Being a novice, I imagine others with more experience and knowledge would have more grace than I in talking about this. But, at the least I can take what I do know, pairing it with information out there posted by well-known rootworkers, and attempt to piece together an honest, hopefully brief, explanation of rootwork and what it is and is not.
The creator of the website Hoodoo Roots posted a fantastic article about rootwork and its components that is one of the best I've found. It does a fantastic job of explaining just what it is and how it works, and does so quickly and easily. Excerpts are below:
"Hoodoo is a form of American folk-magic with its taproot in Africa. Grafted onto this core are distinct European and Native American herbal and magical practices and beliefs. Hoodoo is not Voodoo, Santeria or any other religion. It is a living and organic magical system with a strong African heartbeat. Nearly all practitioners are Christian.
Rootworkers are specialists in magic who use the innate powers and properties of herbs, roots, trees, minerals, animal components and a variety of other natural substances to produce desired changes in circumstances and conditions. There are also traditional methods utilized in creating, combining, preparing and deploying magical substances and artifacts for utmost effect.
What does Rootwork involve?
Herbs and roots- hoodoo employs a huge materia magica. Plants can be categorized as providing either food, physical medicine, or sometimes poison. Plants also have spiritual natures and properties, subtle qualities which may or may not be related to their physical medicine. These spiritual properties can be accessed and utilized to benefit us. Knowledge of which herbs, roots, and trees to use for spiritual conditions and ailments is the special provenance of the rootworker. The methods involved are vast, and range from creating personal mojo bags, to making herbal teas to drink or bathe in, to burning herbs to cleanse a client or space, and more. Minerals, animal parts and more are also employed.
Candlework- candles of various colors and types are employed by rootworkers as part of the magical process. Colors are associated with certain things- white for blessing/protection, green for money, red for love, etc. It is common for candles to be anointed with oils and prayed over prior to being lit. Candles are one way of throwing up a flare to the spirit world, to bring about actual changes in life.
Spiritual baths- Often rootworkers will have clients take a bath, or a series of baths. These are spiritual baths, affecting the nature and spirit of the individual, and are not the same as your daily cleansing routine. There are many different types of bath for many different occasions. Baths can be taken once, at the beginning of your work, or a series can be prescribed. Generally they involve complete ritual immersion in water to which specific herbs, roots, minerals and other substances have been added. It is a general rule not to use soap during these baths, and it is common for the bather to be instructed to allow themselves to air-dry, rather than towel off.
Prayer, intention and the Bible- More than any candle, ritual, mojo or bath, prayer is in and of itself the most powerful factor in magic. Prayer with intent and focus is incredibly potent. As the overwhelming majority of rootworkers are Christian, the Bible is used extensively. The Psalms in particular provide specific ways to call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to surround, recognize and assist the individual in question."
There's a host of other details, practices and 'ingredients,' but that is a great basic shot at explaining the core of rootwork. Hoodoo Roots is a great site that's regularly being updated and improved, so its worth looking at!
Now just to dispel a few myths...
1: As said above, rootwork is a practice, not a religion. It was formed in the Southern slave communities from African diasporic religions blending with each other, as well as the introduction of Native American traditions and herbal medicinal knowledge, and European faith and folklore. It resulted from the blending of religions, traditions and magical medicines, but it is not a religion itself. You can be any faith and practice rootwork.
2: It is not witchcraft or 'black magic,' nor is it tied to the Wicca community. A lot of New-Age, Wiccan and pagan folks use hoodoo, or elements of it, in their own practices. Most of these people are also adding a healthy smattering of their own spells, formulas and ideas to the mix, and changing things to better suit their traditions or religion, which is fine, but that doesn't make it rootwork. Now it is something different.
3: People tend to get the idea that all rootworkers are Catholic, because of how synonymous hoodoo and petitioning/working with saints seem to be, as well as the occasional involvement of rosaries in some traditions. Its true that a popular practice is petitioning saints, and building personal relationships with these spirits and working with them, but this doesn't mean all rootworkers are Catholic, nor that they must be. You'll actually find most aren't- New Orleans is about the only place where hoodoo is predominantly Catholic. Elsewhere in the South, and wherever else hoodoo is found, you're much more likely to find the workers are Protestant or Baptist. Some aren't even Christian- a majority are, but not all. Non-Catholic/Christian rootworkers will sometimes still choose to work with saints(you'll notice the saints aren't as picky as people are as to who they help. They will turn petitions down, but very doubtfully just because of differing faith), but it does not mean the worker in question is Catholic, nor does this mean you must be to practice hoodoo.
4: People also sometimes stereotype or get a wee bit judgmental, and assume that rootwork is a purely African American practice, and thus anyone who isn't black who practices is appropriating. There's also the assumption that black people are the only ones who should be rootworkers, and that they are always the most effective. These statements teem with ignorance and a barely subtle sense of racism. Hoodoo began with the slaves, but Native Americans, Latinos and Europeans all put a fair deal into its pot, and as a result people of all nationalities practice it. There are many incredible conjurers of all types out there; to beeline for someone just because of their skin color and not their abilities is a surefire way to end up disappointed.
5: Rootwork isn't the same everywhere, nor does everyone practice it the same way. It is far from black and white- practice varies from place to place, family to family and even individually. You may never find two people who work exactly the same way. I was taught to light a white candle on Wednesdays to petition St. Michael, pray for protection of the house/me, or just to thank him for work in the past. Others say red candles are best, that Sunday is the best day, or Monday, etc. People will use different ingredients in oils or mojo bags, because that's how they were taught, or certain things make it stronger for them, and so on. The practice of rootwork varies wildly based on region, family traditions and personal methods.
If you made it to the end, kudos. xD 'Brief' my ass, good god