The roots of Ipomoea jalapa, when dried, are carried as the John the Conqueror root amulet.

John the Conqueror, also known as High John de Conqueror, John, Jack, and many other folk variants, is a folk hero from African-American folklore. He is associated with the roots of Ipomoea purga, the John the Conqueror root or John the Conqueroo, to which magical powers are ascribed in African-American folklore, especially among the Hoodoo tradition of folk magic.[1][2][3] Muddy Waters mentions him as Johnny Cocheroo in the songs "Mannish Boy" and "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man". In "Mannish Boy", the line is "I think I'll go down/To old Kansas too/I'm gonna bring back my second cousin/That little Johnny Conqueroo". This line is borrowed from the Bo Diddley song "I'm a Man", to which "Mannish Boy" is an answer song.[4] In "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man", it is called "John De Conquer Blue".

Use in Hoodoo

Frederick Douglass received a High John root from an enslaved conjurer named Sandy Jenkins for protection against slaveholders.[5]

African-American Hoodoo practitioners place High John roots inside mojo bags for protection, victory, empowerment, good-luck, love, and protection from evil spirits. "...practitioners do this out of their reverence for or worship of the spirit (or in this case, John de Conquer, who also symbolizes ties to their enslaved ancestors through the land or 'soil of the South.')" ..."we not only find that the spirit of John de Conquer inhabits or 'possesses' a root, but he is also woven into a mojo bag that practitioners wear on their persons or store in a “secret place” of their house."[6][7][8] The root was used during slavery in the Southern United States by enslaved African-Americans to protect from slaveholders. Frederick Douglass and Henry Bibb used the High John root to prevent whippings and protection from slaveholders.[1][2] In an Arkansas slave narrative, ex-slave Marion Johnson used High John roots to conquer his enemies and receive protection from conjure.[9]

Cultural appropriation

In the twentieth century, white drug store owners appropriated Hoodoo and put a white man on High John the Conqueror product labels. As a result, some people do not know the cultural and historical origins of the African-American folk spirit John the Conqueror had in the enslaved Black community and in present day Black American culture. In 2012, Rob Cleveland, an African-American stage performer, created a play about High John the Conqueror to demystify the folk spirit to audiences. The play focuses on John the Conqueror as an enslaved man whose spirit of resistance could never be broken and who outwitted his enslavers. The spirit of resistance in John the Conqueror encouraged enslaved people to resist their slaveholders to gain their freedom.[10] In 2022 MadameNoire, an online magazine geared toward the lifestyles of African-American women, interviewed Black Hoodoo practitioners and they voiced their concerns about the appropriation of Hoodoo. "'White-washed Hoodoo doesn’t even acknowledge John the Conqueror that much because he’s been white-washed to be the type of Spirit that helps men with their virility, help men get women, help gamblers get lucky, and he’s so much more than that...'”[11][1][2] Storyteller Diane Ferlatte performed the African-American folk tale about High John Conqueror that tells the victories of John the Conqueror on the plantation and how he unified the slave community to escape from slavery.[12] Ferlatte tells other African-American folk stories about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Uncle Remus. African-American scholars explain High John the Conqueror symbolized freedom from slavery. High John the Conqueror was a trickster and was able to outsmart his enslavers.[13][14]

Folk hero

Zora Neale Hurston and unidentified man 1935 Belle Glade, Florida. Hurston documented stories about High John the Conqueror from African-Americans in the Southern United States.

Sometimes, John is an African prince (son of a king of Congo), said to have ridden a giant crow called "Old Familiar." He was sold as a slave in the Americas. Despite his enslavement, his spirit was never broken. He survived in folklore as a reluctant folk hero, a sort of trickster figure, because of the tricks he played to evade those who played tricks on him. Joel Chandler Harris's Br'er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories is a similar archetype to that of High John the Conqueror, outdoing those who would do him in. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of his adventures ("High John de Conquer") in her folklore collection The Sanctified Church.[6][7][15]

In one traditional John the Conqueror story told by Virginia Hamilton, and probably based on "Jean, the Soldier, and Eulalie, the Devil's Daughter", John falls in love with the Devil's daughter. The Devil sets John a number of impossible tasks: he must clear sixty acres (25 ha) of land in half a day and then sow it with corn and reap it in the other half a day. The Devil's daughter furnishes John with a magical axe and plow that get these impossible tasks done, but warns John that her father the Devil means to kill him even if he performs them. John and the Devil's daughter steal the Devil's own horses; the Devil pursues them, but they escape his clutches by shape-shifting.

In "High John De Conquer", Zora Neale Hurston reports that:[16]

like King Arthur of England, he has served his people. And, like King Arthur, he is not dead. He waits to return when his people shall call him again ... High John de Conquer went back to Africa, but he left his power here, and placed his American dwelling in the root of a certain plant. Only possess that root, and he can be summoned at any time.

This is from Hurston's published article in American Mercury magazine in 1943. In this article, she relates a few stories about High John, enough to define him, but not an exhaustive survey of the folklore. The purpose was to present the nation with the hope-building and the power of this inspiring figure during the darkest days of World War II. The article ends with:

So the brother in black offers to these United States the source of courage that endures, and laughter. High John de Conquer. If the news from overseas reads bad, if the nation inside seems like it is stuck in the Tar Baby, listen hard, and you will hear High John de Conquer treading on his singing-drum. You will know then, that no matter how bad things look now, it will be worse for those who seek to oppress us. ... White America, take a laugh from out of our black mouths, and win! We give you High John de Conquer.

— The American Mercury, October 1943, pp. 450-458[17]

Plant information

Jalapae root

The root known as High John the Conqueror or John the Conqueror root is said to be the root of Ipomoea jalapa, also known as Ipomoea purga, an Ipomoea species related to the morning glory and the sweet potato. The plant is known in some areas as bindweed or jalap root. It has a pleasant, earthy odor, but it is a strong laxative if taken internally. It is not used for this purpose in folk magic; it is instead used as one of the parts of a mojo bag. It is typically used in sexual spells of various sorts and it is also considered lucky for gambling. It is likely that the root acquired its sexual magical reputation because, when dried, it resembles the testicles of a dark-skinned man. Because of this, when it is employed as an amulet, it is important that the root used be whole and unblemished. Dried pieces and chips of the root are used in formulating oils and washes that are used in other sorts of spells.

Cecil Adams has written that John the Conqueror root is the root of St. John's wort.[18] St. John's wort root is a thin and thread-like root while John the Conqueror root is a tuber. John the Conqueror root is carried by the user and the spell is cast by rubbing the root, which could not be done with a filamentous root.

Other herbs related to the legend

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Other roots are linked to the same body of legends.

Low John is the root of the trillium or wake-robin, Trillium grandiflorum. It is carried on the person for assistance in family matters. It is also known as Dixie John or Southern John and additionally is the basis for a hoodoo formula called Dixie Love Oil.

"Chewing John" is galangal, Alpinia galanga, a member of the ginger family. This is chewed much as chewing tobacco is chewed, to sweeten the breath and to calm the stomach. It is said that if you spit the juice from chewing this root onto the floor of a courtroom before the judge enters, you will win your case. Other names for this root are Little John and Little John to Chew. It is called "Low John" in the Deep South.

References

  1. ^ a b c Long, Carolyn Morrow (1997). "John the Conqueror: From Root-Charm to Commercial Product". Pharmacy in History. 39 (2): 47–48, 51. JSTOR 41111803.
  2. ^ a b c Tyler, Varro (1991). "The Elusive History of High John the Conqueror Root". Pharmacy in History. 33 (4): 165–166. JSTOR 41112508. PMID 11612725.
  3. ^ Hurston, Zora Neale (1981). The Sanctified Church. Berkeley. pp. 69–78. ISBN 9780913666449.
  4. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 4 - The Tribal Drum: The rise of rhythm and blues. [Part 2]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  5. ^ Simmons, Alicia (2000). "The Power of Hoodoo: African Relic Symbolism in Amistad and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave". The Oswald Review. 2 (5): 41–44. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  6. ^ a b Alexander, Leslie; Rucker, Walter (2010). Encyclopedia of African American History. ABC-CLIO. p. 207. ISBN 9781851097692.
  7. ^ a b "Chapter 4 "Winning [Our] War from Within": Moving beyond Resistance". The Politics of Black Joy: Zora Neale Hurston and Neo-Abolitionism: 103–104. JSTOR j.ctv1wd02rr.12. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  8. ^ Pasciuto, Greg (March 22, 2023). "6 African Folklore Figures that Survived the Atlantic Slave Trade". The Collector. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  9. ^ Federal Writers' Project (1941). "SLAVE NARRATIVES A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves" (PDF). The Library of Congress Project Work Projects Administration. 2 (4): 121. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  10. ^ Farmer, Jim (July 25, 2012). "Rob Cleveland brings the myth of slave hero High John the Conqueror to life on stage". ArtsATL. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  11. ^ Whitcomb, Leah (October 18, 2022). "Hoodoo Heritage Month: Conjuring, Culture, And Community". MadameNoire. Retrieved July 13, 2023.
  12. ^ "Diane Ferlatte Storyteller--High John". youtube.com. Diane Ferlatte. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  13. ^ Jones, Mike (April 30, 2022). "Ferlatte's masterful performance captivates St George audience". The Royal Gazette. Retrieved July 14, 2023.
  14. ^ "High John The Conqueror". Auburn Avenue Research Library. Retrieved July 14, 2023.
  15. ^ Hurston, Zora Neale (1981). The Sanctified Church. Berkeley: Turtle Island. pp. 6, 10, 16–19. ISBN 9780913666449.
  16. ^ Hurston, Zora Neale (October 1943). "High John De Conquer". The American Mercury: 450–458.
  17. ^ "High John de Conquer, by Zora Neale Hu..., THE AMERICAN MERCURY". October 1943. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  18. ^ "The Straight Dope: What is the "John the Conqueroo" made famous by blues singers?". Archived from the original on January 24, 2001.

General references

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