A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo

Y’all, I’m not saying it’s been a strange year, but it’s been a strange year. This is the first book on non-poetry I’ve read since…Oh, I don’t know. Months. It’s been months.

But diving in to Tony Kail’s A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo was a good way to break my losing streak.

I enjoyed it a lot, both because I learned some stuff I didn’t know and I had quibbles with the stuff I did know. Like, I don’t think Kail is wrong; I’d just like to argue with him about stuff anyway–that kind of quibbling. Some stretches I thought he was making that I wouldn’t have made–like bringing the old Robert Johnson bullshit into it.

I think if you don’t know anything about hoodoo and are curious about it and Memphis’s role, this is a fantastic introduction. I think if you know some stuff about hoodoo, you’re going to be a little frustrated. His history of Memphis factories involved in the production of hoodoo is great, but I wish there’d been more about how hoodoo ideas were transmitted in the days before the internet. His work on the Spiritual churches and their conventions is a great example of showing how people come together and exchange ideas.

I wanted to know if we have any guesses about how that transpired in the 19th century. I mean, some of it is really mysterious. We don’t know for sure what the little metal hands mean, though we find them at the Hermitage and outside of Memphis. They certainly look manufactured and I wonder if anyone’s ever tried to track down where. I assume they have, but I don’t know. And how did they get into the slave economy as far apart as Nashville and Memphis? Is there someone we can track? Or a slave-trading pattern we can contemplate?

It does seem obvious that Memphis conjure is informed by New Orleans conjure (and possibly visa versa) but I would have liked some informed guesses as to how that worked, too. Were steamboat workers bringing this stuff up and down the river? Like what was the mechanism for refreshing standard beliefs?

The same goes for the idea that hoodoo practices and Native American practices greatly overlap. How would this have happened? Are we talking that black people, when they were kidnapped by Indians, were being taught traditional healing methods? Are we saying that there were enough communities where black and Indians lived freely together that there could be these information exchanges?

I’m not trying to insinuate that I doubt these things. I don’t. These are things that obviously happened, but that I’m still not clear on how. I mean, before 1865, it was very hard for most black people to travel very far in the South. And Memphis and New Orleans are very far apart. Also, after Jackson, the South wasn’t brimming with Native Americans.

So, how were these connections being made?

I guess what I’m saying is that this book is very, very good for what it is, but also that I was hoping for something a little more than just an introduction.