Rev. Fannie Elizabeth Burgin Harris. She was a healer. She was a pastor, and while not ordained by any denomination, she certainly was no less in tune with the infinite as she cared for her family and led a rural congregation she founded. Rev. Harris was born around 1885 in Asheville, North Carolina, to formerly enslaved parents. Harris moved to create a life in the small Appalachian town of Zanesville, Ohio. Something of an herb doctor and a Pentecostal prayer warrior, part mystic and part preacher (though of few words), she was a woman of gravitas held in high regard. She is my great-grandmother.
I never knew her, but I grope around for her through the fragmented memories that remain among elders who did know her. When I look at this delicate and unhurried picture of her standing aside her church, I imagine a woman of faith who possessed a high sense of self-regard and special knowledge of what could be: visions of existing otherwise. I am enchanted by her memory, her resilience, and faith-based power. Stories of her immediate access to the supernatural still stimulate reverence and conjure veneration. She reminds me of a legacy of (un)canny curative practices, mystical connections, religious sensibilities, spiritual concerns, and both griotic and homiletic commitments that have remained a pervasive force not only in my family history but also in African American life more broadly.
Her gift of healing was special knowledge that taught her, and those who knew her, to rely on supernatural powers to live when the world never meant for them to survive. In many ways, as Saidiya Hartman pushes us to think, critical to Black survival has been an “improvisation with the terms of social existence when the terms have already been dictated.” Harris knew such improvisation can work even through lines of flight co-crafted with the divine. What do we do when we cannot adequately access existing systems of medicine nor trust them, even if we could? We look elsewhere and otherwise. We look up and beyond. We look out there and to the more. We reach for alternative knowledges—recipes and remedies—and channels of being, interiorly connecting with an-other world and thereby practicing the social otherwise. Many reach for God. She certainly did. And many were convinced, through her touch, that God reached for them too.
My father, Bishop James W. Gaiters Sr., one of Harris’s many grandchildren, lived with her for two years as a teenager, and I asked him to tell me about her healing ministry. In the few examples that follow, he refers to her as Gram or Grandmother. He begins, “Bobby [my eldest brother] got a lot of breaks and opportunities in life.” I ask, “Do you think this was because of Grandmother?” He explains, “I think so. He would spend the night as a child with Grandmother, and he’d sleep with her as a baby. She’d pray for him.” My father thinks the “breaks” Bobby received in college football, the NFL, and other successes came because her touch imparted a blessing to him. He explained, “She gave him a prayer cloth when he moved to California… And he would eat the prayer cloth that Grandmother gave him…a little piece at a time. I believe he still has it.” Uncle Bobby is over eighty years old. My father clarifies that she didn’t instruct him to ingest the prayer cloth. Nevertheless, perhaps convinced of a certain aura she carried, Bobby did. Smiling at his brother’s sincerity, my father mentions, “Bobby has a good spiritual appetite.”
She intends the blessing and healing virtue to be imparted materially in the moment of tactile communication. Her Pentecostal justification for the utility of a prayer cloth comes from Acts 19:11-12 where “handkerchiefs and aprons” are taken from the Apostle Paul and used to restore and heal the afflicted. Yet her rituals of healing and protection remain entirely reminiscent of—or conversant with—an African conjurer deriving powers from a charm or some other sacred object. This practice is both Christian and African. It reminds me of the old conjurer named Sandy Jenkins, who Frederick Douglass powerfully testifies of in his famous autobiography. The enslaved Jenkins provided Douglass with a “certain root” that would protect him and “render it impossible for Mr. Covey [a slave-breaker],” or “any other white man, to whip [him].”
Notwithstanding such complexity, Rev. Harris assumes no ambiguity here that the materialized performance of prayer becomes the conduit through which God extends grace as a “technology of the Holy Ghost.” This ritual is a practice—though holding its own rich cultural complexity for her as an African descended woman—that stands inside of biblically attested “religious expression readily recognized as Christian.” Nevertheless, her touch is both African and Christian, both Black and Christian, a Christianity transfigured by a history of certain patterns of meaningfulness, modes, sensibilities, and behaviors of Black social life. Blackness not as an identity to be had, but as an otherwise practice, an insurgent ground enabling new possibilities. She personified what Ashon Crawley calls “Blackpentecostalism”—a portmanteau marking such rich combination, openness, and multiplicity to be shared. Harris marks alternatives and openings that emerge when Black people engage Christianity. Her performance is a reminder of a spiritual eclecticism extending through the complex landscape of Black religious life. Even if unwittingly, rituals of healing to invoke supernatural help—paralleling practices of African conjure—were not so much antithetical with Christianity as they were complementary.
My father tells the story of another brother. “Your uncle Larry had rheumatic fever as a child,” he says, “and the doctor gave him three days before he’d die. They said he might last three days. He was eight years old. Gram would go visit and pray for him. She went into the hospital and oiled him down and prayed for him until he got relief. It wasn’t just a little dab of oil on the forehead [laughs deeply]. No! She oiled him down and prayed for him.” He pauses briefly and says, “Grandmother was going from the hospital and mother to the hospital, and they crossed paths outside somewhere. And Grandmother told mother he’s got relief.” Larry, now eighty years old, still testifies, “It was a miracle!” He claims he could have died if it wasn’t for “Grandmother’s anointed hands.” As an ordinary handkerchief through prayer becomes a sacramental vehicle of the divine, so too is ordinary olive oil believed through her hands to carry in, with, and under it real divine presence. It becomes another haptic practice reaffirming older African American beliefs in the potency of material objects as conduits of the supernatural. For her, the oil enabled direct contact with the Spirit.
Rheumatic fever was one of the most common diseases in the United States during the 1940s. I asked my father if they had health insurance back then. He laughs and quickly explains, “Nobody had insurance back in those days. That’s not the way things were.” If Black people were medically tended to at all, ofttimes treatment was offered with a certain contempt by white doctors. And without health insurance during the Jim Crow era, Larry was only admitted into the hospital by way of the emergency room due to the life-threatening urgency of his condition. This precarity reflects a larger structure of disadvantage, going back to slavery, where Black people in the United States received unequal medical care. Rev. Harris knew her young grandson needed a miracle, a restorative and healing touch. She understood herself to be practicing special knowledge that would positively affect the outcome of her grandson in a way a white medical structure could not or would not. According to her religious worldview, she is the specialist.
My father adds, “Grandmother was the daughter of a slave and had these old remedies.” What of these old remedies? And what have they to do with the formerly enslaved? Circulating about in my father is an awareness of “old [African] remedies” of ritual healing and protection somehow aligned with traditional Christian praxis. Though there are important theological differences, her practice also offers points of direct connection between differing traditions within Black religious life. Black religion marks an openness and plurality irreducible to Christianity or any other particular tradition; it is always heterogenous and eclectic, never singular or monolithic and pure. Notwithstanding that she was “Blackpentecostal,” she also inhabited the charged territory of Black religious life and was deeply informed by various other knowledges and traditions.
Zora Neale Hurston’s marvelous book The Sanctified Church reminds me of the nuance and multiplicity of African American religious life that Rev. Harris practiced. Hurston’s consideration of African American religious life is expansive. She asserts that there are African-derived spiritualities, including conjure, that continue in African American religious life today, even if unwittingly. Rev. Harris’s Christocentric commitments, as Douglass’s, were neither rejected nor abandoned. Harris harnessed a range of knowledges in her complex and intricate theological system, while utilizing that knowledge to heal, and she did so—as I can hear her claim—“in Jesus’s name!”
Alongside several other curative remedies, Hurston describes an antidote for tuberculosis in The Sanctified Church: “… Anointing [sic] the palms and nostrils with iodoform, turpentine and asafetida are also common practices. Some believe that immunization to all contagious diseases may be obtained by reading the Psalms.” After reading Hurston, I thought of my great-grandmother who also used turpentine to heal, which she learned from her formerly enslaved mother, May “Gamby” Moore Burgin. In North Carolina, where Harris was born, the manufacturing of turpentine in slave labor camps (read: plantations) ranked among the top five industries, making turpentine readily available.
My father says, “Gram taught my mother to mix turpentine with milk as a remedy. I had something severe, worse than strep throat. I’m not sure what it was, but it was excruciating. To swallow was like a needle in my throat. She put turpentine in a glass stirred it up and said, ‘Don’t swallow this, hold your head back and gargle and spit it out.’ And it eliminated it immediately.” She tapped into special knowledge derived from those who, though disallowed “modern medicines,” knew how to draw upon products of the earth as curative remedies to address maladies of both body and spirit. Her worldview collapsed natural and supernatural distinctions for the sake of protection and healing. This pious Pentecostal woman’s religious imagination conjures and pushes us to extend healing hands, unafraid to touch and embrace one another despite our differences.