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  • Ginseng, Hoodoo, and the Magic of Upholding African American Earth-Based Traditions

    Ginseng roots on a woven basket platter on a black backdrop.

    Photo by whaltns17, Pixabay

    Ginseng has been used in my family for generations, but I still had many questions about the botanical. Where did it come from? Is it rooted in any African American traditions? For many African Americans, ginseng is a vital root, one that spans generations, yet historical evidence of its use is sparse.

    As an intern with the American Ginseng project, I started “digging” into ginseng. I began my research by examining the narratives of enslaved people. The Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives, collected between 1936 and 1938, contain more than 2,300 primary source accounts, including photographs and interviews with formerly enslaved people from fifteen states. Sifting through the records and filtering for any mention of ginseng, I discovered that, particularly in Western Appalachia, ginseng roots were a means by which enslaved or formerly enslaved people earned extra income. They would “dig seng” and sell the roots at local market centers. They also used ginseng for its medicinal properties. For instance, they treated fevers by wrapping the afflicted person in ginseng leaves to help alleviate pain.

    One of the strongest connections between ginseng and Black Americans is Hoodoo, which combines preexisting African religions and spiritual practices with Southern African American culture. Hoodoo was created out of necessity by enslaved African people during the Transatlantic Slave Trade period. There are documented accounts of enslaved people using Hoodoo to rebel against their captors in the eighteenth century. During a 1712 uprising in New York, a freeman and Hoodoo practitioner by the name of Peter Doctor aided enslaved people in burning down the township. He concocted a “magical powder” and applied it to the clothing of his comrades to protect them.

    Today, Hoodoo is carried forward through the active practices of African American people throughout the United States. Using various herbs and roots, Hoodoo practitioners formulate special understandings of each element in their practice. According to author and Hoodoo practitioner Stephanie Rose Bird, “In Hoodoo, there is a feeling that herbs and roots are alive and need tending throughout the day.”

    Because many ginseng roots resemble a walking man, Hoodoo attributes vitality and strength to the root. For instance, Hoodoo believes that ginseng increases sexual prowess, specifically in men. Perhaps a related belief is that ginseng may bring good luck. According to The Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells, a guide to the magical ginseng is a “Wonder of the World Root” that will grant a wish etched onto a root that is then placed under running water.

    Black and white illustration of a cloth pouch.
    Mojo Bag
    Illustration by Stephanie Rose Bird, courtesy of Llewellyn

    Ginseng may also play an integral role in the use of Mojo Bags by Hoodoo practitioners. Bird explains that each bag is a collection of power, and that the strategic placement of disparate elements will magnify the bag’s power. For example, Hoodoo—Conjuration—Witchcraft—Rootwork contains a spell, “Adam-and-Eve,” which may get someone “under control.” It calls for one ginseng root, one Adam root, and one Eve root. Adam and Eve roots come from a species of orchid known as Aplectrum hyemale, which is found in parts of the Eastern United States.

    The Eve root has a round shape while the Adam root is thinner and longer. After gathering your materials, you must “mash” them together to produce a powder. Place the powder on a hot stovetop, then add flour to the powder and “scorch” the mixture. After that, place it in a bag made from any material, and dust the mixture around the house for nine days. This is one of many existing Hoodoo spells that use ginseng and that illustrate how Hoodoo is a highly individualized practice to help people navigate their daily lives.

    Bird has written two books explicitly on Hoodoo. Based in Illinois, she is one of many Black women who actively use Hoodoo as a way of life, often by resourcefully making use of what is readily available. “I am a Hoodoo,” she explains. “I have been studying and practicing Hoodoo since 1999. I hope to inspire others, particularly people of color, to engage with Hoodoo through my writing, retreat work, and workshops. Hoodoo is an important collection of magickal and spiritual folk practices, especially for me as a Black woman, in the otherwise quite white world of earth spirituality.” Undoubtedly, Bird’s work speaks to the necessity of carrying on Black earth-based traditions and practices.

    Profile of a woman outside, standing against a background of foliage.
    Stephanie Rose Bird
    Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rose Bird

    As a solitary practitioner with her own garden, Bird does not use ginseng as often as other roots, but she thoroughly appreciates ginseng’s role in Hoodoo. “I understand ginseng as an age-old cure-all and have employed it to build and restore physical and spiritual energy for myself and others. I enjoy its warming ability, and through its soul-warming heat, it opens us up to the possibilities of love and self-healing.”

    Moreover, Bird believes that Hoodoo provides tangible approaches to “everyday concerns,” such as “finding love and keeping it close, finding and then spiritually cleansing or maintaining an appropriate home, getting a good job and dealing with the boss, office, and coworkers, court cases and other legal matters, holistic health, and wellness, and much more.” She believes Hoodoo’s “wisdom and proactive approach” are “distinctly African American and harken back to the Motherland. This aspect of Hoodoo is uplifting, freeing, and empowering.”

    Where does Bird see Hoodoo in the future?

    “I hope the current interest in Hoodoo isn’t a passing fad. I hope people will be open to modern and contemporary twenty-first-century adaptations to rootwork, spells, and rites, to keep it a lively part of the ever-evolving spiritual conversation.”

    You can learn more about Stephanie Rose Bird’s work by visiting SRB Botanica and reading her published works, which include 365 Days of Hoodoo: Daily Rootwork, Mojo and Conjuration (2018); A Healing Grove: African Tree Remedies and Rituals for the Body and Spirit (2009); Four Seasons of Mojo: An Herbal Guide to Natural Living (2006); and Sticks, Stones, Roots, and Bones: Hoodoo, Mojo and Conjuring with Herbs (2004).

     Asia Smith is a sociology and anthropology student with a focus in foodways at Kalamazoo College and a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.  

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