What is a boogieman, but an age-old tale, told around a campfire, so common to children and adults alike, designed to give people a fright. African American writers tell stories about the several incantations of a boogieman and its omniscient presence in their lives. In African American literature, a boogieman can be dated as far back as the first writings of slaves. The boogieman in Margaret Walker’s Miss Molly Means, published in the 1930’s, is told through poetry as a “hag and a witch,” who’s “hair hung thick in ropes.” (Young, 1996) In Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, published in 1959, the boogieman is told through poetry as well and is a tale told to fear death coming too soon. The ever omniscient and looming presence of death that will someday cause the “ground to opens up and envelops me.” (Young, 1996). Followed by Al Young’s Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man, written in 1967, this is a short story about a boy who’s older family members told him stories to put fear into him, describing the boogieman as, “magic, but it’s the Devil’s magic,” and people going around putting the “hoodoo’d” into people. (Young, 1996) Regardless of style or decade, the boogieman is a literary device commonly used to convey the fear that was commonly felt by African Americans. Walker, Baraka, and Young take a look at the character of the boogieman, but do so springing socio-political events that are occurring in society at the time, into the poems and short stories they were writing.
In the 1930’s Margaret Walker wrote Miss Molly Means, about a witch who conjured up a spell on a young bride who moved into a house near the witch. When her husband came home to find her like that he and the neighbors knew it had to be Molly Means. Swearing to find a way to break the charm put on his wife, who now was on all fours and barking like a dog, he rode off into the night swearing Molly Means would die from what she did to his wife. The boogieman of this story Molly Means lived on through time to “bring terror to the young and the old.” (Young, 1996) Prior to Walker writing this story it was common for slaves to tell stories of a witch or boogieman that would wield magic to protect them from their abusive masters. “Quite often that same power could be used against other slaves,” such as Molly Means, even though she was not a slave, but a fellow African American. (Maryemma, 2001) By the time Miss Molly Means was written, slavery had been legally ended, but the traditions and stories were not so far removed in their histories. The 1930’s were a time in history that kept them segregated and limited access to all of America. Citizenship was not equal and by proxy still thrived a boogieman. Believing in Molly Means was an innocent and naïve act, but one that existed within the African American community at that time.
By 1959 politically, most African Americans were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and struggling to be recognized as full American citizens. Despite slavery being abolished, some areas of the country still did not welcome African Americans into their communities. The laws had changed, but for those still clinging to an antebellum way of life, slavery should still be the law of the land, despite the date on the calendar. When Amiri Baraka wrote Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note he became part of the movement to continue the struggles of the African American community to be equal in all arenas, socially, politically, and economically. Baraka can be “counted among the few influential political activists who have spent most of their life time fighting for the rights of African-Americans.” (Amiri, 2011) In his poem, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Baraka writes of a boogieman that lingers on the consciousness of the African American community. The daily threat that any day could be their last day, despite many years removed from slavery the African American community lives in fear of being killed by the overseer. However, instead of this boogieman being a slave owner or a voodoo witch Baraka talks about his daughter praying before bedtime to God. God is omniscient and is taken on faith as being there, making him Baraka’s boogieman. Everyone lives their life knowing there is a date in which they will cease to exist and if they have faith in God, they will go to heaven to meet him/her. Baraka writes this poem to his daughter Kelli Jones, letting her know that by his estimation the boogieman will come and open up the ground and swallow him as his time will be over on earth, which he anticipates to be in about twenty years. By Baraka giving his daughter proper notice of his impending death, he is letting her know that he is in control and not the boogieman. This is a transitional concept in African American Literature from the previous decades. He is choosing not to live in fear. Baraka declares a death by suicide because he will chose when he leaves this earth and not live in fear of the boogieman that his daughter prays to at her bedside. Instead, Baraka is conscious of his own mortality and not trying to ignore it like the slaves who sang in the fields just trying to ignore the looming death that waited at the drop of a hat. Baraka told the boogieman who was in charge.
In 1967, Al Young writes Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man about his happy childhood, full of storytelling, happy memories, and imagination. Young’s story did not begin with a character that lived in fear of a dreaded boogieman, but he sets out on a mission to “learn, by ear and by heart, the nature of the world that lay beyond my childhood walls and fields.” (Young, 1996) Young tells a story about a homeless man who visits his childhood home and as a result, he learns about Hoodoo from his mama, introducing the boogieman into the story. Young learns about a boogieman that lives in his life without him ever realizing it had taken up residence in his home. Hoodoo was told to him as being the ying to the yang of God. Hoodoo was the dark underbelly on the flipside of the coin of God’s light. Hoodoo was used to write off anything unexplainable. If something happened and it seemed to make the hairs stand up on the back of ones neck then it was certainly Hoodoo. Young’s character grew further in the story and learns to acknowledge a contemporary boogieman that had evolved into the unseen presence of power by man. “Even now in the Nuclear Era when we’re constantly only a micro-chip blip away from graceless extinction,” Young learns that it is the power of poetry and words, knowledge in between the lines of poetry that keeps the boogieman at bay. By the time Young writes Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man, in 1967 the African American community had evolved far enough away from the slave stories that the boogieman is to be confronted instead of run from.
Confronting the boogieman brings closure to its open license to haunt those who hear its tale. Tracing the steps from early African American literature of slave stories, to Miss Molly Means, to Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, to Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man readers can learn not to fear the boogieman. As time ticks on access and means gave way to a broader worldview of African Americans, resulting in putting the boogiemen into its proper place. Told around a campfire, in schoolyards, or at late night children’s sleepovers, a boogieman has its place in storytelling, but as any adult knows it is with life experience the veils are lifted and fantasy drips away. Similar to Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, innocence and naivety create facts out of fiction. The boogiemen of African American Literature are fiction to us in contemporary society but were wholeheartedly facts to those innocent enough to think it so.
Amiri Baraka . (2011). Retrieved from http://www.amiribaraka.com/
Back When. (2005). ““SOMEBODY DONE HOODOO’D THE HOODOO MAN,” Al Young, April 6, 1995” Retrieved from http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2005/apr/07/back-when/
Maryemma, G. (2001). Fields Watered With Blood. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
Walker, M. (1975). The Poetry of Margaret Walker: Read by Margaret Walker. Retrieved from http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW09795.pdf
Welles, O. (2010, October 16). Orson Welles – War Of The Worlds – Radio Broadcast 1938 – Complete Broadcast. [Video file]. Retrieved from YouTube website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g
Young, A. (1996). African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Berkeley, California: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.