For Witches Of Color, Books About The Occult Are Scarce
Cauldrons filled with mysterious potions, disappearing animals, and crotchety old women sporting comically sharp, black hats — that's how witchcraft is usually represented, commercially at least. Oftentimes, witchcraft is conflated with magick, and while they both exist in the same supernatural universe, they have distinct traditions: The latter is defined as distinct from religion, while the former depends on having faith in the unseen. In the context of literature, books on witchcraft are generally considered to be a part of the "spirituality" genre — after all, meditation rituals and divination practices can be used for self-help at their most benign.
But, throughout history, witchcraft’s existence outside of the traditional Western Judeo-Christian framework has given the practice — and practitioners — a bad name. As a result, this reputation has been manipulated by those upholding these systems to force books on the occult out of mainstream society, leaving them relegated to small communities of people who intentionally choose to pursue them. While fiction, essays, and books of poetry are all "acceptable" literary genres that may hold themselves in conversation with witchcraft, their treatment of the abstract is often less threatening because it’s safer to fall back on metaphor than it is to document what many believe to be a true, albeit supernatural, experience.
"These are practices that were systematically genocided out of people of color," says Jess DeBruin.
According to witchcraft-enthusiast writers I spoke to for this story, who have a familiarity with the publishing industry, books written by magick practitioners are a harder sell for publishers from a marketing standpoint, which invariably affects the way editors treat the material. (Magick is the preferred spelling for many witches, as it distinguishes their practice from showman-style tricks.) So while literature of the occult has always been present — both in the shadows or as an illuminated manuscript, depending on a reader’s interest — it has also always been treated as an “alternative” narrative, one that only select people have the privilege to communicate.
There are many witch books that do exist — from astrology guides to spell books and tarot-for-beginners style decks — these are generally written from the dominant white, heteronormative perspective, leaving little room for non-Eurocentric, Western, witchcraft ideologies to express their approaches to the craft. As a result, marginalized people are now using new platforms to share their magick-based talents with an audience, without depending on books as the only vehicle for connectivity."
"These are practices that were systematically genocided out of people of color," says Jess DeBruin, a theatre maker who also works in documentary film. “As people of color we’ve had to learn to keep them hidden and hide from white people because our practices aren’t respected... so there’s just a great irony to a white hegemony taking ownership over these things, rebranding them as ‘new wave’ and laying claim to them,” they say of mainstream publishing houses. DeBruin is of mixed Latinx and white heritage, and says the women on their mother’s side of the family are all witches. “I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood away from practices from my own heritage,” DeBruin says. “Learning them has been a reclamation of ownership of [that side of] my heritage... and that extends to spiritual practices as well.”
Though various forms of esotericism have been thriving for centuries — from the English Wicca to the African Yoruba — the presence of these traditions in popular culture has gone through phases of being visible and phases of being more hidden. Much like the waxing and waning of the moon, trends come and go; in the late 19th century — a time partially defined by America’s deep interest in spiritualism — ouija boards were popularized as a recreational parlor game and ultimately gained a cult following in the 1920s. (However, talking boards like “planchettes,” which were flat pieces of wood used for mysterious automatic writing and mediumship, had been around since 1100 AD in China.)
The fact that major retailers like Urban Outfitters sell books and products geared toward the witchy market isn’t so surprising when you consider the fact that countrywide obsession with divination is usually connected to unstable socio-political times (and climate change, too). In a study soon to be published in The Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society, the study’s authors — Peter T. Leeson, an economist at George Mason University, and Jacob W. Russ, an economist at Bloom Intelligence, a big-data analysis firm — credit this phenomenon to competition. They write: "Similar to how contemporary Republican and Democrat candidates focus campaign activity in political battlegrounds during elections to attract the loyalty of undecided voters, historical Catholic and Protestant officials focused witch-trial activity in confessional battlegrounds during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to attract the loyalty of undecided Christians."
“As for millennials, a lot of people are traumatized by religion. And the more marginalized your identity and body is, the more traumatized you are by it,” says Vei Darling, a non-binary, queer high priestess and healer. “People are tired of being miserable and that’s why people are making the effort to find new ways of being.” A book like Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals by Luisah Teish is an accessible starter text for people who have an interest in alternative methods of dealing with life and the many emotions that define it. Of course, being a true practitioner demands operating off the page too, but using guidebooks to chart a path to greater intention is a method that will never fall away.
“What is not spoken about in the appropriation of some of these practices is that it’s not all fun..."
"I feel like people are flailing looking for anything that resonates," says DeBraun. "[There’s been] generations of people searching for some deep meaning spiritual practices who feel isolated by the Judeo-Christian hegemony... and this feels accessible and customizable." Santeria, and other indigenous African spiritual traditions, are often defined as "alternative" because of their existence outside of patriarchal, Western norms. And while there’s nothing wrong with white, mainstream audiences engaging with these sorts of radical texts and practices, "it’s not a party trick," says DeBraun. “What is not spoken about in the appropriation of some of these practices is that it’s not all fun... sometimes being sensitive to things can also be a great burden, and is something to work through and own in a specific way,” they add.
Witches of color who don’t have the connections, platform, or interest in sharing their craft with the witchy population through books, are now monetizing their witch-based talents online and through fellowship instead. Engaging with an audience via in-person tarot readings or performing new moon rituals on Instagram stories are just a couple of ways witches share their gifts with the community in the absence of book deals. Darling is one such magick-maker who uses these methods to help those who are seeking it. "A lot of esoteric practices are integrated into therapy, and they’re just very clinical seeming," they say. "So a lot of the work I do focuses on making the mystical, fantastical, infinite seem more tangible for people...so they can understand it and digest it and let it become a part of them that becomes organic and makes sense." Darling offers horoscope insights, birth chart and tarot readings, synastry, and more.
“There’s so many of us who were burnt out on other modalities of interacting with other spiritualities,” says Dianca Potts, a freelance writer, whose memoir on surviving Christian school — Planning for the Apocalypse — is forthcoming. In an age where millennials and members of Gen Z are questioning outdated, traditional concepts and authority, people’s lifestyles are changing as a response to being unwilling to invest in the ways of the past that feel unprogressive, at best, and oppressive, at worst.
According to Darling, the internet has long been a safe space for witches operating outside of tangible formats like spell books and tarot decks. "Growing up we would go on blog hosting websites and find spells because when it came to books we were at the behest of the library," they say. “And even though we were in a pretty liberal space, there are not going to be books on how to practice witchcraft in an elementary library.” Darling, who identifies deeply with “goddess energy,” says that they always knew they were a witch, especially because they were always attracted to magickal things in the media and fellow black, female-bodied witches, like Rachel True’s character on The Craft.
When they were first discovering their gifts, Darling used the internet as a tool to explore their identity, sans expectations, until it became the most organic way to share their magick practice — even more than reading spell books and tarot decks. “The digital space is more dynamic, so I can learn something new,” Darling says. “Insights come to me because everybody is pouring their energy into this thing.” A large part of learning how to be an intentional practitioner comes from reading and writing, to be sure — after all, spelling is a ritual that affects phrasing and the meaning of words. But platforms like Instagram and YouTube have given modern witches the power to express themselves — verbally — for a wide audience, beyond the pages of books previous generations were limited to. "You have to learn about the craft from people...orally and from being shown,” says Darling. “The internet has more of that personal feeling.”
In this sense, the internet community now exists as a new type of coven, an extension of both the relationship between meet-ups in real life and the relationship between a solitary reader and their text. Historically marginalized practitioners are able to use the world wide web as a social space and a place for business. There, they have the freedom to exchange their esoteric expertise for money, and define themselves without the constraints of a publishing house.
"It’s very hard to be able to get that book deal and get that supportive marketing because [publishers] already assume there’s such a small community that wants it anyway," says Dianca Potts. However, Potts points out that there are several avenues to publishing, from major houses to small, independent presses, to DIY zines. "Of the major publishers, they all publish spirituality books and have imprints [dedicated to that], so they’re able to zoom in on the particular interests of what they do," she says. Just because a book is popular and published, doesn’t mean it’s treating witchcraft superficially. "It’s hard to know what communities [authors] are rooted in," she says. “It’s important to dig a little deeper and see who they’re in community with. That gives you a broader sense of the worldview that this person is a part of, instead of assuming that because you see it in the mainstream that it’s not valuable."
"Witches are the most intentional people that I know. They think a lot about the choices they make and the work they put into the world.”
Choosing a text or a practitioner to seek counsel from involves a great deal of personal intuition; as straightforward as spell books and tarot decks may seem, they don’t hold all of the answers to living a more intentional, guided life. "[Spell books] are not supposed to be prescriptive, they’re something that’s supposed to provide a framework so you can figure whatever out for you," Potts says. "Witches are the most intentional people that I know," she adds, stressing the importance of seeking out books (and authors) that resonate with her personally. "They think a lot about the choices they make and the work they put into the world.”
The journey to make sense of some inner reality happens through literature for some witches, and happens through social media for others. In truth, when it comes to wellness of mind, body, and health, there’s no one way to achieve an ideal balance. But for astrologers like Darling, who depend on their community online for sanctuary and engagement: “The internet is the wild west, it’s the new frontier, it's a parallel of our internal,” Darling says. “If we are all gods, the internet is the universe. It’s just a natural space for me.”