#HoodooEdition: A Conversation with the New England Hoodoo Society
Hoodoo, often confused with its related Haitian counterpart (vodou) and drawing from West African vodun, takes on a great many masks. In history, Hoodoo has been misaddressed as sinister witchcraft; in popular culture and media, the practice and spirituality have alternately become haunting specters in Abrahamic contexts, or commodified tokens upon which to capitalize–but neither of these capture actual present-day Hoodoos’ concerns and spirituality.
I had the privilege of meeting Bolaji, a brilliant and insightful cultural worker, through the Black Men’s Collective–a group he co-organizes at the Boston Liberation Center. On an early, cloudy afternoon at the precipice of spring, Bolaji guided us through Hoodoo practices, offering an introduction to the wide variety of West African spirits embodied in African American ways of being and knowing.
Recently, alongside Danielle Cole, he co-founded the Candy-Onesimus New England Hoodoo Society. Candy, an enslaved African in Salem, MA, lived amidst the famed witch trials but was able to outwit her accusers while still practicing her godly magics; Onesimus, at one point the property of Cotton Mather (a former board member of Harvard University), was a healer who introduced the practice of inoculation as he had learned it while still free in Ghana. These threads of intuition, invention, health, and spirit, speak to the lives we create in our present. I recently spoke with Danielle and Bolaji to learn how they approach life, spirit, and building Black futures.
Alula: Peace, Bolaji and Danielle. I would love for you to introduce yourselves, and to hear what sorts of backgrounds you bring into founding the Candy-Onesimus New England Hoodoo Society?
Bolaji: My parents named me Roman Johnson — but my community gave me the name Bolaji. My name means, ‘although I’m full of fear, I go anyway because confidence is my crown’. I’m a writer, a seer, a medium, and a healer. At five years old, when my Aunt Mary died, she came to my dreams throughout her death process–that was my first introduction to the spiritual world and to my gift.
I had several childhood experiences of healing spirit, and that led me to study Black Healing Traditions, to do my work on Sapelo Island, a Gullah/Geechee homeland in Georgia, and to work with a griot, Mrs. Cornelia Walker Bailey, who is an ancestor now. I came here to do my postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health and Cancer Prevention–I consider myself a Hoodoo scientist. I’m interested in the scientific traditions of our people and how that mirrors our spiritual traditions.
Danielle: Just listening to him, we’re a good complement to each other — I’m very much on the intuitive side of things. I’m a writer, a thinker, and a dancer, and I worked as a youth mentor for years. I’m a lifelong New Englander: I grew up in Worcester, and my dad’s dad was a preacher. After my father passed away when I was 10, he became that ancestor that really spoke to me. Even after his passing, I could sense his presence. I’m interested in respecting what you know, even if you don’t know where it came from, and in the ways we connect to our culture and our heritage.
Alula: What is the general definition of Hoodoo that the New England Hoodoo Society is working with?
Bolaji: When I say Hoodoo, I’m meaning how Black people in this country relate to nature, God, and the Universe.
Danielle: The Chesapeake Conjurers’ Society wrote about Hoodoo being an ethno-religion, with cultural and religious aspects. It’s that worldview, the cultural practices, the Africanisms that we’ve managed to retain.
Bolaji: A lot of folks think of Africanisms as material holdovers; but they are also in our holidays and how we decide to gather! When we think about Hoodoo in New England, we have a tradition here called Negro Election Day. Beginning in 1741, before the birth of this nation-state, it’s the first documented election held by free and enslaved Black people, deciding with each other on a leader that will govern them. It’s a beautiful example of us self-determining and self-governing.
Alula: How else does Hoodoo show up in New England?
Danielle: Coming up in Worcester, I didn’t meet a lot of people who ever said aloud, ‘I’m a Hoodoo practitioner.’ Even telling people that was kind of controversial at the time. But my father and a friend of his started this group called the Charles Houston Cultural Project for Black youth to learn about their history. We had an African dance class where a Ghanaian teacher came and we learned how to make raffia skirts, how to drum. When I think of Hoodoo, I think of those things, you know? That practice is still Hoodoo: the searching for your roots, learning what we were disconnected from.
Alula: How did the New England Hoodoo Society come into being?
Bolaji: A year ago, I had a dream. I saw a snake the size of two school buses in a New England neighborhood; snakes are an animal totem that represent wisdom, but also community power. And after this dream, I woke up and spirit told me, you need to gather Hoodoos in New England. I thought about Hess Love, because Hess is an amazing Hoodoo thinker, and one of the co-founders of the Chesapeake Conjurers’ Society, alongside Toya Smith. They provided a great model for what we can do in community as Hoodoos, and they’re definitely a peer organization. And after having conversations with Hess, I found Danielle. We’re both interested in Hoodoo beyond capitalism, right? And I think that that was the major synergy.
Alula: I’m understanding these practices that you’re describing as a cultural and ethno-spiritual form of placemaking that is digital and physical, which is brilliant; what do the spiritual or cultural components of liberation look like to you?
Danielle: The first thought that always comes to mind is the uplifting and respecting of children. Children are their own oppressed class, Black children especially so. Cultural and spiritual liberation really looks like letting a Black child be free, letting them emote and explore. It will take a lot of work to finally get to that place.
Another huge aspect for us is coming together in a way that honors the dead, whether it’s going to a funeral or a cemetery or saying their names as a group. As Hoodoos, we connect that with the histories of our ancestors who fought against enslavement, against their oppression, against abuses; Black women who fought against patriarchy and misogynoir. Hoodoo is intended to be a liberatory practice.
Alula: ‘Children are their own oppressed class’ — conversations about liberation in the context of the family are so necessary.
Bolaji: I agree. We must venerate those children who are now ancestors, as well. Children are under great danger of police violence, and if we don’t see children as being under threat, we don’t think to protect them. Our Hoodoo is really about honoring the spirit of a child, the power and beauty of that child. OI also wanted to share that our liberation, to me, is connected to the earth and how we treat it. I believe in using local plants for our protection and our healing; the closer we are to the earth, we see that everything is actually free. Both the earth and our children are a source of nurturance for us in terms of the wisdom they carry. They have a particular energy that literally keeps the community grounded.
Alula: What possibilities and magics can we believe in, create, or embody?
Danielle: I think the possibilities lie in the maintenance of our humanness, the maintenance of our spirit. It’s important to remember that what exists now isn’t forever and it wasn’t an inevitability. We had thriving, healthy, self-sustaining communities, and we can have those things again in the future. It may take work, and we may not all see it all at once when we want to, but that future is there. The earth wasn’t always on fire, we didn’t always rely on fossil fuels. There wasn’t always police and police brutality — and Blackness existed before any and all of those things.
Bolaji: I think our magic lives in the water. African people in the Americas, we’re all water people. In 1638, the first Africans in New England, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, came over on a ship called Desire and landed in what’s now Salem. People ask, ‘where was God when we were in the belly of those ships’? To me, God was in that water, and some of us chose to literally walk right on into the afterlife instead of being enslaved. Our ancestors who survived had water spirits in their lives, too.
I believe every Black person in America should be building a relationship with the water spirits and biomes. My people are from Gabon, the jungle baby! I have water spirits and rainforest spirits with me. I think the future of Black people is in the water and working with it as a Sankofa moment — returning to that water, to that magic, to that power, making offerings as a people to the water. I think that will bring a lot of healing and clarity to where we go in the future. By going to the water, we’re returning to ourselves.
If you’re interested in learning more, the New England Hoodoo Society is holding a virtual All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and an in-person celebration on November 4th at Copps Hill Burying Ground in Boston, a communal day of ancestral veneration! You can also keep up with their cultural work via their Instagram, @newenglandhoodoosociety.
Danielle Cole (she/they) is a queer and non-binary writer, researcher, and Hoodoo. Their work often focuses on the possibilities and transformative nature of Black joy, rage and rest. Their writing can be found in a variety of articles and journals, discussing misogynoir and how those who experience it navigate those challenges while resisting it in both practical and magical ways.
Roman (he/him), known as Bolaji to community folk, is from the big city of the Mississippi Delta: Memphis, Tennessee. After having experiences of seeing spirit in his late teens and embodied ancestral dreams of the Middle Passage, he started to take his spiritual gifts of mediumship-seership and healing more seriously by tapping into his bloodline gifts. He carries cymbee from the Mississippi and the Kongo regions and is guarded and loved fiercely by his ancestors and community. He understands his role to manifest the divine desire for Hoodoos in New England to find healing and belonging in community and their gift in relationship to community uplift and transformation.