Black Joy

The answers are in the cards: A Black Joy guide to tarot and oracle decks

This story is part of our Black RE:SET, a project that focuses on Black spirituality and wellness.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, one of the attractions at our school Halloween fair was a palm reader. I was intrigued as I waited my turn, watching her tell the kid in front of me, “this line means you’re going to live a long time.”

Fortune-telling has existed in various forms for thousands of years. Through playing cards. Tea leaves. Crystal balls. Divination, “the practice of foretelling the future or assigning hidden meanings to events (and people),” is an intricate part of our world.

In Christian churches, pastors rely on bibliomancy – “using what one believes is a sacred text for spiritual guidance or to predict future events (see: the rapture).”

And in some other spiritual traditions, practitioners rely on cartomancy, which “uses cards, such as tarot and oracle decks, as a divination tool by asking questions about life.”

“Should I keep talking to this person who keeps hitting up my DMs?”

“Beyoncé tickets or rent?”

“Do I really need this third degree or am I just bored?”

Originally created as a game, tarot cards can be traced back to the late fourteenth century in Europe. Tarot consists of 78 cards divided into Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Major Arcana cards, such as The Empress, are more of archetypes that might represent you or a bigger picture situation that will impact you.

The Minor Arcana, like a Three of Swords, are assigned meanings related to everyday concerns. In my view, it’s a bit more targeted at whatever issue you’re consulting the cards about.

The Rider-Waite deck, the most common and often recommended to beginners, was created in the early 20th century by British Occultist Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Coleman Smith, and published under William Rider & Son.

Smith, who some have claimed to be a biracial woman, is the more mysterious and controversial of the two. Because she spent a portion of her childhood in Jamaica, one theory is that she is biracial by way of her mother. However, others have suggested that there is no way to know definitively due to conflicting accounts.

One fact can’t be denied, Smith occupied some uniquely elite circles during a time when most Black folks were still not considered fully human. Was she passing? Who knows, but her impact, especially on some Black women, is apparent.

The first decks I was drawn to depicted Black folks in the images as opposed to the Rider-Waite deck, which doesn’t. It wasn’t until a friend told me the artist was Black that I decided to give the cards a chance, though the whitewashed imagery still had me skeptical.

What I can definitively say, from my experience: the Rider-Waite is a good beginner deck. It can be a great point of reference as you engage other decks, particularly those where you feel represented. And it can also help you strengthen your intuition through daily or even weekly card pulls.

If you are interested in exploring Black-owned decks, I recommend the Hoodoo Tarot, Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot, and Grandma Baby’s Black Gold Lenormand. For more decks by and for Black folks check out Shoppe Black.

We are all part of the divine

Aja Vines didn’t get into cartomancy until adulthood, but she grew up in Milwaukee learning about astrology and crystals thanks to her mother. Vines laughs at the irony considering both her parents came from structured, religious households. But the effects of organized religion took a toll on Vines’ parents, who decided not to baptize their children or force them to subscribe to religious systems. Attending midnight mass on Christmas or tagging along with Vines’ paternal grandmother to church on Sunday were optional, not obligatory. Vines was free to explore and expand her own spiritual path. Her childhood set the foundation for Vines’ life as a 36-year-old intuitive reader and spiritual advisor in Los Angeles.

“I think spirituality is a means of exploring the divine, which I am a part of. We are each a facet of the divine,” Vines said. “It’s recognizing that simply because I exist, I am a divine being, and what that means and how that impacts how I show up in the world. It’s recognizing my own divinity and cultivating my relationship with God or the universe or source.”

Because of her upbringing, Vines was open to experiencing tarot when her friends started doing readings for each other during her 20s. This pastime led to Vines’ exploration of oracle cards, which is what Vines uses during her readings today.

Oracle cards are like Tarot’s care-free cousin

Originating in Europe five centuries after tarot, oracle cards function differently both in style and in story. Think of oracle cards like tarot’s carefree cousin. Unlike the structured tarot deck, each oracle deck has its own personality and the number of cards varies. Oracle deck themes are based on the intention of the creator. Each deck comes with a guidebook that teaches you the meaning of the cards so you’re not left in the dark.

While oracle cards are more flexible in functionality, the readings are just as solid. Vines uses oracle decks to help her clients strengthen their inner wisdom as they wander through life. This ‘innate GPS,’ as Vines calls it, can be thrown off by other people’s opinions about our life’s accomplishments and goals, Vines said. Oracle readings – like tarot readings – can also exercise that spiritual muscle of self-trust and repair people’s relationship with themselves.

In fact, the word “oracle” in Greek culture was synonymous with an omniscient god. People would travel to temples to receive prophecies, the most popular stop being in Delphi at the Temple of Apollo, the god of knowledge and light.

Many practitioners point to famed French fortune teller and psychic Madame Lenormand as the creator of the first oracle cards. The 36-card deck, known today as the Lenormand deck, was adopted as a divination tool and pioneered the oracle decks we see today. Like tarot, Black creatives have replicated the traditional Lenormand deck. The Grandma Baby’s Black Gold Lenormand Deck blends ancestral wisdom and Hoodoo.

Luckily, no temple pilgrimage is needed for guidance. Our own bodies are the sacred space holding all the wisdom we need. Vines said the ultimate goal of her readings is to guide her clients towards liberation.

“When I allow myself to lean into what I know to be true, it’s an inexplicable thing. It generally leads me down the path of least resistance and into a state of flow, which to me is a part of liberation,” Vines said. “I think I started using oracle cards to relearn how to trust myself in believing what I already knew somewhere in my body to be true, and honestly, when I read for other people, I try to always make it very clear that that’s what I’m offering.”

Vines readings are guided by a major life lesson she learned in 2016. That year, she broke up with a long-term partner who moved to Los Angeles with her a couple of years prior. Drowning in devastation, Vines felt an urge to reach out to a friend in Australia she was planning to visit that year. After giving them the news about the breakup and that her trip may not happen, her friend posed a solution: why not just live in Australia?

Vines laughed off the idea at first, but then she got curious as to why she was hesitant to take that leap. She was unhappy with her job at the time. Her relationship had just ended. What did she have to lose? So, after a comforting conversation with her mother, Vines decided to let the cards guide her. She got out a tarot deck gifted to her.

She pulled “The Fool” card.

“That is the first card in the story of the tarot, and it’s all about going on a journey,” Vines said. “That’s the start of the journey. That’s the start of the deck. And I thought, ‘Okay. I couldn’t really ask for a better sign.”

Vines said it was the Virgo in her that made her do another reading for good measure a few days later. She pulled “The Fool” again, and that was that. The universe hath spoken and came bearing gifts for Vines. She applied for her visa later that same week and got her approval email within 15 minutes. She only paid about $500 dollars for a one-way ticket to fly across the globe. Finding a job in Australia came easily, and a home was already waiting for her to settle into during her one year stay in a new country.

“That was the first time in my life that I thought, ‘This shit might be for real,” Vines laughed. “Like before, it was fun and exciting. But that was a moment I was using this tool to make a very serious, very big decision in my life. To this day, that is the best thing I have ever done for myself. I followed that feeling, took that double confirmation and ran with it. Everything unfolded more smoothly than it ever has in my life.”

The cards also aided Vines with her decision to quit her job to be a full-time, professional reader. This shift was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Vines used that time to reevaluate her life. She was feeling unenthusiastic and stressed about her successful career as a cosmetic tattooist. She was helping people look good, but she wanted to do something more impactful.

An epiphany came to her in the shower one night. Vines said a voice dropped in telling her to do readings fulltime. A suggestion multiple friends had made over the years, but imposter syndrome always stopped her. She was already doing readings on the side at a “pay-what-you-can” rate.

The proposal was intriguing. Could she rearrange her life again, but this time in a professional way? That was a question for the cards. So, she grabbed an oracle deck. Shuffled. And pulled a card that said, “Yes.”

On the bottom of the card it said, “Just say yes.”

The universe hath spoken again.

Vines took the leap by offering professional readings in March 2022. She quit her job to do readings full-time later that year in October. Her gentle and uplifting readings on TikTok and Instagram drew in clientele. The fact that she has a collective following of over 45,600 makes her giggle now considering she wasn’t thinking about beating an algorithm when she started posting on social media.

She just went in with the intention to help people get free from their own self-doubt. It took a few uncomfortable moments for Vines to honor that gift for herself through the aid of the cards and community. But she’s grateful for this journey that’s challenging her to embrace vulnerability.

“Life happens outside of the comfort zone, and I’m trying to stretch myself out of it even just a little bit each day so that I can show up as my fullest, most authentic and multifaceted self in all spaces, regardless of who else is there,” Vines said.

Oracle card basics

Vines stresses that tarot cards follow a different system and story, but the following tips from her work well for both oracle and tarot cards:

Be gentle with yourself: There are many decks out there. Take your time in choosing one that suits you. You can check out a metaphysical store near you, or Vines said there’s no harm shopping online. The important part is to not rush the process and lean into your feelings.

“When it comes to choosing a deck, I suppose you could do a bunch of research beforehand. If you’re very analytically minded that might feel like the best way to do it,” Vines said. “When choosing a deck, I think it’s a lot about the feeling. A great way to start practicing using your own intuition is looking at decks and then when one excites you or calls to you, pause. Don’t just keep going. The first thing is to really check in. Maybe even ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling when I see this? Why do I feel like I’m called to this deck?’”

Cleanse (ethically) and connect: Vines does recommend cleansing the energy of your new cards once you bring them home. She stresses that sage and palo santo aren’t sustainable options. But you can use incense to cleanse your cards. Once that’s done, focus on connecting with your cards.

“I also really think the intention is what’s important. Because [the deck] is brand new, let it connect with your energy. You can sit and meditate with it, which also helps you bring you closer to the energy of your deck and help you guys get acquainted. I really feel like decks have their own personalities.”

Play around: Pull a single card for yourself. Mindfully shuffle the deck. Don’t even look at the guidebook when it comes to your very first card. Just look at it and ask yourself what your intuition is telling you about that card. Then look at the guidebook and learn more about that card. Vines stresses not to get discouraged if your interpretation of your first card doesn’t the guidebook. The point is to strengthen your trust in yourself. After the first pull, you can read the rest of the guidebook and get to know your deck by practicing pulling a card a day.

“The biggest thing I can say is just let yourself move into it intuitively, and that’s rich coming from me as a person who’s a recovering perfectionist,” Vines said. “I always thought, ‘Okay. There’s this one way you’re supposed to do something.’ That’s kept me from doing a lot, and I don’t want anybody to feel like that.”

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

Jonece Starr Dunigan

Jonece Starr Dunigan |

Jonece Starr Dunigan (She/her/hers) is a journalist who gives the microphone to communities that are often ignored by mainstream media. Guided by empathy, her reporting centers the stories, movement work and voices of Black, brown and queer people. Her writing strives to amplify and empower readers instead of exploiting them of their traumas.

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