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CHAPTER SIX

GO TELL PHARAOH

The Rise of Magic in Afro–America

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter.… And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it in the water and the water became sweet.

—EXODUS 15:23–25

Frederick Douglass had no use for fantasies or folklore. Born a slave, he was separated as a young child from his mother—a woman who walked miles from another plantation for the rare occasion of rocking him to sleep or giving him a handmade ginger cake. He grew to be a self-educated teenager determined not to play the role of whipped dog to a cruel overseer. But in January 1834, on the eve of his sixteenth birthday, Douglass found himself delivered into the hands of the worst of them, a Mr. Covey—known as “the breaker of Negroes.”

A few years earlier, Douglass had been a domestic servant in Baltimore. There the burdens of slavery—the hunger, the beatings, the daily humiliations—were at least tempered by the surface civilities of city life. Indeed, his Baltimore mistress had taught him to read, until the lessons were stopped by his master. “If you teach that nigger how to read,” the man told his wife, “there would be no keeping him.” But Douglass discovered ways to keep educating himself through whatever books or newspaper scraps could be found. Soon, however, the Baltimore family rearranged its household, and Douglass was abruptly returned to plantation life. His new master in St. Michaels, Maryland, was suspicious: Could a young man who had tasted city living still work the fields? To be brutally certain, at the start of 1834 he “loaned out” Douglass for a year to Edward Covey—a petty, cruel farmer who used every opportunity to beat his new charge on trumped-up offenses. The beatings became so severe that, by August, Douglass sneaked back to his old St. Michaels master to beg for protection. His plea was rejected—and the youth, still bruised and caked with blood, was turned back to Covey’s farm. Once there, he hid all day and into the night in the woods outside Covey’s fields, not knowing what to do.

The days that followed, however, turned out differently than anyone could have imagined. To the shock of Covey, Douglass did return to the farm—and when beatings came, the youth stood up and fought back. For two hours one morning the men struggled, and Covey could not get the better of him. Embarrassed by his inability to control a teenager who finally said enough, the slave master was forced to back down. For Douglass, it was a moment of inner revolution from which he would never retreat: His act of self-defense had freed him in mind and spirit, leaving him to wait for the opportunity when he would finally be free in body as well. It is one of the most remarkable emancipation narratives in American history.

Yet tucked within the folds of Douglass’s inner revolution there lies another, lesser-known drama. It arises from deep within African–American occult tradition—and it is an episode that Douglass would revise and downplay between the time when his earliest memoirs appeared in 1845 and when he published a more widely read account a decade later. It is a window on magic and slave life. And, to find it, we must return to the darkened woods outside Covey’s farm.

The Magic Root

As Douglass hid in the woods on Saturday night, he was discovered by another man in bondage, Sandy Jenkins—someone Doug lass described in his memoirs as “an old adviser.” Sandy, he wrote in 1855, “was not only a religious man, but he professed to believe in a system for which I have no name. He was a genuine African, and had inherited some of the so-called magical powers, said to be possessed by African and eastern nations.”

Sandy Jenkins was a root worker. He practiced an African–American system of magic and folklore that drew deeply upon Western and Central African religious tradition, Native American herb medicine, and sources as diverse as Jewish Kabala and European folklore. It was called hoodoo. White observers would often mistake it for the Afro–Caribbean religion properly called Vodou in Haiti and Voodoo in the American South, particularly in Louisiana, the home to Voodoo’s nineteenth-century high priestess Marie Laveau. Reporters and anthropologists would routinely conflate Voodoo and hoodoo—but the two were very different.

The religion of Voodoo grew from the traditions of the Fon and Yoruba peoples who occupied the West African coastal states. These were the men and women of the “middle passage” who were hurled into slavery throughout America and the Caribbean. In the Fon language, the term vodu meant “deity” or “spirit.” The Fon–Yoruba practices also morphed in the religion of Santeria, an Afro–Caribbean (and, today, increasingly American) faith that often associates ancient African gods with Catholic saints. In Santeria, for example, the great spirit Babaluaiye, guardian of health and sickness, is frequently associated with Saint Lazarus, a patron to the ill. This is the same “Babalu” that Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz serenaded to the unknowing ears of I Love Lucy audiences.

Hoodoo was not a bastardized Voodoo or Santeria; it was something with roots all its own. “The way we tell it,” wrote novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston in her 1935 Mules and Men, “hoodoo started way back there before everything.… Nobody can say where it begins or ends.”

In practice, hoodoo draws heavily upon botanical and household items—plants, soaps, minerals, animal parts, perfumes—objects that a displaced people adapted to find their way back to the old rituals and spirits. Sandy Jenkins and other root workers were so named for their virtuosity with herbs and roots, objects believed to hold hidden powers that could be tapped for protection, healing, love, money, and other practical needs. And here we return to the first narrative of Frederick Douglass. He receives advice—and something more—from Sandy in the woods:

He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it. I at first rejected the idea, that the simple carrying of a root in my pocket would have any such effect as he had said, and was not disposed to take it; but Sandy impressed the necessity with much earnestness, telling me it could do no harm, if it did no good. To please him, I at length took the root, and, according to his direction, carried it upon my right side.

There is no record to bear the matter out, but the object Sandy pressed upon Douglass was very likely a rock-hard, bulbous root known within hoodoo as John the Conqueror, or sometimes High John. John de conker is the pronunciation found in oral records and song. It is the ultimate protective object, used for everything from personal safety to virility, traditionally carried by a man rather than a woman. In the magical tradition of “like bestows like,” the dried root is shaped like a testicle. There is historical conflict over the species of the root: Botanical drawings differ among the catalogs of old hoodoo supply houses. But the most careful observers and practitioners of hoodoo today agree that the likeliest source is the jalap root, which dries into a rough, spherical nub.

Armed with what he warily called “the magic root,” Douglass set off for Covey’s farm. Expecting God-only-knew-what fate, he received a strange surprise. It was now Sunday, and Covey—ever the upright Christian—was downright polite. “Now,” wrote Douglass in his first memoir, “this singular conduct of Mr. Covey really made me begin to think that there was something in the root which Sandy had given me.” But on Monday morning, things darkened. Mr. Covey, it seemed, was a Sunday Christian. Once the Lord’s day of rest ended, the devil in him returned. “On this morning,” Douglass continued, “the virtue of the root was fully tested.” Covey grabbed Douglass in the barn, tied his legs with a rope, and prepared to beat him. “Mr. Covey seemed now to think he had me, and could do what he pleased; but at this moment—from whence came the spirit I don’t know—I resolved to fight.” Here began the historic turnaround in Douglass’s life: “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”

Ten years later, in 1855, Douglass—now a free man and internationally known as the voice of abolitionism—published his revised and expanded memoir, one that sold an extraordinary fifteen thousand copies in two months and helped galvanize antislavery feelings. Douglass’s second memoir repeats, yet subtly alters, the episode involving Sandy, Covey, and the root. When grabbed by Covey, Douglass writes, with emphasis in the original: “I now forgot my roots, and remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense.” In a detail absent from his first memoir, Douglass notes that on the previous day he had made a personal vow to “protect myself to the best of my ability.” Gone now was the observation, “from whence came the spirit I don’t know.”

Was Douglass some kind of a half believer in hoodoo, intent on covering his tracks? Not exactly. The greater likelihood is that the same man who served as the moral anchor of the abolitionist movement wanted no one to misunderstand the true nature of his life story: His was an inner triumph, a realization of personhood against inconceivable odds, a transcendence in thought that permitted him to see himself as a man of agency and as an actor possessed of rights under God. Indeed, Douglass—a proponent of education and self-improvement in the deepest senses—would almost certainly have considered hoodoo and folk magic as distractions at best and at worst as chains of delusion. In an 1845 footnote that he also repeated ten years later, Douglass distanced himself from the question of hoodoo and magic: “This superstition”—root work—“is very common among the more ignorant slaves. A slave seldom dies, but that his death is attributed to trickery.”

But in both his earlier and later memoirs, Douglass proved resolute in his unwillingness to slam shut the door on the matter or to qualify the veneration he felt for Sandy. “I saw in Sandy,” Douglass wrote in 1855, “too deep an insight into human nature, with all his superstition, not to have some respect for his advice; and perhaps, too, a slight gleam or shadow of his superstition had fallen upon me.” Sandy, the “clever soul,” the “old adviser,” and the “genuine African,” provided a rare measure of wise counsel in a chaotic and brutal world. His authority was grounded in an occult tradition that no slaveholder could enter. In this way, above all others, was Sandy a man of magic—a medicine man in the most profound sense.

Mojo Bags and Menorahs

By the early twentieth century, Americans were becoming widely accustomed to buying their household items from commercial catalogs or right off the shelf—and magic made for no exception. Where others would see rows of ordinary drugstore products, hoodoo practitioners saw the raw material for spells. For instance, Octagon bar soap—still marketed by Colgate as a budget cleanser—was scented with the all-important ingredient lemongrass, a key hoodoo formula for “spiritual cleansing” or exorcising homes of bad humors or maleficent spirits. The earthy scents of Florida or Kananga toilet waters were used for household protection, as fragrant altar offerings, or for the honoring of the dead. Hoyt’s cologne was a favorite for gambling luck.

Richly illustrated “spiritual supply” catalogs came to sell items of a more specialized nature, such as lodestones (a favorite money-getting talisman), mojo bags (magical concoctions of herbs in small red flannel sacks to be carried on one’s body), and a wide variety of roots, herbs, charms, and amulets. The commercial hoodoo supply houses, which included Keystone Laboratories of Memphis and the Valmor Products Company of Chicago, were operated by pharmacists and cosmetics dealers, often first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants to urban areas, who were among the few white retailers catering to a black clientele. In a spirit of why not?, the catalog dealers remarketed Judeo–Christian devotional items as occult supplies, such as menorahs (the traditional Jewish candelabra) and mezuzahs (encasements for prayer scrolls to be nailed at the front door of Jewish homes). Black and white customers gamely stocked their homes with Jewish, Catholic, Spiritualist, Hindu, and traditional hoodoo formulas, herbs, and candles.

In thousands of interviews with Southern hoodoo practitioners beginning in the 1930s, Episcopal priest and folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt found that hoodoo mixed easily with other religious systems. In a sense, it was becoming America’s first boundary-free faith. Hyatt’s informants frequently spoke of petitioning Catholic folk saints—historically and theologically suspect saints barely tolerated by church doctrine but the subject of loving cults among the faithful. These included the legendary Saint Expedite—helper of those needing results in a hurry. “Well, St. Espidy, he’s very good,” related one subject, in the kind of dialect Hyatt faithfully captured:

He have helped me. He helps me an when ah wants bread ah call on him an’ he brings me a rap [answers by rapping]. Ah heard dat he was a man dat didn’t believe in no evil work; an’ he didn’t fool roun’ wit no kinda evil doin’ when he was on dis scene an’ he wus a true man an’ when he died he went tuh heaven.

The books stocked by hoodoo supply houses encompassed Christian inspirational classics, such as The Imitation of Christ (again, repackaged as occult fare), or modern guides to hexes, spells, and folk cures. Folklore from the German–American community of Pennsylvania—influenced by the Rhine Valley mysticism of the Kelpius and Ephrata communes—proved especially popular among hoodoo readers. A favorite was German–Pennsylvanian Johann Georg Hohman’s 1820 spell book Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend, a volume that made its way into English in 1855. Pow-Wows was a haunting hodgepodge of myth, healing practices, and European folklore. The book referred to itself as a magic charm that would protect all who carried it. (So seriously was this belief held that soldiers of German–Pennsylvanian background were known to carry Pow-Wows on them in Vietnam.)

Far and away the most venerated book in hoodoo was another Germanic occult text, this one assembled from myriad sources in the mid-nineteenth century. Often considered the “hoodoo bible,” it was a beguiling patchwork called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. The grimoire, or manual of magic, served up a mixture of Kabala (and pseudo-Kabala), supernatural seals, the “spells” used by Moses against Pharaoh, and—most popular of all—instructions on the magical uses of the Psalms. For hoodoo practitioners, who discovered the book in its first English edition in 1880, it became a source of endless fascination. The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses is cited more than any other single work in the interviews and oral records that survive of root workers. German–Pennsylvanian and Jewish influences grew so woven into hoodoo practice that a Louisiana-born conjurer living in Memphis in the 1930s told folklorist Hyatt about a love spell where: “Yo’d have to talk Hebrew-like. Yo’ realize de Hebrew language—some of dat’s in de ‘Six’ and Seven’ Books of Moses’ and den de balance is [in] de 91 Psalms of David.”

Indeed, to many root workers, Moses himself was the great medicine man and conjurer of the ancient past—a savior from the African continent who used his divine powers to free and protect his flock. To hoodoo practitioners, Moses and Aaron’s spells against Pharaoh revealed the true purpose of Africa’s traditional esoteric crafts. A former Georgia slave named Thomas Smith put it this way in another dialect-faithful interview, which appeared in the Georgia Writers’ Project guide: “Dat appen in Africa de Bible say. Ain’ dat show dat Africa wuz a lan uh magic powah since de beginnin uh history? Well duh descendants ub Africans hab du same gif tuh do unnatchal ting.”

“The Great Voodoo Man of the Bible”

The marriage of African cultural awareness, magic, and the emancipation brought by Moses found its greatest expression in the books of a man whose identity is lost to time. The 1930s and ’40s saw the arrival of Henri Gamache, a pseudonymous author and literary man of mystery. His books were the finest original fare put out by the hoodoo publishers and supply houses. Gamache’s works include an influential guide to candle magic called The Master Book of Candle Burning, as well as books of herb magic and protective spells. The centerpiece of the Gamache oeuvre is a little-known minor masterpiece. It is a work that has never gone out of print and that prefigured the African religious and cultural revival of later generations. Expanding on the themes of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, it is called Mystery of the Long Lost 8th, 9th and 10th Books of Moses.

Published in 1945, Gamache’s 8th, 9th and 10th Books of Moses theorized the existence of lost Mosaic works, including those that might reveal the magical systems used by Moses, the Great Emancipator. Gamache depicted Moses as a figure born from within the magical ferment of Egyptian and African antiquity. In so doing, Gamache developed a cultural argument that all the great Western faiths were philosophies raised up from the cradle of Africa. Moses, he reasoned, was “The Great Voodoo Man of the Bible,” a medicine man and miracle worker whose fingerprints could be found in the African-descended religious movements of Voodoo, hoodoo—and those that became Judaism and Christianity. “All across Africa and Egypt to the Sudan and thence to the Gold Coast is his influence manifest,” Gamache wrote. “In Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere, the greatest of all the gods is Damballa Ouedo Ouedo Tocan Freda Dahomey who is none other than Moses himself.”

It was a novel argument. In his analysis, Gamache previewed Afrocentrist and Garveyite perspectives that would begin to gain popularity twenty-five years later. And his perspective was not without subtlety. While anthropologists speculated over, and sometimes fiercely debated, the extent to which African cultural “retentions” could be found in America, Gamache—in an approach validated by later generations of ethnographers and religious scholars—showed an understanding that the most visible African retentions could be discovered in Haiti and the Caribbean, where older customs were more closely preserved.*

The person using the name Henri Gamache may have been the force behind other pseudonymous hoodoo-influenced books, including guides to magic and the occult under the bylines alternately spelled Lewis de Claremont and Louis de Clermont. Indeed, Gamache’s own works emerged from companies owned by the same or related retailers who controlled the de Claremont titles and a variety of other works on dreams, spells, and numerology. But a liveliness and originality that is absent from the usual supply-house fare permeates Gamache’s writing, suggesting the thought of a distinct, though unknown, individual. Gamache alone displays a broad interest in the religion, magic, and folklore of a vast range of cultures and belief systems, including Christian, Vedic, African, Judaic/Kabalistic, Voodoo, and Spiritualist. In an almost unheard-of device in hoodoo-oriented literature, Gamache in each of his books supplied bibliographies and cited scholarly and journalistic sources—many of which were available at the New York Public Library. “He seems to have been a man of mixed race,” notes Catherine Yronwode, the canniest contemporary observer of hoodoo history and practice, “possibly born in the Caribbean, who lived and worked in New York City.”

There is one further literary connection to Gamache that begs scrutiny, and it involves yet another magician who associated himself with the wonders of Moses. The figure who authored the Gamache books is sometimes thought to have ghostwritten the memoirs of the most famous African–American stage magician of the first part of the twentieth century. He could neither read nor write but enthralled thousands of followers under the stage name Black Herman.

Professor Black Herman

“I am proud to introduce you to one of the greatest men of our time,” the emcee would announce at the opening of Black Herman’s stage shows,

the President of the Colored Magicians Association of America, and the undisputed monarch of race magicians. All those present tonight are fortunate, because the territory he tours is so large that Black Herman only comes around once every seven years. This is the year for us all to remember. You will tell your grandchildren about this day. You know the legend of High John the Conqueror, now meet the legendary Professor Black Herman!

Although he had been born Benjamin Rucker in Amherst, Virginia, in 1892, the gangly, tuxedoed magician called Black Herman told his audiences a different story. He described a mythical childhood in a Zulu tribe and claimed great feats of magic and derring-do—including rescuing a child from a lion by hypnotizing the beast. In part of Herman’s stage act, he invited audience members to tie him so he could show how, “If slave traders tried to take any of my people captive, we would release ourselves using our secret knowledge.”

Unlike most stage magicians—who saw magic strictly as a hard-earned skill and disdained the claims of Spiritualists and psychics—Herman blended stagecraft and spellcraft, casting himself as both an entertainer and a master occultist. “I was born in the jungles of Africa,” he intoned, “where I learned the secrets of roots from the greatest tribal witch doctors. I learned the language of the animals. When I first came to this country, if I became hungry, I would merely call to a rabbit; one would come—and I would have rabbit stew!” Herman would then commence with a part of his act that involved his famous animal impersonations and ventriloquism.

Like his stage show, Herman’s 1925 memoir and guidebook, Secrets of Magic, Mystery & Legerdemain, was an unusual mixture of biographical myth-making, stage tricks, hoodoo formulas, astrology, and dream interpretation. It, too, framed magic as a way of resisting oppression: The cover showed a drawing of a caped Herman sitting astride a globe with a scroll marked POWER in his left hand; his right foot rested atop a pile of esoteric books with the names The Missing Key, The Key to Success, The Key to Happiness, and on the largest book the words, Black Herman COVERS the WORLD. Herman presented a dramatic anomaly in the field of professional magic, where a black performer—when employed at all—was typically cast as a clownish sidekick to a white magician. Black assistants often distracted the audience with pratfalls designed to conceal the headliner’s sleight of hand.

There would be no such demeaning roles for Black Herman. He had apprenticed himself to another African–American magician (“Prince Herman”) and entered the spotlight after his mentor died in 1909. But Black Herman aspired to be more than a lead performer. In true hoodoo fashion, Herman positioned himself in the footsteps of the great magician Moses—playing the part of a modern-day conjurer–emancipator. In his book, possibly ghostwritten by Henri Gamache, Herman noted:

Magicians have been in existence since the days of Moses. When Moses was commanded by the Lord to deliver the Israelites from bondage, did he not come in touch with magicians? Did not the good Lord use magicians to prove to Pharaoh that he was God and beside Him there was no other? If magicians were needed in the days of Moses and Pharaoh, they are needed again at this time.

Offstage, Herman presented himself as a model of worldly achievement, appearing in an elegant Prince Albert coat, tuxedo, and tails, with a pyramid-shaped amulet around his neck. In the 1920s, he was a well-known figure in New York’s Harlem, living in high style amid Oriental rugs, African masks, floor-to-ceiling murals, and antiques in his three-floor town house on West 136th Street. Herman claimed to readily loan money to neighbors and friends for rent and coal. He treated neighborhood kids to prizes in apple- and pie-eating contests. His stage shows and occult-product businesses provided full- and part-time work to dozens of people. Indeed, he could pack in crowds of four thousand a night at Marcus Garvey’s Liberty Hall. His was not a “race act” but a rare integrated stage show, attracting both black and white audience members. Never one for small plans, Herman dreamed of fashioning his Harlem town house into the headquarters of a “New Negro Renaissance,” and in the 1920s and ’30s he presided over Sunday-night salons with local businessmen, lawyers, and artists.

In a move of daring and self-confidence that rivaled any shown by Houdini, Herman one day revealed the peak of his personal powers. In his invaluable history of African–American stage magicians, Magical Heroes, writer Jim Magus relates how Herman once outsmarted a group of thieves who were out for money—and blood. One afternoon while on national tour, Herman took his brother, Andrew, to go search for his missing stage assistant, Washington Reeves. Reeves had been dispatched to a local black cemetery to gather names and dates from tombstones—providing Herman with material for his “mind reading” act later that night. But Reeves was a drinker and had long gone missing. “I am receiving a distinct psychic impression that he’s drunk again,” Herman told his brother. “Let’s go find him.”

Herman and Andrew went to the local cemetery, where they were quickly approached by four menacing men carrying large sticks. “This is our turf,” one said. “You cross it, you got to pay a tax.” Herman brushed right past the men, declaring: “The Great Black Herman is exempt from any such tax.” The men smiled. They knew who the famous magician was and smelled big money. Gripping their clubs, they tightened around Herman and his brother. “If you’re such a great magician,” said one, “make us some money, now!” Herman shot back: “I do not deal with materialistic matters such as money. I do, however, occasionally practice the necromantic art of raising the dead!” Before the men could say anything, Herman shouted at the top of his stage voice: “Washington Reeves! Arise! Arise now!” Leaves rustled, and from behind a tombstone a figure struggled to its feet. The thieves dropped their sticks and ran in terror. Had they turned around, they would have witnessed the “undead” Washington Reeves stumbling forward—a pint of whiskey clutched in his hands.

Poor Man’s Psychologist

Even Black Herman encountered webs that could not be slipped out of. By the 1930s, New York State had enacted a stringent (and still extant) anti-fortune-telling law that prohibited the “claimed or pretended use of occult powers” for commercial purposes. Police spotted a very big target in Harlem’s most famous magician.*

While touring, Herman had known brushes with the law and usually understood how to sell his “spiritual products,” such as Black Herman’s Body Tonic, with standard label disclaimers like alleged and sold as a curio only. But he hadn’t expected that police would come after him on his home turf for another line of work. In Harlem, Herman offered private services as a mind reader, spiritual adviser, and root doctor. He maintained a formal waiting room and regular office hours at his town house. In a 1927 sting operation, a “lonely wife” visited Herman several times to seek help in winning back her cheating husband.

Consulting with his distressed client, Herman freely prescribed hoodoo formulas and methods—including sachet powders of herbs to be worn on the body, a John the Conqueror root, magical repetitions of the Psalms, and special uses of the husband’s foot scrapings to keep him home. It was a traditional hoodoo consultation, with Herman playing the role of “poor man’s psychologist,” as he often described himself. On June 17, the jilted wife—who turned out to be an undercover policewoman by the name of Nettie Sweatman—arrested him for “fortune-telling” and practicing medicine without a license.

Harlem Healer Given Setback by Woman Cop, announced the nationally read African–American newspaper Chicago Defender the next day. It was a bitter slap to the famous magician. Another came in September from his hometown paper, the New York Amsterdam News: “Black Herman,” Magician, Held for Trial in Special Sessions asQuack.” In October, he received a short sentence at Sing Sing prison. Herman attempted to put up a brave face for his admirers, to whom he boasted of making so many breaks from his jail cell that the authorities could barely hold him. But the humiliated Herman never quite regained his stride. As the Great Depression hit Harlem in the early 1930s, spending money and leisure time for stage shows dried up. He found ways to continue performing, often by playing to segregated audiences in tours of the Deep South. Herman got back a little of the old fire in 1930 when he visited Detroit, the Defender reported, and proclaimed “that the depression enveloping the Motor City is chiefly mental, and he being chosen by God, is seeking to lift it.”

While he was preparing to open a tour of Kentucky, the forty-two-year-old Herman died on April 17, 1934. There exist two versions of his death—one that Herman probably would have liked the world to remember and another that was more modest. According to the more popular version, Black Herman collapsed onstage in the middle of a performance at the Old Palace Theater in Louisville, Kentucky. The stunned audience refused to leave—they believed it was all part of his act and that the magician would rise again. When the body was sent to a local funeral home, pandemonium broke out, and police had to be called in to control thousands of mourners who wanted one last look at the stage great. Press reports and Herman’s death certificate, however, indicate that Benjamin Rucker died more quietly, at the Louisville boardinghouse where he and his touring troupe were staying. He complained of indigestion after dinner, and when several “home remedies” failed to work, a doctor was called. The confusion resulted in friends telling the Chicago Defender that Herman had been felled by “acute indigestion.” In fact, he was dead of heart failure before he could be taken to the hospital. His body was returned home to New York, where it lies today in Woodlawn Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Black Moses

Despite the cultural awareness of Henri Gamache and Black Herman, hoodoo was not directly political. Most conjure and root work focused on regaining lost lovers, fixing troublesome neighbors, avoiding trouble with the law, overcoming unfair bosses, gambling on the right numbers—all practical concerns for men and women taking on life day by day. But a voice was rising on the American scene that combined mystical beliefs and political purpose in a wholly new way.

It belonged to the black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Garvey, who had sojourned from Jamaica to America in 1916, envisioned the creation of a pan-African superpower that would take its place among the empires of the world. For a time, he came closer than many would have imagined possible, attracting tens of thousands of cheering followers to rallies and parades in America, England, and the Caribbean, creating a publishing empire of black newspapers, and assembling the first and largest international black political organization in history. Followers wept openly at Garvey rallies, as the uniformed orator extolled the dignity of black heritage and told of the history and destiny of Africa on the world stage. For many listeners who were old enough to remember slavery, and for others who lived in its shadow, hearing Garvey felt like a spiritual awakening. An FBI report in August 1920 observed of Garvey’s movement that “among the followers it is like a religion,” its leader “looked upon as a black Moses.” In a pillar of Garvey’s program often missed by those who scrutinized him, Garvey, like the social radical Wallace D. Wattles, believed that New Thought metaphysics could build the dreams of disenfranchised men and women around the world. Garvey’s movement represented the boldest—and least understood—effort in history to combine the magic of mind power with the quest for political gain.

Born in the north Jamaican seaside town of St. Ann’s Bay in 1887, Garvey experienced a childhood that verged on brutality. His father was a stonemason and sometime gravedigger who had been born a slave. The elder Marcus, after whom his son was named (Garvey’s mother had wanted to call him Moses), passed on to his children a tough-as-nails view of the world and a demand for the strictest respect. The older Garvey determined to teach Marcus about the rigors of life and the need for absolute self-reliance. One night, Garvey took his son with him to dig a grave, for which the mason had fashioned a headstone. The father told the boy to drop into the grave, and he then snatched up the ladder behind him—leaving Marcus to shiver and cry in the hole all night. It was a torment he never forgot.

Under the island’s colonial education system, Marcus was forced to leave school at age fourteen. Around the same time, a neighboring white Methodist minister abruptly cut off a childhood friendship his daughter had maintained with Marcus. “It was then,” Garvey wrote, “that I found out for the first time that there was some difference in humanity, and that there were different races, each having its own separate and distinct social life.” The heavyset, bulldoglike teen was apprenticed to a printer—and a burgeoning interest in journalism was born. In 1910, Garvey traveled through Central America, where he was appalled to witness the second-class status occupied by black laborers completing the Panama Canal. “Where was the black man’s country?” Garvey wondered, watching blacks labor for meager wages on the projects of other nations and colonial powers.

A few years later, he read educator Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery—and the book’s philosophy of self-sufficiency hit Garvey with the force of a religious conversion. Garvey took these ideas, merged them with his own form of radical opposition to white authority, and in 1914 transformed them into the platform of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Eventually claiming three-quarters of a million members, UNIA generated a surge of pride among members with its plans to create a shipping empire and a restored pan-African nation—with Marcus Garvey as its uniformed, imperial president.

“Always think yourself a perfect being,” Garvey told followers, “and be satisfied with yourself.” His philosophy of faith-in-self and perpetual self-improvement formed Garvey’s deepest appeal. And, to careful observers, it was firmly rooted in the grand tradition of American metaphysics. “What was deemed a new racial philosophy,” wrote historians Robert A. Hill and Barbara Bair in their Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons, “was in fact Garvey’s wholesale application of the dynamics of New Thought to the black condition.… Metaphysics and politics were explicitly linked in Garvey’s mind.”

UNIA newspapers and pamphlets abounded with telltale phrases of the New Thought movement, such as the call for a “universal business consciousness” in Garvey’s Negro World newspaper. Garvey’s Negro Factories Corporation advertised shares of stock by declaring, “Enthusiasm Is One of the Big Keys to Success.” And a front-page headline in Garvey’s Blackman newspaper announced: Let us Give Off Success and It Will Come, adding the indispensable New Thought maxim: As Man Thinks So Is He.

One of the only books that Garvey publicly recommended to followers was Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book, a collection of life lessons by Hubbard, the social-reform journalist admired by Wallace D. Wattles and hero of motivational thinking within New Thought circles. Garvey’s favorite poet was Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the poet laureate of mind power, whose lines he used to conclude a 1915 UNIA rally:

Live for something,—Have a purpose

And that purpose keep in view

Drifting like a helmless vessel

Thou cans’t ne’er to self be true.

While figures like Wallace D. Wattles and Marcus Garvey occupied two completely different worlds, they nonetheless shared a critical trait that alternately retreated and surfaced throughout each man’s career: Their social radicalism rested on a metaphysical component, shrewdly couched in language to which every American, black or white, could instantly relate.

“A Scientific Understanding of God”

Garvey made little direct reference to the source of his ideas. A degree of secrecy and confidentiality characterized almost all of Garvey’s affairs, notes historian Hill, including those of the mind. In a speech he delivered in January 1928 in Kingston, Jamaica, however, Garvey’s New Thought ideas were outlined perhaps more clearly than at any other time in his career. “Get you[rself], as the white man has done, a scientific understanding of God and religion,” he told his listeners, continuing:

What marks the great deal of difference between the Negro and the White man is that the Negro does not understand God and His religion. God places you here in the world on your responsibility as men and women to take out of the world and to make out of the world what you want in keeping with the laws of the spirit. God has laid down two codes that man cannot afford to disobey: the code of Nature and the code of the Spirit. The code of Nature when you violate it makes you angry, makes you unhappy, makes you miserable, makes you sick, makes you die prematurely.… Every sickness and every disease, I repeat, is a direct violation of the code of God in Nature.

Making a definite spiritual use of the term science, Garvey told the audience that whites “live by science. You do everything by emotion. That makes the vast difference between the two races.… Get a scientific knowledge of religion, of God, of what you are; and you will create a better world for yourselves. Negroes, the world is to your making.” Contemporary readers of Garvey’s words could easily miss, or simply wonder at, the political leader’s references to religion and science—but the signposts abounded in Garvey’s day. The mental healer Phineas P. Quimby had made a direct link between religion and science. Quimby believed that religion was, above all, a lawful phenomenon guaranteed to produce certain results. In his writings, which appeared to the public for the first time a few years before Garvey’s address, the metaphysical healer used phrases like Science of Christ, Science of Health and Happiness, and, most tellingly, Christian Science.

Garvey’s spiritual “science” also had roots—occult roots—in his Caribbean boyhood. In the West Indies, the term science sometimes connoted magical practices. Writer–activist C. L. R. James, in his 1936 novel of Trinidadian domestic life, Minty Alley, showed how “science” and “magic” got tangled up when an older man confronted a younger neighbor:

“These books you always reading,” he picked up one and looked at the title. “About science! Ah! you read about science. Then you have books by de Laurence?”

This de Laurence was an American writer on magic and psychic science, whose books had some vogue in the islands.

“No,” said Haynes. “It isn’t that sort of science.”

“A man with your intelligence, if you read books on science you would do well. See now, about two o’clock, all the spirits of the air passing up and down. And if you know what to do you can compel them and make them do what you like.”

The writer “de Laurence” was a real person, a Chicago-based mail-order retailer of occult supplies who was especially popular among Caribbean, African, and African–American consumers. A handsome, angular man who liked to be photographed wearing a turban over his blondish hair, L. W. de Laurence was not above sometimes affixing his name to occult volumes that others had written. He was not quite a plagiarist—rather, he was a “book pirate,” freely pilfering the work of others in an age of flimsy copyrights, much like English occultist Francis Barrett did in 1801 when he swiped large swaths of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy. (In a karmic cycle of occult “borrowing,” de Laurence lifted Barrett’s ghoulish illustrations of “evil spirits” for reuse in his massiveGreat Book of Magical Art, Hindoo Magic & Indian Occultism.)

Though white, de Laurence specifically targeted Afro–Caribbean buyers. His overseas customers—who abounded in Garvey’s Jamaica—may have found a kind of magical appeal in the fact that de Laurence peddled his wares from the “Institute of Hypnotism and Occult Philosophy” in the heartland of America, a nation that still had the majestic sheen of promise and progress.

Almost single-handedly, de Laurence introduced the texts and formulas of American hoodoo to the Caribbean Islands. Indeed, de Laurence’s “scientific,” American-made formulas (with names typical in hoodoo catalogs, like compelling powder, destruction powder, and oil of turn-back) often displaced indigenous forms of herb magic in Jamaica’s cities. Fearing de Laurence’s influence as a foreign agent of black magic, the nation’s legal authorities banned his books. Even when the populist government of Michael Manley in 1972 slashed away at the list of officially censored publications, the magical works of L. W. de Laurence remained illegal. So suspect was de Laurence that any of his titles “relating to Divination, Magic, Occultism, Supernatural Arts or other esoteric subjects” formed the last vestiges of the Jamaican government’s blacklist, alongside a few subversive tracts like Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare.

Circle 7 Koran

The magical uses of “science” were not limited to the West Indies or Garvey. Indeed, the man who styled himself as Garvey’s American successor used a philosophy of mystical science to form the basis for one of the most beguiling and influential inner-city religious movements of the twentieth century, the Moorish Science Temple. Founded in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913 and moved to Chicago in the early 1920s, the movement was led by a mysterious North Carolinian named Timothy Drew, known to followers as Noble Drew Ali. In a handful of grainy photographs, Ali appears as a slender man with a thin mustache, outfitted in an Oriental silk robe and Masonic sash, alternately wearing a turban or tasseled fez, with his right hand crossed to his chest Napoleon-fashion. He told followers that he was born black in 1886 but raised among the Cherokee Indian tribes. His ceremonial title of “Noble” and other aspects of his regalia were very likely taken from Freemasonry’s Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the order better known as the Shriners. In the late nineteenth century the Masonic group had introduced America to the imagery (if not the actual ideas) of Islam.

Some of the New York businessmen who founded the Shriners lodge in 1877 did, in fact, take a serious interest in the philosophies of the East. Members even claimed a spurious connection with the Bektashi Sufi Order, a legendary Turkish brotherhood of mystical Muslims known for wine-drinking and ecstatic worship. But by the early twentieth century, the Shriners operated chiefly as a philanthropic guild, responsible for developing a remarkable network of free children’s hospitals. The group’s Byzantine symbols—including the fez, star and crescent, and scimitar—were relegated mostly to pageantry and decoration.

While Noble Drew Ali often invoked Allah and Islam (or “Islamism,” as he sometimes called it), he had almost no ties or traffic with the actual faith of Muhammad. Rather, Moorish Science was an American inner-city mystery religion built upon New Thought, Masonry, Theosophy, and occultism. Noble Drew Ali’s marriage of Garveyite themes to esoteric rites and symbols helped respond to the yearnings for economic, cultural, and political power being felt in the cities to which the descendants of slaves had begun migrating.

Elusive as his background was, the prophet of Moorish Science was rumored to have toured America as a magician in a traveling circus. A remarkable crumbling flyer discovered by writer Prince-A-Cuba and reproduced by Peter Lamborn Wilson in his extraordinary book on apostate Islam, Sacred Drift, depicts a Noble Drew Ali close in spirit to the miracle-working Black Herman. THE PROPHET NOBLE DREW ALI, announces the 1927 advertising sheet, WILL BE BOUND WITH SEVERAL YARDS OF ROPE, AS JESUS WAS BOUND IN THE THE [sic] TEMPLE AT JERUSALEM. The flyer goes on to promise that Noble Drew Ali practices “the same art, after being bound by anyone in the audience, and will escape in a few seconds.” Here again was an emancipator in the mold of a Scriptural hero—now Jesus himself.

But the true magical key to Ali’s “science” was his ultrasecret Circle 7 Koran, which members were sworn to keep hidden from outsiders. So serious was this oath that, even long after Ali’s death in 1929, the sociologist Arthur Huff Fauset in his groundbreaking 1944 study, Black Gods of the Metropolis, would quote only from its front and back covers:

THE HOLY KORAN

of the

MOORISH SCIENCE TEMPLE

OF AMERICA

KNOW YOURSELF AND YOUR FATHER

GOD ALLAH

THAT YOU MAY LEARN TO LOVE INSTEAD OF HATE

EVERYMAN NEED TO WORSHIP UNDER HIS OWN

VINE AND FIG TREE

THE UNITY OF ASIA

The cover featured the numeral 7, a reflection of Ali’s penchant for occult and numerological symbols. The front and back encapsulated Noble Drew Ali’s philosophy: that all people mistakenly labeled black, Negro, or colored were, in fact, “Asiatic” or Moorish–Americans whose natural form of worship was found in a monotheistic mystical Eastern faith that he called Islam. To Noble Drew Ali, Islam meant an unspoiled esoteric religion that extolled the holiness of Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Noble Drew Ali himself. Jesus in particular, Fauset noted, “figures prominently” in his secretive text—a fact that may have helped Moorish Science appear reassuringly familiar to Southern migrants raised within the Baptist Church. It was not until many years later that outsiders finally detected the actual contents of the long-concealed holy book.

Its forty-eight chapters—packed into sixty-four tightly set pages—contained a dramatic narrative of the “lost years” of Jesus. It depicted the young carpenter as a great seeker of wisdom, traversing Tibet, India, and Egypt in search of self-knowledge and universal truth. The portrait of Jesus as a master adept or great initiate occurred frequently in occult and mystical literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And in this instance, the depiction was one that Noble Drew Ali lifted nearly word for word from sections of a 1908 work that would go on to become a New Age classic. It was The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ by “Levi,” actually Levi H. Dowling of Ohio, a former Civil War chaplain, homeopathic healer, publisher of Sunday-school materials, and progressive Church of Christ pastor. Dowling, “the messenger,” psychically received his epic of Jesus’s “lost years” through contact with the “Akashic Records,” an ethereal hall of records that figured prominently in modern occultism and about which more will be heard. Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel was, in its way, the most ambitious and endearing of all self-generated literature about the life of Christ. It had a moral heart and message of universality in which all religions were part of a great wide table. In the hands of Noble Drew Ali, it became repurposed—and uncredited—as the prime narrative of the so-called Circle 7 Koran.

Portions of the Circle 7 Koran not copied from Dowling amounted to lessons in good living—fundamentals of self-sufficiency and moral conduct that later resurfaced in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and other black-nationalist groups. Many of these passages were borrowed from a peculiar “ancient” wisdom book published in 1925 through the San Jose, California-based Rosicrucian group Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, or AMORC. The book was called Unto Thee I Grant. AMORC billed it as the “Secret Teachings of Tibet,” a land that assumed Oz-like proportions in the minds of early-twentieth-century occultists. The Rosicrucian publishers ultimately credited the work to manuscripts written by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV around 1360 to 1350 B.C., an association that must have attracted their fellow Egyptophile Noble Drew Ali.

In actuality, Unto Thee I Grant was copied not from pharaonic manuscripts but from an eighteenth-century English instructional guide to manners and morals. It first appeared in 1750 under the title The Economy of Human Life. The book of moral aphorisms had always been intended to provoke intrigue. Attributed by its English publishers to nameless sources, The Economy of Human Life was mystical in conceit: TRANSLATED FROM AN INDIAN MANUSCRIPT WRITTEN BY AN ANCIENT BRAHMIN, read its title page. But it was distinctly bourgeois and Anglican in tone and content. Alternately rumored to be the work of Lord Chesterfield or an English bibliophile named Robert Dodsley, the book appeared in expanded versions over time, including from a Scottish press in 1785, which is one of the earliest editions in general circulation. The question of who wrote The Economy of Human Life—and who added to it along the way—provoked a literary debate in nineteenth-century Britain, culminating in an ultimately inconclusive work of sleuthing in 1854 by one “W. Cramp” in the adventurously titled journal Notes and Queries.

As with the Levi passages, Noble Drew Ali simply recast the Anglican text with a mystico-Eastern tinge:

From the creatures of God let man learn wisdom, and apply to himself the instruction they give. (The Economy of Human Life, 1785)

From the secrets of Allah let man learn wisdom, and apply to himself the instruction they give. (Circle 7 Koran, 1927)

Never one to be cut out of the action, the redoubtable L. W. de Laurence produced his own version of this “ancient Piece of Eastern Instruction” under the title Infinite Wisdom. He advertised it inside the prominent African–American newspaper Chicago Defender. Such notices almost certainly would have caught the attention of de Laurence’s fellow Chicagoan Noble Drew Ali.

Astoundingly, this pseudo-Eastern British work of the mid-eighteenth century, which later morphed into pseudo-Egyptian versions in the hands of AMORC and de Laurence, became the moral template for Moorish Science and other urban religio-political sects that followed in its steps. Indeed, a veritable who’s who of early black-power figures joined or came in close contact with Moorish Science in the 1920s, including the elusive ideological architect of the Nation of Islam, Wallace D. Fard; the Nation of Islam’s preeminent early leader, Elijah Muhammad; and the self-declared God incarnate and spiritual teacher called Father Divine.

But before pounding a gavel of judgment on the matter, a pause is in order. It is too easy in the present day to cast terms like plagiarist in the direction of figures like L. W. de Laurence or Noble Drew Ali. In fact, many surviving religious texts stretching back to an unfathomable oral tradition have been redacted, recast, rewritten, and co-opted, ever since the great Egyptian god of learning, Thoth, was remade literally millennia later as the wing-footed Mercury of the Romans. The Caesars of Rome routinely adopted the gods and deities of those lands they conquered. Scholars observe that the Hebrews almost certainly drew upon the cultic ideas of the once-powerful desert worshippers of Baal. The early Christians clearly adapted the winter solstice and sun-worshipping festivals of the polytheists they overcame. Religious ideas travel. It is only due to the nature of twenty-first-century record-keeping that we sometimes get to see the trail. Contemporary religious innovators have no more or less innocence than those who went before them; rather, it is only our understanding of how religions get made that has changed. Laws, it has been famously observed, are like sausages: One should never watch their creation. The same could be said of religions.

“Not Even His Publisher Knows His Identity”

Marcus Garvey’s influence inspired an unusual depth of emotion in followers—and reached people from vastly different walks of life. In the early 1920s, an erudite mathematician and cosmological philosopher, Robert T. Browne, fell under the Garvey spell. “This same Marcus Garvey,” wrote Browne in Garvey’s Negro World newspaper in June 1922, “divinely inspired, heaven-sent and God-directed, formed the U.N.I.A., which is, with but one exception, the greatest spiritual force that has ever swayed the minds of men since the world began.” To Browne, the one and only force greater than Garvey’s organization was “the religion of Jesus Christ.” But this was no starry-eyed believer in the Garvey gospel. Browne was a figure worthy of an accolade too often given but, in his case, uniquely deserved: a man ahead of his time. He was among the nation’s first black esoteric philosophers and a person whose life would touch and change the fortunes of people around him.

Born in Texas in 1882, Browne attended the all-black Samuel Huston College and became a high school teacher. By his early thirties he’d ventured to Harlem, where he befriended the influential bibliophile and Freemason Arthur A. Schomburg. The two collaborated on exhibitions of Afro–American books and cultural artifacts, and Browne became president of the Negro Library Association. For several years, he had been nurturing an interest in the color-blind philosophy of “higher mathematics.” Attracted by the Theosophical Society’s commitment to universal brotherhood and religious diversity, Browne became a member in 1915.

Regardless of his growing reputation, he felt embarrassingly compelled to conceal his background from publishers E. P. Dutton when they issued his 1919 treatise, The Mystery of Space. The writer feared that no critic or editor would take seriously a black metaphysician. Schomburg, in a personal letter marked confidential, informed a colleague, “Browne doesn’t want to be advertised, not even his publisher knows his identity.”

Browne’s book—an inquiry into hyperspace, mathematical theory, and unseen dimensions—would today be called “new science” or “quantum theory.” In it, Browne posited that matter and space are products of the one truly limitless resource: the human mind. He surveyed ideas from Egyptian geometry to the thought of Kant to argue that mind is the ultimate reality. On March 14, 1920, New York Times critic Benjamin De Casseres, in a sometimes irritatingly self-regarding review that probably failed to attract many readers to Browne’s book, called it “the greatest of all latter-day books on space,” a work by “a mathematician, a mystic and a thinker, one who, endowed with a tremendous metaphysical imagination, never lets go any point of the threads of reality.”

The same Robert T. Browne would later earn the loving gratitude of his fellow inmates in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II when he used metaphysical visualization techniques, similar to those preached by Garvey, to keep them from starvation in a tropical prison. Browne worked as a purchasing agent for the U.S. Army in the Philippines. After Japan invaded in late 1941, Browne was rounded up with thousands of other Americans living in the islands and thrown into the infamous internment camps, first at Santo Tomas and later at Los Baños. Unspoken Japanese policy was to allow prisoners to slowly starve to death. While inmates were free to go about their daily business fairly unimpeded, they were given threadbare provisions and left to care for themselves on whatever they could barter, grow, or manage to purchase from the world outside. As the war dragged on, malnutrition and starvation set in. Similar to the withering physical decline of most prisoners, Browne dropped from a robust 212 to 120 pounds.

For everyone, food became an obsession, and Browne sought to help fellow inmates with the one tool he had to offer: training in mind-power techniques and other “Esoteric Christian” methods. “See the orange and taste it,” taught Browne. “Feel its nutrients going into your body and making you stronger.” He instructed internees to collect recipes wherever they could find them and to concentrate on the individual ingredients, using their mind as a nourishing force.

According to historian Christopher Paul Moore in his remarkable recovery of Browne’s history in Fighting for America: Black Soldiers—the Unsung Heroes of World War II, the mystic philosopher became the unlikeliest of prison heroes.

Of all the courses and lectures taught by the teachers among the internees, none seems to have had more impact on the camp’s population than Browne’s mind-power techniques.… Browne’s philosophy spread throughout the camp and may have actually helped defer or at least delay some of the intense psychological pain associated with malnutrition and starvation. The visualization technique became a camp phenomenon.

In February 1945, Browne and more than two thousand prisoners were liberated from Los Baños in a historic airborne raid. He returned home to the United States and was welcomed by New York’s African–American Amsterdam News on August 11 as a “famous mathematician, philosopher and author” who had survived Japanese imprisonment for three years until he and his fellow prisoners were “miraculously rescued” by paratroopers. Aside from an allusion to Browne lecturing internees on “Oriental Philosophy” and “the newer physics,” no mention was made of those miracles rendered by Browne himself in the jungle camp.

Although Browne had briefly edited one of Garvey’s newspapers, he was largely unknown in either the white or black press. But he remained a man on the move. In 1950, he and his wife, Cecilia, founded the Hermetic Society for World Service, a Theosophical-influenced religious order claiming guidance by the same Masters who had taught Blavatsky and Olcott. Browne died in 1978, but his Hermetic Society still has members in the United States and Latin America—it is headquartered in the Dominican Republic, where Browne had established a branch in 1970. Foremost in the order’s founding statement, Browne called for “the protection of America, designated as the Grail in which will manifest the Great Cosmic Light which is destined to Illumine the whole world.”

“Our beloved America,” Browne wrote, is “the Future Holy Land” from which world enlightenment would arise. Until the very end, Robert T. Browne—a man born not twenty years after the end of slavery, a mystic whose cosmological work was quickly celebrated and just as quickly forgotten—was still defending his vision of America, a harsh, magical land filled with limitless hope.

* Scholars generally attribute the greater retention of African religious traditions in the Caribbean and Latin America to the greater ratio of blacks to whites on comparatively vast plantations, as well as to the continual influx of new slaves. In America, by contrast, plantations were smaller, black-to-white ratios less, and by the start of the Civil War most North American slaves were native born. “In North America,” writes historian Albert J. Raboteau in his classic Slave Religion, “a relatively small number of Africans found themselves enslaved amid a rapidly increasing native-born population whose memories of the African past grew fainter with each passing generation.”

* The law was later narrowed to target con artists who tailor predictions to cheat believers out of large sums of money, rather than storefront palm readers or psychics.

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