Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People

Book Review: Blue Roots: African-American Folk Magic of the Gullah People By Roger Pinckney (Llewellyn 1998)

I found this one on the shelf and it was a fun and informative read. The word Gullah is thought to refer to the region of Angola on the southwest coast of Africa where many of the earliest slaves were taken from. Later it was the areas of Northwest and Central- West Africa – the countries of Senegal, Liberia, Gambia, and Nigeria as well as Madagascar on the other side of the continent. The main port of entry was Charleston, South Carolina. This story takes place exclusively on the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia which as the author states provided an ideal environment for the preservation of West African culture. The tradition of the Yoruba nation of Africa – called Ifa is probably the most widespread and dominant West African pre-Christian -pre-Islamic belief system. They were isolated on large plantations separated from the mainland with little supervision.The form of magic practiced by the Gullah was a mix of herbalism, spiritualism, and so-called black magic. The magic was known there as - The Root. Magical priests were/are known as Root Doctors. The root itself was a charm – similar to the mojo or gris-gris known from New Orleans.

Lots of stories and lore is recounted about the more famous root doctors from this region such as the famous Dr. Buzzard, Drs Bug, Fly, Snake, Turtle, Crow, and an unlikely white man – J.E. “Ed” McTeer – the High Sheriff of the Low Country.

These people were “officially” freed from slavery quite early as the area was secured by the north early in the Civil War – but they didn’t get the large land plots promised them but smaller ones. The Christianization of these folk is recounted. The biblical ideas that resonated especially were the stories of the Jews exiled to Egypt and Babylon. Spiritual chants (in traditional African call and response format) often related to this theme. Incidentally this theme is also a major component of the Jamaican Rastafarians of this century with freedom associated with Zion and oppression with Babylon. Indeed Rastafarianism is closer to Judaism than Christianity.

Rootwork (as the magic is often called) takes on many forms and often there can be combat among those employing root doctors. Magic words and burying roots in strategic spots are methods.One powerful ingredient is called – Goofer Dust – graveyard dirt gathered just before midnight – thought to be derived from the Cetral African – kuwfa – meaning a dead person. Root doctors were often employed in relationship issues, business affairs, and court cases (which the African-American of the times may have had much difficulty with due to bias.)

There was an African tradition of a second burial. The first was done rather quickly as the body would decompose rapidly in the tropical heat. A year or so later when everyone could be gathered for rites and feasting the bones were exhumed and put to a final resting place and property was then passed on. The plantation owners would not tolerate such practices so the spirits became restless according to the Gullah. Also the area of the sea islands had a history of warfare and famine among the Spanish, French, Scots, and English explorers. Another practice (still done in central Africa) was that of placing grave decorations – often the last articles used by the deceased. This is thought to quiet restless spirits. The hag is a particularly troublesome spirit to the Gullah. There are two types – the all-spirit hag and the slip-skin hag – a human/spirit hybrid. A hag is said to – ride – the afflicted in his sleep – similar to a succubus in European lore. Here is a description:

“You cant speak when they gets on you. You might think you’re hollering but you ain’t. They rides you night after night, till you get so poor you can’t hardly live.”

One remedy was to cut off the bedposts so there would not be an easy place to – roost – during the day. A colander hung over a door knob is considered a good repellant since the hag’s fondness for mathematics will compel it to count the holes and have to keep starting over due to the amount of holes. Another method was the strategic placement of salt. Hags carrying lanterns were called – Jack Mullater – or Jack-o-Lantern, or just a ghost light. This phenomenon may be related to the natural phosphorescence of the island swamps. Conjure-horses, spirit-bears, and alligator-like Boogers were other troublesome spirit types.

The Gullah had some apparently useful herbal cures from the south but much information was lost or the names refer to unknown plants. Herbal cures for hexings were common. One trademark of the Root Doctor plying his trade is the donning of blue sunglasses.

The Sherrif – Ed McTeer – charged with investigating tax fraud and herbal interference from the WW2 draft – set out on a mission to bust the famous Dr Buzzard. Apparently they had a magical battle going for some until they declared a truce – with Dr Buzzard agreeing to keep more to magic and less to herbalism.

There is an interesting chapter devoted to why magic might work. One common but very sensible observation is that magic works in a society that believes in magic. Similiarly, Ed McTeer attributed the effectiveness of rootwork to auto-suggestion. Also mentioned are the ideas of J.G. Frazer- author of the famed Golden Bough. He attributes the mechanism of magic to two laws. The law of similarity where like produces like and the law of contact where “objects that were once connected remain so, even if removed. ”Hair, fingernails, clothes, and other objects are notorious.

A chapter is devoted to ‘the Village of Oyotunji” created in the area in the 1970s by an American African reconstructionist from Detroit. It is based on Ifa, the Yoruba Religion of Nigeria and adjacent lands. Orunmila was a famous spiritual man who collected and passed on many of these teachings it is said some 4000 years ago. It is known to the locals as the Voodoo Village.

The last chapter chronicles the author’s search for the grave of Dr. Buzzard kept secret for obvious reasons. Through research and inquiry he shows a picture of an unmarked grave near a secluded church that was financially supported by the famous Root Doctor. He also notes that there was much dirt removed close by suggesting the gathering of goofer dust of a presumably potent nature.

I have been to a few of these sea islands (only in the daytime) and I can attest to their heavy humid magical aire with large Live Oaks with hanging Spanish Moss. Also interesting to me is that the eastern coast of the U.S. was once connected to the West coast of Africa in the deep geologic past – although hundreds of millions of years before known humans.

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