Course Work | A Review of Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations.

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

Working Cures provides a cultural history of healing within the power structures of slavery by uncovering the demographic and biological trends that structured life on slave plantations. Sharla M. Fett concentrates on the cultural dimensions of slave health (p. 10). Having said that, she approaches these dimensions not by using charts or tables illustrating slave fertility or morality, but by viewing slave health as a pathway by which diverse “African philosophies and therapies” were mixed with the “indigenous botanical knowledge” of Native Americans and the influences of “European popular and elite doctoring” (p.2). Fett hypothesizes that slaves ideas about health as vibrant dimensions of the African American culture of resistance to slavery, but also that masters and slaves pursued vastly different medical agendas regarding health. 

Sharla Frett breaks down her historical framework into two main parts based on the African American slave’s Vision of Health and the “Arenas of Conflict”, that are a reaction to said views of health.  After slavery it is believed that white officials in the South alleged that African Americans rejected white medical institutions and health regulations in the name of their newly won freedom (p. P). Although this allegation has the possibility of being dramatized, it is clear that African Americans entered the world of freedom with a critical analysis of medical care under slavery. Not only did they emerge with a strong knowledge of healing, but also a clear comprehension of the harmful potential of white medical care, which in return, may have driven the before-mentioned allegations.

In the first half of the book Fett differentiates the tensions between white and black visions of health care. Slaveholders conceptualized slave health using the concept of “soundness” (chap. 1). The term that resonates the intention to protect and to enlarge the investment in human property, white southerners defined “slave health” as the means to labor, reproduction, obedience, and submission (p. 20). African Americans, on the other hand, thought of health as a “rational” concept (p. 36). Health, sickness, and healing are rooted in the African American “pharmocosm”. One aspect of health care that the “whites” did not posses is the “spiritual power” that permeated the African American world endowed black healers with the ability to both cure and harm (p. 39). Although Fett did not draw a distinct line between white and black healthcare, she did explore how African influences have crept into white ideas about sickness and health. However, white medicine gave little credence to the power of conjuring, and for enslaved African Americans, conjuring was essential to understanding the source of illness. Whilst exploring the roles slaves played in their own health and the health of the community at large, Fett challenges the notion that much of the plantation health care was left to the white doctor, slave owner, or mistress. Plantation owners generally assigned enslaved individuals (such as elderly black women) an often-dangerous job of tending to the sick and caring for all their needs. With that being said, Fett’s research has placed the enslaved nurse and caregiver in her rightful place, at the top of the health field.

The second half of Working Cures explores the theme of black subversion and resistance. Fett reveals the magnificent skilled nature of black women’s tasks as healers and the oppressions they endured along with the grit (contact with the bodily fluids of both black and white patients (p. 120)). When white women were charged with the role of head caregiver during the antebellum era, racist orthodoxy increasingly denied the respect and dignity to the enslaved women. Having said that, although there was white distrust for black healers, black medical knowledge was not misplaced. White medical authorities often issued punishment by medical treatments; however, black healers often used their conjuring skills to foster insubordination and insurrection. Most commonly seen: feigning medical ailments to deter from physical labor.

 Being that countless slaves were succumbed to white medical practices (such as slave women forced to undergo thirty experimental surgeries without anesthesia (p. 151-152)), this brings us back to the initial allegation of why blacks refused the services of white health care after their freedom. Or even worse, the United States Public Health Service study of 1932-1972, where hundreds of Alabama black men and their families were allowed to suffer from untreated syphilis, purportedly for medical research. The Tuskegee Experiment was in no way merely unconscionable behavior in the name of bad science and Frett’s research proves that the PHS’s malfeasance was historically founded in practices involving enslaved Africans. The rejection of white institutions by African Americans was not a means of self-segregation, but protection, or the self-reliance of the slave community.  These mentioned health anomalies and stories are illustrated by slaveholders’ diaries and letters, physicians’ handbooks and journals, and records of the spoken word and life experiences documented through various slave narratives and WPA collections.  And without question, Working Cures brings a crucial new understanding to the role of health and disease on the antebellum plantation.

Working Cures is material that definitely should be used for the course due to its bluntness in uncovering the truth about slave health in the south of the United States. Frett boldly confronts beliefs about the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural sources and resources of those enslaved, and then emancipated, peoples of Africa. She allows readers to understand her subject in broader terms using the art of expression. Frett remains to her goal of contributing to the complex list of compelling cultural and health work produced by African American descendants under slavery. With that being said, Frett reveals that the medical field along with health care are truly what they are today due to the selfless acts and bountiful knowledge of the enslaved people who were on the front lines of caregiving and health throughout the history of enslavement within the United States. African Americans laid the ground work to many professions we see in the U.S. today; however, in most cases credence is not given were needed most; to the countless number of enslaved men and women putting their lives on the line to make a difference.

The content within the work of Sharla M. Fett is very interesting, but more so inspiring than anything else. Frett’s work has not changed my understanding of the history of African American health professionals, but it has enhanced my understanding immensely. This reading along with the readings from class lecture have helped me understand how not only the medical field, but society in general has been shaped by the selfless work of many enslaved African Americans. The knowledge of the truth behind health care and health disparities is very enlightening, and above all, important. I feel truly ungrateful to be able to attend the University of Virginia in hopes of becoming a health professional. I can only hope that I have the determination, courage, and skill level as those enslaved African Americans before me.


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

Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2002. Print.