The My-Stery: Manual for The Move Forward (Based on The Salt Eaters)

Toni Cade Bambara

For the first post of the new year, here is a short manual of lessons I was able to tease out from reading Toni Cade Bamabara’s The Salt Eaters. The Salt Eaters is a novel about a small Southern community of Claybourne who are searching for the healing properties of salt while also preparing for a carnival. The book centers on two characters, Minnie Ransom, the community healer and leader of a group of healers, and Velma Henry, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and near suicide, undergoes a healing session. At its base, The Salt Eaters is sankofic its nature — looking back, moving forward and every other way weaved in between. If you want to read more pieces about Bambara’s work, The Feminist Wire recently did a tribute forum for her.

1) “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” The opening question of the book and warning from the healer Minnie Ransom, reminds us that healing and moving forward takes work; it takes processing through a lot of hurtful trauma. Healing is proactive not reactionary. Not only that, when you are well, you are not done. There is responsibility after that (“a lot of weight when you’re well”) (10).

2) Everything is interconnected. One of the characters said, “the material without the spiritual and psychic does not a dialectic make” (64). All parts of life intersect and shape one another (laws of reciprocity, attraction and repulsion, supply and demand on 133). One of the reasons The Salt Eaters is a difficult read is that it cannot be read like a traditional linear novel. The book works more like a webbed-matrix, interweaving in and out of various stories, people, and signs who are all connected to Velma, the main center. The entire community is an extension of Velma and Velma is an extension of them, as we journey through the “master’s mind.” Velma’s healing will affect the entire community It also interweaves various aspects of life from myth to spiritual ritual to science that underpin the book as they are versions of each other and shape each other. If one area is sick or lacking it impacts the others.

3) Speaking of The Matrix, mentors or guides are important. The healer Minnie is like Morpheus (who originally is the god of dreams), while Velma is like Neo. As the main center of the story, Velma is the hero. The hero is the individual separated from the community to set forth on a journey of self-discovery, but is also representative vessel of the community. Velma’s breakdown and separation from her community in the hospital room begins her journey, but as a community activist, she is also representative of her community, which is why the stories include the community as well. Minnie who in order to be a healer means she has gone through her own chaos and came out of it enlightened (she mentions that a couple of time in the book) knows how to help direct Velma out of her own. Also, our guides are not always easy to recognize or come in a straightforward way, that’s why one of the characters emphasized paying attention to the signs, the teachers, the guides, the messengers, the synthsizers who come along to show you a new path (126).

4) Our myths and stories are and should be embedded within our daily lives. Bambara’s book uses hero myth, but it relies heavily on myth in general. Throughout the stories of the characters, she references many myths — the woman with snakes in her hair (8) — Medusa; snakes and serpents in general, recurring figures throughout myths of the world; Lot’s wife in connection with the salt as an antidote to a snakebite versus turning into salt as a result of succumbing to the serpent; the masters mind with the 12 members sounds like Jesus and the apostles but could also reference astrology or other tales; several loa and orisha are mentioned like Oshun, Oye (Oya), Ogun and Damballah; other figures mentioned are The Pleiades (Seven Sisters), Ra, Salome, Orpheus, Uraeus, Eurydice, Noah, and Horus. All of the characters in the book have elements about themselves similar to these mythic figures. As written in the novel, myths and stories can be a technology of living, grounding abstract concepts in our lives (126-7).

5) “Damballah is the First Law of Thermodynamics:” gods are personified incarnations of universal principles or laws.. Damballah (also known as The Great Master) is the rainbow serpent loa who used his body to create the bodies of the universe, the stars and planets, and shape the earth. First Law of Thermodynamics is energy cannot be created nor destroyed but transformed. Reading: “‘Damballah Is the First Law of Thermodynamics:’ Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.”

6) There are multiple levels and interweavings of existence that shape each other no matter how invisible or miniscule it may seem. Yet they are all a creation, a construction, an illusion: “Solids, liquids, gases, the dance pf atoms, the bounce and race of molecules, ethers, electrical charges. The eyes and habits of illusion. Retinal images, bogus images, traveling to the brain. The pupils trying to tell the truth to the inner eye. The eye of the heart. The eye of the head. The eye of the mind. All seeing differently.” (6-7). Sometimes we are so normalized in our own constructions that we fail to see them as ones and feel our interpretations or creations of the world are the only that can exist. For example, in the book, Bambara write about professions like psychology, social work, and therapy that are so ingrained in their own structures or “habits of illusion” that they miss other ways of looking at the world (147).

7) Reconnect with nature and learn that nature is ambiguous: Salt can heal and can preserve important things from death and decomposing, but too much salt, can make one stagnant or unable to change. Water can clean or baptize, but it can also drown. Plutonium is both organic and carncinogeic (212). Bambara mentions mud several times, as in mud mothers in caves (20). The mud of the earth and all the provisions and healing it provides are important, but Bambara also warns not stay stuck in the mud but grow out of it, move or dance in it. Life is about finding the right balance not holding oneself in extremes because then you become immobile or dead.

8 ) Languages have sacred meanings to them beyond our surface level use of them: the letter “y, the forked glyph whose vibe was holy to seekers.” Every word, letter, number, has a history, social meaning, spiritual meaning beyond our everyday use. There is power in the word as most cultures have said.

9 ) Reclaim our feminine energy and balanced sexual energies: Bambara mentions the clitoris, the pineal (said to be feminine in energy), self-love, the amazons, the woman-charged culture of Dahomey, mamba priestesses of voudon, mud mothers, water witch, and the master brain is in the uterus. Minnie, Velma and the other women in the book are connected to spiritual realms in various ways but suffer or less valued as a result of expectations of “women-roles,” while the men stay more stuck in the physical and suffer from a lack of connection to the feminine sides of themselves. Janice Liddell discusses more about that here.

I find this older cover of the book interesting. Why are the shoes around her neck? Are they some sort of albatross?

10) Reclaim our ancestral knowledge: While there are universal principles and laws, it is also important for us to remember the cultural manifestation of them we have and develop — our cultural myths, and rituals, like Mocumba, Candomble, Obeah, Lucumi, Santeria and WInti. Sometimes we go looking for answers outside of our cultures when it is already their in our own traditions (169).

11) “The sky is lit by tomorrow’ memory lamp” (293): We will be tomorrow’s yesterday. What we do today will impact how the future and how we are seen in the future when it looks back and decides what to take to its own future.

12) Focus on the action not the vehicle. The cocoon is temporary. We often focus so much on the person or institution that is representing us that we forget about keeping hold of the goals or the actions that need to be done or continued. When they are gone, how do we make sure their legacy continues?

13) “The dream is reality…The failure to make it work is the unreality” (126): Tupac said it himself that “reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” We should not be so steep in keeping it real that it keeps us from moving forward into a new reality. If we do it is the same as becoming comfortable in the positions we find ourselves stuck or letting misery be our purpose or passion (16).

14) The most confounding labyrinth of all is the straight line” (126): A few days ago I watched the film Snowpiercer, an apocalyptic film about the hierarchy of power of the society created on a long ark-like train. Everyone on the train was brainwashed to believe that the train and its engine were all there was and the hierarchies were destined because that is how all life on the train remained in balance. But the train represented a linear structure of a society, a society of illusion that masked the real chaos of the outer world, that masked the disturbing abuses it did to lower members of the society. Although it seemed to be straightforward and about progress, it was actually stagnant, dying and could not justify itself outside of itself. Getting lost is easy when you expect something to be straightforward because the straightness is an illusion masking a much more complex system. This explains how to read The Salt Eaters as well (and life in general) — it is a non-linear series of events fixed within a constructed linear structure of a story.

15) Power in the hands of “the psychically immature, spiritually impoverished and intelligently undisciplined” is dangerous (133) : Not to be cliche but with great power does come great responsibility. We have seen the amount of destruction and pain people who lack intellect, spirituality and mental capacity can do. We see what larger companies who wield a lot of power, but lack care for others and the environment can do, similar to Transchemical in the book.

Being well requires us to be whole.

And with that we come full circle!

2 thoughts on “The My-Stery: Manual for The Move Forward (Based on The Salt Eaters)

  1. This sounds like a book I should add to my reading list! And I love your in-depth analysis and the way you weave in material from your past experiences with popular films, music, and other writing to give not just a book review, but a wealth of knowledge. Happy New Year!

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