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Mountain Mama Hoodoo Medicine

Lessons from when John the Conqueror visited the salt plantation in West Virginia reminding - “mama medicine”

Mountain Mama Hoodoo Medicine

Photo by Rafael Barker

Let’s talk Hoodoo. Hoodoo is the inherited and cultivated spiritual (and magical) culture of African-Americans in this country and it is out of necessity practical. We are used to a very western “separation of church and state” existence here in the U.S, but in Africa, the culture and religion are difficult to separate. Christians and Muslims understand and recognize the power of the Orisha, whether they sanction or condone it. The fact is that we, as a people, did not come to this country without culture. We just took what we were given and ran with it as the result: it is a practice rooted in struggle. We plot, we plan, we maneuver, we praise. We suffer, yes Lord, but trouble don’t last always. Right now, we’re in history making troubling times . . .

Reminds me of the time John the Conqueror was called to visit the slaves on a salt plantation in Kanawha County West Virginia. You see, a mighty sickness took over the land, several plantations full of folk came down with the sickness. Well, old Mother Bizzy Body called on John the Conqueror, and he blew through, mixin’ and mingling with the folk. This was a big plantation, and with one or two slaves getting sick a day, worry started setting in. Some got better, but some did not, and the weeping and wailing started to become a daily refrain. With all that sorrow, the slaves started turning on each other. The house slaves decided they would stay up in the big house, keep as much away from the field as possible, and the field slaves said the same about the house. Field slaves and house slaves fighting each other ‘bout the right cure for the sickness. Meanwhile, day in day out, everybody expected to go down in the salt mine - profit over people ain’t nothing new.

Ole John, who everybody knew, but didn’t remember for how long or when they met him, started goin’ all around the plantation tellin’ everyone about how all they all needed was a good dose of “tha mother” (with a side of minding their own business) and all that fussing fighting would stop. “What’s the mother?” They’d ask. The mother is what you need. We all gotta mama. They do the best they can by us. . . and we all need a little mama medicine right now. Do the best we can by ourselves. That’ll get us through. Well, thinkin’ about what they needed, the slaves started making moves. . . finding they own motha. Some used the confusion and ran away. . . loudly mourning their lost friend one day, but gone the next. . . others, mourning they loved ones took time to rest . . . (couldn’t keep track of em all, and the overseer been sick wit da sickness for about three months by then. . . couldn’t get up still), set up a rotation so nobody was missed. Still others used the confusion to start hanging with the blacksmith, learn to make pies, move into different positions and learn different trades.

The thing is. . .John reminded them that when you in the shit, when sickness is raining down, and when we completely out of control of our circumstances, we gotta be our own mama. We gotta give ourselves what we need. Only us know what that is. . .The suffering comes, but we addin’ to it by fightin’ our brother and sister about what they need to do. Feeling helpless and being subject to the suffering rather than plotting, planning, praising and finessing your way through even in sorrow. That’s hoodoo baby. Make it do what it do with what you got... Even death. So, some of the slaves turned to music, others danced and sang the blues.. . . others ran. . . but when they minded they own business, they could give themselves what they needed. Time passed and the sickness passed. Days went into months and things started to get back to normal. The new overseer was as cruel as ever. abies kept being born, while good men and women kept dying for no reason. . . but the slaves remembered the mother. . . Later on, a white lady remembered her nanny tellin’ her durin’ hard times to turn to the motha. . . and that’s how Mother’s Day got started in West Virginia. They say it's ‘cuz an old white lady wanted to honor her mama. . . and that may be true, but we in the tradition know it’s really a lesson from John the Conqueror reminding us of the “mama medicine.” The medicine that you give yourself - so you get what you need in times of strife and sorrow.

We’re going into winter in the second year of this pandemic. If we take our cues from nature, we’ll know that now is a time to rest. A time for shedding our leaves and rejuvenating. If we take our cues from the energy of our world, it’s time, like John the Conqueror told our people. . . to give ourselves “the motha.” To get some rest, eat some good food, laugh, feel good. To plot, plan, and maneuver for the future.

What’s your medicine? For all rest, surely is in order, but what other bits of your business need tending? When we are all going through so much, real self-care, loving on yourself as though you are the most precious thing is what is in order. Finding a way to love ourselves despite our circumstances, regardless of how the wind blows. Love yourself like your mother loves you, and if not your mother, then like you would love your most precious lover or how you would imagine a good mother would love you. The one you don’t want to let go. The one you hold close and dear.

We is all we got.

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