Richael Faithful is a 30-year-old black queer street shaman, folk healer and lawyer living in Washington, D.C. Even in the corner of the noisy downtown café where Faithful and I met for our interview, her quiet presence drowned out much of the early lunchtime background noise. Faithful talked with me about her eight-year journey of spiritual seeking, which took her from a Buddhist people of color meditation group, to training in Reiki—a Japanese energy healing modality—to studying shamanic medicine with a formal teacher. Now Faithful works as an attorney in addition to serving as the “shaman-in-residence” at Freed Bodyworks, a body positive holistic wellness center in Southeast D.C.
“I was seeking a spiritual cleansing, but I didn’t know that that was what I needed,” says Heidi Williamson, a black social justice activist who recently saw Faithful for a session. “The talk therapy alone was not working. The exercise, diet, meditation alone was not getting it either. I needed something else.” Faithful says this is a common thread among the people who seek out her services: “Sometimes I’m the person that folks seek out last because they’ve tried everything else.”
“We had a conversation for half an hour and she then she asked me to lie down on the massage table,” Williamson says of that first session. “[She told me she] would use a series of non-touch modalities to communicate with [my] ancestors. She said she would also do some energy work. [As she worked] I felt energy moving, particularly in my chest and my throat. I would open my eyes and every now and again would see her moving her hands over those areas. She wasn’t close enough to touch, but I could feel her energy. She did have some form of incense or a scent going over me. She would either be nodding her head or shaking it. She was agreeing or disagreeing with something someone was saying. She had her eyes closed.”
Williamson described at length the impact of the session and the reflections that Faithful shared with her after she got off the table. “She was so spot on in her assessment of me I just didn’t know how to hold it,” Williamson says. “I felt lighter in my head, my shoulders, my neck.”
Faithful and I talked for close to two hours about her healing work and navigating cultural appropriation and race in the field. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What distinguishes shamanic practice from other types of healing work?
Faithful: Shamanic practices are the ways in which we’ve healed for a very long time. It relies on spiritual connection between the practitioner and person and the world. Traditionally, shamanic healers were like your medicine people, they would help you physically heal, they would also be able to intuit and develop ceremonies and rituals to help you heal. For me, energy work is my center, although I’m able to do divination, I’m able to do healing through drum, I’m able to do other things. [Shamanic healing] is ancestrally based. We’re using medicine that’s old and has been used for a long time.
When I think of shamanic healing I think of communities of color. How do you navigate race in this work?
I have very strong feelings about this. I feel like it’s important for people to develop an authentic ancestral connection. And I appreciate that that ancestral connection is not always a blood connection. I believe that many of us experienced many lifetimes and have affinities to many places and spaces. But I feel like oftentimes folks are not cognizant about those authentic connections and jump to what is available. There is a lot of industry around shamanic practice and indigenous people in the Americas, right? And there are a lot of white folks who are attracted to that industry.
I always ask folks to be really critical of that industry and whether they actually feel connected. And often I think if folks are critical they will make a more enlightened discovery. There is such richness in Celtic traditions, for example. There are so many European shamanic traditions. Those are rich too. So you know, my guidance for myself and others—what is really the most authentic to you? I think if folks are more daring in that discovery, there will be probably more diversity and interest in shamanic traditions and a deeper level of respect, particularly for white bodies [who] enter indigenous traditions. If you do feel authentically drawn to those traditions, [you'll] practice them in a different way, so that it is not total co-optation.
What healing tradition do you feel authentically connected to?
I felt drawn to and inspired by the magical ways of being of enslaved folks on this soil. To me their very survival was magical. And as I learned more about [Conjure, an African-American healing tradition], it’s super practical, which makes sense. It’s practical, it’s eclectic and it is truly about survival and thriving which is very also true to the black experience in this country. It made a lot of sense to me [and] I felt connected to it.
How did you learn about Conjure?
I had to read about it. It’s really ridiculous. I’ve been recently more connected to my ancestors in my energetic healing so I do have guidance that is from the Conjure tradition. But I didn’t know what it was until I was able to read about it. I was googling African-American shamanic tradition and finding nothing. And then I was like, oh Hoodoo, Conjure, this is what it is.
Why do you think it was so hard to learn about?
It makes sense that it was hard to find. Few things are as frightening to people in this country as black people with magical power. And also because it wasn’t an organized religion, its preservation has been haphazard and scattered.
Was it kept from being an organized religion?
I don’t think it’s formed that way. Though many of its practices have seeped into the black church. So many people who recognize things like “ring shouts”—kind of an ecstatic dance that takes place counterclockwise in the circle—it’s call and response. And it’s a way that folks enter the ecstasy. [That’s] a Conjure tradition inspired by or connected to Congo cosmology. There are still people in the black church who are afraid to know. It can coexist. They are just all part of our spirituality.
What do you think about white Conjure practitioners?
I think that’s fine [if] folks are respectful. I do appreciate that some of the most visible white Conjurers have done a lot to try to preserve the tradition. I would not have been connected intellectually to Conjure without that. I’m not prohibitive around it, but you do have to understand the history and be respectful of the magic and the practice and just let your ego get out of the way which includes [letting go of] misogyny, white supremacy, class issues.
Other healing traditions have been institutionalized in the U.S. through the creation of schools, certifications and licensing programs. Has that kind of business developed around Conjure?
Not as much. There are really only three or four really prolific teachers. There is not the same level of necessity that you have to have credentials. It’s still a fairly accessible form of magic. That’s what I liked about Reiki too. It’s not so hierarchical yet. That’s why I identify as a person who does street magic. Not because I am not of the street—I grew up in Centreville, Virginia. But I use street to talk about the ways in which I do believe any person who can establish spiritual connections can have the same healing capacities that we all have. We have immense resources.
Does your queerness impact your healing work?
Both queer living and queer politics help me be as open as I am. In terms of queer politics I just intellectually appreciate that the world is vast and weird and beautiful. I just love queer existence. I also believe that queer love really is to me what spirituality is. It’s a representation of the nuances, the immenseness, the depth of this power of love. I come with the assumption of the transformative power of love and it’s richness. In most magical spaces wherever I show up, I show up queer.
What advice do you have for people who want to learn more about these kinds of spiritual and healing practices?
1) Know the distinction between self-care and healing. I think self-care is very vital for management around how to stay well. But it’s distinct from healing because healing is about a deeper exploration [of] the wounds that we all carry and investing in examining what those wounds are and paying attention to them over time, being able to move into spaces that allow you to break the patterns that come from those wounds and to create new ones. But to me that is a much longer, deeper, wider process than self-care. We have to do both.
2) Just listen. There is a premium around speaking and speaking truth and even knowledge which is a form of consumption. There is a lot that folks will be able to discover about themselves in this moment by listening and bearing witness to themselves and others. It’s a very deep and supportive listening that we all need to do.
3) Begin to acknowledge our own magical qualities and those of our community. We’re the most magical people we know. Magic is everywhere, but I think folks have got to understand the value of what that means to have access to that power. Support healers in your communities and in yourself. Support your own healing capacities.