Doctoring Freedom is a rich exploration of the relationship between African American health and freedom from the antebellum period through the early twentieth century. Highlighting the health experiences of enslaved blacks, contraband Civil War refugees, black soldiers, and new freedmen, Gretchen Long examines how racial politics shaped black health and health care during this pivotal era of American history. Drawing upon a wide range of historical sources, she explains that perceptions of African America health had a significant impact on public attitudes toward black citizenship. These attitudes influenced the way African Americans were diagnosed and received care. Questioning whether newly freed blacks were capable of living independently in a free society, military doctors and freedmen’s aid organizations wrestled with fears their ministrations could undermine black agency and self-reliance. Doubts about their capabilities also affected the experiences of black medical practitioners who sought to build practices that served freedmen communities. Not only struggling to gain acceptance in organized medical circles, many black doctors encountered black patients that questioned the benefits of professional care. Some experienced animosity from colleagues who challenged their role as advocates for African American health. Examining these struggles, Doctoring Freedom provides a thought provoking look into the layered connections between race, health care, and modern citizenship in this era.
Among its many notable contributions, Long’s text explores the different views African Americans held about the nature and benefits of professional medicine. In line with similar works by Sharla Fett, Vanessa Gamble, Stephen Kenny, Todd Savitt, and Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Long discusses how enslaved African Americans often viewed professional medicine as an extension of their masters’ power and authority, associating it with domination and abuse. Images of physical exploitation, grave robbing, and medical experimentation extended well into the twentieth century, leading many to prefer folk healers, domestic cures, and spiritually based remedies over professional treatment. Long’s work, however, differs from these earlier texts in her exploration of African American relationships with professional medicine following emancipation. She illustrates how, while some continued to associate medical doctors with pain and abuse, others saw meaningful connections with modern citizenship. Construing the use of folk remedies as backward and ignorant, many African Americans considered organized medicine a marker of civic modernity—its use an indication they had distanced themselves from the conditions and mindsets characteristic of enslavement. As freedmen, Long shows that black communities frequently organized medical aid societies, supported the training of black practitioners, built hospitals, and policed illegitimate practices, viewing professional medicine as a means to alleviate physical suffering and promote the larger goal of racial progress.
Notions of progress, modernity, and citizenship also shaped the experiences of black healers as they struggled to navigate the changing landscape of freedom. [End Page 352] Folk healers, embraced during the era of slavery, more frequently encountered resistance from freed black communities and civic authorities that sought to regulate their practices after emancipation. Those few with formal credentials and regular training met discrimination in professional societies that segregated their ranks. But many also faced obstacles among freedmen communities, which embraced their elevated status as symbols of progress but were hesitant to trust the remedies they provided. Elite trained practitioners sometimes used their scientific backgrounds to challenge theories of racial degeneration and inferiority, affirming African Americans’ “fitness” for modern society. But, even within black medical communities, doctors questioned whether such enterprises were comparable in value with the provision of basic care.
Doctoring Freedom raises several provocative issues relevant to the study of black health, freedom, and citizenship. While I enjoyed the exploration, I wondered at times if the chronological narrative was the optimum structure for this work. In her later chapters, Long introduces three compelling figures—John Donalson, a folk healer; Moses Camplin, an apprenticed trained doctor; and Alexander Augusta, a formally credentialed physician. Their lives intersect with many of the central themes she explores and I would have enjoyed following their stories throughout the text.
Long’s work is an exciting contribution to...