5. Healing the Past in the Present
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5 Healing the Past in the Present The young woman explained to me how to protect an accident-prone loved one. Take a small mirror into which no one else has looked. Hold it so that the person to be protected looks at his or her own re- flection. Place the mirror under a living plant—houseplants work best. Water and care for the plant, thereby protecting the loved one. Of course, the same process can be used to cause harm by breaking the mirror into pieces, and also placing that under a plant. —As told to author, July 2005 Introduction The previous chapter situated African American folk healing in the twenty-first century as a continuation of past practices and concepts hybridized by education, class, gender, and contact with Africans through the Diaspora. Two modern-day black women’s stories emphasized how folk healing retentions are woven into the lives of some black Americans. Folk healing, for many African Americans, offers remedies including herbal cures and ritual performances to address the evil of the past and foster something new. These conceptions of healing emerge from African American culture. They operate at archetypal and therefore mythic levels that are not always recognizable as stemming from folk traditions. Beginning with a look at folk healing in light of black intellectual traditions, this chapter focuses on four ways that such healing is manifested by African Americans to heal social ills: names and identity; reparations; connections with the slave past; and an organization that aims to heal. 99 Black Intellectual Traditions and Folk Healing Ann’s and Sokara’s stories emphasize some aspects of the definition of African American folk healing that is outlined at the beginning of this book, such as the overlapping of the past into the present; a focus on ancestors; and the use of dreams, words, or actions to access power to make changes. African American folk healing is defined by a focus on connection with others, nature, the dead and the unborn, and a belief that sickness is caused by more than germs. Healing offers a language through which African Americans dialogue with the world. The range of folk healing practices discussed in previous chapters is soaked into African American consciousness and epistemology. Treating illness and aiming for health entails a scope expanded beyond the limits of the physical self, emphasizing connections to the community and nature and nations, as well as links with the past and future. Healing past errors, social ills, and injustices thus becomes part of the dynamics of black folk healing. As such, healing social ills constitute public expressions of a black mystical tradition as discussed in chapter 3. We saw the work of Sokara, who healed a man’s anger over enslavement; the work of healing social ills is in the same vein. Racism and oppression, and their effects can be considered illnesses within a mindset retentive of black folk healing understandings. Because many of these ills are rooted in enslavement and racism, the past must be considered as part of the healing process. Healing on a larger scale than Sokara’s work but still with a folk mindset might involve large-scale dreams of what the nation could be to local, creative rituals. The healing will encompass community life, aspects of citizenship, and relations with the U.S. government. Some might view the combating of social problems with folk remedies as the desperate efforts of powerless people. But drawing on the archetypal images of the conjurer and the interconnections of all reality , African Americans make strong use of myth. Myth fuels the human imagination and provides frames of reference for living. Myth traverses intellectual and emotional areas of human life, informing individuals while shaping communities. Healing society or the past is a viable option from an African American epistemology. This view of African American folk healing brings it squarely 100 Healing the Past in the Present within a black intellectual tradition. Within black thought, the healing is a cohesive partner in the struggle to identify aspects of, and then to address, American history. History is not merely a series of past events that can be noted by scholars but becomes part of black American consciousness . How groups of black people choose to deal with the past will vary from religious responses to social programs. Constructing any response is an intellectual endeavor. The intellectual work may take an artistic form, such as Langston Hughes’s mid-twentieth-century poetry that posed...