feminist studies, history, history of africa, history of magic, history of the united states, History of the US, religious studies, spirituality, Uncategorized, world history

Book Review: Chireau, Yvonne P., Black Magic:Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkley/Los Angels/London: University of California Press, 2006), Pp. 222.

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Coalescing religiosity and cultural tradition is an ever present reality in the history of  conjure tradition and practice of African Americans. Although Conjure practices are not relegated to African Americans, historians have located a direct lineage to the genealogical origin of conjure tradition and practice in Africa. The displacement of Africans, by way of the slave trade, opens up an aperture to discuss the mobility of  “slave religious tradition”(41).  Within this framework conjure was not only shaped by the slave trade but also was transformed by the diaspora of Africans in the United States. Chireau’s thesis states, “I have argued that African American Supernatural traditions, as dynamic products of black spirituality, are best understood within their actual social contexts”(151).  The author does an excellent job at contextualizing time, space, and social constructs that shape religious practices and legacy of tradition. Chireau also defines terminology in this book. For example Chireau defines conjure as, “A magical tradition in which spiritual power is invoked for various purposes, such as healing, protection, and self defense” (12). This is essential in understanding what the main point is of her book but also sets up the reader to read on and not have to stop to define terminology.

Chireau historicizes this subject by using wold history to propel her reader into a deeper understanding of how conjure’s tradition grew and shifted by region. The very nature of supernatural beliefs was as much apart of the Old World structure of African life as it was now for the New World that they had come into by force (33). Thus, the interweaving of history and culture is a fundamental aspect of conjuring history, practices and traditions. We cannot leave out the synthesis of Christian influence on African American spirituality that the author provides. Chireau identifies the early twentieth-century  and the “Eternal Life Spiritualist Church, founded in 1913 in Chicago,” as the  revival of the Spiritualist practices (114). These practices become apparent again in the late twentieth into the twenty-first century (139-140).

Interestingly, Chireau chronicles women within the conjure practice and traditional lineage as much as the men in this movement. Although there is a robust amount of women’s participation and representation the  question of why, women’s presence is so important, is neot addressed. The conclusion that can be made of these accounts are influenced by the statistics on slavery and the oppression that was felt by both women and men. As stated by Chireau, “the activities of such enslaved Conjure men and women have been well documented” (15). What the author does provide clearly is a clear picture of the female Conjure stating, “black female supernatural specialists were represented in a gamut of gender stereotypes in fiction and folklore, from the sinister, decrepit hag to the dangerous, bewitching mulatta. African American Conjure women inherited a legacy of powerful spiritual roles that had been instituted by their foremothers” (22).  Again, as for the specifics such as the “how” and the “why” of these women’s presence/practices, the reader may be left wanting more. I would recommend this to any reader that is interested in the movement of spiritual practices and black magic from Africa to the US. I would also recommend this to historians, women studies enthusiasts, and religious studies academics.

10/10

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