Cover of Conjure Times by Jim Haskins and Kathleen BensonMichael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. All opinions expressed in this review are his own and not necessarily those of iTricks.

Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, published 2001 by Walker and Company, New York. Marked as “juvenile literature.”

The lowdown: A history of African-American magicians, especially for young readers, is a great idea but I do question some of the decisions and facts presented in this book!

Magic history, like so many niche categories, can be a tricky subject (if you will excuse the pun). This is probably even more true when those tackling the subject are not magicians, much less magic history scholars. Looking at the other books by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, it is obvious that their speciality is, to quote the back flap biographies, “writing African-American nonfiction for young readers.” This brings to light two very important things that must be remembered when reading this book: it is aimed at young readers and it is an effort to inspire those readers, particularly African-American readers.

As long as you keep in mind that the authors’ agenda is not to create a scholarly biography of these magicians, much less a magic scholarly biography, it is a fine book even for adult readers. Six magic acts are singled out and given their own chapters (Richard Potter, Henry “Box” Brown, William Carl, The Armstrongs, Black Herman and Fetaque Sanders) and several chapters highlight multiple acts or spotlight a specific period of time. One thought that I kept having while reading Conjure Times is that it is a shame that there is not an updated version that could include Kenrick ICE McDonald, Eric Jones and performers firmly rooted in the Internet such as Jibrizy.

Unfortunately, the other thought I had several times during my read was that I really was not sure how much I could trust the scholarship. The bibliography makes only a single reference to a printed magic periodical (an issue of M-U-M) and a second to an online journal (Magical Past-Times). I realize that many publications may not have included African-American performers, but I know for a fact Fetaque Sanders was published in The Sphinx (read about that on iTricks) in 1938 and was mentioned in that periodical, as well as The Linking Ring, several other times in the 1930s and ’40s. Also in the the section on Sanders the authors flub the date of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio show (inferring that Welles went on to become famous for it after a 1943 Broadway magic show he directed with Sanders in the cast even though the War of the Worlds broadcast was 1938 and by 1943 Welles had already written, directed, starred and received an Academy Award for 1941′s Citizen Kane). I realize mistakes happen, but establishing the dates of Welles’ career should have been easy and made me question some of the authors’ other statements of fact. I also couldn’t help but notice they wrote David Blaine was “the first magician of color to have his own magic special on television.” This may be technically true but Kuda Bux, who was not African-American but an Indian born Muslim, had his own show on CBS in the late 1940s! (You can read about that on iTricks as well).

One plus of Conjure Times is that, by and large, magic effects are not revealed and when secrets are discussed the authors tend to be vague about methodology. Whether this is respect for magic or lack of knowledge I am not sure, but I did question their judgement when they chose to reveal a mind reading trick which involved pouring lighter fluid on envelopes to make them transparent. This is a book for younger readers, so tipping how to use a dangerous, flammable liquid to reproduce a professional magic trick seemed a poor choice to me.

All in all, Conjure Times tells of an important part of magic history and it is worth reading. I hope it leads audiences to delve deeper into magic history, though.