The first time I realized witches were real and in the black community was in church. The daughter of a deacon and church clerk, I grew up understanding that church was important and anything outside of the principles of Christianity needed conversion. Oddly enough, I remember getting my hair braided as a child and my mother routinely cleaning out the comb and brush, flushing the hair down the toilet. She’d teach me the ritual she learned from her own mother who said if you didn’t flush or burn your dead hair, those who practiced witchcraft could put a root (curse) on you. Spirits—outside of the Holy Spirit that everyone seemly caught in unison on Sundays—were discussed quietly and quickly and only when something unfortunate had occurred. Despite my wanting to attend the fictional Hogwarts, the thought of witches and witchcraft in my community made me uneasy.
As excitement is overflowing for recent releases like Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time, which have black directors and main characters, there is an additional buzz brewing. Both movies, in one way or another, highlight historically demonized concepts rooted in traditional African thought and spirituality, such as science fiction, alternative universes, witchy spirit guides and the reverence of ancestors.
Bri Luna, social media phenomena and creator of The Hoodwitch website, is among those creating the change they wish to see. Launched in 2013, The Hoodwitch shares the ancient, diverse knowledge of witchcraft and mysticism to its 237, 000 followers.
“I feel like it’s so empowering for black people to see these images of magic right now,” says Luna. “[It’s] being presented as fantasy but it’s not. This is our real history. These are real things.”
Religions and spiritual practices that we now know as Voodoo, Hoodoo and Santeria, all stem from indigenous African cultures. For African Americans, much of this history was lost or deeply hidden during the Atlantic slave trade, but there has since been a reemergence that is now becoming mainstream.
African spirituality has always been a norm for many people but creatives like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and Luna are putting it out to the mainstream.
“There is a rise in the number of black people returning to African spirituality both here and in Africa, but for different reasons. African Americans have always been deeply religious. However, in the last decade or so, there has been kind of an African spiritual renaissance, particularly interest in traditions such as Santeria, Candomblé and Yoruba religion all over America,” says Jacob Olupona, a professor at Harvard Divinity school, who he teaches on African religious traditions.
Luna, half black and Mexican, grew up around her grandmothers who were practitioners. “I’d never seen my grandmothers as being witches because what they did was so natural to me,” she recalls. One of Luna’s grandmothers grew up in the Deep South where the spiritual practice of Hoodoo and Conjure root work was very common among black communities and Christians. “These old ladies still went to Baptist churches. This is something that has been within all black families since forever. These are traditions that were passed down by word of mouth: how to work with herbs, plants and oils. As I got older, I started to learn about my own ancestral magic and culture, and that was very empowering because our secrets, practices and traditions, have been passed down since slavery and even before that.”
The first time Luna watched the trailer for A Wrinkle in Time, she cried. She would cry again during the viewing of Black Panther. “I was like wow! This is so beautiful, just subconsciously on a level of speaking to children. Growing up, this would have been everything! I thought that magic was Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings,” says Luna. “These very ethereal, pagan, northern European white women were always the princess, and the witch was wicked and evil. There was never space for black women to be these celestial or warrior goddesses.”
Images of omnipotent, majestic white people have been in the forefront of media, including the depiction of Jesus being white with blue eyes. These images have planted seeds into the subconscious of society on what and who is acceptable, powerful and righteous.
Now that is being challenged. Black Panther featured powerful, spiritual women who knew and maintained the herbs that allowed T’Challa and Killmonger to visit their fathers in the ancestral realm. Now, A Wrinkle in Time—directed by Ava DuVernay—stars biracial teen actress, Storm Reid, whose character must overcome the limitations of her mind and save her father from evil. Oprah Winfrey plays the head “witchy” spirit guide who helps her along the journey.
African spirituality has always been a norm for many people but creatives like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and Luna are putting it out to the mainstream. Says Luna, “I feel I opened up so many doors for black women and women of color to reclaim that space. I get so many emails from young girls and older women who say ‘This has been in my family and I never talked about it to anyone and never had a space to share these things.’”
In modern media, there has been minimum representation of magical black beings, and in most cases it is depicted negatively or stereotypically. Not to mention, America has a dark history rooted not only in the demonization of African spirituality, but anything dealing with witches as the Salem Witch Trials showed. This being the reason why the original novel of A Wrinkle in Time would be banned in schools.
“‘Witchcraft’ is a Western invention,” says Olupona. According to Olupona, the word ‘magic’ was never an African custom. Those in the Yoruba tradition believed in the term ase, which is the power to conjure change .
“[Witchcraft] does not refer to the realities of African spirituality that insist that certain humans do have potential spiritual energy that they can use for human flourishing, and that they equally use against forces of evil. These meanings are lost in translation,” continues Olupona.
In the age where #BlackGirlMagic is celebrated online and off, it is becoming normalized for black people to go back and uncover the universal truths and traditions of their ancestors. Hopefully more creatives rise up to tell more stories that were once taboo.