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

By Baldwin, Karen | Western Folklore, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Baldwin, Karen, Western Folklore


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.