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Clark Atlanta University

Toward a Systematic Typology of Black Folk Healers


Author(s): Hans A. Baer
Source: Phylon (1960-), Vol. 43, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1982), pp. 327-343
Published by: Clark Atlanta University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/274755
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By HANS A. BAER

Toward a Systematic Typology of


Black Folk Healers*
M UCH OF THE LITERATURE on ethnomedicine among black Americans
treats it as a relatively uniform phenomenon. As various scholars
have noted, this overgeneralization has tended to characterize much of
the research on the culture and social life of blacks.1 The purpose of this
article is to discuss the diversity of ethnomedicine among blacks in the
United States. In attempting to deal with the heterogeneous nature of
this ethonomedicine, I will focus on the multiplicity of folk healers
associated with it. As part of my effort, I will also propose a four-fold
typology of black folk healers which considers their institutional context
and the breadth or specificity of their practices. Because of the secretive-
ness surrounding the activities of many black folk healers and the
preference for anonymity expressed by most of their clients, research on
ethnomedicine thus far has proved in most cases to be uneven, impres-
sionistic, and anecdotal. In part, it is my hope that a relatively broad
typology of black folk healers will contribute to a more systematic
treatment than has been the case.
As is true of many other institutions and practices, ethnomedicine
among blacks emerged within the context of North American slavery.
Snow gives the following description of the system of folk medical beliefs
found among black Americans:
The system is a composite of the classical medicine of an earlier
day, European folklore regarding the natural world, rare African
traits, and selected beliefs derived from modern scientific medicine.
The whole is inextricably blended with tenets of fundamentalist
Christianity, elements from the Voodoo religions of the West Indies,
and the added spice of sympathetic magic. .... It is a coherent medical
system and not a ragtag collection of isolated superstitions.2
Because many folk beliefs about health and illness exhibit close similar-
ities and parallels cross-culturally, it is difficult to differentiate the
concepts and practices in the ethnomedicine of blacks that are of African
origin from those that are of European or even Indian American origin.
At any rate, the terms conjure, rootwork, and hoodoo, came to be
applied to a system of medicine, magic, divination, herbalism, and
witchcraft widespread among slaves in the United States.
*A shorter version of this paper was presented at the 1982 annual meeting of the Southern
Anthropological Society in Boone, North Carolina. I appreciate comments that Lenore M.
Baer and Merrill Singer made on an earlier draft of this paper.
See Vera Green, "The Confrontation of Diversity within the Black Community," Human
Organization 29 (Winter 1970): 267-72, and Melvin D. Williams, On the Street Where I Lived
(New York, 1980).
2Loudell F. Snow, "Folk Beliefs and Their Implications for Care of Patients: A Review
Based on Studies Among Black Americans," Annals of Internal Medicin.e 81 (July 1974):
p. 83.
327
328 PHYLON

There has been considerable debate as to the origin of the term hoodoo.
While some have argued that hoodoo is an adulteration of voodoo, others
have maintained that the former term is traceable to the term juju,
meaning conjure.3 At any rate, there has been since the nineteenth
century a tendency both among black Americans and in scholarly
publications to use the two terms interchangeably. In this regard,
perhaps Raboteau is correct in asserting that "Since New Orleans was
looked upon as the prestigious center of conjuring, the term 'voodoo'
was extended to conjuring and conjurers throughout the United States
regardless of the term's original reference to Afro-Haitian Cults."4
Kuna stresses the importance of making a precise distinction between
hoodoo and Vodun, or voodoo, noting that the former, "although a system
of belief and therapy, is not a cult, nor does it engage in cult or group
activities or worship."5 Voodoo as a full-bloom ceremonial complex is
widespread in Haiti, was common during the nineteenth century in
southern LouLsiana, and still occurs in scattered parts of the United
States on a regular or sporadic basis. For analytical purposes, I will
follow the distinction that Kuna makes while at the same time recogniz-
ing that in the minds of many the two terms are not so finely dif-
ferentiated.
EARLIER TYPOLOGIES OF BLACK FOLK HEALERS
While Puckett, Hurston, and Hyatt, and more recently, Snow carried
out extensive fieldwork on the ethnomedicine of blacks, none of them
made a concerted effort to differentiate the various kinds of folk healers
that they encountered.6 Although Snow's work, which includes an
ethnography of ethnomedicine in a black neighborhood of a Southwest-
ern city, has contributed considerably to overcoming the paucity of in-
formation on black ethnomedicine, one writer7 notes that a serious short-
coming of her research is that it is based "primarily on small and non-
representative samples" in two cities. In each one of her publications
sSee James Haskins, Voodoo and Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual
4 Practitioners (New York, 1978), p. 66.
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York, 1978), p. 66.
'Ralph R. Kuna. "Hoodoo: The Indigeneous Medicine and Psychiatry of the Black American,"
Ethnomedizin 3 (1974-75): 276.
* See Newbell N. Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (Chapel Hill, 1936); Zora
Hurston, "Hoodoo in America," Journal of American Folklore 44 (October-December 1931):
317-417; Harry M. Hyatt, Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, 4 volumes (Hannibal, Mo.,
1970-74); Loudell F. Snow, "'I Was Born Just Exactly With the Gift': An Interview with
a Voodoo Practitioner," Journal of American Folklore 86 (July-September 1973): 272-81;
Loudell F. Snow, "Folk Beliefs and Their Implications for Care of Patients;" Loudell F.
Snow, "Popular Medicine in a Black Neighborhood," in Edward F. Spicer, ed., Ethnic
Medicine in the Southwest (Tucson, 1977), pp. 19-95; Loudell F. Snow, "Sorcerers, Saints and
Charlatans: Black Folk Healers in Urban America." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatru 2
(March 1978): 69-106; and Loudell F. Snow, "Mail Order Magic: The Commercial Ex-
ploitation of Folk Belief," Journal of the Folklore Institute 16 (1979): 44-74. Hyatt's
lengthy and rambling account is based upon the verbatim transcription of Edipone and
Telediphone cylinders, which were used to record interviews with 1606 informants (all of
whom, except for one individual, were black). In essence, the data in its very raw form
still need to be sifted through in order to make some generalizations about those aspects of
ethnomedicine that Hyatt researched. Such a project might prove to be a worthwhile,
although painstaking, endeavor.
7 Jacouelyne Johnson Jackson. "Urban Black Americans," in Alan Harwood, ed., Ethnicity and
Medical Care (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), pp. 37-219.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 329

on ethnomedicine, Snow fails to discuss the methodology that she


employed in collecting data and gives no figures on the numbers of
healers, clients of these healers, and other informants with whom she
had interviews, or even casual conversations. In these regards and in
its failure to delineate explicity the variants of the ethnomedicine,
Snow's work may be viewed as a reflection of the major inadequacies
of research on the system of folk medicine existing among blacks in
this country.
The first explicit typology of black folk healers in the United States
was outlined by Hall and Bourne.8 Based on formal interviews with an
unspecified number of healers in a black neighborhood on the southside
of Atlanta, they identified the following four categories of "indigenous
therapists": root doctors, faith healers, magic vendors, and neighbor-
hood prophets. In discussing what he loosely terms "voodoo medicine"
in the United States, Jordan lists its three major characters: the "Old
Lady," the spiritualist, and the voodoo priest or priestess.9 Using a
sample of twenty Southern black healers in Miami, Weidman and her
colleagues categorized three of them as faith healers, four as spiritualists,
six as root doctors, and seven as eclectics.10 Finally, based on data
collected as part of the Inner Cities Support Systems Project on the
ethnomedical systems of several ethnic groups in Newark, Garrison
notes the presence in that community of four kinds of black folk practi-
tioners: Afro-American religious store operators; spiritualists; miscellan-
eous healers who refer to themselves by a variety of labels, such as
"astrologer," "prophet," "evangelist," and "guru;" and healers affiliated
with the "Black nationalist revitalization movement" (including such
groups as the Father Divine Peace Mission, the Nation of Islam, and
Imamu Amiri Baraka's organization)." Although Garrison summarizes
in some detail information that she and her co-workers collected on
the first three types, she does not elaborate on the healing activities
of the last category in her scheme. As I will note later on, perhaps the
greatest paucity of data on black ethnomedicine occurs for its variants
existing among the different religious sects exhibiting a strong na-
tionalist orientation.
All of these typologies are helpful in that, when considered in their
entirety, they give a somewhat broad appreciation of the diversity of

8 Arthur L. Hall and Peter G. Bourne, "Indigenous Therapists in a Southern Black Urban
Community," Archives of General Psychiatry 28 (January 1973): 137-42.
9Wilbert C. Jordan, "Voodoo Medicine," in Richard A. Williams, ed., Textbook of Black-
Related Diseases (New York, 1975), pp. 715-38.
0 Hazel Weidman, et al. Miami Health Ecology Projects, Volume I (Miami, 1979).
lVivian Garrison, "The Inner-City Support Systems Project (ICSS): An Experiment in
Medical Anthropology and Community Psychiatry, A Preliminary Report" (Mimeographed,
College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, 1979).
330 PHYLON

folk healers in black communities. On the other hand, a major short-


coming of these classificatory schemes is that none of them presents
systematic criteria by which to differentiate the various kinds of healers.
In large part, they are simply listings of the types of black folk healers
that certain scholars have come across in their research. Three of the
typologies are restricted to healers found in specific urban areas and
do not deal with their counterparts in rural areas. It is important to
note, however, that these three typologies do not purport to be com-
prehensive classificatory schemes. While Jordan notes that the "voodoo
priest or priestess" tends to be found primarily in rural areas and the
"spiritualist" in urban areas, his typology is also not comprehensive
in that it focuses on "voodoo medicine" and does not consider other
healing traditions among black Americans that may be only remotely
connected with it.12Also, he does not make a distinction between voodoo
and hoodoo, which I feel it important to make, at least for heuristic or
analytical reasons, and to which I will return later in this paper. Finally,
there are specific problems associated with some of the schemes which
probably result mainly from a restricted sample of healers. For example,
Weidman and her collaborators note that the three faith healers in their
sample of traditional Southern black healers work within the context
of Holiness churches.'3 Faith healers in black communities are by no
means restricted to Holiness and Pentecostal groups but are also found in
Baptist, Spiritual, and probably other religious sects and denominations.
THE CONSTRUCTIONOF A TYPOLOGY OF BLACK FOLK HEALERS
In part, the typology developed below is a modification and expansion
of an earlier classification of black healers that I briefly suggested else-
where.14 In the construction of my typology, I hope to be as inclusive
in identifying the various kinds of healers that an extensive review of
the literature on ethnomedicine among blacks permits. In reality, how-
ever, it must be noted that a totally comprehensive typology of black
folk healers cannot be developed until considerably more ethnographic
information on healing practices among black Americans is gathered.
At the same time, it is imperative that a systematic typology of black
folk healers be developed for the purpose of organizing much of the
previously done research on the ethnomedicine of blacks as well as for
guiding future research along these lines. Figure 1 below illustrates
my proposed typology. In constructing this typology, I have chosen two
axes, namely the institutional affiliation of the healer and the exten-
siveness of his or her practice. The first axis recognizes that healers may
or may not affiliate their healing practice within a religious group or
" Jordan, op. cit.
s Weldman, et al., op. cit.
"Hans A. Baer, "Prophets and Advisors in Black Spiritual Churches: Therapy, Palliative, or
Opiate?" Culture, Medicine and Psychiartry 5 (June 1981): 145-70.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 331

congregation. If a healer operates as an individual or is affiliated with


some sort of occult supply store, either as the owner, an employee, or
someone who rents office space therein, he will be referred to simply as
an independent healer. On the other hand, if a healer is affiliated with a
religious group, he will be referred to as a cultic healer. Whereas in-
dependent healers function exclusively or almost exclusively in private
settings, cultic healers may practice in both public and private settings.
In some instances, certain individuals may actually function in both
capacities with a strong tendency either to compartmentalize or mix
the two modes of practice. An excellent example of this pattern is de-
scribed in Winslow's case study of Bishop E. E. Everett and his occult
store in Philadelphia.15 Bishop Everett is the pastor of and a healer in
the Calvary Spiritual Temple, a congregation affiliated with the Apostolic
Church of Christ in God, headquartered in Martinville, Virginia. He is
also the proprietor of the Calvary Religious and Occult Store, an enter-
prise located in a different place than his church. While Bishop Everett
sells and gives advice on the use of a wide array of magico-religious
items to the largely lower-class black and Puerto Rican clientele that
frequent his store, ". . . many members of his congregation are persons
whom he contacted when they came to his store to make purchases or
seek spiritual advise."'6
FIGURE I.
TYPOLOGY OF BLACK FOLK HEALERS
NATURE OF PRACTICE
AFFILIATION
OF LIMITED OR
HEALER SPECIALIZED GENERAL
"Old Lady
herbalist conjurer/rootworker
"granny" mid-wife
Neighborhood spiritualist
prophet
INDEPENDENT magic vendor or eclectic
magic store
operator
miscellaneous
specialists
evangelistic Voodoo priest or
faith healer priestess
CULTIC Spiritual Spiritual prophet/
divine healer advisor
messianic-nationalist
healer
15David J. Winslow, "Bishop E. E. Everett and Some Aspects of Occultism and Folk Religion
in Negro Philadelphia," Keystone Quarterly 14 (Summer 1969): 59-80.
" Ibid., p. 63.
332 PHYLON

The second axis of my topology recognizes the extensiveness of a heal-


er's practice, that is, whether it tends to be broad or generalized in scope,
dealing with a wide variety of illnesses and conditions, or whether it
tends to be limited, focusing on specific disorders or problems. Again,
such a distinction may not always be clear-cut in the case of a particular
therapist. For example, a healer may be a general practitioner who also
specializes in the curing of certain ailments or conditions. By intersect-
ing these two axes, as can be seen from Figure 1, one may develop a
four-cell typology which recognizes the following types of healers:
(1) independent generalists, (2) independent specialists, (3) cultic
generalists; and (4) cultic specialists. A wide variety of emic terms
(those used by members of a particultural sociocultural group) are used
to refer to the kinds of healers found among blacks in the United
States. In many instances, there is little agreement as to the appro-
priate use of these terms, a fact that will be illustrated at various
points during my discussion. In referring to specific examples of the
four general categories in my typology, I will use both some of the
more common emic terms as well as labels applied to various kinds
of black folk healers by other scholars.

1. Independent Generalists
The central character in ethnomedicine among blacks traditionally
has been the conjurer, who also goes under a wide variety of other labels,
including conjure doctor, hoodoo doctor, and hungan. Whitten describes
the conjurer as a professional diviner, curer, agent finder, and general
controller of the occult arts."17His portrayal of the conjurers' function
and role makes it clear that these healers are generalists.18 There is a
strong tendency to refer to the conjurer also as a rootworker. Some,
however, tend to make a distinction between the two while admitting
there may be a certain amount of overlap between their respective roles.
Hurston maintains that the term roots is used by blacks to refer to
folk doctoring by herbs and prescriptions.19 She also notes that "Nearly
all of the conjure doctors practice 'roots,' but some of the root doctors
are not hoodoo doctors."20
17 Norman E. Whitten, Jr., "Contemporary Patterns of Malign Occultism Among Negroes in
North Carolina," Journal of American Folklore 75 (October-December 1962): 315-16.
18The distinction between general practitioners and specialized or limited practitioners, while
useful for analytical purpozes, is in reality not alwavs clear-cut. Although most hoodoo
doctors are generalists, Hurston, op. cit., p. 320, cites examples of some who are specialists,
such as one practitioner who makes court cases his specialty and another who specializes
in restorinq broken relations, or breaking up relations.
19 Ibid., p. 318.
20 Ibid., p. 414.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 333

Originally conjurers were confined to slave communities on rural plan-


tations, but as poor blacks became residents in cities, they were ac-
companied by proverbial masters of the occult. During the nineteenth
century, New Orleans became known not only as the Voodoo capital
of the country but also as the capital of the more individualistic practice
of conjure. Although Hurston mentioned various cultic activities in
New Orleans, her research focused primarily on the practice of hoodoo
per se. Hoodoo as a system of magic, divination, and healing appears to
be widespread, although it may be particularly prevalent along the Gulf
Coast and, in addition to New Orleans, in certain cities such as Baton
Rouge, Lafayette, Shreveport, and Houston.21Furthermore, hoodoo tends
to vary in its content from region to region by adapting itself to the
brand of Christianity that blacks in a particular locale practice. In
southern Louisiana, hoodoo makes use of various religious articles
associated with Roman Catholicism, whereas in rural areas of other
Southern states, such as Florida and Mississippi, such paraphernalia tend
to be absent.22 On the other hand, religious articles associated with
Catholicism and/or Voodoo are commonly used and prescribed by
various other kinds of black folk healers, particularly in large urban
areas such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and Memphis.
Conjurers are reputed to possess one or more characters which dis-
tinguish them from ordinary mortals. These include "double-sight" or
the ability to see ghosts, being born on Christmas, being a seventh son,
or a wide variety of atypical physical traits, such as albinism, dwarfism,
green eyes, and three birthmarks on the left arm.23Although most con-
jurers are black, some are white.24Individuals become conjurers in one of
the following ways: (1) inheritance of the position, (2) apprenticeship
under an established practitioner, and (3) a "calling" from God.25In
some cases, the role of conjurer is not willingly accepted by an individual
and has to be thrust upon him or her by God.26At any rate, it appears to
be that those who become the most powerful and renowned conjurers do
so in the first of these ways.
The most important functions of the traditional conjurer are to cure
persons who have been "conjured," "fixed," "crossed," or "hexed" and
to place a direct spell or counterspell upon clients' enemies. In an

21 See Hueh S. Brown, "Voodooism in Northwest Louisiana." Louisionar Folklore Miscellany 2


(April 1965): 74-86: Bernice Larson Webb, "A Study of Voodoo Mail-Order Advertising in
in Louisiana," Louisiana Review 2 (Summer 1973): 65-71- snd Ponpldo J. Maduro, "Hoodoo
Possession in San Francisco: Notes on Therapeutic Aspect's of Regression," Ethos 3 (1975):
427.
22See Hurston, op. cit., p. 318, and Hortense Powdermaker. After Freedom (New York, 1939).
pp. 288-96.
"See Ruth Bass, "Mojo," in Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel (New
York, 1981), p. 381.
2 Elizabeth Brandon, "Folk Medicine in French Louisiana," in Wayland D. Hand, ed., Americanr
Folk Medicine (Berkeley, 1976), p. 226.
2 Hurston, op. cit., p. 320.
0 Bass, op. cit., p. 320.
334 PHYLON

early study of conjure based on a series of papers written by students


in the mid-1870s, Herron and Bacon, a librarian and a teacher, respec-
tively, at Hampton Institute, listed five distinct services that the hoodoo
doctor rendered to his client: "(1) He must tell him whether he is
conjured or not. (2) He must find out who conjured him. (3) He must
search for and find the 'trick' and destroy it. (4) He must cure the
patient. (5) He will if the patient wishes turn back the trick upon the
one who made it."27 During the antebellum period, in addition to deal-
ing with internal conflicts within slave quarters, conjurers were used
to prevent the harsh treatment of plantation masters. This latter applica-
tion of conjure, however, was rather limited in scope since "The slaves
had few illusions about the power of the conjurers over whites, and
the conjurers usually had enough sense to limit their claims."28
In addition to specific cases involving witchcraft, real or imagined,
conjurers generally concern themselves with a wide variety of other
conditions, ranging from organic ailments to problems of everyday life.
Included among the cases reported by Hurston in her now classic study
of hoodoo are ones in which clients sought practitioners for success in
business or financial endeavors, gambling, and the search for gainful
employment; resolution of strained social relations with significant
others; the search for a spouse; avoidance of the law or a favorable
decision in court; control over superordinates, such as a landlord or
employer; and discovery of unknown enemies.29 Furthermore, conjurers
are often resorted to as fortunetellers or curers of a wide variety of
physical ailments. In attempting to solve their clients' problems, con-
jurers generally prescribe a variety of items, including perfumes, oils,
seeds, powders, roots, pictures of Catholic saints, candles, medals, and
readings from the Bible or the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.
With the massive migration of blacks to the cities of both the North
and the South after the turn of the century, hoodoo or conjure became
incorporated and transformed into new forms, such as Spiritualism and
commercialism. Although he notes that many black urban healers per-
form many of the same feats as their rural counterparts in the South,
Cooley describes the new guise of hoodoo doctors as a move toward
respectibility and legal protection:
27Leonora Herron and Alice M. Bacon, "Conjuring and Conjure-Doctors," in Dundes, op. cit.,
p. 366.
28 Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974),
p. 221.
29 Hurston, op. cit.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 335

. . . Instead of calling themselves root doctors, these urban profes-


sionals adopt the names "psychic," "spiritualistic reader," and "pro-
phet." This metamorphosis in name has several explanations, but the
one that seems to be the closest to the truth asserts that the title
root doctor simply carries too many negative associations. Con-
sequently, most urban root doctors work under the guise of another
name. Furthermore, they associate themselves with a particular
church or at least assume the title of minister. The church also shields
them from possible legal repercussions, especially if they are not
licensed as a psychologist or a minister.30
Hurston noted that hoodoo was often closely combined with Spiritualism
in New Orleans in order to provide hoodoo doctors a protective cover
against legal prosecution.31 Elsewhere, McCall maintains that "hoodoo
has been assimilated to the bewildering variety of store-front spiritualist
churches in its truly religious aspects, leaving a heavy residue of sorcery
and fetishism as the remaining native elements."32
Despite the fact that many spiritualists and psychics claim to be minis-
ters, in reality they often function in effect as independent healers who
are willing to treat a wide array of problems and concerns. According
to Jordan, "Some claim to heal incurable diseases and solve financial
problems, while others of an inscrutable nature give hot numbers."33
Spiritualists are often individuals who have received a "call" from God
to help people with their personal problems. Some spiritualists re-
portedly work only with good spirits or the "loving dead," while others
work with evil spirits in addition to good ones. Spiritualists may be
affiliated in some capacity with an occult supply store or operate on
a strictly individual basis. In time, they may convert their practice into
a religious congregation, perhaps using some of their clients as the
group's core membership. In contrast to conjurers and rootworkers,
who make extensive use of roots and herbs in attempting to gain con-
trol over the forces of the universe, spiritualists tend to have limited
knowledge of the use of these substances and are more likely to use
them in the form of baths and teas. Many spiritualists advertise in
various newspapers, magazines, and radio stations serving black com-
munities. In her discussion of "healers who advertise," Snow presents
some interesting data on spiritualists or psychics who engage in dubious
and exploitative activities.34 Although many of these healers may indeed

Gilbert E. Cooley, "Root Doctors and Psychics in the Region," Indiana Folklore 10 (1977):
193.
Hurston, op., cit., p. 319.
8 George J. McCall, "Symbiosis: The Case of Hoodoo and the Numbers Racket," Social
Problems 10 (Spring 1963): 364.
s"Wilbert C. Jordan, "The Roots and Practice of Voodoo Medicine in America," Urban Health
(December, 1979): 39.
X Snow, "Sorcerers, Saints and Charlatans," pp. 96-104.
336 PHYLON

be black, it should not be assumed or implied, as Snow does, that all


of them are. There is the distinct possibility that some, if not many,
of these advertisements are placed by whites, including Gypsy readers.
Unfortunately, in reality very little is known about the practices and
techniques of the multitude of spiritualists who offer their services to
people in black communities.
In addition to conjurers and spiritualists, there are other black in-
dependent generalists who defy simple classification. Weidman and
her colleagues refer to such healers as "eclectics," apparently because
they incorporate aspects of evangelistic faith healing, rootwork or
hoodoo, and Spiritualism.35 Some black healers, such as those described
by Garrison below, have incorporated components of the occult revival
that has occurred in the larger society in recent years:
In Downtown Newark, near the Campus of Rutgers University,
there is a "religious store" that does not share the tradition of the
other religious stores. In the window there are, among other things,
a live boa contrictor and an ancient Sanskrit text. Inside there is a
strange mixture of the products common to "head shops" and "reli-
gious stores," a library of new and used books on Eastern philosophy,
religion and witchcraft from all parts of the globe, and a variety of
products, such as mineral salts, which are prescribed in accordance
with astrological signs. This store is owned by a young Black man
who calls himself a "guru," and there are two young women, one
Black and one White, who provide monthly astrological readings for
a clientele that we have not investigated, but assume to be a college
crowd. This practice reflects the revival of mysticism in American
youth culture. This type of mystical revival seems to be infrequent
among Black inner-city youth, but several Black practitioners of
"new" mystic and pseudo-scientific practices of various forms of
mind and body healing have been identified in the suburbs where
many more White practices of this type have also been found.36

2. Independent Specialists
Probably the best known independent specialists are herbalists or
rootworkers in the strict sense of the word. Herbalists are specialists
in the application of various medicinal plants and other remedies for
common ailments. In her discussion of four famous "voodoo doctors"
who resided within a fifty mile radius of Cottonville (a pseudonym for
a town in Mississippi), Powdermaker refers to a Mr. T, who explained
that although he was considered a conjurer, he really was an herb doc-
tor.37 "He does not believe in charms or voodoos, nor does he give

35Weidman, et al., cit.


36Garrison, op. cit.,op.
p. 48.
37Powdermaker, op. cit., pp. 288-96.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 337

advice in love or business affairs. He does, however, give certain


medicine made from herbs, which if smeared on the body will keep
away danger or attract people."38It is interesting to add that Mr. T.
reported that he had about equal numbers of black and white clients.
Although herbalists are most common in rural areas, undoubtedly
largely due to the ready availability of medicinal plants, Hall and
Bourne mention the presence of three persons, two male and one female,
who operate herbalism shops in the Price neighborhood of Atlanta.39
In the case of one of these stores, only about 10 percent of the customers
came for the exclusive purpose of buying roots or herbs. The remainder
purchased soft drinks, grocery items, and patent medicine.
Female neighborhood practioners, who are closely related to herbalists,
often are referred to by terms such as "Old Lady," "granny," or "Mrs.
Markus."40The Old Lady is essentially a local consultant on common
ailments. She does not have office hours or dispense medicine per se but
merely advises clients on how to treat ordinary illnesses. Although she
occasionally may receive monetary compensation for her services, this
neighborhood practioner is more likely to receive an expression of
gratitude or a gift of food. A subtype of the Old Lady is the "granny"
midwife, a black woman who works under the informal supervision of
a rural or small town physician, usually white, in the delivery of black
and sometimes white infants. Commenting upon the rural North Carolina
county where they did research on granny midwives, Mongeau, Smith,
and Maney observe that "As an institution, midwifery is still a very
active one - but it is a restless and uncertain institution," particularly
because there were no longer apprentice midwives in the area.41 The
decline of granny midwivery is also indicated by the fact that whereas
in 1936in North Carolina, 67.4 percent of all recorded nonwhite deliveries
and 11.4 percent of all white deliveries were attended by midwives, by
1966 the rate for whites had dropped from 11.4 to a small fraction of 1
percent and the nonwhite rate from 67.4 to 23.6 percent.42
In their study of black folk healers, Hall and Bourne identified five
and interviewed two neighborhood prophetesses who worked out of their
own homes with clients on an individual basis.43Clients were neighbors
who usually were seeking assistance for various emotional, personal, and
domestic problems. Prayer, prophecy, and counseling are the primary
techniques used by these healers. Ironically, although neighborhood
prophetesses apparently are an integral part of black communities, very
38Ibid., p. 294.
39Hall and Bourne, op. cit.. pp. 138-39.
40 See Jordan, op. cit., p. 716.
41Bertice Mongeau, Harvey L. Smith, and Ann C. Maney, "The 'Granny" Mid-wife: Changing
Roles and Functions of a Folk Practitioner," American Journal of Sociology 66 (Spring
1961): 504.
42Ibid., p. 497.
43Hall and Bourne, op. cit., pp. 140-41.
338 PHYLON

little information on this role exists in the literature on the ethnomedi-


cine of these communities. As will become apparent later in this paper,
there is a rough correspondence between this type of healer and many
of the advisors associated particularly with Spiritual churches but also
with some Holiness and Pentecostal churches.
An important source of advice for some blacks in their quest for health,
love, economic success and interpersonal power are what Hall and Bourne
term "magic vendors."44In contrast to other healers discussed here, magic
vendors view themselves primarily as business people or employees of
a commercial enterprise which specializes in the sale of occult articles.
Although probably most of the small and medium sized occult stores
(often referred to as "candle stores") are owned by black individuals,
many of the large stores are owned by whites, as apparently are the
companies that manufacture the articles that are sold in them. For
example, the proprietor of a large supply house in a Midwestern city is a
white man who inherited the business from his father. In order to put
his customers at ease, however, this proprietor employs only blacks in
his store. Some regular drug stores in ghetto areas also stock a variety
of occult items. While usually no explicit reference to hoodoo or Voodoo
is made on the articles sold in these stores, there is little doubt that
many of them are paraphernalia associated with these traditions.45
While many black religious store operators identify themselves as
reverends and ministers, these labels of self-reference do not necessarily
mean that the persons are actually formal leaders of specific religious
congregations. Magic vendors, particularly those who are employees
rather than proprietors of candle stores, are involved primarily in giving
customers advice as to which occult items might help them solve a
particular problem. On the other hand, Garrison and her co-workers
found that the black owner-operators who they identified in Newark
provide "consultations," which may be "best described as a lay form
of the open-ended interview of psychiatric social work, based on popular
knowledge of psychology."46
In addition to the independent specialists already mentioned, there
is an assortment of other black folk healers who fit this category, par-
ticularly in rural areas of the South. Included among these are practi-
tioners who "talk the fire out of burns," cure "the thrash" (a fungus
occurring in the mouths of small children), cure toothaches, "conjure
warts," and rid the body of back pains, swollen limbs, rheumatism,
headaches, and other discomforts.47Undoubtedly, counterparts, of these
healers, such as "blood stoppers" and "bone-setters," are, or at least in
44Ibid.
4 See Hurston, op. cit. Winslow, op. cit., p. 59; and Snow, "Mail Order Magic."
46 Garrison, op. cit. p., 12.
47 See Carol E. Hill, "Black Healing Practices in the Rural South," Journal of Popular Culture
6 (Spring 1973): 851.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 339

the past were, found in white communities throughout rural areas of


the country.

3. Cultic Generalists
Religion as a group ceremonial activity and medicine are interwined in
most sociocultural systems. Consequently, it should be no surprise that
healing activities are part and parcel of various black religious groups in
the United States. Although Vodun emerged among African slaves on the
island of St. Dominique (present-day Haiti and the Domincan Republic)
as a syncretism of West African religions and Roman Catholicism, it
reportedly was brought to Louisiana as early as 1716.48Its principal
impetus in the region apparently occurred around 1809 when French
masters escaping the Haitian revolution brought slaves with them.
During the nineteenth century, Voodoo meetings presided over by
"queens" and "witch doctors" catered to slaves, free blacks, and some
white women.49After the passing of two or three generations of Marie
Leveaus, voodoo in New Orleans disintegrated into a multitude of small
groups, each with its own titular head.50Although various small Voodoo
groups have functioned during the present century, for the most part
it appears that aspects of this religious system became incorporated
into the syncretistic black Spiritual religion and the magicial system of
hoodoo.51On the other hand, Voodoo in recent decades has enjoyed a
revivalism of sorts, perhaps particularly due to the large influx of
Haitians into New York, Miami, and other areas of the country.52 Un-
fortunately, relatively little data exist on how the ethnomedical systems
of Haitians, Bahamians, and Afro-Cubans may be influencing that of
black Americans in general.
Voodoo priests and priestesses in their roles as healers in many ways
resemble hoodoo doctors or independent conjurers, but also serve as
important religious functionaries in Voodoo cultic groups. Although
Puckett, Hurston, Tallant, and Hyatt make note of various Voodoo
doctors, the only relatively recent account which describe in some detail
the activities of a specific individual functioning in this role is based
upon an interview that Snow had with Mother D, a Voodoo practioner
in a Southwestern city.53The main clue to Mother D's interest in Voodoo
is the presence of the image of Danballah Quedo, the West African
serpent god, upon the altar in her chapel. Although the members of her
48 See Raboteau, op. cit., 76.
49 See Robert C. Reinders, "The Church and the Negro in New Orelans, 1850-1860," Phylon 22
(Fall 1961): 241-48.
50 See Robert Tallant, Voodoo in New Orleans (New York, 1946).
51See Hans A Baer, "Black Spiritual Churches: A Neglected Socio-Religious Institution,"
Phylon 42 (September 1981): 207-23.
52 See Weidman, et al., Miami Health Ecology Project and Michael S. Laguerre, "Haitian
Americans," in Harwood, ed., Ethnicity and Medical Care, pp. 172-210.
53Pucket, op. cit., Hurston, op. cit., Tallant, op. cit., Hyatt, op. cit., Snow, "I Was Born Just
Exactly With the Gift;" and Snow, "Popular Medicine in a Black Neighborhood."
340 PHYLON

congregation, which meets regularly on Friday nights, are black, clients


seeking Mother D's healing services include Chicanos and Indians, as
well as other blacks. Mother D, who was born "behind the twins," claims
that she received her gift to heal "natural sicknesses" (such as cancers,
tumors, appendicitis, asthma, etc.) and "unnatural sicknesses" (such as
mental disturbances, worries, nervous conditions, and demon possession)
from the Spirit. Although Mother D believes that individuals may be-
come ill or disturbed as a result of malevolent supernatural acts, "she
feels that most of the clients who come to her thinking that they are the
victims of witchcraft are simply made ill by the fear of witchcraft."54
Her techniques include massages, prescription of medicine (particularly
herbal teas), and spiritual advice.
It is not clear to what extent the well-known healing complex in the
vicinity of Donalsonville, Georgia, which is operated by a religious minis-
ter identified by Weidman and her collaborators as a "rootworker,"
functions within the Voodoo tradition.55 At any rate, a Bahamian re-
search assistant who visited the complex, which includes an audience
hall, a large church in town and a small one in the country, hotels,
restaurants, and even a funeral home, reported that the presiding
Reverend was born with "seven veils on his face" and is led by seven
spirits. Inside the Reverend's meeting room, the visiting client finds
"seven skulls of the dead," burning candles, and a lighted lamp covered
with images of the seven spirits.56 Some patients reportedly stay for
months at what may be described as the "functional equivalent of a
religious shrine or an orthodox medical center."57
Cultic general practitioners much more common today than Voodoo
priests or priestesses are the Spiritual prophets. This kind of black folk
healer works within the context of the highly syncretistic Spiritual
movement, which essentially combines elements from Spiritualism,
black Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Voodoo (or its diluted form
of hoodoo), as well as other esoteric systems, such as New Thought,
Islam, Judaism, and/or astrology.58 As I have reported in some detail
elsewhere, Spiritual prophets, many of whom are women, claim to
possess a gift from the Spirit which enables them to prophesy and heal.59
Although they generally treat various physical ailments, Spiritual
prophets tend to focus upon a wide variety of socioeconomic and psy-
chosocial problems which particularly poor blacks, but also middle-class
and working-class blacks as well as some whites, encounter in everyday

"Snow "Popular Medicine in a Black Neighborhood," pp. 92-93.


8Weidman, et al., op. cit.
Ibid., p. 728.
57 Ibid., p. 731.
68See Baer, "Black Spiritual Churches."
"9Baer, "Prophets and Advisors in Black Spiritual Churches."
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 341

life. Spiritual prophets often direct messages concerning the past,


present, and future to specific individuals during the course of religious
services, particularly ones referred to as "bless services" or "prophesy
services." Furthermore, they provide private consultations for their
clients. In addition to the "reading" or message from the Spirit, Spiritual
prophets say prayers or recite scriptural passages, provide magico-
religious articles such as candles and holy water, and prescribe various
magico-religious rituals, roots and herbs for their clients. In large part,
many of the techniques that have for long been a part of other variants
of black ethnomedicine have been incorporated into the complex of
mediums and healers operating within the context of the Spiritual move-
ment, which is particularly strong in urban areas with large concentra-
tions of blacks.
Some, if not most, "messianic-nationalist" sects, such as various Black
Muslim and Black Jewish groups, appear to have healers of some sort.60
While little attention has been given to healing activities in such sects,
Singer in a recent article discusses the role of medicine in the social
system of the Black Hebrews.61While a large contingent of this migratory
sect is now located in Israel, it emerged in the Chicago area in the early
1960s and continues to have members in various parts of the United
States. Unlike many black Holiness, Pentecostal, and Spiritual groups,
divine healing among the Black Hebrews consists of a fully developed
and exclusive set of beliefs about disease causation and a related regimen
of treatment procedures."62The chief healer or "Rofa" at the Black
Hebrew community in Israel is a middle-aged woman who took on this
role during the group's interim settlement in Liberia. She is assisted by a
staff of "nurses" and is in the process of training new divine healers.
According to Singer, "the Rofa serves both as a somatic healer and
psychotherapist for the Black Hebrew community."63While much of her
time is devoted to the delivery of infants, she also attends to a variety
of physicial ailments and listens to the personal problems of the members
of the community.

4. Cultic Specialists
Many healers functioning within religious congregations tend to focus
on a somewhat narrower range of problems than the cult generalists. In
addition to prophets or advisors, for example Spiritual churches have
60See Merrill Singer, "Saints of the Kingdom; Group Emergence, Individual Affiliation and
Social Change among the Black Hebrews of Israel" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Utah,
1979) and Hans A. Baer and Merrill Singer, "Toward a Typology of Black Sectarianism as a
Response to Racial Stratification," Anthropological Quarterly 54 (January 1981): 1-14, for a
discussion of the nature of messianic-nationalist sects in the black community.
61 Merrill Singer, "The Social Meaning of Medicine in a Sectarian Community," Medical
Anthropology 5 (Spring 1981): 207-32.
62 Ibid., p. 213.
63Ibid., p. 218.
342 PHYLON

members, often referred to as "divine healers," who claim to have the


gift of healing, but note that they lack the gift of prophecy. These divine
healers appear to function in a capacity not greatly unlike that of many
evangelistic faith healers in fundamentalist Protestant congregations,
particularly of the Holiness, Pentecostal, and some of the Baptist varie-
ties.
Evangelistic faith healers generally are the pastor or a prominent
member of a religious congregation. Despite the possibility that evange-
listic faith healers may constitute the largest single category of folk
therapists in black communities, relatively little has been written
about their activities. According to Hall and Bourne, "Healing in their
services was employed usually as a mechanism to underscore some
message of the teaching and as evidence of the validity of their promis-
ing good times on this earth if the teachings of that particular prophet
were followed."64 It appears that the most commonly employed heal-
ing technique practiced by faith healers is some variation of laying-on-
of-hands.65They also anoint with holy oil and give their clients prayer
cloths and blessed water. Two of the three Holiness faith healers in the
sample of Southern black folk therapists that Weidman and her colla-
borators worked with used candles, holy pictures, spray, and incense on
occasion, practices which are common among Voodooists, at least hoodoo
doctors, spiritualists, and Spiritual prophets.66Although it does not ap-
pear that most evangelistic faith healers do "readings,"many offer advice
to their clients on how to solve problems of living.

CONCLUSION
This paper has attempted to illustrate the diversity of ethnomedicine
among black Amercians by focusing upon the various kinds of healers
that function within it. In creating a typology of black healers, two vari-
ables have been recognized: (1) the scope of a particular healer's prac-
tice and (2) the presence or absence of affiliation with a cultic group
on the part of the healer. It is important to note that other criteria could
have been used in the construction of a typology of black folk healers.
For example, my typology might take into consideration the system of
disease causation with which a particular healer operates. Foster con-
tends that most nonWestern disease etiologies are either "personalistic"
or "naturalistic."67 In a personalistic medical system, illness is regarded

'Hall and Bourne, op. cit., p. 139.


" See Snow, "Popular Medicine in a Black Neighborhood," p. 85.
6eWeidman, et al., op. cit., p. 216.
67 George M. Foster, "Disease Etiologies in Nonwestern Medical Systems," American Anthro-
pologist 78 (1976): 773-82.
BLACK FOLK HEALERS 343

as induced by the active, purposeful intervention of a sensate agent of


some sort (i.e., a god, ghost, dead ancestor, evil spirit, or witch). Natural-
istic systems explain illness in terms of a systemic imbalance of im-
personal elements (i.e., humors, hot and cold, or yin and yang). A pro-
blem with this distinction, however, is that a blending of naturalistic
and personalistic concepts about disease etiology is common cross-cul-
turally and appears to be characteristic of ethnomedicine among blacks.
In proposing the typology that I have outlined in this paper, I do not
mean to imply that there is only one way to classify black folk healers.
A typology is a device which attempts to recognize diversity of forms
in the real world and distinctions that it makes are dictated by certain
explicit or implicit theoretical assumptions and objectives. Furthermore,
two of the principal weaknesses of any typology are the tendency to
imply that a particular phenomenon is static and that it can be com-
partmentalized into discrete submits. The traditions of the various kinds
of black folk healers that have been described in this paper are not only
interrelated, but also exhibit a pattern of dynamic change and adaptation
to conditions both within the black community and in the larger society.
In addition to collecting more data on the etiologies, techniques, and
social dimensions of various healing traditions among blacks, more
attention should be given to the historical development of black ethno-
medicine as well as to the functions that it serves its clients in a racist
and class society. Needed areas for research include the reasons for
the persistence of ethnomedicine and its ability to provide a meaning-
ful alternative to allopathic medicine for many blacks as well as some
whites and its role in maintaining a sense of ethnic identity in the
black community.