A close gaze at the collective apathy that killed Dr. Sebi:
In the annals of challenges to orthodox medical consumerism belongs the science and practice of one Alfredo Bowman – aka Dr Sebi – a Honduran of humble origins, scant formal education and voracious curiosity. A sailor by trade, Bowman learned the functioning of ship drainage and applied the same principles in pursuit of optimum health of the human body, particularly the black body. His African bio-mineral treatment, founded on the science of intracellular cleansing and electric revitalisation using natural vegetation, was used to treat celebrities from Michael Jackson to Lisa Left Eye Lopez, applied to the taboos of AIDS treatment in South Africa, and pitted against the hyper-consumption of laboratorised, genetically manipulated Western pharmaceuticals that Sebi claimed were to blame for chemical imbalances at the root of disease. His life and work were the subject of debate, derision, legal action and infighting. His death was ignoble. Harmony Holiday takes a close look at the collective apathy that killed Dr Sebi.
In the iconic photograph of black men in suits on a dingy balcony, pointing toward the empty sky above Martin Luther King’s bloody, bulleted body, there’s an eerie sense of choreography and the seed of accusation looms over every phrase in the scene. It would not be until about forty years later, King long dead, his mother also murdered by gunshot while playing organ in church, that one of those sudden dancers from the photograph would slip at a live press conference and admit his role as an accomplice: “[W]hen I moved out of the way that day so they could get a clear shot”. He was speaking of the scene on that Memphis motel balcony that endless April day, gloating how well he had danced it. He was proud. He had never been complimented on his ability to be an unsuspected enemy of the King of Love. The confession slipped out, like OJ’s hands wished to have slipped out of those gloves, and just landed right in that disaster happy press conference light.
But it was too late for true retribution, too dispersed, the delayed gasp too shallow. And who’s to say the calculated grooming of a martyr doesn’t begin with the will of the martyr himself. King’s family went back to trial in 1993, was placated with a verdict substantiating their claim that the US government, in cahoots with the Memphis Police Department, colluded to have our King of Love murdered. The family was awarded $100 in damages.
Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga
The antiseptic folklore will tell us that MLK’s autopsy revealed the heart of an old, ailing man. A sick man. A man heartbroken by the obstacles on the road to healing the sickly-pretending-to-be-robust nation into which he was born. When shot, he was having a cigarette on the way to a feast, elated about the soul food he would enjoy after a heavy day and his heaviest, most anchoring speech. King had been trapped in a cycle of monasticism and temptation, stuck wearing three-piece suits and shiny church shoes, looking respectable, staying black while craving a backlash of wilderness. Can a corroding heart keep the pace of a redemptive soul? Can we repair the socio-economic condition of black people without first healing the black body, returning it to its optimal function, and letting go of the habits that soothe us into the wrong kind of citizenship? At what expense do we struggle for integration? What if the grandest irony is that the very contrived value of equality that we faintly believe will rescue us from being black, when achieved or even pursued, proves far more dangerous and dishonest than segregation. Do you really dream of milk and honey?
Tradition is not what we think it is
The legacy of black diasporic culture in the West is haunted by the tradition of our most sublime and messianic men dying, or being murdered the way King was, before they reach the age of 40. It’s as if these deaths are a rite of passage. Subconsciously, we are made to know that any black leader or cultural hero in the West who makes it past 40, does so at the expense of his spirit, is rendered useless to the revolution, has skipped his turn and will slip into wilful spiritual atrophy for the remainder of his days, afraid to suffer, afraid to bleed, and full of excuses for his complacency or just more and more trapped in the rotting fat of American bureaucracy. There are a few vivid public exceptions I can think of: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, and Alfredo Bowman, aka Dr Sebi. These men lived relatively long lives and never became total mules to their comfort. These men are the redeemers of a long list of fallen, including everyone from Martin Luther King to Tupac to Malcolm to Trayvon Martin to Sam Cooke to J Dilla to DJ Rashaad. They give survival real meaning beyond the mundane symbolism of proving that black men can live like white men, which is actually to prove that we can reject ourselves and effectively numb our deeper yearnings in the service of fitting it to a system that destroys us.
But even these redeemers tend to die like their martyred cousins. Even after biding their time, they pass on suffering, working tirelessly to their very last days, unappreciated and with fewer and fewer loyals around to check on them. Many of them broke, broken, suddenly gone. And once they’re gone we often revise the reach of their accomplishments before the work can speak for itself, nervous at what a closer look at the end of the life of a delayed blackman martyr might reveal about the clear and present danger we all face when awake enough to be our truest selves.
Here we take a close enduring look at the life and death of the most recently fallen, Dr Sebi, born Alfredo Bowman, raised in Honduras, appropriated by the US, and who died this past August while in police custody, allegedly having been placed in jail for carrying US$37,000 in cash. He died just days before he would have been exonerated on the public record and released back to his famed Osha Village, a Honduras-based healing centre where he had cured everything from AIDS to sickle cell disease (SCD), where he had mastered healing the human body through the lens of the black genome and melanated peoples, using food, sunlight, water, air, and herbs.
In the last circulating photograph of Dr Sebi, he’s sitting, back against the wall, on the floor outside an airport in Honduras, his gangly, kingly legs huddled at his chest, his knees nudged into arrows, his arms wrapped around his shins and his forehead resting on his knees. He appears anguished and utterly abandoned. There are no men in suits pointing. This is not the sabotage plot of grandiose cogs of empire, but the quiet hunt for any black man who stands in the way of Big Pharma, anyone who’s hip to the fact that if you wake up the body on a molecular level, the systems controlling the mind and soul of black men and women in the West will be decimated, the collective frequency will shift and there will be no more telling us how to live and what to live for. We will want to live again, for our spirits, with a sense of purpose that transcends that cotton and flax currency we chase all our lives. Dr Sebi was taken from this slump at the airport to a local jail, charged with money laundering and held until proven innocent. And he was proven innocent, all charges dropped, but he didn’t live to witness it.
We’re told Sebi succumbed to pneumonia while in jail. We’re told betrayal and loyalty are equally impossible and we were left to resolve the riddle at that impasse. Some of us watched and learned how not to take ourselves or our healers too seriously when we realised Sebi smoked weed every day, a steady rapture to bend the monastic metronome. We know that at the same time he imbibed only herbs, juice and water, like a bona fide nigga jesus, consumed his herbs and sea moss daily, and when he ate, stuck to a strict list of non-hybrid, starch-free foods. He talked a lot of the “mucus membrane”, how it had been compromised by modern patterns of consumption. He candidly admitted that he had been schizophrenic, obese, diabetic and impotent, and was cured by a Mexican herbalist also named Alfredo, Alfredo Cortez. Sebi was so moved by his regained health at the time, so roused by the simplicity of real healing and cellular regeneration, that he left his work as a merchant seaman to become a healer. He wanted to heal the black race worldwide. To wake and repair the DNA, the genome, and with that literally rewrite our history, restore the matriarchy, grant us our happiest and most eternal feminine ending. So a man who had no formal education and was raised on joy and nature in a humble village in Honduras set out to study herbs and water and soil and anatomy, to self-educate his way into natural genius and redemption.
A man who loved jazz, loved his mother, and loved his sin sincerely, set out to purify the black spirit, to rescue it from the vestiges of slavery. Because more than anything, Dr Sebi loved black people. The sad volta is that even if you heal yourself to a large extent, surpass yourself even, when you love sick people, a group obliviously living out a blood-addicted necrotic culture and vibrant in spite of, not because of, what its members consume on a regular basis, part of you loves what they’re sick from. The healer – one who deliberately sets out to fix the perceived flaws in our way of life from the bottom up – is deeply lonely and vulnerable to an addiction to black culture, to belonging, to the bastard rhetoric of liberation that associates it with mastering, rather than quitting, the West.
When Dr Sebi formally became a healer, he relied on the dualistic zeitgeist he carried as a city dwelling former villager. He went into cities such as Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. He left a sublime refuge in St Croix to tackle the crack cocaine epidemic in Harlem. He catered his teachings to the people suffering there. He also hobnobbed with black celebrities; was taken to court for practicing medicine without a licence – there, he claimed that he had reversed what is called AIDS in 77 patients. This was in 1989. He survived. With this and other victories, Sebi developed a following, wives, groupies, hopelessly ailing entertainers knocking on his door in minor disguises looking to be saved, a diverse posse who viewed his teachings as the secular gospel, the mercy they had been waiting for. Although it was rooted in the intention of healing, the more healing he did, the more Sebi was forced into becoming a brand, a commodity, another of the West’s fetishised rebels. Dr Sebi’s attempt to save his people from within the social and economic structures that strangle them was his ultimate shipwreck. This seemingly harmless nuance of integration, where we gain visibility for our most authentic truths and systems by subjecting them to the rubric of their predators, is almost more dangerous than the full cries for utopian unity we saw at the height of the civil rights movement. Dr Sebi’s consciousness was in effect split between hermetic shaman and saviour complex and these two distant states of being united by a fundamental charisma cannot be safely reconciled. Los Angeles/ Hollywood and a tropical village in Honduras cannot be reconciled. Love and money cannot be reconciled. One has to make a choice about which laws he will live under and force his environment to conform. Ambivalence when you know the truth can kill you faster than any fully formed lie.
In his own gorgeous and frankly informative improvised speeches, Sebi would hint that he needed healing too, that he was stressed out too, that we all were. He mentions this while bursting with energy and information at 82 years old, with two children under three he’s busy raising, and his healing centre in Honduras thriving, along with his shop in Los Angeles. He’s wearing a three-piece suit because he’s in the US. In Honduras, he wears linen and no shoes. He’s using the iron slang of urban Americans, calls himself a nigga, falls to his knees to demonstrate what sea moss does for his bone density. There’s a faint hint of heartbreak in his eyes when he admits he thought he was going to heal all of his people and realised few cared and fewer could translate that care into action. But Sebi’s overall spirit, the cheerful despair spiralling out of him, was be as children.
He spoke with the frankness of a child and called out what he saw so openly that honesty could have been mistaken for bitterness, though it was actually just him being a conduit, a consummate griot. Sebi knew, like King knew, the generosity and soul loneliness that had forced him to try and hip people to his simple secret would be his undoing. He warned himself, he knew the heroic impulse is as suicidal as it is life-giving, and he risked it because love and danger become one in the West, inevitably.
As with Sandra Bland, so too with Dr Sebi: we do not know, can’t get straight answers, and we may never know on paper what really occurred in those cells. We can speculate and cross reference and accuse and insinuate our way into private verdicts, and we will, forever. One of the questions leading the private inquisition being: who let them stay behind bars for so long for such petty offenses? In Sebi’s case, why was his jailing silenced, where were his allies, where were his enemies, what were they feeding him in there, what was he given? Where is the autopsy? How sudden the shift from vibrant man with a bright swinging light in his eyes to prisoner suffocating in his own skin. We know that environmental activist Bertha Caceras was gunned down in the night in her own home in Honduras and wonder if a government capable of arranging that might also arrange to off a herbalist, whose techniques could single-handedly send all the assumptions of allopathic medicine into pandemonium and disrepair. Or could grief and exhaustion and all the acid trapped in his lungs from smoking weed so often have invaded Dr Sebi’s will while he sat in the jail awaiting trial? Could he have just allowed ambivalence to yield to distant certainty?
In either scenario, Dr Sebi is a martyr and, like MLK, asserted his fallibility and manhood almost aggressively, as both a cry for help and an announcement that no matter what about society and the black experience they had set out to fix, fixing themselves completely would have been a threat to the survival of their reckless need to try to heal the world of its sacred affiliations. They needed a taste of the poison they set out to destroy; they needed to understand the difference between morals and brainwashing. They needed their problems, their flaws, their pain and their distractions from the pain of so much seeing and so little being seen and heeded. They needed to be betrayed to be fully seen in a way.
What’s different, what should alarm us into some sense of urgent torch handling, is that in a time when we are supposed to be liberated from Jim Crow fanaticism, Dr Sebi died virtually unknown and unnamed. There was a brief and muffled uproar before it felt like he had never even existed: no major obituary, no autopsy or open investigation into his final days. It’s possible that Big Pharma colluded to have this man who set out to really heal the whole of the diaspora, killed in his tracks, right when he was about to open free healing centres on a mass scale, and that no one even flinched, no one mentioned it in the mainstream news, the ads for fried chicken and antidepressants kept running, the shop in LA got almost famous, raided by guards, kept running. The centre in Honduras kept running. The healers who learned from Sebi began advertising their products more, but with fewer and fewer nods to his. His sons and daughters argued publicly over who owned what, who was a fraud, who a chosen heir. Men half Sebi’s age and stuck in the matrix started editing his teachings with minor but arrogant caveats. A circus of imposters now stands in the place of this monolithic figure who managed to unite the thinking on the black genome for a while by simplifying its tenets. And very few are the wiser.
Dr. Sebi went from vibrant living legend to distant myth in a matter of weeks, and no one is outraged. We’ve made no demands on the state or ourselves, we have no manifestos, no threats of mobilising the forces he put in place for good. And what’s most disconcerting is that we still don’t see the uselessness of social, economic, and cultural freedom when our cultural habits demand oppression, and wilful illness. Freedom to kill ourselves is what Sebi died trying to save us from. Will we at last wake up to the importance of how we treat our bodies every day, or did he die in vain? Without repairing our DNA, the epigenetics embeds repression in the genome so that we keep recreating it in new ways like the creative geniuses we are. Without getting our feet in the earth, bodies in the sun, the herbs in our bloodstream, the dead animals out, without making serious changes to the way we treat our bodies, to the very way we think about success on a material level, no amount of social change will add up to anything. We’ll keep inventing new ways to oppress ourselves the more resources we access. New resources are new ways to die in the current paradigm. We’ll keep stuffing starch up a turkey’s ass while a saviour passes away on a cold jail floor and wonder why we feel like smuggling screams into our laughter.
I give you your problem back
Maybe, like MLK, like Sebi himself, there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to be healed, that believes that being saved has something to do with keeping one foot in the slave quarters while the other gallops adjacent to the wheel. I believe that every saviour of their stature is both suicidal and deathless, but they do not go softly into the broken night of empire. Reparations begin in the body. Sebi was the realest and repairingest black saviour alive. His ambivalence is what made it thus, because it aches to transcend yourself alone. Back through the septic waters of empire, he marched home.
The day after his so-called death was reported, mainstream news outlets also reported that AIDS had been cured. There’s a patent on every virus, every disease, every mythic lethal invention, and there’s an equally valued contrived cure and it could cost you your life to question this. Not every rebel is a saviour, but every saviour knows the wages of showing us which way is up.
This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.
Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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