FANTAST IN FOCUS: DR YVONNE CHIREAU
Professor Yvonne Chireau teaches religion at Swarthmore College. A scholar of African-American folk traditions and religions, Professor Chireau is also the author of Black Magic: African American Religion and Conjuring Tradition and Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism. Her research focuses on some of the most interesting but lesser-known narratives in American history. Her most recent projects chronicle African-American ‘dream books’ and the presence of Africana religions in comic books.
The Custodian: How did you get into the study of African-American folk traditions?
Yvonne Chireau: I’ve always had an interest in religion, but when I was young I sort of stumbled into it. I didn’t know there was a way you could study them academically like this. I had a very broad perspective on religion and culture because I came from a very diverse family.
As a kid, I was utterly fascinated by this thing called religion, because I saw that it got people stirred up. It seemed very, very important to the people who were around me. At the same time—and I think this is actually true for many of us, but only a few of us are coming out of the closet about this now —I had what one might call many supernatural experiences.
C: It’s interesting to see how common those experiences are. There is also a strong occult literary tradition of child seers.
Y: I believe that children actually do see things. Some say that it’s part of the human imaginary, others say it’s a kind of psychic phenomenon. These experiences, and trying to make sense of them, lead me to a study of spirituality and really got me hooked to religion as an intellectual focus.
I came into Princeton University when the formal scholar of African-American religions, Albert Raboteau, was chairing the religion department. His special focus was on slave religion, and I ended up studying with him as a historian and an ethnographer. He only devoted a sliver of his scholarly books to the issues that I ultimately became interested in, but I was very impressed by his methodology.
One of the things that I started trying to work through, was the problem of categories. What’s magic? What’s religion? What’s science? It’s so tremendously exciting because everyone has an interpretive framework that they place their experiences inside of to make sense of the world. Categories are exactly how we interpret our supernatural experiences. If you see a spirit or witness something magical, others might analyse what they think is happening via their own category systems. One might tell you to see a psychologist, another might tell you to see a minister! It’s a kind of interpretive pluralism.
C: What are the differences between voodoo, hoodoo, rootwork, and conjure?
Y: Root-working is the term that’s used for African-American herbalism; it’s a folk magic related to healing the body using plants and organic substances. We can call it scientific or medical practice, right? On the other hand, if we look at the way that root-workers are relating to these plants, we see that they’re looking at them as spiritual beings; beings that are alive with their own ‘intelligences’. You know, each leaf in the root-working tradition has its own story or history. This takes us back to the problem of our categories. The idioms that indigenous people everywhere use are very different from the idioms of scientists. But they intersect. I think that the right way to approach this is to use the terms that the indigenous people themselves have used.
Voodoo is really loaded in the American context, at least. It’s a utility term for African-inspired supernaturalism. Hoodoo, however, is a kind of African-American-based folk magic in which one uses spiritual forces powers and symbols to work an effect in the world. The reason why this is controversial right now is that there seems to be a fight over the claims of its origin. The word “Hoodoo” may come from Gaelic, and this may lead some people to think that it’s not an African American tradition. Others believe that it is inherently African, whether or not it picked up some European elements over the years. It gets really interesting and contentious, especially because people are now selling a lot of products promoting hoodoo rituals and culture in our society, and authenticity is important.
Conjure is very interesting because it’s a term that African-Americans borrowed from the English to speak of a kind of magical practice that primarily involved spiritual forces, powers, and beings. Conjurers could work with Jesus Christ and the Biblical angels, or even Goetic demons, African deities, or their own intuitive sacred powers. There is no orthodoxy or orthopraxy.
C: When I think about how heroes like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner were all “aflame with spirit” I see that they always had a universal belief in spiritual empowerment, a trust that ‘chosen ones’ could obtain extraordinary gifts with willpower. It’s mainly Christian, but you have to wonder about an underlying magical subculture, an enchanted universe that these people were channelling.
Y: Oh yes. Frederick Douglass said Sandy Jenkins was a “genuine African conjuror”. Nat Turner’s mother was African, and she inspired his spirituality. Harriet Tubman had remarkable supernatural dreams. But there is something that is strongly and deeply African that runs like a current through black folk magic traditions. There’s this idea of a discursive Africa, an idea of Africa as something that possesses a powerful and unique spiritual geography. The symbol and meaning of Africa was extremely important to enslaved African-Americans. This is something that helped to define our identities in so many ways. Nineteenth and twentieth-century African American writers sometimes unfolded the racial and mystery tropes of Africa even further, using orientalising terms like “the Asiatic black man” and “Hamitic” to describe African American spiritual traditions.
There are also currents of a kind of esotericism and occultism among these black Orientalists, what we might call magic or magical thought versus the practice of conjuring and root-working. I really want to learn more about this. I wonder if the practical magic among African Americans that goes back to slavery draws upon certain racial themes that are embedded within an as of yet unidentified intellectual tradition of magical thought. Perhaps it’s sort of a false dichotomy. One side is much more pragmatic in terms of everyday life. Douglass for example, needed Sandy’s root, so the slave owner wouldn’t beat his ass! For others, the symbolic world is what is paramount to the ideas and thought.
C: What about early African-American illusionists, like Black Herman?
Y: People like Black Herman, really sort of brought it together. I saw that he was all over the place. He was a publisher, entrepreneur, a plagiarist…Well, that’s anachronistic—I mean a literary redactor. He also drew upon the black folk traditions as well as the Anglo and European styles of magical performance. So he’s really synthesizing a lot of things. Was it for fun or for profit or a little of both? I don’t know. He was thrown in jail a couple times for fraud. In those days in the early twentieth century these travelling black and white magic performers would pop up like mushrooms. Their posters and promotional images are so spectacular. When researching Black Herman and these other magicians, I began to wonder about their role as public spectacles, as spiritual entertainment, sort of what we see happening in black churches during the same period. Herman was certainly that. He drew thousands of people into Harlem to see him perform; like a Michael Jackson of his day. When you think about someone like that you can see how these figures become myths. Then Black Herman disappeared. Noble Drew Ali disappeared. It doesn’t matter what really happened in the historical sense. The ‘voodoo queen’ Marie Laveau has become a myth, and she was replaced by her namesake daughter, who also disappeared. To some she’s a Conjurer, to others she’s a shrewd businesswoman, and even a saint or a Loa to some. In a way, it is the mythical aspect of these personalities that is what’s alive, today.
C: When studying savants and mystical figures, there’s always a struggle between treating them with textbook scrutiny and explaining their genius and treating them as what they proclaimed they were. The classic etic and emic dichotomy. How do you engage with them, as an academic and as a one with a personal interest in spirituality?
Y: This has been my approach to the material since I was a kid: I experiment with it, and go directly to the source, and enter into a kind of conversation with it. That can be dangerous. Does an intelligent, invisible being want to talk to me? We’re talking about areas not only of the intuition, areas of the psyche, we’re talking about being willing to believe that what’s happening is real, what you see is real. Once you cross that line, everything changes. You get to know how something feels and tastes and smells from the inside and the boundaries dissolve. It’s not child’s play. There is something to said for a methodology that utilises the intuition, that utilises, the psychic part of one’s being. I’ve been a skeptic, and I think that sometimes skeptics are afraid of what they might find. My approach would be, well “why don’t you taste it?”. Not everyone’s going to do that and not everyone is going to be able to do it. But I think that the rewards, in terms of illumination and insight, are great: as great as one’s truest potential.