Gullah Geechee folk magic includes hoodoo, charms, hexes, and, of course, haint blue.
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This show is called Haint Blues. Haint Blues are colors. Well, haint blue is really just many shades of light blue. I’ve made it complicated.
But one thing is simple. The most traditional purpose of painting a part of your house haint blue is to keep away ghosts or evil spirits. And — throughout the South for centuries — the most traditional place people paint their house haint blue is the ceiling of the front porch.
Haint blue originated with the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of African slaves brought to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. If you’ve never heard of haint blue before, you certainly know some of the cultural gifts the Gullah-Geechee have bestowed upon American society.
Alright, my name’s Toby Sells. Let’s load up and head out to the Sea Islands. Let’s open our ears to the beautiful music that is the Gullah-Geechee language. Let’s also explore a rich culture that — germane to this show — includes folk magic, hoodoo, conjure doctors, and, of course, haint blue, today on Haint Blues.
In the end, the young man made a heartbreaking decision.
It was one that followed him, even marked him for the rest of his life and, eventually — for good or bad — became his trademark.
The young man grew up in Pin Point, Georgia, a poor, rural African-American community near Savannah. And when he spoke, people could quickly pinpoint his Pin Point roots and you know how kids can be.
The young man grew up speaking Gullah, or sometimes called Geechee in Georgia. It was long thought of as a pidgin English, that back then made the speaker sound uneducated to the well to do. That’s the way the little boy felt, I’m sure.
Gullah or Geechee was the language the little boy spoke at home. But not when he went to school. In fact, he finally and heartbreakingly decided to kind of stop talking at school altogether.
So many years after his decision, here’s what that young man — now and adult — told the New York Times about it, “When I was 16, I was sitting as the only black kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect ... called Geechee. Some people call it Gullah, and people praise it now. But they used to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English,”
"So I learned that, and I just started developing the habit of listening. And it just got to be, I didn't ask questions in college or law school.
“For all those reasons and a few others, I just think that it's more in my nature to listen rather than to ask a bunch of questions. The only reason I could see for asking the questions is to let people know I've got something to ask. That's not a legitimate reason in the Supreme Court of the United States."
That quiet little boy grew up to be the famously quiet U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Estimates put the number of Gullah Geechee people from 250,000 to nearly a million. They are all the direct descendants of West African slaves brought to the U.S. in the 1700s. Most of those slaves were brought specifically to the Sea Islands because they knew one thing — how to grow rice.
In the book called “The Gullah People and Their African Heritage” William Politzer wrote that, “hardly by chance 61 percent of the slaves brought into Charleston between 1749 and 1787 were from rich, rice-growing areas of Africa — Senegal, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Windward Coast. Thats because many of the people had already been slaves in their native land, they were often prepared both in attitude and in rice cultivation along the Carolina coast.”
Every bit of that is just awful.
That modern Gullah Geechee are spread out on a chain of more than 100 barrier and tidal islands, usually separated from the mainland by bays or rivers. Vacationers will likely recognize some of these Folly Island, Hilton Head, Kiawah Island, Tybee Island, Sapelo, or Jeckyll Island.
If you have ever been on vacation there, you’ve seen those tightly knit sweet grass baskets. If not, you’ve probably sung or heard kumbaya at least once. If not, you’ve probably heard the tale of Bre’r rabbit. If you’ve ever experienced any of those things, thank the Gullah Geechee.
Their culture, too, certainly does still include a deep-seeded belief in another plane of existence. There harmful spirits manifest and stalk the living, sometimes to their deaths. Spirits work against the living in romance, work, and sometimes even legal affairs.
But the Gullah Geechee have spiritual weapons — honed over centuries — to combat those evil forces. Some will oversimplify and call these beliefs…superstitions. But to my mind they go well beyond simple warnings against walking under ladders, black cats, or picking up a penny on heads.
Gullah Geeche folk magic and everything it includes is, well, it’s another world entirely.
The Gullah call it the root. It’s a blend of herbalism, spiritualism, and black magic. In other places, it might be called ubia, voodoo, or santeria.
Here’s how Roger Pinckncey describes the root in his book called Blue Roots, African American Folk Magic of the Gullah People.
He writes, “the root itself was a charm, a mojo, or gris-gris as it was known New Orleans. Most roots were cloth sacks the size of a pecan, others were liquids contained in small vials. Roots were administered or removed by a root doctor, a practitoner who, in later years, would go on to wear blue sunglasses and generally took the name of an animal. There was a Dr. Bug, a Dr. Fly, Doctors Crow, Snake, Turtle, and the infamous Dr. Buzzard.”
The faithful believe that with the root, you can access supernatural forces — those on the other side of the plane — to intervene and improve your life or impair the life of someone else.
As a whole, the Gullah-Geechee spiritual tradition is an amalgamation of Christianity, herbalism, and magic. It’s been called conjuration, witchcraft, hoodoo, or rootwork. PInkcnkey says modern-day practitioners fear ridicule or the long arm of the law. With that, they refuse to call themselves anything at all. They simply say, “we help people.”
For a good root, conjurers may use herbs, gunpowder, sulphur, salt, and candle wax. For an evil root, they’ll use animal parts — crow feathers, salamander feet, a black cat’s left thigh bone, and more.
Both good and evil roots may contain goofer dust, or graveyard dirt. Pinckney says if the root is intended for good, the dirt will be collected just before midnight from the grave of a righteous Christian. For evil, that dirt may be collected just after midnight from the grave of a heinous criminal.
Wait. Did that just sound kind of familiar? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, right?
The old witchcraft lady, Minerva. Remember? She worked some kind of magic and helped Jim Williams, the main character, out of a death sentence. To do it, she collected graveyard dirt. In the book, Minerva said the time right before midnight was the time for doing good and the time right after was for doing evil.
I only bring this up because Minerva was inspired by a real Gullah-Geechee root doctor. And the book and the movie was easily the brightest light ever shone on Gullah folk magic. And I’m not sure the book and film got it exactly right.
The book is set in Savannah, Georgia, close to the heart of Gullah Geechee country. But book and film reviews usually call Minerva a voodoo woman, or a voodoo priestess. But the Gullah tradition ain’t really voodoo. It’s hoodoo, or rootwork.
Voodoo is an established religion practiced largely in Africa and Haiti. Hoodoo is a sort of loose system of folk magic with no strict or formal ecclesiastical structure.
So, where’d Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil get that voodoo stuff? Maybe from John Berendt, the book’s author. In the book it, Jim Williams, that main character, says, “If I told you Minerva was a witch doctor or a voodoo priestess, I’d be close. She was the common law wife of Dr. Buzzard, the last great voodoo practitioner in Beaufort County. Whether you know it or not, you are in the heart of voodoo country. This whole coastal area has been loaded with it since the slaves brought voodoo with them from Africa.”
Alright, voodoo, hoodoo. They are close and they rhyme. And I’m not claiming to be an expert on this stuff.
Berendt did get plenty right. He called Dr. Buzzard the king of the low country root doctors. And Minerva, or the character she’s based upon anyway, really was Dr. Buzzard’s wife and she carried on his practice after he died.
The Savannah Morning News said Valerie Fennel Aiken was the basis for the book’s character, Minerva. In what you might expect, not much is known about her. She barely even let herself be photographed — only once for a movie promo and another for a story in Time magazine. She was afraid photographs would open her up to hexes. Aiken died in a South Carolina hospital in 2009. The cause of death was not given to the press and her age was not known.
Alright, what about that Dr. Buzzard? Pinkcney calls him the “master of the shadow world.” Though, not much is known about him, either. Certainly not the location of his final burial ground. Why not? Pinkcney said “a finger or a toe bone from the famous Dr. Buzzard would be a priceless relic with enormous spiritual power.”
But his real name is known, Stephany Robinson. Described in 1943, “the elderly man might have been mistaken for a bishop in the AME church. He was tall, slightly bowed, benign of expression, and soberly dressed in quality black.”
But the man had a nationwide clientele of thousands. Dr. Buzzard was said to have been a courtroom specialist with the ability to tip the scales of justice with spells, hexes, and roots. He would also dispense advice, predict lottery numbers, and control spirits.
These beliefs are potent in the Sea Islands and even “govern the lives” of the Gullah-Geechee, Politzer wrote. Charms are worn by most to ward off evil spirits. Pennies are nailed to the doorstep for good luck. The left eye jumping means bad news. The right eye jumping means good news. A hooting owl means someone is going to die. Every itch has a magic meaning.
Witches and hags are the disembodied spirts of an old woman. They are more feared than ghosts, especially if they hold a grudge.
And ghosts inhabit the living world in the in the form of animals or dwarves. Along the Sea Islands, you’ll here of beasts like boo-hags, boo-daddies, dolls, and conjure horses. Then, theres the plat-eye, of course, a hideous and greatly feared one-eyed ghost. Plat eye is also said to be a mythical monster with glowing red eyes.
So, what about haint blue? Consider it another one of those spiritual weapons.
Haint blue is really many shades of lighter blues — think of robin’s egg blue all the way to almost a deep turquoise. But those colors don’t just get to be haint blue.
The baby’s room is not haint blue, for example. The color only gets the distinction if it’s painted outside on doors, or window trim, or, more commonly, the ceiling of a front porch.
Now, haint is a word I grew up with in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It was a old-timers word for ghost. But the word also has a tradition in the Lowcountry. Somewhere along the way, the word haint met up with some Gullah folk magic, survived for generations, and made its way onto the shelves of Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore and into the pages of The Washington Post style section.
Coastal plantations used to make indigo dye. Planters gave the dregs from the boiling pot to their slaves. They used it to decorate window framed and porch posts in the belief that the color kept the plentiful spirts at bay.
When plantations stop growing indigo, Gullah slaves continued the tradition using blue paint.
But why did the Gullah believed that that blue color would keep out harmful spirits? The most common idea is that the blue color resembled water and that water creates a divide between the spirit world and the living world.
Others have said haints would mistake the color with the sky and pass right through the porch ceiling. Either way, the color outside the home protected the homeowner from being taken or influenced by haints.
Designers nowadays say that haint blue does more than keep away evil spirts. Some have said they’ve heard it called “dirt dauber blue” because the color keeps stinging insects from building nests on porches. Others say the color is just bright and helps a porch hold onto sunlight as the day fades.
But whatever the attraction, haint blue is mainstream.
Hannah Yeo, the color and design expert for Benjamin Moore, told the Washington Post in 2017, that “blue porch ceilings have been a long-standing tradition in many parts of the Southern states for centuries. The tradition has made its way beyond the South and is influencing design across the country.”
Yeo said her picks for haint blue from Benjamin Moore included, arctic blue, clear skies, and harbor haze.
Sherwin Williams has an entire page devoted to haint blue on its website. There, the company says haint blue can be anything from the palest of powder blues to coral and even gray. From its line, the company suggests haint blue colors of hazel, atmospheric, and pool blue.
If you want to see if a haint blue might work for your house, head on over to slideshows by Southern Living and Garden and Gun, the undisputed arbiters of Southern taste (depending on what generation you’re talking to, of course).
If you want to drink Haint Blue, head down to historic downtown Mobile, Alabama. There, you’ll find Haint Blue Brewing Co. They’ve got an IPA called Sweet Lunacy and it looks delicious. So, if anybody’s passing through Alabama anytime soon, pick me up a six pack of something. I’ll pay you back.
I learned about haint blue on one of many visits to the South Carolina Lowcountry. The hint of research I did at the time told me that the color — painted that way — held spirits at bay and that it was generally a Southern tradition. Well, as I hope you know by now, strange tales and the American South are my peanut butter and jelly, my biscuits and gravy, my Coke and peanuts.
So, when my wife and I renovated our house a few years ago, I really only wanted one thing from the paint department. And, since then, our front porch ceiling has been a beautiful shade of robin’s egg blue — a shade of haint blue — and nary a haint nor evil spirit has crossed our threshold since.
Alright, thank you loading up and heading out with me today. Holler back at me here in two weeks for more Haint Blues.