1. Stories and Cures: Defining African American Folk Healing
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1 Stories and Cures Defining African American Folk Healing I’ve heard if a turkledove, when the season first starts, comes to your house and starts moanin’, it’s a sign you is goin’ to move out and somebody else id goin’ to move in. If a squinch owl starts howlin’ ’round your house, and you turn your shoe upside down at the door, they sure will hush. Now I know that’s so. . . . And I’ve heard the old folks say if you start any place and have to go back, make a circle on the ground and spit in it or you’ll have bad luck. —Clark Hill, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the WPA Slave Narratives Project, Arkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 3, Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–19391 Tracing Black Folk Healing African American folk healing may be defined as the creatively developed range of activities and ideas that aim to balance and renew life. To explore African American folk healing is to open up a vista of black American concepts about life, bodies, death, and nature. Such concepts may have spiritual referents, may move into political action, or may serve as the homegrown analysis of society. To create and maintain such ideas, structured from African cultural orientations, American pragmatism, and information from other cultures, attests the savvy of African Americans as a people. Yet, tracing folk healing in black communities or through history to uncover its meanings is not a simple task. Discerning these meanings also entails tangling with layers of racism and centuries of separatism that created limited, unreal images of black Americans. 11 Enslavement legally ended in the former slave states with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Yet, African Americans continued to live in separate, segregated, and oppressive conditions . What might have happened had the promise of equality been fulfilled during Reconstruction (roughly 1863–1880) is only a matter of speculation. What did happen in fact was another form of capture and control of black Americans. The Supreme Court ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 held that the Constitution could not eliminate the perceived hierarchy of races, with its superior-white and inferiorblack belief systems and, therefore, separate but equal was constitutional . Separation of races became the norm; a genuine awareness of the depth and richness of black lives was underrated. Attempts to analyze the complex layers of black life were limited and often ran counter to the mainstream of white American scholarship. Despite these limitations, one source in particular holds valuable information about African American folk healing practices of the past. The United States government established the Works Progress Administration in 1935 to provide employment to some Americans in various fields during the Great Depression. The Federal Writers’ Project, started in 1936, was part of this larger effort. The project gathered oral accounts of black Americans. The accounts of twenty-three hundred black men and women were gathered throughout the South between 1936 and 1938. Some of these interviews specifically focused on narratives of enslavement. Because of strict segregation laws in effect in the 1930s throughout the South, mostly white researchers collected these accounts. One notable exception is anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who was hired by the project but whose white regional editor rejected portions of her work. In recent years, these documents have been published .2 Hurston’s intent was to capture the daily lives of workers in Florida, not to collect slave narratives. However, the treatment accorded of her work signals a larger issue: it has historically been within the power of white, middle-class, Protestant communities to generate the generally accepted images of black Americans. As a result , woven into the folk talk around black healing practices are questions of authority and validity and race. Themes of authority, creation of images, language, and interaction between African Americans and other communities are threads running throughout this book, just as they run through the dynamics of the relationships themselves. As we 12 Stories and Cures aim for a more accurate picture, our tracing of black folk healing needs to begin with the words of black Americans. The Slave Narratives , one portion of the Federal Writers’ Project, provide access to excellent first-person narratives. These narratives are a starting line for a closer look at the dynamics of folk healing. Yet, the meanings of the speakers themselves are often obscured; the meanings need to be teased from the texts. Reflecting the time...