What Frederick Douglass Revealed—and Omitted—in His Famous Autobiographies

What Frederick Douglass Revealed—and Omitted—in His Famous Autobiographies

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Frederick Douglass, the most influential black man in 19th-century America, wrote 1,200 pages of autobiography, one of the most impressive performances of memoir in the nation’s history. The three texts included Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (published in 1845); his long-form masterpiece My Bondage and My Freedom, (1855); and finally, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892). During his lifetime, they launched him to national prominence; since then, they have become essential texts of U.S. history.

In them, Douglass tells his extraordinary personal story—of the slave who endured and witnessed untold acts of brutality, then audaciously willed his own freedom. He describes the young slave who mastered the master’s language, and who saw to the core of the meaning of slavery, both for individuals and for the nation. And then he captures the multiple meanings of freedom—as idea and reality, of mind and body—as no one else ever did in America.

But as in so many autobiographies, there is also much Douglass holds back, details that don’t fit his carefully constructed narrative. He says little, for instance, of his complex family relationships—including his second marriage to a white woman—or his important female friends. Nor does he ever really reveal his true feelings about his improbable odyssey from a fugitive slave and radical outsider, a black man who gained fame for eloquently trumpeting the nation’s harshest truths, to a political insider warmly welcomed by Abraham Lincoln in the White House.

From orphaned slave to conscience of a nation

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, on the Holme Hill Farm, in Talbot County, Maryland in February, 1818. He was the son of Harriet Bailey, who he saw for the last time in 1824, at age six. Douglass never knew the accurate identity of his father, although some evidence indicates that it was either his first owner, Aaron Anthony, or his second owner, Thomas Auld, to whom he was bequeathed on Anthony’s death. Douglass was, therefore, in the fullest sense an orphan long in search of father and mother figures as well as any semblance of a secure “home.” He lived 20 years as a slave and nearly nine years as a fugitive slave subject to recapture. From the 1840s to his death in 1895, he attained international fame as an abolitionist, reformer, editor, orator of almost unparalleled stature and author. The three autobiographies, along with his endless lecturing tours, formed the basis of his fame.

READ MORE: Why Frederick Douglass Matters

As a public man of affairs, he began his abolitionist career two decades before America would divide and fight a civil war over slavery. He lived to see black emancipation, to work actively for women’s suffrage long before it was achieved, to realize the civil rights triumphs and tragedies of Reconstruction. As a public figure, holding federal appointive offices, he witnessed America’s economic and international expansion in the Gilded Age. He lived to the eve of the age of Jim Crow, dying in 1895, when America collapsed into retreat from the very victories and revolutions in race relations he had helped to win. He had seen and played a pivotal role in America’s second founding out of the apocalypse of the Civil War, and he very much saw himself as a founder of the Second American Republic.

Walking the cruel shores of Douglass’s youth

In 1981, when I was a struggling graduate student and launching an unformed dissertation on Douglass, I had the good fortune to meet the late Dickson Preston, journalist, historian and resident of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Douglass had grown up. Preston had just published Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years, and I drove out to Easton, Maryland, where he took me on an extraordinary trek along the back roads of the Eastern Shore, a landscape Douglass himself had described, in part, as having a “worn-out, sandy, desert like appearance… a dull, flat, and unthrifty district… bordered by the Choptank River, among the laziest and muddiest of streams.”

Dick took me out to the bend in Tuckahoe River, the site of Douglass’s grandmother, Betsy Bailey’s cabin, where Frederick Bailey was born and reared until the age of six. I can still recall the walk along the edge of a cornfield down to the river, and the feeling of how moving such a simple, rustic place can be when we can know and feel its history. I saw the Auld house in St. Michaels, the home of one of Douglass’s owners. Dick traced the route Douglass’s mother, Harriet, took on her few journeys to see her son at the Wye plantation, what Douglass would call the “Great House farm” in the narratives. At the Wye plantation, still there today, I saw the old kitchen house where little Frederick had lived and witnessed the savage beating of his aunt Hester.

At some point Dick asked, would you like to see Covey’s farm? At the age of 16-17, Douglass was hired out to an overseer-farmer who disciplined unruly slaves. Douglass immortalized his savage beatings at the hands of Covey, and especially his resistance in a fight with the vicious slave master. I remember getting out of Dick’s car, stepping over a fence and walking up a ridge, as Dick said “turn around and look.” And there it was, Chesapeake Bay on a glorious summer day, full of white sailing ships—the same view that helped set afire Douglass’s dream of freedom.

To a lonely, despondent, brutalized but literate 16-year-old slave who had seen the city of Baltimore—and read of an even wider, wondrous world—Covey embodied the “system” that now imprisoned Fred Bailey (as Douglass was then called) in a desolate corner of the Eastern Shore, a wilderness of unseen, untold violence from which he might never have returned. By midsummer, in this daily hell, Covey achieved what Douglass claimed was his motive: “I was broken in body, soul and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed… behold a man transformed into a brute.”

READ MORE: Frederick Douglass's Emotional Meeting with His Former Slave Master

Dreaming of freedom

Sundays provided Frederick his only down time. Lonely, with no one to confide in, he tells us he would lie down under a shade tree, and spend many hours in “a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake.” Sometimes he would stroll over toward the Chesapeake Bay, a short distance from Covey’s farmstead, where he would allow himself an occasional burst of imagination, a daydream he would 10 years later capture in a beautiful and haunting metaphor of freedom. Sitting in a small room at a spare desk in Lynn, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1844-45, while crafting his first autobiography, Douglass peered back into his memory and wrote a passage for the ages.

“Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay,” he remembered, “whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe.” Douglass then captured slavery and freedom with unparalleled artistry in the genre of slave narratives:

Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint… with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships.

Then, perhaps gazing through the wintry window in his Lynn office, Douglass shifts and speaks directly to the ships, trying to re-enter a teenager’s voice:

You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O that I were on one of your gallant decks and under your protecting wing! Alas, betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O! that I could also go! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery!

In such a prose poem, Douglass wrote a psalm-like prayer of deliverance in his Narrative, rendering in the music of words the meaning of slavery’s potential to destroy the human spirit. Before ending this unforgettable meditation, as though bracing his face and body to a sudden wind off the Bay, he declared that he would one day “take to the water,” and bravely steer “a north-east course.” He would indeed one day toss his tears upon that sea, traveling back to and out of Baltimore. And in the decade before the Civil War, as today, his readers could—and still can—stand with Douglass in the dark night of his soul and sense the deepest of human yearnings in their own souls.

That whole experience with Preston put me into the mysterious and real worlds of Douglass’s slave youth, within some of the sights and scenes of the three famous autobiographies. And while to that point I had not taken those texts very seriously (I was then imagining a work on Douglass as a thinker), Preston left me with this advice: “Whatever sources you use, go back and read those autobiographies—Douglass really does reveal himself there.”

Well, yes, and no.

The things Douglass didn’t reveal

The three narratives are infinitely rich as sources of Douglass’s public life and his heroic rise to liberty, activism and fame. But they leave a great deal unsaid, consciously or unconsciously hidden from his readers and from us biographers. Douglass invited us into his life over and over; but he seems to slip out of the room right when we want to push him to elaborate about his wives (the first black, second white), his five children and his complex and troubled extended family. He remains silent about his likely German lover, Ottilie Assing, of perhaps two decades and his crucial friendship with Julia Griffiths, an English woman who helped him survive professionally and emotionally in the early 1850s. He keeps close to the vest his many leadership rivalries with other black men and what he really thought of William Lloyd Garrison or Abraham Lincoln. And he leaves readers wondering what it had really felt like on emancipation night in 1863, along with his thoughts and feelings about any one of dozens of crossroads in an epic public life.

I want to ask: Mr. Douglass, what did you really read before crafting that rhetorical masterpiece of abolitionism, the 4 of July speech of 1852 that questioned what “independence” meant to America’s slaves, or the Freedmen’s Memorial address of 1876? Why did you keep an interpreter’s guide to the Bible almost always on or next your desk? Tell us, sir, the depth with which you read the book of Isaiah, Robert Burns and your favorite, Shakespeare. What was your writing process when you escaped into your little stone hut that you called your “growlery,” back behind your big house in the 1880s? How did you really, deep down, process that rage and hatred you forever seemed to harbor for slaveholders and their protectors? What did you actually say to your two young sons, Lewis and Charles, when you recruited them to go risk their lives for freedom in the Union army in 1863? What was it really like in your household when all your famous literary-intellectual friends came to visit and your illiterate wife left the room? What did you go through when five of your six grandchildren died so suddenly in 1886-87, most from typhoid fever? And how, sir, did you sustain hope in the 1880s and ’90s when black folk were being terrorized with lynchings and the triumphs of your life were so endangered as you reached the end of your mortal journey?

Alas, we cannot do that. We are left with the dilemma that in this self-made hero’s autobiographical life, the story of becoming free is better or more dramatic than being free.

Crafting his life’s narrative arc—and historical reputation

At the end of Douglass’s third autobiography, he declares that he had “lived several lives in one: first, the life of slavery; secondly, the life of a fugitive from slavery; thirdly, the life of comparative freedom; fourthly, the life of conflict and battle; and fifthly, the life of victory, if not complete, at least assured.” With a memoirist’s concentration on the self, Douglass wanted to demonstrate the struggle and achievement in his life. He has suffered and overcome, we are told. He had persevered through hopelessness, led his people through the fiery trial, and in the end reached at least a personal triumph. These are the images of an aging man summing up his life and attempting to control his historical reputation.

In Douglass’s categories, we see his self-image as a fugitive slave risen to racial and national leader, the person and the nation regenerated and redeemed. Like all talented autobiographers, Douglass was trying to order, even control, the passage of time, and thereby make sense of his own past. In 1884, Douglass, this man who never seemed to stop probing into his past to tell his story, wrote this revealing line about memory: “Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is…the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make it more symmetrical.” Oh, how dearly we wish for that, but almost always meet defeat.

American culture has always had a fascination for autobiography, especially in the service of the idea, or at least our need to believe in the idea, that we can recreate ourselves, that we can make and re-make our lives, that our futures are not wholly determined. How precious was that faith to an American slave in the 1830s and 1840s? In a passage in Bondage and Freedom, Douglass said as much poignantly:

“The thought of being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future—a future with hope in it. To be shut up entirely to the past and present is abhorrent to the human mind; it is to the soul—whose life and happiness is unceasing progress—what the prison is to the body.”

As a source of historical truth, of course, autobiography must be interpreted with caution. No simple chronology can convey the deeper meanings in such an eventful life. Douglass the autobiographer endures for many reasons, but not least because his writing represents both the brilliant complaint and the audacious hope of the slave who stole the master’s language and reimagined himself in prose poetry. We should read Douglass’s autobiographies not for their “accuracy,” but for their truths.

David Blight is a teacher, scholar and public historian. A professor of American history at Yale University and director of the school's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, he is author of many books including American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era and the New York Times-bestselling biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. He has worked on Douglass much of his professional life and been awarded the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize and the Frederick Douglass Prize, among others.

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Background Edit

Approximately 388,000 enslaved Africans from various ethnic groups were transported to North America from the 17th to 19th centuries as part of the transatlantic slave trade. [6] They were Kongo, Igbo, Akan, Mandé, Yoruba, Fon, Ewe, and Fulbe, among many others. [7] [8] After the arrival of diverse African ethnic groups to the United States, Hoodoo was created by enslaved African Americans for their spiritual survival as a form of resistance against slavery. "Because the African American community did not have the same medical or psychological aids as the European American society, its members were forced to rely on each other for survival. '. There was no justice in the courts for them and no regular source of financially reasonable medical aid from the white doctors in town. Therefore, blacks relied on hoodoo." [9] Also, "Hoodoo is defined as the spiritual and medicinal system of the African American in North America. This system originated on the plantation of the old South and is a reconstituting of several traditional African religious systems. Congo as well as Bambara influences are particularly observable." [10] Diverse African ethnic groups from West and Central Africa all worked on the same plantations. These diverse African ethnic groups in the United States overtime merged into one larger ethnic group called African-Americans who are the creators of Hoodoo. For example, the practice of the ring shout [11] in Hoodoo unified diverse African ethnic groups on slave plantations. "The Ring Shout enabled multiethnic Africans, in a particular locale, to combine in an inter-ethnic assimilation ritual that supported the nascent common identity of the African American. Enslaved Africans were ethnically a diverse group, had different national origins and did not participate in a single culture. The Ring Shout would challenge and dissolve that cultural and ethnic uniqueness." [12] Moreover, author Tony Kail, conducted research in African American communities in Memphis, Tennessee and traced the origins of Hoodoo practices to West and Central Africa. In Memphis, Kail conducted interviews with black rootworkers and wrote about African American Hoodoo practices and history in his book A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo. For example, Kail recorded on slave plantations in the American south, "The beliefs and practices of African traditional religions survived the Middle Passage (the Transatlantic slave trade) and were preserved among the many rootworkers and healers throughout the South. Many of them served as healers, counselors and pharmacists to slaves enduring the hardships of slavery." [13]

Central African influence Edit

The Bantu-Kongo origins in Hoodoo are evident. According to academic research, about 40 percent of Africans shipped to the United States during the slave trade came from Central Africa's Kongo region. Emory University created an online database that shows the voyages of the trans-atlantic slave trade. This database shows many slave ships primarily leaving Central Africa (slave voyages). [14] [15] Ancient Kongolese spiritual beliefs and practices are present in Hoodoo such as the Kongo Cosmogram. The Kongo Cosmogram is a cross (+) sometimes enclosed in a circle. It represents the human life cycle of death and rebirth of the human soul, and the center of the cross is where the communication with spirits take place. The Kongo cosmogram symbolize the rising of the sun in the east and the setting of the sun in the west, and represents cosmic energies. The two lines in the Kongo Cosmogram is a boundary between the physical world and the spiritual world. "The basic form of this cosmogram is a simple cross with one line representing the boundary between the living world and that of the dead, and the other representing the path of power from below to above, as well as the vertical path across the boundary." [16] [17] The Kongo Cosmogram cross symbol has a physical form in Hoodoo called the crossroads where Hoodoo rituals are performed to communicate with spirits, and to leave ritual items to banish negative energies. [18] The Kongo Cosmogram is also called the Bakongo Cosmogram and the "Yowa" cross. The Yowa (Kongo Cosmogram) is "A fork in the road (or even a forked branch) can allude to this crucially important symbol of passage and communication between worlds. The 'turn' in the path,' i.e., the crossroads, remains an indelible concept in the Kongo-Atlantic world, as the point of intersection between the ancestors and the living." Communication with the ancestors is a traditional practice in Hoodoo that was brought to the United States during the slave trade originating among Bantu-Kongo people. [19] [20] In Savannah, Georgia in a historic African American church called the First African Baptist Church, the Kongo Cosmogram symbol was found in the basement of the church. African Americans punctured holes in the basement floor of the church to make a diamond shaped Kongo Cosmogram for prayer and meditation. The church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. The holes in the floor provided breathable air for escaped slaves hiding in the basement of the church. [21]

On another plantation in Maryland archeologists unearthed artifacts that showed a blend of Central African and Christian spiritual practices among the slaves. This was Ezekial's Wheel in the bible that blended with the Central African Kongo Cosmogram. The Kongo Cosmogram is an + sometimes enclosed in a circle that resembles the Christian cross. This may explain the connection enslaved black Americans had with the Christian symbol the cross as it resembled their African symbol. Also, the Kongo cosmogram is evident in hoodoo practice among black Americans. Archeologists unearthed on a former slave plantation in South Carolina clay pots made by enslaved Africans that had the Kongo cosmogram engraved onto clay pots. [22] The Kongo cosmogram symbolize the birth, life, death and rebirth cycle of the human soul. [23] "Marks on the bases of Colono Ware bowls found in river bottoms and slave quarter sites in South Carolina suggest that more than one hundred and fifty years ago African American priests used similar symbols of the cosmos. While cataloging thousands of Colono Ware sherds, South Carolina archaeologists began noticing marks on the bases of some bowls. Most of these marks were simple crosses. In some cases a circle or rectangle enclosed the cross in others, 'arms' extended counterclockwise from the ends of the cross. On one there was a circle without a cross, and on a few others we found more complicated marks." [24] [25] [26]

The Ring Shout in Hoodoo has its origins from the Kongo region with the Kongo Cosmogram and ring shouters dance in a counterclockwise direction that follows the pattern of the rising of the sun in the east and the setting of the sun in the west which the sun rises and sets in a counterclockwise direction. In addition, the ring shout "is a sacred circle, the center was a vortex of spiritual energy and power which represented a separate and sacred realm, one not of the material realities of enslavement. It represented a reality which connected one to the ancestors and reconfirmed a continuity through both time and space. Within the circle, the interaction between the individual and the community was mediated by sacred spiritual forces evidenced in spirit possession." [27] [28] [29] [30] Through counterclockwise circle dancing, ring shouters built up spiritual energy that resulted in the communication with ancestral spirits. "As worshippers circled, some of them fell into the spiritual vortex of the circle’s center where they were embraced by both the community and the supernatural spiritual forces. As a hallmark of African spiritual values in worship, the ring shout emerged early on in the slave community, and included both sacred dancing and spirit possession." [31] The ring shout tradition continues in Georgia with the McIntosh County Shouters. [32]

In 1998, in a historic house in Annapolis, Maryland called the Brice House archeologists unearthed Hoodoo artifacts inside the house that linked to Central Africa's Kongo people. "Materials excavated in Annapolis from the Brice and Carroll houses provide evidence of Kongo-like activities in eighteenth and nineteenth century urban settings. Archaeologists have interpreted such caches in terms of African American spiritual practices known as 'Hoodoo.' Descriptions of Hoodoo practices refer consistently to the use of doll parts, pins, pierced coins, and bottles, which functioned very much like power bundles from the Kongo region used to guarantee healing and protection or for pursuing wrongdoers. One set of materials has been interpreted as depicting a cosmogram (a Kongo sacred symbol) created and maintained over forty years. Scholars believe that the Brice House material created a sacred interior landscape rooted in a Kongo tradition." These artifacts are the continued practice of the Kongo's Minkisi and Nkisi culture in the United States brought over by enslaved Africans. [33]

Other artifacts uncovered at the James Brice House were Kongo Cosmogram engravings drawn as crossroads (an X) inside the house. "The Hoodoo artifacts make a crossroads that was intended to give its makers [enslaved African-Americans] active control over their own lives-including such applications as curing rheumatism, protecting children, assisting with finding a mate, and warding off a harsh mistress or master." [34] Nkisi bundles were found in other plantations in Virginia and Maryland. "The autobiographies of slaves and former slaves contain recollections of occult practices involving roots, coins, iron, fingernail clippings and other materials believed to have magical properties." The creation of Nkisi bundles by enslaved people were held in secret away from slaveholders for the purpose of protection, healing, or misfortune on slaveholders. Other items found that linked to West Central Africa, historians and archeologists suggests was the finding of quartz crystals which were used in some West African households to represent the ancestors. "Africans there often save white stones, which they associate with the spiritual world. They select quartz stones for the shrine to represent each dead ancestor. Dr. Lamp noted that such stones and many white objects, like buttons and ceramics, were well represented in the house artifacts. Lots of single elements of African rituals were practiced by slaves in this country and still are, he said. For example, the use of stones to represent spirits of ancestors. This is done today in parts of the South. I've seen glasses of stones in water maintained in homes." [35]

In Kings County in Brooklyn, New York at the Lott Farmstead Kongo related artifacts were found on the site. The Kongo related artifacts were a Kongo Cosmogram engraved onto ceramics and Nkisi bundles that had cemetery dirt and iron nails left by enslaved African Americans. The iron nails researchers suggests were used to prevent whippings from slaveholders. Also, the Kongo Cosmogram engravings were used as a crossroads for spiritual rituals by the enslaved African American population in Kings County. Historians suggests Lott Farmstead was a stop on the Underground Railroad for freedom seekers (runaway slaves). The Kongo Cosmogram artifacts were used as a form of spiritual protection against slavery and for enslaved peoples protection during their escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad. [36]

In Talbot County, Maryland at the Wye House plantation where Frederick Douglass was enslaved in his youth, Kongo related artifacts were found. Enslaved African Americans created items to ward off evil spirits using broken shards of pottery and glass placing them inside furnaces and entrances to doorways. [37] At Levi Jordan Plantation in Brazoria, Texas near the Gulf Coast, researchers suggests the plantation owner Levi Jordan may have transported captive Africans from Cuba back to his plantation in Texas. These captive Africans practiced a Bantu-Kongo religion in Cuba, and researchers excavated Kongo related artifacts at the site. For example, archeologists found in one of the cabins called the "curer's cabin" remains of an nkisi nkondi with iron wedges driven into the figure to activate its spirit. Researchers found a Kongo bilongo which enslaved African Americans created using materials from white porcelain creating a doll figure. In the western section of the cabin they found iron kettles and iron chain fragments. Researchers suggests the western section of the cabin was an altar to the Kongo spirit Zarabanda. [38] [39] [40]

The word "goofer" in goofer dust has Kongo origins, it comes from the "Kongo word 'Kufwa' which means to die." [41] The mojo bag in Hoodoo has Bantu-Kongo origins. Mojo bags are called "toby" and the word toby derives from the Kongo word tobe. "Another important word in the lexicon of the charm makers is toby. A toby is a good-luck charm. In form and function it almost certainly derives from the tobe charms of Kongo. The original charm was 'made up of a mixture of earth and grave plus palm wine, and is believed to bring good luck." The mojo bag or conjure bag derived from the Bantu-Kongo minkisi. The Nkisi singular, and Minkisi plural, is when a spirit or spirits inhabit an object created by hand from an individual. These objects can be a bag (mojo bag or conjure bag) gourds, shells, and other containers. Various items are placed inside a bag to give it a particular spirit or job to do. Other examples of Kongo origins of the mojo bag is found in the story of Gullah Jack. Gullah Jack was an African from Angola who carried a conjure bag (mojo bag) onto a slave ship leaving Angola for the United States. In South Carolina, Gullah Jack used the spiritual knowledge he had with him from Angola and made conjure bags for other enslaved people for their spiritual protection. [42] [43] [44] Other Bantu-Kongo origins in Hoodoo is making a cross mark (Kongo Cosmogram) and stand on it and take an oath. This practice is done in Central Africa and in the United States in African American communities. The Kongo Cosmogram is also used as a powerful charm of protection when drawn on the ground, the solar emblems or circles at the end and the arrows are not drawn just the cross marks which looks like an X. [45] [19] Other Bantu-Kongo practices present in Hoodoo are the use of conjure canes. Conjure canes in the United States are decorated with "animal parts, wood, cloth, metal, and plastics" to conjure specific results and conjure spirits. This practice was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade from Central Africa. Several conjure canes are used today in some African American families. In Central Africa among the Bantu-Kongo, ritual healers are called banganga and use ritual staffs (now called conjure canes in Hoodoo) "charged with supernatural power through the application of substances." These ritual staffs of the banganga conjure spirits and healing for people. [46] [47] The Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida collaborated with other world museums to compare African American conjure canes with ritual staffs from Central Africa and found similarities between the two, and other aspects of African American culture that originated from Bantu-Kongo people. [48]

Yale University professor, Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, has done academic research in Africa and in the United States and traced Hoodoo's (African American conjure) origins to Central Africa's Bantu-Kongo people in his book Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. Thompson is an African Art historian and found through his study of African Art the origins of African Americans' spiritual practices to certain regions in Africa. [49] Academic historian Albert J. Raboteau in his book, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, traced the origins of Hoodoo (conjure, rootwork) practices in the United States to West and Central Africa. These origins developed a slave culture in the United States that was social, spiritual, and religious. [50]

West African influence Edit

Another African origin in Hoodoo is the mojo bag. The mojo bag in Hoodoo has West and Central African origins. The word mojo comes from the West African word mojuba. Mojo bags are called gris-gris bag, toby, conjure bag, and mojo hand. [51] The West African Yoruba origins are evident in Hoodoo. For example, the Yoruba trickster deity called Eshu-Elegba resides at the crossroads, and the Yoruba people leave offerings for Eshu-Elegba at the crossroads. The crossroads has spiritual power in Hoodoo, and rituals are performed at the crossroads, and there is a spirit that resides at the crossroads to leave offerings for. However, the spirit that resides at the crossroads in Hoodoo is not named Eshu-Elegba because many of the African names of deities were lost during slavery but the belief that a spirit resides at the crossroads and one should provide offerings to it originates from West Africa. Folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett, recorded a number of crossroads rituals in Hoodoo practiced among African-Americans in the South and explained its meaning. Puckett wrote. "Possibly this custom of sacrificing at the crossroads is due to the idea that spirits, like men, travel the highways and would be more likely to hit upon the offering at the crossroads than elsewhere." [52] In addition to leaving offerings and performing rituals at the crossroads, sometimes spiritual work or "spells" are left at the crossroads to remove unwanted energies. [53] [54] [55]

In Annapolis, Maryland, archeologists uncovered evidence for West African and Central African practices. A Hoodoo spiritual bundle that contained nails, a stone axe and other items was found embedded four feet in the streets of Maryland near the capital. The axe inside the Hoodoo bundle showed a cultural link to the Yoruba people's deity Shango. "The bundle’s most striking component, the stone axe, was especially intriguing. Dr. Lamp said this brought to mind the Yoruba and the Fon people of Benin, who considered the axe blade a symbol of Shango, their god of thunder and lightning. Matthew D. Cochran, a doctoral student in anthropology at University College London, who uncovered the bundle, said it would probably prove to be associated with Yoruba practices related to Shango." Shango was (and is) a feared Orisha in Yorubaland, because he is associated with lightning and thunder, and this fear and respect towards thunder and lightning survived in African American communities. Folklorist Puckett wrote. "and thunder denotes an angry creator." Puckett recorded a number of beliefs surrounding the fear and respect for thunder and lightning in the African American community. In Hoodoo objects struck by lightning hold great power. However, the name Shango and other African deity names were lost during slavery. Therefore, the name Shango does not exist in Hoodoo, but just the name the Thunder God. Also, enslaved and free blacks in New York were known among the whites in the area to take an oath to thunder and lightning. "Similar traditional African beliefs and practices were noted, especially in connection with resistance. In the 1712 uprising, for instance, enslaved men sought invincibility by covering their bodies with what they believed to be a special powder they also confirmed their commitment to each other and the revolt by swearing a blood oath. And in the 1741 'conspiracy,' black men swore upon an oath of 'thunder and lightning.'” [56] [57] [58]

Hoodoo also has Vodun origins. For example, a primary ingredient used in goofer dust is snakeskins. Snakes (serpents) are revered in West African spiritual practices, because they represent divinity. The West African Vodun water spirit Mami Wata holds a snake in one hand. This reverence for snakes came to the United States during the slave trade, and in Hoodoo snakeskins are used in the preparation of conjure powders. [59] Puckett explained that the origin of snake reverence in Hoodoo originates from snake (serpent) honoring in West Africa's Vodun tradition. [60] Water spirits, called Simbi, are also revered in Hoodoo which comes from West African and Central African spiritual practices. When Africans were brought to the United States as slaves, they blended African spiritual beliefs with Christian baptismal practices. Enslaved Africans prayed to the spirit of the water and not to the Christian god when they baptized church members. [61] "Baptism also had a distinctly African side to it. The nineteenth century Georgia practice of praying to Kongo-derived simbi spirits before immersion demonstrates this aspect of an other wise Christian rite." [62] [63]

The West African Igbo origins are also evident in Hoodoo. Ambrose Madison, a prominent planter in colonial Virginia and grandfather of U.S. President James Madison, died at his plantation (Mount Pleasant, later renamed Montpelier) as a result of an unknown illness. According to research from historian Douglass Chambers, it was believed by Ambrose Madison's family that he was poisoned by three of his Igbo slaves. The evidence that Igbo slaves poisoned Madison is limited however, the book does offer some information about Igbo people in Virginia. The Igbo people's spiritual practice is called Odinani that was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. Igbo people had their own herbal knowledge and spiritual practices that shaped Hoodoo in the United States. Communication with ancestors is an important practice in Hoodoo that originated from West and Central Africa. The Igbo people believe family members can reincarnate back into the family line. To ensure this process proper burial ceremonies are performed. Igbo people and other ethnic groups in West Africa have two burials for their family members one physical and one spiritual. Burial ceremonies of African Americans was influenced by the culture of Igbo people's belief in the care and respect for the dead and ancestors. If family members were not given a proper burial the soul suffered in the afterlife. "A proper burial ceremony opened the door to reincarnation only the completion of all rites, Igbos believed, would send the spirit of the deceased to the spirit world. And only after having entered the spirit world could one reincarnate. A proper burial actually involved two burials, a physical one, in which the body was placed into the earth and a spiritual one, a very public ritual that celebrated the individual's life while simultaneously mourning the loss. This second burial was just as important as the placing of the body in the ground because without it the spirit could not join the other ancestors or reincarnate." [64] [65] [66]

Archeologists in New York discovered continued West-Central African burial practices in a section of Lower Manhattan, New York City which is now the location of the African Burial Ground National Monument. [67] Archeologists and historians noted about 15,000 Africans were buried in a section of Lower Manhattan that was named the "Negroes Burial Ground." Over 500 artifacts were excavated showing continued African traditions in New York City's African American community. Some of the artifacts came from West Africa. At the site, only 419 Africans buried were exhumed, and from their discoveries archeologists and historians found African cultural retention in African Americans burial practices. For example, many of the Africans buried including women, men, and children had beads, waist beads, and wristlets. "In many African societies, beads hold ceremonial significance at every stage of life: at birth, puberty, initiation, marriage, procreation, old age, death, and, finally, entry into the community of ancestors and spirits. For the living, they provide protection against evil, guard against bad fortune, and connote wealth, status, and fertility (when worn around the waist) of the wearer." Also, about 200 shells were found with African remains. "Shells also have significance in an African mortuary context, reflecting the belief that they 'enclose the soul’s immortal presence.” Also, beads, shells, and iron bars are associated with the Yoruba deity Olokun a spirit that owns the sea. After 1679, the majority of Africans imported to colonial New York were from West Africa. West Africans imported to the colony were Akan, Yoruba, Fon, and other ethnic groups. These diverse African ethnic groups brought their traditional cultures with them and adorned their dead with adornments made from American materials but had an African design and meaning to them. In addition, archeologists excavated conjure bags (mojo bags) at the site. For example, "African diviners and healers were among those enslaved and transported by force to the Caribbean and the Americas. They often carried pouches or bundles of special items that they used to communicate with the spirits. Called conjuring bundles, such bundles contained items that were symbolic of important energies, essences, or deities. Items in bundles were made of things like claws, teeth, clay, ash, nut shells, bird skulls, feathers, or roots. Each of these items held a specific spiritual meaning. Healers and other enslaved Africans also kept charms on their persons for protection or good luck. Several of the people who were buried at the African Burial Ground were buried with items that could have been parts of conjuring bundles or charms." "Protective amulets hidden on the upper body were common among West Africans of the day." Other artifacts found at the site that linked to West Africa researchers suggests was the finding of an Akan Sankofa Symbol found on a coffin. [68] The Akan Sankofa Adinkra symbol means to remember ones ancestors, and look to the future while not forgetting the past. [69] In addition, West African spiritual beliefs mixed with the Christian faith, and free and enslaved West Africans started their own African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches in New York. [70] [71] [72]

Another West African influence in Hoodoo is Islam. As a result of the transatlantic slave trade, some West African Muslims that practiced Islam were enslaved in the United States. Prior to their arrival to the American South, West African Muslims blended Islamic beliefs with traditional West African spiritual practices. On plantations in the American South enslaved West African Muslims kept some of their traditional Islamic culture. They practiced the Islamic prayers, wore turbans, and the men wore the traditional wide leg pants. Some enslaved West African Muslims practiced Hoodoo. Instead of using Christian prayers in the creation of charms, Islamic prayers were used. Enslaved black Muslim conjure doctors Islamic attire was different from the other slaves, which made them easy to identify and ask for conjure services regarding protection from slaveholders. [73] [74] The Mandigo (Mandinka) were the first Muslim ethnic group imported from Sierra Leone in West Africa to the Americas. Mandingo people were known for their powerful conjure bags called gris-gris (later called mojo bags in the United States). Some of the Mandingo people were able to carry their gris-gris bags with them when they boarded slave ships heading to the Americas bringing the practice to the United States. Enslaved people went to enslaved black Muslims for conjure services requesting them to make gris-gris bags (mojo bags) for protection against slavery. [75]

Haitian influence Edit

Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American cultural anthropologist and Hoodoo initiate, reported in her essay, Hoodoo in America, that conjure had its highest development along the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans and its surrounding rural areas. These regions were settled by Haitian immigrants at the time of the overthrow of the French rule in Haiti by Toussaint Louverture. Thirteen-hundred Haitians (of African descent, along with their White ex-masters) were driven out, and the nearest French refuge was the province of Louisiana, then under Spanish control. African Haitians brought with them their conjure rituals modified by European cultural influences, such as Catholicism. While some retained Haitian Vodou practices, others developed their own regional Hoodoo. Unlike the continental North American slaves, slaves in the Caribbean islands were encouraged to make themselves as much at home as possible in their bondage, and thus retained more of their West African customs and language. [76] [77]

The Haitian Revolution and the conjure used during the revolution inspired other slave revolts in the United States. For example, in 1822 a free black named Denmark Vesey planned a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina that was modeled after the Haitian Revolution. "Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and formerly enslaved person, allegedly planned an enslaved insurrection to coincide with Bastille Day in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. Vesey modeled his rebellion after the successful 1791 slave revolution in Haiti. His plans called for his followers to execute the white enslavers, liberate the city of Charleston, and then sail to Haiti before the white power structure could retaliate." Denmark Vesey's co-conspirator was an enslaved Gullah conjurer named Gullah Jack. Gullah Jack was known to carry a conjure bag with him at all times for his spiritual protection. For the slaves spiritual protection, Gullah Jack gave them rootwork instructions for a possible slave revolt planned by his co-conspirator Denmark Vesey. "He instructed his fellow rebels to keep crab claws with them and to only eat parched corn meal and a peanut butter-like mash before the rebellion. These measures were believed to protect against harm and capture through supernatural means." The plan was to free those enslaved through armed resistance and the use of conjure however, Denmark Vesey and Gullah Jack were not successful because their plan was revealed and stopped. [78] [79]

Botanical developments Edit

African Americans had their own herbal knowledge that was brought from West and Central Africa to the Unites States. European slave traders selected certain West African ethnic groups for their knowledge of rice cultivation to be used in the United States on slave plantations. During the transatlantic slave trade a variety of African plants were brought from Africa to the United States for cultivation they were, okra, sorghum, yam, benneseed (sesame), watermelon, black-eyed peas, and kola nuts. [80] "West African slaves brought not only herbal knowledge with them across the Atlantic they also imported the actual seeds. Some wore necklaces of wild liquorice seeds as a protective amulet. Captains of slaving vessels used native roots to treat fevers that decimated their human cargo. The ships’ hellish holds were lined with straw that held the seeds of African grasses and other plants that took root in New World soil." [81] African plants brought from Africa to North America were cultivated by enslaved African Americans for medicinal and spiritual use for the slave community, and cultivated for white American slaveholders for their economic gain. "African healers also felt a sacred connection to plants they found in the woods, and they used elements from African religious rituals when they prepared medicines." [81] [82] African Americans mixed their knowledge of herbs from Africa with European and regional Native American herbal knowledge. In Hoodoo, African Americans used herbs in different ways. For example, when it came to the medicinal use of herbs, African Americans learned some medicinal knowledge of herbs from Native Americans however, the spiritual use of herbs and the practice of Hoodoo (conjuring) remained African in origin. [83] Enslaved African Americans also used their African knowledge of herbs to poison their enslavers. [84]

During slavery, some enslaved African Americans served as community doctors for Blacks and whites, despite many white Americans were cautious of black doctors because some enslaved Africans did poison their enslavers. Enslaved Africans found herbal cures for animal poisons and diseases that helped black and white Americans during slavery. For example, African traditional medicine proved beneficial during a smallpox outbreak in the colony of Boston, Massachusetts. An enslaved African named Onesimus was enslaved by Cotton Mather who was a minister in the colony. Boston was plagued by several smallpox outbreaks since the 1690s. Onesimus "introduced the practice of inoculation to colonial Boston" which helped reduce the spread of smallpox in the colony. "Little is known of Onesimus after he purchased his freedom, but in 1721 Cotton Mather used information he had learned five years earlier from his former slave to combat a devastating smallpox epidemic that was then sweeping Boston." Onesimus told Mather that when he was in Africa, Africans performed inoculations to reduce the spread of diseases in their societies. [85] [86] "In the 1700s, an enslaved man named Caesar was given his freedom and one hundred pounds per annum for life by the General Assembly as a reward for discovering a cure for those who were bitten by a rattlesnake or who had swallowed poison. This knowledge was a two-edge sword, for blacks could use plant poison against their masters, and some did." [82]

Enslaved African Americans most often times treated their own medical problems themselves using the herbal knowledge they brought with them from Africa and some herbal knowledge learned from regional Native Americans. Many slaveholders were ignorant on how to treat their slaves medical conditions, and some slaveholders did not care for the health of their slaves just their labor. What made it more difficult for enslaved people were laws passed on the prevention for enslaved African Americans to provide medical care for themselves. Slaveholders passed preventative medical laws on their slaves because they feared enslaved people would poison them with their herbal knowledge. For example, ". elected officials in Virginia passed laws in 1748 designed to limit African Americans from administering medical treatments but evidence suggests that plantation owners continued to tolerate and sometimes relied on slave herbal doctors following the passage of the law. Virginian lawmakers passed this law because of a concern for being poisoned by African American folk practitioners." [87] In addition, in 1749 in South Carolina the General Assembly passed a law "that prohibited slaves, under threat of death, from employment by physicians or apothecaries, expressly so that slaves could not concoct poisons or apothecaries, or administer medicines of any kind." [88] Slaveholders feared a possible slave revolt and being poisoned by their slaves, so much so that white Americans refused to provide enslaved African Americans medical knowledge. Any European medicines incorporated by African Americans came from African Americans curiosity, and not from slaveholders or other white Americans teaching enslaved African Americans herbal knowledge during slavery. Many of the medicines used by white Americans were chemical, while African Americans used the natural herbs and roots and made them into teas. [89]

Enslaved African American women used their knowledge of herbs to have miscarriages during pregnancy to prevent slaveholders from owning their children and to prevent their children being born into slavery. "More specifically, women’s cooking and medical practices employed the use of West and West-Central African ingredients and herbs, carrying on ancestral traditions and differentiation of their cooking from those of enslavers provided women with a sense of empowerment. Women used herbs and roots medicinally, including to prevent pregnancies or induce miscarriages, thus denying slaveholders future offspring. Women, as well as men, used their knowledge of herbs and roots to treat their community both with and without slaveholder’s knowledge or approval. Pierce Harper, enslaved in North Carolina, recalled medical practice on his plantation for many different ailments including intestinal distress, fever, and intestinal worms. 'Most of the time the master gave us castor oil when we were sick. Some old folks went in the woods for herbs and made medicine. They made tea out of ‘lion’s tongue’ for the stomach and snake root is good for pains in the stomach, too. Horse mint break the fever. They had a vermifuge weed.” [90] In addition, "Slaves used many of the plants used by the community of their white owners: snakeroot, mayapple, red pepper, boneset, pine needles, comfrey, and red oak bark, to name a few. Slave healers understood the various preparations of pokeweed and how to avoid its dangers while taking advantage of its curative properties. Sassafras root tea was a popular seasonal blood cleanser believed to 'search de blood' for what was wrong and go to work on it. Slave midwives would have known and used herbs for 'female complaints' and to ease childbirth. Slaves preferred their own doctors to white doctors and their 'heroic' purging and bloodletting." [81] Before and after the Civil War, African Americans adjusted to their environments and learned the local flora from indigenous peoples, books, and their study of plants. [91] Europeans also brought their own plants from Europe to the United States for herbal cures in America which African Americans incorporated European herbs into their herbal practice. [92]

There were two kinds of Hoodoo herbalists. Some African Americans used herbs only for medicinal reasons to cure physical illness such as, headaches, heart problems, blood related diseases, and other illnesses. The second use of herbs practiced by African Americans were their spiritual use to remove curses, evil spirits, and bring good luck. "All of the hoodoo doctors have non-conjure cases. They prescribe folk medicine, 'roots', and are for this reason called 'two headed doctors'. Most of the prescriptions have to do with birth and social diseases. There is no formal training for this. Either men or women may take it up. Often they are not hoodoo doctors, but all hoodoo doctors also practice medicine." [93]

Traditional herbal healing remains a continued practice in the Gullah Geechee Nation. Gullah people gather roots from their backyards and gardens and make medicines to heal diseases and treat illnesses. "The natives of Hilton Head would plant peppermint,' 'It's the same thing then as now. They used it to settle the stomach.' And they would make peppermint oil for quick, temporary relief from toothaches, she said. Ravare reaches for a box of the plant mullein. A picture on the box shows exactly what she still sees growing on Hilton Head. 'It was made into a tea, mostly for respiratory issues,' she said. Garlic was planted by the Gullah for use in regulating blood pressure and fighting infections, she said." Gullah people's herbal knowledge originated from African herbal practices. "These were things people had used forever and they knew they worked,' she said. 'Agriculture began in Africa. These people had skills. They were not just laborers. They came here knowing these remedies. They knew how to identify plants. The Indians did the same thing. Naturally, you use what you know." "We [Gullah people] used herbs and practices handed down from the elders." [94]

Antebellum era Edit

Hoodoo developed as a primarily Central and West African retention. From Central Africa, Hoodoo has Bakongo magical influence incorporating the Kongo Cosmogram, water spirits called Simbi, and some Nkisi practices. The West African influence is Vodun from the Fon and Ewe people in Benin and Togo and some elements from the Yoruba religion. After their contact with European slave traders, Africans were forced to become Christian which resulted in a blend of African spiritual beliefs with the Christian faith. Enslaved and free Africans also learned some regional indigenous botanical knowledge after they arrived to the United States. [95] The extent to which Hoodoo could be practiced varied by region and the temperament of the slave owners. For example, the Gullah people of the coastal Southeast experienced an isolation and relative freedom that allowed retention of various traditional West African cultural practices whereas rootwork in the Mississippi Delta, where the concentration of enslaved African-Americans was dense, was practiced under a large cover of secrecy. [96] [97] The reason for secrecy among enslaved and free African Americans was that slave laws prohibited large gatherings of enslaved and free blacks. Slaveholders experienced how slave religion ignited slave revolts among enslaved and free blacks, and some leaders of slave insurrections were black ministers or conjure doctors. [98] The Code Noir in French colonial Louisiana, prohibited and made it illegal for enslaved Africans to practice their traditional religions. Article III in the Code Noir states. "We forbid any public exercise of any religion other than Catholic." [99] The Code Noir and other slave laws resulted in enslaved and free African Americans to conduct their spiritual practices in secluded areas such as woods, and other places. [100] Former slave and abolitionist William Wells Brown, wrote in his book, My southern home, or, The South and its people published in 1880, discussed the life of enslave people in the American South. Brown recorded a Voudoo (this is how the word is spelled in the book) meeting where enslaved people in St. Louis, Missouri gathered to have a secret Voudoo ceremony at midnight. Enslaved people circled around a cauldron, and a Voudoo queen had a magic wand, and snakes, lizards, frogs, and other animal parts were thrown into the cauldron. During the ceremony spirit possession took place. Brown also recorded other conjure (Hoodoo) practices among the enslaved population. [101]

Known hoodoo spells date back to the era of slavery in the colonial history of the United States. A slave revolt broke out in 1712 in colonial New York, with enslaved Africans revolting and set fire to buildings in the downtown area. The leader of the revolt was a free African conjurer named Peter the Doctor who made a magical powder for the slaves to be rubbed on the body and clothes for their protection and empowerment. [102] Conjure bags, also called mojo bags, were used as a form of resistance against slavery. William Webb helped enslaved people on a plantation in Kentucky resist their oppressors with the use of mojo bags. Webb told the slaves to gather some roots and put them in bags and "march around the cabins several times and point the bags toward the master's house every morning." After the slaves did what they were instructed by Webb, the slaveholder treated his slaves better. [103] Another enslaved African named Dinkie, known by the slaves as Dinkie King of Voodous, on a plantation in the American south, used goofer dust to resist a cruel overseer (a person who is an overseer of slaves). Dinkie was an enslaved man on a plantation who never worked like the other slaves. He was feared and respected by blacks and whites. Dinkie was known to carry a dried snakeskin, frog and lizard, and sprinkled goofer dust on himself and spoke to the spirit of the snake to wake up its spirit against the overseer. [104] Henry Clay Bruce who was a black abolitionist and writer, recorded his experience of enslaved people on a plantation in Virginia hired a conjurer to prevent slaveholders from selling them to plantations in the Deep South. Louis Hughes an enslaved man who lived on plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi, had a mojo bag with "roots, nuts, pins, and some other things," was carried to prevent slaveholders from whipping him. The mojo bag (conjure bag) Hughes carried on him was called a "voodoo bag," by the slaves in the area. [105] Former slave and abolitionist Henry Bibb wrote in his autobiography Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself that he sought the help of several conjurers when he was enslaved. Bibb went to the conjurers (Hoodoo doctors) and hoped the charms provided to him from the conjure doctors would prevent slaveholders from whipping and beating him. The conjurers provided Bibb with conjure powders to sprinkle around the bed of the slaveholder, put conjure powders in the slaveholder's shoes, and carry a bitter root and other charms on him for his protection against slaveholders. [106]

Frederick Douglass, who was a former slave, and an abolitionist and author, wrote in his autobiography that he sought spiritual assistance from an enslaved conjurer named Sandy Jenkins. Sandy told Douglass to follow him into the woods and found a root which Sandy told Douglass to carry in his right pocket which would prevent any white man from whipping him. Douglass carried the root on his right side instructed by Sandy and hoped the root would work when he returned back to the plantation. The cruel slave-breaker Mr. Covey told Douglass to do some work, but as Mr. Covey approached Douglass, Douglass had the strength and courage to resist Mr. Covey and defeated him after they fought. Covey never bothered Douglass again. In his autobiography, Douglass believed the root given to him by Sandy prevented him from being whipped by Mr. Covey. [107] Hoodoo or conjure for African Americans is a form of resistance against white domination. [108] [109] For example, ". other people [slaves] used conjuring to protect against the evils of slavery. Conjurers were perceived as a threat to white society as many enslaved persons went to them to receive potions or charms in protection or revenge against their masters." [110]

During the era of slavery, occultist Paschal Beverly Randolph began studying the occult and traveled and learned spiritual practices in Africa and Europe. Randolph was a mixed race free black man who wrote several books on the occult. In addition, Randolph was an abolitionist and spoke out against the practice of slavery in the South. After the American Civil War, Randolph educated freedmen in schools for former slaves called Freedmen's Bureau Schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he studied Louisiana Voodoo and Hoodoo in African American communities, documenting his findings in his book, Seership, The Magnetic Mirror. In 1874, Randolph organized a spiritual organization called Brotherhood of Eulis in Tennessee. [111] [112] Through his travels, Randolph documented the continued African traditions in Hoodoo practiced by African Americans in the South. In Hoodoo, "The practisers of the art, who are always native Africans, are called hoodoo men or women, and are held in great dread by the negroes, who apply to them for the cure of diseases, to obtain revenge for injuries, and to discover and punish their enemies." According to Randolph, the words Hoodoo and Voodoo are African dialects, and the practices of Hoodoo and Voodoo are similar to Obi (Obeah) in the Caribbean. [113] [114]

Post-emancipation Edit

The term "Hoodoo" was first documented in American English in 1875 as a noun (the practice of hoodoo) or as a transitive verb, as in "I hoodoo you," an action carried out by varying means. The hoodoo could be manifest in a healing potion, or in the exercise of a parapsychological power, or as the cause of harm which befalls the targeted victim. [115] [116] In African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), Hoodoo is often used to refer to a paranormal consciousness or spiritual hypnosis, or a spell, but Hoodoo may also be used as an adjective in reference to a practitioner, such as "Hoodoo man." According to Paschal Berverly Randolph, the word Hoodoo is an African dialect. [117]

The mobility of Black people from the rural South to more urban areas in the North is characterized by the items used in Hoodoo. White pharmacists opened their shops in African American communities and began to offer items both asked for by their customers, as well as things they themselves felt would be of use. [118] Examples of the adoption of occultism and mysticism may be seen in the colored wax candles in glass jars that are often labeled for specific purposes such as "Fast Luck" or "Love Drawing." There were some African Americans that sold Hoodoo products in the black community. "Mattie Sampson, a robust young Negro woman, told us that she does an active mail order business as representative of the Lucky Heart Company, the Sweet Georgia Brown Company, and the Curio Products Company. She supports herself comfortably by means of selling her credulous neighbors good luck perfumes, roots, lodestones, and similar charms. 'Duh chahms an good luck puhfumes an powduhs do deah wuk independent of any additional hep,' Mattie said. 'Ef anybody believe a puticuluh chahm is wut dey need, well, dat chahm will do duh wuk." [119] Since the opening of Botanicas, Hoodoo practitioners purchase their spiritual supplies of novena candles, incense, herbs, conjure oils and other items from spiritual shops that service practitioners of Vodou, Santeria, and other African Traditional Religions. [120]

Hoodoo spread throughout the United States as African-Americans left the delta during the Great Migration. As African Americans left the South during the Great Migration, they took the practice of Hoodoo to other black communities in the North. Benjamin Rucker, also known as Black Herman, provided Hoodoo services for African Americans in the North and the South when he traveled as a stage magician. In a book that has Black Herman as the author called the Secrets of Magic, Mystery, and Legerdemain "there are Hoodoo formulas, astrology, and dream interpretation." However Black Herman may have been the author. "Black Herman’s origins lay in the South. He was born Benjamin Rucker in Virginia in 1892 and came of age in the shadow of an itinerant African American showman and street peddler by the name of Prince Herman (Alonzo Moore), who took in Rucker as an apprentice at the age of sixteen. By the time of Prince Herman’s death, Rucker had fine-tuned his own skills at reading cards, divining fortunes, and cooking up healing elixirs, so much so that he was able to make his own way around the circuit of traveling faith healers who hustled material goods and spiritual assurances from town to town in Black Belt communities. Eventually the harbingers of poverty and racial discrimination pushed Rucker out of the South and toward Chicago, where in the late 1910s he launched an independent career, assuming a new biography and name borrowed from his old friend and mentor: henceforth he would be known as Black Herman." [121] For some African Americans that practiced rootwork, providing Hoodoo services in the black community for African Americans to obtain love, money, employment, and protection from the police was a way to help black people during the Jim Crow Era in the United States so blacks can gain employment to support their families, and for their protection against the law. [122] [123]

The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses is a grimoire that was made popular by European immigrants. Purportedly based on Jewish Kabbalah, it contains numerous signs, seals, and passages in Hebrew related to the prophet Moses' ability to work wonders. Though its authorship is attributed to Moses, the oldest manuscript dates to the mid-19th century. Its importance in hoodoo among some practitioners is summarized as follows:

I read de "Seven Books of Moses" seven or eight yeah a'ready . de foundation of hoodooism came from way back yondah de time dat Moses written de book "De Seven Book of Moses". [124] [125]

However, the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses is not traditional in Hoodoo. White Americans marketed Hoodoo to African Americans for their own personal profit which was not planned to maintain the African traditions in Hoodoo. The incorporation of European grimoires into Hoodoo began in the twentieth century during the Great Migration as African Americans left the South to live and work in Northern cities living near European immigrants. However, the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses has become a part of modern Hoodoo, because African Americans connected to the story of Moses freeing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and Moses' magical powers against the Egyptians. Also, African Americans practiced Hoodoo centuries before the introduction of European grimoires. Hoodoo developed on slave plantations in the United States, and enslaved and free blacks used conjure as a form of resistance against slavery. Conjure practices in the slave community and among free blacks remained Central and West African in origin which Hoodoo practices included the ring shout, dream divination, Bible conjure, spiritual use of herbs, conjure powders, conjure bags (mojo bags), and drawing Kongo Cosmogram engravings (an X) on floors to protect themselves from a harsh slaveholder. [126] [127] For example, Gullah Jack was an African from Angola who brought a conjure bag onto a slave vessel leaving Angola going to the United States for his spiritual protection against slavery. [128] "Blacks utilized conjure as a form of resistance, revenge, and self-dense." [129] After the American Civil War into the present day with the Black Lives Matter Movement, Hoodoo practices in the African American community also focus on spiritual protection from police brutality. [130] [131]

Today, Hoodoo and other forms of African Traditional Religions are present in the Black Lives Matter movement as one of many methods against police brutality and racism in the black community. For example, in a news article from California State University. "the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that is generally deemed as non-religious, is actually deeply rooted in spirituality and has brought spiritual healing to the Black community and continues to share and spread this information to non-Black communities." "We are carrying out a rich tradition of Black organizing that is dynamic, spirit based and gives honor to what we are doing… We are giving honor to the spiritualism and the activism that our ancestors did and relied upon." Black American keynote speakers that are practitioners of Hoodoo spoke at an event at The Department of Arts and Humanities at California State University about the importance of Hoodoo and other African spiritual traditions practiced in social justice movements to liberate black people from oppression. [132]

The Spiritual Church Movement in the United States began in the mid-nineteenth century. The African American community was a part of this movement beginning in the early twentieth century, and several spiritual churches were in African American communities. Some African Americans started independent spiritual churches as a way for them to hide their African practices from whites by synchronizing African traditions with the Christian faith. Some Black spiritual churches incorporated some elements of Hoodoo and Voodoo practices. "Not all spiritualistic congregations practice hoodoo. The original Spiritualist church in New Orleans is apparently free of hoodoo. This congregation was established in 1918 by Mother Leafy Anderson and called the Eternal Life Spiritualist Church. Subsequently eleven other spiritualists grew up in the city, more or less affiliated with Mother Anderson's. A strong aroma of hoodoo clings about the other eleven congregations but 'The Eternal Life' practices no hoodoo. Mother Leafy Anderson was not a hoodoo doctor in the phrase of her church members. Eleven of her congregations were 'stolen' by hoodoo worshippers." There were some spiritual churches documented by Zora Neale Hurston that incorporated Hoodoo practices. "Mother Hyde combines conjure and spiritualism. She burns candles as do the Catholics, sells the spirit oil, but gives a 'cake' to be used with the oil. This bit of cake, saturated with spirit oil, is enclosed in a salve box with 'God be with us' written on the top. Mother Hyde told me, 'In case of trouble, arise at dawn and face the east. Take the vial of spirit oil in one hand and the cake (in its box) in the other. Read the Twenty-Third Psalm and let that be your prayer. When you come to the part, 'Thou anointest my head with oil,' shake the bottle well and pour three drops on your head and anoint your head. Do this every time you want to conquer and accomplish." African American spiritual churches provided food and other services for the black community. [133] [134] [135]

The use of divination in Hoodoo originated from African practices. In West and Central Africa, divination was (and is) used to determine what measures an individual or a community should know that is important for survival and spiritual balance. Just like in Africa and in Hoodoo, people turn to divination seeking guidance about major changes in their life. People seek an elder or a skilled diviner. This practice was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. [136] [137] There are several forms of divination traditionally used in Hoodoo. [138]

Cleromancy Edit

Involves the casting of small objects (such as shells, bones, stalks, coins, nuts, stones, dice, sticks, etc.) The use of bones, sticks, shells and other items is a form of divination used in Africa and in Hoodoo in the United States. [139]

Cartomancy Edit

Divination by means of interpreting cards. The use of divining with cards was added later in Hoodoo, such as Tarot and poker playing cards. There are some Hoodoo practitioners that use both. [140]

Natural or Judicial Astrology Edit

The study of positions and motions of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an influence over nature and human affairs. [141]

Augury Edit

The deciphering of phenomena (omens) that are believed to foretell the future, often signifying the advent of change. [142]

Oneiromancy Edit

A form of divination based upon dreams. [143]

In the history of Hoodoo, Aunt Caroline Dye was a Hoodoo woman born enslaved in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and moved to Arkansas in her adult life. Aunt Caroline Dye was known for her psychic abilities, and used a deck of cards and provided spiritual readings for blacks and whites. [144] "Caroline’s exceptional abilities started as a young child. When she was 10 years old and still a slave on the plantation, she was helping to set the table for Thanksgiving Dinner. She started insisting that they had not set enough plates, that Mister Charley was coming. Charley was the Plantation owner’s brother, who was thought to have been killed four years earlier in the Civil War. Sure enough, later that day Charley came walking in the door. The family couldn’t believe it! He relayed the fact that he had been wounded, taken prisoner, and had not had the chance to come home until that day. No one ever knew how she could have guessed such a thing, and all her little coincidences really started to be noticed after that. White and colored would go to her. You sick in bed, she raise the sick. … Had that much brains — smart lady. … That’s the kind of woman she was. Aunt Caroline Dye, she was the worst woman in the world. Had that much sense." Aunt Caroline Dye's psychic abilities were so well-known that several Blues songs were written about her by African American Blues musicians. [145]

"Seeking" process Edit

In a process known as "seeking" a Hoodoo practitioner will ask for salvation of a person's soul in order for a Gullah church to accept them. A spiritual leader will assist in the process and after believing the follower is ready they will announce it to the church. A ceremony will commence with much singing, and the practice of a ring shout. [4] The word "shout" derived from the West African Muslim word saut, meaning "dancing or moving around the Kaaba." The ring shout in Black churches (African American churches) originates from African styles of dance. "Despite the African style of singing, the spirituals, like the 'running spirituals' or rings shout, were performed in praise of the Christian God. The names and words of the African gods were replaced by Biblical figures and Christian imagery." [146] During slavery enslaved Africans were forced to become Christian which resulted in a blend of African and Christian spiritual practices that shaped hoodoo. As a result, hoodoo was and continues to be practiced in some Black churches in the United States. [147] [148] In the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor [149] area, praise houses [150] are places where African Americans gather to have church and perform healing rituals and the ring shout. "For example, since the mid-nineteenth century, travelers and northern teachers among the Gullah/Geechees have described an African-looking ritual called the 'ring shout.' Following the normal church, or 'praise house,' service, fully ordained members of the praise house often engaged in an accelerating circular dance, accompanied by singing and clapping. The ring shout culminated in the ecstatic descent of the Holy Spirit." [151] The ring shout in hoodoo has its origins in the Kongo region of Africa with the Kongo Cosmogram. For example, "Ring Shouts begin with an ancient ceremony which follows the circular pattern of the (Ba)Kongo Cosmogram. The Cosmogram symbol depicts the pattern of energy flow connecting the spiritual and physical worlds. During a Ring Shout, the counter-clockwise motion is meant to invoke the spirit while participants sing, pray and chant. Participants never lift their feet from the earth as they travel the Ring." "A Ring Shout is a ritual with spiritual healing qualities as prominent as transcendental vision quests, astral projection, or nirvana. 'In order for a Ring Shout to occur, the participants must step aside from their cerebral presence and allow Spirit to enter and govern the Ring." [152] [153] The Kongo Cosmogram sun cycle also influenced how African Americans in Georgia prayed. "According to Sophie the old people on St. Catherines would pray at the rising and at the setting of the sun and at the conclusion of their prayers they would say the words 'Meena, Mina, Mo.' Asked if she knew the meaning of these words, she shook her head negatively." [154]

The ring shout continues today in Georgia with the McIntosh County Shouters. [155]

Hoodoo Initiations Edit

This seeking process in Hoodoo accompanied with the ring shout is also an initiation into Hoodoo. For example, "Both during and after slavery, people of the sea islands [Gullah People] took part in spiritual initiation process as young adults. Scholars attribute this initiation practice as one that combined West African community-based initiation practices with what Methodist preachers called 'seeking Jesus.' It resulted in the young person joining the Christian community and required several phases. Seekers required spiritual guidance most often provided by spiritual mothers, time in the 'wilderness' of the Lowcountry (often using a forest or open field), and finally, approval from the community’s Black religious leaders." [156] [157] Zora Neale Hurston wrote about her initiation into Hoodoo in her book Mules and Men published in 1935. Hurston explained her initiation into Hoodoo included wrapped snakeskins around her body, and lying on a bed for three days nude so she could have a vision and acceptance from the spirits. Hurston wrote. "With the help of other members of the college of hoodoo doctors called together to initiate me, the snake skins I had brought were made into garments for me to wear. I was made ready and at three o'clock in the afternoon, naked as I came into the world, I was stretched, face downwards, my navel to the snake skin cover, and began my three day search for the spirit that he might accept me or reject me according to his will. Three days my body must lie silent and fasting while my spirit went wherever spirits must go that seek answers never given to men as men." [158] In addition to lying on a bed nude wrapped in snakeskins for her initiation, Hurston also had to drink the blood of the Hoodoo doctors who initiated her from a wine glass cup. [159] "Apprenticing herself to Luke Turner, a hoodoo doctor who claims he is the nephew of Marie Laveau, Hurston completely undergoes all the rites and initiation ceremonies required of her: she drinks blood, lies nude on a snakeskin for three days, and experiences visions: 'For sixty- nine hours I lay there. I had five psychic experiences and awoke at last with no feeling of hunger, only one of exaltation.'” [160]

Spirit mediation Edit

The purpose of Hoodoo was to allow people access to supernatural forces to improve their lives. Hoodoo is purported to help people attain power or success ("luck") in many areas of life including money, love, health, and employment. As in many other spiritual and medical folk practices, extensive use is made of herbs, minerals, parts of animals' bodies, an individual's possessions.

Contact with ancestors or other spirits of the dead is an important practice within the conjure tradition, and the recitation of psalms from the Bible is also considered spiritually influential in Hoodoo. Due to Hoodoo's great emphasis on an individual's spiritual power to effect desired change in the course of events, Hoodoo's principles are believed to be accessible for use by any individual of faith. [161] Hoodoo practice does not require a formally designated minister.

Bottle tree Edit

Hoodoo is linked to a popular tradition of bottle trees in the United States. According to gardener and glass bottle researcher Felder Rushing, the use of bottle trees came to the Old South from Africa with the slave trade. The use of blue bottles is linked to the "haint blue" spirit specifically. Glass bottle trees have become a popular garden decoration throughout the South and Southwest. [162] According to academic research, the origins of bottle trees practiced by African Americans has its origins from the Kongo region. "It is, however, in the United States that most Kongo-derived bottle trees are to be found. In Mississippi these trees, shorn of life, bearing cold, glittering bottles - visuals statements, again, of death and arrest of the spirit - simply block or ward off evil. The custom compares with that in Texas, where 'grave glass will keep the 'evil spirits away' or 'keep away the man's spirit." The purpose of bottle trees is to protect a home or a location from evil spirits by trapping evil spirits inside the bottles. [163]

God Edit

Since the 19th century there has been Christian influence in Hoodoo thought. [164] This is particularly evident in relation to God's providence and his role in retributive justice. For example, though there are strong ideas of good versus evil, cursing someone to cause their death might not be considered a malignant act. One practitioner explained it as follows:

"In hoodooism, anythin' da' chew do is de plan of God undastan', God have somepin to do wit evah' thin' you do if it's good or bad, He's got somepin to do wit it . jis what's fo' you, you'll git it." [165] A translation of this is, "In hoodooism, anything that you do is the plan of God, understand? God has something to do with everything that you do whether it's good or bad, he's got something to do with it. You'll get what's coming to you."

According to Carolyn Morrow Long, "At the time of the slave trade, the traditional nature-centered religions of West and Central Africa were characterized by the concept that human well-being is governed by spiritual balance, by devotion to a supreme creator and a pantheon of lesser deities, by veneration and propitiation of the ancestors, and by the use of charms to embody spiritual power. . In traditional West African thought, the goal of all human endeavor was to achieve balance." Several African spiritual traditions recognized a genderless supreme being who created the world, was neither good nor evil, and which did not concern itself with the affairs of mankind. Lesser spirits were invoked to gain aid for humanity's problems. [166] [167]

God as conjurer Edit

Not only is Yahweh's providence a factor in Hoodoo practice, but Hoodoo thought understands the deity as the archetypal Hoodoo doctor. On this matter Zora Neale Hurston stated, "The way we tell it, Hoodoo started way back there before everything. Six days of magic spells and mighty words and the world with its elements above and below was made." [168] From this perspective, biblical figures are often recast as Hoodoo doctors and the Bible becomes a source of spells and is, itself, used as a protective talisman. [169] This can be understood as a syncretic adaptation for the religion. By blending the ideas laid out by the Christian Bible, the faith is made more acceptable. This combines the teachings of Christianity that Africans brought to America were given and the traditional beliefs they brought with them. This practice in Hoodoo of combining African traditional beliefs with the Christian faith is defined as Afro-Christianity. Afro-Christianity is Christianity from an African American perspective. In Hoodoo, the divine can be commanded to act through the use of mojo bags, prayers, spiritual works or "spells" and laying tricks. One does not have to wait on God, but can command the divine to act at will through the use of Hoodoo spells. This is what makes African American Christianity in Hoodoo different from other forms of Christianity. By seeing God in this way, Hoodoo practices was preserved in and outside the Black Church. Also, ghosts and haunts can be controlled in Hoodoo because they emanate from God. Rootworkers control spirits through the use of Hoodoo spells by capturing spirits using the spiritual tools used in Hoodoo. The difference between Afro-Christianity and European American Christianity is that spirits can be controlled by using the herbal ingredients in nature, because the herbs and nature have a spirit, and if the spirits of nature and the divine can be influenced so can other spirits such as ghosts. [170] During the 1930s, some observers of African American Christianity (or Afro-Christianity) saw how church services of African Americans was similar to Voodoo ceremonies. The possessions during a Baptismal service at a black Spiritual Church was no different from a possession in a Voodoo ceremony, as the body movements, babbling in sounds, eye rolls, and other body jerks were similar. However, in Black churches it is called touched by the Holy Spirit, in Voodoo ceremonies African spirits mount or possess participants, but the response of possession is the same. [171] The origins of Afro-Christianity began with Bantu-Kongo people in Central Africa. Prior to Bakongo people coming to the United States and enslaved on plantations, Bakongo (Bantu-Kongo) people were introduced to Christianity from European missionaries and some converted to the Christian faith. Bantu-Kongo people's sacred symbol is a cross called the Kongo Cosmogram (+) that looks similar to the Christian Cross. [172] A form of Kongo Christianity was created in Central Africa. Bantu-Kongo people combined Kongo spiritual beliefs with the Christian faith that were nature spirits and spirits of dead ancestors. [173] The concepts of "Kongo Christianity" [174] among the Bakongo people was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade and developed into Afro-Christianity among African Americans that is seen in Hoodoo and in some Black Churches. As a result, African American Hoodoo and Afro-Christianity developed differently and was not influenced by European American Christianity as some African Americans continued to believe in the African concepts about the nature of spirits and the cosmos coming from the Kongo Cosmogram. [175]

A recent work on hoodoo lays out a model of hoodoo origins and development. Mojo Workin: The Old African American Hoodoo System by Katrina Hazzard-Donald discusses what the author calls

the ARC or African Religion Complex which was a collection of eight traits which all the enslaved Africans had in common and were somewhat familiar to all held in the agricultural slave labor camps known as plantations communities. Those traits included naturopathic medicine, ancestor reverence, counter clockwise sacred circle dancing, blood sacrifice, divination, supernatural source of malady, water immersion and spirit possession. These traits allowed Culturally diverse Africans to find common culturo-spiritual ground. According to the author, hoodoo developed under the influence of that complex, the African divinities moved back into their natural forces, unlike in the Caribbean and Latin America where the divinities moved into Catholic saints. [176]

This work also discusses the misunderstood "High John the Conqueror root" [177] and myth as well as the incorrectly-discussed "nature sack". [178] In African American folk stories, High John the Conqueror was an African prince who was kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in the United States. He was a trickster, and used his wit and charm to deceive and outsmart his slaveholders. After the American Civil War, before High John the Conqueror returned to Africa, he told the newly freed slaves that if they ever needed his spirit for freedom his spirit would reside in a root they could use. According to some scholars, the origin of High John the Conqueror may have originated from African male deities such as Elegua who is a trickster spirit in West Africa. By the twentieth century, white drugstore owners began selling High John the Conqueror products with the image of a white King on their labels commercializing Hoodoo. [179] [180]

Moses as conjurer Edit

Hoodoo practitioners often understand the biblical figure Moses in similar terms. Hurston developed this idea in her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, in which she calls Moses, "the finest Hoodoo man in the world." [181] Obvious parallels between Moses and intentional paranormal influence (such as magic) occur in the biblical accounts of his confrontation with Pharaoh. Moses conjures, or performs magic "miracles" such as turning his staff into a snake. However, his greatest feat of conjure was using his powers to help free the Hebrews from slavery. This emphasis on Moses-as-conjurer led to the introduction of the pseudonymous work the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses into the corpus of hoodoo reference literature. [182]

Bible as talisman Edit

In Hoodoo, "All hold that the Bible is the great conjure book in the world." [183] It has many functions for the practitioner, not the least of which is a source of spells. This is particularly evident given the importance of the book Secrets of the Psalms in hoodoo culture. [184] This book provides instruction for using psalms for things such as safe travel, headache, and marital relations. The Bible, however, is not just a source of spiritual works but is itself a conjuring talisman. It can be taken "to the crossroads", carried for protection, or even left open at specific pages while facing specific directions. This informant provides an example of both uses:

Whenevah ah'm afraid of someone doin' me harm ah read the 37 Psalms an' co'se ah leaves the Bible open with the head of it turned to the east as many as three days. [185]

Author, Theophus Harold Smith, explained in his book, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations in Black America, that the Bible's place is an important tool in Hoodoo for African Americans' spiritual and physical liberation. [186] The bible was used in slave religion as a magical formula that provided information on how to use herbs in conjure and how to use the bible to conjure specific results and spirits to bring about change in the lives of people, which is a continued practice today. [187]

For example, enslaved and free blacks used the Bible as a tool against slavery. Enslaved and free blacks that could read found the stories of the Hebrews in the Bible in Egypt similar to their situation in the United States as enslaved people. The Hebrews in the Old Testament were freed from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Examples of enslaved and free blacks using the Bible as a tool for liberation were Denmark Vesey's slave revolt in South Carolina in 1822 and Nat Turner's insurrection in Virginia in 1831. Vesey and Turner were ministers, and utilized the Christian faith to galvanize enslaved people to resist slavery through armed resistance. In Denmark Vesey's slave revolt, Vesey's co-conspirator was an enslaved Gullah conjurer named Gullah Jack who gave the slaves rootwork instructions for their spiritual protection for a possible slave revolt. Gullah Jack and Denmark Vesey attended the same church in Charleston, South Carolina and that was how they knew each other. However, Nat Turner was known among the slaves to have dreams and visions that came true. In the Hoodoo tradition, dreams and visions comes from spirits, such as the ancestors or the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith. Relying on dreams and visions for inspiration and knowledge is an African practice blended with the Christian faith among enslaved and free African Americans. After Nat Turner's rebellion, laws were passed in Virginia to end the education of free and enslaved blacks, and only allow white ministers to be present at all church services for enslaved people. White ministers preached obedience to slavery, while enslaved and free black ministers preached resistance to slavery using the stories of the Hebrews and Moses in the Old Testament of the Bible. There was a blend of African spiritual practices in both slave revolts of Vesey and Turner. Vesey and Turner used the Bible, and conjure was used along side the Bible. [188]

Spirits Edit

A spirit that torments the living is known as a Boo Hag. [4] Spirits can also be conjured to cure or kill people, and predict the future. [189] Also wearing a silver dime worn around the ankle or neck can protect someone from evil spirits and conjure. [190] Communication with spirits and the dead (ancestors) is a continued practice in Hoodoo that originated from West and Central Africa. Nature spirits in Hoodoo called Simbi originates from West-Central Africa, and Simbi spirits are associated with water and magic in Africa and in Hoodoo. [191] Simbi singular, and Bisimbi plural, are African water spirits. This belief in water spirits was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade and continues in the African American community in the practice of Hoodoo and Voodoo. The Bisimbi are water spirits that reside in gullies, streams, fresh water, and outdoor water features (fountains). [192] Academic research on the Pooshee Plantation and Woodboo Plantation in South Carolina, showed a continued belief of African water spirits among enslaved African Americans. Both plantations are "now under the waters of Lake Moultrie". [193]

The earliest known record of simbi spirits was recorded in the nineteenth century by Edmund Ruffin who was a wealthy slaveholder from Virginia, and traveled to South Carolina "to keep the slave economic system viable through agricultural reform". In Ruffin's records he spelled simbi, cymbee, because he did not know the original spelling of the word. In Ruffin's records, he recorded a few conversations he had with some of the enslaved people. One enslaved boy said he saw a cymbee spirit running around a fountain one night when he was trying to get a drink of water. Another enslaved man said he saw a cymbee spirit sitting on a plank when he was a boy before it glided into the water. In Central Africa's Kongo region, ". bisimbi inhabit rocks, gullies, streams, and pools, and are able to influence the fertility and well being of those living in the area". "What are bisimbi? They have other names, too. Some are called python, lightning gourd or calabash, mortar or a sort of pot. The explanation of their names is that they are water spirits (nkisi mia mamba). The names of some of these minkisi are: Na Kongo, Ma Nzanza, Nkondi and Londa. There is a significant amount of Kongo culture that continues today in the African American community, because 40 percentage of Africans taken during the transatlantic slave trade came from Central Africa's Congo Basin. [194] [195]

Other spirits revered in Hoodoo are the ancestors. In Hoodoo, the ancestors are important spirits that intercede in people's lives. Also, it is believed one's soul returns to God after death, however their spirit may still remain on Earth. Spirits can interact with the world by providing good fortune or bringing bad deeds. In Hoodoo, the ancestors can intercede in the lives of people by providing guidance and protection. [110]

To have a strong connection with the ancestors in Hoodoo, graveyard dirt is sometimes used. Graveyard dirt from the grave of an ancestor provides protection. Graveyard dirt taken from the grave of a person who is not an ancestor is used to harm an enemy or for protection. Also, graveyard dirt is another primary ingredient used in goofer dust. Graveyard dirt is placed inside mojo bags (conjure bags) to carry a spirit or spirits with you, if they are an ancestor or other spirits. Dirt from graveyards provides a way to have connections to spirits of the dead. To calm the spirits of ancestors, African Americans leave the last objects used by their family members and lay them on top of their grave as way to acknowledge them and it has the last essence or spirit of the person before they died. [196] [197] [198] This practice of ancestral reverence, using graveyard dirt, working with spirits of the dead, and decorating graves of family members and giving food offerings to dead relatives so they will not haunt the family, originated from Central Africa's Kongo region that was brought to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade. [199] Also, the West African practice of pouring libations continues in the practice of Hoodoo. Libations are given in Hoodoo as an offering to honor and acknowledge the ancestors. [200]

Several African American Blues singers and musicians composed songs about the culture of Hoodoo. They were W.C. Handy, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Big Lucky Carter, Al Williams and others. African American blues performers was influenced by the culture of Hoodoo and wrote songs about mojo bags, love workings, and spirits. In 1957 Muddy Water's song Got My Mojo Working spoke about the spiritual power of the mojo bag. Another Blues musician in Hoodoo is Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is known in the history of Hoodoo for his song about selling his soul to the devil (a black man with a cane) at the crossroads to become a better musician. Some authors suggests the origins of this practice in Hoodoo about crossroads spirits comes from Africa. According to Kail's conversations with a New Orleans Voudou priestess Papa Legba is a spirit that resides at crossroads and opens the doors to the spirit realm. He carries a cane and is a black man, just like in the story of Robert Johnson. However, Papa Legba is more associated with Haitian Vodou. Also, Papa Legba's origins may come from the Yoruba West African trickster spirit Eshu-Elegba who also resides at crossroads. For many white Americans in the mid-twentieth century they were introduced to the practice of hoodoo by listening to African American Blues musicians. [201] [202] [203] [204] [205]

Zora Neale Hurston often employs Hoodoo imagery and references into her literature. In Sweat, the protagonist Delia is a washwoman with a fear of snakes. Her cruel husband, Sykes, is a devotee of Li Grande Zombi and uses her ophidiophobia against her to establish dominance. Delia learns Voodoo and Hoodoo and manages to hex Sykes. Another book by Zora Neale Hurston features hoodoo hexes and spells as well as a Hoodoo doctor. [206]

Ishmael Reed criticizes the erasure of the African American from the American frontier narrative, as well as exposing the racist context of the American dream and the cultural evolution of the military-industrial complex. He explores the role of Hoodoo in the forging of a uniquely African-American culture. Reed writes about the Neo-hoo-doo aesthetic in aspects of African American culture such as dance, poetry and quilting. His book Mumbo Jumbo has many references to hoodoo. Mumbo Jumbo has been considered as representing the relationship between the westernized African American narrative and the demands of the western literary canon, and the African tradition at the heart of hoodoo that has defied assimilation. In his book Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the protagonist the Loop Garoo kid acts as an American frontier travelling with the hoodoo church and cursing 'Drag Gibson' the monocultural white American landowner. [207]

In Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, Mama day is a conjuress with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and the ability to contact her ancestors. The book focuses on benevolent aspects of Hoodoo as a means of elders helping the community and carrying on a tradition, with her saving Bernice's fertility. [208] Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo also explores the deep connection between community empowerment and Hoodoo, in the story, Indigo has healing abilities and makes hoodoo dolls. [209]

Hoodoo shows evident links to the practices and beliefs of Fon and Ewe Vodun spiritual folkways. [210] The folkway of Vodun is a more standardized and widely dispersed spiritual practice than Hoodoo. Vodun's modern form is practiced across West Africa in the nations of Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso, among others. In the Americas, the worship of the Vodoun loa is syncretized with Roman Catholic saints. The Vodou of Haiti, Voodoo of Louisiana, Vodú of Cuba, and the Vudú of the Dominican Republic are related more to Vodun than to Hoodoo. In Hoodoo in America, Zora Neale Hurston wrote: "Veaudeau is the European term for African magic practices and beliefs, but it is unknown to the American Negro. His own name for his practice is hoodoo, both terms being related to the West African term juju. 'Conjure' is also freely used by the American Negro for these practices. In the Bahamas as on the West Coast of Africa the term is obeah. 'Roots' is the Southern Negro’s term for folk-doctoring by herbs and prescriptions, and by extension, and because all hoodoo doctors cure by roots, it may be used as a synonym for hoodoo." [211]

CHAPTER III. Parentage

If the reader will now be kind enough to allow me time to grow bigger, and afford me an opportunity for my experience to become greater, I will tell him something, by-and-by, of slave life, as I saw, felt, and heard it, on Col. Edward Lloyd&rsquos plantation, and at the house of old master, where I had now, despite of myself, most suddenly, but not unexpectedly, been dropped. Meanwhile, I will redeem my promise to say something more of my dear mother.

I say nothing of father, for he is shrouded in a mystery I have never been able to penetrate. Slavery does away with fathers, as it does away with families. Slavery has no use for either fathers or families, and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation. When they do exist, they are not the outgrowths of slavery, but are antagonistic to that system. The order of civilization is reversed here. The name of the child is not expected to be that of its father, and his condition does not necessarily affect that of the child. He may be the slave of Mr. Tilgman and his child, when born, may be the slave of Mr. Gross. He may be a freeman and yet his child may be a chattel. He may be white, glorying in the purity of his Anglo-Saxon [40] blood and his child may be ranked with the blackest slaves. Indeed, he may be, and often is, master and father to the same child. He can be father without being a husband, and may sell his child without incurring reproach, if the child be by a woman in whose veins courses one thirty-second part of African blood. My father was a white man, or nearly white. It was sometimes whispered that my master was my father.

But to return, or rather, to begin. My knowledge of my mother is very scanty, but very distinct. Her personal appearance and bearing are ineffaceably stamped upon my memory. She was tall, and finely proportioned of deep black, glossy complexion had regular features, and, among the other slaves, was remarkably sedate in her manners. There is in Prichard&rsquos Natural History of Man, the head of a figure&mdashon page 157&mdashthe features of which so resemble those of my mother, that I often recur to it with something of the feeling which I suppose others experience when looking upon the pictures of dear departed ones.

Yet I cannot say that I was very deeply attached to my mother certainly not so deeply as I should have been had our relations in childhood been different. We were separated, according to the common custom, when I was but an infant, and, of course, before I knew my mother from any one else.

The germs of affection with which the Almighty, in his wisdom and mercy, arms the hopeless infant against the ills and vicissitudes of his lot, had been directed in their growth toward that loving old grandmother, whose gentle hand and kind deportment it was in the first effort of my infantile understanding to comprehend and appreciate. Accordingly, the tenderest affection which a beneficent Father allows, as a partial compensation to the mother for the pains and lacerations of her heart, incident to the maternal relation, was, in my case, diverted from its true and natural object, by the envious, greedy, and treacherous hand of slavery. The slave-mother can be spared long enough from [41] the field to endure all the bitterness of a mother&rsquos anguish, when it adds another name to a master&rsquos ledger, but not long enough to receive the joyous reward afforded by the intelligent smiles of her child. I never think of this terrible interference of slavery with my infantile affections, and its diverting them from their natural course, without feelings to which I can give no adequate expression.

I do not remember to have seen my mother at my grandmother&rsquos at any time. I remember her only in her visits to me at Col. Lloyd&rsquos plantation, and in the kitchen of my old master. Her visits to me there were few in number, brief in duration, and mostly made in the night. The pains she took, and the toil she endured, to see me, tells me that a true mother&rsquos heart was hers, and that slavery had difficulty in paralyzing it with unmotherly indifference.

My mother was hired out to a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from old master&rsquos, and, being a field hand, she seldom had leisure, by day, for the performance of the journey. The nights and the distance were both obstacles to her visits. She was obliged to walk, unless chance flung into her way an opportunity to ride and the latter was sometimes her good luck. But she always had to walk one way or the other. It was a greater luxury than slavery could afford, to allow a black slave-mother a horse or a mule, upon which to travel twenty-four miles, when she could walk the distance. Besides, it is deemed a foolish whim for a slave-mother to manifest concern to see her children, and, in one point of view, the case is made out&mdashshe can do nothing for them. She has no control over them the master is even more than the mother, in all matters touching the fate of her child. Why, then, should she give herself any concern? She has no responsibility. Such is the reasoning, and such the practice. The iron rule of the plantation, always passionately and violently enforced in that neighborhood, makes flogging the penalty of [42] failing to be in the field before sunrise in the morning, unless special permission be given to the absenting slave. &ldquoI went to see my child,&rdquo is no excuse to the ear or heart of the overseer.

One of the visits of my mother to me, while at Col. Lloyd&rsquos, I remember very vividly, as affording a bright gleam of a mother&rsquos love, and the earnestness of a mother&rsquos care.

&ldquoI had on that day offended &ldquoAunt Katy,&rdquo (called &ldquoAunt&rdquo by way of respect,) the cook of old master&rsquos establishment. I do not now remember the nature of my offense in this instance, for my offenses were numerous in that quarter, greatly depending, however, upon the mood of Aunt Katy, as to their heinousness but she had adopted, that day, her favorite mode of punishing me, namely, making me go without food all day&mdashthat is, from after breakfast. The first hour or two after dinner, I succeeded pretty well in keeping up my spirits but though I made an excellent stand against the foe, and fought bravely during the afternoon, I knew I must be conquered at last, unless I got the accustomed reenforcement of a slice of corn bread, at sundown. Sundown came, but no bread, and, in its stead, their came the threat, with a scowl well suited to its terrible import, that she &ldquomeant to starve the life out of me!&rdquo Brandishing her knife, she chopped off the heavy slices for the other children, and put the loaf away, muttering, all the while, her savage designs upon myself. Against this disappointment, for I was expecting that her heart would relent at last, I made an extra effort to maintain my dignity but when I saw all the other children around me with merry and satisfied faces, I could stand it no longer. I went out behind the house, and cried like a fine fellow! When tired of this, I returned to the kitchen, sat by the fire, and brooded over my hard lot. I was too hungry to sleep. While I sat in the corner, I caught sight of an ear of Indian corn on an upper shelf of the kitchen. I watched my chance, and got it, and, shelling off a few grains, I put it back again. The grains in my hand, I quickly put in some ashes, and covered them with embers, to roast them. All this I [43] did at the risk of getting a brutual thumping, for Aunt Katy could beat, as well as starve me. My corn was not long in roasting, and, with my keen appetite, it did not matter even if the grains were not exactly done. I eagerly pulled them out, and placed them on my stool, in a clever little pile. Just as I began to help myself to my very dry meal, in came my dear mother. And now, dear reader, a scene occurred which was altogether worth beholding, and to me it was instructive as well as interesting. The friendless and hungry boy, in his extremest need&mdashand when he did not dare to look for succor&mdashfound himself in the strong, protecting arms of a mother a mother who was, at the moment (being endowed with high powers of manner as well as matter) more than a match for all his enemies. I shall never forget the indescribable expression of her countenance, when I told her that I had had no food since morning and that Aunt Katy said she &ldquomeant to starve the life out of me.&rdquo There was pity in her glance at me, and a fiery indignation at Aunt Katy at the same time and, while she took the corn from me, and gave me a large ginger cake, in its stead, she read Aunt Katy a lecture which she never forgot. My mother threatened her with complaining to old master in my behalf for the latter, though harsh and cruel himself, at times, did not sanction the meanness, injustice, partiality and oppressions enacted by Aunt Katy in the kitchen. That night I learned the fact, that I was, not only a child, but somebody&rsquos child. The &ldquosweet cake&rdquo my mother gave me was in the shape of a heart, with a rich, dark ring glazed upon the edge of it. I was victorious, and well off for the moment prouder, on my mother&rsquos knee, than a king upon his throne. But my triumph was short. I dropped off to sleep, and waked in the morning only to find my mother gone, and myself left at the mercy of the sable virago, dominant in my old master&rsquos kitchen, whose fiery wrath was my constant dread.

I do not remember to have seen my mother after this occurrence. Death soon ended the little communication that had [44] existed between us and with it, I believe, a life judging from her weary, sad, down-cast countenance and mute demeanor&mdashfull of heartfelt sorrow. I was not allowed to visit her during any part of her long illness nor did I see her for a long time before she was taken ill and died. The heartless and ghastly form of slavery rises between mother and child, even at the bed of death. The mother, at the verge of the grave, may not gather her children, to impart to them her holy admonitions, and invoke for them her dying benediction. The bond-woman lives as a slave, and is left to die as a beast often with fewer attentions than are paid to a favorite horse. Scenes of sacred tenderness, around the death-bed, never forgotten, and which often arrest the vicious and confirm the virtuous during life, must be looked for among the free, though they sometimes occur among the slaves. It has been a life-long, standing grief to me, that I knew so little of my mother and that I was so early separated from her. The counsels of her love must have been beneficial to me. The side view of her face is imaged on my memory, and I take few steps in life, without feeling her presence but the image is mute, and I have no striking words of her&rsquos treasured up.

I learned, after my mother&rsquos death, that she could read, and that she was the only one of all the slaves and colored people in Tuckahoe who enjoyed that advantage. How she acquired this knowledge, I know not, for Tuckahoe is the last place in the world where she would be apt to find facilities for learning. I can, therefore, fondly and proudly ascribe to her an earnest love of knowledge. That a &ldquofield hand&rdquo should learn to read, in any slave state, is remarkable but the achievement of my mother, considering the place, was very extraordinary and, in view of that fact, I am quite willing, and even happy, to attribute any love of letters I possess, and for which I have got&mdashdespite of prejudices only too much credit, not to my admitted Anglo-Saxon paternity, but to the native genius of my sable, unprotected, and uncultivated mother&mdasha woman, who belonged to a race [45] whose mental endowments it is, at present, fashionable to hold in disparagement and contempt.

Summoned away to her account, with the impassable gulf of slavery between us during her entire illness, my mother died without leaving me a single intimation of who my father was. There was a whisper, that my master was my father yet it was only a whisper, and I cannot say that I ever gave it credence. Indeed, I now have reason to think he was not nevertheless, the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that, by the laws of slavery, children, in all cases, are reduced to the condition of their mothers. This arrangement admits of the greatest license to brutal slaveholders, and their profligate sons, brothers, relations and friends, and gives to the pleasure of sin, the additional attraction of profit. A whole volume might be written on this single feature of slavery, as I have observed it.

One might imagine, that the children of such connections, would fare better, in the hands of their masters, than other slaves. The rule is quite the other way and a very little reflection will satisfy the reader that such is the case. A man who will enslave his own blood, may not be safely relied on for magnanimity. Men do not love those who remind them of their sins unless they have a mind to repent&mdashand the mulatto child&rsquos face is a standing accusation against him who is master and father to the child. What is still worse, perhaps, such a child is a constant offense to the wife. She hates its very presence, and when a slaveholding woman hates, she wants not means to give that hate telling effect. Women&mdashwhite women, I mean&mdashare IDOLS at the south, not WIVES, for the slave women are preferred in many instances and if these idols but nod, or lift a finger, woe to the poor victim: kicks, cuffs and stripes are sure to follow. Masters are frequently compelled to sell this class of their slaves, out of deference to the feelings of their white wives and shocking and scandalous as it may seem for a man to sell his own blood to the traffickers in human flesh, it is often an act of humanity [46] toward the slave-child to be thus removed from his merciless tormentors.

It is not within the scope of the design of my simple story, to comment upon every phase of slavery not within my experience as a slave.

But, I may remark, that, if the lineal descendants of Ham are only to be enslaved, according to the scriptures, slavery in this country will soon become an unscriptural institution for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who&mdashlike myself&mdashowe their existence to white fathers, and, most frequently, to their masters, and master&rsquos sons. The slave-woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master. The thoughtful know the rest.

After what I have now said of the circumstances of my mother, and my relations to her, the reader will not be surprised, nor be disposed to censure me, when I tell but the simple truth, viz: that I received the tidings of her death with no strong emotions of sorrow for her, and with very little regret for myself on account of her loss. I had to learn the value of my mother long after her death, and by witnessing the devotion of other mothers to their children.

There is not, beneath the sky, an enemy to filial affection so destructive as slavery. It had made my brothers and sisters strangers to me it converted the mother that bore me, into a myth it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.

My mother died when I could not have been more than eight or nine years old, on one of old master&rsquos farms in Tuckahoe, in the neighborhood of Hillsborough. Her grave is, as the grave of the dead at sea, unmarked, and without stone or stake.


Race Relations

The central theme of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the main obsession of its title character is the question of race in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Specifically, the novel deals with the relationships between the white majority and the African American minority—no other racial or ethnic groups play important roles. The narrator is born shortly after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, and the country is newly in the process of deciding and discovering what the roles of African Americans (many of them recently freed from slavery) will be. As a man who lives part of his life in the white world and part of it in the “coloured,” and one who lives in the North, in the South, and in Europe, the narrator is uniquely qualified to observe the issues from a variety of perspectives.

Several times, the narrator abandons his narrative to digress for a few pages on matters of race. In these didactic passages the narrator acknowledges that “it is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a coloured man really thinks …” “I believe it to be a fact,” he writes, “that the coloured people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Therefore, the narrator, a coloured man who has been brought up mainly among whites, sets out to study his people and share his understanding with his readers.

In Chapter 5 he separates African Americans into three classes “in respect to their relations with the whites,” judging them with a cynical and detached eye. The lower classes, he points out, are desperate and angry and usually ignored the “advanced element of the coloured race … carry the entire weight of the race question.” In Chapter 9, during a discussion of the future of race relations in the United States, the millionaire urges the narrator to remain in Europe, because he “can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined coloured man in the United States.” And in Chapter 10, the narrator discusses race with an African American man on the ship to New York, and then in a train smoking car with a Jewish man, a Texan and an Ohio professor. Looking back on these conversations, the narrator concludes that racial problems “could be solved by the simple rules of justice.”

Topics for Further Study

  • Research recent organizations and activities of people whose parents are of different races. How do multi-racial or “mixed race” people today see themselves differently than similar people a century ago? How are they treated differently by others?
  • The narrator might have had a different sort of life if his parents had been permitted to marry, but Georgia society in the late nineteenth century could not accept white and black people marrying each other. How is their situation like and different from that of same-sex couples today who wish to marry?
  • Compare the white audiences’ fascination with ragtime music in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man with the ways in which white audiences today admire musical forms that have originated in African American culture.
  • Research the history of Atlanta University, and the role of “traditionally black colleges” today.
  • Research the history of the words “colored” and “Negro.” How have their denotations and connotations changed?

The narrator, however, does not have the patience to wait for that solution. Never a courageous or aggressive man, he decides in the end that rather than wait for justice—and rather than join “that small but gallant band of coloured men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race”—he will live a “small and selfish” life as a white man.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is, in some ways, the story of a man trying to discover who he is. As the narrator travels around restlessly, examining and evaluating other people’s lives, he is in search of something, though he does not realize what it is until the end of his story. He is looking for a consistent and holistic vision of himself. Sadly, his understandings come after he has made what he considers irrevocable decisions.

The world he lives in recognizes only two kinds of people—white and black—and has assigned him his role as a “coloured man” because his mother is “coloured.” However, as the child of a white father, and as a man with light skin that white society accepts unquestioningly, he has some claim to both races. In the beginning of the novel, he assumes he is white, and casually makes fun of the African American children in his school. When he discovers that he is “coloured,” he becomes a new person, or the same person in “another world,” and although he stops teasing the dark-skinned children he feels “a very strong aversion to being classed with them.” For the rest of the novel he will wrestle with his racial identity, resisting the label “coloured” and finding ways to distinguish himself from darker skinned, or more rural, or less well-off African Americans. In Paris, he can shed labels based on race, for in that city he is accepted simply for “the fact that I was an American.” But back in the United States, he is treated differently as he travels, depending on whether or not his “identity as a coloured man [has] yet become known in the town.” After witnessing the lynching, he decides to “neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race,” but to “let the world take me for what it would.” In the end, he is a man with no identity so far as race is concerned. He feels sometimes that he has “never really been a Negro,” and at other times that he has “sold [his] birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The narrator’s feelings are no less muddled in terms of his professional identity. His strongest passions, his most enjoyable moments, come from his music. Music provides his strongest bond to his late mother, to his millionaire friend, and to the woman he marries. From beginning to end, he recognizes, as others do, that playing music is his talent, his gift. Yet after the lynching, he plays music only at social events, and turns to real estate investment for his livelihood. In the end, he settles for money, leaving his musical career to become only “a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent.” If the ex-coloured man, now a successful businessman, plays for his own pleasure or is passing his love of music to his children, he does not think it important enough to mention.

Consider the following …

  • Research the Compromise of 1850. Consider why some significant politicians believed it would put an end to slavery. For example, three successive presidents—Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce (1804–1869 served 1853–57), and James Buchanan (1791–1868 served 1857–61)—all of whom were from northern states, supported the Compromise of 1850. Write an essay about why the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) increased tension between the North and the South.
  • In the lecture excerpted earlier and in his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass personalized the relationship between slave owner and slave to show the brutalities of slavery. Read either or both of those pieces, and focus on passages where examples of relationships between slaves and slave owners are described. Write an essay on how you responded to these passages, considering that many people believed the relationship between slave owner and slave was like a typical boss-worker arrangement.

30 Books That Changed The Course Of History

Every reader knows that a book can change your life.

But what about the lives of an entire generation? Can a book change the future?

Miriam Tuliao, assistant director of central collection development at the
New York Public Library, helped us come up with a list of the books that changed the course of history.

We also added a few of our own ideas.

From Shakespeare’s plays to Orwell’s �,” these 30 titles have had a major impact (listed here in alphabetical order).

Do you think another book belongs on this list? Let us know in the comments.

'Aesop's Fables' by Aesop

Believed to have originated between 620 and 560 BCE

'Aesop's Fables' is a collection of stories that are meant to teach the listener a life lesson. The fables themselves are often credited to an ancient Greek slave and story teller named Aesop (though the origin of the fables remains disputed).

The stories themselves are still important moral lessons and have had a far-reaching impact on literature and common sayings, including 'wolf in sheep's clothing,' 'boy who cried wolf,' 'goose that laid the golden eggs,' and many others.

'The Analects of Confucius' by Confucius

Believed to have been written sometime between 475 and 221 BCE

Also known as simply 'Analects' or 'Lunyu,' this book is the collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius on how to live a virtuous life and be kind -- what he referred to as ren.

Today, 'The Analects' continues to have a profound influence on Eastern philosophy and ethics, especially in China.

'Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl' by Anne Frank

The book is a compilation of the diary writings of Anne Frank, a young woman who hid with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family was discovered and taken in 1944, and Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Since its publication, 'Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl' has been translated into more than 60 languages and remains one of the most famous and influential primary documents from Europe in WWII.

'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu

Written sometime between 600 and 500 BCE

'The Art of War' is an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu, a military general, strategist, and tactician. It's written in 13 chapters, each devoted to an aspect of warfare such as spies, quick thinking, and avoiding massacres and atrocities.

Today, the book still has an influence on Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, legal strategy, and sports for its lessons on how to outsmart one's opponent.

'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' by Dee Alexander Brown

'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' uncovers the history of Native Americans in the late 19th century, particularly the injustices and betrayals committed by the US government and the Native Americans' forced relocation.

The bestselling book has never gone out of print, and has so far been translated into 17 languages. Through government records and first-person accounts, Brown revealed and continues to reveal the massacre of an entire people in an effort to 'win' the American West.

'The Communist Manifesto' by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels

Published on February 21, 1848

This short publication was written by two of the most famous communists in history. It discusses the class struggle, problems with capitalism, and communism's future potential.

Although its impact wasn't immediate, the manifesto resonated with industrial workers across Europe, the US, and Russia with its rallying cry: 'Working men of all countries, unite!' Today, it continues to impact political parties and is studied around the world.

'A Dictionary of the English Language' by Samuel Johnson

This anthology includes 4,000 of the most representative, entertaining, and historically fascinating entries in the English language. It spans fashion, food, science, sex, and more, all with the original spellings and examples from Shakespeare and Milton.

'A Dictionary of the English Language' was used by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, and more, so not only did it influence classical literature, but it continues to offer writers, academics, and publishers a revolutionary take on the English language.

'Essays' by Michel de Montaigne

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and numerous other great thinkers of the world were all influenced by Motaigne's massive collection of influential essays.

The French statesman and writer's ability to blend serious moral questions with casual anecdotes was at the time derided for being 'self indulgent,' but is nowadays regarded as some of the most important literature to come out of the French Renaissance.

'The Feminine Mystique' by Betty Friedan

At a time when it was widely accepted women would become complacent housewives, Betty Friedan challenged modern advertising, culture, and misogyny in her book 'The Feminine Mystique,' focusing on the inner turmoil of American women.

The book helped spark second-wave feminism by encouraging women to look beyond marriage and motherhood for their fulfillment, and challenging traditional patriarchal expectations.

'First Folio' by William Shakespeare

In 1623, a collection of William Shakespeare's plays were published by his friends John Hminges and Henry Condell, known as the First Folio. This included 'Romeo and Juliet,' 'King Lear,' 'Hamlet,' 'As You Like It,' and more.

Shakespeare's contribution to literature and theatre has remained unparalleled, and his influence on genre, plot, and language continues to be felt by future generations of artists.

'Hiroshima' by John Hersey

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner John Hersey, 'Hiroshima' tells the stories of six survivors from the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Their memories speak of extraordinary loss, terror, and courage.

40 years later, Hersey returned to Hiroshima to find the survivors he interviewed and learn their fates. The book will continue to influence future generations considering the use of atomic bombs in world wars and the real-world effects of a nuclear holocaust.

'How the Other Half Lives' by Jacob Riis

The late 19th century was not a kind place to New York's industrial workers. They lived in squalid tenement buildings, and journalist Jacob A. Riis made it his mission to show the upper- and middle-class the dangerous conditions the poor faced every day with graphic descriptions, sketches, statistics, and his photographs.

Not only did 'How the Other Half Lives' inspire tangible change to the Lower East Side's schools, sweatshops and buildings, but it was also the basis for future 'muckraking' journalism.

I Ching: The Book of Changes

Origins date back to the 3rd or 2nd millennium BCE

Also known as the 'Classic of Changes' or the 'Book of Changes,' I Ching is thought to be an oracle and one of the oldest Chinese classic texts.

The importance of I Ching is phenomenal -- not only do Confucianism and Taoism have common roots here, but people around the world still use it for divination and fortune telling purposes to this day.

'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl' by Harriet A. Jacobs

This slave narrative was an in-depth chronological account of Jacobs's own life as a slave, documenting in particular the horrific sexual abuse that female slaves faced: Rape, the pressure to have sex at an early age, selling their children, and the relationship between women slaves and their mistresses.

Though 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl' went relatively unnoticed at the time of its publication due to the outbreak of the Civil War, it reemerged in the 1970s and '80s as an important historical account on the sexualization and rape of female slaves.

'The Jungle' by Upton Sinclair

'The Jungle' made the squalor of Chicago factory life incredibly vivid -- the harrowing working conditions, horrors of the slaughterhouse, and crushing poverty and despair that the workers faced on a daily basis.

Upton Sinclair, a US journalist, wrote the book to raise awareness for immigrants to America. It galvanised public opinion and led to a forced government investigation that eventually caused the passage of pure food laws.

The King James Bible

The King James bible is an English translation of the Christian bible that was specifically made for the Church of England in an attempt to reflect the structure of the new church and its belief in an ordained clergy.

Although originally intended for Anglicans, the translation had an impact on emerging denominations such as Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, and English colonies in the new world. Today, it's still considered a stunning feat of prose, verse, and translation.

'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' by Frederick Douglass

One of the most famous autobiographies written by a former slave, 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' documents Douglass's own life as a slave fighting for his freedom and the horrific things that were done to him by his so-called 'masters.'

The book was fundamentally influential on the American abolitionist movement, as well as politics in the UK and Ireland where Douglass later spoke publicly about his narrative.

'On Liberty' by John Stuart Mill

What was intended to be a short essay by British philosopher John Stuart Mill became one of the most famous books about the utilitarianism of society and the state. In it, Mill emphasised the importance of individuality as well as independence from the government.

'On Liberty' continues to have a major influence on political science and philosophy, and its questions about the nature of individual liberty in a democratic society remain just as pressing and important today.

'On the Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands and discovered one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 19th-century-world -- evolution.

Not only was 'On the Origin of Species' the foundation of evolutionary biology, but the concept of evolution and natural selection continues to have a major impact on modern scientific theories, politics, and religious discourse, particularly in the United States.

'Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica' by Isaac Newton

Often referred to simply as 'Principia,' these three books by Sir Isaac Newton were published in Latin in 1687 and quickly became monumentally important in academic circles.

The books contain Newton's laws of motion and classic mechanics, and is considered one of the most important books ever published in the history of science.

The Qur'an

Believed to have originated sometime in 500 or 600 CE

The central religious text of Islam and followed by 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, the Qur'an is believed to be the literal word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago.

It describes the acts of many prophets and messengers, including those mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, as well as Jesus and his apostles.

'The Republic' by Plato

First published around 380 BCE

'The Republic' is written as a Socratic dialogue (in question and answer form). The most famous section is Plato's Allegory of the Cave where he discusses the effect of education and the role of the philosopher.

It continues to be one of the most intellectually influential works of philosophy and political theory, with themes on the definition of justice, the character of a just government, and what makes a good man.

'The Rights of Man' by Thomas Paine

Paine argues in 'The Rights of Man' that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard its people or their natural rights, and thought the best way to stop poverty was through interventionist programs like welfare and old-age pensions.

In the first few years of publication, between 100,000 and 200,000 copies were sold, and his book remains widely-read today. His ideas also was used by later independence movements among the Irish, Scots, and the Welsh.

'The Second Sex' by Simone De Beauvoir

Another massive influence on second-wave feminism, 'The Second Sex' weaves together history, philosophy, economics, biology, and other disciplines to analyse what is a 'woman' and why they are considered inferior.

The book influenced an entire generation of women with the idea that a women's femininity is imposed by a male-constructed civilisation, and continues to have an enormous impact on the women's movement around the world.

'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson

'Silent Spring' documented the detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and human health, and accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation.

The book is widely credited with helping launch the contemporary American environmental movement, spurring revolutionary changes in laws affecting our air, land, and water.

'Tao Te Ching' by Lao Tzu

Written between 600 and 400 BCE

Laozi or Lao Tzu ('Old Master'), a record-keeper at the Zhou Dynasty court, is believed to have written this philosophical text about living life simplistically and working for the greater good.

Not only is 'Tao Te Ching' fundamental to Taoism, but it also has strong ties to Confucianism, Chinese Buddhism, and Chinese popular culture in general.

'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe

This book follows Okonkwo, an Igbo man in pre-colonial Nigeria dealing with the intrusion of British colonialism and Christian missionaries impacting his family and society.

Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' has become one of the most famous African novels in history. Studied widely around the world, it takes on big topics like nationalism, the African identity, and what happens after colonization.

The Torah: The Five Books of Moses

Origins date back between 600 and 400 BCE

The Torah is the central concept of the Judaism, specifically the first five books of the Tanakh written in Biblical Hebrew with the teachings of God.

Not only is the Torah the central and most important documentation of Jewish customs, but it is also what Christians call the 'Old Testament' and has profoundly influenced the world's religions, history, and culture for well over 2,500 years.

'The Wealth of Nations' by Adam Smith

This economic theory book argues the benefits of the free market. Many of Smith's ideas -- like the 'invisible hand,' division of labour, and a self-regulating market -- can still be found in our society today.

The first edition sold out in six months and can be seen shaping government policies as soon as it was published. Today, Smith's work is fundamental in classical economics.

'1984' by George Orwell

Written about a dystopian world nearly 40 years after the second World War, '1984' follows protagonist Winston Smith as he tries to escape the censorship, propaganda, and oppressive government of his futuristic society.

Orwell's book was highly influential on the English language, introducing concepts like Big Brother, doublethink, Newspeak, and the Thought Police, among many others. During the 2013 mass surveillance leaks, sales for the book jumped 7,000%.

"How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis

The late 19th century was not a kind place to New York's industrial workers. They lived in squalid tenement buildings, and journalist Jacob A. Riis made it his mission to show the upper- and middle-class the dangerous conditions the poor faced every day with graphic descriptions, sketches, statistics, and his photographs.

Not only did "How the Other Half Lives" inspire tangible change to the Lower East Side's schools, sweatshops and buildings, but it was also the basis for future "muckraking" journalism.

"1984" by George Orwell

Written about a dystopian world nearly 40 years after the second World War, "1984" follows protagonist Winston Smith as he tries to escape the censorship, propaganda, and oppressive government of his futuristic society.

Orwell's book was highly influential on the English language, introducing concepts like Big Brother, doublethink, Newspeak, and the Thought Police, among many others. During the 2013 mass surveillance leaks, sales for the book jumped 7,000%.

Watch the video: Frederick Douglass: First African American Nominated for Vice President. Biography (August 2022).

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