Translating Spirits: Medical-Ritual Healing and Law in Brazil and the Broader Afro-Atlantic World

A piece in the recently released Osiris volume on Therapeutic Properties: Global Medical Cultures, Knowledge, and Law may interest AHP readers: “Translating Spirits: Medical-Ritual Healing and Law in Brazil and the Broader Afro-Atlantic World,” by Paul Christopher Johnson. Abstract:

This essay takes up questions related to the medical and legal legacies of the trans-atlantic slave trade by examining, within newly sovereign states, the fortunes of ritual experts conversant in matters of health. It asks how these ritual actors in Brazil—where 40 percent of all slaves were sent—framed illness, and compares their frameworks to the legal terms such states used to circumscribe their activities, and what the social consequences were. Instead of approaching this process as an opposition between disease and illness, or the body and its representations, I view these actors’ multiple frames as a window into the way they were “doing” medicine. Their techniques, taken together, allowed them to constitute “the body” in any given healing event, rendering its afflictions thinkable, actionable, and affectively compelling. African-inspired ritual specialists orchestrated complex mises-en-scène of health and cure, achieved in and through ritual doing. This article shows how these techniques came into being and became established; it also explores the conflicts they generated with colonial and nation-state administrators. Two key state regimes in particular were deployed to translate and control Afro-Atlantic ritual techniques: public health and psychiatry. Yet, despite state attempts at the bureaucratic rationalization of medicine, African-inspired healing specialists and their techniques continued to attract a wide clientele across racial groups, serving as a constant challenge to liberal ideas of legal personhood in the process.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.