“Strong Horse Tea,” a woman oppressed by racism, classism, and ignorance looks to white culture for magical cures while rejecting the home remedies of her community. Rannie Toomer, a mother whose baby, Snooks, is dying of double pneumonia and whooping cough, is beside herself with desperation and grief. She has heard of the miracle cures white culture has for these illnesses, but no one she knows has ever enjoyed them; she knows her community provides folk medicine, but she has learned, along with the message of the miracle cures, to have contempt for them. Alice Walker takes the reader through the hard lesson that at the bottom of the social ladder, sympathetic magic and sympathy itself are all that is available to her.
Rannie lives in a shack without heat or electricity. Snooks, named for a character on a radio show, is shuddering to the end of his life while his mother waits hopelessly for the white mailman to bring her the white doctor she has demanded. She by turns has begged and demanded that the white mailman, who stays in his car during the cold rain of the day, help her. The mailman tries to keep himself contained from Rannie. He does not want any interaction with black people, objectifies them, abhors their ignorance and poverty. He suggests that Rannie send for the black community’s root worker, Aunt Sarah, but Rannie insists that she wants real medicine—demands that the mailman get the white doctor. The mailman ignores her and sends for Aunt Sarah.
It is understandable that Rannie, uneducated, isolated, and a true naif, would believe that the white mailman has the power to deliver the rescue of her son. It is the mailman who has given her all the news of the white world that the radio (only alluded to in this story) has not. He gives her advertising circulars—junk mail—which, given her illiteracy, is probably the only thing he gives her that she can begin to understand: The circulars give her a picture of things she desperately needs: clothing, appliances, medicine. But she does not understand why she is being sent these pictures: “Did the circulars mean that someone was coming around later and would give her hats and suitcases and shoes and sweaters and rubbing alcohol and a heater for the house and a fur bonnet for her baby?” The circulars show her what she needs but do not explain why she is receiving them.
Rannie lives a rural life of such destitution that the rules of capitalism seem to have eluded her. The white mailman is the envoy—or does he merely deliver the bills—from white culture and has to “explain to her that everybody got the circulars, whether they had the money to buy with or not. That this was one of the laws of advertising and he could do nothing about it.” This seems cruel to Rannie, and she is right, because everyone, she believes, knows she has no money. But Rannie understands use value if not abstract value, and she takes many of the circulars and uses them to cover holes in her house that create drafts.
The circulars’ shiny promises of comfort, good humor, and safety alienate her from her own community—she wants no help from Aunt Sarah, the root worker, seeing her cures as mere superstition only for black folks. She wants a white cure for her son—she wants a white world to give him a future. She does not understand that she is permitted only to overhear these promises; she cannot presume to summon anything of the white world to her.
When Aunt Sarah arrives, Rannie rejects her—she is fervently awaiting the white doctor while her baby’s labored breathing diminishes. Sarah tries to give Rannie a dose of reality—there is no white doctor coming; in fact, the mailman drove her to Rannie’s shack. But Rannie denies what she hears until she crumples in despair at the realization of the truth. Sarah bluntly tells her that Snooks is dying.
Aunt Sarah prescribes “strong horse tea,” which is horse urine. She sends out Rannie into the rainstorm to get some from an old mare. She says Rannie will have to be strong herself, more than the boy, because she knows what she will be serving him. She states that young people today generally are not strong, but she does not state why. Perhaps it is their exposure to white culture’s modernization and the dreams it sells of controlling the body with science and luxury.
Desperate, Rannie filinds the mare and waits for her to give signs that she is preparing to urinate. But Rannie has forgotten to take a container. She uses her plastic shoe, with a slight crack in it, at the same time slipping and struggling in the mud to keep up with the horse, who is walking away from her. She manages to get some of the urine but fears it is not enough and covers the crack in the shoes with her mouth. Is this conviction the strength Rannie needs?
In the meantime, Aunt Sarah sits with the baby as he gently dies. The baby dies with a woman who can face hopelessness. Rannie cannot face the realities of life as a poor illiterate black woman in the South, that the white world is indifferent to your life or death, to a black infant’s life or death. The circulars do not instruct on racism or classism in a way that poor Rannie can see beyond their surface promises.
Rannie is given the remedy of the strong horse tea— a retort from the black community that she undervalues and an insult from nature, as is death itself. It is no cure, because there is no cure available to Rannie for the racism and poverty that oppress her. The old mare, like Aunt Sarah, cannot give her a cure but perhaps a bitter drink of truth. Nature will not help Rannie, white culture will not help Rannie, and black culture can only help her bear her life, and her dying.
Walker, Alice. “Strong Horse Tea.” In In Love and Trouble. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Books, 2001.