Racial Medicine - The Development of Hoodoo and Herbalism in the African American Society in the 1800's

Racial Medicine -The Development of Hoodoo and Herbalism had a Major Impact in the African American Society in the 1800’s

As America pushed forward at high rocketing speeds towards advances in just about every field, a new area of interest unfolded itself within the emerging society. Within the African American slave trade, which was widely accepted, there existed a boundary many slaveholders neglected to consider, which entailed the health and care of these new additions to the land. In Sharla M. Fett’s, Working Cures, Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations, shows the importance of the well being of these slaves to their owners, and its impact still affects this country in a way that is still surprise many people today. Within society the importance of health “soundness” evolved from a standardized slave health. The health in time of buying to legal affairs involved with the purchase eventually proceeded to become legal laws and amendments. As the United States grew and evolved, there was a lack of oversight from the owner’s in the health of their slaves, in turn the slaves began looking after one another and creating soothing remedies. This originated the practice known as hoodoo which aided the medical influence within African American slavery in the 1800s.

Similarly to all other historical events, slavery had its progression phases. Slave holders based their purchase of a slave in one crucial factor, which was the soundness of their health. The slave’s health condition and appearance as they descended the boat was the first and most important impression made on the buyers. This was due to the fact that the buyers wanted to invest in who’s work could produce the most revenue. As these particularities in the choice of slaves became prominent, the buyers with less money to spend felt cheated and extended their complaints as far as the courtroom. Slave Life Insurance became a widely accepted idea. Slaveholders and physicians had a close business relationship due to the fact that after the physicians inspected the incoming slaves, they were the ones who set the price tag on them. Health became the primary concern for the buyers and amendments to medical procedures were initiated in order to maintain much of their bodies in a healthy state. Sickness was viewed as delayed progress and loss of profit in agricultural productions, and slaveholders did not take this lightly. The question of responsibility to the payment of slave medical bills arose between owners and hirers but not without variation as Virginia demanded that the owner reimbursed the hirer for medical expenses and in South Carolina, it was the responsibility of the hirer to cover all costs. Fett stated, “No simplistic measure of bodily strength, the definition of soundness incorporated subtle variations of age, skill, gender, fecundity, physical strength, mental acuity, and character.” The owner’s were not the only ones facing personal obstacles, as the slaves themselves began developing into a unified society, issue also began to arise.

Accounts of sickness related to hoodoo exploded within the African American community. This conjuration offered slaves the choice to injure and sometimes kill another without committing the act themselves. With this new developed threat, conjure doctors became very popular. Signs of conjure sickness were not only limited to physical bearings but extended to mental confusion, obstructive judgment, insanity, gradual decrease in overall health and any other sickness that could not be explained or treated by a physician. Conjure doctors were not looked upon as attributes to the slaveholders and thus had to keep the conjuration casting and healing as secretive as possible. Nonetheless, African American societies continued to protect their conjure doctors and called upon them during instances of revenge and healing. White medical doctors were of no influence to the African American society and were not able to provide remedies for the conjured. Although this practice was very popular, this society tried not to abuse the power of the conjurations. Instead they turned to seek protection in silver coins, glass beads, brass amulets and small charms under their clothes; conjuration played a large role in the lives of slaves resulting in drastic measures being taken upon for relief.

As the growth and popularity grew among conjure doctors, so did the economy within this enslaved society. Hoodoo practitioners were not only respected among their community, but seen as a necessity for survival. These practitioners required certain ways of payment to reimburse their work. They asked for cash, clothing, liquor, charms among other items, thus raising ethical questions within their society. In this society there were also other practices that was not only accepted by white slaveholders but considered a duty to uphold within slave quarters. The group of people that practiced herbal remedies was considered gifts from God with healing capabilities. Unlike conjure doctors, herbalists and midwives did not charge for their services. Although these health workers were legally ordered to obey their masters, African American societies considered one another a family and cared for the sick with delicate skills acquired over time. As time passed enslaved communities prevailed and these health workers gained a general respect from not only their fellow slaves but from their owners. Woman provided the foundation to the African American health working field, although there have been accounts of male healers, in which during their time they developed remedies for specific healing purposes. Many white mistresses would accompany these enslaved healers to learn of the techniques and healing practices of their time. The job was demanding and required long hours of care and treatment in many cases. Side effects of these remedies included powerful vomit and or diarrhea phases which made large messes that the healers were left to clean up. It was also the responsibility of the slave healer to care for a white family member if the job required unclean labor.

The development of hoodoo and herbalism had a major impact in the African American society of the 1800’s. These practices were not only practiced during times of slavery, but they were passed down from one generation to the next. Although not a common practice as in the time of slavery, these remedies are used around the world by people today. This enslaved society and their practices left an everlasting impression, in the field of remedies for the sick.