Frederick Douglass’s Root Magic

Frederick Douglass’s Root Magic February 14, 2020

In honor of Black History Month, and of the state of Maryland installing a statue of Frederick Douglass (and also one of Harriet Tubman) in the State House, I’d like to share a story about magic from Douglass’s life.

Douglass was born a slave about 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — the exact day is not known, but he chose to celebrate his birthday as February 14. As a boy he was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. Sophia started to teach the boy to read, but her husband convinced her to stop.

But Douglass managed to keep teaching himself — and he did it by invoking some amazing trickster energy. He would brag to the white boys with whom he worked in the shipyards of Fell Point that he could write as well as they could, and would do his best to write a word. The other boys, anxious to prove how much more they knew than a slave, would correct him — and thus were tricked into becoming his teachers.

As a teen he was taken from the Aulds and sent to back to the Eastern shore. He was hired out by his “owner” to a man named Covey, who had a reputation for breaking rebellious slaves, and this is where our story starts.

Douglass befriended a man named Sandy, who was a rootworker. Sandy advised him to carry a certain root as protection against being beaten. Douglass does not name the root, but I would guess it might have been John the Conqueror root, a root associated with an African-American trickster folk hero.

(Many believe that John the Conqueror root is Ipomoea jalapa, a plant native to Mexico; but some argue that it is Ipomoea pandurata, or that either species of Ipomoea can be used. I. pandurata is the “wild potato” or “man of the earth”, native to the eastern half of the continent and could be found in Maryland. Those selling magical supplies to American practitioners do have motivation to name an imported foreign species over one that a practitioner could go dig up in the woods…)

Douglass claimed not to believe in root magic, but he carried it anyway to please his friend. He wrote,

I found Sandy an old adviser. He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side.

The next day he was taking care of the farm’s horses, when he was attacked by Covey:

But whilst thus engaged, whilst in the act of throwing down some blades from the loft, Mr. Covey entered the stable with a long rope; and just as I was half out of the loft, he caught hold of my legs, and was about tying me. As soon as I found what he was up to, I gave a sudden spring, and as I did so, he holding to my legs, I was brought sprawling on the stable floor. Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.

“[F]rom whence came the spirit I don’t know.” That sure sounds like magic at work to me: a strength you didn’t know you had, a spirit moving you in the direction of your best and most courageous self.

They fought for nearly two hours, ending in a stalemate. Douglass was never whipped again, and credited the incident with putting him on the path to freedom:

Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.”

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped.

Given the significance of Douglass to the abolition movement, this fight with Covey might fairly be called a turning point in American history — and it was catalyzed by root magic.

Later, he talked about the incident with the rootworker, Sandy:

We used frequently to talk about the fight with Covey, and as often as we did so, he would claim my success as the result of the roots which he gave me. This superstition is very common among the more ignorant slaves.

But if the root magic had nothing to do with Douglass’s newfound resolution toward freedom, why did he mention it?

Perhaps Douglass was of divided mind, with his conscious mind rational and skeptical, dismissing the idea that carrying some root could help him; but his unconscious mind was credulous, even superstitious.

His rational side may have been willing to fight back, but also apprehensive of the consequences. Trusting to magic, telling his credulous side a magical story of empowerment, created the possibility for change to happen.

The anthropologist and psychoanalyst Gèza Róheim wrote: “Our first response to the frustrations of reality is magic; and without this belief in ourselves…we cannot hold our own against the environment and against the superego…In magic, mankind is fighting for freedom.”

It seems that the root gave Douglass the belief in himself that he needed to hold his own — not against the superego, but against the life-and-death threat of race slavery.

The brain is a story-telling machine. It takes the small set of things we see and interpolates a grand narrative about the world and our place in it. Most of the art of magic is just gaining some control over which stories are being told.

Do we tell stories of hope and empowerment, or of hopelessness and despair? Only when we tell good stories can we use the full extend of our powers. And the right props — the right magical tools — help us tell those stories.


For more information on the amazing life of this American hero, see:

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Project Gutenberg, January 2006 [Ebook #23]. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23/23-h/23-h.htm>

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