Summer 2007

Black Herman’s African American Magical Synthesis

Between folklore and vaudeville

Yvonne P. Chireau

For early-twentieth-century American audiences hungry for entertainment variety, what could be more novel than an elegantly dressed black man, at the center of his own spectacular universe—pontificating on his success and performing marvelous stunts? Black Herman fit the bill. A magician and illusionist who successfully effaced the boundaries between theater, folk religion, and entrepreneurship, the mythology surrounding his person was to expand even further after his untimely death. Some seized upon his legacy by impersonation, adopting titles like “Black Herman the Second” and “The Original Black Herman,” and continuing, uninterrupted, the popular act that had made him famous. Indeed, it seems that the mystique of Black Herman was willed into perpetuity, sometimes by the name alone. To take two examples: he was reborn as Herman “Sonny” Blount, who had been named for Black Herman, and who was eventually apotheosized as the avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra of the eclectic Philadelphia-based band Arkestra. Later, black Herman made an appearance as a neo-hoodoo detective-sidekick in Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo. Could it be, as Black Herman himself once cryptically prophesied, that he would “come through once every seven years” to stake his claim to immortality—if only by the forces of history and memory?

Black Herman’s origins lay in the South. He was born Benjamin Rucker in Virginia in 1892 and came of age in the shadow of an itinerant African American showman and street peddler by the name of Prince Herman (Alonzo Moore), who took in Rucker as an apprentice at the age of sixteen. By the time of Prince Herman’s death, Rucker had fine-tuned his own skills at reading cards, divining fortunes, and cooking up healing elixirs, so much so that he was able to make his own way around the circuit of traveling faith healers who hustled material goods and spiritual assurances from town to town in Black Belt communities. Eventually the harbingers of poverty and racial discrimination pushed Rucker out of the South and toward Chicago, where in the late 1910s he launched an independent career, assuming a new biography and name borrowed from his old friend and mentor: henceforth he would be known as Black Herman.

Black Herman was a master of conventional magic techniques and legerdemain, but he also drew from black vernacular traditions. Although he claimed to have been born in “the dark jungles of Africa,” he was not the first person of African descent to utilize the medium of magic in public performance. Richard Potter, the son of a slave, had gained distinction in the early 1800s by cultivating his talents as a ventriloquist and sleight-of-hand artist. William Carl, known as the “Black Dante” or “Creole Mahatma” in the American vaudeville era, identified the “Orient” as his source of magical knowledge, thereby assuming a new and exotic racial personality. Apart from the professional career entertainers of the stage, there also existed a class of black spiritual magicians who were known as Conjurers, Hoodoos, and Root Doctors. These mystically inclined men and women culled ancient religious resources in order to produce a kind of therapeutic thaumaturgy that thrived within slave communities for over two centuries. In the popular imagination, fragments of this sacred worldview metamorphosed into “Negro superstitions” and “Voodoo.” In reality, however, African American spiritual magicians synthesized the most powerful elements of their tradition into charming and healing practices. The echoes of this mysterious, powerful constellation of folk supernaturalism, occult arts, and ancestral religiosity can be discerned in Black Herman’s performative style. A resourceful showman who engaged secular techniques of magic, he simultaneously reinterpreted the broader universe in which African American spiritual practices had been incubated, utilizing conjure healing, divination, and Hoodoo practices as part of his repertoire. His appropriation of both worlds was as resonant with audiences as it was profitable for him.

Black Herman’s characteristic self-presentation as a master of spiritual and material mysteries. Cover of Black Herman’s Secrets of Magic-Mystery & Legerdemain, 1938. Courtesy The Magic Circle Library, London.

Black Herman found his place as the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest magician” in Harlem, the African American mecca during the Jazz Age. It was here, at the cosmopolitan center of a dazzling culture industry where all roads to fortune and fame converged, that Herman mass-marketed the act for which he became best known, a combination of stage craft, comedy, vaudeville theater, religious oratory, and mind-reading tricks. His crowning achievement was a headlining show at Marcus Garvey’s four-thousand-seat Liberty Hall in 1923. Herman sold out the hall for a month at a venue that had previously housed rallies of Harlem’s favorite race heroes and pan-African radicals. His shows were hugely appealing to an emerging urban audience, a highly mixed demographic that included blacks, whites, society members and other elites, and men and women of the working classes.

Black Herman’s self-presentation as a master of arcane mysteries justified his use of prestigious titles such as “Professor” and “Doctor,” which adorned his books, magazines, and promotional literature. Such credentials were often adopted by African American religious figures and occultists as emblems of intellectual respectability in an era when positive representations of black male identity were openly contested in the public sphere. Equally at home as a merchant of conjuring implements and as a storefront impresario, Herman set up shop as an authorized seller of mail order courses, lucky numbers, and health tonics until he was arrested in 1925 and sent to Sing Sing on a charge of fraud. Prison did not dissuade him from his true calling, however, and by the end of the decade he had returned to the stage and his extraordinarily lucrative career.

Black Herman’s public career came to an abrupt end when he collapsed onstage after a show at the Palace Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1934. Few persons who were present at the time could determine whether his departure was part of the act or not. After all, one of his most famous tricks involved the staging of his own burial and resurrection, a feat of great daring that he had perfected after years of traveling on road tours. We see, in an undated photograph, a throng of enthusiastic fans pressing against a platform: “Look! Look! Buried Alive!” a banner compels those who would be first to see him rise from his “Private Graveyard.” When Black Herman’s body was ultimately laid to rest at New York’s Woodlawn cemetery, newspapers reported that scores of visitors gathered in anticipation of his final appearance.

Thus ended the life of one of the most successful African American magicians of the twentieth century. Black Herman had tapped a wellspring of indigenous spiritual traditions that held broad appeal among black Americans, utilizing these alternative idioms to connect with diverse audience members. Delighted to be part of the fun, spectators responded as with a single voice.

Yvonne P. Chireau teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Her most recent work is Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (University of California Press, 2003). She is currently writing a book on second-generation practitioners of African religions in the United States.

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