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Legends Among Us: Exploring Lala Hopkins and the Legacy of Marie Laveau

I was asked by Catherine Thureson if I had a favorite historical figure from Witch Queens, Voodoo Spirits, and Hoodoo Saints for Foreword Magazine. Frankly, I love them all. Naming a favorite figure feels like asking who my favorite child is! However, if I had to choose among my favorites, it would be Lala Hopkins, the Hoodoo queen in the 1930s and 1940s. I also have the highest regard for Marie Laveau, which should surprise no one who knows me.


Voudou Queen standing next to a fence with a cat on top of the fence over her head.
Laura "Lala" Hopkins, Voudou Queen in New Orleans 1930s


Lala was a fantastic, eccentric conjure woman and Hoodoo priestess. She was dirt poor, but boy was she proud. She was proud of her abilities and proud of her spiritual lineage. She always paid homage to the Mother of New Orleans Voudou, Marie Laveau, when discussing her work. She gave credit where credit was due. She was a two-headed conjure doctor, meaning she worked with both hands, left and right-handed magic, and she walked in the world of spirit and mundane. As a Hoodoo priestess, she performed initiations. She was good at what she did—maybe too good. Unfortunately, she was hired by people in her community to fix or curse other people in the community, which made her a target of those on the receiving end. She frequently moved to avoid conflict.


Because of her lower social class, Lala was assumed to be a drug addict by the Federal Writers Project interviewers. They judged her by her looks—poor, black, and disheveled—and offered to buy her some dope “because she looked like a dope addict” in exchange for an initiation. While she could have gotten angry and reacted in any number of righteous ways to their offer, instead, she simply refused it. I love her response to them. She essentially stated, “I don’t use it, but I know who does. The spirits are my dope.” Boom.


Marie Laveau is considered the earliest Hoodoo and Voudou conjurepreneur. She was a consummate businesswoman in a day and age where that was rare due to social circumstances. She owned the city and had an information network that would rival anyone today. She was quite influential. For example, Marie worked out a sweet deal with Father Antoine that allowed her to use the church grounds for her Voudou ceremonies on Sunday afternoons so long as she brought more people to church with her. She held up her end of the bargain, which increased the size of her own as well as Father Antoine’s congregation.

Every Hoodoo and Voudou website, Etsy shop, eBay seller, Amazon seller, TikToker, and Instagrammer who promotes their for-profit spiritual business owes a debt to Marie Laveau. She was really the first to make a business out of Hoodoo successfully. Her style of Voudou combined the mystic rites and saints of Catholicism, making it more palatable to her ever-growing congregation of white folks. It also served to keep the Church happy. Because she combined her spiritual practice with making a living, we all owe her.


Aside from celebrating her business savvy, I also admire and respect Marie Laveau for her humanitarian efforts. She nursed the sick and buried the dead. She visited criminals on death row and built altars in their cells to pray. She housed Indigenous market women in her home and gave shelter to runaway slaves. There is so much to love about this woman; I could and did write a book about her, The Magic of Marie Laveau.


Outsiders often laugh at Voudou and quickly label it illegitimate, comical, and trivial. Or they perceive it as something truly sacrilege and the work of the devil. I want people to understand that Voudou is a legitimate spiritual tradition and Hoodoo is a legitimate spiritual folkway. Both served to empower the enslaved and people of color to withstand harsh social conditions. The functions of empowerment and problem solver remain today; just as any religion has its prayers and sacred rites, so do the African and Indigenous-based spiritual traditions of the South. The stories of the central figures in my book hopefully help to convey these truths.

 

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