The other side of “otherness”

26 05 2009


The racial politics of American folk healing and other notes

Anthony Cavender has a brief section in his book, Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia on the role of African-Americans in the development of American folk healing. (I will do a broader post on the rest of the book later.) As usual, the American black was considered by the white populace of being a practitioner of witchcraft, and able to be manipulated by superstitions. (Gladys-Marie Fry shows some of this in her book, Night Riders in Black Folk History, which is on my reading list.) Even though the black populace was (and to an extent still is) very much Christian, white Christians always suspected them of not having given up their “pagan ways”, and the white press was always keen to talk about the “voodoo” and “hoodoo” of the black minority at every possible turn.

Cavender, however, documents the other side of these prejudices, and that is the idea of African-Americans almost being a “sacred” people. The irony lies in the fact that many of the same people who would not touch a black person or even share the same bathroom with him in regular circumstances would do even more bizarre things than touching when they were incurably ill. These are of course all folk remedies without any basis in empirical data, but they are of great interest to anyone who wants to study popular belief. Among some of the things that Cavender documents, one of the strangest folk remedies for thrush (a fungal infection of the mouth) in a part of Tennessee was to take children to a local black woman and have them drink water out of one of her shoes. In Alabama, one cure for ringworm was to have a “blue gummed” (a highly pejorative term for a dark skinned person of African descent) woman spit on the infected area. Pennsylvania Germans believed that whooping cough could be prevented by kissing a “colored man”. All of these practices stemmed from the belief that the body of the black person was the locus of supernatural power, and such a belief was widespread in the whole American South and beyond.

Reflecting on this idea, it is hard not to realize the complete commodification of the black person within the context of post-slavery America. Not only was the black body the focal point of exploitation and control (from a sexual, economic, and political perspective), but it was also a source to be exploited in the preternatural realm. The same white people who would consider blacks “subhuman” would carry around a “kinky hair” of a black person for “protection”. Like the “mammy” figures of old, the black person was considered the “gift that kept on giving”: selfless even in the realm of the spiritual powers of his own person.

American religiosity is often conceived as automatically excluding the black as other, especially in the Catholic realm. Even though African-Americans have a deeply entrenched attachment to Christianity even to this day (going through the “ghetto” and seeing the number of storefront churches is indicative of this), the non-black Christian intellegentsia is not given to thinking of them as being included in its own cultural paradigms of interpreting the American project. This perhaps has a lot to do with the self-exclusion of the black church itself due to the legacy of Jim Crow. Nevertheless, one cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a greater part of the genius of American Christianity (and American culture in general) lies in the experience of black people in this country: their music, language, culture, and thought.

Still, however, we are secretly given to the idea that African-Americans are the poster boys for American immorality. I am not arguing that black people are “holier” than others; such romanticism would just be the other side of the coin of patronizing racism. It does seem, however, that American discourse is far more readlily capable of absolving the moral “peccadillos” of the white suburbs than the “grave sins” of the black ghetto. As much as I hate to bring up anecdotal evidence of popular culture, I have to comment on my watching the popular movie Juno a couple of years back. The movie is about the misadventures of a suburban white teen getting pregnant and having a child while still in high school. Having grown up in a predominately Latino community where unwanted teen pregnancy was a real problem, I could not help in basking in the irony of white Americans enjoying the spectacle of one of their own experiencing the same problem. I even heard on Catholic radio how “pro-life” this movie was. It would have been hard for me to imagine the same pundits bestowing such praise on the movie had the protagonist been a black or Puerto Rican teen living in a middle class neighborhood. Indeed, it would be harder for me to imagine such a movie being made in the first place.

This all seems a lot like wanting to have your cake and eat it too: blacks and Latinos are more religious, but “less moral”. In the past, they have been the source of “mystical energy” but also of spiritual, cultural, and sexual menace. Even here in New Orleans, the Creole aristocracy was addicted to the antics of Marie Laveau, the “half-breed Voodoo queen”, who could bring down the powerful in her allliance with dark forces of the “deepest, darkest Africa”. Even though we don’t have African Americans spitting in children’s mouths to heal them, such racial dichotomies are still alive and well in 21st century America.



4 responses

1 03 2010
A Sinner

“I even heard on Catholic radio how “pro-life” this movie was. It would have been hard for me to imagine the same pundits bestowing such praise on the movie had the protagonist been a black or Puerto Rican teen”

Indeed, it probably would have been condemned as promoting/making light of teen promiscuity and pregnancy. The hypocrites…

27 05 2009
St. Gimp

Surely the same could be said of American Indians in the popular culture. There’s a great fetish for “native spirituality,” with its panoply of animal guides, peace pipes and peyote ceremonies, while at the same time these people are mocked as gamblers and drunkards.

All this reminds me of Spike Lee’s “magical, mystical Negro” comment from a few years back, where it was noted that American movies often use blacks as shortcuts to spiritual profundity (most recently, see “Evan Almighty”).

26 05 2009
Death Bredon

Spot on. Well said, Arturo!

26 05 2009

This reminds me of an editorial that came out in the NYT shortly after Proposition 8 passed in which the author discussed how gay rights activists could engage in “dialogue” with black Christians about same-sex marriage. The piece mentioned how even though blacks tended to be quite religious, they were more likely to engage in teenage sex, have abortions, and not be married. Apparently, the author didn’t bother to consider the possibility that some of the black churchgoers might have repented of past sexual misdeeds and turned over a new leaf or that the parishoners in question might not be the ones engaging in serial fornication in the first place). The conclusion of the article was that since black Christians are a bunch of hypocritical super freaks anyway that they should be open to same-sex marriage. I thought about writing a letter to editor about it, but decided that it was too stupid to waste time about.

Although I found “Juno” to be amusing in a crude sort of way, I couldn’t really see why the Catholic media was fawning all over it as being pro-life other than the fact that the title character didn’t have an abortion. It seems to be more illustrative of the marginalization of the pro-life cause, when every insignificant crumb has to be magnified in significance. If the protagonist of “Juno” had been black or Latino, I don’t think anyone would have cared, since it’s assumed that illegitimacy is the norm in those communities.

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