The roots of Black and Indigenous spiritual practices and witchcraft carry Sabrina’s narrative and many other white witch-centered narratives.
By Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo
This essay contains spoilers for “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
When I first saw the trailer for Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” before it was released last week, it piqued my interest. Though I haven’t read the comics the series is based on, I grew up watching “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and reading the Archie comics in the mid to late 90s and early 2000s. I’m not a huge fan of horror, as I find many creators in the genre cannot ultimately escape the monstrous trappings of dominant culture in their storytelling and I could tell the show was going to be a considerably darker departure from the characteristic telling, but it caught my attention nonetheless. It looked like it would deliver a more diverse cast and potentially feature smarter, more intentional, culturally, and socially rich storytelling than the high school horror/supernatural “Magical Chosen Girl” lore I had grown up with.
I was also intrigued out of pure cynicism, knowing the show would do what most shows and media featuring young white female witches or even supernatural female characters do. These narratives take up the legacy of the Salem Witch Trials and other historical instances of non-European, non-Pagan, African and Indigenous spiritual practices and the religious repression and violence the practitioners experienced at the hands of European colonizers. In doing so, they falsely represent and conflate varied complex practices with “devil worship”. And “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” does exactly this.
The underbelly of a lot of this misrepresentation and space-taking lies with a fundamental misunderstanding of the history that much of the story it relies upon, namely that of the Salem Witch Trials. It does so because it is easy for white storytellers to envision a descendant of European witches who fled to the new world to escape religious persecution as the champion of such a story.
In reality, it was not merely witchcraft that sent the town of Salem into a Christian religious panic and doomed many of its citizens to execution by hanging, but specifically the practice of non-European, non-Christian, Black spiritual traditions. Central to this was the accusation that Tituba, an enslaved, likely Afro-Indigenous Barbadian, woman captive in Salem, was seen engaging and even teaching these practices to others. She was ultimately spared the cruel fate her enslavers and other slave-owning settlers chose to enforce on one another and sent back to the Caribbean where she was from, but only after she gave a fantastical, and likely carefully crafted, confession to satiate the rabid witch hunters. I wonder how it must have been for someone like Tituba, to have survived the bloody aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials alive, in a world where the life expectancy for enslaved people was barely three decades, if that.
“…the conclusion of Tituba’s remarkable confession, marked a new chapter in the witchhunt episodes of New England…Tituba’s confession is the key to understanding why the events of 1692 took on such epic significance.” – Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies
In spite of this history, time after time, in tellings of the happenings of Salem in horror and supernatural lore, this fact is obscured and writers continue engaging in the decades-long mischaracterization of the panic as merely being gendered. The panic was a both gendered and racialized product of white colonialism, but ignoring this allows white women, their experiences, and their perspectives to become the representatives for all of us. This omission plays itself out in the series over and over in the objectification and mistreatment of characters of color and the way stolen aspects of our practices are represented or used to drive plot.
It continues the erasure of long histories of many communities of color, chiefly Black and Indigenous peoples of the Americas, who have had with the repression and banning of our spiritual practices, with the women in these communities experiencing the most violence and silencing of their traditional practices and ways. It deepens the painful characterization of these practices, these people, as evil, as dark, as “Bad/Black Witches”, echoing how settlers criminalized them to justify violence against them, and the policing of their bodies, communities, and cultures.
While I have a literary and spiritual love and affinity for all things witchy, demonic, dark, and even heathen, I understand that the Indigenous practices of my ancestors and other communities of color were not those things, and to conflate the two is dangerous, colonial, and bigoted. Not only that, but our cultures and lore, even as we share experiences as global south people or people of color, should not be lumped together in any way. And to reduce us to mere objects to summon upon or things of terror, which is exactly what three white witches do in the episode six to perform an exorcism, is a gross disservice.
“We call forth the witches from the shade. Those who came before us and died so that we might live,” Sabrina begins. Then, the other two join in, “Visit us, Sisters. Intercede on our behalf.” Among the names called are Tituba and Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.
But the women of color called up in this exorcism, and more “witchy” Black and Indigenous women, were just trying to exist and fight against the anti-Black system of slavery that found them or their people forcibly bound. They are not the spectors of malice or witchcraft at beck and call to be summoned by white witches. They are not Sabrina’s sisters, ancestors, or foremothers.
When we understand these facts about Black and Indigenous histories and experiences with racialized religious violence, witch hysteria, and demonization, we see how inextricable the story of Salem and witch panic in the West is against the backdrop of white supremacy and colonialism. We can see how the Girl Power bent of these media narratives in truth get their influence from the matriarchal practices of Black and Indigenous peoples which spit in the face of the patriarchy traditional to Christian Europeans. We can also very easily see parallels to people of color’s current experiences with these systems of oppression, cultural and religious repression, and demonization, and how this is all unfortunately mirrored and replicated throughout Sabrina.
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Just as important is challenging the continuance of having white faces and voices pretend to speak for these Black and Indigenous ancestors. Like calling honored spirits passed into a space, these women should be named, their truths told and given the proper respect owed for their experiences, struggles, and work. Respect how they reverberate and are still found and carried to this day in our cultures and rites.
Often, white women use these witch allegories to claim their roots in land their people stole, colonized, and committed many acts of violence in and grant them the nationalistic birthright and nativity denied people of color, even Indigenous ones, and especially Black ones who are often said to have no history, no identity at all. But in reality, it is our roots that run strong and old. They clearly carry this show, and many other white witch-centered narratives, and that deserves more due than has ever been given.
Author Bio: Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo. Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Afro-Dominicana. High Hex Femme.
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