The Social Life of Magic: Memories of Hoodoo in Detroit

 

In occult ‘scenes’ you find a lot of people identifying as magicians. Of course, this makes sense: if you do magical rituals, especially if you do them professionally for clients, then why not call yourself the rusty, graveyard dirt-smeared spade that you are?

Still, discussions about self-identifying as a contemporary practitioner of magic and the supposed implications of this, can potentially distract from the fact that magic isn’t just something people say they do or are, it’s something that merely exists as part of the everyday rhythms of many people’s lives, and that’s ok. In a beautiful piece, Kenya Coviak reminisces about growing up in Detroit and reflects on the ways that Hoodoo was literally a part of the scenery, furniture, and foundations of her daily life.

Far from solely being the pursuit of private, inwardly-focused individuals, or only part of a set-aside sub-culture of specialists, magic here is as much a part of the lives of non-magicians and non-maybe-almost-sometimes believers as it is a part of the lives of a smaller contingent of expert sorcerers.

Hoodoo and Detroit are part of specific contexts, point to specific histories of race, class and cultural practice. A white, upper middle class dude practicing Left Hand Path Luciferianism in his bedroom may well have a different experience of magic and its various ‘publics’. Yet, for all the self-help psychologization, interiorization or apparent individualism of various neo-shamanic and Western occult practices, it seems worth remembering that magic inevitably involves communities, of both human and non-human persons. I’ve been thinking a lot at the moment (and for anyone following this blog it should be clear have been for some time) about different kinds of magicians, and their different kinds of communities and publics. This is especially interesting to think about in light of the importance of the internet to occulture, and the spread of esoteric ideas, and in light of the development of ‘online occultists/occultist trolls’ and ‘social magic’ as discrete categories.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the article:

“There we were, two teen girls headed to a summer festival for fun and excitement with a side trip of spell work. This was not a strange event to us. This was simply what one did. My friend’s mother was trying to keep a gentleman who was very angry. He was a real piece of undesirable work. My sister found the man vexing so she really did not want to do this. But there was no getting rid of her mom’s decision to keep him around. Therefore, we threw our parcel into the Detroit River, just like thousands of Detroiters have done for years and continue to do today. The water takes the spells for good or for bad.

While in high school, my book bags continually smelled of orange blossom oil and success oil. I blended these often for other girls in band class to help them. We never spoke of it, but they never stopped coming to me for it. No questions were ever asked, except by the sanctified girls who judged everyone. They always inquired after the state of my soul, but I ignored them.
Friends, school, church, all these magickal parts of my life intersected and found a central point in my home and with my family. One time, my Daddy asked me to help him put in a concrete path leading from our back gate. In order to make a smooth foundation, he gave me what seemed to be a mundane task with a sledgehammer and a pile of red bricks. He had me crush those bricks into the dirt. The dust completely covered the soil; which he then covered with concrete.

The foundation that I was spreading was actually to keep burglars away from our property until two years after he died. They could not pass the gate post. We needed no alarm system. We were safe. At the time, I never thought about it as protection work. To me, it was just what you do when you lay concrete at your fences. But later, I would find out what it really was.

I always looked forward to helping my father with his soil balls each year. They would be kept in the milk chute. He would go out to the yard and “test the soil” with the balls. But the balls always had something else in them, and it was sometimes sparkly. They were kept by the house and in the chute, except on occasions when they were in his room as he “doctored” them. This also never seemed strange to me.”

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