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August 2021

South Med J. 1987 Jul; 80(7): 885-91.

Rootwork: description of an ethnomedical system in the American South.

Mathews HF.

The traditional medicine of black Americans, often labeled "rootwork," has its origins in slave culture of the antebellum South. Its continued influence on the health behavior of black Americans is reported for rural areas of the South and for poor urban areas throughout the United States. The rootwork system combines a belief in the magical causation of illness with cures by sorcery and an empiric tradition stressing the natural causation of illness with cures by herbs and medicines. Adherents of rootwork are medically pluralistic and seek help from a variety of practitioners when faced with illness. Adherents enter the clinical setting for the treatment of natural illnesses and present symptoms in accordance with traditional beliefs about the blood and "folk" categories of disease. Adherents may also consult magical practitioners, known as root doctors, for treatment of a variety of psychosocial problems.


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