Guest Feature

Glen Ellis

Meet Glen Ellis

Glenn Ellis, is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine.

The Role and Value of Healers In the African-American Community

Glen Ellis

The traditional healers of Africa have been using ritual in combination with herbal remedies to treat Africa's people for generations throughout the Diaspora. According to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), one estimate puts the number of Africans who routinely use these services for primary health care as high as 85% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The traditional medical practitioner or traditional healer is defined by the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine as: "Someone who is recognized by the community in which he lives as competent to provide health care by using vegetable, animal and mineral substances and certain other methods based on the social, cultural and religious backgrounds as well as the prevailing knowledge, attitudes and beliefs regarding physical, mental and social well-being and the causation of disease and disability in the community (2012 Jul-Sep; 3(3): 124–129)."

When a person is out of balance physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, there are many paths that can be taken to wellness. These include using conventional medicine, altering one's diet, exercising, adopting new thought patterns, and/or integrating alternative medicine treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, hypnotherapy or various spiritual practices into one's life.

People of African descent in the United States find it easier and more

Most of the slaves distrusted white doctors and rightly so, as slaves were often experimented on.
comfortable to seek out traditional healers for their mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical care.  This is because traditional healers are already a trusted source of health information and treatment. Furthermore, there is a simultaneous distrust on the part of African-Americans towards medical doctors due to a belief in this country goes back to the institution of slavery.

Health matters were often a source of contention between slaves and their owners. Slave owners demanded to be told when a slave had sickness. The reason for this is that the owners wanted to ensure they could exercise their own control over a slave's body.

In some instances the slave owner would provide the same level of health care as he did for his family and himself. Some owners would treat slaves themselves or have the overseer or plantation mistress treat slaves using various old home remedies. Most of the slaves distrusted white doctors and rightly so, as slaves were often experimented on. This continued, in fact, for many years and include such well-documented horrors as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study—a study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama by the U.S. Public Health Service where African-Americans were used as subjects to observe the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural black men who thought they were receiving health care from the U.S. government.

During the era of slavery, African-Americans relied upon a dual health care system composed of the formal medical knowledge provided by whites as well as the folk knowledge circulated within slave communities. While the planters, overseers, and plantation doctors provided formal medical care for slaves, that care was typically inadequate. As a result, enslaved Africans often relied upon traditional healing skills. The prevalence of herbalism, for example, among slaves on plantations, and the skills of African-American healers and midwives are abundantly documented by numerous medical professionals and observers during the colonial and antebellum periods. Interestingly, the folk medical system used by African-American healers divided the causes of illness into three interrelated categories composed of occult, spiritual, and natural illnesses.

Today, many African-Americans have learned to incorporate these historical lessons--sometimes in small, subtle ways--into their modern lives to help keep their emotional, physical and spiritual selves harmonious and healthy. In doing so, however, they have embraced a kind of "cultural ownership" which manifests itself in two primary ways, neither of which yields a positive benefit either for the individual or for the larger community.

Firstly, it has resulted in a plethora of unqualified, self-professed practitioners, many of who exist and/or prey on the fears and mistrust that many feel towards medical doctors. The result of this can be serious health conditions going unaddressed, leading to major problems or even death.

Secondly, it leaves many skilled and knowledgeable practitioners to be seen as "belonging" to the community, and as such requiring no financial compensation. In some sense they are viewed as clergy, available based on their "calling" and not needing or looking for compensation. This attitude comes from a rejection of the medical system, and is a misguided statement of self-determination.

As the society moves into an era where Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) and Integrative Medicine (IM) are part of mainstream medical practice, it is necessary for the African-American community to adopt a different value and appreciation for its holistic healers.

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