Henderson Harris knew about conjure. Born between Macon and Columbus, Georgia, in 1858, Harris regaled an early-twentieth-century interviewer with tales of conjurors’ uses of medicinal “weeds and herbs” to “fix” people so that the recipients neither ate nor slept but rather barked like dogs. Like many formerly enslaved and early-twentieth-century southerners, Harris’s knowledge of conjure was informed by more than mere observation. When he was unable to sleep after winning some money in Alabama, Harris and his nephew immediately suspected human interference and traced the treachery to a covetous neighbor who had allegedly tainted Harris’s coffee. It was Harris’s father-in-law who provided the counter medicine: he used rattlesnake master and a silver dime to take the conjure off of his son-in-law. At the end of the account, Harris confided that “some” people boiled nine silver pieces and drank the water routinely to stave off the potentially ill effects of medicine intended to harm or coerce.1
Harris’s belief in the capacity of human medicines to bend and expand the “realm of the possible” for the body, relationships, and other facets of existence was not unique. Like Rev. Fannie Elizabeth Burgin Harris, Eugene Reuben Mumford, and the other African-descended people discussed in this forum, Harris was a synecdoche of experiences, communities, and ways of knowing that stretched across geographies and chronologies. He evinced the African Atlantic cosmological worlds that preceded him, worlds where the material and immaterial dimensions worked in tandem to construct malleable realities for those who understood and “worked” their contours. Yet, as a child of slavery, he inherited rites of necessity and survival designed to address everything from pain to conflict. As slavery gave way to freedom across the Atlantic, he and others became the charter generation of revised religiosities that assumed new purposes and vocabularies in the wake of emancipation, migration, and ever-present racism, yet also drew upon iterations from alternate spaces and times. In this way, Harris and others reshaped the bounds of the possible—traversing centuries of knowledge, defying sociocultural constraints, and traveling across geographies in a Black religious multiverse concealed by categories like medicine, healing, and even conjure.
Both the chronological and geographical range of this forum speak to the spatiotemporal multiverse that is most Africana religiosities. Within the multiverse, a twentieth-century Jamaican Revivalist preacher flies alongside the early-nineteenth-century enslaved Igbo who collectively took flight in protest against their enslavement, and a twenty-first-century witch-hop artist remakes Africana religious vocabularies to theorize anti-Blackness in the tradition of the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and Nation of Islam (NOI). Channeled into traditions ranging from Pentecostalism to contemporary Hoodoo, the cosmologies and practices discussed here have historically been ubiquitous in African-descended peoples and communities and therefore have eluded the ritual stabilization and measured fixity that often accompanies institutionalization. This elusive quality perhaps accounts for the varied nomenclature used to contain Africana religiosities. Africana esotericism, brujería, hoodoo, conjure, and Black metaphysical religion are just a few of the appellations applied to these phenomena and speak to naming as a way of remapping and locating people within cultural genealogies and temporalities in historical time and academic methodologies.
As Malachi D. Crawford and Judith Weisenfeld discuss in their essays on the NOI and MSTA, respectively, naming has been a part of the metaphysics of self-definition among people categorized as Black in the United States. Crawford argues that the liminality of the X surname and other rites of self-knowledge in the NOI point to a “radical working-class African American liberatory praxis that recognized words as having a hidden, esoteric power.” Key to the “tuning of the religio-racial mind,” argues Weisenfeld, naming practices evinced cosmologies in which corporeality was not the basis for ontological presence, but rather self-knowledge—the capacity to understand oneself within a cultural genealogy of humanity—moved a person from object to subject. As Weisenfeld underscores in her discussion of Ophelia and Reuben Frazier-Bey and other members of the MTSA, religio-racial self-making practices materialized a “metaphysical imagination” that articulated alternative visions of Black possibility over and against the racist confines of twentieth-century segregationist politics. This “reimagination of matter” demonstrated the blurring of the material and immaterial, myth and history, space and time that is always a feature of the Black religious multiverse. What is fantastical in one space and time is history in another, but the varied possibilities continuously proliferate and shift based upon new and reclaimed knowledges. Scholars can trace the geographical and chronological proximities that birthed synergies between the MSTA and NOI. But when the marabouts of eighteenth-century Western Sudan appear peddling protective talismans constituted of Quranic verses, we are back in the multiverse, futilely trying to pinpoint the origins of communities of consciousness.
Pointing to the metaphysical power of naming within academic methodologies, Ahmad Greene-Hayes shifts the terminology from Black metaphysical religion to Africana esotericism consistent with Margarita Simon Guillory and Stephen Finley’s definition, while Elizabeth Pérez discusses brujería to push scholars beyond Anglophone lexicons. Highlighting early-twentieth-century Louisianian Eugene Reuben Mumford’s religious theorizations of planets, Greene-Hayes rightly asks who defines the parameters of religion and the infrastructure of the religious for subjects analyzed in scholarship. Pérez and James Padilioni Jr. join Greene-Hayes in questioning how scholars limit the imaginative scope and performative possibilities of Black religious practitioners through the imposition of physical and academic conventions particular to our own geographical and temporal concepts of the possible. Mumford theorized the cosmos while ensconced in a world that sought to circumscribe him intellectually, materially, and spiritually. Not unlike the controversial artist Azealia Banks about whom Peréz writes, Mumford defied the constraints of his Blackness as configured legally and socioculturally to theorize from, and perhaps converse with, a parallel universe that allowed for the cosmic capaciousness of Black religious knowledges.
Within these splintering parallel universes, Black divinities reign and authorize Shamara Wyllie Alhassan’s Rastafari women and Padilioni’s Bedwardites to divinize Blackness in early-twentieth-century Jamaica, despite the cultural humiliation, limited resources, and state surveillance that plagued their religious strivings. The Black religious multiverse authorizes a “radical ‘hyperconsciousness’” that counters Black containment, as Padilioni asserts in his essay. Biographizing Jamaican Revivalist prophet Alexander Bedward, Padilioni challenges the prioritization of individualized interiority as the basis for the religious person and rationality as the determinant of human subjectivity. Instead, he advocates for the seemingly impossible: the notion of human flight as a methodological approach to the alternate subjectivities constituted through Black religious practices. For Alhassan, such radical reconfigurations of possibility are intrinsic to women-gendered Rastafari pioneers’ theologizing about the divine feminine and gender advocacy and necessary for making Rastafari women visible in the historiography of the movement. Alhassan uses oral histories to bring the elusive matter of theological innovation into historical visibility—to make the immaterial material through the ritualistic protocols that crystallize memory and objectify the subjective through acts of archival metaphysics.
As LaShawn Harris and Seth Gaiters show, practitioners within the Black religious multiverse offer scholars a window into the horizons of possibility for Black people, not as constructed by racist economic and social structures but as determined by Black people themselves. Highlighting Buddhist Universal Holy Temple of Tranquility (BUHTT) founders Dorothy Matthews and Sufi Abdul Hamid, Harris points to the power of non-Christian Black religious communities to reposition working-class Black religious practitioners socially and economically, legitimize counterhegemonic cosmologies, and create and support alternative economies. In many ways, the tools of the multiverse remain rooted in space and time, and practitioners must manipulate and contend with material reality even as they lay claim to alternate possibilities. The prayer cloth from Gaiters’s great-grandmother that his uncle ingested and the turpentine his great-grandmother used to heal underscore the market forces that occasioned access to remedies, as well as the material necessity and webs of kinship that anchored Black religiosities. That she performed acts of healing “in Jesus’s name” brings us back to the metaphysical power of words to evoke, delimit, connect, and contain.
In many ways, categories conjure possibilities for what and who they encompass. Esotericism, magic, hoodoo, and even religion are all mere approximations of the phenomena under consideration in this forum. They are methodological tools used to analyze and materialize the immaterial imaginaries and multidimensional worlds constituted by practitioners. Perhaps the transubstantiative key is not how we name the phenomena but the practitioners who interpret, create, and animate them. Whether Christians, Muslims, or conjurors, Africana religious practitioners have often blurred the lines between chronological periods and cultural genealogies in ways that eluded the fixity of academic methods and methodologies. They have created temporalities and cosmologies that require a reimagination of scholarly conventions: a movement away from the “objective” skepticism in which Abrahamic and post-Enlightenment Western European rubrics ground notions of truth, “realness,” and religion to one in which the religious worlds of Black practitioners inform epistemological possibilities. More importantly, they allow us to peer into an alternative consciousness where the, at times overwhelming, impositions of anti-Black racism cannot and do not limit Black religious subjectivities but rather compel new universes of consciousness and relationality. Deciphering and traveling the multiverse with Black religious people invites observers to retheorize Blackness beyond culture, color, and history—allowing the multiverse to appear as a cosmos that stretches the bounds of the possible in religion.
Georgia Narratives Part II, 123.↩