I finished Black Magic and had a little freak-out because there was yet another book waiting for me at the library. I just took everything back. Even the book I had started. I will try again later and not get so many all at once.
I don’t know if this is fair of me, but I think this is a great book with huge problems. But there are a lot of academic books–shoot, some of which I’ve been involved in–that I thought, “This is the wedge into a subject.” It doesn’t have to be as nuanced or as thorough as what comes after. It just needs to get in there, describe some general shapes in accurate ways, and sit back and let others do the more minute explorations.
And, in that regard, I think Chireau succeeds. If you know nothing about conjure’s history, you are going to come away with a solid, solid foundation.
But I couldn’t help but feel not only what I felt yesterday, but also that there’s a lot more meat to pick at on the bone of “Urban, educated black people team with white do-gooders to rid poor, rural black people of their ‘superstitions’ during the late 1800s.” It’s not just a matter of assimilation and racial uplift. That’s just so self-apparent. And it’s not just the horror and tut-tutting on behalf of white missionaries at this “primitive” behavior, though there is that. It is also about trying to trade one kind of social order–in which the conjurers have a shit-ton of power–for another–in which the authorities are teachers and doctors and educated, urban people; people who are from outside of the community.
That, I think, is a way to get at why conjure flourished (and still does flourish) in urban areas. Is it a matter of people saying “I’m not going to give up what works for me?” or “I like a community that functions in ways I’m familiar with” or “I still need a lot of help navigating forces and people much more powerful than me” or what?
Chireau does a great, great job of showing how conjure functioned during the time of slavery as a counterweight, and sometimes a very effective counterweight, to the all-encompassing authority of the slave owner, that conjure was so threatening because it was a way for people who weren’t even legally people to fight back, to have some power over their own lives, which, of course, were not their own.
I would have liked to know if Chireau thinks that it still functions like this after emancipation, even in urban settings. I think it does. But that’s just my gut, you know? I mean, it seems to me that asking people to trust in institutions like the church and universities and governments that require “proper” behavior might have seemed like just swapping out causes of problems, not solving problems, you know?
Anyway, it’s really great. Lots of good stuff in there.