Dream Books, Crystal Balls, and "Lucky Numbers": African American Female Mediums in Harlem, 1900-1930s

Article excerpt

During the late 1990s, self-proclaimed Jamaican psychic "Miss Geo" appeared in nation-wide infomercials offering tarot card readings, one-on-one psychic consultations, and spiritual guidance on matters concerning money, family, and love. Miss Cleo and her promoters, the multi-million dollar syndicate Wahgwaan Entertainment and the Psychic Readers Network, offered pay-per-call psychic service and attracted consumers via the Internet, direct mail, and through infomercials. Miss Cleo, whose real name was Youree Cleomill Harris, was not Jamaican nor did she possess psychic powers. Prior to taking on the persona of "Miss Cleo,'" Harris was an actress and entertainer in Los Angeles, California and Seattle, Washington and performed as a character named "Miss Cleo" in a play entitled Supper Club Cafe. In 1999, "Miss Cleo" and Wahgwaan Entertainment and the Psychic Readers Network were publicly accused of being con artists and frauds. They faced lawsuits in several states, and in 2002, the Federal Trade Commission charged the "Jamaican shaman" and her business partners with deceptive advertising, billing, and collection practices." (2)

Youree "Miss Cleo" Harris belonged to an established historic tradition of African American women who claimed to possess psychic and supernatural abilities. During the colonial and antebellum periods, some enslaved and free black women were considered conjurers, practitioners of magic, and spiritual workers who fused African rituals, traditions, and worldviews with those from Anglo-American Supernaturalism. (3) In My Southern Home or The South and Its People, black abolitionist William Wells Brown observed that "nearly every large plantation had at least one, who laid claim to be a fortune teller, and who was granted with more than common respect by his fellow slaves." (4) Antebellum British actress France Kemble in her account of her husband's Georgia rice plantation on Butler Island discusses the supernatural ability of an enslaved woman "prophetess" named Sinda. According to Kemble, Sinda was praised on the plantation because she possessed the gift of sight. Sinda was so much respected by the enslaved community that when she prophesied that the "world was to come to an end at a certain time, the belief in her assertion took such possession of the people on the estate, that they [the slaves] refused to work; and the rice and cotton fields were threatened with an indefinite fallow, in consequences of this strike on the part of the cultivators." (5) For some enslaved African Americans, the supernatural world was crucial in helping them cope with the day-to-day drudgery of plantation life. Some slaves believed that magic powders and spells would prevent physical abuse and being sold, and provide some with the courage and opportunity to runaway or defy their owners. Supernatural traditions and the use of magic charms and amulets were "integral to slaves" strategies of resistance" and "helped to build an inner and autonomous black world." (6)

Similarly, like their ancestors of the past, some African Americans during the early twentieth century believed that "supernatural traditions were integral" to helping them dealt and overcome limited employment and economic hardship, and race, class, and gender discrimination. According to Yvonne Chireau, "for many blacks, supernatural ism revealed why suffering occurred and indicated who or what was responsible, thus explaining and locating the disease or misfortune within communally based norms and idioms of the spiritual world ... and facilitated individual agency and empowerment." (7) African Americans' belief in the supernatural and the power of self-professed conjurers and mediums stemmed from cultural and religious traditions practiced by enslaved people, and from their encounters and experiences with un-conventional and non-institutionalized religious practices in urban communities during the Great Migration. Many black men and women turned to self-professed African American female clairvoyants such as Mme. …