For those who wish to avoid culturally appropriating hoodoo, I’ve written this basic guide to help folks appreciate our traditions respectfully! If you’re reading this to be a supportive ally, thank you for taking the time and for listening. It is very much appreciated, and it does make a difference for helping us preserve and protect our traditions.
To Appreciate, Not Appropriate
1) It’s more than okay to study or research hoodoo – just please don’t practice it or incorporate elements of it into your practice.
While practicing hoodoo is closed to anyone who isn’t of African descent, there is nothing wrong with studying or researching published information about hoodoo. Academics of any race or background study cultures, practices, and traditions that aren’t necessarily open for them to practice. So long as you aren’t trying to access resources about hoodoo that are purposefully not made available to the public (like the Hoodoo Library), then you should be fine when reading publically available works on hoodoo history, traditions, and practices.
I also recommend being mindful of which sources on hoodoo you are reading and quoting. If the source wasn’t written by a black author, understand that it may be misrepresenting hoodoo at best and contain racist undertones at worst. If the source wasn’t written by a rootworker, remember that a scholar’s academic perspective is fundamentally different from a practitioner’s experiential understanding.
2) Please do not call any Africana traditions or religions “witchcraft” or “paganism” or assume that practitioners of these traditions identify as witches or pagans when many do not. This includes Hoodoo, Obeah, Vodou, Voodoo, Vodun, Santería/Lucumí, West African Ifá/Yoruba religion, Candomblé, Espiritismo, Kemeticism, and Palo. These are not forms of African witchcraft or paganism.
European colonialism across Africa and the transatlantic slave trade has caused African and Afro-diasporic traditional religions to be demonized as evil for centuries. As a part of that, the term “witchcraft” was used to dehumanize black people across the globe and to excuse the enslavement, colonization, and genocide of millions. Some black practitioners of African religions and Africana traditions chose to identify as witches and call their practices witchcraft. That is our legitimate right and choice, but it is for us to reclaim.
Likewise, the term “paganism” originates from a Christian, Eurocentric religious context and usually refers to European reconstructed religious traditions such as Norse, Celtic, Hellenic, and Roman. Again, that is not a term that is appropriate for anyone to apply to Africana traditions except any black practitioners who wish to refer to their religion or their practices as paganism.
3) Please avoid using the following words in your practice: voodoo dolls, voodoo, hoodoo, mojo, juju, gris-gris, ashe, Egun, Orisha, Oshun, Nkisi, Lwa, crossing/uncrossing, sweetening, souring, working roots.
All of these words have special meanings within hoodoo and other Africana traditions. Many of them have African origins within Yoruba language, Congo languages, and Fon or Ewe languages.
4) Please don’t use the following ingredients in your practices: High John the Conqueror Root, cascarilla, efun, palo santo, kola nuts, *cowrie shells.
There are certain types of white powders that are a part of closed Africana and Afro-Latine traditions. Cascarilla is ground up eggshells that have been blessed and specially prepared. It has a lot of uses, especially in brujeria, Palo, and Lucumí / Santería. Efun is the Yoruba name for a special kind of chalk-like white powder that has nearly identical uses in Lucumí / Santería and West African Ifá / Isese to cascarilla.
Kola nuts and palo santo are both parts of sacred plants from indigenous cultures that are not meant to be used outside of certain closed and semi-closed traditions. Kola nuts are native to West Africa and they used in West African Ifa and other Orisha traditions. Palo santo comes from trees that are indigenous to certain parts of South America and have special uses within indigenous Latine traditions.
High John root is named after and related to the African American folk hero John the Conqueror. The folk tales of John are specifically a part of African American culture that evolved out of and in response to slavery as empowerment and inspiration to push back against oppression and retain some agency in the midst of slavery.
*Cowrie shells are an important part of African cultures with both spiritual and cultural meanings, but they are also a part of other cultures around the world as well. So long as cowrie shells are used by your culture and you aren’t wearing them to appear “African” or “exotic,” then it’s fine!
5) You can allow hoodoo concepts to loosely inspire your practices without crossing the line into straight-up culturally appropriating.
Let’s take honey jars as an example. Say you really like the idea of it and would like to use one. Instead of making a hoodoo honey jar or using any of the specific ingredients from them, which I would consider appropriative, you could instead consider the overall concept.
Honey is the main ingredient in a honey jar because it’s used for sweetening and drawing. So you could consider, what ingredients do I find sweet and attractive? Maybe you put powdered sugar strawberries as the primary ingredient in a jar or lots of caramel. There are tons of possibilities that could come from the same basic idea but that don’t draw on any of the specific hoodoo ingredients or concepts to the point where the “inspired” creation is completely and utterly different.
It’s not at all appropriative of hoodoo (in my opinion) to make a spell jar with sugary strawberries in it or a caramel jar with other ingredients too that you wouldn’t see in any hoodoo honey jar. At that point, it’s not really even based on hoodoo anymore even if hoodoo gave you a kernel of inspiration.
You could even apply this same logic to High John root. It’s a root that has a special connection to an important folk hero in African American culture. You could consider what folk heroes there are in your own culture or in cultures that are open to you. Are there any herbal ingredients or products named after them? Or is there a natural ingredient that has an energy or correspondence that reminds you of that hero?