Hi there. Black Lives Matter. They still do, and we’d like to reiterate that (not just because it’s Black History Month, although that’s a good reason, too, but because it’s a core part of what we believe as well).
Last year, we posted an article highlighting that Black Magic also matters, particularly in terms of the way Black people have deeply influenced the shape of North American folk magic for hundreds of years now. We highlighted a variety of practitioners, historical figures, and important community members we thought deserved some attention on our platform. We definitely encourage you to go back and check those folks out again, because their contributions only continue to grow in importance over time.
We decided this should also be a topic we revisit from time to time, not least because there are just so many crucial Black figures in the historical and contemporary practice of magic here (and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of those from Indigenous and other communities of Color who have been driving forces of magical creation and expression in North America, too, whom we hope to highlight more frequently as well).
This time, I’m going to share a series of deeply influential folks who have shaped not just my understanding of North American folk magic, but my understanding of literature. This list is focused on those who used the written word to preserve, share, document, enchant, and defend their magical worlds, and I have been extremely lucky to be able to read their work. This group is less focused on the practitioners of magic (although some here certainly do practice it), so I’ll likely have a more practical group to highlight the next time I post. But the words these authors have produced have been so important to me in terms of magic, history, and human feeling that I feel like they are very much worth your time to meet.
A quick note that I have endeavored here to use Bookshop.org links to benefit local bookstores where possible, and only added Amazon links when I had to. I also recommend looking to local Black booksellers to pick up these titles if you can. I should also note that the links here are affiliate links, so our site does benefit from you clicking on them (if that’s an issue please feel free to visit Bookshop.org and search for the titles instead).
And so, Black Magic Matters – Literary Edition:
Many people wind up reading Douglass because of his autobiographical narrative, which became a lightning rod for abolitionists and enabled him to advocate fiercely for the end of slavery during his lifetime. Douglass was a literary master and knew how to turn a phrase, as well as a fierce journalist (he started the paper The North Star, which featured a number of abolitionist articles and helped drive up interest in the subject prior to the Civil War, and later went on to run two other papers as well).
One element of his narrative that people either completely miss or rabidly focus on is an account in an early edition that tells of a “root” he carries with him when dealing with the cruel slave-driver Covey:
“I found Sandy an old adviser. He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side. This was Sunday morning. I immediately started for home; and upon entering the yard gate, out came Mr. Covey on his way to meeting. He spoke to me very kindly, bade me drive the pigs from a lot near by, and passed on towards the church. Now, this singular conduct of Mr. Covey really made me begin to think that there was something in the root which Sandy had given me; and had it been on any other day than Sunday, I could have attributed the conduct to no other cause than the influence of that root; and as it was, I was half inclined to think the root to be something more than I at first had taken it to be.”
Douglass later gets into a knock-down drag-out fight with Covey and one of his assistants, but triumphs (although Covey seems to think he won, he then leaves Douglass alone following the incident). Is this folk magic? There are a number of scholars who identify this root as an element of rootwork or Hoodoo. Douglass himself is very dubious about it, and even in later writings essentially disavows the root as superstition. Still, this passage shows the way that magic entangled with the everyday life of African Americans, and also manages to bring a little of that magic to the reading lists of many young readers today.
Charles W. Chesnutt
The stories of Charles Wadell Chesnutt feature grapevines cursed by conjure-men to wither away, a man whose foot gets twisted backwards by rootwork, a fearsome wolf summoned by an evil witch to do her bidding, and all sorts of other magical goings-on as well. Chesnutt was unique as a late nineteenth-century writer who found success mining African American folklore for story ideas and incorporating them into often funny, sometimes frightening tales. He was also unique in that he identified as Black when he could “pass” as white due to his majority-white ancestry. He made racial issues a centerpiece of many stories, and very much looked to the dismantling of racism as a goal within his work and the work of other authors. His stories, often written in dialect, can feel off-putting at times and do not shy away from racially-charged language or topics, but the massive amounts of magical lore he incorporated into his fiction are captivating.
Also See: Robert Hemenway’s article “The Functions of Folklore in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman,” which discusses the folkloric influences at the root (pardon the pun) of the stories.
If you’ve never read Jamaican-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson, you’re missing out. Her work is phenomenally rich, absolutely dripping with magic and character on every page. I first bumped into her through a collection of stories she edited called Mojo: Conjure Stories, which also put me onto work by Tananarive Due, Nnedima Okorafor, and Sheree Renee Thomas. Her book, Brown Girl in the Ring, tells the story of Ti-Jeanne, a young woman struggling in a collapsing world of crime and violence while also balancing the traditions and history she inherits from her rootworking grandmother. Hopkinson frequently incorporates elements of fantasy and speculative fiction into her work, while also keeping it rooted in reality (I personally think she’s essentially a magical realist writer, although I don’t usually see her described that way). She builds on the folklore of her Caribbean heritage and draws the reader into worlds equal parts enchanting and haunting.
Also See: Mojo: Conjure Stories (a collection edited by Hopkinson)
If you’ve listened to our show much, heard me talk about magic and literature at all, then you’re going to know that Toni Morrison has had an outsized impact on my understanding of the universe. I love her writing and have devoured so many of her books. They are often very painful, marvelously uplifting, and incredibly potent because Morrison is a master wordsmith and storyteller. I cannot bring up enough this passage from Sula, which very much informs my sense of cosmology:
“[E]vil must be avoided, they felt, and precautions must naturally be taken to protect themselves from it. But they let it run its course, fulfill itself, and never invented ways to either alter it, to annihilate it or to prevent its happening again. So also were they with people.
What was taken by outsiders to be a slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal—for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental—life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew—only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as “natural” as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows that robins could fall”
If you want books that incorporate Black history, magic, and culture along with incredible stories and unforgettable characters, Morrison is absolutely a must-read.
Also See: “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” a lecture Morrison gave on African American literary legacies and the ways a reader should engage with a variety of authors
Okay, I know Reed is controversial, but that’s also because he’s bold and experimental, outspoken, brave, and loud on the page. His writing is unapologetic and nearly acidic in its satirical strength, and he takes on a lot of beloved cultural darlings in his work (most recently he wrote a scathing parody of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with an eye to correcting some of its historical whitewashing, for example). One thing Reed is, however, is meticulous. He unearths pieces of history and culture with the tenacity of a scholar and the literary flourish of a poet. For example, one of his best-known novels, Mumbo Jumbo, is a freewheeling tour of Black history including real-life characters like Black Herman, Marcus Garvey, and President Warren G. Harding (who was sometimes rumored to have Black ancestry). Into that history, Reed injects Hoodoo, Voodoo, Moses, jazz music, spontaneous dance outbreaks, and so much more. His books are the sort of reading that makes you long for footnotes or at least sends you out Googling all the madcap figures and facts he includes to know more (or maybe that’s just me, but I enjoy it!). Reed destigmatizes the power of magic in Black history, and he’s worth your time for that alone (but there’s so much more to enjoy, too).
To Read: Mumbo Jumbo
Also See: Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (a “HooDoo Western” that is absolutely delightful to read)
I am incredibly sad that Kenan is no longer with us. I had the chance to correspond with him briefly, and he was a key part of my Master’s thesis (along with Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler on this list). If there’s an author I think many people haven’t heard of here, it’s Kenan, but that’s a real loss because his work is absolutely magnificent. He only published a few books in his life, but they were absolutely soaked in magic and folklore. Take, for example, this passage from his novel Let the Dead Bury the Dead, in which the history of the town of Tims Creek is interwoven with mythical stories of a devil-disguised-as-preacher who visited long ago:
“[T]he rumors were that these folk had had sexual congress with the Preacher-man. Said that his seed or whatever it was carried madness, and he had forced himself on them innocent youngens and animals and drove em mad…said in one sitting on Christmas Eve, he ate two whole chickens, an entire mess of greens, corn, cabbage, a whole hog, and a cake and a pie. He’d eat and they’d just keep bringing, wide-eyed and plumb put out by the site of it. Say somebody mumbled something bout gluttony and the Preacher just looked at him, mouth full of ham, just looked at him, and that man never said another mumbling word for the rest of his life. Said the Preacher kept a black snake and a big black bird. One woman say she heard the Preacher talking to the snake and the snake talked back. She went deaf.”
If talking snake familiars and ravenous devil-preachers don’t say “American folk magic” to you, I don’t know what to tell you. Kenan also infused his work with intersectional issues, including the difficulties of being both gay and Black in his Southern community. Kenan’s books are founded in occult ideas and make magic both intoxicating and dangerous, and I cannot recommend him nearly enough. We lost him far too soon.
Also See: Kenan’s interview with speculative fiction author Octavia Butler in the magazine Callaloo.
I include the interview with Kenan and Butler above because it’s absolutely fascinating to see them both unpacking her fiction and all its deep mythological roots. If you haven’t read Butler’s work, it’s dark, full of unpleasant situations and serious trauma. At the same time, it’s empowering and encouraging, as the key players in her speculative fiction dramas are trying to make better worlds. Sometimes they are ancient goddess-like figures literally changing their shapes as they live for centuries in a game of cat-and-mouse with other immortals, and sometimes they are teenage women seeking to put post-apocalyptic humans into the stars by combining science and religion in equal measure. Butler’s writing is a magic all its own, too, and she does a phenomenal job conjuring up images that will haunt you long after you turn the page.
Also See: Kindred
So if I’m honest, I’ve only read two things by Tracey Baptiste: Jumbies and her Minecraft-inspired book, The Crash. That latter one is great, but not particularly magical. Jumbies, however, is loaded with magic. She pulls from her Trinidadian heritage and tells a story filled with folk magic, roots, soucouyants, witches, loup garous, and tricksy twins. The book, while aimed at younger readers, is magnetic in its storytelling and folkloric ties, and frankly pretty terrifying! My own children had to put it down because it got so spooky, and they aren’t the type to get that easily spooked. If you have a love of folklore and magic, her writing is absolutely worth checking out. She’s got two sequels (they’re on my to-read pile, I swear!) as well.
To Read: Jumbies (and also, I’m guessing, the sequels…I’ll get back to you on that!)
The last entry on my list this time is a bit of a mystery. Jeremy Love, a comics author who has worked on several titles including (based on his rarely-updated site) Batman, wrote a webcomic series called Bayou, which was then collected into print and e-book editions. The story is absolutely rife with Southern Black folklore, including a young woman setting off through an uncanny Otherworld populated by monsters and magic in order to save her father. Love then wrote a sequel as well, which seemed like it would be part of a trilogy. However, to date there’s been no third book, and almost a decade has passed. He’s also not easy to find online, and there haven’t been many updates about him or his work. Still, I include him here because 1) the first two books are great stories with a ton of folklore and folk magical elements woven in; 2) the artwork is simply beautiful; and 3) I’m hoping that by writing about a third book it will somehow come to be.
That’s where I’m going to leave it for now. This is just a small sampling of Black authors who have written amazing work incorporating folklore and folk magic, and I know there are so many more out there I could get into. Hopefully, though, this introduces you to a few you might enjoy and also helps to demonstrate just how much Black writers contribute. We truly wouldn’t have New World Witchery without the contributions of many of these writers, and all of them make our literary landscape so much richer and better.
If you have suggestions for Black authors for me to read (especially ones with lots of folklore in their work), I’d love to know! Please feel free to leave comments and point me in the direction of even more great Black magical writing! (Oh, but please note that once again any racist, misogynistic, or otherwise heinous comments will not be approved and may be reported as harassment. Please use the comments to lift up and elevate Black magic and Black writers).
Thank you for reading,