Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

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Exploring the charged topic of black health under slavery, Sharla Fett reveals how herbalism, conjuring, midwifery, and other African American healing practices became arts of resistance in the antebellum South.

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Overview

Exploring the charged topic of black health under slavery, Sharla Fett reveals how herbalism, conjuring, midwifery, and other African American healing practices became arts of resistance in the antebellum South.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Incorporates and contributes to a wide range of existing scholarship on the history of medicine, the Atlantic world, and the religious, cultural, and social dimensions of the African American slave community."
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Science

Written in a lively and engaging style, this book is a unique overview of the complex interaction of white and slave medical care in the antebellum South. (Library Journal)

Reveals how African Americans developed a distinctive health culture that drew on a panoply of therapies, remedies, and botanical knowledge from African, European, and Native American sources. (Tera W. Hunter, author of To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War)

Digs into an area of slave health untouched by previous historians. (Todd L. Savitt, author of Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia)

Todd L. Savitt
Digs into an area of slave health untouched by previous historians.
Tera W. Hunter
Reveals how African Americans developed a distinctive health culture that drew on a panoply of therapies, remedies, and botanical knowledge from African, European, and Native American sources.
Library Journal
Written in a lively and engaging style, this book is a unique overview of the complex interaction of white and slave medical care in the antebellum South. . . . [Fett] provides an important background to African American health since the end of slavery.
Library Journal
In this work, which is based on her 1995 Rutgers University dissertation, Fett assesses slave health and medical care in the U.S. South. She portrays slave society as a culture that developed its own healing methods while subject to abuse and racist theories from white medical practitioners. Slave healthcare was an amalgam of various African tribal traditions transmuted by their dispersal throughout the South. Important to these systems were such factors as kinship relations in the community and the role of slave women in healing practices. White medical care of slaves concentrated on their fitness for labor in the household or fields. Written in a lively and engaging style, this book is a unique overview of the complex interaction of white and slave medical care in the antebellum South. Fett, who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, also provides an important background to African American health since the end of slavery. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. A.J. Wright, Univ. of Alabama Lib., Birmingham Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807853788
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 5/6/2002
  • Series: Gender and American Culture Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sharla M. Fett teaches history at Occidental College.

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Working Cures
Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations


By Sharla M. Fett

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0807827096



Introduction


The harrowing history of the medical abuse and neglect of African Americans reaches from enslavement to the present. For many people the U.S. Public Health Service's study from 1932 to 1972 of untreated syphilis in black Alabama men remains the most concrete symbol of scientific and medical injustice, but precedents for the infamous Tuskegee study litter the preceding three centuries. Before slaving vessels ever left the barracoons of the African coast, Europeans closely inspected the bodies of captive Africans, even tasting their sweat for signs of illness.[1] Domestic slave markets of the United States further subsumed all dimensions of black health under the rubric of soundness for sale. The institution of slavery defined enslaved men and women as "objects of property," enmeshing even intimate relations of sexuality and childbearing in a web of property interests.[2] In millions of daily interactions with enslaved laborers, slaveholders sought, in the words of Ida B. Wells, to "dwarf the soul and preserve the body."[3] When slaves resisted, whites also employed medicine, not to preserve the body but to discipline and torture.

Formal scientific endeavors also contributed to the exploitative dimension of medicine in African American history. From North America to Europe, learned white men put science to the service of proslavery ideology and white supremacy. Nineteenth-century white scientists and physicians advanced models of civilization informed by elaborately intersecting hierarchies of gender, race, and class. They posited differential capacities to feel pain as well as divergent sexualities and moralities, and polygeneticists built their reputations arguing for the separate origins of distinct races. White physicians and medical students subjected enslaved men and women to experimentation and humiliating display as medical specimens. By the late nineteenth century, white pundits and scientists alike employed evolutionary theory and population statistics to project the extinction of the "Negro race."[4] Twentieth-century eugenics, forced sterilization of poor women, nonconsensual experimentation, and massive discrimination complete a history of medical abuse built on the legacies of slavery and racism.[5] It is a historical accounting that clearly renders African American distrust of white medical institutions, to borrow sociologist Kirk Johnson's phrase, "a sensible, rational act."[6]

The history of medical abuse is a grim but only partial account of the legacy of antebellum medical relations. Simply put, enslaved African Americans were not passive victims of medical malice, nor were they helpless dependents on white health care. Instead, communities in slavery nurtured a rich health culture, a constellation of ideas and practices related to well-being, illness, healing, and death, that worked to counter the onslaught of daily medical abuse and racist scientific theories.[7] At each historical juncture, enslaved communities cultivated their own practitioners and therapies, and they influenced southern rural health practices in the process.[8] Slave insurrectionists deployed protective medicine to shield themselves from white patrollers and pursuing hounds. Black midwives visited slave dwellings and white households to attend mothers and catch babies. Elderly root doctors built regional reputations among a multiethnic clientele. Skilled herbalists cultivated local botanical expertise that significantly influenced southern domestic medicine. Any serious exploration of African American health culture in the antebellum South quickly puts to rest the myth of slave dependency on white health care.

A close examination of African American doctoring traditions similarly reinforces the case for the African cultural impact on North American enslaved communities. This work situates the history of African American slave healing within the larger context of an Atlantic world and the African diaspora.[9] The maelstrom of the Atlantic slave trade hurled together a dazzling array of healing systems. Forcibly transported into the brutal Atlantic plantation complex, Igbo, Yoruba, Bambara, Kongo, and many other captives transformed their distinct traditions of healing to survive in the New World. African philosophies and therapies thus proved central to the development of African American doctoring traditions. Native American medicine also figured significantly in slave doctoring, as both European and African newcomers drew on indigenous botanical knowledge in the Americas. Finally, European popular and elite doctoring influenced slave health culture as Europeans and Africans borrowed from each other in colonial cities, farms, and plantations.

Africans in the Atlantic world forged cultures of healing as varied as they were geographically specific. From Haitian Vodou to Brazilian Candombl‚ to North American hoodoo, Black Atlantic religions of healing, still thriving today, reflect their particular place within the history of enslavement and forced migration.[10] African American healing traditions, while deeply embedded in the regional history of the American South, must also be understood in this context of the African diaspora. My primary goal in the following pages is not, however, to trace the ethnic origins and transformations of specific African healing practices across the Atlantic. Instead, this work explores the social relations of slave health and healing as they emerged in daily interactions among residents of nineteenth-century southern plantations.

African American doctoring has an Old South as well as a diasporic context. In large part, plantation health relations owed their politically charged character to the fact that fluid cross-cultural exchanges in medicine took place within a slave society characterized by a sharply defined social order. The antebellum years saw both an upheaval in the relations between professional and popular medicine and an elaboration of the mechanisms of control over the enslaved population. Plantation health practices drew on interlocking gender, race, and class ideologies that informed the actions and identities of practitioners and patients alike. In this setting, slave doctoring became simultaneously a valuable form of knowledge, a subjugated form of labor, and a challenge to the existing social order.

The history of slavery and the making of race strongly influenced the dynamics of southern plantation medicine. The years between the arrival of the first Africans and the birth of the new nation gave rise to a racial ideology that sustained the ideal of liberty in a republic heavily dependent on slave labor. As plantation production moved to the center of the southern economy, the idea of "race" itself congealed to support the exploitation of African labor in the southern plantation economy. Relatively fluid "societies with slaves" became heavily racialized "slave societies" that defined freedom as a prerogative of whiteness. What was new in these emerging North American slave societies was not the exploitation of unfree labor but the forging of a common notion of white freedom premised on the enslavement of Africans.[11]

Sex/gender systems played a key role in this transformation as English colonists reified notions of racial difference "by connecting them to other power relations defined as natural, like those of gender."[12] The earliest racial distinctions made by Virginia statutes, for example, distinguished African women, who were expected to labor in the fields and were therefore counted as taxable laborers, from English women, who were exempted, at least in the ideal, from field labor. Likewise, colonial law departed from English patriarchal precedents in fashioning legislation designating slavery as a condition inheritable through the mother, regardless of the father's status. Gendered divisions of labor and laws exerting control over black women's children thus contributed to the racialization of social relations.[13] By the early nineteenth century an interlocking set of social hierarchies reinforced planter dominance, subordinated enslaved and free blacks, and recruited white yeoman support within the antebellum social order.[14]

In contrast to the established hierarchies of southern slave society, antebellum medicine and health care was a veritable free-for-all, characterized by experimentalism, skepticism, and contesting claims to scientific legitimacy. In the first half of the nineteenth century, orthodox (or "regular") medical doctors underwent a crisis in professional identity prompted by "therapeutic confusion" within the profession.[15] Compounding the effects of internal dissent, orthodox doctors also confronted a "medical counterculture" composed of health reform movements often linked to other social and political causes of the day. Overwhelmingly white and male in profile, orthodox medical practitioners sought to carve out a more secure foundation of professional identity by establishing exclusive medical legitimacy.[16] In the antebellum South, white doctors' search for new grounds of scientific and social legitimacy merged with the sectional conflict over slavery. Professional southern doctors defended the merits of southern medical science by proclaiming a new domain of race- and region-specific medicine that reinforced emergent proslavery ideology.[17]

Heated sectarian battles had a limited direct impact on most antebellum Americans, but the contest over medical knowledge and authority prompted an even more significant realignment in the relationship between professional and lay practitioners. Throughout early American history, particularly in rural areas, sick care occurred primarily in households rather than hospitals or clinics. Preventative measures and nursing of the sick fell generally, though not exclusively, to women. As domestic healers women provided the foundation of popular health care, which was supplemented by the work of medical practitioners in private homes.[18]

The accepted relationship between domestic medical authority and professional medical authority began to change, however, with the advent of health reform and professional conflicts.[19] Although professional practitioners did not view domestic practitioners as their direct competitors, the domestic realm provided a convenient label with which to discredit newcomers vying for professional legitimacy. Seeking to secure their own professional place, male orthodox physicians and male "irregulars" alike sought to denigrate their competition by associating them with socially less powerful domestic practitioners. Professional practitioners painted their competition as purveyors of superstition and ignorance by associating them with "old women, root doctors, and quacks of all sorts."[20] Equating their rivals with the least powerful of domestic healers—older women, the rural, the illiterate, and the enslaved—competing white, male practitioners extended their exclusive claims to medical authority.

The combination of medical ferment with the planter-dominated social order of antebellum slave society produced a remarkable blend of cross-cultural experimentalism and dangerous social divisions. On one hand, antebellum southerners adopted an experimental attitude toward medical knowledge, seeking effective medicines and skilled practitioners across lines of social division. Therapies circulated with surprising fluidity as health seekers turned to Thomsonianism, homeopathy, water cure, Indian remedies, and hoodoo.[21] Southerners from all walks of life consulted peddlers and seers, scripture and almanacs, and above all, the acquired wisdom of their families, social circles, and local neighborhoods. Yet the rigid socioracial structure of southern slave society often put medical experimentalism on volatile ground and produced seemingly contradictory results. White southerners wrote slave remedies into their private recipe books even as they wrote laws curtailing the practice of enslaved doctors. Enslaved mothers learned cough remedies from planter women even as they bitterly condemned slaveholders who forced them to attend white infants at the cost of their own children's well-being. While therapies appeared to flow across social divides, enslaved practitioners and health seekers often struggled against racial, gendered, and class-based constructions of who was fit to claim the privileges of medical authority.

As laborers, mothers, and healers, bondswomen stood at the center of this struggle. Enslaved women grew herbs, made medicines, cared for the sick, prepared the dead for burial, and attended births in black and white households across the South. Unlike the proscriptions on white women's field labor, black and white women's duties as domestic healers partially overlapped. Yet white society denied enslaved women the prerogatives of womanhood and motherhood that undergirded white women's moral authority as domestic caregivers. Whereas privileged white women of the period could counter medical doctors' authority with the authority of home and maternal instinct, the institutions of southern slave society offered no such ideological reinforcement to the claims of slave women in the care of their own families.[22] Furthermore, distinctions between private and public arenas of healing failed to describe the realities of enslaved women workers, whose healing work enriched the southern plantation economy. Barred from both male professional and white maternal authority, enslaved women, along with enslaved men, nevertheless created an original definition of healing authority that did not depend on the gender norms of white slaveholders. Slave women's doctoring thus formed a critical part of southern domestic healing that until now has not received its due in the literature on gender and antebellum medicine.

Black healers drew their authority from a collective understanding of health and healing integral to African American culture under slavery. Plantation slave communities, I argue, maintained a relational vision of health that fundamentally diverged from slaveholder notions of slave soundness. This relational vision connected individual health to broader community relationships; it insisted on a collective context for both affliction and healing; it honored kinship relations by bridging the worlds of ancestors and living generations; it located a healer's authority in the wisdom of elders and divine revelation. In these respects the relational vision of health carried forward important dimensions of West and West Central African religions and worldviews. The relational vision of health was, at the same time, a concept forged in the crucible of North American enslavement. Incorporating Christianity into African holistic concepts of well-being, African American philosophies of health articulated important critiques of both slaveholder Christianity and planter definitions of humane medical care.

There were also certain things that the relational vision of health did not do. First, it did not reflect among enslaved African Americans a romanticized ideal of communal harmony. The relational vision of health assumed that conflict would be present in community life and in relations with slaveholders. As illustrated by African American conjuring, black doctoring traditions addressed bodily ills in the context of a broad spectrum of human relationships. Equally important, the relational vision of health did not win for slave communities a strictly autonomous space for black health practices. Rather, the evidence indicates that slaveholders intruded frequently on the health practices of the enslaved. Black men and women thus wrestled continuously, and sometimes unsuccessfully, with slaveholders, overseers, and white doctors for their chance to pursue their own visions of health. Accordingly, readers will find here an emphasis on the dynamics of struggle rather than an argument for the autonomous character of slave health practices.[23]

While my argument highlights the importance of African American doctoring to slave community, I am cognizant of the conceptual difficulties implicit in the term. "The slave community," as a homogenous and predictable social unit, has never existed, except in some historical scholarship. Slave communities, however, did prevail with rich variation throughout the antebellum South.[24] In this book the plural term is used to indicate both residential groups of enslaved families bound by geography and particular sets of relationships among the enslaved, influenced by but separate from master-slave relations.[25] Of necessity the boundaries of many enslaved communities reached beyond the property lines of individual plantations, extending to include friends, kin, and colaborers on other farms and plantations.[26] Furthermore, the term as it appears in this book does not apply only to the sundown-to-sunup hours within slave quarters, though these hours were indeed important to the cultural and social fabric of enslaved communities. Of equal concern in these pages, however, are fields, yards, workshops, and sickhouses where enslaved men and women built their communities as they labored.[27]

Acknowledging the many variations among antebellum slave communities, this study nonetheless argues for certain continuities in African American health experiences across the plantations of the southeastern United States. Certainly by some measures, such as the degree to which slaveowners intruded directly on slave healing practices or the extent of labor specialization among plantation health workers, size of plantation and region created important differences. Herbal practices, for example, changed with varying ecosystems. Certain regions, such as the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands, offered more concentrated evidence of African cultural retentions. At the same time, however, several broad themes, such as the objectifying concept of slave "soundness," the impact of the institution of slavery on the white medical profession, and the sacred foundation of African American doctoring, created similarities of experience throughout many slave communities. From the moderate holdings of the upper South to the great plantations of the Lowcountry, enslaved men and women critiqued the contradictions between their own vision of humanity and the slaveholders' valuation of their bodies.[28] Smaller holdings and more intimate relations with slaveholders could not shield enslaved families from the forces of sale and commodification, nor could lesser planters avoid the influence of property concerns on their health care decisions.[29] Sharing certain common experiences of white medical care, enslaved sufferers sought out (and were able to find) African American practitioners not only in the black majority areas of Georgia and South Carolina but in North Carolina towns and upper South farms as well.[30]

Plantations in four southeastern coastal states—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—comprise the main focus of this study.[31] Representing both upper and lower South regions, these states varied widely in demography, geography, and main crops, including wheat, tobacco, rice, and cotton. Their diversity makes possible an investigation into slave health and healing across a large and varied portion of the South. Certain shared characteristics also facilitate a cohesive analysis of the southeastern Atlantic states. With their history of early and continuous British colonization, these states all contained regions where African American and Anglo-American traditions of medicines had developed for many decades in relation to the institution of slavery. In contrast to the newly cultivated areas of the cotton belt to the west, all four states featured regions with mature plantation economies and multigenerational slave communities. Established southern medical schools and a segment of white doctors who practiced on plantations meant that enslaved African Americans negotiated medical encounters with white doctors as well as with slaveholders and overseers. Their interactions produced a remarkable store of evidence on the social relations of plantation health and the content of African American healing.

The four states covered in this study are significant, too, for the ethnic distribution of the antebellum slave population's African-born ancestors. Historian Michael Gomez has proposed the existence of "African ethnic enclaves" in North America that laid the social and cultural foundations of later African American communities. Two of the three regions proposed by Gomez are represented in the geographical boundaries of this study. In Georgia and South Carolina, West Central Africans comprised the majority of the African-born population, while captives from the Bight of Biafra, namely the Igbo, made up the largest group in the upper South, including Virginia. Gold Coast Akan speakers, Senegambians, and later Sierra Leonians, contributed in smaller numbers to both upper and lower South regions as well. In addition to detailing the multiethnic base of African American healing practices, Gomez's analysis illuminates my interpretations at two other significant junctures. First, his model of ethnic enclaves suggests the possible cultural derivation for a heavy concentration of Kongo-based hoodoo in the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry. Though hoodoo (or conjure), which will be discussed at length in Chapter 4, appeared throughout the antebellum South, much of the evidence in this volume is drawn from the coastal regions of the lower South. Second, Gomez confirms my rationale for a separate consideration of African American healing in the lower Mississippi and in particular Louisiana. Here the stronger Fon-Ewe-Yoruba impact from the Bight of Benin contributed to voodoo (as opposed to hoodoo) religious practices distinctive to the lower Mississippi region.[32]

Evidence for the history of slave doctoring in the southeastern states lies scattered across the historical landscape. African Americans contributed heavily to the picture of their own health and healing. Both antebellum slave narratives and hundreds of interviews with former slaves conducted between 1920 and 1940 comment on the quality of slave health, relationships with white and black practitioners, and regional healing practices. Herbal remedies, illness narratives, and folklore collections drawn from southern African Americans make up the core of this book's evidence concerning the relational view of health and the doctoring practices embraced by enslaved communities. Supplementing this verbal evidence are the physical artifacts of healing practices—medicine bowls, birthing beads, and conjure kits—that remained in the earth long after their users passed on.

White residents of southern plantations also provided extensive evidence on the politics of black health and healing. From the diaries of southern mistresses to the weekly reports of white overseers, the written words of white men and women furnish evidence of the physical health of enslaved men, women, and children. Slave lists, family letters, and plantation journals document the importance of slave health to the economic success of every plantation. Even more important for this study, observations by white plantation residents and visitors reveal the tensions inherent in conflicting views of appropriate medicine held by slaves and slaveholders. Complaints raised against enslaved practitioners and patients exposed white assumptions about African American health practices and unintentionally confirmed postbellum accounts of slave reliance on African American healers.

White southern medical doctors make an important contribution to the story as well. Although white doctors only visited occasionally on many southern plantations, they made a considerable impression on slave health experiences. Intertwined with the slave trade and southern legal procedures, the southern medical profession depended on slavery for a patient base and on their slaveholding clientele for a living. In the southern Atlantic coastal states, medical schools such as the Medical College of South Carolina and Atlanta Medical College trained generations of antebellum practitioners keenly interested in the South's peculiar institution.[33] Medical school theses, case studies in medical journals, letters to colleagues, and notes from slaveholders requesting attention to enslaved patients all reveal not just the medical theory of the time but the texture of everyday medical practice.

Concerned primarily with the daily relations of plantation medicine, this book is a medical history in which human interactions, not diseases or treatments, occupy center stage. In many respects this study begins where medical historian Todd Savitt's important work Medicine and Slavery ends. Savitt paired the insights of public health models with social history to provide a detailed analysis of the diseases and health environment of Virginia slave quarters and the families who lived in them.[34] Combing the records of antebellum Virginia, Savitt richly documented a "dual system" of black and white health practices in which enslaved practitioners and popular remedies remained largely hidden from slaveholders.[35] Equally important, Medicine and Slavery placed plantation medicine in the context of southern social relations by arguing that slaves who sought their own remedies were not, as whites often charged, being "irresponsible" but were instead asserting "some independence" in determining the fate of their bodies.[36] While Medicine and Slavery convincingly demonstrated the existence of slave health practices, however, the book's biomedical framework does not permit a full exploration of their meaning.

Biomedical frameworks, grounded in the knowledge claims of modern, Western medical science, have in fact provided the basis for the bulk of historical scholarship on medicine and slavery throughout the Americas. Using the tools of twentieth-century medical theory, historians have learned quite a bit about antebellum southern disease environments and the health of black and white southerners.[37] Drawing from the fields of physical anthropology, nutrition, genetics, epidemiology, and modern medical diagnosis, Todd Savitt, Richard Steckel, Kenneth Kiple, and Virginia Himmelsteib King, among others, have etched the contours of slave health, highlighting horrific child mortality, compromised diets, and poor prenatal conditions. In these studies medical science provides a strong lens through which to peer into the antebellum South and understand the physical bodies of the individuals who inhabited the past. The result has been an increasingly nuanced view of regional southern health environments and a valuable analysis of the physical conditions faced by enslaved laborers.[38]

Notwithstanding their merits, biomedical approaches are not well equipped to analyze the experiential or political dimensions of health. Nor are they conducive to serious analysis of popular or indigenous healing knowledge embedded in alternative epistemologies. Despite their insights biomedical frameworks often obscure as much as they reveal about enslaved African American healing practices. Seeking a more appropriate approach, this study rejects a framework that posits some African American healing beliefs as "superstition" and others as "medicine." I have instead undertaken a meaning-centered and critical analysis rooted in the social, cultural, and political significance of healing. Accordingly, the interpretations that follow are concerned with the social reality of illness and healing, the ideological contexts in which illness and healing occur, and the hierarchies of power that inform health-related encounters. Viewed through this critical lens, the importance of healing to religion, labor, and community in the lives of enslaved African Americans comes sharply into focus.[39]

This book's topical organization reflects its emphasis on meaning and social relations. Part I begins by establishing the tensions between the slaveholder concept of "soundness" and the African American relational vision of health. Subsequent chapters delve into the sacred basis of African American doctoring practices, placing them in the context of community relationships, spiritual power, and African heritage. From the colonial period to the nineteenth century the African-based North American slave population underwent a wrenching cultural transformation. Between roughly 1780 and 1830 the African-born proportion of the enslaved population dropped from around 20 percent to less than 10 percent, with a large majority of African Americans being several generations removed from the direct memory of Africa.[40] Yet the African cultural presence in nineteenth-century slave doctoring remained strong. The Bambara use of protective amulets, the Kongo arts of minkisi and herbalism, and the Igbo and Akan concerns with the land and the ancestors met and merged on North American soil, furnishing the cultural underpinnings for an African American relational view of health.[41] This work's initial chapters delineate how enslaved communities invested this relational vision in a wide spectrum of healing practices, including sickbed attendance, herbalism, and conjure.

Though social conflict is apparent even in the initial chapters, the second half of the book turns more explicitly to questions of medicine and power relations on southern plantations. Franz Fanon, in a study of Algerian colonial medicine, argued that anyone who wants to understand how colonized peoples have viewed Western medicine must look to the histories of oppression underlying cross-cultural medical encounters.[42] Borrowing from this insight, Part II examines the many ways in which health and healing became arenas of struggle between slaveholders and the enslaved. As the latter chapters demonstrate, plantation health conflicts were far more than disagreements around the sickbed. So intertwined was slave health with other issues of plantation control that field labor, slave insurrections, and activities such as nighttime visiting among the enslaved also became venues of health-related conflict. Furthermore, the extensive involvement of enslaved women in plantation health work meant that plantation health conflicts involved childcare, childbearing, and slave women's skilled labor. Contention over alternative definitions of medical authority, particularly of slave women's authority, forms an important theme running through the second section.

Finally, the word "conflict" is used broadly throughout to indicate tensions, negotiations, outright opposition, and long-term, subtle contests for power. Wherever these conflicts occurred, slaves and slaveholders did not fight their battles on equal ground. Slave masters possessed the weapons of law, state-sanctioned violence, and legal ownership of the bodies of the enslaved. Enslaved African Americans countered with their own medical knowledge, confidence in their moral view of the universe, and a repertoire of survival techniques passed down across generations. As James Scott has pointed out, resistance of a subordinate class of people under extreme disparities of power is rarely carried out directly in the face of the dominant power.[43] To do so on the sickbed, as in the fields, was often simply too dangerous. Yet enslaved men and women nevertheless asserted their relational definition of health in daily acts aimed at maintaining self and community. The sum of their efforts provided a powerful counterweight to the systematic objectification of African Americans under slavery.


Excerpted from Working Cures by Sharla M. Fett. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Preface

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Part I. Visions of Health

Chapter 1. Soundness

Chapter 2. Spirit and Power

Chapter 3. Sacred Plants

Chapter 4. Conjuring Community

Part II. Arenas of Conflict

Chapter 5. Doctoring Women

Chapter 6. Danger and Distrust

Chapter 7. Fooling the Master

Conclusion

Notes

Bibliography

Index

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