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The Breath of Life

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

The Breath of Life

Can voodoo cure asthma?
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Jun 22, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Asthma is frightening. Like the bridge over jagged rocks and the Rottweiler looking to bite off my backside, asthma threatens my life by cutting off my breath. Gotta stop. Can’t run. Start choking. Start panicking. Hate it when the asthma hits. The asthma keeps me from moving on. It’s keeping me from gaining ground. What am I going to do about the asthma?

Orange, Texas. One hundred degrees in the shade. We’re visiting Mom’s people. I’m waking up in the middle of the night, choking, feeling close to death’s door. My brother Cliff wakes up with me, gets me a glass of water, helps me catch my breath. But I see the fear in his eyes. I see the fear in Mom’s eyes the next morning when I get an asthma attack at breakfast.

At sundown, Cliff and I take a little jog around the neighborhood, just to stay in shape. I’m feeling a little better, but the lack of breath is always on my mind. We stop at a little convenience store to get some Kool-Aid.

“You seem to be breathing okay, bro,” says Cliff.

“For now,” I say, “but that asthma thing ain’t going away.”

A sister buying white bread overhears our conversation. She’s a middle-aged woman with a kindly air about her.

“If you suffer from asthma, son,” she says, “you best pay a visit to Madam Marie.”

“Who’s Madam Marie?” I ask.

“She’s got some remedies.”

“What kind of remedies?” Cliff wants to know.

“She can explain them,” says the kindly woman. “I can’t. All I know is they work.”

“She a God-fearing lady?” asks Cliff. “She a Christian?”

“She’s different. I’ll give you her address. If you decide to go by, say Miss Johnson sent you. She saved my boy when he was just about your age.”

That night Cliff and I tell Big Daddy, Mom’s father, what happened. Remember—Big Daddy is a deacon at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

“That’s a voodoo lady,” says Big Daddy. “No grandson of mine’s gonna have nothing to do with no voodoo lady.”

“What’s voodoo, Big Daddy?” I ask.

“It don’t come out of the Scriptures,” he answers. “Ain’t got nothing to do with what we believe.”

That night Cliff and I talk it over.

“Hate to go against what Big Daddy says,” I reflect, “but this asthma thing is getting no better. None of the regular treatments work. You think the voodoo can hurt me, Cliff?”

“I’ll come along with you to make sure it doesn’t.”

Madam Marie is a big woman who lives in a little one-room shack. She’s got strange things hanging from the ceiling—roots and peppers and beads. I tell her that Miss Johnson sent me.

“I see you don’t breathe right,” she says even before I explain my ailment.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say.

“I have a cure.”

“How much will it cost?” asks Cliff with a hint of skepticism in his voice.

“If you got a little money, that’s fine. But money or not, baby, I’m giving you the cure.”

With that, Madam Marie gets up, takes a pair of scissors, and cuts a big tuft of hair from the back of my scalp. She leaves me looking something like a monk.

“Follow me, son,” she says.

Cliff and I follow her down an alley to where a long fence separates us from an open field. She stands me in front of the fence. Then she takes the tuft of hair she has cut, gathers it together with a rubber band, and glues it to the fence.

“Stand up straight,” she says.

I stand straight and listen as she speaks words that I don’t understand. A whole lot of conjuring goes on. She removes the hair and speaks some new words, just as incomprehensible as the first ones. I remain standing for several minutes. The tuft is placed back on the fence. I look out of the corner of my eye and see Cliff looking as if to say, “These folks are clean out of their minds!”

“Bless you, son,” says Madam Marie. “You’ll never have problems breathing again.”

And I never have.

I didn’t delve deeper into the mysteries of voodoo. I didn’t question Madam Marie and I didn’t try to explain what happened to anyone. In fact, when I got back to Big Daddy and he saw my bald spot and heard what happened, I caught hell. Always protective of me, Cliff tried to take the blame and said, “It was my idea.” But I told the truth and said it was my decision.

As the days and weeks and months went by, as I found myself free of even the smallest sign of an asthma problem, I was not tempted to abandon the love ethos of Christianity for voodooist practices. I did, however, see myself moving in a more ecumenical direction. I began to understand that answers to problems—physical, emotional, and spiritual—often require enquiries that go beyond the confines of a narrow dogma.

As to why the conjuring worked, I still have no idea.

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading