Rootwork: Deconstructing the Myth of Our Ancestral Practices

    "Rootwork, Hoodoo, Conjure, Juju" … these terms are often followed with horror stories that exemplify their negative connotations. The question is "Why?" Why are these terms describe an ancestral form of alchemy as "evil". These rituals of resistance were brought to America by enslaved Africans.

    Before we get to our original question, let's explore what "Rootwork" is. Rootwork is an ancestral form of alchemy which includes herbalism, mediumship, and divination. Herbalism (herbal medicine) is the use of plants, roots, grass, and weeds for therapeutic remedies. When you were growing up did your mother, grandmother, or other older family members go into the woods to pick leaves, weeds, roots, etc. to make teas and soups to drink for illness or to prevent illness? This is a form of herbalism. Mediumship is the practice of communicating with spirits. Did you have a family member known to be able to see spirits (usually dead family members.)  This is the family member who would get messages in their dreams. Divination means to prophesy, predict, foresee or gain insight of a situation by way of mediumship and tools such as the bible, cartomacy, pendulum, and/ or a set of bones. Some people grew up with a mother, grandmother, or other family members who would use tools for insight into and help with their personal situations. Have you ever been in church and someone said to you, "The Lord told me to tell you…". That's prophesy…. A form of divination via mediumship.

    In a nutshell, Rootwork encompasses all three. There is no one way to use this practice. People practiced according to their local ecology. Swamp medicine is not the same as mountain or coastal remedies. The recipes also vary as much as sweet potato pie recipes in the South. These remedies were used for everything from healing, protection, love, and money.

    Why the negative connotations? Initially these tools were used by the initiated for such things as protection and healing. It was the ones who were they were being protected from that had a problem with this practice. These people could tap into a spiritual source that their enemies could not control.

    Let's discuss three rumors about rootwork that many have heard.

    IT'S WITCHCRAFT- This propaganda was enforced by the protestant Christians who needed to control the enslaved Africans through their religion. These teachings were heavily internalized as generations were raised in these churches. Many rootworkers assimilated into the church and became leaders and healers in their communities. Many preferred to go to these healers/conjurers over white physicians who used them as degrading experimental projects or their white owners who lacked medial knowledge. Read Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington.

    VOODOO AND HOODOO (ROOTWORK) ARE THE SAME- Voodoo (derived from Vodoun) is a West African traditional religion. It mainly come from the area known today as Benin. Hoodoo (Rootwork) in the American South originated out of the struggle to maintain a relationship rooted in ancestral guidance and reverence. You may have heard someone say that someone put Voodoo on them or someone else. This is impossible because Voodoo is a religion (noun) and not a verb. Originally these rituals were used for survival against enemies but when the knowledge got into the wrong hands, people used it for their own egoic, petty purposes. When the outcome was negative, the results were blamed on the practice and not the practitioner. My definition of hoodoo as a practice comes from my experiences. When I refer to a religion, to me, it encompasses a systemic way of connecting to the divine. Each person who subscribes to such religion does so in a specific manner such as Christianity as an example. In order to become an official Christian, one must proclaim that Jesus is their Lord and savior. Most church services (ceremonies) consist of an of: worship and praise, the preaching, and closing. There is a definite consistency in religions. In Rootwork, as mentioned above, the practices were different based on local ecology and culture. What was practiced in Virginia was not the way it was practiced in Louisiana… which was also different in South Carolina, etc. Saying that it is a practice and not a religion does not take away its validity. Its just not a uniform practice. Although some practice it religiously. These are two different things.

    ANYONE CAN PRACTICE- Rootwork is not a religion but a practice that one inherits by birthline. One is born into this practice. If someone is drawn to this practice, its usually because a family member, more than likely an ancestor, also practiced. Every family has a healer among them. Therefore, the gift is passed down from generation to generation. Just like talents of singing, musicians, dancers, and artists are inherited, so are these "gifts." Each family has an heirloom… one who connects with the family's ancestral line. Because of common appropriation and the commercialization of rootwork, the recommended way of learning is from mediumship (training of one's ancestors), family members, or community. Most of this knowledge is passed down orally and is not written. This is an ancestral based practice, therefore anyone who has no DAEUS (Descendant Africans Enslaved in the US) ancestors lack the spiritual connection that is required. Europeans and enslaved Africans were segregated and did not socialize. So, any recipes that claim a European influence are not authentically derived from original Southern American Rootwork.


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