Anthropologist Tony Kail has been writing for years about cultural beliefs and practices that do not rely on establishment-defined, “respectable” reality. In The Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo: Rootworkers, Conjurers & Spirituals, his research focuses on the way Memphis became a center of a flourishing folk culture. Loosely known as Hoodoo, this culture had roots in Africa, slavery, and the Bible, as well as ties to the blues and other aspects of the religious and commercial life of Memphis.
Hoodoo is a collection of practices that sprang up to alleviate the condition—the fears, frustrated hopes, physical ailments, and economic stresses—of disenfranchised African Americans in Memphis. Hoodoo embraces a greater variety of beliefs than the better-known tradition of Louisiana Voodoo. Hoodoo practices make use of roots, the bones of black cats, ashes, oils, fragrances, candles, bottles of glory water, as well as Bible passages, prayers, spells, and rituals. Almost anything could be included in a “hand,” the bag worn by a sufferer to promote healing, attract a love interest, ward off a beating, improve luck, remove an abusive husband—Hoodoo is practiced to solve virtually any problem or meet virtually any need. A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo covers some of the celebrated practitioners in and around Memphis and details the way some aspects of the tradition spread into black churches and spiritual centers. “Hoodoo ran wild on Beale Street,” Kail writes of the early days.
There was money to be made from the practice, and Kail looks at the history and fortunes of the main outlets for Hoodoo paraphernalia. But both users and practitioners kept Hoodoo quiet, Kail writes, because “the growing presence of spiritual doctors and conjurors would be perceived as a threat to outsiders, who viewed the culture as a haven for deviants and criminals.” Consequently, there was plenty of official persecution and prosecution—what Kail calls “a focused attempt to stamp out evidence of African culture”—despite efforts to maintain secrecy.
Hoodoo still exists, and the anthropological record is rich for research. In fact, Kail has recently collected materials for a traveling exhibition he calls “The West Tennessee Museum of Southern Hoodoo History”. It contains over a hundred artifacts and photographs depicting Hoodoo culture in the area.
Ralph Bowden, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, has worked as an electrical engineer, history professor, home builder, alternative-energy consultant, and technical writer. A former resident of both Knoxville and Chattanooga, he lives in Cookeville.