066. African Diaspora Conjuring Practices in Popular Culture
Dr. Margarita Guillory, associate professor of religion at BU, shares her knowledge about the history of African diaspora conjuring practices, how they are and have been portrayed in popular culture, and how Black millennials and younger generations are practicing witchcraft digitally. Dr. Maria DeBlassie co-hosts. This conversation lays the groundwork for next episode, in which Maria and I build on what we learned from Margarita to discuss Black witches in contemporary romance.
Dr. Margarita Guillory, associate professor of religion at BU, shares her knowledge about the history of African diaspora conjuring practices, how they are and have been portrayed in popular culture, and how Black millennials and younger generations are practicing witchcraft digitally. Dr. Maria DeBlassie co-hosts. This conversation lays the groundwork for next episode, in which Maria and I build on what we learned from Margarita to discuss Black witches in contemporary romance.
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- Scarily Ever After Recommended Reading
- Check out Shelf Love’s updated website including the transcript for this episode
- Shelf Love episodes with transcripts
Guest: Dr. Margarita Guillory
Co-Host on this episode: Dr. Maria DeBlassie
- The Atlantic Article: The Witches of Baltimore Young black women are leaving Christianity and embracing African witchcraft in digital covens.
- Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition First Edition by Yvonne P. Chireau
- Hoodoo in America by Zora Neale Hurston
- Dr. Anthony Pinn - Terror in Triumph
- James Cone, founder of Black Liberation Theology
- Black womanist scholars: Katie Cannon and Emily Townes, Stephanie Mitchem
- Azealia Banks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SOXS9f5UDg
- Princess Nokia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUcAPCxrSQs
- BbyMutha: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/bbymutha-muthaland/
- American Horror Story - The Coven
- Marie Laveau: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Laveau
Andrea Martucci: Hello. And welcome to episode 66 of Shelf Love a podcast where we have thought provoking, critical discussions about literature's most polarizing genre: romance novels. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci, and my guest today is Dr. Margarita Guillory, an Associate Professor of religion at Boston University.
Joining me to ask questions is Dr. Maria DeBlassie, who you may remember from episode 41 about pleasure activism and The Kiss Quotient. Maria is a writer and educator, and is a full-time faculty member of Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well as a part-time faculty member in University of New Mexico's honors college.
So here's a little backstory about this episode because it is a little off the beaten path for Shelf Love, primarily because we do not talk about romance novels at all in this episode. So let me explain: there's this holiday, that lots of people in the U S celebrate called Halloween and it's coming up next week.
And one topic that comes up a lot in pop culture surrounding Halloween is witches. I had noticed that there were a few recent contemporary romance novels where the main characters identified as witches and they also happened to be Black. So I said to myself, "self, this is clearly a trend what's going on here? What context should I be looking for? What do I not know that would help me understand the context in which these characters are living and deciding to identify as a witch."
I happened to know that Dr. Maria DeBlassie is an advocate for and practitioner of everyday magic. So we started talking and plotting and of course, I also did some research.
And in the course of my Googling, I discovered that Dr. Guillory's area of expertise is perfectly aligned with the questions that Maria and I had. I'm so thankful that Dr. Guillory agreed to share her time and expertise with Maria and I about the history of African diaspora conjuring practices, how they are, and have been portrayed in popular culture, and how Black millennials and younger generations are practicing witchcraft digitally.
This conversation lays the groundwork for next episode, in which Maria and I build on what we learned from Margarita to discuss Black witches in contemporary romance. That episode will air on all Hallows Eve.
And if you've listened to episodes with Katrina Jackson before you are probably familiar with the term "diaspora," but just in case that is new for you as it was for me about a year ago, diaspora is the dispersion of any people from their original Homeland.
[00:02:30] Without further ado, I will allow dr. Guillory to introduce herself. Stay tuned for the end of the episode, to learn more about the romance novels we'll be discussing next week.
Margarita Guillory: My name is Margarita Guillory. I am an associate professor of religion, and I have a core appointment in African American studies at Boston University. My areas of specializations are American religious history with a focus on Africana, esoteric traditions.
And we could talk about what that means later. And then I also specialize in digital religion. And so digital religion is a subfield that basically looks at intersections between emerging digital technologies and religious traditions. And so I specifically look at the intersections between digital technologies and Africana esoteric traditions.
Andrea Martucci: All right. Can you lay the foundation for us? How do you define witchcraft in the context of the African diaspora? So I know you said earlier that you study specifically the American diaspora.
Margarita Guillory: Yes.
Andrea Martucci: In broad strokes, what started the historical and cultural context that kind of gets us to modern day?
Margarita Guillory: Yeah. So even within the American context, because we're talking the Americas and the Caribbean, so even looking at witchcraft within that context, it's just very broad. And witchcraft is not a term - for people who study the Africana, religious traditions scholars that study African religious traditions - we are, we don't really use "witchcraft" as a scholarly term, because witchcraft is seen as derogatory. And I could talk about that very quickly in a moment. So the term, even for myself, that's preferred are like conjuring practices. I'll get to witchcraft in just a moment. Conjuring practices captures a wider range of Africana religious traditions, like Haitian vodou. Like Santeria, like Candomblé, of Gulf coast Mississippi-area voodoo with the double Os. So not talking Haitian vodou is VODOU. But then I'm talking about within the American, the United States landscape and the Gulf Mississippi States, voodoo with the double, all those that we associate with Mississippi.
So conjuring practices, conjuring magical practices allow us to basically capture all of these different [00:05:00] traditions. Now witchcraft comes in and scholars like myself, we've written about witchcraft, but witchcraft is seen - historically, right? Particularly in the field - as something very negative. That they are conjuring practices, but they're not conjuring practices that are meant for the benefit of the community and the individual. They are harming practices. So this is how you see witchcraft talked about, and I'm speaking of the scholarship right now, right? So when you talk about how, if we look at the history of witchcraft, how do we define that?
It's just really hard to put a set - it's like asking someone to define religion. (laughs) Good luck with that. But there's some characterizing elements. So witchcraft has been seen as something of a harming practice to help you with the definition in the scholarship. Even on the ground, witchcraft has historically been seen as practice among people of African descent and these different traditions that I just talked about has been seen as something harmful.
But as we sort of moved towards the millennials, we're going to see what they are redefining what witchcraft actually looks like on the ground and in the scholarship. That witchcraft is not just evil, is not just this malicious intent. It's something very convoluted that's both / and - both / and. It has good things, but it has that element of "don't mess with me because I can do something to you with it."
So if I back up a little bit and I look at witchcraft as being in this family of conjuring, this is where I would situate witchcraft if we're talking about a historical context right now. So we're talking 1700s. If we're talking 1800s, no matter where you are, witchcraft, we're going to situate it in conjuring traditions. So witchcraft is with voodoo, it's with Obeah, it's with bruja, it's with Candomble. Witchcraft is we're catching it in this categorical scope.
But witchcraft is considered, by way of definition, as being these conjuring practices that can pull from these other traditions, but it is the intent and the motivation that makes it witchcraft. It's all about harming, whether it's another individual or it's about harming a community.
So this is how it's been traditionally seen. So one scholar, I would say, for people [00:07:30] who are listening, Yvonne Chireau in her book, Black Magic, she really does really great job teasing these terms out. What does conjure mean? What does witchcraft mean? What does magic mean? For her, she catches it all in conjuring and I'm in her school of thought all the way. But my recent, last five years of study in witchcraft in particular, among millennials in the digital age, I've even as a scholar been saying, Whoa, we need to think about how we're utilizing the term witchcraft, than how we've used it in the past.
I want to say another thing. You talk about the gaze. So we have to be careful when we talk about how we define witchcraft. There's a scholarly definition of witchcraft. Everything I've been talking to you about, it's a scholarly wrestling with the term of witchcraft and conjuring traditions, but witchcraft on the ground among practitioners, is defined in a totally different way than we may define it. So we have to really keep that in mind. So while you look at our scholarship, some of us, and you see historically witchcraft was seen as something that was malicious in practice, when you look at practitioners, they're saying no, this is not what witchcraft has been about for us.
So there's a scholarly interpretation of what witchcraft means. There's the practitioner interpretation of what witchcraft means, but then there's also the other, the non scholar, the person who's writing for the popular press. The person who's coming over with the TV ideas to pitch, they have a whole nother different conceptualization of what witchcraft is.
And that has been going on in print since the 1700s. So what I mean by other, by non-Black scholars and people who are not practicing. So people of European descent who are like studying these conjuring practices and they are labeling everything as witchcraft. From voodoo to hoodoo, there was no separation.
Everything is witchcraft. And then these terms are all interchangeable . If you talk about voodoo, you talk about witchcraft. You talk about Obeah, that's witchcraft. So there's so many ways to get at, I hope what I'm painting here, is confusion. Cause it's meant to be confused confusion because witchcraft is just one of those heavy terms that are being defined in so many different ways.
But if I had to bring out one, one defining mark for your audience, it would be witchcraft is all about conjuring.
Andrea Martucci: And so [00:10:00] what is conjuring then?
Margarita Guillory: So conjuring is - and I'll put it in simple terms - is making something out of nothing. What do I mean by that? That means that the individual practitioner has the ability to make things happen, that they have an inert power or they can manipulize materiality to make things happen.
So there's something very humanistic about witchcraft and conjuring practices, where the human can control the outcome of situations, whether it's through the manipulation of decks, whether it's through the manipulation of other types of materiality, whether it's through invoking with their speech and their language and their bodily movements - that the human has the ability in an innert power to make things happen. They can conjure up, they can actually bring something invisible into a concrete manifestation. So whether that's a relationship, whatever that may be: a job, financial success - that conjuring is about bringing something out of the realm of invisibility to the realm of visibility.
Maria DeBlassie: But conjuring is always seen in like a positive way as compared to witchcraft?
Well that's interesting.
Margarita Guillory: So if you look at a person, I'll give you another source for your audience. If you look at Zora Neale Hurston's work, called Hoodoo in America. That's this hundred page periodical journal that's published around 1931.
And it's based upon all of her studies in Alabama, in
Maria DeBlassie: the Gulf of Mississippi,
Margarita Guillory: basically, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana, and basically. What you see there is these conjuring practices, these ritual prescriptions that she records of all these different practitioners. If we look at it, some of it we can say is good: Having a good job. Getting justice in a court situation where you are innocent. if you're barren, having children. We can see all these as potentially good. But then you have rituals that are about deaths, right? Bringing death to your enemy, running somebody, meaning driving them crazy. Separating individuals cause you want to be with that person. So we can look at that as something that is negative, [00:12:30] right. But when you spend time with these practitioners, conjurers and I've spent a lot of time with conjurers over decades for them, evil is relative. So if I'm in an abusive relationship and I want someone to perform a death ritual, so I can escape this relationship. Is that evil? Is that good?
Andrea Martucci: So a much less black and white interpretation of good and
Margarita Guillory: evil?
It is totally gray. Yes, it is totally great - that evil is, is relative in the system. And it differs. So conjuring, don't forget, is still wide. So right now I'm talking, I'm giving you an example that's based upon the Gulf Mississippi States, which is my area of specialization. I've moved into the New England area within the last three or four years.
But when you look at the Gulf, Mississippi, it is all - it's relative, right? but this is my take on it, based upon my interaction with practitioners, in the field.
But you cannot call them witches. That would end my field work. If I ever called a person who was like a voodooant, hoodoosant - if I called them a witch.
Because even on the ground in some cultures, witchcraft is seen as something very negative and is seen as something white.
Andrea Martucci: Mm. Like the Salem witch trials
Margarita Guillory: It's seen as something white. Right. that's not what we do. I don't, we don't do witchcraft.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I wonder, let's tie this to that idea then of practitioners versus observers and basically who gets to call you a witch? Do people call themselves? Is it something you can even call yourself? and I wonder if this ties to, how did Africans end up in America? We're talking about the transatlantic slave trade is the primary source, enslaving Africans, bringing them to the Caribbean and the Americas, under, forcible conditions. And then, upon being brought to these places, being oppressed and marginalized in a variety of ways over the course of time. So how does that sort of play into the perception by outsiders of these practices?
Margarita Guillory: Yeah. So if you look at the literature. I'll just give you an example. Newspapers are wonderful sources, you can go to newspapers and they'll answer a lot of your questions. If you look at the newspaper, let's say, antebellum period newspapers, late 17 hundreds, 18 hundreds, [00:15:00] what is the racialization of witchcraft?
That most of these articles were written by people of European descent who, they were studying sort of the practices among enslaved individuals. They didn't call them magical practices. They didn't call it conjure. That's not the terminology that they used. They use witchcraft, they use witch doctors.
They called the Black men witch doctors, they call the women of African descent or African women, witches, hags. But they also use that term interchangeably with Voodoo, or Vudon. They swapped them out. So they were seen as witches. But it's interesting, if you look at those same newspapers and you have them particularly like the New England newspapers and you have them talking about witches of European descent, they make a distinction between the types of witchcraft, even. So this is why I'm saying, talking about witchcraft can be very muddy and messy and complicated, right? So you can take these same newspapers when they talk about these magical practices happening among people of African descent, particularly during the 1800s, they're sending really derogatory terms, they're seen as primitive.
It's primitive. They need Christianity. This is primitiveness. Barbaric, are terms that you see also, but then when you see the flip side of that, witchcraft being practiced, particularly among white women reported in the paper. They link it back to the Salem witchcraft. The Salem witch trials, of course, but then they talk about this as an anomaly.
Andrea Martucci: It's not part of their nature. It is some mutation.
Margarita Guillory: Is a mutation. It's an abnormalty. But it's still not seen as derogatory and primitive. And so there's a gaze here, right? In this chapter that I'm working on in the book, I call it like this - that 1800s was this prime period of the racialization of witchcraft.
And really categorizing all these really complex traditions like voodoo, and all these wonderful conjuring traditions, just really bringing them all into witchcraft and saying, this is witchcraft and is primitive and is barbaric. So it just flattens, like it just flattens all these wonderful, magical practices that are being practiced among people of African descent, particularly during the [00:17:30] 1800s.
And you see this just continue, even today, you see it in popular culture all the time.
Maria DeBlassie: That's my follow up question, actually. So how do you see that being perpetuated in popular culture? So with some of the witchcraft shows we watched or, I also like monster hunter fiction, like Occult Detectives and watching that, read enough of those stories or watch enough of those TV shows, they always have the one like voodoo episode or the witch doctor episode,
Margarita Guillory: and it's
Maria DeBlassie: always really uncomfortable and super offensive, for a lot of reasons. But, I would love to hear how you read that, it seems like a very Euro-centric gaze, like a lot of the issues you're talking about.
Margarita Guillory: These are great questions. It's a continuation of this racialization of witchcraft, And so what you're talking about, if you look at, for instance, American Horror Story, and you look at Coven and you look at like Queenie, right? So you look at Queenie, and you look at Angela Bassett, who's playing Marie Laveau and look at the ways in which that show, how they portray voodoo. First of all, the way that voodoo is portrayed is connected to witchcraft in some time in some way, is demonized. So you have this perpetuation of the stereotypical sort of conceptualization of voodoo. It totally flattens voodoo. And so let's start there.
But then if you look at Queenie, Queenie is an interesting character, right? Because she is a witch, right? But if you look at Queenie, so this is a continuation of this racialization of witchcraft as primitive and barbaric and violent. That's one that I left out: violent.
If you look at her power, go back and take a look at this season, right? If you take a look at her power and relationship to the power of the others, baby witches that are in this school, her power happens as a result of her physically harming herself, she's a human voodoo doll, right? So she's not clairvoyant, right?
She doesn't have the mental, she's not on the mental end of the spectrum with respect to her powers as a witch. Her power is associated to her body. Harming her body. This is something in the early [00:20:00] sources, particularly in the 1800s, right? Race, gender, embodiment. All of these things are intertwined when you talk about witchcraft, particularly as practiced by black women, right? So when you see the millennials trying to take this stuff back, they actually are, this is a wonderful conversation because they are actually pushing back again that negative, derogatory racialization of witchcraft and saying, this is not what our ancestors practiced.
For them, witchcraft is not derogatory. Witchcraft is like all of these complicated things that have been teased out in the literature from the 1700s to even now that's coming out. So you can pick any of those shows. I chose like American Horror Story, because it did some atrocious things to witchcraft. I mean, to voodoo, but also just this Queenie character really just fascinated me, what they just failed again. Even witchcraft - so witchcraft associated with a black body looked very different than her other colleagues. It's this perpetuation of the same old story.
Andrea Martucci: And so if we think about it about people of African descent living in America, in the Caribbean, during the 1800s and and they are exposed to these cultural forces that are telling the story that they know differently because if they are conjurers they understand the nuance, but they see their practices being portrayed in a certain way, is that then causing a movement underground, is it causing people to move away from the practices? Like what's happening to the individuals who are living through that?
Margarita Guillory: So what I would say is that these practices - this is why, I have a colleague at LSU when we talk about esoteric practices, that these are practices, conjure, these are practices that people who are enslaved, they already had to really practice with discretion.
Not necessarily because they were afraid of the planters being not able to understand what they were doing. Just the simple fact that they were considered labor. And they're not supposed to be doing religion. If you look at the history of slavery in this country in particular, the religious instructions of the slave - who cares? They're here to work and to make capital. There is a mystery, right? That conjuring [00:22:30] has always been done in secrecy. So you can't talk about voodoo and all these other, hoodoo and these very wonderful traditions, without talking about secrecy. And even still today, even though I spend a lot of time with practitioners in these various traditions, as an outsider, even though we're people of African descent, different people who I spend time with, I'm still an outsider.
I'm not an insider. And so there's still secrets that will not be revealed to me. So there's always been this impulse of secrecy, that's been a part of these traditions. Period, even during the antebellum period. And post-antebellum period, even now. Even though you see all of these women of color who are proclaiming to be witches, in this very public sort of platform, whether it be Tumblr, whether it be YouTube, that is, it's public. But there's still some secretive elements that you will never ever know about because they're not going to put them out in the public domains.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Maria DeBlassie: Do you think that's in part so just to let you know a little bit about me, I talk about practicing through Brujeria. I come from like a mestiza background. I am, from like Latinx, indigenous and European descent. So I'm from Albuquerque New Mexico, the Southwest.
Margarita Guillory: Okay. Okay.
Maria DeBlassie: So there's this idea that like Spanish colonizers come in and anything from indigenous and Latinx cultures, they don't understand is like witchcraft. So it's the same thing. And so we have ancient folk magic, Curanderismo and other native traditions, that are very spiritual that have that kind of ephemeral, ,magical quality for lack of a better term that get labeled. And so now, part of what we're doing is we're reclaiming that and saying, we're taking that away from the lens of Spanish colonization, we're taking the term witch or Bruja and making it powerful. Very similar situation.
So I'm wondering as you're talking, if historically, there's this idea of meeting secrecy, to keep yourself safe, right?
Margarita Guillory: Yes.
Maria DeBlassie: If you are an enslaved Black person, you do not want to meet the wrath of someone who sees you doing this
Margarita Guillory: exactly.
Maria DeBlassie: You don't want the Spanish church getting a hold of what you're doing. So they get driven underground or folded into Catholicism.
Margarita Guillory: Yeah.
Maria DeBlassie: I'm wondering if now, especially if you're talking about, Witchcraft celebration of witchcraft and in the media or digital witchcraft. I [00:25:00] wonder if part of the secrecy is almost respect for that legacy.
Like certain gazes don't get to see certain things. Specifically, the white gaze does not, is not allowed to have access to certain things. do you think that's part of what's happening or ?
Margarita Guillory: I would totally agree with you just to go back is that this was a safety issue also, right? And, as Christianity is being introduced into its slave populations, it's also, you start seeing all sorts of blending happening.
I grew up in Mobile, Alabama and, even though like people in my family were Christian, they had a lot of other stuff going on at home, and they had a sort of public religious persona, but then they had conjuring this conjuring persona, they were performing conjuring in their homes, in their private spaces.
So that element of secrecy, yeah. I would say, kept them safe. But at the same time it was about preservation also. I would add that to, our conversation, is how do we preserve, when you are chattel slavery and you are being totally dehumanized in every way possible, how do you preserve your humanity?
Dr. Anthony Pinn who wrote an amazing book called Terror in Triumph talks about this. How do you preserve your humanity in the face of dehumanization? So he answers this by saying religiosity, but religiosity as being this search for complex subjectivity and identity because I see, we're going to talk about, we're talking about identity a bit here, right? And that these conjuring practices it really serves as a web. You think about this, right? If you're being dehumanized, but you are the community's conjurer and you see yourself as having power over some situations, in the antebellum period, it's something about that contrary act that counters those dehumanizing acts, right?
So some of this is about survival, but some of this is about perseverance. Some of this is about empowerment. That conjure allowed some individuals during the antebellum period to be able to exercise modes of empowerment in a system that told them you have no power, you [00:27:30] have no agency, but if I can go in my space and conduct this ritual and manipulate this reality, to bring something else for my community, my family, myself? That's a form of empowerment, right? And this is what I'm actually seeing across these digital platforms is themes of resistance. Things have, as you stated Maria, reclamation ride, reclaiming survival, empowerment, that all these sorts of things that's related to the ways in which enslaved people of African descent use conjure, you really see this, across these digital platforms.
It's really amazing. They might not use the term conjure. They are comfortable with using witchcraft in a way that scholars of a certain generation are like, ah, I don't know about that. They feel like witchcraft with respect to people of African descent has been so subjected to derogative understandings and negative. So for them, it's just one of those terms that can't be recaptured. But these population of women are saying, we can, we are going to recapture it. It's our term. (laughs)
It's our ancestral term and we're going to recapture it and really fight back and resist all of these sorts of things that has historically happened to witchcraft in relationship to women, in particular, of African descent.
Andrea Martucci: As you're talking about this reclaiming and, reclaiming in the face of dehumanization and like reclaiming that power. Is that tied into, like why are we seeing millennials seek this out now? Is there a specific trigger? Is it the digital revolution? Is at this point in time? You probably have the answer -
Margarita Guillory: There's so many reasons. In writing this chapter for this book, I went in thinking I knew the answer. I'm a scholar, that's what we do. And my hypothesis was that there's the shift towards witchcraft, to use their term, because Christianity became not useful for them in their everyday life experiences in the way that it might've been useful for generations before them.
Christianity provided a place, [00:30:00] particularly, in the post-antebellum America, where people of African descent were empowered. They had agency. Christianity, it was a social institution as DuBois calls it, it was a social institution, where Blacks can be politically empowered and free, tap into social empowerment, economic empowerment.
So I was thinking that, then as time progresses, Christianity has become for some, this was my hypothesis - for some in the millennial sort of generation and the generation behind them, who I'm really fascinated by, for them christianity no longer serves as this driving force. It's not meeting some functions that we needed to meet right now in 2020, for some, that was my hypothesis.
And in my research, what I found is for a certain extent, people talk about this, particularly in the blogosphere, right? They talk about how Christianity was there, they grew up Christianity, but they just felt that it was just not satisfying for them. It just wasn't meeting what they needed it to meet. It was empty for them. And so they went on this exploration and they landed here in Witchcraft and a variety of forms.
But there's not found that if you look in the blogosphere in particular, I focus there because it's so rich, that some people came to witchcraft because they were in families where their parents weren't really restrictive with respect to what religion they had to practice. And so they were all over the place and they found their place here.
Some people entered into witchcraft by way of Wicca. So you have Black Wiccans. So the people who I'm studying, in particular, are not Wiccan, but you have Black Wiccans. And some sort of fall in this track by way of paganism in general.
And some basically want to tap back into those ancestral conjuring practices, many of them, a large group of them. And these are the ones that I put my finger on. These are ones who are saying, wait, Our ancestors had these wonderful, rich religious traditions that we've been told are evil, (laughs) they're harming traditions. And what they found is no, they are not harming traditions. And they're really more complex than Christianity. They offer more, they don't dilute your human potential, and we want that. We want to tap [00:32:30] back into that and we're going to use public platforms to really show people that these are some beautifully complex traditions that have a long, longer legacy (laughs) than Christianity among people of African descent in the Americas.
So there are many, reasons why, including the ones that sort of line up with my hypothesis, but then, many of them are really wanting to tap back into those conjuring traditions that they feel like Christianity suffocated out.
Andrea Martucci: Do you think that, for the people who you're experiencing, through like their blog posts or talking to them or whatever. These younger millennials, I'm a millennial by the way. I'm a grown ass woman (Margarita laughs) but I know everyone loves to talk about millennials like we're children, but anyways, I imagine that part of the move in previous generations towards Christianity was, in part, assimilation and aligning with the dominant culture as a way of gaining as much power as possible and that the move in later generations, to the present time, seems to be recognizing the harm in that and trying to decolonize and separate. And do you think that is related to, the desire to - all religions usually offer some sense of community, right? There are some positive things aside from like specifics of dogma, but in looking for a community people choosing to specifically align with that ancestral, as you said, the ancestral practices, as opposed to like the religion of Europeans who have caused so much harm?
Margarita Guillory: Yeah. That's a great question because if you look at the history of, in the field, we call it the Black church. So if you look at the history of the Black church, for people like James Cone - these are some other scholars you can look for. And you have a whole trajectory of Black women scholars, who wrote womanist scholarship. So people like Katie Cannon and Emily Townes, Stephanie Mitchem. These scholars, what Black folk practice with respect to Christianity was not white Christianity. They practiced something totally different. So I want to say that first, because that's going to serve as a preface to move into witchcraft today as practiced by millennials and the generation after millennials. Like it's really that generation I'm spending [00:35:00] a lot of time with because they're taking things to the next level, with respect to witchcraft online and offline.
What's interesting, if you look at these communities, cause some of them are solitary witches, but many of them are in these digital covens, you have some who align themselves with ancestral practices and they incorporate within their witchcraft what they call African traditional religions.
And so they actually talk about ATRs online. But then you have Black witches and they call themselves, many of them, Black witches. Many of these witches of color are Black witches, they infuse within their practice egyptian based Kemetic spirituality or spiritual practices, but then you have whole sub groups of Black witches who call themselves Christian witches.
And when you look at their practices, what they allow us to see online, what you see is not necessarily white Christianity as scholars will call it. But you see this infusion of Black Christianity as adopted from the church. So what do I mean by that? So if you look at a person like James Cone, Christianity, Jesus and God is on the side of the oppressed period.
There's something powerful about that, when Blacks are aligning themselves, even in Gullah communities, if you look at how Christianity was introduced into Gullah communities, the missionaries were tearing their hair out because they were like, well no, you need to be able to say these doctrines. And for them, when they told them about Jesus for them, they saw Jesus as this oppressed figure, who was liberated and who had this power. Jesus was on the side of the oppressed. So all these sort of doctrines that sort of build up on this fact that God is for the people who are most oppressed, that's a different type of Christianity, right? So these are the type of threads that you're seeing being blended into like Black Christian witches' craft.
So it's a different type of Christianity. It's Christianity,, cause you still see the Triune there, but it's different. So some of them are not throwing away the baby with the bathwater. And what's interesting about your question is that, if you look in the blogs in [00:37:30] particular, you have some witches, you have this intercommunial sort of respectability strands, these threads popping up, right, where you have the Black witches who are committed to like ancestral Africana conjuring practices saying, forget Christianity. And then you have these Black witches who are Christian, who are saying I can still be a Christian and be a witch too.
This is a long trajectory of blending that has happened within Black communities since the antebellum period, where you have people practicing Christianity, but then they're practicing something else in their home. Or they're going to the Hoodooist to perform this, or they're going to the store to buy lucky floor wash, mop. (laughs)
So it's blending is it's really like nothing new. They think it's new though.
Maria DeBlassie: And that was going to be my question was like, do you see them as fundamentally changing the conversation of witchcraft? Or is it as you answered it? They think they are, but really that's something that's been going on?
Margarita Guillory: I think it's been going on, but I put the fact that they're using digital platforms. So what's been going on - because we've been doing things in secrecy. A person who's the first lady of a church in a Black community, she doesn't what anyone know she's going to see the Voodooist. So these are things that have been done in secret, but what's interesting is the rise of the internet has allowed a certain type of exposure that's empowering, but at the same time can be dangerous.
Cause people can still sorta misconceive - if they don't have a context. So if they're going through YouTube and they see these witches of color doing all of this, if they don't have a context, then you can still have the perpetuation of this demonizing of witchcraft, particularly as practiced by Black women.
And I'll give you an example, a perfect example of this is this YouTube sort of movement - there's so much going on YouTube, but it is this movement on YouTube. I can't make this up. And it's called Black Lives Matter is witchcraft. Okay.
Maria DeBlassie: Yeah.
Margarita Guillory: Okay. You can unpack that. (We all laugh)
And why is it witchcraft? You start going and watch these videos. It's witchcraft because the founders pour libations for the [00:40:00] ancestors, right? It's like there are videos out there that's basically saying that the founders are Marxists witches. So this is like (Maria laughs) - exactly. So this is like the newspapers of the 1800s all over again, right?
Because, it is true. There are certain ancestral practices that happen in some of these protests, like the pouring of libations - not at every protest. But that is conceived of as witchcraft in this YouTube response. And furthermore, this witchcraft is seen as derogatory, then the Black women, in and of themselves, the founders are seen as derogatory. And you have a continuation.
So even though there are these wonderful benefits of having these sort of rich conversations about, and this rich reclamation of, witchcraft happening along these communities of Black women in particular, at the same time, it is in a public platform.
And so it is open to interpretation, it is detached from context. So the perpetuation of the same sort of narrative all over again.
Andrea Martucci: I mean, you are a professor in a religion department. What is the difference between magic and prayer?
Margarita Guillory: Well, you know what? (laughs)
Both of them are similar in that they invoke. They invoke. You're invoking whether you're invoking a supernatural power, whether you're invoking the power in yourself, because you see an inert power in you that you can tap into to do something with, in people's external realities. It's all about invocation.
And let me give you an example. Zora Neale Hurston. There's a book, it's a collection of letters written by Zora Neale Hurston during her time of doing research in the Mississippi Gulf States. And she writes this letter to Langston Hughes. It's one of my favorite letters written by her. And she talks about Voodoo. And she talks about Catholicism and she says, I've gone to the Catholic churches in New Orleans. I go to Voodoo ceremonies in New Orleans. They both use water in similar ways. They both burn [00:42:30] candles in similar ways. (laughs) They both use language. They both use their bodies. So for her, she was basically unpacking all of the sort of things that happen in these two seemingly oppositional spaces to say they are one in the same. So why is one demonized over the other?
Andrea Martucci: Let's see, what could it be? (We all chuckle ruefully because racism and misogyny)
Margarita Guillory: Inquiring minds want to know. So for her, she uses this to say, this is why it is so easy for Marie Laveau to be this upstanding member of one of the oldest parishes in New Orleans, and also be the queen of Voodoo. (laughs) Because both of them are so fluid and so similar. So to answer your question, the power of invocation, right?
It really is like a thread that really joins a lot of religious traditions stuff. I have to say.
Andrea Martucci: So now I instantly see the ties to what I'm going to talk about in the romance novels.
Maria DeBlassie: So as you're talking about like millennial practitioners be they witches or conjurers or however they want to identify,
So as you're talking, I'm wondering if part of the reason they're feeling so three free to express themselves is, I wonder, is pop culture playing a part in that, like these witch stories - so like in Xeni by Rebekah Weatherspoon, like whole witchcraft practice is centered around the movie Practical Magic. That's how she explains it. And so it's not really tied to like her own ancestral traditions. And even though, as I'm walking my students through right now, like witchcraft in pop culture is very much a white feminist narrative - and when you do have minority practitioners, it's usually as a side character or not portrayed in a very, responsible light, I guess we should say, there's lots of appropriation. But even with those limitations, do you think those representations, just the visibility of it and the kind of excitement of it, is that part of what's shaping that millennial witchcraft conjuring narrative?
Margarita Guillory: I would say to a certain extent. So I'm one of those scholars where, because I've just seen so many reasons, like people who have shared like their personal narrative into how they came about entering into the practice or into the craft.
I would say some of them tie it to popular [00:45:00] culture. So I'll give you an example of a person who's both / and. So there's a witch of color, she has a podcast called The Back Porch Spiritual. And, she self-identifies as a biracial witch just trying to figure some shit out. (we laugh)
And yeah. And so she talks about her personal journey to craft that was not only premised upon pop culture, some of her introduction to witchcraft by way of pop culture, but she also talks about her family. Like her Gammy. So being introduced to these quirky sort of practices by way of her Southern Georgian granny.
So she represents one who's totally influenced by pop culture. So you see that with people like her, the Black Witch is another person who has a really great blog, she's more pagan oriented.
So yes, but then you have some who, it comes through a familial sort of introduction at the same time. so yeah, you do see that, but then you have, some who have both and, they have both of those influences.
Andrea Martucci: Given that there are so many different strains of conjuring and there's a lot going in and then everybody's individual interpretation of that is going to be different. And then we have to layer in that people are holding these practices secretive from the wider world.
Is there such a thing as a positive representation of African diaspora conjuring practices in the pop culture? (Maria and Margarita laugh)
Like, Accurate and respectful. Is it possible?
Margarita Guillory: Is it possible? Okay. Yes, but let me tell you where it's going on, where it's happening. So in the world of hip hop,
Andrea Martucci: that's not where I thought you were going. Okay.
Margarita Guillory: Yeah that's where I'm going. So I also teach religion and hip hop. Yeah, so, and I've written about religion and hip hop. And so if you look at the world of hip hop, this is where you see it happening.
So on TV. No. On YouTube though, there's this wonderful. I don't know if they had issues with funding, but these three individuals, they're Co-creators of this YouTube series called Juju, JUJU. And I think, those complexities, they [00:47:30] captured it in the two episodes that I've seen. I would say check them out. And specifically what's interesting about that crew is that those characters are based upon, two of the women of African descent who were a part of the Salem witch trials, Tituba and Mary Black. And so they're even connecting historically to those figures. That's a whole nother conversation because Tituba is like this symbol of resistance and empowerment among some of these strands of witches of color on the internet. Tituba is the woman.
I'll give you a couple of names. So the first person will be Azealia Banks and Azealia banks, if you haven't heard of her, she's a hip hop artist. She's, a lyricist and she's a practitioner of the craft, but for her, she talks about her introduction was by way of her mother. So she's of Caribbean descent. And so she enters witchcraft in that way. So you see it in her music. So for her, Yumiya is really venerated in a lot of her music. In one album she has this wonderful song, there's this dedication song to Yumiya. And she appears on the album cover art as this beautiful mermaid.
So she's an example of a hip hop artist that's saying this is the craft. And she considers herself a witch so you can go on YouTube. They have this video of her cleaning out her sacrificial closet. So she is a person who, you see the complexities -and she gets a bad rap for this. Like this has really hurt her career to a certain extent that she's so open about her practices.
Another person who is newer on the scene is a, I don't know if you've ever heard of her, name is Princess Nokia. So she has a song entitled Bruja. So the video and the song together captures all these wonderful complexities of conjure in witchcraft that we talk about. So she utilizes witchcraft as a very interchangeable term, with sort of African diasporic magical conjuring traditions in the Caribbean, but she does it, not in a reductive way. She talks about witchcraft a lot, but in that song, along, she brings them all of these wonderful strands like of the African diaspora. So she brings in Yoruba. She brings in Puerto Rico. She brings in New York.
[00:50:00] And she just wonderfully just brings all of these sort of these strands together. They intersect beautifully in her body of work. So it actually is being done. It's not being done where a lot of people can see it. Like American Horror Story would have been a wonderful place for it to happen because so many people tuned in and watched that series. And particularly The Coven had like a really high viewership. So this would have been an opportunity for producers to actually talk to scholars and practitioners and get it right. But in their mind they already know what witchcraft is and its association to Black bodies, they already know what it is.
Andrea Martucci: They should have called you - why didn't they call you?!
Maria DeBlassie: I know, right?
Margarita Guillory: Because it wouldn't have made for good - there's so many wonderful things that's so powerful about these traditions that they can still make for great television. It's just being lazy and just perpetuating, saying that you know, but what you know is very thin and reductionistic.
And the powers that be, they make those decisions. Even the way that Marie Laveau, just because you had Angela Bassett, which she portrayed, like you couldn't have asked for a better actor to portray Marie Laveau, but the way in which Marie Laveau is, it's just like really?!
Andrea Martucci: Like caricatured?
Margarita Guillory: Yes! If you look at the biographies that have been done or her, she was nothing like that. She was nothing like that!
Maria DeBlassie: Can I ask a followup question about Azealia Banks?
Margarita Guillory: Yeah.
Maria DeBlassie: So you had mentioned that she was really demonized for sharing that, her practice. Was she demonized by people within her own culture who felt like she shouldn't be sharing that to the outside world or more -?
Margarita Guillory: Well, the greater hip hop community saw her as crazy, cause she's already really outspoken. So she's very outspoken and she utilizes Instagram and other social media outlets. She's really outspoken. But she's a phenomenal lyricist,
But even hip hop is very male dominated. So they don't want a woman that's very outspoken and powerful. And then you put on top of that these sort of "weird", and I quote that: "weird" religious practices on top of that. That's not what the hip hop world wants to see from a woman of color who's in the game.
And so it took a hit. It had already taken a hit cause she's [00:52:30] so outspoken. But she has followers. Like she has like a core of people. This is what's so wonderful about hip hop. You don't need the big labels anymore because of the internet. So she still has this core of followers that really appreciates the complexity of her. This is what I like about her. This is what I like about Princess Nokia, because they show the complexity of the witch . Specifically the complexity see of the Black witch, and this is a terminology that I wouldn't use. Black witch is something that they use: Afro witch, Black witch.
For them, they are complex individuals. They're not these linear depictions that has happened historically. And that's still happening. Look at Queenie in American Horror Story. Like we're thick and we're complicated and we're messy. And so this is what, Princess Nokia, there's another person called Bby Mutha.
And I can spell that cause she doesn't spell it the way you think she can see?
Andrea Martucci: Please do...
Margarita Guillory: her name is BBy Mutha and she's another hip hop artist is B B Y M U T H A. And she's a Southern hip hop artist and her witchcraft, which is a little different from, Princess Nokia and Azealia Banks is her witchcraft is, basically, based upon the Celtic system. So this is when again, even with these three figures, Black witchcraft - it's complicated, right? You have some who are atheist, but they're Black witches.
What I've found over the five years of being on the internet, researching, talking, is that you cannot, it's hard to put a pin on them collectively.
That they're different individually, with respect to their craft, but then they do form these wonderful digital covens. But even within the digital covens, for people who are members of these digital covens, they still have to understand that they have personal agency.
That's what witchcraft is about, right? That you can determine your own unique path. So what's wonderful is that identity in this way, it's not just premised upon your personal witchcraft. Your own unique path of witchcraft. That you get a certain identity, that you can construct a particular identity, based upon your own uniqueness, right? A personalized form of identity.
But you can also enter into these covens where you can generate these collective modes of identity, that's based [00:55:00] upon race, that's based upon gender, that's based upon sexuality, that's based upon - it's like your commitment to Africana religious traditions, your commitment to none religious orientations, that even within these sort of digital covens, Black women are having these opportunities to even construct these complex modes of identity and collectivity that's even different.
So witchcraft in that way provides this wonderful space for them to articulate these various modes of identity, that society basically says that no, you're this, but they can get into these spaces and say, no, we're all of this.
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah.
Margarita Guillory: This is one of the reasons why - so the theory that I've generated as a result is this becomes one of the catalysts why I really believe that witchcraft is so attractive that it gives them the power to be with an ellipsis, right? (laughs)
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Margarita Guillory: The power to be.
Andrea Martucci: Margarita, thank you so much for being here today. Is there anything that you'd like to share with people about how they could get in contact with you or where they can find more about the research you've done or, stay tuned with what's going on with you?
Margarita Guillory: Oh, first of all, let me say thank you for having me. This has been phenomenal, to have this discussion with the both of you and your questions were fabulous because now I'm sorta rethinking things. So this is what I mean by the process of learning is a reciprocal process because now my wheels are turning.
If people are interested, they can always reach out to me, my BU email address is M as in Margarita, L S G as in guillory (MLSG) @bu.edu. So they can totally reach out to me through my email address.
Andrea Martucci: Awesome. Well, thanks so much. It was a complete pleasure.
Margarita Guillory: Thank you so much.
Maria DeBlassie: Thank you so much as well. This was really fascinating. I'm so excited to share this podcast with my students and to share your work with them and to read up on all the wonderful resources you gave us. This was, just an incredible conversation.
Margarita Guillory: Thank you so much. And I can't wait to hear your discussion!
Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 66 and thanks to both Dr. Margarita Guillory and Dr. Maria DeBlassie for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.com.
Coming up next week, Dr. Maria [00:57:30] DeBlassie is back to talk about Black witches in romance.
We will be discussing Xeni by Rebecca Weatherspoon, A Taste of Her Own Medicine by Tasha L Harrison, and Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert.
If you are looking for spooky romance recommendations with witches ghosts, et cetera, check out my list of curated wrecks on shelflovepodcast.com. I also was recently on Boobies & Noobies podcast to talk about my feelings about Halloween, they're complicated, and Caroline's Heart by Austin Chant, which features a main character who is also a witch. It's episode 109 from October 7th, 2020. It is always a joy to chat with Kelly and I hope you enjoy.
Thanks for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to [email protected]. This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci. Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson and Tasha L. Harrison.
Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad and keep reading romance.
Maria DeBlassie: And that's like, that's like witchcraft 101, whatever your tradition is, right. It's, I'm going to do this my way. That's the ultimate spell or however you want to identify it. That's the ultimate thing where you say, I have been told to think and feel and express myself in certain ways or to perform in certain ways. Brujeria for me, for example, is about taking that power back and saying, but what do I want, what feels authentic and healthy to me?
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