Someone once asked me whether it’s helpful to replace the racist terms “white magic” and “black magic” with “positive magic” and “negative magic.” While that’s a lovely idea, unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely fix the underlying problem… The notion of “good” and “bad” magic does, in fact, go beyond the terms “light” and ”dark” or “white” and “black.”
Stereotypes Behind Words
If you replace the words with “positive/negative” and then refer to practices such as “death magic, graveyard dirt, curses, and animal sacrifice” as “negative” then you’re literally calling lots of Africana traditions and other practices or religions “negative.” That’s part of why they were called “dark” in the first place.
Let’s delve deeper into the issues of stereotypes that have been characterizing magical and spiritual traditions in Eurocentric and colonialist ways by breaking down some of these stereotypes of “bad magic” one by one.
Graveyards & the Dead
Ancestors are really foundational to African religions and to the magical practices and diasporic religions that developed from them. Working with ancestors is technically “death magic” since you’re working with the spirits of your family who have passed away. But really there’s nothing evil or wrong with that, it’s lovely! Gathering graveyard dirt is a way of connecting with ancestral spirits because in many African religions, the earth and one’s ancestors are interconnected. Goofer dirt/graveyard dirt is a part of that spiritual and material interconnection. These sorts of practices are often labeled “evil” and “creepy” when removed from the sophisticated and rich spirituality of their actual cultural contexts then misunderstood.
Cursing & Crossing
These negative stereotypes even apply to cursing and animal sacrifice. Many think “it’s a given that those things are wrong or unethical,” which comes from an uninformed Eurocentric set of assumptions. I personally don’t curse, but I am curse-positive because I support anyone’s right to choose to curse. Curses, jinxes, hexes, and crossing magic are a big part of the hoodoo tradition because it’s a tradition developed by black people during slavery, many of whom used magic for self-defense against their slave masters and oppressors. For black people, fighting this oppression with magic has been a way of regaining agency in a world of slavery, segregation, and systematic racism for centuries. When people just label “cursing” as “bad,” it completely ignores the context from which that developed and still exists for rootworkers and the magical traditions of marginalized groups all around the world as well.
Finally, with animal sacrifice, that’s been a part of many African religions for a long time and is still a part of how many practitioners of diasporic Africana religions (including myself) make offerings to their deities. It’s not just slaughtering animals in a careless way and then disposing of their bodies as waste… At least within the Ifá tradition, I know that the animals are treated ethically with great care and appreciation. They are killed because their ashe (energy) and spirits return to Olorun to send your message and the ashe to the orishas, where they will rest in peace afterwards. They are killed in an ethical manner similar to halal/kosher slaughter (as quick and painless as possible) and deeply appreciated and blessed by all involved.
Sometimes, they are eaten afterward as shared communion with the Orishas or put into the wilderness to return to the cycle of life and be eaten by animals. They aren’t wasted or forgotten. They are treated far better than most animals that are eaten at a dinner table every day, many of whom are horrifically butchered and taken for granted. Click here to read more about this topic.
So as for replacing “white/black” terminology with “positive/negative” to refer to magical traditions and practices, I think it all depends on what you’re calling “negative” because if it’s based on popular stereotypes of what’s “bad,” it’s still going to end up perpetuating racist stereotypes.
What’s the alternative? Personally, I refer to specific practices that I would or would not do myself rather than lumping them all into one group and putting a judgment on it. In other words, I don’t talk about the notion of “bad” or “negative” magic at all. For instance, if you don’t like working with the spirits of the deceased, you could just say “personally I don’t practice that” instead of labeling it “bad” as a blanket judgment on other people’s practices without knowing the context.
My practices are my business, your practices are your business, but it’s everybody’s business to put an end to racist stereotypes in the way we conceptualize and talk about magical practices and traditions.