Health Beliefs

This section fosters an examination of historical conceptions of health and illness that may influence Black older adults in the U.S. Major portions of this section are based upon the studies of the late W.H. Watson published in Black Folk Medicine (1984).


Individual and social reactions to illnesses among Black older adults have been multifaceted over the decades during and since chattel slavery in the United States. The differences have included variations in:

Categories and definitions of illness
Theories about the causes of illness
Modes of intervention to return the afflicted person to a state of health

Most of the literature can be divided into studies of traditional medicine and of modern biomedicine. Traditional, in this usage, refers to cross-generational patterns of thought about health and illness, and beliefs about remedies, such as herbs, that is sustained over time by simple observations and myths pertinent to their use and value. Common sense theories that attempt to explain how the remedies work may span many centuries, with or without the support of scientific evidence. While modern biomedicine is dated from 1750 A.D., traditional or “folk medicine” is dated in some documents as early as 1500 B.C.

Types of Healers

According to Snow (1974), practitioners of traditional medicine can be classified according to the healing practices they use and how they received the ability to heal. There are three ranks of healers, distinguishable by the sources of their healing powers:

  1. Those who learned the ability from others (these are the individuals considered to have the least amount of power)
  2. Older persons who received the gift of healing from God during a religious experience in later life (these are middle rank in power)
  3. Those who are born with the gift of healing, the most powerful (Snow)

Root and herb doctors are included among the groups who learned to heal from others, and are believed to have the least amount of healing power (Snow, 1974). The services of a root doctor, who is a type of conjurer, are sought either to place a hex on someone (or induce an illness condition) or to ward off evil (de Albuquerque, 1981, p. 51).

According to Mitchell (1978), faith or spiritual healers are practitioners with the greatest power, and are believed to have received the gift of healing from a god. They regard themselves as vessels through which the divine will is made manifest (Hand, 1980). The laying on of hands, prayers and incantations are the methods most used to treat spiritual illness.