The word conjurer is often used to describe someone in African religion who possesses unusual powers of discernment based on the manipulation of objects. Although the term is usually applied to men, such as “the conjure man,” it can equally apply to women who have the ability to perform extraordinary deeds.
Often the term is used for someone with power who practices African religion in the Americas. It was a favorite description during the enslavement for a particularly spiritual person who, because of his reflection and meditations, often in the woods or mountains, could foretell the future, heal the sick, cause the lame to walk, and put obstacles in the way of one's enemies. In this regard, the conjurer man was of considerable importance to African societies in the Americas.
Africans in the American South found their link to the ancestors in the special knowledge and ability of the conjurer. In fact, when the Civil War ended, only 15% of the Africans in America were Christians. It took the efforts of white Christians and black African Methodists to evangelize the recently freed populations to make them Christian. Consequently, the African people relied on the spiritual visions and sacred talismans of the conjurer for comfort in the times of sickness, strength in the times of weakness, and hope during the many times of disappointment and hopelessness.
Thus, by virtue of his omnipresence during slave society, conjurers became, in effect, the spiritual leaders of the masses of black people until the increasing numbers of Christian ministers displaced them during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, the conjurer and the preacher were often the same person, suggesting the ability of the older trade to transform itself into the newer one among Africans after the Civil War and into the early 20th century.
In literature and practice, the conjurer is the person who holds the key to ethical, moral, spiritual, and physical well-being in the community. Quite clearly, the conjurer can “fix” situations that might have seemed hopeless to those who were unable to manipulate the spiritual powers. There was no fear in the conjurer because he had conquered all forms of fear, becoming for the ordinary person a character and personality that was sent to correct all faults. In some cases, the masses believed that if you were truly “fixed,” it would take a powerful conjurer, that is, spiritually gifted individual, to heal you.
There has always been a link between the spiritual and the material in African religion, the one flowing into the other so imperceptibly that it is hard to recognize any distinction that makes sense to the average person. The spiritual and the material are not really separate entities, but parts of one massive whole of human experience in African thought. Thus, the conjurer might be thought of as the person who best negotiates the interstices between the extremes of the human condition. In the annals of African American, including Caribbean, history, no one made this negotiation easier and more natural than the conjurer man.



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Further Reading

  • Boyd, V. (2003). Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner.
  • Edkins, D., and Marks, C. (1999). The Power of Pride: Stylemakers and Rulebreakers of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Crown.
  • Hurston, Z. N. (1939). Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
  • Hurston, Z. N. (1994). Tell My Horse. Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York: HarperPerennial.