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

By Sharla M. Fett (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xiii plus 290 pp.).

Historians of slavery have come a long ways since the days of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Stanley Elkins, even Eugene D. Genovese. An evolving field ever since its scholars put pen to paper, the last decade has perhaps witnessed the greatest upheaval in the study of human bondage. A flurry of innovative, imaginative, and ground-breaking interpretations have lifted enslaved peoples far and away from what was once the stultifying position assigned them by Ulrich Phillips. Slaves talk back, act back, and fight back. In the process, they, as much as those who claimed proprietorship over their bodies, gave shape and meaning to America's "peculiar institution."

Sharla M. Fett locates herself securely within this new interpretive framework. Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations adds yet another dimension to the unceasing struggle by enslaved peoples to reclaim, in this case nearly literally, their bodies from the master's grasp. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including private papers, Works Project Administration interviews, and antebellum medical treatises, Fett redirects our attention away from a previous focus on medical therapies and toward the implicitly political contests that erupted between masters and slaves over the purposes and performance of healing.

Taking up first the meanings and methods Southern practitioners--slave and free--brought to their healing work, Fett demonstrates that slaves understood sickness (and its obverse--health) in relational terms. Social disruptions (jealousy, anger, fear) were as likely to result in illness and disability as were disease, injury, and poor diet. From the perspective of the enslaved, healing thus required attention be paid to community as well as corporal afflictions. To perform this work, slave healers (midwives, conjurors, diviners, and herbalists) selected from among a lengthy menu of strategies. Some of which they appropriated from their owners; some they borrowed from Native Americans; some they imported from Africa. Thus a healer might appeal to a Christian God, serve a tea steeped in the indigenous Jerusalem oak, or use divination to trace an "illness to its origins in social conflict." (101)

The white practitioners of Southern medicine brought a different perspective to bear. The antebellum years witnessed the gradual usurpation of healing by a new corps of formally trained physicians who grounded their legitimacy in science, not nature. New theories of a pragmatic, body-focused medicine weaned white (and increasingly male) Southerners away from an earlier appreciation for the spiritual and magical dimensions of health. But not only did nature disappear from the sickbed when attended by white physicians, so did many of the unwell. Planters, argues Fett, understood slave health in terms of "soundness," a concept that limited medical care to those most likely to recover to produce, reproduce, "obey and submit." (20) The corollary was bleak. George, judged valuable by his master, received an expensive course of treatment. Old Bob did not. If he were to be treated, instructed his master, it was to be accomplished "'without too much expense.'" (28)

Such asymmetrical approaches to health care sparked conflicts that spilled out of the quarters, into the fields, and sometimes beyond. They were also conflicts that assumed a particular gender dimension. Try as planters and their physician allies might to redefine the healing arts as free and white and masculine, it was slave women who nursed the ill, birthed the babies, and bound the wounds. As the primary caretakers of the sick and dying (free and slave), slave women were positioned to modify prescriptions, to cover for a feigner, or to speed a despised mistress to an early grave. It was, however, a mediating position fraught with danger. Too much illness or too many false pregnancies could bring the master's wrath down on nurse as well as patient.

As adept as Fett is in teasing out the meanings slaves ascribed to healing and the ways in which they used health work to advance cultural and community interests, she teeters toward homogeneity. The same scholarship that recognizes slaves' roles in shaping the terms of their bondage has simultaneously revealed the heterogeneity of what they helped create. Most now recognize that black Americans' experiences varied tremendously, not only between men and women, but also across space and through time. Fett readily asserts the former, but on the latter she often falls silent. Conjurors who practice magic for pay seemingly operate at large, despite recent revelations about the spatial specificity of slaves' economies. Evidence from interviews taken in the 1930s is applied uncritically to the 1830s, heedless to the possibility that the content of those interviews reveal as much (maybe more) about the period after emancipation as before. The cultural pipeline from Africa runs direct and rituals survive, seemingly unaffected by a multi-century, transatlantic process that "'mangled pasts,'" and "jostled" cultures before blasting migrants randomly across the New World. (1)

Though somewhat distracting, none of these lapses is necessarily fatal. The patient's prognosis is good. Indeed, Fett is to be commended for the skill with which she brings her subject to life. Medicine and health strike at the heart of the master-slave relation. Whosoever controlled the body controlled the labor. This was a lesson not lost on the black men and black women held in bondage. Thanks to Sharla Fett, it is now a lesson not lost on historians.

Susan E. O'Donovan

Harvard University


(1.) Philip D. Morgan, "The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments," Slavery and Abolition 18 (April 1997), 122-45 (quoted passages on 142).
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Author:O'Donovan, Susan E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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