Every culture possesses a body of traditional knowledge and patterns of behaviors which are utilized to navigate the many windfalls, challenges, and vicissitudes of the world and African Americans, with their long, complex, and multi-layered history of presence in the US are no exception. Ernest Gaines, as an ingenous capturer of the experience of Black Americans in this country then and now, utilizes his inherited traditions to great effect in his stories to better illustrate and contextualize these lives. In so doing, Gaines is also disseminating the traditions themselves to a broader audience. By following his example, this series of posts under the overarching title of "Faith, Folklore, and Fun" hopes to introduce and educate the general audience into some of hte beliefs, ideas, and practices expressed by the Black American community via Dr. Gaines' works and hopefully elicit and inspire seasoned or fresh researchers to pursue these features in further study.
To introduce the first themes of this series, it is necessary to discuss what Hoodoo is. Known by many different names, Hoodoo is essentially the African American tradition of folk magic which combines elements of African spiritualities, Christianity, Indigenous American traditions and herbalism. As with any folk magic, Hoodoo's heterogenous components reflect the multi-faceted history of Africans in America, primarily starting with European colonization of Africa, threading through the Atlantic Slave Trade and the sundry encounters that Africans have had with many cultures throughout the last 500 years. For a more in-depth look at Hoodoo, see the entry on Hoodoo in the Gaines Center's project Keys to the Archives: Miss Jane Pittman by David Squires.
One very common tool or preparation in Hoodoo is the spiritual powder. Like any candle or potion, a spiritual powder can be used according to the purpose for which it is made. From love to good health, wealth to peace, protection, hexing or unhexing, any intention can have a powder made to serve it. Usually a powder would be fabricated from places and/or substances associated with its intended function (Anderson 103). One example is “goofer dust” or “graveyard dirt”. This powder is taken from a person’s burial place and is commonly used in magic meant to cause ill effects such as sickness and death to another being, hence its origin and usage. Though typically utilized for malefic ends, one very interesting, somewhat contrary notion connected to goofer dust is the idea that the personality of the entombed determines the nature of the magic. When taken from the grave of a person known to have been good in life or of an innocent child, goofer dust can be used beneficially. On the other hand, a criminal or known evil-doer in life will leave behind goofer dust predisposed to malign purposes. Another popular powder, one particularly associated with New Orleans, is red brick dust (Lightfoot 130). Commonly sprinkled around the borders of a house or entrances to keep away dangers both spiritual and physical, red brick dust is made by simply grinding red brick into a fine powder. It can also be used to shield one from legal troubles when mixed with other ingredients (Hyatt 711).
An interesting incident involving the use of spiritual powder occurs in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in Book II in the Chapter “Man’s Way”. Madame Gautier, a character in the chapter, is a “hoo-doo” or root worker who is claimed to have been a rival to the famous Marie Laveau. A famous priestess of the African diasporic religion of Vodou and noted rootworker herself, Marie Laveau along with Madame Gautier, as ritual specialists, serve an important function in their respective communities. For many Black slaves, the rootworker served multiple functions which could not be easily fulfilled given their situation. These people specializing in Hoodoo could also double as spiritual leaders (whether it be as Christian preachers or as a priest/ess in an African diasporic tradition), health care providers (given the extensive use of herbs in Hoodoo), and overall spokesman/woman for their local community. Though any person living in rural contexts could possess some rudimentary knowledge of plant lore to address basic ailments like cold or coughs, certain effects or outcomes could only be provided by a ritual specialist because they required careful handling or specific insight or procedures, hence why Jane goes to visit Madame Gautier. Jane in “Man’s Way” had been experiencing dreams foretelling her husband Joe’s death. When she goes to visit Gautier, Jane finds that red brick dust had been used on the entrance way (possibly as a protective charm). Moreover, Gautier gives Jane an unnamed powder to use as a deterrent against Joe’s death. Jane fails to use this powder and Joe ends up dying. This episode in Miss Jane Pittman helps to illustrate the ways in which both spiritual powders and their manufacturers were utilized and consulted by Black American people in the past.
Anderson, Jeffrey E. Conjure in African American Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Hyatt, Harry Middleton. Hoodoo - Conjuration - Witchcraft - Rootwork: Beliefs Accepted by Many Negroes and White Persons These Being Orally Recorded Among Black and Whites. Vol. I. Hannibal: Western Publishing, Inc., 1970.
Lightfoot, Najah. Good Juju: Mojo, Rites, and Practices for the Magical Soul. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2019.
Squires, David. Keys to the Archives: Miss Jane Pittman. 2019.