Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

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Spirited Women: 
Conjure and Female Empowerment in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Tara Tuttle


“Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion.  It has its thousands of secret adherents.  It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself.  Such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles.  And the belief in the power of water to sanctify in baptism.  Belief in magic is older than writing.”

 ~Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men


            The magic of voodoo lures many African American women writers to include the religion in their creations.  In addition to Hurston, both Jewell Parker Rhodes and Toni Morrison infuse their fictions of the American South with the African American cultural tradition of conjure.[1]  This set of religious practices, which sometimes goes by other names depending on the nature of the work—voodoo, hoodoo, rootwork, goopher, etc.—plays an important protective and emancipatory role in the lives of their female protagonists.  In Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams and Morrison’s Song of Solomon, conjure outperforms the dominant religious tradition of the region, Christianity, in the ways it provides meaning, assistance, and power in the lives of their female characters.  This is made possible not only by the veneration of the female in the value system of Voodoo but also by the record of conjure in the literary works of Rhodes’ and Morrison’s African American forerunners.  This essay will briefly discuss prominent uses of conjure in African American literature before examining the ways in which conjure is key to the empowerment of women in Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

            In his book Workings of the Spirit:  The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing,  Houston Baker names conjure a metaphor for African American women’s creative endeavors.  This metaphor operates on many levels.  Like the suppressed religion in a Christian climate, African American women writers have long struggled for an acknowledged presence in an American literary history dominated by white males.  Their literary creations, like voodoo rites, are efforts at making a mark and having a voice in a culture that by design deprived black women of authority.  African American women’s writing itself works as conjure in the same way that conjure works in the lives of the conjure women written by Morrison and Rhodes.  For Baker, Zora Neale Hurston and her work serves as the paradigm.  Daphne Lamothe explains, “Through the use of a Vodou subtext,” in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Hurston comments on and rebels against the forces that ‘define and confine’ black women as sexual beings, work horses and mothers.”[2]  In Mules and Men, Hurston describes her initiation into and education of hoodoo, and she even claims, “I have landed in the kingdom of Marie Laveau and expect to wear her crown someday” in a letter to Langston Hughes.[3]  However, the conjure Baker discusses her performing is that of her writing.  She, like other African American women writers after her, becomes the poetic image of conjure woman, for Baker sees the writing process as analogous to engaging in voodoo.  Baker likens the creative person to an intermediary and likens the artist to a voodoo practitioner possessed by a loa (a spiritual intermediary between human and supernatural)” (74).  Moreover, Baker specifically chooses conjure as a metaphor because he understands the special role of women in the religion and the special role of the written word.

            Conjure as a metaphor for female creativity has everything to do with the role of language in religion and society.  Moses is frequently cited as the first hoodoo figure in African American mythology, for he obtained language power:  the knowledge of the making of words and the art of writing.[4]  The power of language, though long reserved for men in many ways, may be assumed by women, too. Baker points out that in voodoo, despite its inclusion of Christian elements, the priestess is the central figure.  In fact, the loa Erzulie (whom Rhodes’ Marie Laveau so closely resembles in Voodoo Dreams) “is the mystère of eloquence–the mystère of the word.”[5]  Keith Cartwright explains that Erzulie, unlike the Virgin, “Musicat[es] openings to subaltern female powers [. . .] moving [. . .] the passive voice of ‘the Fucked’ to active revalorization of the verb, and call[s] us now to recognize in female openness the penetrable eros required of anyone who would move to be ‘mounted’ and possessed by true soul powers.”<[6] Erzulie is an active spirit who inhabits others through possession whereas the Madonna is a receptacle acted upon.  Marie Laveau resembles Erzulie in this way, for she is no pure and submissive, inert vessel bravely executing the will of God.  Her openness to be possessed by Damballah or her mother’s spirit marks the strength of her spirit, not any passivity in her.  In Rhodes’ novel, both Marie’s lover, John, and her grandmother’s friend, Nattie, sorely envy Marie’s penetrability.  Open to the reception and transmission of the spirit or the word, the voodoo priestess and the woman writer each act as a medium, which Baker defines as:  “‘an agency [. . .] by means of which something is accomplished, conveyed, or transferred;” “an intervening channel through which something is transmitted or carried on” (77).  What is transmitted is not only a record of the cultural heritage of voodoo but also a record of female accomplishment despite the odds of an oppressive cultural context.  Women writers like Hurston with an interest in conjure’s elevation of the female share what Patricia Yaeger calls an “emancipatory interest directed toward language itself.”[7]  Such an emancipatory interest is apparent in the works of Rhodes and Morrison, particularly in Voodoo Dreams and Song of Solomon.  Mastery of language makes this possible.  “Subjugated to exploitative conditions through the sorcery of white America,” Baker explains of women writers as conjure women, “their escape is only through the wisdom of words” (95).  

I.  Writing the Life of a Voodoo Queen:  Jewell Parker’s Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams

            Jewell Parker Rhodes sees the connection Baker makes in Workings of the Spirit.  “The creative process,” she says, “is very connected to a religious spirituality that Marie Laveau [. . .] feels” (Quashie 436).  Rhodes writes of the most famous conjure woman, Marie Laveau, a powerful voodoo queen of New Orleans in the 1800s, in her novel Voodoo Dreams.  Known as much for her alluring, striking good looks as well as her power, Marie Laveau was much loved and feared by many in and around New Orleans.  Though Robert Tallant[8] suggests that she became exploited as tourist site and that voodoo itself became popularly commodified, he also cites several events and expressions in which her practice of voodoo was believed to have prevailed over white authority and was perceived as legitimate spiritual power.  In Voodoo Dreams, Jewell Parker Rhodes has novelized the life of this conjure woman, remaining faithful to the known facts while creatively and respectfully filling in the gaps of history’s record of Laveau’s life.  Her account agrees with Tallant’s and Hurston’s[9] in that through conjure, Marie Laveau came to assume such social import that she transcended the prescribed roles for African American women despite her context, the racist and sexist antebellum South.  In the “Author’s Note” following Rhodes’ novel, the author explains, “I was intrigued by this historic figure of a black woman thriving amid slavery and oppression” (435). The source of this power was the role she filled in Voodoo worship and practice in New Orleans. 

            According to Kevin Quashie, “Jewell Parker Rhodes writes with salvation and liberation as her guideposts,” particularly the salvation and liberation of women (431).  Where Christian traditions urge silence and obedience to women and reserve leadership for males, voodoo emphasizes the special relationship of women to Damballah.  This is stressed in Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams.  Damballah, likened to the serpent in the garden with Eve, “gave women secret knowledge” (330).  Rhodes clarifies this in her novel when Nattie, a village woman faithful to Voodoo, protests Grandmère’s failure to assume her leadership role as Voodoo priestess.  “By right,” Nattie says, “a woman should [. . .] lead us in the faith” (105).  Female leadership is so important that without a queen, “no important gods visit” (132).  Grandmère’s reluctance to lead comes from her own conversion to Catholicism.  The association of Christianity with white power and male power is expressed through the fears of Grandmère, whose beliefs and reactions to white society establish a tension between the two faiths in the novel, a tension that Marie struggles to resolve.  She teaches Marie that “black gods, like black people, didn’t have any power” (41).  “White people, white gods are dangerous,” she says, and “black gods can’t survive in this world” because “white folks have too much power” (336, 338).  She also informs Marie that “being a woman is a curse,” as she has adopted belief in both the curse of Eve and the curse of Ham as indicative of her social position as a black woman in the antebellum South (Genesis 3:16, 9:18-27).[10]  Grandmère schools the young Marie in the tenets of Catholicism, but she also instructs her in rootwork and folk medicine.  This rootwork is never identified as conjure until Grandmère and Marie leave their isolated home in Teché . Not until she reaches young adulthood does Marie even hear of voodoo or her voodoo lineage.  Despite Grandmère’s hope that observing the rites of the Catholic faith will spare her grand-daughter the harm her daughter suffered while serving as a voodoo queen, Catholicism unfortunately fails to empower women in the novel and fails to capture Marie’s loyalty.  Moreover, Grandmère’s devotion to Catholicism at the expense of her Voodoo heritage fosters controversy in Haben’s Haven.  Haven residents blame her neglect of the Voodoo pantheon for the misfortunes of the village inhabitants, and Marie’s ignorance of her history leaves her vulnerable to John, the voodoo practitioner that led her mother away from honest practice of the faith.  Marie perceives Grandmère’s abandonment of Voodoo, her “acceptance of Ham’s curse,” and her preference for “white saints” are “blasphemies against Voodoo, against dark people” (115).

            As a result, Marie abandons her own Catholic upbringing for Voodoo as she searches for the clues to her mother’s past withheld by Grandmère.  Though Grandmère clung to her rosary for protection, Marie doubts that white gods have any interest in her welfare.  Her previous prayers to the Virgin left unanswered, Marie even believes “God had deserted [Haben’s] Haven,” the black community in which she and Grandmère take up residence with Nattie.  Others there share her feelings of neglect from white deities, and Marie takes up their plight through her own Voodoo practice.  “I serve all those people Catholicism has forgotten,” she proclaims (284).

            Despite revealing Christianity’s role in perpetuating social, gender, and racial inequities, Rhodes does not dismiss Christianity altogether an ineffective or exclusionary faith.  She first constructs an opposition of the two faiths, but Marie’s development allows Rhodes more opportunity for analysis of the virtues of syncretism.  After Marie’s preoccupation with finding her mother subsides, Marie slowly envisions a fusion of the two faiths.  This process is not smooth, however, and is accompanied by a struggle with many questions about Catholic tenets that strike Marie as unjust. 

            Christianity taught Marie that “women weren’t special.  Christ and God were special” (145).  The Virgin was special because of her role in Christ’s birth, but Marie wonders how “God the Father [could] exist if a woman hadn’t birthed him too” (145).  Rejecting the curse of Eve and the curse of Ham, Marie does not understand why any man should “have the power to condemn her” (111).  This crucial step in her development allows for her transition into independence.  In Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly explains the effects of an inability to reconcile autonomous womanhood with the demands of an environment permeated in the patriarchy of Christianity is characteristic: “A woman whose consciousness has been aroused can say that such language [that says God is male] makes her aware of herself as a stranger, as an outsider, as an alienated person, not as a daughter who belongs or who is appointed to a marvelous destiny.  She cannot belong to this without assenting to her own lobotomy.”<[11] Participating in religious practice that reinforces the lower rank of women, stresses their inherent evil traced back to Eve, and demands submission and confinement to motherhood and domesticity simply does not work for Marie, who realizes she is appointed to a marvelous destiny.  She cannot self-lobotomize, even for Grandmère.  This refusal and its accompanying insistence upon the value of her own critical inquiry are required for Marie to become the thriving woman that intrigued Rhodes. 

            Troubled by Christianity’s complicity in the horrors of racism and sexism, Marie cannot accept the Catholic faith of her defeated Grandmère, who “grew her for a husband” and not for her powerful role of Voodoo priestess (34).  “Women who reject patriarchy have this power [of developing woman consciousness] and indeed are this power of transformation that is ultimately threatening to things as they are,” writes Mary Daly (14). This move allows Marie to topple the power of John’s malevolence by increasing her power.  Marie does not reject Catholicism entirely, but she does not incorporate its repressive aspects into her Voodoo practice.  To extol the virtues of voodoo, Rhodes devotes substantial attention in the novel to Marie’s evolution of thought regarding Voodoo’s characteristic assortment of rites and spirits.  She “can’t let go of Christian gods,” but she purifies them of uses that make them complicit in oppression, and the addition of Christian symbols to her rites only serves to affirm her power in Voodoo Dreams.  Keith Cartwright explains that “Afro-creole cultures have forged repertoires of polyrhythmic consciousness based in a creolizing aesthetics of assemblage that incorporates ‘diversalities’[. . .] in contrapuntal resistance to white supremacist modes of power” (158).   Rhodes writes that Marie comes to view the blending of religions as “crucial to survival.  Marie felt she had to keep on doing what she had been doing,  blending white and black saints, not choosing on over the other as Grandmère had done.  Exclusion had been the mistake” (341).  Though Catholicism demands subscription to the belief in a single truth, what Cartwright calls a “colonizing universalism,” Marie decides to “pray to African and Christian gods because there wasn’t a single truth, a single people (159; Rhodes 341).  Rhodes explains, “Voodoo itself was like a snake—twisting and turning its shape and substance to suit place and people, not minding that it shed an old identity and rebirthed itself” (297).

            Conjure affords Marie the propensity for resistance.  This is analogous to the role conjure played in the lives of many real slaves.  In The Slave Community:  Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, John Blassingame explains, “Because of their superstitions and beliefs in fortune tellers, witches, magic and conjurers, many of the slaves constructed a psychological defense against total dependence on and submission to their masters” (109).  Marie frees herself from John’s mastery over her in order to spare her newborn his evil influence.  What he strove to corrupt with her and her mother before her, Marie corrects.  The sincerity of her conjure empowers her to do what her mother could not: to become a truly divine leader of the faith, and to restore integrity to a religion previously exploited for material gain.  Through her authentic practice as a conjure woman, Marie also assembles the pieces of her past and restores herself.   What she finds is hurtful and disappointing, but she fills the gaps in her history left by Grandmère’s refusal to acknowledge the voodoo faith.  Not only is she personally triumphant by the novel’s end, having expunged those around her who would use her family and debauch voodoo, but Marie also becomes a respected, powerful figure in New Orleans, even among white society.

II.  Toni Morrison’s Subtextual Folk Tale Conjure in Song of Solomon

            Though Morrison’s novel is not inspired by a historical figure, her work is informed by the depictions of conjure among the key texts of significant African American literary figures.  Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon features acts of conjure such as those described in Voodoo Dreams, but Morrison pays tribute to other writers of conjure as well.  Parts of the plot of Song of Solomon bear resemblance to the patterns of the folk tales recorded by Charles Chesnutt and Zora Neale Hurston.  Many of the tales Hurston records in Mules and Men describe efforts at overcoming the social hierarchies of master and slave, black and white, and male and female. This frequently occurs through the assistance of the Devil, whose serpent symbolism ties him to Damballah in voodoo, rather than from God.[12]  According to Baker, Hurston’s stories “demonstrate the presence of conjure as a process in everyday African American life and the efficacy of conjure in overcoming arrogant power and outgoing violence” (91).  In Chesnutt’s folk tales, sometimes the conjure woman’s conjure works; sometimes it fails.  However, the storytelling in the narratives, even about failed conjure, serves as its own magic rite.  Through telling conjure tales, black characters dupe white characters, particularly white men, in many of the stories, especially those collected in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman.  Because they are structured in a story-within-a-story framework, one must pay attention both to the folktale and to the fact that the narrator of the story tells the folk tale to achieve a particular aim.  Chesnutt’s Julius is not merely entertaining his white audience; he is trying to obtain something material from them, and through his storytelling of conjure, he is successful.  This is storytelling as conjure; the practice of an art outside of white culture to take power over arenas of social space in which one normally lacks power.  According to Marjorie Pryse,

Not until the novels and short stories of Charles Waddell Chesnutt in the late nineteenth century do we find a black writer capable of locating some other potential source than the Christian god for his own creativity.  In [. . .] The Conjure Woman (1899), Chesnutt writes out of the ‘magic’ of black folk life, thereby finding a form for black authority that can avoid challenging prevailing white assumptions about literary power (since it emerges, unlike Christianity itself, from an oral rather than a written tradition).  (10) 

For example, in “The Goophered Grapevine,” the conjure in the story-within-the-story may be used as a tool of the white master who pays the conjure woman to “goopher” his vineyard in order to stop the slaves from eating the grapes, but the telling of the story of the cursed vineyard has allowed Julius to live on the land undisturbed for years.  It also secured his job as coachman from the Northern man, Mr. John, who buys the land against Julius’ advice. In Chesnutt’s tales, the white women work with the black narrators to sway the white men, and both white women and black men play to the stereotypes of being delicate, gullible, or emotional.  Though this often displeases contemporary readers, this tactic actually disproves those stereotypes and underscores the gullibility of white male characters.  Denied access to formal avenues of power in the public realm, black men and women of both races resort to surreptitious methods of achieving their wishes from the white master/husband figures heading their households in these tales.  Whether Annie, the white wife, was duped by Julius or was shrewdly working with him, the reader comes to expect Mr. John’s will to be swayed by the completion of each tale in The Conjure Woman, which reinforces the pattern of these folk tales.  The conjure rites may prove unreliable in the tales-within-the-tales told by Julius, but his storytelling is its own method of conjure which seems guaranteed to work against the system of white male authority that disempowers both slaves of both sexes and white women.

            In light of this pattern, readers familiar with folk tale can recognize a similarity in Morrison’s fictional work Song of Solomon.  In the opening scene, insurance salesman Robert Smith intends to fly, an event that invokes the folktales of flying Africans that form a subtext of the novel.  Smith crumples to the ground, but his failure to fly enables another African American character to obtain something from white society she would not achieve through straightforward means.  The ensuing chaos allows for a black woman’s delivery of a child in an exclusively white hospital staffed by white nurses and white physicians.  Also during this moment of attempted flight, not coincidentally, the reader is introduced to Song of Solomon’s conjure woman: Pilate Dead.  Clad in an old quilt in the midst of the throng of spectators awaiting Smith’s leap, Pilate sings about another flying man, the Solomon of the novel’s title, until she informs Ruth Dead that her baby will be born the next morning.  Though the child is not yet due,  she is correct. 

            Before Pilate’s arrival, the Dead family existed in a “zombied” state, paralyzed and poisoned by the “zombifying horrors of white supremacy” from their position in a racist society and from the way patriarch Macon Dead adopts and enforces white bourgeois values (Cartwright 161, 160).  Only through the work of resident conjure woman, Pilate Dead, can the Deads be revived and released from the strictures of Macon’s rule.  Her rites of protection and efforts against Macon’s repression of family history allow Macon’s son, Milkman, to engage in the rememory necessary both to self-actualize and to solve the mystery of his murdered grandfather’s burial.  Pilate creates the space for Milkman to pursue knowledge despite the obscured family history that has left him aimless and unmatured, analogous to the way Rhodes’ Marie was left vulnerable by her own lack of ancestral knowledge. 

            Pilate’s possession of her own spectacular knowledge, or two-headedness, is one of the ways Morrison marks Pilate as a conjure woman in the novel which never uses the words “voodoo” or “conjure” in relation to her.  She is linked, however, to Christian traditions as well.  Her association with knowledge and knowledge-giving corresponds to the tree imagery that surrounds her, conjuring up the proverbial Tree of Knowledge, through the fruit of which the serpent bestowed sight upon Eve.  Pilate’s name is also connected to a tree shape and another Biblical figure deemed evil.  When selecting a name for her, Pilate’s father “thumbed through the Bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome; saw in them a large figure that looked like a tree hanging in some prince but protective way over a row of smaller trees” (18).   The name he chose, Pilate, upset the midwife who calls the biblical Pilate “the man that killed Jesus” (19).  She is also linked to trees by her habit of chewing pine needles from the four huge pine trees behind her house, which makes her smell “even then like a forest” (27).  Later when Macon spies on her, he thinks she “swayed like a willow” (30).  Milkman even describes her as “a tall black tree” the first time he meets her (39).  The association with trees ties Pilate to voodoo beliefs as well as Christian scripture, for in voodoo, trees are considered the sacred resting spaces of various serpent loas.

            These descriptions perhaps merely indicate that Pilate was unusual or strong, but Morrison gives sufficient clues to the reader that implicate Pilate’s role as a conjure woman without directly stating the fact.  Ruth Dead explains that Pilate saved Milkman from his father, Macon.  Only Pilate’s arrival altered the sour relationship Ruth had in marriage with Macon. Concocting a love spell, Ruth was granted a few days’ reprieve from Macon’s neglect. Ruth said.  “Pilate came to see Macon right away and soon as she saw me she knew what my trouble was. [. . .]  She gave me funny things to do.  And some greenish-gray grassy-looking stuff to put in his food” (125).  Ruth was instructed to mix this with rain water, and, once ingested, it brought about a “few days of sexual hypnosis” in Macon (131).  This successfully leads to Ruth’s pregnancy, but Macon wanted her to “get rid of the baby” (125).  Pilate protected both Ruth and the developing child, however, through various methods including the use of “a small doll on Macon’s chair in his office.  A male doll with a small painted chicken bone stuck between its legs and a round red circle painted on its belly” (132).  Though Macon practices nothing resembling voodoo and scorns his sister’s ties to nature and conjure, Macon fears the object and tries to destroy it.  Pilate’s conjure is so powerful that the doll’s destruction required  nine separate burnings, and Macon “left Ruth alone after that” (132).  Through her conjure, Pilate is a guardian of fertility, a helper in childbearing, and an equalizer of imbalance of power in Ruth and Macon’s marriage.  Though she has a daughter of her own, she serves as a surrogate mother to Milkman, the child borne of Macon and Ruth’s conjure-catalyzed union.  “She watched you like you were her own,” Ruth tells Milkman (126).

            Already an outsider as a result of her abnormal body (she lacks a navel) and accused of not belonging to God, Pilate may have welcomed conjure as a practice for which she was especially suited.  Besides assisting in childbirth, Pilate is described as “a natural healer” (150).  She is also believed to have knowledge of matters beyond the physical, perhaps even beyond the material.  Macon tells Milkman, “Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world.  Maybe the next, but not this one” (55).  This contrasts with Marie’s preference for voodoo in Voodoo Dreams for its utility in matters of daily life, and Macon’s statement proves incorrect—Pilate does indeed teach Macon about navigating his present situation—but even in his erroneous claim, Macon begrudgingly admits Pilate’s spiritual insight here.  Moreover, her abilities supersede human norms.  Like Marie Laveau, Pilate is rumored to have supernatural powers.  Pilate was “believed to have the power to step out of her skin, set a bush afire from fifty yards, and turn a man into a ripe rutabaga” (94).  This woman is respected and feared for her ability to transcend boundaries that most human beings cannot, both socially and physically.

            When Milkman and his friend, Guitar, are detained by police, Pilate does prove to have such shape shifting abilities, though they are not as dramatic as had been suggested.  Nevertheless, she can do what Macon cannot: release the young men from their predicament.  After they are caught with her bag of bones (that they thought contained gold), Pilate plays a stereotypical character for the policemen, which ultimately gets Milkman and Guitar released.  As in many of Chesnutt’s folktales, part of Pilate’s conjure involves playing to white assumptions of the inferiority of African Americans.  During her performance, her voice, her face, and even her height appeared dramatically altered.  “I told you she was a snake.  Drop her skin in a split second,” one of the men remark (205).  She tells a story about the bones to the policemen, explaining that the bones were the remains of her lynched husband, Mr. Solomon, whom she could not afford to bury (207).  She even quotes Christian scripture to justify her keeping his bones nearby.  With this performance, she humbles herself before the policemen, which angers Guitar’s sense of racial pride, but this incident follows the pattern of Chesnutt’s folk tales in which the story she tells works like conjure or is the conjure that secures the young men’s freedom from the white officers in power over them. 

            Pilate brings lives into the world, shelters those in need, cares for her family and helps them carry on amidst tragedy.  She ensures survival in the present, partly through her own grounding in the past.  With Milkman, Pilate pieces back together the Dead family’s tragic history, without which the Deads are unable to move forward with understanding.  In this way, they are like Rhodes’ fictionalized Marie Laveau.  The conjure women in Voodoo Dreams and Song of Solomon revive the past, unearthing clues until they can piece their histories back together to form a complete story.  This, in turn, heals and strengthens these women and their families.  Voodoo quite literally grounds them, gives them roots that nurture and fortify them spiritually, and their role of spiritual leader elevates them socially.

III.  Conclusions of Conjure as a Literary Device

            What is it about conjure that generates such meaning and power to the women in these novels? Why might writers such as Rhodes and Morrison find it useful in their plots? Voodoo is more permissive than the Christianity with which it is juxtaposed in American culture in a number of ways that benefit women.  It puts women in leadership positions, places significant female loas in its pantheon, and recognizes what are considered traditionally feminine attributes such as emotion, passion, and maternal behavior as equally important as their traditionally masculine counterparts.  Historian Carolyn Morrow Long indicates that “nineteenth-century New Orleans Voudou was primarily a religion of women, dominated by priestesses who served a racially diverse, mostly female congregation.”[13]  This female orientation of voodoo stems from its egalitarianism, its immanence,[14] its attention to material concerns and personal relationships that affect women’s daily lives, its emphasis on embodied experience, and its exaltation of life.  It celebrates fertility, abundance, and the cycle of life instead of presenting a more linear viewpoint of time and emphasizing afterlife experience over the present.  Voodoo acknowledges the sacred feminine while Christianity diminishes it.  Karen Brown asserts,

The adaptability of Vodou over time, and its responsiveness to other cultures and religions; the fact that it has no canon, creed, or pope; the multiplicity of its spirits; and the intimate detail in which those spirits reflect the lives of the faithful–all these characteristics make women’s lives visible within Vodou in ways they are not in other religious traditions. [. . .] This visibility can give women a way of working realistically and creatively with the forces that define and confine them.  (Brown 221) 

Another reason conjure may be employed by African American writers is that the history of conjure on American soil is inseparable from the history of slavery.  “Voodoo [is] the slave’s religion,” writes Rhodes (60).  The practice of this religion is a cultural artifact.  It speaks to the survival of facets of the culture indigenous to Africa, Haiti and other regions from which slaves were purchased, and its syncretism reveals efforts of adaptation and preservation crucial to survival inside circumstances of cultural imposition.  In that way conjure becomes a symbol for practices of exerting power by sustaining traditions while maneuvering within a society in which one is oppressed and othered. 

            Conjure in African American women’s fiction successfully serves so many roles because it is open to possibility and change.  Its penetrability, like the penetrability of the voodoo priestess herself, is the key to its flourishing.  In his discussion of voodoo hermeneutics, Keith Cartwright explains, “This polyrhythmic antiphonal ‘poetics of becoming’ simultaneously postmodern, pre-modern, and interior to all that modernity is built upon, answers continually emerging local/global needs for traditions and repertoires of countercultural resistance to monocultural forces of university, monotheistic canons of scriptural authority, and monologic patterns of identity being plantationed in us” (Cartwright 170).  The hoodoo in Hurston’s Mules and Men, the practices of the conjure woman in Charles Chesnutt’s tales, the voodoo of Marie Laveau in Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams, and the actions of Morrison’s Pilate of Song of Solomon could certainly be considered “outlaw religion”<[15] in the midst of the South’s dominant evangelical Protestantism.  This Christianity was arranged hierarchically with a supposedly white patriarch at the top; white Southerners also used its scripture to “justify” slavery and to argue for women’s submission.   In light of these issues, the failure to petition a white male God who seems only to reinforce black and female oppression in favor of seeking aid from a conjure woman is not only unsurprising but may be construed as an act of resistance.  Women and blacks, groups which obviously overlap, lacked public voices in Southern society as the church or the law encouraged silence or failed to recognize their testimonies, but this is rarely the case in conjure religions.  Leadership is their due in conjure religion.  Baker says “issues of narrative authority and gender are decisively resolved in the image of the conjure woman” even though black women were decisively deprived of authority, narrative and otherwise, in the same cultural context in which conjure women like Marie Laveau commanded respect (93).  And literary conjure women like Rhodes and Morrison “are indicating the power of their healing and liberating words to change their status from passive victims to heroic molders of poetic wisdom. [. . .] They are all possibility in their poetry” (95).  Conjure suits their aims of emancipatory writing and their beliefs in the liberatory power of literature.

            Conjure is an “outlaw religion,” as Baker calls it, but it is such in order to counteract “the sorcery of white America,” (95). In order to provide power and healing in a milieu of subjection and dehumanization, the spiritual practices of Marie Laveau and Pilate Dead must be an outlaw religion, for the dominant religious practice in the American South served to reinforce patriarchal and often pro-slavery objectives.  Without decrying Christianity—in fact, by using it when necessary in conjunction with conjure—Pilate and Marie invest in a religion that venerates who they are and the heroics of their ancestors.  Conjure valorizes their survival and honors black female strength.  Wirba Mainimo believes “Black women can attain self-sustenance, independence and self-sufficiency by reverting to the past female ancestral traditions or by taking recourse to a new-found spiritualism in which ‘God’ is stripped of its racist, colonial, capitalist and phallocratic connotations and turned into a sublime feeling of nature, a deep reciprocal (comm)union between women and nature” (133).  Conjure serves these aims.  It not only counteracts the constrictions of women encouraged by many Christian practices but also provides a social and religious place in which the spirit may mend and revive.  It offers a site for creativity and autonomy.  Baker calls conjure the “spirit house” of black women’s creativity, which uses the tool of the imagination to heal and empower (99).  Baker’s assessment of conjure bears fruit, for Morrison and Rhodes indicate in the forewords and afterwords to their novels that not only do their characters find autonomy through conjure, but also the writers themselves sought their own healing through the process of composing these texts.   

            Conjure inverts the social hierarchies, placing women in authority over men and giving power to African Americans rather than to whites.  It also gives humans power over the experience of time.  In both novels, the conjure women are tied to the past.  The recovery of the past is crucial to both plots and to the real lives of African Americans whose predecessors suffered losses of history due to the effacing effects of enslavement.  Voodoo itself emphasizes the need for remembrance of the dead, for knowledge of one’s ancestors.  What has been fragmented may be reassembled, recombined, and restored to create a new, unified whole.  Through its heavily syncretic nature, the history of voodoo is one of preserved traditions amidst drastic, devastating cultural changes and uprootedness.  Offering an alternative to the oppressive values of the dominant white patriarchal culture, the conjure featured in the work of Rhodes and Morrison spotlights the resistant efforts of black women to create spaces and practices that allow for their wholeness.


Works Cited

Baker, Houston A.  Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Blassingame, John.  The Slave Community:  Plantation Life in the Antebellum South.  Oxford University Press, 1979.

Brown, Karen McCarthy.  Mama Lola.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Cartwright, Keith.  “Voodoo Hermeneutics/The Crossroads Sublime: Soul Musics, Mindful Body, and Creole Consciousness.”  The Mississippi Quarterly 57.1 (2003/2004): 157-170.                              

Chesnutt, Charles Wadell.  The Conjure Woman.  Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.  <http://docsouth.unc.edu/chesnuttconjure/conjure.html>.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the FatherToward a Philosophy of Women’s LiberationBoston: Beacon Books, 1973.

Dance, Daryl.  “Black Eve or Madonna? A Study of the Antithetical Views of the Mother in Black American Literature.”  Sturdy Black Bridges.  Eds. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.  Garden City, New Jersey: Anchor Books, 1979.  123- 132.

Frankenberry, Nancy.  “Feminist Philosophy of Religion.”  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005 Edition).  Edward N. Zalta, ed.  14 March 2005.  <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-religion/>.

Greene, J.  Lee.  Blacks in Eden.  Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Hurston, Zora Neale.  Mules and Men.  Folklore, Memoirs, & Other Writings.  New York:  The Library of America, 1995.  1-268.

— — —.  Tell My Horse.  Folklore, Memoirs, & Other Writings.  New York:  The Library of America, 1995.  269-556.

Kaplan, Carla, ed.  Zora Neale Hurston:  A Life in Letters.  New York:  Anchor Books, 2003.

Lamothe, Daphne.  “Vodou Imagery, African-American Tradition and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurston’s There Eyes Were Watching God.Callaloo 22.1 (1999): 157-175.

Long, Carolyn Morrow.  A New Orleans Voudou Priestess:  The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau.  Gainesville, Florida:  University of Florida Press, 2006.

Mainimo, Wirba Ibrahim.  “Black Female Writers’ Perspective on Religion: Alice Walker and Calixthe Beyala.”  Journal of Third World Studies 19.1 (Spring 2002): 117-136.                                               

Quashie, Kevin E.  “Mining Magic, Mining Dreams:  A Conversation with Jewell Parker Rhodes.”  Callaloo 20.2 (1997):  431-440.

Rhodes, Jewell Parker.  Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Rigaud, Milo.  Secrets of Voodoo.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1969.

Ross, Fred.  Slavery Ordained of God.  Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1857.

Southerland, Ellease.  “The Influence of Voodoo on the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.”  Sturdy Black Bridges.  Eds. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.  Garden City, New Jersey: Anchor Books, 1979.  172-183.

Tallant, Robert.  Voodoo in New Orleans.  Gretna, Louisiana:  Pelican, 1998.  Originally published: New York: Macmillan, 1946.

— — —.  The Voodoo Queen.  Gretna, LA:  Pelican Publishing Co., 1984.

Yaeger, Patricia.  Honey-Mad Women:  Emancipatory Strategies in Women’s Writing.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1988.


[1] They are not alone in their inclusion of voodoo in their plots.  In addition to the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Jewell Parker Rhodes, Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow feature conjure as well.

[2] Dorothy Lamothe, “Vodou Imagery, African-American Tradition and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurston’s There Eyes Were Watching God,.Callaloo 22.1 (1999): 159.

[3] Zora Neale Hurston to Langston Hughes, August 6, 1928, in Kaplan, Ed., Zora Neale Hurston:  A Life in Letters (New York:  Anchor Books, 2003) 124. 

[4] This stems both from Moses’ role in Exodus 32 in which he brings down from the mountain two tables of stone bearing the writing of God and from his role in African American folk tales.  Hurston explains, “wherever the Negro is found, there are traditional tales of Moses and his supernatural powers that are not in the Bible, nor can they be found in any written life of Moses.  The rod of Moses is said to have been a subtle serpent and hence came his great powers” (Tell My Horse 378).

[5] Milo Rigaud, Secrets of Voodoo, (San Francisco:  City Lights Books, 1969) 75.  Rigaud outlines the development of Voodoo in Haiti and the U.S. in Secrets of Voodoo and provides descriptions of many loas, rituals, and ceremonies witnessed in Haiti.  Rigaud also draws parallels from voodoo to other religions in his effort to dispel stereotypes of the faith.

[6] Keith Cartwright, “Voodoo Hermeneutics/The Crossroads Sublime: Soul Musics, Mindful Body, and Creole Consciousness.”  The Mississippi Quarterly 57.1 (2003/2004): 167.

[7] Patricia Yaeger, Honey-Mad Women:  Emancipatory Strategies in Women’s Writing, (New

York:  Columbia University Press, 1988) 43.

[8] New Orleans native Robert Tallant was an editor for the Louisiana Writers’ Project of the WPA, collector of Louisiana folk tales, and an author of his own novel on Marie Laveau, The Voodoo Queen (Gretna, LA:  Pelican Publishing Co., 1984).  This book, and his previous work, Voodoo in New Orleans, are commonly stocked in the numerous tourist shops that dot the French Quarter.

[9] Hurston describes tales of Marie Laveau in Chapter II of the “Hoodoo” section of Mules and Men.  According to Hurston’s account, Marie was so powerful that “people come from the ends of America to get help from her.  Even Queen Victoria asked her help and sent her a cashmere shawl with money also” (183).

[10] These ideas were proliferated in proslavery literature in the antebellum South.  The ambiguities and space of the Genesis accounts of Creation and the Fall, coupled with beliefs in the inferiority of blacks, produced several interpretations of scripture that attributed the hierarchical system of Southern race relations to God’s handiwork.  One such interpreter is Fred Ross.  In Slavery Ordained of God, Ross endorses both slavery and patriarchy in his interpretation of the Eden myth, claiming “all these relations are ordained of God” because 

Man fell and was cursed. The law of the control of the superior over the inferior is now to begin, and is to go on in the depraved conditions of the fallen and cursed race. And, FIRST, God said to the woman, ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ There, in that law, is the beginning of government ordained of God. There is the beginning of the rule of the superior over the inferior, bound to obey. There, in the family of Adam, is the germ of the rule in the tribe—the state. Adam, in his right, from God, to rule over his wife and his children, had all the authority afterwards expanded in the patriarch and the king.

Adam’s authority, in Ross’s view, extends beyond the right to control Eve to the right to own others.  He cites the punishment of Cain as the biblical sanctioning of enslaving blacks.  See Fred Ross, Slavery Ordained of God, Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1857<. The full text of this book is available online through Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8slav10h.htm.  This text was also reprinted in 1969 by the Negro Universities Press of New York. For more on race-based hierarchical interpretations of the creation account in Genesis, see J. Lee Greene’s Blacks in Eden (Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1996).

[11] Mary Daly, Beyond God the FatherToward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Books, 1973) 20.

[12] God answers few petitions in the folk tales in Mules and Men, and when he does, his actions are frequently countered by those of the Devil.  Hurston says “the devil always outsmarted God” (Mules and Men 10).  As a helper, the Devil carries no stigma of evil in these tales, just as Damballah is a venerated serpent figure in voodoo.  Both figures are sought for the knowledge they provide.  Rhodes also draws this comparison in Voodoo Dreams:  “Dahomeyans praised the serpent.  For Eve came into the world blind.  A snake gave her sight,” Marie says, “A snake gave me sight” (422).  Readers familiar with Hurston’s short story “Sweat” may also see a link to the role of the serpent in that work in relieving Delia from Sykes’ tyranny.

[13] Carolyn Morrow Long, A New Orleans Voodoo Priestess:  The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau (Gainesville, Florida:  University Press of Florida, 2006) 118.

[14] As opposed to the largely transcendental or external Christian “god produced by and for the masculine imaginary and therefore not suitable to women’s becoming” (Nancy Frankenberry, “Feminist Philosophy of Religion,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  Voodoo spirits inhabit not only the bodies of the possessed but also other features of the natural world.

[15] Houston A. Baker, Jr., Workings of the Spirit:  The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1991) 88.  Baker says that Hurston “understands that only a powerful, indigenously constructed set of guidelines and procedures will suffice to order such a community.  Perhaps only an ‘outlaw religion.’” 

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