Hoodoo: The religion of our ancestors

by Chloe McGowan, Indianapolis Recorder Staff Writer

Religion and spirituality have always been a deep part of Black culture.

Pouring liquor for the dead and eating black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cabbage on New Year’s as well as blue porches, not cutting a person’s name on a cake, and dreaming of fish meaning someone is pregnant, many of these things are traditions in African American households — because they stem from the African American spiritual practice called Hoodoo.

“Hoodoo is a collection of religion, of collection of spiritual practices that then form a new religion,” said Joseph Tucker Edmonds, associate professor of religious studies and African studies at IUPUI. “But because the collection and gathering is not structured in the way we tend to think of in Western religions — with hierarchy, with rules and structures or organization — people often don’t categorize it as such.”

History of Hoodoo

Hoodoo is just one of several African Traditional Religions (ATR) that migrated to North and South America between the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, where they mixed with Protestant, Catholic and Baptist practices, Edmonds said. It is a combination or “hybrid” of ATRs and those European religions used to “connect, protect and provide for displaced, enslaved Africans.”

But most of what is known about Hoodoo in early America is taken from second-hand accounts of those who documented what they saw, Edmonds said. Examples of these documentarians include Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, who spoke and wrote about the religious practices they saw in slave communities, such as rootwork and ancestor veneration, and how it was different from Christian practices.

Many consider Zora Neal Hurston, the famed author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “Sweat,” to be an early anthropologist of Black religions, and Edmonds said she discusses Hoodoo and African folk practices up and down the Eastern seaboard in many of her books.

How do you do Hoodoo?

The most important thing about Hoodoo as a spiritual or religious practice is understanding what Hoodoo is and what Hoodoo is not. Indy-based herbalist, sound healer and energetic hygienist Lesley Jean Saligoe said Hoodoo was never called Hoodoo when she was growing up, it was just part of her life and culture.

“What folks consider superstitions that were just part of life — folktales. I was so into African and African American folktales even when I was a kid, and that has really propelled me through my adult life,” Saligoe said. “It’s an unfolding path that has stretched from as early as I could remember, rooted in church, all the way up until where we are now.”

Saligoe said she did not start any form of ancestor veneration — or the practice of honoring deceased family members — until 10 years ago. She became a trained herbalist nine years ago and only started making her own products for herself and other practitioners five years ago. Heritage gardening, which is the practice of farming culturally significant plants, also became part of her practice two years ago.

It takes “time and consistency to become an elder,” Saligoe added, but at the end of the day, Hoodoo is a closed practice for African Americans. To truly practice Hoodoo, one must have African American ancestors — because it is an ancestral, cultural and oral tradition, she said.

What Hoodoo is NOT

Saligoe and Edmunds said people often confuse Hoodoo with Voodoo, which is another “hybrid” or mixed religion derived from Haiti and practiced in New Orleans. Hoodoo is not the same as Vodoun, which comes from Benin and Togo, or Santería or Palo Mayombe, which are African traditional religions developed in Cuba.

Saligoe said Hoodoo also is not the same as witchcraft or “black magic” and said the practice is much more than spells, tricks, candle magic and hexes.

However, the biggest misconception about what Hoodoo is stems from its portrayal in the media, and Saligoe said African American traditional religions are often shown as “scary” or “evil.” Other misconceptions include that those who practice Hoodoo are “out to get” others or worship their ancestors as gods or deities — which is not true, Saligoe and Edmonds said.

“If it became public that a group of people were practicing Hoodoo, or Voudon, or Santería, or Ifá religious practices, then that would have been a criminal act,” Edmonds said. “During enslavement, those kinds of religious practices were not allowed. But even in the post-enslavement moment, in many ways those types of practices were seen as non-Christian, as evil or as bad.”

However, something to be on the lookout for is those who aim to profit from practicing Hoodoo, more specifically, those who are outside of the community. Saligoe said there is no official certification in Hoodoo and those who claim to sell that are taking advantage of others for financial gain, which is not what the practice is about.

Familiar feelings

Today, Hoodoo could be described as more of an informal set of beliefs and practices — the cornerstone of which is ancestor veneration and the belief that ancestors are still active participants in one’s life, Saligoe said. However, Edmunds said traditional African religions, such as Hoodoo, were “smuggled into mainstream Black Christianity.”

“When you see Black religion or Black Christianity, you’re often seeing more of African American traditional religion than we really think that we’re seeing,” Edmonds said. “Instead of using the word ancestor, that had a negative association with folks … we now can talk about the saints of the church, and that was a way of honoring Black folks who had before us been leaders, and martyrs, and real progenitors of the faith.”

Saligoe, who is a practicing Buddhist and Baptist, said most things in the Black Church are, by virtue, Hoodoo, even if most people don’t recognize that. Common practices in Hoodoo include spirit possession (“Catching the Holy Ghost” and “falling out”), water immersion, herbal medicine, music — call and response, circle dancing, drums and organ — the Book of Psalms and the use of shaman or priests — which sounds a lot like church.

“Our ancestors had Christianity forced on them, but they hid the old ways in plain sight,” Saligoe said. “The Bible was used because it was accessible and accepted, not because it is essential.”

Saligoe said she returned to the church as a form of ancestor veneration. Her ancestors were Baptists, and she finds comfort in her Bible and listening to gospel music. Saligoe even uses the Book of Psalms — which she said can be used to bless and curse — in her practice.

However, at its core, Hoodoo is used as a way to prevent or mitigate harm. During slavery, Saligoe said, it was used to keep families together, thwart the law and fight injustices. Hoodoo could also be used to call in abundance or for blessings and peace for the community.

“Hoodoo was used to fight white supremacy and still is,” Saligoe said. “Hoodoo is in every part of life. It is the combination of the spiritual and the secular. Our food, our music, our dance, our worship, our rebellion … it is for us, by us. It evolves as we do. It is a living practice.”

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder.

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