By all accounts Marie Laveau was a profoundly ethical person, generous and kind. She attended mass at St. Louis Cathedral every day, visited the imprisoned, nursed the sick during outbreaks of yellow fever with plant medicines that were far more effective than anything the doctors had to offer, and invited Choctaw women displaced once again from their land by the U. S. government to set up camp in her own front yard.
Though she was known as a Vodou queen, she was also described as a conjure woman. The historian Martha Ward explains, “Conjure is the ‘magical means of transforming reality.’ Conjurers see and understand things most people cannot. They exist in two realities, use two kinds of consciousness – one for consensual realities and the other for the spiritual realms. Thus, a conjurer, like all mystics and visionaries, is two-headed.”
To be two-headed is not the same thing as being two-faced. To be two-faced is, for example, a complicated cotillion of upper crust manners where no one, not even the journalists at the daily paper, ever mentions the 4th of July V.P. Fair you’ve been going to for your whole childhood is a cursory whitewash of an acronym for the Veiled Prophet, a decades old Klan reference of a banner the two-faced person might call patriotism. A two-headed person, on the other hand, like someone with the double-consciousness W.E.B. DuBois wrote about in The Souls of Black Folks. He explains “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He also praises that sight that aids African Americans in surviving in a white supremacist society, the wisdom to convey different messages to different people at once.
When I heard Marie Laveau’s story, I heard not the secret language in the dance of the snake or the rootwork, though there is an echo of so much beauty there, something for other audiences I am grateful to underhear. But for me the message of the sermon is to look to the jurisprudence of our consensual realities. I hear her saying to get smarter about the system and faster. To understand the man outside the U. S. Post Office gathering signatures for House Bill No. 1427 to amend the Historic Preservation Act is selling another century of cheap sheet-metal Confederates marching across our parks. To know that the procedures to change the name of Robert E. Lee elementary school can be found in the School Board By-Laws under Section F. Facilities Development, sub-section FF. Facility Names.
My formula for understanding witchcraft has been witch = accusation + fire, but no one ever burned Marie Laveau for anything. The whole city of New Orleans, they say, came to her for help or advice at some time or another. And yet she was never hauled before a court. This contradicts everything I have learned about witchcraft, about the cruelty in people afraid their power is slipping, and about the operations of 19th century slaveholding societies.
Nevertheless, the story the archives tell about the charmed work accomplished by Marie Laveau is clear. Her subterfuge in the service of social justice took the form of uncorrupted generosity. And she was loved in return by the neighbors to whom she opened her home and steady listening ear. Not long after her death Lafcadio Hearn wrote in an obituary in The Daily City Item that she was “one of the kindest women who ever lived.”
It feels like magic to read it and magic to tell it; yet also so very ordinary that you or I might even try our own hands at such a simple spell as this.