Gen Z witches say ‘It’s the way of life’

Story by Taylor Pittman, senior at McDonogh 35

This story was originally published in an ongoing partnership with The Gambit. The following is that article, verbatim.

Walking into Doneisha Stevenson’s house for the first time, it’s easy to see the signs: the burning sage, Jhene Aiko playing on the TV in the background and the row of prayer crystals all make it clear. A spiritual person lives here, and in this case, she’s a 19-year-old witch.

Of course, that’s not to say everything about Stevenson’s life comes off as Witch Coven Living 101. She is, after all, a normal New Orleanian teen: she listens to rap music, keeps up with Twitter trends and hangs with her friends.

For tourists, and even a lot of residents, witchcraft and voodoo are things of the past: mythic practices that may have helped create New Orleans culture, but are either long gone like the juke joints of the old Basin Street or are the province of French Quarter tourist traps.

But for Stevenson and other members of Gen Z, the old ways are still very much alive, coexisting alongside TikTok in perfect harmony.

“It’s the way of life,” Stevenson says, matter of factly. “It’s my life.”

Other than Salem, Massachusetts, no other place in America is more associated with the so-called “occult” than New Orleans. With its roots firmly in the spiritual, religious and medicinal traditions of enslaved Africans, voodoo has been a central force in the city’s history and culture. Powerful historical voodoo priests and priestesses like Marie Laveau and Doctor John (the original, not the late singer) are prominent figures in the city’s folklore, art, and music, and for believers remain very real forces in their lives.

Long considered evil by “mainstream” religious leaders, for much of its history, voodoo and witchcraft has been practiced in backrooms and basements with hushed voices behind locked doors. For much older generations, letting people know you were a witch could be a death sentence. Throughout history, witches have been hunted and killed, wrongly accused of causing all sorts of calamities and evil.

Even in the modern era, the practice has been met with condemnation and ridicule. “We were more secretive when I first started dabbling in it. Now it’s a trend, and it’s OK to be a witch,” Laurie Alan Brown, a 35-year-old witch, explains. “Back then, people would say things like ‘devil-worshiper,’ and that certainly made us more secretive.”

And even in sympathetic popular culture portrayals, witches have long found themselves typecast as black clad outsiders struggling to fit in.

But that’s begun to change, particularly for members of Gen Z. Celebrities such as SZA, Lizzo, and many more openly promote their spirituality on Instagram and other forums with different tools such as sound bowls and candles. YouTubers such as Zolita, Astrokit and several others broadcast tarot readings and describe how they got into their practices.

On TikTok — where videos with the witchcraft hashtag has a whopping 1.9 billion views — you can only scroll so far in your “for you” page before landing on “witch TikTok.” It’s not a scary subgenre, no matter what Hollywood might tell you, but more an educational resource where young people use candles and blow incense or teach you how to sage your house from evil spirits.

“We don’t always dress in all black or all white flowy dresses and skirts to our ankles,” Brown says. “Sometimes it’s just a pair of jeans and a T-shirt kind of day.”

Part of the acceptance of witchcraft, voodoo and other forms of spirituality amongst Gen Zers may be based on how they come to it. While Traditional or Folk witches specifically practice the magic of their ancestors or traditions from their specific region, many modern-day witches wouldn’t identify as Traditional witches. Instead, they take a more eclectic approach to it, embracing all different types of magic and are not stuck to one specific religion.

“I use crystals, which is an older method,” Stevenson says. “But I think they are important to cleanse energy and focus.” Like a lot of people her age, Stevenson practices what is known as Secular witchcraft. Secular witches cast spells, use crystals, herbs, oils and candles. Yet, they don’t attach much religion to their practice.

That, perhaps predictably, can rub older witches the wrong way.

“These younger witches have too much ego,” Katie Nelson, a 43-year-old New Orleans witch, says. “The only reason they choose to be so public about their practice is that they want to be seen.” Nelson identifies as a Rootworker — a spiritually based form of Hereditary Witchcraft.

While Nelson worries about the showiness of Gen Z witches, others see it as a good opportunity to keep the practices alive. “There is more of an opportunity to be bold,” Brown says. And that can be particularly important in a moment such as this, when so much of the world is in chaos and people are looking for something to hold on to.

In 2020, COVID-19 has claimed over a million deaths worldwide. The focus on illness and healing has made many people discover witchcraft for the first time, or even rediscover their hereditary practices. For Stevenson’s particular brand of witchcraft, it was both.

“I reached out to my grandmother, asking her a few things about my ancestors, and she re-introduced me to the concept of what healers are and what they do,” Stevenson says. “My brother previously awakened me, but when he went away for some time, I lost it. After I spoke with my grandmother, I knew then it was my time.”