Monday, February 15, 2010

Hoodoo and Soul: Interview with author Stephanie Rose Bird

Stephanie Rose Bird is author of The Big Book of Soul: The Ultimate Guide to the African American Spirit. Her body of work includes studies of African Traditional Religions (ATRs), African Derived Religions (ADRs) and earth based spirituality. She's a professional member of the American Folklore Society, the Herb Research Foundation, and the American Botanical Council.

YLW: Tell me about "Big Book of Soul." What practices do you discuss?

SRB: I talk about drumming, dancing, ecstatic dancing, singing, whistling. There are beauty rituals. I talk about African Traditional Beauty Standards. I talk about recipes for making henna. I have some Egyptian bath and foot soaps. I talk about soul food, ways to use it and the vital chemicals and nutrients that it includes. There's a lot of mythology and folklore in there.

YLW: I read about one practice that attracts lovers?

SRB: The nation sack is a type of mojo bag that women would carry in their bra and it would have oils, herbs and roots inside. So it's something good to have for Valentines Day. I talk about how to make one in the big book of soul.

YLW: Your book explores the spiritual concepts of soul and discusses African Derived practices like Hoodoo that people can incorporate in their lives today. Usually, when people talk about soul and black culture, they're referring to music.

SRB: Soul is in music. It's inexplicable. It's difficult to define. Instead I focus on earth based cultures that support soulfulness. I talk about soul nurturing practices in the African Diaspora and also of ancient cultures. I just feel it is a force that is readily available to tap into. Even in the Christian Church when people get happy and get into gospel music, they're tapping into these elements of soul.

YLW: How did you come to study earth based religions, African Traditional Religions, and African Derived Religions?

SRB: It began with me living really close to the earth . I've been involved in earth based religions since I was 13. I grew up in New Jersey on the lake front. The forest and trees were more of my friends than anything else. I connected with nature at an early age. I have one grandmother who was a spiritualist minister and herbal healer, my grandmother was psychic, and I have an uncle who is a babalewo. My grandmother was into tea leaf reading, numerology. Of course, I have a lot of family who were into traditional Christianity, too.

YLW: Why are you an advocate or these expressions of spirituality?

SRB: I hope to see African belief systems and ways of healing get equal footing with Native American, Ayurvedic, and other earth based expressions. I've written five books and four of them are centered around African earth based spirituality.

YLW: Why aren't African inspired forms of expression as well known as other forms of earth based expressions?

SRB: It's really complex. I still think that the general society looks at African religions as being dark and mysterious and dangerous. Also, I think in African American society, when you think spirituality, the first thing that comes to mind is Christianity and after that Islam. People don't think about earth based spirituality. I think the practices are dying out.

YLW: In your book you talk about Hoodoo and various practices. Did you grow up in a family that discussed and practiced Hoodoo?

SRB: Hoodoo was never really spoken about or named in my family. My family settled in New Jersey. The slave ancestry was in Virginia. But it was the practices themselves that I retained visually. It wasn't transmitted to me orally. My mother did talk about wars with neighbors or throwing dust between neighbors. My mother would throw pennies for good luck, she would burn incense to cleanse the home. She would do things that she retained from her mother. Not only did I retain her practices, but I studied them to see what they meant. I traced a lot of these practices back to Egypt. I talk a lot about Egypt and Africa in my work. Everything in our society tends to be thought of in a generalized way. I look at Continental Africa and see how it came down through the ages.

YLW: What are some common Hoodoo practices that are popular today?

SRB: Painting the bottoms of trees white. They do it in the rural South. It's associated with the spirit world. The color white is the essence of our being and it's very other worldly. There's a reverence for metal. Horseshoes, for example. We had horseshoes in our home. The metal smiths are revered in West African culture because they have transformative practices. We carry dimes with us and lucky pennies. I think some of the things that I talk about might confuse younger people. Even things I grew up with like having a lucky penny, I don't know if many kids today do. I think they're losing their way. These are practices that people don't think about anymore. Not many people have horseshoes in their home.

YLW: There does seem to be a renewed interest in earth based spirituality. For example, many people are doing celebrations to acknowledge the Winter Solstice in addition to Christmas, which is a preChristian practice.

SRB: I know what you mean. I go to a unitarian, universalist church and we talked about yule and prayed in the four directions. I was dumbfounded but it was very neat. When I first went to the temple I saw a pagan song in the hymn book. I really like this church. I told the minister that I'm pagan and he said 'welcome, we're glad to have you here.'

YLW: You identify yourself as pagan?

SRB: Pagan, meaning the older, preChristian ways. It doesn't have a negative connotation to me. Some people in my circle call themselves heathens. I'm preChristian, preIslamic in my systems and beliefs.

YLW: So you wouldn't say that you practice an African Traditional Religion?

SRB: I practice African Derived Religions.

YLW: What's the difference?

SRB: African Derived Religions include Santeria or Hoodoo. They're not African Traditional Religions, but were inspired by them and evolved in the New World. An example of an African Traditional Religion would be Yoruba. I take a lot of consideration of ATRs in my writing. They have influenced the African Derived Religions. However, I am not initiated. There are things that bother me with the initiation process in ATRs. For one, I'm an animal lover and I have a problem with sacrifice. I talk about substitutes for blood in my work, like using pomegranate juice for your rituals.

YLW: So how would you identity your spiritual practice?

SRB: I am Pagan, I practice Hoodoo and I'm a Green Witch. I'm not Wiccan. Green Witches practice magikal herbalism.

YLW: Are you spelling magical with a K?

SRB: Yes, the other spelling refers to slight of hand tricks. That's not what I do.

YLW: How did you become a Green Witch?

SRB: I did a lot of reading and I had friends when I was 13. Today, I'm called a solitary, I'm practicing alone. I do yahoo groups and meet up with different practitioners, though.

YLW: How were you introduced to it?

SRB: I think you're born a witch. I had it in me. So when my friends came out of the broom closet so to speak and said they were witches, I said alright.

YLW: You combine a variety of practices.

SRB: I am an eclectic. I collect practices. I figure why not. Tradition has it's place and I respect it. But I am not traditionalist at all. I'm in an interracial and intercultural marriage with interracial, intercultural children. I go to a unitarian church. Some witches would raise their eyebrows that I would even go into something that's called a church.

SRB: You know, as I was talking to you, I found some cobwebs. My mother used cobwebs and put them on my cousin's head and healed his concussion. He didn't have to go to a doctor or anything. That's one of the things I talk about. In the book, I talk about how over time, we had to doctor ourselves. A lot of these healing ways we had to do because white doctors didn't want to deal with us. Black women were the chief medical people on plantations, they ministered to the enslaved and the owners. They were midwives. I try to learn as much as I can about what they did as possible.

YLW: Why weren't many of these practices passed down? Today, where they are present, they're often labeled as superstitions.

SRB: By law. Some of it became illegal in the Caribbean and parts of the south. It was illegal to do dances. That's how the shuffle was created. We were creative and found ways around it. The only time you talk about a kind of spirit is when people talk about the holy spirit or the holy ghost. The whole idea of being mounted and ridden by spirit is evident when people get happy in church. I wasn't as exposed to Baptist and Pentecostal growing up, but even in the Methodist church, people would get happy. The practices started off being really oppressed. That's how it got tucked under the skirts of saints and Christianity.

YLW: How would you suggest that someone start incorporating these practices in their life?

SRB: Buy my book. The first one Stick Stones, Blood and Bones is a book of practices. It has hands on recipes and talks about how to raise a Hoodoo child. The Big Book of Soul is good for understanding why you might want to practice. My writing keeps developing and it's going in a very linear matter.

YLW: Do you ever get negative responses from other spiritual practitioners who aren't familiar with African inspired practices?

SRB: I've never received negative responses. I'm not open with everyone. There's some people who wouldn't understand and it's not worth my energy. For some, I'm Stephanie Bird, generic person, not a Pagan, not a Green Witch. I don't go around wearing a badge describing who I am in that way.

YLW: What is your response to people who say that this is all superstition?

SRB: I would say that you are wrong. I don't know what superstition is supposed to mean. There is wisdom in folklore and tales that we can use in our lives.

For more information go to

Monday, February 8, 2010

Critic's World: Interview with Film Critic and Classical Radio Host Sergio Mims

Sergio Mims is a film critic and curator of the International Black Harvest Festival of Film and Video. He also moderated an intriguing discussion among filmmakers in the March issue of Ebony Magazine and hosts a classical musical show on WHPK FM in Chicago. PHOTO (l-r, Classical singer Micha Brunagosman and critic Sergio Mims)

YLW: How does one become a film critic?

SM: It's very simply a knowledge of movies and knowing how to talk about films in an intelligent way. When you have a knowledge of films you can compare films of a similar theme and genre. If you want to be a film critic, just start reviewing movies.

YLW: Why aren't there more African American film critics?

SM: I have wondered that and I have been asked that but I can only speculate. This could be controversial, but I'll say it anyway. Going back to the concept of Post Black, I think there may be a stigma attached to being a critic.

YLW: Really? How so?

SM: It's not cool. It's nerdy. There are still people who are resistant to the notion that you can be whatever you want to be. In other words, I think that being a critic is viewed as something that black people don't do. Nikki Giovanni says in this poem that “ my universe is five blocks.” Some people have a five block mentality. They feel you can only go so far.

YLW: So you're saying that there aren't more critics of color because it's not viewed as “cool?”

SM: Have you ever been around film critics? They're the nerdiest bunch you ever want to see. We think we're cool and sophisticated,but it's like being a computer geek. It's a nerdy endeavor.

YLW:  You had an opportunity to moderate an intriguing panel with several black filmmakers including Lee Daniels, Antoine Fuqua, Bill Duke, Gina Prince Bythewood and Will Packer for Ebony Magazine. Were you surprised by any of their comments?

SM: The audience will be surprised to see these filmmakers and their understanding of the business, how it works and the realities. Anyone who's interested in filmmaking should read this article. People have a very pollyanna view of film. When you hear about the struggles Antoine Fuqua had making Brooklyn's Finest or Gina Prince Bythewood and The Secret Life of Bees. They were very eloquent and honest about it. It wasn't surprising to me, though..

YLW: Why would this be surprising to the audience?

SM: I don't think people have an understanding of what the film business is about. And too many filmmakers go into filmmaking not because they love films but because they like notoriety. If you love movies, you know it's a battle to get a film made. It's not about people making a fuss over you after the film is made. It comes down to 'I have a story I want to tell.' It's not about making a fuss or making money, or getting reviews but about telling a story to an audience.

YLW: Why is there a belief that filmmaking is purely about hype and celebrity?

SM: Every week now we read about box office numbers. This is a fairly recent thing. Before, nobody talked about box office receipts. That was something between the studio and the bean counters. If it did well, fine, if it didn't, no one knew. Everyone knows that Avatar is the biggest film ever made. Everyone sees the red carpet premieres. There always was a push of the glamorous side, but with all the media and websites, it's even more sold than ever. The glamor side is pushed more than any other. What isn't shown is the reality of the business.

YLW: I've interviewed other filmmakers and we've discussed how black films are expected to combat negative images of the past and make some form of social commentary. What are your thoughts on this?

SM: It's still a core belief. It's a wrong belief. Can you think of a black film or tv show that every black person praised? Everyone's going to find fault with something. No one movie or tv show can address all the ills and stereotypes that have appeared in the past 100 years and it would be foolish for any filmmaker to try to do that. All you can do is make your movie and hope people will like it. You can say there are some films that are better than others, or somethings that will represent blacks better than others. But no film can solve everything.

All we need are more black films to deal with black life and culture. That's what Black Harvest Festival of Film and Video does. Black life is very diverse. There is no definitive example of black life. No film can do that. In order to accomplish that, we need many, many more films. And even then there won't be enough. So stop jumping on one movie and feel this film will solve everything we're going through.

YLW: So what's next in film?

SM: In terms of film, you never know what's going to happen next. Who would have predicted Tyler Perry ten years ago? Who would have predicted that Spike's career would be on a serious downturn? Who would have thought Lee Daniels would be the filmmaker everyone is talking about? In terms of black film, what I have noticed, and this is really recent, in the last two or three years, I've seen more and more black filmmakers following their own voice.

SM: For a long time, people were trying to rip off what's hot. When gangsta rap was hot, you saw a bunch of knock offs or I saw a bunch of Tyler Perry rip offs. Following your own voice is the key. That's how you get A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy or Medicine for Melancholy or a Kenyan film shot in South Africa, called Pumzi. Not all, but it looks like filmmakers are saying why copy somebody else? What's important to me? What do I want to say?

YLW: What do you accredit this new diversity to?

SM: I think we're dealing with a whole new generation of filmmakers coming up and people just got tired of what they were watching. They said I don't want to see the same movie over again. This goes back to your whole Post Black concept, more filmmakers are of that ilk, saying I want to look beyond what we were doing or stuck doing, or break out of the box we were a forced in and stuck in. I want to break out. You have the Book of Eli by the Hughes Bros. Now, the fact that there was not one new thing in that film that was not taken from another film is one issue, but I'm happy that they did a sci fi. Why aren't more black filmmakers doing sci fi? A lot of African filmmakers are starting to do sci fi.

YLW: What's on the horizon in the film fest circuit?

SM: I'm very anxious. I'm putting together Black Harvest now. People are really finally doing interesting films. I see more of a range. I look at Night Catches Us, a period love story between two ex panthers. with Anthony Mackie and Carrie Washington at Sundance. That's interesting. A couple of years ago that would have been unheard of. I see a lot of movies out there that don't fit the mode. Films like Family, the black lesbian drama, and Black Dynamite. I think that's why we had the highest grossing fest last year, because there's so much diversity. A filmmaker has to challenge themselves. Spike tried a war movie, we see how that turned about, but he gets A for effort. Filmmakers try to explore some avenue of their talent. If you're an artist, you're supposed to take risk.The artists that I do know, they don't concern themselves with that, they do what they do. If people don't like it, that's their problem. There is no mode of what an artists should be, they don't care.

YLW: What are your thoughts on the Post Black concept?

SM: As far as Post Black, it's been happening for a long time. There have always been people who didn't fit the mode. I look at Ralph Bunch or Leontine Price or Paul Robeson, and these are just people we know. There have always been people who have been post black, who said do not put me in this box, I refuse to be put in this box. I think of Dean Dixon, one of the first internationally known symphony composers. I hate the idea of a definition of blackness. There is no definition of blackness.

YLW: You host a classical music show. How did you become a classical music lover?

SM: I just gravitated to it. My father listened to all kinds of music. When people say 'I listened to all kinds of music,' well they don't mean it. My father did and I fell in love with classical.

YLW: Was it rough growing up as a teen being a classical music fan?

SM: It ain't been easy. There's a mindset that if you're black this is what you're supposed to be and if you deviate from that from a fraction of an inch, they don't understand you. When I was in high school nobody was interested in what I was interested in. I was into foreign films and classical music. I took a lot of heat. Then when you get my age, people think you're a genius, some Einstein. I interviewed this classical singer Micha Brunagosman. We were there with friends and for two hours, most of it was the two of us talking about classical music. It was totally inside baseball. And at one point, one guy at the table said I have no idea what you're talking about. I've seen every orchestra in the world and if I wasn't in this, I would try to be a conductor. My classical music collection is astounding.

YLW: You are a person who created your own path.

SM: You can call me any name in the book. Twenty years ago, I would have cared. When you get older you don't give a rats ass anymore. You don't care what people think about you. Younger people are always thinking about what other people think about you. It's refreshing to not care. I look at the black gossip websites and I don't know who these people are. And I say, thank God, I'm not at at age where I have to know every new song and new person, which I never really did anyway.

You can read Sergio Mims' work on and

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"You'll Be A Man" doc: Interview with Producer Shawn Wallace

Shawn Wallace is a musician and producer of the upcoming documentary You'll Be A Man. The documentary explores masculinity and identity. The title is taken from the last line of Rudyard Kipling's poem “If.”

YLW: How did you develop the concept for You Will Be A Man?

SW: It's really the brainchild of Robert Goodwin (producer.) He said his deceased grandfather came to him in a dream and told him to tell it like it is. Originally, we wanted to talk about how men feel about themselves on the 20th anniversary of our pledge line. We're both in Alpha Phi Alpha.

Then a friend suggested we do it on black men in general. We interviewed men from all walks of life, teenagers, grandfathers. We talked to Dr. Lee Butler, from the Chicago Theological Seminary. A lot of the focus of his work helped us to find our view. We interviewed both men and women. We asked both what do men do and what is a man. Most immediately identified what a man does, but most had problems saying what a man is. It was very illuminating.

YLW: What did they say men do?

SW: Most say a man is a provider, nurtures his family, takes care of his family, his community. He works. That sort of thing. Usual traditional roles. He's a father, brother, husband, son.

YLW: Why couldn't they explain what a man is?

SW: Most people found it difficult to answer that question. The more we dug into it, the more I realized that it's a question of identity. I think it's the question of our generation. Identity. Who are we? Our issues are much more psycho spiritual and I don't know if we have the language to talk about it yet.

The questions that we are faced with in this day and age are slightly different from previous generations. Other generations dealt more with survival. So there was more of a focus on function. I don't know if by answering those questions in terms of duty that we've found the sense of fulfillment we expected. We're asking who are we. What does it mean to be a human being, a man, a black man?

YLW: I agree. I think many people are rethinking the terms they use to describe themselves because definitions are changing.

SW: One woman who was with her husband said a man is a soldier of God. We found that to be interesting. Both sets of people, men and women, they could zero in on what a man does, but what is he is a question that needs to be asked more often so we can begin to be that answer. It brings up issues of self determination.

YLW: Why is male identity a big issue today?

SW: The conditions in our community have changed. We have more female headed households. I think we ask the identity question because it may be the way we affect the changes we want to see in our lives. Just doing certain things has not brought us the fulfillment that we thought it would. Knowing your true purpose on earth is key. I remember so many in our generation were taught to go to college to get a good job.

SW: So there was less of an emphasis on going to college and studying something you love or are interested in. It was study this because you will make money. So you identified yourself based on what you do, your educational marker. But I saw my contemporaries question why are we doing what we're doing. A lot of my friends got degrees in one field and completely went back to school and said I don't want to do this. Others felt trapped. There's more to life than having nice things and buying nice stuff. We're challenged to have a good job, but a good job alone is not just fulfilling. The ideas that you can't love what you do and make money from it is something that people are starting to challenge and I think as a result starting to question our identity.

I've seen some interesting attitudes. I've seen an attitude in our community in which women feel they are stronger, smarter and better than men.

YLW: Really? What do you mean?

SW: There is this idea that the condition of being a woman fundamentally means that you are emotionally stronger and better than a man just because you are a woman. I had a conversation with a security guard, a woman, and she said well, we're stronger than men anyway. I've heard it from teenage girls that I've taught. I just try to observe it. I think it's born out of the conditions in which our community exists. Black women have had to lead our communities.

YLW: Do you think that's a burgeoning attitude among women in general?

SW: Yes. I don't think it's just a black paradigm, I've just observed it on our community.

It may be a reflection for a need for mens and womens long house. This is where the men go, this is where the woman go. Men initiate men into manhood, women initiate women. It doesn't mean that interdependence isn't present, but femininity and masculinity are defined in that subgroup as a whole.

YLW: What else did you discover?

SW: One of the things we talk about in the film are rights of passage and we compare fraternities and street gangs. Both are fulfilling a need of rights of passage for men to demarcate certain steps toward manhood. We found similarities in terms of what the group gave them, various intangibles like a sense of family and belonging. It was really illuminating. Not that that study hasn't been done before, but there's probably more of a need for it now. And that's not a black phenomenon, either.

YLW: Is the definition of manhood changing?

SW: It's definitely changing because we've had to deal with certain dark secrets including homosexuality, bisexuality, and our sexual identity as men. Masculinity is evident in men regardless of their sexual orientation. Men have testosterone in their body. A gay man is still a man. A gay man is a man first who just has a certain sexual orientation, so that doesn't take away from his masculinity. While some gay men may have an air of what they think femininity is, or acting the way they think a woman acts, even that isn't how a woman acts. I don't know a lot of women who act like gay men. I think some of the ways we act as men and women aren't just how we're groomed, but just hormone differences so we react to things differently.

I've had the same debate with women in certain situations, I don't care if a woman is gay straight, whatever, she's a woman. She's going to react in the way that a woman reacts.

YLW: How has the definition of manhood changed?

SW: Rob and I were talking earlier and we were saying that the role men played early on, their primary role was to bring home money. It's changed drastically and for the better. We're moving more toward a balance for both men and women. The feminine and masculine sides of ourselves are moving towards the center and we're being an individual. Everyone can express their masculine and feminine sides in a balanced way. Men are being asked to parent and nurture in ways they weren't asked of them 30 or 40 years ago. Some things that we associate with masculinity and femininity are expressed in both sexes. We're moving towards a balance of masculine and femininity within individuals in terms of roles.

YLW: In Post Black, I talk about how I don't know the difference between a male and female activity. When you're taught at a young age that you can do anything, those traditional roles don't hold any weight.

SW: I have that, too. What do women do that I can't do? I can't come up with anything other than they're not me.

YLW: What are your hopes with the documentary?

SW: We hope that it will be a primer for young men to help shape their identity. It's more about identity than a where are black men and this is what they're dealing with piece. Hopefully, it's interesting enough to the audience so that they like it.

We've been working on it for three years. We're done with photography and now we're in the editing process.