How Black Horror Became America’s Most Powerful Cinematic Genre

Similarly, conjuration stories, which show Black figures with the magic to transfigure and empower or enervate others, could serve both as charming tales and as potent allegories of how older African belief systems could, in theory, “defeat” the horror of America’s white supremacist systems. Conjure men and women — people who knew ancient African magic and could work this magic, or goopher, as it was sometimes called — might be slaves who practiced their bewitching roots in secret, or freed or escaped persons who lived in isolated areas that offered them some protection from prying white plantation owners, or simply Black Americans who had kept the traditions alive into the modern day. The magical systems evoked in much of this folklore, like obeah, have their roots in African religious and spiritual practices. Their sorcery can transfigure people and things, bestow good or bad luck, heal or hurt — or even offer protection from danger. In such stories, you might encounter the soucouyant, a witch woman who sheds her skin and flies through the night as a flaming ball to find the blood of children to drink, and who can be stopped only if you pour grains of rice or salt in her path, or put salt or pepper on her molted skin, guaranteeing her annihilation at dawn. Likewise, one might run into haints, phantasmagorical flaming skulls, duppies, lycanthropic loups-garous and more. At their core, so many of these tales are about survival. And because the white slave owners rarely appeared to understand the language or practices of obeah, Voodoo and other African traditions, conjure men and women quickly became icons of subversion, Black figures who had the ability to bring the whites to their knees, like the conjure woman Sapphira Wade in Gloria Naylor’s novel “Mama Day” (1988), whose legendary magic brings down a slave owner. If knowledge of these old arts represented a power the white colonists couldn’t understand, then keeping these memories alive was a way of keeping yourself alive: folklore as fortress, memory as magic. The stories were talismanic, serving as warnings to live with caution, ever cognizant of the fact that frightening things — be they wicked spirits or white slave owners — might have their eyes on you.

Of course, there was another reason to tell some of these tales: to invoke possibly the most remarkable specter of all, freedom. Perhaps the best known of the stories in this African American folkloric tradition are about flying. “Once all Africans could fly like birds,” begins a version relayed by a man named Caesar Grant of Johns Island, S.C., to the author John Bennett, “but owing to their many transgressions, their wings were taken away.” All people from Africa, including slaves brought to the Americas, can still soar the skies, though, if they remember the magic words — words the white colonists find indecipherable. Utter them, as the slaves do in the story, and you’ll lift off into the clouds, free from the earth’s tribulations. Here, hope, indeed, has become the thing with wings. Remember, the message seems to be, and you, too, may be liberated.