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"African Medicine and Magic in the Americas” by Robert Voeks

by: Erika Ladd

"African Medicine and Magic in the Americas” by Robert Voeks HIST 005

Marketplace > Howard University > History > HIST 005 > African Medicine and Magic in the Americas by Robert Voeks
Erika Ladd

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These notes look at the article, "African Medicine and Magic in the Americas” by Robert Voeks
Intro to Black Diaspora 1
Neil Vaz
Class Notes
Africa, African Studies, African Slavery
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This 4 page Class Notes was uploaded by Erika Ladd on Wednesday September 14, 2016. The Class Notes belongs to HIST 005 at Howard University taught by Neil Vaz in Spring 2015. Since its upload, it has received 3 views. For similar materials see Intro to Black Diaspora 1 in History at Howard University.


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Date Created: 09/14/16
Arrival and Survival: • Where the volume and duration of slavery were heavy and protracted, African-based ethnomedicine not only survived but also in some cases came to predominate. Brazil, which absorbed more than four million African immigrants, retains African religious and medical systems that are so orthodox that Nigerian priests took a pilgrimage there to rediscover ceremonies long forgotten in Africa. • With a total of approximately five million slaves imported, the old Spanish Main exhibits magic-religious systems scarcely different from those in Africa. By contrast, North America, which received only half a million Africans during the entire slave trade, witnessed minot survival of their ethnomedical systems. • Cultural diffusion from African to the Americas was indirectly fostered by the insufferable conditions of plantation existence. The religious division between Protestantism in British North America and Roman Catholicism in Latin America also contributed to the degree of cultural retention. Whereas the simpler ritual of Protestant sects conflicted with the complexities of African religion, Roman Catholic liturgy had some structural similarities with African regions: ancestor worship, elaborate ritual and offerings, and, most importantly, polytheism. Africans could continue to practice pagan rites and their own gods disguised as Roman Catholic liturgy. • Africans were responsible for the survival of their religions in the New World. Resisting domination by their owners, slaves throughout the Americas fled to the hinterlands and formed their own communities. The success or failure of slave uprisings influenced the persistence of African magic. Where priests and their sorcery were believed to have defeated the oppressive masters, African-based magic became a visible element in the emerging African-American cultural landscape. Eventual defeat of the French forces may have permanently fixed the power of Vodoun medico-medicine in Haiti. • In the context of the master-slave relationship, magic and sorcery represented one of the few powers that Africans held over their owners and their fellow bondsmen. It was black magic that exercised the firmest hold on New World Africans and their masters. In some countries, white masters were in fear of their slaves, because they believed that the slaves could ‘control’ them.Where purveyors of black magic were viewed as a threat, crown authorities took legal action to curtail their activities. By the 1760s, African magic was outlawed in Jamaica and in Guadaloupe. Ethnomedicine and Religion: • As the supply-demand balance shifted, the source area of incoming slaves changed during the course of the slave trade. Consequently, prevailing ethnomedical traditions varied over time as the ethnic origin of the slave community was numerically dominated by one and then another group. • Notwithstanding the diversity of source regions, certain fundamental features characterize most African-American healing traditions. These include theories of causation related to the spiritual realm, the capacity to identify symptoms associated with specific diseases, and the ability to prescribe culturally acceptable treatments. Illness is believed to be a reaction to forces outside the spiritual realm. Shaman healers, in their roles are brokers between the material and spiritual universes, seek out the other-world sources of physical and emotional distress. Cures, whether to reestablish spiritual equilibrium or to neutralize black magic, are most often effected through votive offerings to the ancestors and spirits, observance of taboos, fasting and seclusion, trance, and prescription of medicinal plants. • Although elements of various African healing traditions survive, wherever Yoruba and Dahomey slaves were present in sizable numbers their cosmology and ethnomedical system came to predominate. It was successful because it offered and attractive alternative to a European social order to which slaves and their descendants had little or no access. In their new hierarchy, novices could rise in status. • The attraction of African as opposed to Christian religion also follows from the focus of African faiths on everyday problems of the material world. Both cosmologies recognize the existence of an afterlife; whereas Christianity emphasizes the topic, African religions expend little energy connecting this world action with after world response. The deities, which numbered more than four hundred in Africa, were reduced to several dozen relevant entities in the New World. • Spiritual protection notwithstanding, humans are forever vulnerable to the machinations of magicians and sorcerers. African-American Plant Pharmacopoeias: • African ethnomedicine is firmly grounded in the healing power of the vegetal realm. Most healing rituals and ceremonies involved the use of leaves, roots, bark, or plant reproductive structures. African priests arriving the New World learned the medicinal qualities of the local flora from native herbalists to continue practice medicine. Experimentation with the medicinal qualities of the local flora is also inadequately documented. • An alternative method for identifying potentially useful species is reported among the Yorubas and their New World descendants. While mounted by one of their guardian deities, devotees suddenly bolt into the first and collect hitherto unknown plants as directed by whatever spirit is possessing them. West African and the New World shared some plant species, causing shamans to use the same methods upon arrival. Some examples include the bottle gourd, sea hibiscus, silk cottonwood, and other species. • Most West African cultivars traditionally served both food and medicinal purposes. Grains, fruits, and tubers sustained the body, and leaves, bark, and roots from the same plants healed it. Many exotic plants were purposely transplanted to the Americas, but most probably arrived as weeds. • The long duration of the slave trade and its effects on the lands and peoples of African indirectly affected the transmission of plants and plant knowledge to New World Africans. Even the medicinal use of some native American species, after being naturalized in Africa, diffused to the New World with the slave traffic. Despite the increasing abundance of taxa inhabiting both sides of the Atlantic, many importance native African species failed to invade the New World, whether through lack of seed dispersal or because of the rights of interspecific competition. To fill these floristic gaps, New World Africans resorted to substitution of similar species. Magico-Medicine in the Contemporary Landscape: • African-based ethnomedical systems and their associated plant pharmacopoeias have changed gradually over time. The process of ethnomedical blending continued abated in the New World setting, where, after centuries of adjustment to an alien civilization and physical landscape, many such systems are scarcely recognizable as African in origin. • African-American magic and medicine are widely perceived as a repository of rejected knowledge, sustained by the ignorance and poverty of the lower classes and with little or no meaning in a world dominated by the principles of Western science. They have survived several centuries of persecution and have even expanded their geographical range significantly. • Leaves from the god Obatala, the god of peace and tranquility, are called to heal blindness and paralysis.


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