The processes and methods of a culture’s ability to survive in a hostile environment is the essence of an African centered analysis. Marimba Ani (formerly Dona Richards) in the article “The Implications of African-American Spirituality”, proclaims, “I shall maintain that Africa survived the middle passage, the slave experience and other trials in America because of the depth and strength of African spirituality and humanism. The spirituality allowed the survival of African-Americans as a distinctive cultural entity in New Europe.” This sentiment is in stark contrast to the belief that Africans were tabula rasa (a blank slate) when encountered by Europeans and therefore needed to be taught culture and were in effect not quite human. However, since Africans were forcefully brought to the shores of the Americas, it is clear they had a firm grip and keen understanding of their culture and the power of their spiritual belief through the phenomenon known as conjure.
The word conjure is not limited to any particular religious belief. Instead, conjure has been known to encompass everything from the practice of Voodoo, to Spiritual Churches and includes innocuous day-to-day individual efforts to control and manipulate the immediate environment. Theophus Smith argues that conjure is a metaphor for the “ritual, figural and therapeutic transformations of culture”; or more simply, conjure is a method of communication, using symbols and symbolic phenomena to interpret, understand and shape the physical and spiritual world. Further, conjure can be employed as a pharmacopoeic agent as well as a mode of prophecy to help predict or control future events. In other words, conjure is an African method of spiritual agency.
Popular understandings of conjure focus almost exclusively on the practice of Voodoo in New Orleans and/or Haiti. However, conjure as a spiritual system encompasses much more than a folksy superstition and can be traced to a variety of belief systems indigenous to the continent of Africa. Moreover, it is a belief system that is practiced in the home, where people (particularly women) use specific items (animal bones, human hair, bottles, crucifixes, and certain metals) combined with distinctive words and gestures for a desired response or outcome. These responses or outcomes are not always as grandiose as prophecy, many times it may include something as trivial as re-growing hair for balding men, being able to get a love interest to take notice or some extra luck at the local gambling establishment. The point of conjure is to make the spiritual world work for you and to form a symbiotic bond with the unseen world.
Historically, the connection between conjure practices and the rituals of mainstream religious belief (Christianity and/or Islam) is undeniable among African Americans. Those forced across the Atlantic brought their beliefs with them and many times maintained knowledge and practice of traditional belief systems by cloaking them behind a veil of Christianity or Islam. This was done because open practice of traditional African belief systems was met by a vicious effort to convert the enslaved. Conversion was nothing less than a mandate to violently strip African peoples of any visages of their culture in an effort to create more docile and manageable individuals who capitulated to authority. However, this effort was quite unsuccessful as African Americans have maintained their beliefs and allowed them to evolve despite the attempts to suppress the African spirit. Albert Raboteau supports: “despite discontinuity and innovation the fundamental religious perspectives of Africa have continued to orient the lives of the descendants of slaves in the New World.”
In order to retain their culture and humanity, enslaved Africans wove their beliefs into the tapestry of their oppressor’s religion as a mode of survival. Africans caught practicing their religions or speaking their language, were many times met with violence. Violence, for European enslavers and settlers, was primarily a method of conversion and control. Despite this, however, Africans created amalgamated religious systems, which synthesized the beliefs of their foremothers and fathers, the philosophies of their enslaved comrades from other African nations and the dogmas of their oppressors in order to simply survive the violent conversion experience. As a result, what exists now in many conjure traditions is a language of religious belief that is thick with complexity.
Further, conjure traditions took on many different forms. Participants use dance, food, songs, masks and spells as methods to communicate with the ethereal world. Some conjure traditions such as Rumba focus on conjuration through dance. Whereas, certain Vodun traditions serve particular deities whom had individual necessities that had to be met before they would act on behalf of an individual or community. Charles Long discusses another type of conjure within his outline of cargo cults in the Americas. In these cults, particular items had to be procured to build and maintain a sense of power. Specifically, cargo cults acquired items from Europeans believing they had certain power that came from the ancestors. Regardless of the specific lineage of a particular tradition, conjure, as a cultural phenomenon, is a dynamic and ever evolving method of spiritual communication that is not restricted to a monolithic approach. As well it is a tool that is used in tandem with other religious beliefs, not only for subterfuge, but to increase the power or effectiveness of the belief.
As African people were being torn from their land and families, culture was all there was to sustain them. More specifically, language, the foundation of all human culture, survived the process of enslavement. This is not an argument for Ebonics (although that perspective is valid), instead, I submit that conjure is a language that allows Africans to communicate amongst themselves as well as the natural and supernatural worlds. This form of communication can be verbal as well as nonverbal (where the body, through dance, gestures and postures communicates certain ideas and/or moods) and ethnically unique from group to group. Further, as a language it has a syntax and vocabulary that has evolved through the experiences of African people and has taken on a variety of forms that support African practitioners in their particular environment. The following series of essays will analyze and discuss different forms of conjure that have grown from West African traditions, through Haiti and New Orleans, to modern day manifestations in North American urban centers.
 Dona Richards (Marimba Ani). “The Implications of African-American Spirituality.” African Culture: Rhythms of Unity. (African World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1996), 207.
 Theophus Smith. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 4.
 Albert J. Raboteau. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” and the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 75.
 Claude F. Jacobs and Andrew J. Kaslow. Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: Origins, Beliefs and Rituals of an African-American Religion. (The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, 2001), 11.
 Melville J. Herskovits. The Myth of the Negro Past. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
 Albert J. Raboteau. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” and the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 67.
 Ibid., 42.
 Janheinz Jahn. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 62.
 Karen McCarthy Brown. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
 Charles Long. Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. (Davies Publishing Group: Colorado, 1995), 125-137.
 Ibid., 128-129. This does not suggest that Africans understood or viewed Europeans as deities. Instead, it is congruent with the fact that people (particularly people of color) loose much of their pigment upon death. It is a natural biological process of the cessation of the movement of blood in the body, which causes skin to become pale. Moreover, the coming of the Europeans was seen as a process of renewal. However, Long understands this phenomena as an expectation of the Africans that was never met by Europeans. He states, “The beliefs of the Westerners insofar as they speak of the sacred seem hypocritical, for not only do they not fulfill the structure of expectations related to cosmic renewal but they also fail in the minds of the indigenous people to live up to the new strange beliefs that they teach.”
 Molefi Asante. “The African Essence in African-American Language.” African Culture: Rhythms of Unity. (African World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1996), 233.