I know, I know, two book reviews in a row may seem excessive, but I spent a lot of time reading over the past few weeks, so bear with me. Plus, you may find some new books to investigate!
Today’s book is Blue Roots by Roger Pinckney. It’s about rootwork, hoodoo, and conjure, but not the broad, general kind so often discussed in other books and on blogs and webpages (including this one). Instead, Pinckney focuses on the healing and magical traditions of one particular group: the Gullahs. Primarily associated with the Savannah, Georgia area, the Gullah people inhabit a large swathe of the lower Atlantic seaboard, especially the islands just off the coast of George and South Carolina. They are often referenced as an “untouched” enclave of African-American culture, and portrayed as a sort of quaint and folksy pocket of rural Americana.
Pinckney does little to disabuse the reader of those notions, creating a fairly warm, nostalgic book about folk healing practices (and a little bit of magic, too) found on the Southern Atlantic coast. The author also spends a good bit of time examining the spiritual practices of the Gullah, with an emphasis on spirits, the dead, ancestors, and African Diaspora remnants. From a section on the “haint blue” paint commonly found around doors, windows, and porches in the Southeast:
“Prior to the [American] Revolution when coastal plantations produced indigo dye for English cloth, planters gave their slaves the dregs from the boiling pots, which the slaves used to decorate window frames and porch posts, in the believe the blue color kept the plentiful spirits at bay. When indigo cultivation declined in the 1780s, Gullah slaves continued the custom with blue paint. It is a practice that survives to this day, perhaps no longer for a spiritual repellent, but as a tradition, nevertheless” (p. 72).
The book generally does a good job of highlighting some of the beliefs and practices associated with the Gullah, and also pays wider homage to the Southern incarnations of hoodoo and African religion. Pinckney sometimes seems uncomfortable with rootwork as a magical practice, and prefers to refer to those who use herbs, roots, and animal parts as “root doctors” rather than “conjurers.” His attitude in general is that of a journalist who does not believe most of what he’s told, but who really wants to. He explains a lot of rootwork’s more magical components as methods of psychological intimidation. In his chapter “The Power of the Root,” he describes an hypothetical visit to a root doctor in detail, then concludes with this sentiment:
“And will the root actually help him? Probably so. If rootwork were not effective, the practice would have died out centuries ago. Most likely, one of the man’s [the client] confidants will mention the conjuration to another, and the news will go whispering through the community until the rejected woman [the target] hears that she has been rooted. And since she knows in her heart that all her subversion was wrong in the first place, she will immediately desist her sundry annoyances” (p. 62).
This perspective is not one I particularly endorse, as I truly think rootwork has power in and of itself, and that the spiritual and magical components are far greater than the psychological ones, but it is certainly not an invalid point of view.
Some of the best chapters in this book are about Sherriff J. E. McTeer and his battles with the infamous Dr. Buzzard. I mentioned both of these famous conjure men in my post on Who’s Who in Hoodoo, Part II, and they both feature prominently in Jack Montgomery’s work, American Shamans. Pinckney spends a lot of time on their lore and their recorded history, which sometimes differ quite a bit. Actually, the lore he presents in most of his chapters is quite good, and he uses a journalist’s nose for facts to substantiate or repudiate certain points, while never discounting the broader nature of a story’s “truth.”
This is a book that I recommend to those interested in Southern rootwork, particularly its history and social relevance. It’s not one you can learn a lot of new tricks from, but you can certainly pick up a few things as you read. If nothing else, Pinckney has a deep love and reverence for the Gullah, the South, and rootworkers at large, so the book feels like a conversation with a good friend. If you think hoodoo, particularly the kind found in the Carolina/Georgia islands, is your thing, check out Blue Roots.