For Black Millennials and Gen Z, Embracing Hoodoo Is Healing and Transformative
This, however, created fertile ground for a quiet resurgence of an old tradition. More landlocked than ever and acutely aware of mortality, many Black people, specifically Black millennials and Generation Z, started to embrace hoodoo (also known as conjure or rootwork). Hoodoo, a spiritual tradition practiced by enslaved Black people during the 19th century, uses natural and otherworldly elements to create tangible change. Through working with herbs, communing with nature, and connecting with ancestors, hoodoo practitioners today find community, comfort, and healing.
Hoodoo isn't a religion, says Yvonne Chireau, MTS, PhD, associate professor of religion at Swarthmore College and author of Black Magic: African American Religion and Conjuring Tradition. However, she says historians refer to it as a folk religion, a belief system that falls outside institutionalized doctrine. In the 1800s, enslaved people from West African tribes within the Congo, Sierra Leone, and present-day Ghana found themselves on foreign land and exchanged remedies and spiritual practices. This eventually created hoodoo, a cohesive set of cultural beliefs that took hold in the United States, according to Katrina Hazzard-Donald, PhD, author of Mojo Workin': The Old African American Hoodoo System.
Enslaved African people used resources available—minerals, roots, herbs, and animals—to promote well-being as well as protection, Dr. Chireau says. "It's a tradition for healing, but I always add harm to that," she says. It was also "a source of defense against whatever affliction slavery brought."
After emancipation, Dr. Chireau believes the chain of oral transmission weakened, likely because, after slavery, the need for hoodoo was less acute. "That's a controversial statement," Dr. Chireau says. "Most hoodoo practitioners today say: We need it just as much as we needed it during slavery."
Juju Bae, 29, a teacher and host of A Little Juju Podcast, a popular series that explores hoodoo and African traditional religions (ATR), says her hoodoo exploration began in 2016 online. Though she says that social media platforms have helped make hoodoo more accessible during the pandemic, she says they were more intimate spaces a few years ago. Private Facebook groups allowed newbie practitioners and elders to speak freely back then, she says.
From these private online spaces, Bae—who practices both hoodoo and a Yoruba religion called Ifa—says she was able to connect with elders who became spiritual godparents in real life. "ATR and hoodoo have been able to grow because the ways that we use social media grow," she says. As platforms like TikTok gained popularity, the number of content creators talking publicly about spells and communicating with ancestors has exploded, Bae says. "It's been amazing to witness."
Bae launched her podcast in 2018 to explore her faith alongside others because "hoodoo is very much a collective tradition." As for this most recent groundswell in popularity, Bae isn't surprised. "It makes sense [that there's an increase right now] because hoodoo is good for that: We're in the midst of a lot of bullshit. It's created to deal with bullshit, so when the bullshit is there, hoodoo, I think, is going to be there, too."
Quinetta*, 29, who was raised Christian, says her relationship with hoodoo started during the pandemic. "Most of my circles, if not 90 percent of them, have been Christian spaces, and COVID created an environment where I was not consistently with my friends," she says, "The loneliness of COVID, in some ways, created a welcome mat for me to explore what else exists, what other things I believe in, what other things feel like home for me."
"Young people are turning away from Christianity, but they're seeking something in their own ancestral lineage." —Yvonne Chireau, MTS, PhD
While dealing with personal problems during the pandemic, she read a tweet that said, to purify ancestral connections and have better dreams, place water under the bed and sleep in white clothing. "I remember doing that, and answers just started coming. It just felt so clear, and I think [my interest in hoodoo] snowballed from there," she says, adding that she has since picked up books like Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals to contextualize her experiences.
Quinetta's journey toward hoodoo (and away from Christianity) reflects broader trends among millennials. It's no secret that spiritual practices have health benefits: A 2019 literature review published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests a strong connection between spirituality and subjective well-being. However, Americans are reassessing their relationship with organized religion. The Pew Research Center reports that people with "no religious affiliation" increased by 6 percent from 2016. Additionally, the number of self-identified Christians has fallen by about 12 percentage points over the last decade.
"Young people are turning away from Christianity," Dr. Chireau says. "But they're seeking something in their own ancestral lineage."
This connection to their ancestors is something both Bae and Quinetta value in their hoodoo practices. Quinetta's hoodoo practice shifts depending on her needs, but she says it never strays too far from activities she imagined her ancestors leaned on for support and survival. Some days, Quinetta sits in front of an ancestor altar that features many women in her family. Other days, she puts her fingers in the soil, working in her garden to tend herbs like hyssop and lavender. Sometimes, she reaches for her Bible, she says, looking for a Psalm to soothe her soul.
For Bae, looking to those who came before allows her to see herself more clearly. "If it's rooted and based in veneration of the people that came before me, those people are like me," she says. "Those are my elders. Literally, those are my grandparents. Those are my great-grandparents. So I, quite literally, feel at home because I'm honoring who I came from," she says.
Bae sees hoodoo as a reflection of what "Black people did to protect themselves, to love, to support one another, to take care of each other, to heal each other, to heal themselves," she says. "Black people have been doing that for a very long time. That gives me pride. That makes me feel safe. That makes me feel comfortable."
"[Young people] are re-imagining themselves in the tradition," Dr. Chireau says. "A few years back, everyone was talking about the Sankofa: [the idea that you must] go back, and you retrieve that which was lost or put down. I think, intuitively, that's what people are doing. They don't have all the pieces, so they're taking whatever they can, which is entirely appropriate."
However, the improvisation that undergirds hoodoo also makes it vulnerable to appropriation. Dr. Chireau says that, from its inception, non-Black entrepreneurs have exploited and commercialized hoodoo—selling talismans, herbs, and other paraphernalia. Additionally, white people actively discredited the practice. Granny midwives, well-respected Black women in the South who relied on herbal medicine and rootwork during labor and delivery, were pushed out of birthing experiences as modern obstetrics and gynecology came to the fore. The scars of this are apparent today, as many young people are deeply skeptical of non-Black practitioners, scholars, and academics in the space, says Dr. Chireau.
To further complicate matters, Dr. Chireau says that those who want to understand hoodoo would have to return to the places they've likely rejected. "Go to one of the oldest fundamentalist churches you can, and sit there, and find Mother-So-and-So," Dr. Chireau says. "You're not going to get to talk to Mother-So-and-So until you're baptized, [but] you will find the authentic practitioners in the Black church," she says, adding that they won't use words like hoodoo or conjure.
This is because, like other Afro-Indigenous traditions subjected to colonial oppression and slavery, hoodoo survived by hiding in plain sight. Practices melded seamlessly into the Black church and Black culture overall. Elders might've worked with roots and petitioned ancestors just as easily as they "spoke in tongues" during Sunday service. Psalms—a book in the Old Testament—is often used in hoodoo conjure work. It's entirely possible that someone's grandmother spent New Years' Eve in church and made black-eyed peas (in her freshly cleaned home) for prosperity in the new year. Hoodoo traditions, easily dismissed as superstition, dance with institutionalized religion as each generation steps further away from the latter.
Quinetta, who is still negotiating her overall relationship with Christianity, says this tension doesn't deter her. "This is why [hoodoo] is ours," Quinetta says. "It's this perfect marriage of our ancestors: what they brought with them when they were forced to leave and what they created when they were forced to learn."
*Last name is withheld
Loading More Posts...