Rereading ‘The Salt Eaters’ Helped Me Process My Pandemic Fears

Toni Cade Bambara’s novel on healing and activism is prescient for the present moment

Photo illustration.

Before all this started — the staying indoors and the constant cleaning and the calls about who got tested, who had it, who passed and was suddenly gone — I was afraid to go to the doctor. One of my earliest memories is running through a clinic’s waiting room, while a sibling was in the office for yet another appointment, and tripping and falling onto an exposed nail on a bench, splitting the flesh of my cheek open to the bone. I remember crying, the startled pediatrician holding my face, and then blacking out and waking up on a table, strapped to a gurney. Another doctor leaned over and assured me that the stitches he was about to sew into my cheek without anesthesia wouldn’t hurt at all. Needless to say, he lied, and I have hated going to the doctor ever since.

I come from a family with a penchant for eccentric health problems. We map neighborhoods by recalling all the places we’ve vomited or fainted in public while growing up. I thought the fact that my body was usually viewed as a failure was a comment on my character and a misfortune confined to my bloodline. Even though I wrote a whole novel about the legacies of scientific racism, I still blamed myself for every doctor’s visit that left me feeling demoralized and unheard, all the nurses who stuck my arms until they bruised, claiming not to find a vein, all the dismissals of pain. I just assumed that I lived in a body continually going wrong, not that I was moving through a system that was predicated on pathologizing me.

A veteran of the Black power movement and the women’s movement, Velma is recovering from a suicide attempt and thoroughly burnt out from the tolls of political struggle and the eternal splintering of leftist movements.

But in the past few months, Covid-19 roiled through my communities and it became clear who wasn’t surviving. It was Black people, and the devastation could not be explained away by the quirks of genetics. I knew what it was on an intellectual level — I obsessively read every report on racial disparities, looked at the maps tracking infections by zip code, growing darker with each racial demographic. But if this were our reality, finally, so stark and plain, what would it take to imagine a way out of it?

Looking for answers, I started reading Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters, which describes a single healing ritual held in a community health clinic in the southern town of Claybourne. Velma Henry is a longtime community activist who advocates to start the clinic there. A veteran of the Black power movement and the women’s movement, Velma is recovering from a suicide attempt and thoroughly burnt out from the tolls of political struggle and the eternal splintering of leftist movements. Minnie Ransom is a healer, called in to work on Velma, regularly falling into trances in order to heal, during which she consults her spirit guides which consist of a haint named Old Wife and a company of loas. The novel also explores the lives of Velma’s fellow activists and the medical students, bus drivers, doctors, and townspeople who all live around the clinic.

The novel begins with Minnie asking Velma, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” Later, Minnie notes, “There’s a lot of weight in being well.” Before Covid, I read this line and did not really understand it. But Bambara’s novel is an argument for health as liberation and it links the centering of a Black person’s health as a revolutionary claim. Now, in this moment, when the government is making decisions that will most certainly kill Black and Brown people, when pundits tout a potential economic recovery as more important than the lives of working people, it feels like an act of rebellion to say that Black health should be centered above all else.

She knew that Black people’s good health is in direct rebellion to the systems of the world that need us to be sick.

But Bambara, writing 40 years ago, knew all of this — and she saw even further. She knew that Black people’s good health is in direct rebellion to the systems of the world that need us to be sick. And under this clash of priorities, to be healthy is a political act and living healthily comes with great responsibilities.

At one point, Minnie, confronted with Velma’s stubborn disinterest in doing the work of getting well, complains to her spirit guide Old Wife: “You know as well as I… that we have not been scuffling in this waste-howling wilderness for the right to be stupid. Don’t they know we on the rise?… Here we are in the last quarter and how we gonna pull it all together and claim the new age in our name? We gonna have to get a mighty large group trained to pull us through the times head. Them four horses galloping already, the seven trumpets blasting. And looks like we clean forgot what we come to do, what we been learning through all them trials and tribulations to do and it’s now. Come in here after abusing and want to be well and don’t even know what they want to be healthy for.”

It’s an old lesson, one that echoes throughout Black history in places like the Brooklyn Women and Children’s Homeopathic Hospital, co-founded by the first Black female doctor in New York State, Susan Smith McKinney Steward, in the 1880s. I think of that impulse, in the first decades of widespread Black freedom, to establish a place that said the lives of Black women and Black children mattered, and their bodies deserved to be healed.

It is a legacy that takes a strange twist two generations later, with the creation of the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem in 1946. Founded in part by the novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, it was an entirely volunteer-run, community mental health clinic that provided mental health services for poor Black residents of the city. The care provided there was designed to acknowledge the specific mental anguish, the disintegration of self required to live as a working-class Black person in 1940s America, in a country that whiplashed between pretending you did not exist and using every piece of political and economic power to destroy you. Even within this healing place, seeds of liberation were sown, as the research conducted at the clinic would be cited in school integration rulings within the next decade.

Health as a revolutionary state is also in the legacy of the Black Panthers setting up their free health clinics and spearheading the research into sickle cell anemia and that of the Young Lords, hijacking ambulances in the Bronx to provide health services for their community. It is in this spirit that Audre Lorde — a contemporary of the Young Lords and a colleague of Toni Cade Bambara herself — said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation and it is an act of political warfare.” Despite what the last half-decade has tried to convince us, Lorde was not referring, necessarily, to a slogan for discounts on pedicures or to sell an inflated idea of “wellness.” Lorde was referring to prioritizing her own health while diagnosed with breast cancer and teaching as an adjunct with inadequate health insurance and for a college that didn’t care about her suffering.

For Bambara, once one is healthy, one must begin the hard work of imagining what true freedom might look like. At a certain point in The Salt Eaters, a bus driver, reminiscing about his life, recalls a man he knew as a child named Old Jimmy Lyons. “Old Jimmy Lyons… had told him he was a four, and fours were builders, but lots of fours never got around to doing what they were put on the earth to do cause they was so busy feeling boxed in by them four sides of their nature that they didn’t have the sense to look up and appreciate all the space they could build into. And Jimmy Lyons had told him… that the Negro people were fours and so long as they paid more attention to folks trying to hem them in, hem them in, box them in on all four sides thinking they had them in prison that to the work at hand, why then they would never get a spare moment to. Look up at the sun and build.”

For Bambara, health is a metaphor, a way to describe the state of ease from which Black people have the space to imagine new uses for our bodies and our minds outside of capitalist structure, that wants to define both by how much money they can produce. Imagine different ways of living besides the sickening ones of our current American project; imagine that another world is possible, even when everything seems to tell us that that is impossible.

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