Monday, February 6, 2012

interview with Khi: artist, shaman, hoodoo rootworker (part 2)

As promised, here's part two of the interview with Khi Armand, artist, grad student, rootworker, shaman and about a gazillion other really cool things. In this post Khi talks about his art, nature-based practice in New York City, race and paganism, his spiritual services and a bunch of other stuff. If you missed part one you can read it here.

What made a nature-oriented person such as yourself settle down in New York City?

I grew up here and have always adored the relationship between the concrete and the tar and the more "natural" seeming elements. The earliest part of my life began along the beach in Far Rockaway and when my family moved to Long Island, my life became inundated with all kinds of flora.

When I moved back into the city at the age of 17, I'd picked up Ellen Dugan's Elements of Witchcraft: Natural Magick for Teens and was living just a few blocks away from Tompkin's Square Park. Though I befriended two trees there and performed some of my first spells there, I was attracted to the idea that magick was hidden all throughout the landscape of the city. This was further expounded upon in the specialized nooks of nature that are famously leisurely and enchantedly dangerous. Oases for the humanimals to play their games of whatever sort they might be. The city is totally natural and its pulsing energy (I write as reggae pours through my window) is alive and meaningful.

For people who practice earth-centered religions, what are the advantages and disadvantages of living in such an intensely man-made environment like New York City?

I think that would be subjective - every locale has is ups and downs. Being on overcrowded trains everyday makes me put more emphasis on spiritual cleansing and being surrounded by concrete does mean that it takes effort to get to "nature." But I'm all the more appreciative of ivy growing up in a brownstone and all the more in awe of when a neighborhood decides to start growing its own vegetables.

I'm attracted to the goal of creating a sustainable earth-centered life in the midst of all this. I also think that magick might work quicker - in a city of 8 million people, you could virtually do a love spell in the morning and meet your new partner that night!

When did you open for business, and how is that going so far?

I started Conjure in the City in July, 2010. It's been going great - I had no idea I'd be living this life but it makes so much sense to me, y'know? I'm a contemporary urban medicine person and as I practice, I'm really seeing the lack of good medicine - positive holistic perspectives - in the inner city. Lil Wayne, money-cash-hoes. I saw Arrested Development perform in Brooklyn a few years ago and it was life-changing - they are GOOD audio medicine. I'm surrounded by shops that sell bogus synthetic oils and washes and perfumes - no herbs or anything from the earth. People buy the stuff, but it's not natural, and being surrounded primarily by brown people like myself, it's certainly not ours.

I'd ultimately like to connect more with the communities around me and other healers here and be part of a revival of traditional practices. I was also recently accepted into the Association of Independent Readers & Rootworkers and am on the Board of Directors for Crossroads University which is dedicated to the preservation of indigenous healing systems, herbal pharmacopoeia, and folk magic traditions found in the Southern United States.

Let's talk about your art. Would you care to say a few words about what you're working on now, and how your spirituality informs your art and vice versa?

I'm currently the Character Development Specialist on an indie film that explores the impact of abuse on a person's psyche and the ways in which fate brings us people who become "chosen family" and help the healing to begin. I'm also working on a project with Michael Twitty who's been tracing his genealogy in part by visiting the plantations his ancestors toiled upon and making recipes from antebellum cookbooks to trace black lineage through food. You can check out his blog here. He's doing some deeply spiritual work.

As a solo artist and playwright, much of my work reconciles ancestral voices with modern globalized times through spoken word, poetry, prose, music, and video. The Last Stop Between Us, a play I wrote and directed during undergrad, required a trip to Pine Ridge Reservation for my research on the Wounded Knee Massacre, Lakota culture, and indigenous third-gender roles.

I made an altar for the prominent and forgotten dead of that place and engaged in a sort of ethnographic necromancy throughout the play's development. Much of my creative process is ritualized and, as a director, I use ritual processes as a tool in fostering good group dynamics and aiding characterization, which can be a lot like aspecting from within. Right now I'm really focused on art tied to community because, really, who are we without others?

How did you first get into facilitating rituals for people?

I led a few Sabbat rituals with friends in my teenage years. They were rockin'. We all kinda glowed afterwards as we'd head off into some land of suburban debauchery and escapism - but we'd do so with greater awareness. I then started leading rituals in undergrad for the Sabbats. Ritual can be transformative and transporting. Ritual scholar Victor Turner talks about ephemeral transformational communities such as the kinds that are found at weeklong festivals as "communitas" and speaks of that time outside of time that is so characteristic of ritual experience as "the liminal." These particular aspects are what first drew me to the power of ritual.

In some of the more Euro-centered pagan traditions, there is this expression that one should not “pay to pray.”  You don’t find the same sentiment among the Afro-Diasporic traditions and it is considered perfectly acceptable to pay for spiritual work. What response do you have to the “don’t pay to pray” people?

Well crikey - spiritual work is hard work! Y'know, it take so many years to cultivate any gift or skill and though I'm eager to share them with others (and do so constantly since these constitute a huge part of my life) I need to eat and be sheltered. I've also been courageous enough to publicly say "I talk to Spirits and do magick professionally" which is still looney bin talk in America today, but I'm telling the truth. I deserve to live well - we all do.

I offer free prayer services and I pray all the time but readings, candles, herbs, the works - these take time, money, and a lot of energy. Not to mention that I've found that people get more out of the work when they at least put a little something in the pot, some form of exchange. But I think this goes back to the physical/spiritual divide. It doesn't exist. It really doesn't.

You describe yourself on the Conjure in the City page as a “shamanic herbalist.” What is that exactly? Also, can you talk a bit about the herbal apprenticeship you did in MA?

Well, I've practiced magick and hoodoo for years but it was when I apprenticed for an herbalist in Western Massachusetts that a whole other dimension of herbalism opened up for me. I began to journey with plants and learn about their perspective and how that perspective can change our own lives when we make allies in the plant world.

Catnip encourages a friendliness between body and spirit and can lessen resistance we have to taking up tasks. It's great for dismantling procrastination and can be imbibed as a tea, tincture, or even smoked. Hawthorn has an effect on the heart that mirrors its medical usage. I've found it to be great in boosting courage to do something even when you don't believe you have the resources to undertake it. "Work with what you have," says Hawthorn. "Start right where you are." In addition to hoodoo rootwork and altar creation, I prescribe work with herbs in this manner to my clients.

What is your view on the use of entheogens in shamanic ritual?

I would not suggest that someone bring entheogens into their shamanic practice at least for a couple of years. It's so important to learn shamanic techniques on one's own before bringing in a heavy dose of outside perspective like that. After three and a half years of performing shamanic journeys, I only recently worked with Flying Ointment and it certainly deepened the experience, but it did so only by building on the work I'd already done to learn how to shift consciousness and travel in the Spirit realm. You really do yourself a disservice by starting with entheogens in ritual practice too early.

I recently attended a shamanic ritual at the yoga studio I go to. The guy was sincere but the whole thing felt kind of weak. I’ve easily felt more energy and had more transformative experiences catching the spirit in the Baptist church, or even just tripping on shrooms in the woods. Do you have any advice on finding a good shaman (or a good rootworker, for that matter)?

Well, Shamanic journeying and ritual are certainly different paths than Rootwork or spirit possession. Building energy with chanting and movement or shifting consciousness with the help of a Plant Spirit Ally are definitely different than the work it takes to journey and retrieve information. I find that achieving this with fully satisfaction takes a bit more of a regular practice. It's definitely not as energized as the other activities you mentioned but it's extremely transformative and rewarding.

Finding a good honest spiritual practitioner doesn't have to be hard, but it really depends on the type you're looking for. I don't know many practitioners who utilize the label "Shaman" and have public practices other than myself and Raven Kaldera, but I know a lot of Spirit-Workers who go by all types of titles. It's all interrelated.

The Association of Independent Readers & Rootworkers is a great place to find a good Rootworker, Psychic, or Spiritual Advisor. Catherine Yronwode of Lucky Mojo Curio Co. has a great page on how to tell genuine spiritual workers in the Hoodoo Conjure tradition from fake ones.

We haven’t talked at all about the issue of racism in the neo-pagan world. One of the reasons I started my own blog was that I was very tired of the non-European experience being left out of the discussion. Black Witch wrote a great post recently on this topic called The Invisibility Cloak: Race and the Pagan. In the pagan blogosphere, one of the exceptions to this invisibility is The Wild Hunt, which regularly includes news about Voudon, Santeria, Hinduism, Native traditions, etc. What are your views/personal experiences regarding this topic? And do you see things changing at all?

I've always appreciated Wildhunt's news about African, African diasporic, Hindu, and Native traditions. Jason seems to be one of the few Pagan voices that I hear trying to reconcile the rift between Neo-Pagan and Reconstructionist traditions and Traditional / Indigenous / Diasporic ones. I'm teaching a workshop in February at  PantheaCon 2012 titled "Earth, Folk, and Kin: Animism and Civil Dissent" that will look at animist religion in relation and response to oppression of all kinds and the unique tools we have as Pagans, starting with our ideals and worldview, to make these connections, become more unified, and battle systems that harm us all and threaten our continued life on this planet.

There are so many factors that go into the issues of racism, discrimination, and Paganism. I remember inquiring about the Pagan club at community college on Long Island and not even being given the time of day by the organizers until I went into a lengthy diatribe about Starhawk (aka my mom) and The Spiral Dance. Then their ears perked up and I was seen. But I'm also looked at strangely when I walk into many of the botanicas around NYC because I'm neither Latino nor of Afro-Caribbean descent.

I think a lot of it comes down to ignorance - many White magickal practitioners still think that Vodun and Santeria are evil because that's what Hollywood and TV show. Rarely does American media highlight the healing practices in these traditions or that that's what they are - communal healing traditions. I know that Denise Alavarado of Planet Voodoo is actively trying to teach people that anyone can honor the Orisha and the Lwa and form a relationship with them and people are amazed that you don't have to be an initiate to get close to these entities, help though it may. And that speaks to the protectiveness of these traditions in their diaspora context, which is understandable but in need of reconsideration. But that's another conversation - not every practitioner or priest is about radical societal transformation or the role their tradition plays in it.

It even comes down to the basic terminology of white magic vs. black magic. If I hear anyone use either of these terms again, I'mma **** and ****. Not only do these conjure racialized and moralistic images of who is practicing the magic, they create a false binary. Magick is manipulation - period. So is changing your outfit before you go out to the club or wearing a certain cologne to a job interview. No white, black, or grey about it. It's a gift.

Use the force!

Monday, January 16, 2012

interview with Khi: artist, shaman, hoodoo rootworker (part 1)

I've gotten several requests to profile a hoodoo practitioner here on, so here it is. I'm very excited to present artist and shaman/hoodoo rootworker Khi Armand, who offers spiritual services through his Brooklyn-based business Conjure in the City. Khi is a very talented, soulful, intelligent -- and busy! -- brotha, and this is a great frickin' interview, so without further ado: 

What is your name, age, what do you do for a living?
My preferred name in this lifetime is Khi Armand. Khi is a riff on "Chiron," the Greek centaur of mythology who provides the Western world with a glimpse of the Wounded Healer archetype. Armand was gifted to me by an actor I was working with in a show I wrote and directed during undergrad. 

I'm 25 years old and am the sole proprietor of Conjure in the City via which I offer services as a Psychic Intuitive, an Urban Shaman, and a Hoodoo Rootworker. I'm also an interdisciplinary artist, am the associate editor of Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly, and am an MA candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.
What is your spiritual path and how did you get into it? What are some of your influences, how long have you been a pagan (if that is how you self-identify)?
I definitely find affinity with the Pagan community and publicly identify as such quite often. I think a more accurate term to describe my spiritual path would be Shamanic, which I consider to be somewhat pre-Pagan, less Eurocentric, and more indicative of my role in this lifetime.

Can you describe the evolution of your spirituality, briefly (for instance, I went from secular>atheist>Christian>dabbled in Rasta>Vedanta/Buddhism>Christian>now pagan eclectic with elements of all the previous).
Evangelical Christian > Christian > Spiritual > Atheist > Spiritual > Wiccan > Eclectic Pagan > Shamanic with numerous elements of Eclectic Paganism. It gets a little tricky because I'm a professional Hoodoo Rootworker who works with a number of different Spirits (including some little known ones from the Unnamed Path, the Shamanic tradition I'm an initiate in). I work with them magickally but the magick is devotion as well. 

I think that modern Paganism as it is known in the West is still hung up on whether or not magick is religion as we are conditioned toward the Christian binary of separating the physical from the spiritual. Magical practice is indeed religious / spiritual - it is communication. Finding out what your needs and wants really are and finding out how to get them met is highly spiritual work that may seem simple at first, but actually brings up so many questions of desire, entitlement, longing, passion, disappointment, and fulfillment. 

Getting laid, having money, reaching for success - these aren't just ego-driven. These are parts of soul work - our desire for them, our paths toward getting them, what we do with them when we have them, and whether or not they are actually fulfilling for us in the long run.

Which gods do you work with/worship/honor? And can you describe some of your practices?

I work first and foremost with my Ancestors. I refresh their altar once a week with fresh water, whiskey, a new candle, and hot sweet coffee. Everything - I mean everything - changed about a month or two after I started honoring my ancestors. If you're looking to be more in the groove of life, if you're looking to increase your intuitive abilities, and you want more support as you move toward your life's purpose, start an Ancestor altar. I can't suggest it highly enough.
In the Unnamed Path, a Men-Who-Love-Men shamanic tradition, I'm an initiated priest of the Dark Goddess. I perform devotions to her regularly and she's a major part of my life. I work with the three other deities of the tradition as well.
I work with Maximon (San Simon), a Guatemalan deity, everyday. He gets a cigarette, fresh water, incense, and a lit candle. Once a week he gets the works - candy, tortillas, etc. He's a badass.
I also work with Elegua, Ogun, and Yemaya of the Orisha tradition and a host of Saints and Spirit Guides. When you're doing this work for a long enough time, you can really cultivate a whole family on the other side. It's kind of out of crazy, but it's really awesome too.

Do you follow the wheel of the year?
LOL, in my heart, yes. It's been a long time since I've celebrated a Sabbat of my own accord, but I fantasize a lot about doing so again. I really like attending public rituals though and I think that when I move into a larger space I might begin to host them again.
How do you incorporate your spirituality into your every day life? For instance, I meditate each morning, I go into the woods at least once a week, I have ritual during the moon cycles, etc. What do you do?
I honor Maximon, pour my heart out to / pray for / pray with my Ancestors, and bathe with spiritual cleansing elements like Uncrossing oil that I've added to my shower gel. I say affirmations, give offerings to different Spirits depending on the day, and anoint myself with oils and intake herbal medicines that correspond to my own goals. I maintain a meditation practice and go to the park as often as possible.
Do you have folks that you circle, practice ritual with? 
I don't right now but I absolutely will very soon. I can feel it coming. With a cat. That's coming soon too.

You do hoodoo magick, both personally and for a living. How is that related/intertwined with your spirituality?
It's all related. It's a life of devotion, paying attention, trusting, and applying my will and intention to my life and the lives of those that come to me for assistance. It's literally my job to remain connected and to combine my craftsmanship with a submission to the answers that I'm being given by my Spirits and the tools I work with. 

Often, when I begin a work, I'm transported into a trance state in which I'm told everything that needs to happen. Next thing I know, candles are burning and things are poppin'! The Spirits are incredible, real, and necessary. I'm working on a mojo hand, a type of talisman, for a client who wants business success, and I'm being told that Angelica Root needs to go in it because she currently lacks the sense of self-empowerment that will be crucial in her reaching this goal. A gay man is looking for love and affection and I'm being told that Mastery Root's perspective is needed here because his head is not in alignment with his heart and he needs to cultivate self-love in this process. Neither of these are correspondences you'll find under the respective headers of financial success or love drawing, but they provide the medicine - the perspective - that is necessary for the situation. I don't know the difference between magick and spirituality - I simply don't.

In your hoodoo work, you help people manifest the things they want in life whether that’s a job, a new relationship, ways of getting unstuck. Can you talk about how you’ve personally benefited from rootwork?

My Spirits urged me to do a spell on myself for peace and calmness a few weeks ago, though I couldn't really understand why. I think it's the main reason I'm surviving the crunch time of finals right now, lol. But yeah, rootwork / magick attracts money and opportunity to me on a regular basis, has unblocked my life when its felt incredibly stuck (you can read an article about that in Issue 3 of Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly) and has been a major part of my healing old emotional wounds. 

I've gotten jobs, apartments, sweetened employers to increase my pay, and more. Hoodoo and magick can be applied to any situation. The trick is to apply the right amount of energy at the right time to the right spot. Like a ninja.
Hoodoo makes use of Christian symbolism. Can you explain how someone can work within this system of magick and not be a Christian?

I know tons of Hoodoos who don't use Christian symbolism. Hoodoo is derived from Congo magick and religion and is not Christian in origin. Colonized people do lots of things to survive and perform their practices with dignity, syncretism not the least of them. Hoodoo spells can be rich in their use of Psalms (which I personally find to be beautiful and powerful incantations) and Christian symbolism, but they also draw on Jewish and American Indian influences. Hoodoo is more characterized by its emphasis on odd numbers, its use of personal concerns and foot track magick, repetition within a spell, and other elements. You can alter your Hoodoo spells to suit your religious practices, no problem. They'll still work. I do and I don't - depends on how I feel and the working I'm doing. I might be a queer shamanic healer but Jesus is still alright with me. Wait -- wasn't he all those things too? ;-)

You mentioned how growing up in the Protestant church you were surrounded by “elements of conjure.” Can you tell me a bit about that, and about how your religious upbringing informs your work and spirituality today?

Oh, the anointing of heads with olive oil, the fervent praying, the speaking in tongues. All of these have carried over into my work today, though now I'm more inclined to use a Crown of Success or Blessing oil blend when anointing someone's head. Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, can be an excellent way to build up power with the voice without having to focus on the words you're saying - you're being guided by Spirit and can focus instead on seeing "those things that be not as though they were." (Romans 4:17)

Is your family accepting of your being pagan?

I think at this point my family is accepting of me being "me." My parents say that they always saw great things for me and I think now they've settled into the fact that the life I'm living now is part of that road. They just didn't think it was going to look this way, I'm sure. They're very proud of me as a person and are incredibly supportive and available.

Is it possible to learn witchcraft from a book or is it necessary to learn from someone personally?

You can learn to be a good magician from books, but it will take many years of fun hard work and trial and error. I'm still learning and will never ever stop. It's a life long journey. Hands-on apprenticing can be an awesome shortcut, but you'll still need to find your own style.

What advice would you have for that kid in Iowa, living in their fundamentalist Christian parents’ home who wants to get into magick or some alternative belief tradition but doesn’t know anybody where he or she lives and needs to keep it a secret?

That's a tricky one - the rebel in me says to learn all you can via the internet and try to cover your tracks, but I don't know what's at stake. For some it could be a small punishment but, for others, it could mean being shipped off to a brainwashing camp. The truth is that the Spirits call who they call and it would be up to this individual to weigh how much they feel the need to learn and participate in Earth-centered practices and be honest. 

Can they wait until adulthood? I was in a similar predicament and I couldn't wait. This was the path for me, I needed it like air, and I hid my witchcraft books under bushes at the local park in grocery bags. I couldn't wait and it cost me - and it was worth it.

That's it for now, and I hope you all enjoyed the reading. Thanks for stopping by, and do come back next week for part two of the interview, in which Khi talks about race and paganism, and the practice of earth-centered religions in urban environments, among other topics. Meanwhile, here's his facebook.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

interview with Black Witch

This week I'm very happy to present the Black Witch, aka Olivia, a 24-year-old librarian-in-training from Baltimore, MD. The original black pagan blogger, Olivia writes the popular Black Witch blog (also located at with corresponding  FacebookTwitter and Ustream Webcast. Ever busy, Black Witch is coming out with an anthology of her blog posts in Februray, so stay tuned to her site for upcoming details. 

Olivia has been a practicing witch since her teen years and her blog contains a lot of insight and wisdom into the Craft. Her most recent post, The Invisibility Cloak: Race and the Pagan, was nothing short of brilliant so you should definitely check that out if you haven't already. Okay, no more delay, here we go:
How and when did you get started in the Craft?
It’s a very long and winding story that’s nearly fit for a B to C-rate movie but the nutshell version is that I started being interested in magick and psionics when I was in middle school, if not younger, and started pursuing the Craft in earnest at around 15 or 16. 
What was your upbringing like in terms of religion?
Just like most Black kids: Christian. My parents weren’t Bible thumpers but they’re pretty firm in their beliefs, especially my mother’s side.
As a child, did you notice that you had psychic abilities? If so, was there any channel for them, a way you could develop and talk about them?
Did I ever! That’s also part of the long and winding story but a nutshell version of that is that I always had weird or odd things happening to me but once I was informed that, hey, this is devil worship, I got temporarily scared out of it until I came to my senses and slowly started practicing again, doing energy manipulation, telekinesis – that mention always cocks eyebrows – etc etc. I have gotten mad rusty, I can’t even move a pin without headache! I do want to get back into it though. I learned to do it, also kind of harness and learn more about myself as well, through meditation and study. 

Plus, I found through some digging some message boards of people who practiced and felt the same that I did and I would say that did help a lot because mention psionics to the average person and they’ll think you watched too much X-Men growing up.
How would you label your path (are you Wiccan, eclectic, etc.?)
I’m a Pagan Witch, plain and simple. Although, I can bet good money someone will call me Wiccan after I thoroughly explain myself, has called me Black Wiccan and not Black Witch, or will simply assume that I am an active practitioner of Wicca. If not Voudon. I should know because all of the above has happened before and it’s a little vexing because it’s like, “literacy, do you understand it?”
I like your blog because it really focuses on the nuts and bolts of magick. So I find myself wondering, what are your spiritual beliefs, if any? Do you work with specific deities, do you observe the esbats, etc.?
I’m basic Pagan in that I believe in nature and that spirit moves throughout nature and the universe within itself and as an expression of a greater life-force, better known as deities and spirits. I don’t always work with deities unless it’s for something pretty important. Instead, I work with the elements themselves usually. When it comes to deities, I work within a male/female duality but I have also worked with the Christian pantheon and any gods that I have extensively researched to make sure I’m not screwing up.
How and when did you get started doing spiritual work for other people (tarot, dream interpretation)?
That started in 2004, so I was about 16 or 17-ish. I was doing divination for myself and then when I felt confident, I started doing it for others, I would do cartomancy – playing card divination – and expand to other forms such as dream interpretation and tarot because I noticed a lot of people sometimes need help and I figured that I could do that and not be some wicked person with a parlor out to take someone’s money. I also was convinced to do so because I would hang out in my neighborhood metaphysical shop and would watch my mentors do it and the good that they were doing so, y’know, monkey see, monkey do. I saw them helping people, I wanted to do it too. 
What are some of the challenges of being a black witch in a culture where black folks are mostly identified with Christianity?
To be brief, dealing with Bible-thumping morons. It can be incredibly annoying dealing with people who don’t entirely understand it’s okay to be Black and practice a different religion. I am told, “You know that’s devil worship, right?” No, it’s not. “Christ will come and get you, He’s not happy.” 

I’m sure there’s a very long line of Christians who are doing things far worse than practicing a different religion he’s going to have to get through first. It can be massively annoying. I understand that people fear what they don’t understand but that fear would make me careworn. I’m glad my column/blog exists because it cuts down my explanation time by a lot but if people are scared to even look at it, what good is that? I don’t feel that I should tone down my practices in my usual day-to-day life constantly if others feel a god-given right to actually impose their beliefs onto mine. I don’t mind working on Yule but ask a Christian to work on Christmas? Blasphemy! 
Then there are people who will be sorta-friends with me for the handbag friend/glass menagerie feel. That being friends with me is their “totally not a bigot” badge or their “I’m so cool” badge, which leads them to be pretty insulting because they’re not friends with me because of me but because I say I cast spells and then their feelings are hurt when I bring that issue to light. I don’t exist as someone’s walking life-lesson, I like having a regular life just like everyone else. 

It is funny though when people bash my beliefs but they’re the first person running to me for card readings and hexes – something I definitely don’t do – despite the general Christian consensus is to not be involved with those things. I was nominated for a Black Weblog Award and though I didn’t win, I do hope there will be some change. And change doesn’t happen if someone sits around and hope only for it, there has to be movement. 
How do your family/friends/co-workers view your being a witch?
My family don’t know, my friends don’t care, my co-workers don’t mind.
What made you want to start a blog? Who is your readership?
Because there was a total and absolute lack of Black Pagan blogs to read and I got tired of waiting around and did something about it. I contacted Afro-Punk and after some fiddling about and e-pestering, I put up the Wordpress version up as well as my friend Erica suggested to me. Right around the time I launched the Wordpress version did Afro-Punk finally showcase my starting column so I’m technically an Afro-Punk columnist with the Wordpress serving as the external port but I think very few notice. 

My readership is mostly Black and Pagan, ranging in age but it turns out I also have a fairly sizable Christian readership as well, in addition to a slew of international readers. So far, judging from my Black Witch fan page on Facebook, I have just about at least one member from each of the Divine Nine, Black readers from Ivy League, business owners and things of that sort. I’m basically getting the crème de la crème du noir here and that makes me happy. I also have a sizable bit of teen readers and that’s also a great thing because I know I would have wanted something like this growing up.
Congratulations on the upcoming Black Witch anthology! Can you talk about the book? What made you decide to publish your blog posts in book form?
Thank you! I have to say though, the anthology – it’s more like a conglomeration book, it composes of all the Black Witch entries from the past year. As I mentioned prior, the book consists of all the first year of Black Witch postings in book form and possibly will have extras but I’m not too sure. I just wanted to expand my blog’s reach to get to a wider audience. 

I learned about magick and witchcraft through going to the library and reading books and not everyone has a computer so I figured that would be the best option to take. I would like to have it in e-book and audio book form as well, Braille too but that’s for the future. I plan to make these books come out yearly in volumes so this year is volume 1, next year is volume 2, so on and so forth. I really hope this will turn out well, publishing isn’t super easy!
Are you a part of any witch community (coven, circle), what have been your experiences (if any) with that?
Nope, I’m totally solitary. I’m pretty introverted so I never really seek out covens or circles to be a part of. Then there’s the fact I’m a pretty busy person so I like making my schedule to my liking rather than working my schedule around that of a group. Then there’s the potential of drama. I like to avoid drama the same way Fox News avoids genuine journalism. So I much rather keep to myself. 

If there was an all-Black coven or circle, I’d think about it but still I’m introverted and can be pretty wack around people sometimes. So yeah, rather keep to myself and participate when spiffy. 
What do you think of the representation of witches in popular culture (True Blood, the Craft, etc.)?
I don’t watch today’s shows about witches and such like True Blood – I thought that was vampires only? – and Supernatural  because there’s no major Black characters and storylines that I can actually see and I don’t think I could sit and watch those shows without raving and foaming at the mouth first about how sucky those shows are race and gender-wise. 

It was better when I was younger because I could balance shows like Charmed and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch with a slew of Black shows such as The Steve Harvey Show, The Wayans Brothers, and Living Single among others so less raving back then. 
Back on topic, I think they shouldn’t be taken seriously…at all. The Craft is one of my all time favorite movies and I have a Harry Potter mug and may debate you on Hogwarts houses (Ravensclaw!) buuuuuut they’re movies and books. Granted, the people behind The Craft and J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter have done their research and made their media both very entertaining and something that doesn’t make me want to pour bleach on my eyes – something I can’t say for movies and books such as Twilight and any Vampire stuff they’re coming out with now to hop on the bandwagon – but they are, in the end, movies and books. They are something to watch or read with soda and snacks, not with pen and paper. I can’t tell you how many Hogwarts questions I get though, they are aplenty. That was one captivating series!
It’s lovely to see that nowadays media is kind of trying to depict witches a little better, but they’re in the same vein as when it comes to depicting minorities: Hollywood is terrified of letting go its stockpile of jokes and references but they’re trying, just very little or flying off into a brick wall at the speed of light. I don’t watch a lot of movies for the same reason I don’t watch a lot of television, too White, but I can tell you, due to misrepresentation, I will get some nitwit contacting me about Inception, The Matrix or Harry Potter. I saw all three and they weren’t bad but God, do they make people foam at the mouth. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

interview with Szmeralda Shanel, priestess and founder of the Iseum of Black Isis

Szmeralda Shanel
Dear Readers: Thanks for coming by and I wish you all a festive and fruitful holiday season, whatever you celebrate this time of year. This blog has been on hold for several months now due to school obligations (still holding down a 4.0 baby, YEAH) but I will be posting several interviews and things during the winter break so please come back again over the next few weeks.

In this latest installment of a series of interviews with black pagan-ish types (check the archives to the right for previous entries) I am very happy to present Szmeralda Shanel, teaching artist, expressive arts therapist, Tarot reader and founder/priestess of the Iseum of Black Isis, based in Oakland, CA.
Can you tell us a bit about your spiritual path? 
I am a priestess of the Dark Mother Auset ordained with the Fellowship of Isis and the Temple of Isis. I am a Mami Wata devotee. I practice Hoodoo. I am a Feri initiate. My spiritual work and practices are ecstatic/shamanic. My spiritual path is one of creativity and sacred arts. 
Can you talk about this belief system, and the Fellowship of Isis, for any of my readers who may have no knowledge of it? 
I'm not sure that I have a belief "system." I serve the Dark Mother, whose origins are in Africa. I believe that all Goddess and Gods are sons, daughters, and various expressions of the Dark Mother. I know her as Auset because she is SHE of 10,000 names and that is how she revealed herself to me. One of her manifestations/faces is as Mami Wata. Mami sits on my head, she is my ancestral guardian spirit.
Hoodoo is how I "do" magic. As an African American with roots in the southern states, this is the magical tradition I inherited and practice . 
Feri is my heart song, the wild dance of my life down a spiraling road of mystery, ecstasy, magic, beauty, love and sometimes chaos. Feri shapes and colors my experiences of the road. Like SHE, Feri is dark and bright. A starlit path. 
The Fellowship of Isis is a multi-faith, multi-cultural, multi-racial, international spiritual organization dedicated to promoting the awareness of The Goddess. The Fellowship of Isis has over 24,000 members in nearly a hundred countries. I love the Fellowship of Isis because of its inclusiveness and freedom. I also love the diversity you find in The Fellowship of Isis, there are Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, all different kinds of folks from different places. We all honor Goddess, this is the one thing members always share in common. How one honors The Goddess is up to each individual. The principles of the Fellowship of Isis can be found in its manifesto 

How did you first get on this path?
I've always been very spiritual. I come from a family of folk who have always been deeply connected to spirit. My mother and I dream true (have pre-cognitive dreams). Dreams and seeings have always been important in my family, we take them seriously, pay close attention to them, discuss them etc.
My paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher; my brothers and I spent our summers down south with him and my grandma. In their church I witnessed hands on healing, anointing ceremonies, holy ghost possessions and all kinds of wonder working. So spirit has been very present in my life all my life. 
Like most Black folks in America, I was raised a Christian and in my family as in many Black families magic, visions and signs were all considered gifts from God and therefore worked just fine within the tradition of Christianity. Still, for a variety of reasons I found the Christian tradition too oppressive for my spirit and I eventually dropped out of church.
When I was sixteen my mother got me a deck of Tarot cards for Christmas. It was through the Tarot that I found or rather the Goddess made herself known to me. Sixteen years later I continue to serve her.
Which deities do you worship/work with?
The Star Goddess/Dark Mother in her various faces and expressions (including her male/god faces) but primarily as Isis/Auset and Mami Wata. I have a relationship with many of the Orisha, I also work with my ancestors, the Fae and various spirit teachers/guides.  While I work primarily with Gods/Goddesses of Africa and the diaspora , I also have relationships with European, Native American and Asian deities. If a Goddess/God shows up in my life I pay attention. I would add that I don't "worship" deities; I would say I  "work with" or " have a relationship with" them.
Was your choice to join this spiritual tradition related to your ancestry at all? Meaning, did it have appeal to you as a person of African ancestry?
I don't know that my choice to join any spiritual tradition [was] related to my  African ancestry but I do know that all of my spiritual choices/inheritances find their roots in Africa. What I mean is I didn't go looking for Africa, she found me and reminded me that she's always been with me. 
What was your religious background growing (if any)?
Christianity and Hoodoo -- which is a folk magic tradition not a religion (and the folks working it in my family did not call it Hoodoo of course).
What are the spiritual benefits you have found from following this path?
I have found too many things to name, but here are some.  Spiritual gifts and talents, the ability to see what others may not, magic that works, flashes of insight.  And with these gifts I've been able to help myself as well as others. Joy. A deep sense of strength and inner power. A very real connection to others and the world around me. An understanding of my life's path/destiny.  A fierce community of wisdom and love that celebrates me when I accomplish great things, challenges me when I'm being lazy, stubborn or lying to myself and stands with me when I'm afraid, hurt or uncertain. Beauty.
Tell me about the Iseum of Black Isis. What made you want to start it, when did you found it, what services do you offer?
The Iseum of Black Isis is a Fellowship of Isis Iseum dedicated to Goddess Spirituality and Sacred Arts. I was ordained with The Fellowship of Isis in 2006. After taking a year to get comfortable in my new priestess role I decided to found the Iseum of Black Isis in 2007.  In the Fellowship of Isis one chooses a vocation before being ordained, my vocation is as an artist healer, a priestess of sacred arts. I started the Iseum to deepen my work as a priestess of sacred arts, and to offer services to the community. The Iseum of Black Isis offers priestess training, spiritual counseling, rites of passage ceremonies and ritual/workshops.
Are most of the people who go to your temple members of the Fellowship of Isis or do they practice in other traditions as well?
People don't really "go" to the Iseum, it's more that we go to people. We lead rituals or workshops at conferences or festivals. 

The priestesses who lead public ceremonies and workshops with the Iseum are other Black women that I've met on my spiritual path. These priestesses are all members of the Iseum and The Fellowship of Isis. They are all ordained priestesses but they are not all ordained with the Fellowship of Isis, some of them are but some are ordained or initiated in other spiritual traditions.

There are also students in the Iseum taking the priestess training correspondence course, most of my current students are also folks who are initiated or ordained in other traditions.

Though the public priestesses in the Iseum are all African American we are not exclusive. All are welcome. And while the Iseum is dedicated to Black Isis we honor all Goddesses.
Most of the people that I’ve interviewed for this blog have been solitary practitioners, who either prefer to practice alone or who would like community but haven’t found any. What are the advantages of belonging to a spiritual community such as your temple?
Even though the Iseum of Black Isis is a community I would say that most of us still practice for the most part solitary. We are all members of other communities outside of the Iseum and "visit" or "serve" communities at various times. But most of us do a lot of our work alone.
It is really nice to have a group of sisters to work with though, to just pick up the phone like "Hey y'all, we need to get together and....."  And then we get together and magic happens.
After participating in many circles and being  one of the only brown faces in the space, I gotta say there is something very special and powerful about standing in a circle of Black women.  You can just do the work, and not deal with all the other shit that often  comes with being "other" in a space.
What are your holy days, daily rituals?
So back when I first started this work I tried to get on the whole wheel deal, you know the eight Sabbats that many Pagans celebrate, but that's not really my way. Sometimes if something formal is happening that I want to attend or if I am feeling particularly connected to one of the traditional  Pagan holidays at the time I'll do something but if not I won't.
Really for me the holy days are about connecting with my community -- and some of my community is Pagan but a lot of my community is not -- my family and many of my friends for example. So with my holy days being about community if I'm not going to participate in or lead a large formal ritual, my holy days are your basic traditional American-style holidays.
I do Christmas with presents and food and lights, that's my winter holiday. In February I usually do something special with Brighid because I love her. Come springtime I dye eggs, share chocolate, eat a l'il ham or lamb and celebrate spring with everyone else, usually at Easter.

I love Beltane and sometimes I do something. Summer Solstice is nice but my big summer celebration is usually spent  with my people eating barbeque and watching fireworks on the 4th of July. 
I love Halloween and that's what I call it. The Iseum of Black Isis also does an ancestor feast usually in October too. In November I do Thanksgiving with friends and family, that's my harvest festival. 
There are other holy days during the year but they are usually to honor ancestors, teachers, etc. and these honoring ceremonies happen on the person's birth or death day. 
There are also certain holy days that are reserved for honoring specific Goddesses/Gods.
I do have a daily practice, it changes but always consists of a breathing/focusing/cleansing kind of meditation, lighting a candle at my main altar and saying a prayer to the Goddess, honoring my animal teachers at their altar and honoring my ancestors at the ancestor altar. This is my daily practice -- honestly I don't do it everyday, but I really really try to.
Do you consider yourself to be under the pagan umbrella? Why or why not?
I'm not a big fan of labels but I do understand why in communicating with each other we sometimes need them, so to answer your question -- if the person using the term Pagan means  "one who follows a spiritual tradition other than Christianity, Judaism or Islam" sure why not. But if the person using the term Pagan means "one who follows one of the pre-Christian spiritual traditions of Europe," nope.
Do you have any advice, resources, books, general advice, for people who are considering this path? 
Read a lot. Communicate with many people. Balance knowledge with intuition. Pray. Develop a daily practice. Ask questions. Never give away your power. Teachers are great but they are not infallible.  Honor your ancestors.

Some of my favorite books: 

Mami Wata vol. I and II -- Mama Zogbe
The Great Cosmic Mother -- Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor
Dark Mother -- Lucia Birnbaum
Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition -- Cora Anderson
Jambalaya -- Luisah Teish
The Healing Wisdom of Africa -- Malidoma Some
Opening to Spirit
-- Carolene Shola Arewa
Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic -- Cat Yronwode
Hoodoo Rootwork Correspondence Course -- Cat Yronwode
Sticks Stones Roots and Bones -- Stephanie Rose Bird
The Big Book of Soul -- Stephanie Rose Bird
African American Folk Healing -- Stephanie Mitchem
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition -- Yvonne P. Chireau
Tell My Horse -- Zora Neale Hurston (Vodou)
Mules and Men -- Zora Neale Hurston (Hoodoo)
Singing the Soul Back Home -- Caitlin Matthews
Woman in the Shaman's Body -- Barbara Tedlock
The White Wand -- Anaar
Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism -- Crystal Blanton
Dream-Singers: The African American Way with Dreams -- Anthony Shafton