“As a child growing up in a small town in Alabama, I shared the experience of most southern-born black children as well as many northern black children whose families migrated from, or maintained close ties with, the South. We were aware at an early age that there were more forces to contend with than met the eye. A person’s very neighbors, thought outwardly friendly, might be plotting against him, ‘laying a trick’ on him. But they didn’t perform the actual trick themselves; they had neither the power nor the knowledge. Instead, they went to the local hoodoo doctor or root worker.”
– Jim Haskins, in the book’s introduction.
First published in 1978 and available as a used book on Amazon, Jim Haskins’ Voodoo & Hoodoo: The Traditional Craft as Revealed Traditional Practitioners is a worthwhile introduction to southern folk magic. One Amazon reviewer says that the author didn’t want the word “Voodoo” in the title, but that this was added by the publisher to ramp up sales. The term is misleading because the book is about herbs, root doctors and practices that have little to do with the Voodoo religion.
When I was writing my novella Conjure Woman’s Cat, I found this book to be a credible introduction, especially for those of us who grew up in the South around the edges of the practices and point of view Haskins describes. The quotation at the beginning of this post is typical of the kind of thing many of us (white and black) heard when we were young, but often had a hard time finding anyone who would tell us what it was all about.
While the book includes spells and recipes, they aren’t the strong point: the value here is the ambiance and sense of the craft one gets from the practitioners themselves.
You’ll find plenty of spells and recipes and herbal information on the Internet and in books such as Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic and The Black Folder both by cat yronwode. Or, you can look at hoodoo blogs such as Spiritual Information for more details about methods and practices. As an author, I needed a starting point and Haskins’ book was a good one for that. If you’re researching hoodoo, or simply interested in learning more about it as a component of southern culture, the book will also give you a starting point.
Frankly, I do not like authors who look up practices (spiritual, cultural, or ethnic) on, say, Wikipedia, grab a few basics, and then head straight for books with spells. Doing this is dishonest because it paints an inaccurate, Hollywood-style picture of something real and twists it into something made to look like fantasy. J. K. Rowling recently got into trouble with American Indian nations for taking bits and pieces of their beliefs and using them out of context in her new writing on the Pottermore site. This practice is often called appropriation.
I prefer appreciation when it comes to another culture and its spiritual and folk magic practices. With appreciation, we’re telling something true–even in a novel–because we’re keeping our references to the art and craft of the people as correct and in context as we can make them. In order to do this, one has to immerse himself or herself into the world and world view of your fictional hoodoo (or other magical, cultural or spiritual) practitioners long before looking for, say, specific spells/charms/herbs that fit into the plot of one’s fiction.
The resulting book, whether it’s in the magical realism genre or labeled by Amazon as fantasy, is reality based in the same sense that a book with a protestant minister or Catholic priest is reality based because it starts with characters whose beliefs are part of a real system.
When it comes to hoodoo, Jim Haskins’ overview of the craft and the culture it came from was a good place for me to start.
Conjure Woman’s Cat, from Florida publisher Thomas-Jacob, is available in e-book and paperback editions–and coming soon as an audio book. It’s set in the world where I grew up, the places I explored when I sneaked away from the house, and focuses on the racism I didn’t understand then or now.