Bringing The Hoodoo Down On John Doe
When the matter of my initiation came up she said, "In
order for you to reach the spirit somebody has got to suffer.
I'll suffer for you because I'm strong. It might be the death
It was in October 1928, when I was a pupil of Miss Kitty's,
that I shared in a hoodoo dance. This was not a pleasure dance,
but ceremonial. In another generation Affican dances were
held in Congo Square, now Beauregard Square. Those were held
for social purposes and were of the same type as the fire
dances and jumping dances of the present in the Bahamas. But
the hoodoo dance is done for a specific purpose. It is always
a case of death-to-the-enemy that calls forth a dance. They
are very rare even in New Orleans now, even within the most
inner circle, and no layman ever participates, nor has ever
been allowed to witness such a ceremony.
This is how the dance came to be held. I sat with my teacher
in her front room as the various cases were disposed of. It
was my business to assist wherever possible, such as running
errands for materials or verifying addresses; locating materials
in the various drawers and cabinets, undressing and handling
patients, writing out formulas as they were dictated, and
finally making "hands"! At last, of course, I could
do all of the work while she looked on and made corrections
This particular day, a little before noon, came Rachael Roe.
She was dry with anger, hate, outraged confidence and desire
for revenge. John Doe had made violent love to her; had lain
in her bed and bosom for the last three years; had received
of Rachael everything material and emotional a woman can give.
They had both worked and saved and had contributed to a joint
savings account. Now, only the day before yesterday, he had
married another. He had lured a young and pretty girl to his
bed with Rachael's earnings; yes. Had set up housekeeping
with Rachael's sweat and blood. She had gone to him and he
had laughed at his former sweetheart, yes. The police could
do nothing' no. The bank was sorry, but they could do nothing,
no. SO Rachael had come to Kitty.
Did she still love her John Doe? Perhaps; she didn't know.
If he would return to her she should strive to forget, but
she was certain he'd not return. How could he? But if he were
dead she could smile again, yes - could go back to her work
and save some more money, yes. Perhaps she might even meet
a man who could restore her confidence in menfolk.
Kitty appraised her quickly. "A dance could be held for
him that would carry him away right now, but they cost something."
“How much?" "A whole lot. How much kin you
bring me.” "I got 37 dollars." “Dat
ain't enough. Got to pay de dancers and set de table."
One hundred dollars was agreed upon. It was paid by seven
o'clock that same night. We were kept very busy, for the dance
was set from ten to one the next day, those being bad hours.
I ran to certain addresses to assemble a sort of college of
bishops to be present and participate. The table was set with
cake, wine, roast duck and barbecued goat.
By nine-thirty the next morning the other five participants
were there and had dressed for the dance. A dispute arose
about me. Some felt I had not gone far enough to dance. I
could wait upon the altar, but not take the floor. Finally
I was allowed to dance, as a delegate for my master who had
a troublesome case of neuritis. The food was being finished
off in the kitchen.
Promptly on the stroke of ten Death mounted his black draped
throne and assumed his regal crown, Death being represented
by a rudely carved wooden statue, bust length. A box was draped
in black sateen and Kitty placed him upon it and set his red
crown on. She hobbled back to her seat. I had the petition
and the name of the man written on seven slips of paper -
one for each participant. I was told to stick them in Death's
grinning mouth. I did so, so that the end of each slip protruded.
At the command I up-ended nine black tapers that had been
dressed by a bath in whiskey and bad vinegar, and bit off
the butt end to light, calling upon Death to take notice.
As I had been instructed, I said: "Spirit of Death, take
notice I am fixing your candles for you. I want you to hear
me." I said this three times and the assembly gave three
snaps with the thumb and middle finger. The candles were set
upside down and lighted on the altar, three to the left of
Death, three to the right, and three before him.
We were to dance three hours, and the time was divided equally,
so that the more participants the less time each was called
upon to dance. There were six of us, since Kitty could not
actively participate, so that we each had forty minutes to
dance. Plenty of liquor was provided so that when one appeared
exhausted the bottle was pressed to his lips and he danced
on. But the fury of the rhythm more than the stimulant kept
the dancers going. The heel-patting was a perfect drum rhythm,
and the hand clapping had various stimulating breaks. At any
rate no one fell from exhaustion, though I know that even
I, the youngest, could not have danced continuously on an
ordinary dance floor unsupported by a partner for that length
The person danced upon is not supposed to live more than nine
days after the dance. I was very eager to see what would happen
in this case. But five days after the dance John Doe deserted
his bride for the comforting arms of Rachael and she hurried
to Mother Kitty to have the spell removed. She said he complained
of breast pains and she was fearfully afraid for him. So I
was sent to get the beef heart out of the cemetery (which
had been put there as part of the routine), and John and Rachael
made use of the new furniture bought for his bride. I think
he feared that Rachael might have him fixed, so he probably
fled to her as soon as the zest for a new wife had abated.
from Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules & Men