In 1936, Harry Hyatt, a white Episcopal minister who also considered himself a folklorist, traveled to the American south to investigate Rootwork and other folk remedies. Prior to his southern sojourn, he had traveled to Adams County, Illinois for the same purpose. There he encountered German, Irish, and African-American men and women who detailed their experience with folk magic. But when Hyatt traveled through states like Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee, almost everyone he interviewed was Black.
The 1600 interviews resulted in five volumes, almost 5000 pages and 13,458 remedies and anecdotes, titled Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Rootwork. Many have called the text the most comprehensive recording of Hoodoo spells, rituals and general insight into the culture of Hoodoo and Rootwork.
At the time Hyatt traveled around the country, almost 80% of the country’s African-American population still lived in southern states, and using elements of the earth for healing, restoration, and retribution was the norm. Before the civil war, when southern states were slave states, access to adequate healthcare for slaves was severely limited. In fact, in both Georgia and South Carolina, there were laws banning slaves from administering medication to each other unless a white person was present.
Despite this, African-Americans turned to the earth for healing roots, and slaves who were practitioners were often referred to as root doctors or healers. Sampson Snakeroot, an unassuming plant favored by Native Americans, was an all-around cure. In Hoodoo Medicine, Faith Mitchell alludes to the origin of its name, writing that a slave named Sampson used it to cure a snakebite. Dog-Fennel was used to relieve chills and fevers. Sassafras root tea cleaned the blood; jimsonweed for rheumatism. Slaves commonly preferred their own treatments to the violent practices of the white medical establishment, such as bloodletting and purgatives.
“Hoodoo is not a religion,” notes artist and contemporary rootworker, Stephanie Rose Bird. “It’s a collection of folk practices.”
Hoodoo and Conjuration deal almost exclusively in the realm of the spirit. “To catch a spirit, or to protect your spirit against the catching, or to release your caught spirit – this is the complete practice and theory of Hoodoo,” said one of Hyatt’s interviewees.
Simple ingredients such as candles, salt, pepper, and roots could be used to produce big results for those who sought revenge or protection from harm, or who were looking to find love. “I think it is a way for people to take control of their lives, of things that are vexing them,” Bird says. “It is all about taking control of lives that seem controlled by others.”
African American practitioners in the southern United States often see Hoodoo as a way back into their lost ancestry.
“My father told me about family I had who practiced Hoodoo and Vodun witchcraft. As a Black woman in America, I knew and understood I would never have a full understanding of my origins and who my people were,” says Aurora C., a practitioner in Iowa. “Something just screamed inside of me that this was it, that is what would keep my ties with them. Hoodoo would keep them in my heart.”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders began as an attempt to make sense of mental health in America. In 1918, the United States Bureau of the Census, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and the American Medico-Psychological Association (now the American Psychiatric Association) created the Statistical Manual for the Use of Institutions for the Insane. This manual preceded the DSM by over three decades; epileptic psychosis, alcoholic psychosis, and undiagnosed psychosis were among the 22 diagnostic categories included. This manual was intended to guide clinicians’ documentation of diagnoses for statistical and policy purposes. It was an attempt at the formal classification of psychopathology, rather than a treatment guide.
The 1952 DSM was the first official manual of mental disorders to focus on clinical use: a diagnostic tool. But debates about its legitimacy, and the definitions of what constitutes or does not constitute a “real” mental disorder, have persisted for decades.
In 1994 the American Psychiatry Association added new pages to the manual, dedicated to a new category of malady—“culture-bound syndromes”—“locality-specific patterns of aberrant behavior and troubling experience” that defy a singular DSM diagnostic category.
The term has been deemed offensive and alienating in the way it presented other cultures. “It’s the kind of excitement generated by the exotic, weird, and wonderful that exist in a non-Western culture,” psychiatrist Chiedu Obuaya told me. Others have questioned how useful it really is in a diagnostic capacity.
“Culture-bound syndromes were always in this uncertain status,” says Nick Bartlett, an Assistant Professor in Contemporary Chinese Culture and Society at Barnard University. “It was basically, ‘Here are the ones that we recognize—and here is everything else, lesser and of a different nature.’”
The culture-bound syndromes added in 1994 were primarily from countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, like amok, brain fag and hwabyung, but one of them was much closer to home. Rootwork was defined as a set of cultural interpretations of illnesses believed to be due to “hexing, witchcraft, sorcery, or the evil influence of another person.” The DSM located it in the southern part of United States among African American and European American populations, and in Caribbean societies.
As a result, medical professionals in the 80’s and 90’s discussed ways to approach patients who believed they were suffering because of a bad spell or root with a mixture of condescension, bafflement, and anthropological acuity. In a 1982 paper titled, “Diagnosis and Treatment of the Rootwork Victim,” James Hillard, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Virginia’s Medical Center wrote that “it is apparent that the culturally determined system of rootwork beliefs can give rise to what appear to be bizarre delusions… A patient’s belief that he is the victim of roots may be the final common pathway by which biological, social or psychological diseases are expressed.”
These confrontations often resulted in doctors trying to categorize and pathologize something that didn’t fit the conventions of modern medicine, leaving their patients frustrated and alienated.
“Someone who goes into the hospital with a bad root could end up in the psych ward, and be given a diagnosis that fits Western medicine, because that’s what our hospitals are for,” says Bird.
“No need a send me a doctor cause ah been hoodooed, and you have to send a hoodoo doctor to me – tell de medical doctor dat,” said one of Hyatt’s interviewees in 1936.
“You can’t do nuthin fo me; I done tried every doctor in town, I ain’t gettin no better. You have to send a hoodoo doctor, cause somebody done hoodooed me.”
The latest edition of the DSM, DSM-5, redefines the formula for diagnosing a culture-bound illness. Instead of associating symptoms with a given disorder, the manual poses a new way for doctors to think about diagnosing patients. DSM-5 urges practitioners to consider things like cultural concepts of distress, and cultural idioms of distress: various ways that cultural groups experience, understand, and communicate suffering and their shared ways of experiencing and talking about personal or social concerns. The hope is that this will help psychiatrists become more attuned to different presentations of distress.
“Diagnosis is not a firm set of rules, as much as we might try to make it [so],” says said Jared Keeley, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “There has to be some kind of interpretation on the part of the professional, to say, ‘How does this concept fit in the case of this individual?’”
Chiron Armand, a New York-based Hoodoo root doctor, agrees.
“Any good practitioner of any wellness or therapeutic modality should be engaged in leading the person back to themselves in some way.”
For Armand, who is trained in both the Southern Conjure tradition and Haitian Vodou, this means that rootwork and modern medicine should not be mutually exclusive. Instead of looking at one as an illness and another as a remedy, Armand believes, doctors who see patients suffering from a spell or a bad root should seek to understand. If that’s what the patient believes in, Armand suggests that medical doctors should “lead patients back to some form of support that is recognizable to them, and will lead that person back to themselves.”
This can include asking patients about root doctors or healers who they are familiar with and most importantly, consulting doctors who are well versed in both modern and folk medicine.
“As long as the field is devoid of people from the cultures who are able to straddle that borderland, then progress is not going to be made. There’s a cultural competency that we can’t just get from the anthropologist participant observer,” says Armand.
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Ashley Okwuosa, Things Unseen, alternative medicine