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

Article excerpt

Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. By Sharla M. Fett. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 304, preface, acknowledgments, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper)

Opening her prize-winning cultural history of healing within the power structures of slavery, Sharla Fett invokes the United States Public Health Service study of 1932-1972 under which hundreds of Alabama black men and their families were allowed to suffer untreated syphilis, purportedly for medical research. The Tuskegee Experiment was not merely unconscionable behavior in the name of bad science: Fett demonstrates that the Public Health Service's malfeasance was historically founded in establishment medical philosophy and practice regarding enslaved Africans. Extending Todd Savitt's groundbreaking work in the study of medicine and slavery (1978), Fett shows that not only were slaves doctored with minimum expense and effort, but they were routinely subjected to medical experimentation meant to affirm a racial concept of differential health needs between whites and enslaved blacks. Yet "enslaved communities 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" (2) that were vital to slavery. Fett's purview-plantation settings in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia-provide a multi-generational depth of engagement between African American and "Anglo-American systems of medicines" within slavery (8).

Fett discusses the differential health belief systems of slaveholders and slaves, grounding each in respective worldviews, amply illustrated from slaveholders' diaries and letters, physicians' handbooks and journals, and (folklorists will note) records of the spoken word and life experiences documented in slave narratives and WPA collections. The slaveholder's notion of soundness defined the health and cash value of enslaved Africans and their descendant generations and restricted attentions to slaves' medical needs. By contrast, the philosophies and cultural memories of healing in relational contexts that force-migrated with Africans represented powerful visions of physical and spiritual health from different regions of the African continent. Enslaved communities operated with knowledge that collective relationships influenced each individual's well being. "The midwife's touch, the conjurer's roots, and the herb doctor's pungent teas addressed the sufferer's pain as well as her or his standing within an extensive web of relationships" (36).

Plant materials for teas, poultices, inhalants, or food were the mainstay of unofficial medicine in the antebellum Atlantic region. Cross-cultural networks for exchange of such herbal medicines were uncharacteristically free from class strictures among Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, and Anglo-American plantation families. Herbal medicinal practices were junctures where slaveholders and enslaved blacks sought common ends, or so it seemed. Fett points out that enslaved healers worked within an African-based pharmocosm in which sacred and secular were merged in a world wholly imbued with sacred meaning. In this world spiritual power had harming as well as healing capacities, expressing dual aspects of "an African American conjure culture" (39) in which herbalists and their knowledge were highly prized and equally suspect by slaveholders. …