have meaning if the idea of an ancestral home is lost. It is therefore of a major importance to establish these facts before making any considerations on African "survivals" in the New World.

Indeed, to have a full understanding of the survival of African religious rites among the African-American diaspora, one has to concentrate on the nature of these rites in the mother country. Actually, this is all the more essential as the African eschatology and cosmology can appear at first sight to be in complete dichotomy with the Euro-Christian ones found in America. The coexistence of the two in the New World context thus turned out to be completely inconceivable. As a consequence, many conclusions were drawn which asserted the complete eradication of the African religious background in America, stressing on the one hand the lack of compatibility and on the other hand the overwhelming domination of the white man’s Christian faith.

Yet, a deeper examination of the Antebellum South has proved that in spite of the rather paternalistic and puritan behavior of the planters, the slaves did manage to keep an eye on their mother country and to perpetuate some of the rites they used to perform. The religious ceremonies found in Voodoo or Gullah African Christianity were of course not archetypal of the Antebellum South, contrary to the rest of the New World, in the West Indies or South America, where the Catholic influence was more conducive to the practice of African rites.

So the context in which the slaves found themselves—whether it be the organization of the plantation or the religious environment—was a determining factor in the shaping of African-American religious practices. Indeed, in the United States, the planters’ constant interference in the religious life of Africans was sufficiently disruptive as to create conditions in which Africans were forced to transform their beliefs and traditions to continue to derive meaning from them.

It is actually this forced adaptation which has brought about a redefinition of the concept of Africanisms, which aimed at defining them as an adaptive process and syncretism of cultural traits from the two civilizations in contact, rather than a mere survival of cultural forms which would have remained identical with their original country.

The Africans in the United States have thus emphasized the retention of various spiritual beliefs rather than direct references to African gods. In the same way, they perpetuated the tradition of the medicine man, which was less tied to the institutional or communal practice of religion in Africa, but rather revolved around individual need and consultation, which were more adaptable to the conditions of physical and social isolation of Africans in America. The practice of conjuration, the very name of which is unique to the context of the Antebellum South, was thus an original syncretism of African medico-magical practices, Native American herbal lore and European Christianity.

This religio-magical practice was thus noteworthy for its pervasiveness among the slaves throughout the whole South, as well as for the strength of their faith. Indeed, it had impregnated all areas of their lives, as it aimed at fulfilling their every desire—to cure some benign illnesses or more lethal ones; to take revenge on an enemy; to protect oneself from potential aggression; to gain the love of the desired one, to find a buried treasure, etc … Yet, this belief was not shared by every member of the African-American community, the most educated part of it rejecting it as a mere superstition, compared to the strength of their Christian faith. Indeed, conjuration was in some way a means to explain the unknown, what could not be scientifically explained by the slaves’ worldview. Yet, it is not to be condemned as unchristian or devilish because it came to be perfectly compatible with Christian beliefs and practices. In fusing those two systems, the African slave thus shaped his own form of religion which responded to his everyday needs in his new environment of the New World.

The practice of conjuration, which flourished on the Southern plantations, expressed a strong compensatory need on the part of the slaves for the daily hardships they had to endure. Firstly, as a "survival" of an African tradition, it linked the slaves to their mother country, and thus helped them to define their identities as members of the African-American diaspora. At the same time, it served as a kind of cultural resistance to the overwhelming domination of the white man’s cultural values.

Secondly, it also provided the slaves with a passive means to resist the authority of the master. The conjurer emerged on the plantation as an outstanding slave who seemed to enjoy many privileges of independence, thanks to his supernatural powers. He quickly gained an awesome reputation which made him a leader of the slave community. The slaves feared his magical tricks but admired at the same time his ability to defy the master. As a leader, the conjurer thus acted so as to relieve the sufferings of his fellow slaves, for example by helping them with various means to rebel against the master’s supremacy, or by settling their everyday concerns, thus trying to preserve harmony within the community. Therefore, the slaves had a strong impression of autonomy from their master and felt psychologically stronger.

This exemplary attitude of the conjurer became immortalized as he was consecrated as a folk hero in the slaves’ folk tales, in which he embodied the legendary "trickster figure".

Representative of the divine and spiritual world on Earth; intermediary between medical and magical knowledge; fearsome rebel to the white master’s authority; mythical folk trickster figure; and living testimony of the African background on the American soil; all those divers facets are embodied in the person of the conjurer. Yet, we should mostly remember him as a savior of the slave community, or why not as the Savior who alleviated the sufferings of the oppressed ones through his miracles.

The impression left by the conjurer on the slaves’ minds was thus very strong, and many of them could remember his doings very well, when interviewed in the 1930’s. Yet, some apprehension could still be felt, as most of them would talk about the conjurer with mistrust and would disclaim at first any knowledge of conjure or the existence of supernatural creatures: "I nebuh bodduh much wid did kine uh ting", or "I dohn lak tuh talk bout dem tings" were the most common answers the interviewers would get. Actually, the practice of conjuration was still pervasive in the Deep South of the 20th century, so that suspicion to talk about conjuration can reveal an underlying fear to attract the anger of the conjurer.

this folk practice has thus survived until the present day and has spread to the whole country, following the massive immigration of blacks to the cities of both the North and the South after the turn of the century. Yet, it seems to be particularly prevalent along the Gulf Coast, as New Orleans used to be the capital city of Voodoo and hoodoo practices.

The conjurers or hoodoo doctors still function according to a "personalistic" disease etiology, that is illness regarded as induced by the active, purposeful intervention of a supernatural agent, such as a god, ghost, dead ancestor, evil spirit, or witch. Indeed, the clients will seek the aid of practitioners either for physical ailments or for settling contemporary everyday concerns such as success in business or financial endeavors; gambling; the search for gainful employment; resolution of strained social relations; the search for a spouse; avoidance of the law or a favorable decision in court; control over subordinates, such as a landlord or employer; and discovery of unknown enemies.

Another motivation to resort to this folk medico-magical practice in the 20th century can come from the failure of a licensed physician to give immediate or appropriate diagnosis and cure. Indeed, the black rootdoctors, also called "secret doctors" or "black folk healers" are still strongly patronized by both black and white patients. The survival of this folk medical practice was partially due to the fact that African-American mainstream doctors have remained a minority for quite a long time. Moreover, in rural areas, black people have kept strong cultural biases against mainstream curing methods. Yet, some people will use the two systems: they will for example consult a black midwife, or "granny" for problems of pregnancy or for children; and a mainstream doctor for new illnesses—sometimes on the advice of a rootdoctor.

Yet, in urban areas conjuration became incorporated with new movements such as Spiritualism. Indeed, hoodoo doctors, or root doctors have adopted urban professional names such as "psychic", "spiritualist reader", or "prophet" as a guise for respectability and legal protection, because the name of "rootdoctor" is said to carry too many negative connotations. Those spiritualists are often individuals who have received a "call" from God to help people with their personal problems. In time, they may convert their practice into a religious congregation, using some of their clients as the group’s core membership, and will sometimes assume the title of minister. We can also find some "Spiritual Prophets", who can be more or less considered as the heir of Voodoo priests and priestesses, and who combine elements of Spiritualism, black Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Voodoo and hoodoo, as well as other esoteric systems and astrology. They claim they possess a gift from the Spirit which enables them to prophesy and heal. Those prophets, most of them women, would tend to focus on a wide variety of socio-economic and psychosocial problems which particularly poor blacks, but also middle-class and working-class blacks, as well as some whites, encounter in everyday life. In the course of the consultation, they will read the "message" from the Spirit, say prayers, recite scriptural passages, and provide magico-religious rituals, roots and herbs for their clients.

The conjurational practices have thus not been totally erased by the scientific medical progress of this new century but they managed to adapt themselves successfully and found their place as an alternative medicine or "traditional" medicine; or as we saw, were reconverted into various divination systems.

Yet, they did not succeed in resisting to the wave of the "big business" that has been sweeping America since the time of the "Gilded Age"; so that the small fees the conjurers would get in exchange for their charms or telling fortunes were turned into big commercial outputs. Indeed, mostly after the first World War, professional workers began to depend more and more upon the products of commerce, as a large variety of articles flourished: candles of every color, shape and size; invisible ink; magic sands; Voodoo dolls; incenses; stones; roots; protective amulets; "anointing" and "dressing" oils—you touch a drop with your finger and place it on yourself or another person; or onto an inanimate object; mojos; pictures of Saints; etc …

Actually, many charlatans or mountebanks have taken the opportunity of this flourishing commerce to make huge fortunes. Those "magic vendors" view themselves primarily as business people or employees of commercial enterprises which specialize in the sale of occult articles. Although probably most of the small and medium sized occult stores—often referred to as "candle stores"—are owned by black individuals, many of the large stores are owned by whites, as apparently are the companies that manufacture the articles that are sold in them.

Robert Tallant who wrote about Voodoo in New Orleans in the 1940’s gave descriptions of several drugstores which specialized in the selling of gris gris, and whose many proprietors were white people. One of them declared: "It’s just like any other business … You sell ‘em what they want; it’s as simple as that … There’s money in it; I don’t mind telling you that." The proprietor of another Voodoo drugstore—as it is called in New Orleans—laughed at an insinuation that he might believe in it himself. "But it surely is surprising how many people still do", he said. "The most unbelievable thing is how many white people come in here and ask for love powder and stuff to fix other people. I should say, roughly, that about one-third of my customers are white, the other two-thirds colored." Later, Tallant explained that the proprietors of those stores made almost all their gris gris themselves, and showed the great deal of trickery that lied in it: "The powders and oils are usually simple in content and are usually highly scented … Voodoo potions must smell. In general good gris gris must smell nicely, and bad gris gris should have a vile odor. Love powder, for example, is nothing but a talcum powder that has been colored pink or red and has been further scented with a few drops of a cheap but strong perfume."

More recently, this commerce has followed the development of the new technologies and one can find many pieces of information about Hoodoo, as well as manufactured products on the Internet (cf. annex 2).

Despite the great deal of charlatanism that overwhelmed this field of "traditional medicine", one should keep in mind that the great prominence of this practice reveals how meaningful it is for its devotees. Indeed, the historical development of black folk healing, or black ethnomedicine is very interesting as its pervasiveness marks a constant need to find an alternative to allopathic medicine. This compensatory need thus helps to alleviate the anxiety and tension black and white people alike feel in their everyday life. Yet, more particularly for members of the black community, who have remained the victims of economical, political and social segregation, it enables them to find a possible explanation for their situation, just as their great grand fathers did with slavery. As the misfortunes that befall them may have no real solution, magical practices or the relegation of problems to magical causes may offer at least partial satisfaction and hope. Moreover, it has a prominent role in maintaining a sense of ethnic identity in the black community.


Selected Bibliography

I) Primary sources :

Ball, Charles. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of

Charles Ball. Lewistown, Pa., 1836. Online. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina, 1997. Available from World Wide Web:


Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave.

New York, 1849. Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Puttin’ on Ole Massa: The Slaves Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom Urbana: University of Illinois

Press, 1987, c1855.

Pollard, Edward A. Black Diamonds, Gathered in the Darkey Homes of the South. New

York: Pudney and Russel, 1859. Online. Memory of America. Internet. Decembre 1999. Available from World Wide Web: <http://moa.umdl.umich.edu>

Chestnutt, Charles W. The Conjure Woman. Boston and New York Houghton: Mifflin and

Company, 1899. Online. Chappel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina, 1998. Available from World Wide Web: <http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/chesnuttconjure/conjure.html>

Webb, William. The History of William Webb. Detroit: E. Hoekstra, 1873. Microfiche:

Louisville, Kentucky: Lost Cause Press, 1973.

Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man. Twenty- Nine Years a Slave. Twenty- Nine Years a

Free Man. York, Pa., 1895. Online. Chappel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina, 1997. Available from World Wide Web: <http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/bruce/menu.html>

Hughes, Louis. Thirty Years a Slave. Milwukee, 1897. Online. Chappel Hill, North

Carolina: University of North Carolina,1997. Available from World Wide Web: <http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/hughes/menu.html>

Lowery, I.E. Life on the Old Plantation in the Ante- Bellum Days: Or a Story Based on

Fact. Columbia, SC., 1911. Online. Chappel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina,1997. Available from World Wide Web: <http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/lowery/menu.html>

Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave, a Composite Autobiography (41 vols.).

Wesport, CT, 1972-1979.

II) Secondary sources :

1) Reference Books:

Miller, Randall M. and Smith, John D., dir.. Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery.

Westport, Conn., 1997


2) Books:

Alho, Olli. The Religion of the Slaves: a Study of the Religious Tradition and Behaviour of

Plantation Slaves in the United States 1830-1865 1976.

Barret, Leonard E. Soul Force: African Heritage in Afro-American Religion. Garden City:

Anchor Press/ Doublebay, 1974.

Bastide, Roger. Les Amériques noires: les civilisations africaines dans le nouveau monde.

Paris: Payot, 1967.

Blassigame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South

New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

________. "Status and Social Structure in the Slave Community." in Owens, Harry P., ed.,

Perspectives and Irony in American Slavery. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976.

Botkin, B. A. "Folk-say and Folklore." p.570-573, in Couch, W. T., ed., Culture in the

South Chappel Hill, 1934.

_____, ed., Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of slavery. Chicago: University Press,

1969, c1945.

Chenu, Bruno. Dieu est Noir: Histoire, Religion et Théologie des Noirs Americains. Paris: Le Centurion, 1977.

Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers, 1979.

Drake, St Clair. The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion. Chicago: Third World

Press, 1970.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life.

University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Frazier, Ed. Franklin. The Negro in the United States. New York: Mc Millanian, 1949

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York:

Pantheon, 1974.

Gorn, Elliott J. "Black Magic: Folk Beliefs of the Slave Community" in Numbers, Ronald

L. and Todd L Savitt, eds. Science and Medicine in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989

Harding, Vincent. "Religion and Resistance among Antebellum Negroes 1800-1860." in

Meier, August and Elliott Rudwick. The Making of the Black America (vol. I). New York, 1969.

Haskins, James. Witchcraft, Mysticism and Magic in the Black World. Garden City, New

York: Doublebay & Company, inc., 1974.

______. Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft by Actual Practitioners. Chelsa,

MI: Scarborough House, 1990.

Herskovits, Melville J. Acculturation: The Study of Culture Contact. Gloucester,

Massachussets: P. Smith, 1958.

________. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967, c1958.

________. "Some Psychological Implications of Afroamerican Studies" in Tax, Sol, ed.

Acculturation in the Americas: Proceedings and Selected Papers of the XXI th

International Congress of Americanists. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967.

Holloway, Joseph. Africanisms in American Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University

Press, 1990.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: Harper Perennial, 1990, c1935

Hyatt, Harry M. Hoodoo-Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork: Beliefs Accepted by Many

Negroes and White Persons, These Being Orally Recorded Among Blacks and Whites. Hannibal, M.O., 1970.

Jones, Raymond J. "A Comparative Study of Religious Cult Behavior Among Negroes

with Special Reference to Emotional Group Conditioning Factors." Howard

University Studies in the Social Sciences, vol. 2, n°.2, Washington, 1939.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought

from Slavery to Freedom. 1977.

_____. The Unpredictable Past: Exploration in American Cultural History New York-

Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Meier, August and Elliot Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and

Wang, 1976.

Mitchell, Henry H. Black Belief. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Owens, Leslie Howard. This species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old

South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Piersen, William D. Black Legacy: America’s Hidden Heritage. Amherst: University of

Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Phillips, W. M. Jr. "Survival Techniques of Black Americans" in Goldstein, Rhoda L., ed.

Black Life and Culture in the South. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971.

Puckett, Newbell Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. Montclair: Patterson Smith,

1968, c1926.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

_______. African-American religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture.

London: Routledge, 1997.

_______. Reflections on African-American religious History. Boston: Beacon Press,


Roberts, John W. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and

Freedom. 1989.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture, Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black

America. New York, 1987.

Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1994,


Waiguchu, Julius M. "Black Heritage: of Genetics, Environment and Continuity." in

Goldstein, Rhoda L., ed. Black Life and Culture in the South. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1971.

Woodson, Carter G. The African Background Outlined. Washington, 1936.


3) Articles:

Aimes, Hubert S. "African Institutions in America." Journal of American Folk-Lore,

18, (1905): 15-19.

Apter, Andrew. "Herskovits’s Heritage: Rethinking syncretism in the African Diaspora."

Diaspora, A Journal of Transnational Studies, 3, (1991):235-260.

Bacon, A.M. "Conjuring and conjure Doctors." Southern Workman, 24, (Nov.1895):

193-194, (Dec.1895): 209-211.

Bergen, Fanny D. "Concerning Negro Sorcery in the United States." Journal of American

Folklore, 3, (1890):285.

Cable, George W. "Creole slave songs." Century Magazine, 31, (April 1886): 815-821.

Du Bois, W.E.B. "The Religion of the American Negro." New World, 9, (December


Gorn, Eliott J. "Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves." American Quarterly,

36, (Fall 1984):549-565.

Hall, Julien A. "Negro Conjuring and Tricking." Journal of American Folk-Lore, 10,

(1897): 241-243.

Herron, Leonora, and Bacon, A. M. "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors in the Southern

United States." Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9, (1896): 143-147, 224-226.

Hurston, Zora Neale. "Hoodoo in America." Journal of American Folk-Lore, 44, (1931):


Norris, Thaddheus. "Negro Superstitions." Lippincott’s Magazine, 6, (July 1870): 90-95.

Reprinted in Jackson, Bruce, ed. The Negro and His Folklore.

Owens, William. "Folklore of Southern Negroes." Lippincott’s Magazine, (December


Park, Robert E. "The Conflict and Fusion of Cultures with Special Reference to the

Negro." Journal of Negro History, 4, (1919): 111-133.

Pendleton, Louis. "Negro Folk-Lore and Witchcraft in the South." Journal of American

Folk-Lore, 3, (1890): 201-207.

Puckett, Newbell Niles. "Religious Folk Beliefs of Whites and Negroes." Journal of Negro

History, 16, (1931): 9-35.

"Record of Negro Folklore." Journal of American Folk-Lore, 19, (1906): 75-77.

Roediger, David R. "And Die in Dixie: Funerals, Death and Heaven in the Slave

Community. 1700-1865," Massachusetts Review, 22, (Spring 1981): 163-183.

Touchstone, Blake. "Voodoo in New Orleans," Louisiana History, 13, (1972): 371-386.


4) Theses:

Gorn, Elliott J. " ‘…No White Man Could Whip Me’: Folk Beliefs of the Slave

Community." M.A Thesis, Folklore, University of California, Berkeley, 1975.

Raboteau, Albert J. "The Invisible Institution: The Origins and Conditions of Black

Religion Before Emancipation", PhD Dissertation, Yale University, 1974


5) Online Documents with No Printed Analogue:

"Hoodoo: Definition and History." The Lucky Mojo Curio Co. Online. Internet.

December1999. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.luckymojo.com/hoodoo.html>

Yai, Olabiyi Babalola. "Survivances et dynamismes des cultures africaines dans les

Amériques." Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, I, 1 (1996). Online. Internet. November 1999.Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~slavery>

Lovejoy, Paul. "The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretation of Ethnicity, Culture and

Religion under Slavery." Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, II, 1(1997).Online. Internet. November 1999. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~slavery>




Scale of intensity of New World Africanisms

(Only the greatest degree of retention is indicated for each group)





Social Organization









Guinea (Bush)











Guinea (Paramaribo)











Haiti (peasant)











Haiti (urban)











Brazil (Bahia-Recife)











Brazil (Porto Alegre)











Brazil (Maranhão-rural)











Brazil (Maranhão-urban)






















Jamaica (Maroons)











Jamaica (Morant Bay)











Jamaica (general)











Honduras (Black Caribs)











Trinidad (Port of Spain)











Trinidad (Toco)











Mexico (Guerrero)











Colombia (Choco)











Virgin Islands











U.S. (Gullah Islands)











U.S. (rural South)











U.S. (urban North)











a: very African b: quite African c: somewhat African d: a little African e: trace of African customs, or absent ?: no report

Source: Melville Herskovits, "Problem, Method, and Theory in Afroamerican studies", The New World Negro: Selected Papers in Afro-American Studies, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), 53.