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African-American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments

African-American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments by Herbert C. Covey. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books; 2008. Paperback; 216 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0739116456. $24.95.

African-American Slave Medicine provides historical insights into how medicine was delivered to a sub-set of the US population during a formative period in the country’s history, based on available information. From a historical perspective this is an excellent treatment of a subject of increasing interest for the lay public and scholars alike. Current fascination with the subject of slave medicine arises in part because much of the oral history, which in itself would have been instructive, was unfortunately lost before it was recorded. At best there are some tantalizing snippets of history that lack the richness of a more robust historical record. Much of this oral tradition could have been salvaged by a culture that should have given more value to the non-traditional medical practices of the African Slave culture of North America.

Chapter 1 provides an historical overview of the field and briefly covers several important topics, including: whether the slaves were active in their own healthcare, whether or not they were medically neglected, their life expectancy and mortality rates, common diseases of the time, and possible remaining questions. Although many previous studies have established that “slaves suffered from poor health and received inadequate, unequal, or no medical care,” Covey has turned to a previously untapped resource in the Works Project Administration (WPA) narratives to give the reader new perspectives on the topic of African American slave medicine. Chapter 2 discusses the medical care delivery system as provided by whites, while chapter 3 provides a lens into the work of the slave practitioners. Chapter 4, “Conjuring and Hoodoo,” discusses West African spirituality and the supernatural (steeped in voodoo traditions) as applied to medical practices of the time. Chapter 5 delves into the use of plants and herbs in the medicine of the slaves, while chapter 6 looks at non-herbal treatments as they impacted the African American materia medica. The last chapter, “Closing Observations,” gives Covey’s precise analysis and thoughts on why many of these practices persist in today’s society. Covey notes “that the practice of medical care provided some patients with a sense of self-determination. Under the yoke of slavery, the oppressed could control or at least attempt to control an important aspect of their lives—their health and the health of others. Sometimes they did this as effectively, or even more so, than their White counterparts.”

There are 3 appendices at the end of the volume that are critical to all the information that precedes them. Appendix A, “Plant and Herb Treatments,” lists the plants, medical uses, and the WPA source for the data reported. This appendix will be frustrating to some because plants are first listed by common name and then scientific name. For scholars knowledgeable in science and scientific naming, this might prove annoying. That being said, the appendix presents a wealth of information previously undocumented as to source, now confirmed and associated with real people as sources. Appendix B, “Unknown Plant/ Herbal Treatments,” contains many plants that cannot be assigned to any specific known plant or scientific name. This appendix is a compilation of names taken from interviews from the WPA archives. Although it does not say, it is obvious that the author could not equate any of these names with any scientific names for plants. So the exact correlation of an herb/plant name will remain obscure scientifically until much more comprehensive work can be done by some other curious individual. The list provides an opportunity for further scholarly research. Appendix C provides a comprehensive list of non-plant herbal treatments. The importance of and scholarship imbedded in these appendices cannot be overstated. We owe a real debt to Covey for bringing the WPA data set to the attention of the scientific community.

One major criticism of previous such works is that too often they failed to give a voice (credit) to the people who provided the researchers with the very information (data) upon which their papers and books depended. Covey has refreshingly taken another approach by using many quotes to enrich the text. Current knowledge and the literature of folk medicine have always been dependent on traditional knowledge.

When us was chillum, us went root en herb gatherin’ ter git things fer de winters medicine. Us uster gather wild cherry bark, horseradish root, dand’ line root, hickory bark, mullen, penny-royal, poke-root, en poke berries, en de Lord knows what— things I clear fergit. Chicken gizzard skin was saved fer medicine, en I reckon goose grease is still used fer lots of things, even en this day en time….

—Dulcinda Baker Martin, Kentucky

An speakin’ of oures, white folks, us niggers had ‘em. My grandmammy was a midwife an’ she useta gib women cloves an’ whiskey to ease der pain. She also gib ‘em dried watermelon seeds to git rid of der grabel in de kidneys. For night sweats Grandmammy would put an axe under der bed of der sick pusson wid de blade asittin’ straight up. An’ iffen yu’ is sick an’ wants to keep de visitors away, jus putt a fresh laid aig in front of de do’ an’ dey won’t come in.

—Dellie Lewis, Alabama

Such statements may seem to have little relevance to the science behind bush medicine, but they capture the thinking of the time and provide a clearer understanding of the thinking of the people who were a part of this culture.

This book has much to recommend it to a wide interdisciplinary audience. First and foremost, it presents a history that has relevance for all who study the history of medicine, especially the era of African Americans in the New World during the time of the plantation system and slavery. This volume cannot help but enrich the reader.

—W. Hardy Eshbaugh, Professor Emeritus, Department of Botany Miami University, Oxford, OH