“Midwives of Invention”: Black Healers and Spiritual Rebirth in Civil War Refugee Camps

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM
Salon B (Hilton Atlanta)
Abigail J. Cooper, Brandeis University
In the summer of 1863, a Union medical director reported: “Their own ‘grannies,’ who are generally youngish or middle aged mulatto women, are well skilled in most of the simple and many of the scientific medical agents of our art. …These ‘grannies’ are found among the contrabands not unfrequently, and if well supplied by the government with medicines, would do great good with them.” As Yankees witnessed the masses of women with swollen bellies making their way into their lines, they were nonplussed. No military manual had prepared them for the gynecological needs of warfare. Of all the transformations that a slave woman hoped for in coming into a camp, foremost in her mind was the transformation of her reproductive labor. Her children could be her own. If we have characteristically viewed the black Union soldier as serving his country and tugging his family with him into freedom, we should expand the paradigm to bring into view the black mothers who staked all to give birth out of slavery’s reach, and to the black midwives who knew how to keep them all alive. But more than an act of recovery, bringing black wartime midwives’ perspective into view unsettles the political emancipation narrative of soldier to citizen. Midwives impart intimate knowledge of black women’s bodies as sites of vitality as well as subjection. It brings not only black female leadership to the fore but also spiritual practice as the locus of power and the location for making meaning of freedom’s berth.
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