This is a book which has something to offer to a great number of different sorts of people. Interested in history of marginalized groups? Curious about the intersection of Christianity and magic? Eager to learn more about conjure and especially hoodoo, the variant most closely associated with African American culture? Have a hankering to discover times and places when people from different backgrounds came together for a common cause? Just want to know more about the book that generated a tempest in a teapot earlier this year? All this can be found within these pages.
While the title is long enough I am not going to type it out twice, this is a book to which I will return for reference. “I live in St. Catherines in Ontario — the very town where Harriet Tubman brought her particular ‘track’ of the Underground Railroad to its end,” writes Witchdoctor Utu in the introduction, and “the spirits of many freedom seekers still haunt this area.” Those spirits may have impelled Utu to dig into that history, and I’m not talking about the books that were written by white men. No, Utu developed a rapport with the descendants of those freedom seekers, including scions of Tubman herself, and was trusted with lore and traditions the likes of which rarely make it into print.
Utu had the wisdom to seek these sources of knowledge, but it’s a testament to his character that they opened up to him. As a writer and journalist, I know that there are many distrustful people in the world, people who will not share what they know unless and until they are convinced it will not result in misuse. The amount of trust represented in these pages should be measured both in years of effort, and depths of patience and integrity.
The spiritual tradition he thus describes is born of that knowledge, and built upon through further revelation and deepening understanding over time and increasing numbers of adherents. The spirit court of the Underground Railroad includes not only Tubman and the martyr John Brown, but a host of lesser-known historical figures and an array of spirits whose names are not known at all. Utu walks the reader through the history of how white people and black, Christian and spiritualist, Quaker and conjure doctors worked together to free their fellow humans while trying to shift a paradigm that was deeply ingrained in the American psyche.
From that history springs the tools and symbols unique to this group of spirits: cairn and cross, north star and drinking gourd, quilt codes and mojo hands. I’ve been studying conjure myself for a number of years, and I recognized familiar practices alongside ones I’d never seen written down before, yet ring true. To me it’s clear that Utu knows how to engage such spirits, and I would be surprised if anyone who read this tome disagreed.
Quirks: This is a book written by a white guy that deals with a topic very important to black people. That fact got some folks up in arms before anyone even had the chance to read what he had to say. As a white man who has an abiding regard for Sojourner Truth, I was terribly curious how he’d approach issues such as white supremacy and cultural appropriation. I came away impressed by his approach, but also by the list of people of color who endorse this work. Some have done so by writing cover blurbs or a foreword, but others — as I already noted — trusted him with stories which are vital parts of their culture and collective memory. This book documents a living tradition in a manner respectful to all those who sacrificed to ensure their fellow humans would actually be treated as human rather than property. It’s not my place to pronounce it free of offense, but I do encourage a thorough read before condemning or praising this book (or, for that matter, any other).
By the time I finished, the only controversy I could see arising in pagan spheres is over the use of Christian iconography and holy relics in this work. That, however, is completely appropriate for the spirits involved, and to do otherwise is to treat them with disrespect. Better not to engage at all, in my view.
In the words of one reviewer on Amazon: “I had no idea how thirsty I was for this knowledge before starting to read your book. I almost couldn’t put it down.”
“This kind of work has the power to help heal rifts between white people and people of color.”
From your lips to the gods’ ears.
Title: Conjuring Harriet “Mama Moses” Tubman and the Spirits of the Underground Railroad
Author: Witchdoctor Utu
Publisher: Weiser Books
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