In the wake of the racially fueled Civil War, a distinct interest in the cultures of the formerly enslaved peoples came to the fore of American interest. As the boundaries of race relations began to shift, a general lack of knowledge and fear drove these investigations into the voodoo culture, as, perhaps, a way to understand the formerly enslaved. This trend helps to explain the wide-scale commercial popularity of the 1899 volume The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales by Charles W. Chesnutt. This volume, reprinted to this day, presents lively and colorful tales of voodoo magic on plantations in the South. But this collection of works does not stand alone in addressing this subject matter. It would appear that Joseph J. Williams, whose collection is housed at the John J. Burns Library, appears to have had quite a fascination with the concept of voodoo spiritualism and magic. The Williams Collection is full of intriguingly obscure tomes dedicated to subjects ranging from superstitions of various cultures to the culture and political landscape of Jamaica. In addition, the collection houses some books which Williams himself wrote, showcasing the extent to which he took these subjects seriously.
Pertaining to Voodoo, Williams published a book in 1932 titled Voodoos and Obeahs, a testament to his interest in the mounting social discourse. In it, he claims to be writing in an effort to dispel popular misconceptions about the Voodoo religion which had developed in America. His aim is to trace the origins of Voodoo back to Africa and mark how it transitioned from there to the Caribbean via the slave trade. It is his firm belief that in doing so, the true nature of the Voodoo religion can be made clear and the myths surrounding its dark powers could ultimately be dispelled. He marks a clear distinction between Voodoo itself and its derivation of Obeah, which he describes as fraught with dark ritual akin to devil worship. For Williams, Voodoo itself is not the problem, but rather the spiritual form it took after the forced migration of the African peoples via the slave trade.
By analyzing the books held in his collection, it is clear to see the influences which affected his interest in Voodoo. Of particular note is a collection of Voodoo slave narratives which predate the works of Charles W. Chesnutt. The 1893 collection is entitled Voodoo Tales: As Told Among the Negroes of the Southwest by Mary A. Owen, a folklorist of the time. This illustrated volume relays folk tales of the south during the time of slavery. It reads similarly to Grimm’s fairy tales with regard to its contents, which range from humorous to grotesque. Its clear depiction of the folktales surrounding Voodoo would have proved sufficient fodder for the interests of Williams, particularly when coupled with future publications like that of Chesnutt. Of interest, however, is the publication history of this text. Voodoo Tales is not actually the first publication of this text, but, rather, another version, titled Old Rabbit, The Voodoo, and Other Sorcerers, appeared in London earlier in the same year. The text itself is the same and serves as the true first edition of this text. Both versions of the text can be found in the Burns Archive.
One final text which may provide some insight into the life and interests of Williams is titled Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery by Ottobah Cugoano. Addressed to the British public and published in 1787, the early work in the fight against slavery passionately argues against the institution of slavery, the same institution which would, in Williams’s view, corrupt Voodoo into the caricature of dark superstition that it would become in the mind of the American public.
Taking into consideration the vast amounts of texts on the subject of superstition, the transatlantic movement of slaves, and the study of Religions in the Williams collection, it becomes far easier to make sense of the complicated works of Williams himself and paints a picture of the man he was.
- Zach Weinsteiger, BC M.A. ’15, and former Burns Library Reading Room Assistant