Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

Synopsis

For enslaved and newly freed African Americans, attaining freedom and citizenship without health for themselves and their families would have been an empty victory. Even before emancipation, African Americans recognized that control of their bodies was a critical battleground in their struggle for autonomy, and they devised strategies to retain at least some of that control. In Doctoring Freedom, Gretchen Long tells the stories of African Americans who fought for access to both medical care and medical education, showing the important relationship between medical practice and political identity.
Working closely with antebellum medical journals, planters' diaries, agricultural publications, letters from wounded African American soldiers, WPA narratives, and military and Freedmen's Bureau reports, Long traces African Americans' political acts to secure medical care: their organizing mutual-aid societies, their petitions to the federal government, and, as a last resort, their founding of their own medical schools, hospitals, and professional organizations. She also illuminates work of the earliest generation of black physicians, whose adult lives spanned both slavery and freedom. For African Americans, Long argues, claiming rights as both patients and practitioners was a political and highly charged act in both slavery and emancipation.

Excerpt

“What about the colored doctor? … with the hospital, and the diamond ring, and the carriage, and the other fallals?” asks Colonel McBane, a vicious white supremacist in Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradition. McBane and his two cronies, upset about the rising position of African Americans in their small southern city, are making plans to run a number of prominent black men out of town. They decide quickly to expel the editor of the black paper and the black real estate agent, who have championed civil rights. Disposing of the “colored doctor,” laden with trappings of wealth, proves more contentious. Dr. Miller is a welltrained surgeon who has opened a nursing school and a hospital for African Americans in the city. In contrast to McBane, General Belmont, a moderate, objects to targeting Miller, saying, “I shouldn’t interfere with Miller. He’s a very good sort of a negro, doesn’t meddle with politics, nor tread on any one else’s toes. His father was a good citizen, which counts in his favor. He’s spending money in the community too, and contributes to its prosperity.” McBane, however, is not satisfied. A violent man who embodies racial hatred and will later lead a genocidal campaign against the town’s African American population, he responds, “That sort of nigger, though, sets a bad example. They make it all the harder to keep the rest of ‘em down.”

Not merely a novelist and short story writer, Charles Chesnutt was an astute observer of American race relations, an essayist, a public intellectual, and a cultural critic. His decision to focus on medical culture in his turn-of-the-century novel allowed him to explore a wide variety of themes. In The Marrow of Tradition, we encounter both folk medicine and advanced surgeries performed by African American practitioners. We learn about black patients receiving medical care from African American doctors and nurses at a black-run hospital. Through the novel’s plot and characters, we confront the simultaneous limits and potential of modern medical expertise.

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