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African American Folk Healing

Stephanie Mitchem

Publication Year: 2007

Cure a nosebleed by holding a silver quarter on the back of the neck. Treat an earache with sweet oil drops. Wear plant roots to keep from catching colds. Within many African American families, these kinds of practices continue today, woven into the fabric of black culture, often communicated through women. Such folk practices shape the concepts about healing that are diffused throughout African American communities and are expressed in myriad ways, from faith healing to making a mojo.

Stephanie Y. Mitchem presents a fascinating study of African American healing. She sheds light on a variety of folk practices and traces their development from the time of slavery through the Great Migrations. She explores how they have continued into the present and their relationship with alternative medicines. Through conversations with black Americans, she demonstrates how herbs, charms, and rituals continue folk healing performances. Mitchem shows that these practices are not simply about healing; they are linked to expressions of faith, delineating aspects of a holistic epistemology and pointing to disjunctures between African American views of wellness and illness and those of the culture of institutional medicine.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. i

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii

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p. ix

This book would not have happened without the input and direction of many people. The women and men I interviewed are the first ones I want to thank because their comments changed the shape of the book; because of them, I learned to look at the African American folk healing with new eyes. I, alone, did not find all the people I interviewed. David Daniels, Rosalind Hinton, and Brenda Miller introduced me to healers across the country and made the scope of the book possible.

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pp. 1-7

When I was a child, a nosebleed was treated by holding a silver quarter on the back of the neck. Earaches were treated with sweet oil drops. A child with mumps was rubbed on the neck with sardine oil. Measles called for a bath in chamomile. Various teas were given to children and senior adults at the beginning of spring or winter to build the blood or to eliminate worms. Castor oil and Vicks; glycerin and sassafras tea; paregoric and rock candy; whiskey and Three Sixes, ...

Part I: Historical Paths to Healing

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p. 9

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1. Stories and Cures: Defining African American Folk Healing

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pp. 11-33

African American folk healing may be defined as the creatively developed range of activities and ideas that aim to balance and renew life. To explore African American folk healing is to open up a vista of black American concepts about life, bodies, death, and nature. Such concepts may have spiritual referents, may move into political action, or may serve as the homegrown analysis of society. To create and maintain such ideas, structured from African cultural orientations, ...

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2. Healing, the Black Body, and Institutional Medicine: Contexts for Crafting Wellness

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pp. 34-52

Healing is a culturally bound concept. Although there are larger societal frameworks, there are also intimate ones from particular cultures that inform individuals in dialogue with or despite the larger social structures. The operative frameworks for healing concepts among African Americans involve many intricately layered strata that are woven or blended together.

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3. Healing in Place: From Past to Present

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pp. 53-74

The movements of African Americans from the South to the North and West in the mid-twentieth century contain stories of how black American cultures were retained over time and space. Some of these retentions can be found in folk sayings, as above. These sayings helped define relationships and how to carry on in the world. The sayings hold the germ of a black epistemology that identifies the interconnections between humans and nature and one another. I contend ...

Part II: Today’s Healing Traditions

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pp. 75-76

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4. Healing and Hybridity in the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 77-98

Discussions of African American folk healing today take significantly different twists than did past discussions. There were hints of the differences to come in the interviews of the Wayne State University Folk Archives. Folk healing reflects black cultural changes born of the civil rights, feminist, and Black Power movements. Each movement challenged the status quo to remove or lessen the barriers to greater social dialogue for those who had been completely shut out of full ...

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5. Healing the Past in the Present

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pp. 99-118

The previous chapter situated African American folk healing in the twenty-first century as a continuation of past practices and concepts hybridized by education, class, gender, and contact with Africans through the Diaspora. Two modern-day black women’s stories emphasized how folk healing retentions are woven into the lives of some black Americans. Folk healing, for many African Americans, offers remedies including herbal cures and ritual performances to address ...

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6. Religion, Spirituality, and African American Folk Healing

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pp. 119-140

African American religion, sometimes categorized under the rubric “the black church,” is intimately tied to the black spirituality. They are not the same but are connected in many ways, and the connections have implications for folk healing. Ethicist Barbara Holmes, discussing what she terms a black contemplative tradition, characterizes the black church in ways that have relevance in relation to folk healing.

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7. Hoodoo, Conjure, and Folk Healing

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pp. 141-162

During my graduate studies, I often brought the new ideas I had learned to my mother’s house to discuss with her; her health had started to fail and our time to talk was very important for me. Sometimes the ideas came in book form and I would bring the books and read to her. Once, I brought the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I do not remember what I was studying or what I wanted to talk about with her. I ...

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pp. 163-167

This book has considered various aspects of the fully American story of African American folk healing. Through slavery and Jim Crow, black bodies were socially constructed in negative frameworks to justify their oppression. Black Americans countered this dehumanization with other constructions drawn from a cultural base that retains African cognitive orientation. Thus, the social construction of black bodies has overlapped with the cultural constructions of health and wellness.


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pp. 169-180


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pp. 181-196


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pp. 187-188

About the Author

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p. 189

E-ISBN-13: 9780814759622
E-ISBN-10: 0814759629
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814757314
Print-ISBN-10: 0814757316

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 181105180
MUSE Marc Record: Download for African American Folk Healing

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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Medicine.
  • African Americans -- Folklore.
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