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African American Herbalism: Exploring the Lost Traditions


African Americans were deprived of their history,

human rights and culture yet out of absolute barrenness,

a rich fulfilling legacy was birthed.




What is African American Herbalism?



African American herbalism is a mixture of different cultural customs. There is of course an influence from African traditions that were brought alongside the Africans in the slave ships. Elements were physically carried, whether braided into the hair, worn as a necklace or simply weaved into the fibers of the heart. Some slave ships were even lined with straw bedding that encased the seeds of African plants that would eventually make it to the New World.





 


Spiritualism is/was an important component among African traditions. As it was illegal for many enslaved Africans to read and write, they continued the oral traditions of our Motherland ancestors.





Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God. -George Washington Carver




Gullah and Geechee Traditions


Other practices were perhaps encoded into the DNA of the stolen children. Some cultures like the Gullah (South Carolina) and Geechee (Georgia) were able to keep more of this culture intact but much of it was unlearned by the general diaspora. These Africans were among members of different tribes who they could not communicate with, in a country where a foreign language was spoken. What did remain was morphed into a new system. It is important to note that there were Africans on this continent before the slave trade. I won’t go into it too deeply here, but the work of Ivan Van Sertima and Anthony Browder are great resources for a deep dive into this information.




Creole Healing Traditions


“Traditionally, the art of healing was passed down from a traiteur (healer) to an apprentice. Perrin, 72, is a traiteur herself, having learned the healing practice from an older man about 20 years ago. “He taught me the prayers, the traditions,” she says. “Since they are handed down orally, the traditions tend to vary.” That means one traiteur might prescribe drinking tea steeped in local herbs three times a day, while a traiteur in another community might recommend drinking the tea five times a day. A traiteur would often treat a sick community member with prayers while laying their hands on the afflicted, and perhaps prescribe a poultice made with plants found throughout the area.”(motherearthnews.com)



 

Native American Influence



When the first Africans arrived, there already were Native Americans that were enslaved alongside them. Eventually, Native American slavery began to be phased out, the Native were the natives of the land, so it was easier for them to escape. Their death rate was also higher as they were less adapted to the harsh conditions and they had less knowledge of the cultivation of sugar cane and rice compared to their African counterparts. They did however share some of their knowledge with them as they worked alongside them. Though seven tribes did assimilate to become “civilized” tribes, who would eventually own slaves themselves, some groups interbred with and fought alongside them.



“Long before the Europeans arrived on the North American continent indigenous people were practicing herbalism. Some of their knowledge of how plants could be used for wellness came from their keen observation of the wildlife around them. They observed that deer, elk, and bear sought out plants to eat when they were sick. They saw the animals recover and knew to experiment with these herbs and plants to heal themselves.” (floraverdura)




European Influence



Naturally, the Europeans bought herbs with them as well, one known as “White Man’s foot” (Plantain), followed the White man wherever he went. Africans got accustomed to using these herbs as well and so a new tradition was born to incorporate each of these elements. African American herbalism, like African herbalism, was an oral tradition, passed on by by teaching the younger generation how to replicate what they created. The remedies were simpler, using only one or two plants. While some scholars speculate that this was due to the enslaved Africans having less time to pick and prepare herbs others believe that this simplicity is due to a more sophisticated understanding of the properties of the plants.




Ancient African Traditions


In general, African formulations tend to have three or fewer herbs total whereas other cultures tend to have much more herbs in combination. Due to a higher concentration of melanin, it is thought that less herbs are needed to achieve the same effect. However, as African descendants in other continents, or even Africans in native countries now inundated with other culture’s foods, it may be acceptable to start with more herbs in a formula with the intention of slowly reducing overtime.



African Americans had a definite need for natural medicine. There was a general distrust of White doctors, with good reasoning. The living conditions that they were subjected to were poor. There was a lack of ventilation, sunlight and damp flooring, coupled with unclean living conditions and an inability to properly clean and sterilize eating utensils, clothing and other belongings. Their living quarters were often small and cramped with multiple families. Incident rates of childhood diseases, cholera and pulmonary tuberculosis were more common among African Americans versus White Americans.





Granny Midwives



Granny midwives, or Black midwives were an integral part of our communities, they were seen as both birthers and healers. They were advocates and counselors on behalf of the most marginalized group- enslaved women who had no reproductive or civil rights. I am proud that my great grandmother Modena Nichols, and her daughter Miriam would go on to carry the healing legacy by becoming a nurse. Granny midwives used black haw, pepper, mayapple root, ginger root, dirt dauber, and tread sash tea.




“Granny midwives were the experienced, wise, highly-respected and highly-regarded members of the community that cared for pregnant women and assisted in childbirth. Granny midwives operated on African principles of holistic, compassionate and Spiritual care. She used her intuition, herbs, roots, nature and her genuine love for her people to serve families. Because of the communal nature of our communities in the rural South, living was so much more that exchanging green currency. People paid her with eggs, livestock, crops and whatever they had. No matter how currency deficient a community might have been, the granny midwife was always taken care of. She waded through swamps, mud, and rivers to reach her families on foot, by car, by boat or by any means necessary. It was tradition to maintain the highest standards of cleanliness, hygiene and sterility. In fact, the US medical industry studied and implemented the hygiene and sterilizing practices that they learned directly from the granny midwives. Unfortunately, they fail to attribute the hygiene practices to these granny midwives.” (Rootmama.co)





“What's most striking about these historical midwives is not just the fact that they brought countless lives into this world without running water, electricity or modern medicine, but even more inspiring is how they did it. They brought bibles to read aloud and help mothers pass the time as they waited on pregnant women, massaging and bathing them and their children, cooking and cleaning for their families. Along with scissors, bags and smelling salts, we're told that midwives also carried items to pamper mothers in their heavy medical bags: rose water, talcum powder, a comb. They used peppermint and chamomile teas to calm the nerves, ginger, mayapple and hot peppers to encourage labor and black hot (ph) herbs to ease the pain.



These are images of humble, round-shouldered women as they made their way along the side of the road in simple white aprons and heavy black shoes. They walked sometimes up to 10 miles each way for regular pre- and post-natal visits. Their labor was more often than not done for free. At times they accepted small amounts of cash or perhaps a chicken for payment. Mostly it was enough to know they were doing God's good work.” (npr.org)





 


Traditional African American Plants



Some of the plants used by traditional African American healers include sarsaparilla, sassafras, asafeotida, snakeroot, mayapple, red pepper, boneset, pine needles, comfrey, red oak bark, and Jimsonweed. Many of the remedies used were referenced by folk expressions such as “sheep tea”, “sweet oil”, or “cami root”, which are not clearly simply identified by the name.








“Slave medicine flourished on plantations. While collecting wild herbs and roots, slave doctors, male and female, escaped the boundaries of their working life and perhaps experienced a fleeting taste of physical freedom. Certainly, a belief in the sacredness of healing plants allowed them to connect with an authority higher than their owners – be it animistic African dieties or a single Christian god. In treating fellow slaves, they became an instrument of divine power. They, not their owner, controlled a patient’s body. At its core, slave healing was an empowerment for both healer and patient.”(monticello.org)




 

Erasure of African American Herbalists



Blacks made many contributions in the field of herbalism but their accomplishments are usually forgotten. One example of this is the erasure of Doctor Cesar’s legacy. Doctor Cesar was an enslaved African-American man who received emancipation in exchange for his secret recipe of an antidote for poison and snakebites. Whites were frightened of getting poisoned by the people that they enslaved; but they depended on their treatments and medicines as they often had more herbal knowledge then them. In the year 1750, the price of $500 was paid for the purchase of Caesar to John Norman of Beech Hill. The committee agreed “that the said Caesar hath cured several persons who had been long ill of a lingering distemper, attended with intolerable pains in the stomach and bowels, particularly Mr. John Cattel, Mr. Henry Middleton, and Mr. Gaillard, who had employed some of the most skilful physicians in this country, and found no relief from their medicines.” His recipes were printed in magazines and eventually his name would be omitted from conversation. (Charleston County Public Library)



“European Americans borrowed from African medicinal knowledge, then erased the stories of the originators over time. For example, in the 1863 edition of Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, the entry on boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) includes, ‘this plant is extensively employed among the negroes on the plantations in South Carolina as a tonic and diaphoretic on colds and fevers, and in typhoid pneumonia so prevalent among them.’ By the time the Peterson Field Guide was published in 1990, boneset was merely described as a ‘common home remedy of 19th century America, extensively employed by American Indians and early settlers.’ The Black herbalists were erased.” (Farming While Black By Leah Penniman)


Prohibitions Against Black Herbalists


In the mid-18th century, both Virginia and South Carolina made it a capital offense for enslaved people to teach or learn about herbal medicine. In 1748, the colony of Virginia forbade “any negroe, or other slave” to administer “any medicine whatsoever” under pain of death “without benefit of clergy”. An exception was made for slaves treating other slaves or her owner’s family, providing the owner gave permission. In 1792, the law was softened to allow acquittal if, at the slave practitioner’s trial, it was shown that there had been “no ill intent and no bad consequence.” (monticello.org) In the 1920s, State Laws involving midwives would get stricter as a way of locking out black women, similar to the Black voter suppression, Jim Crow laws that we see around the same time period. These laws now required educational training and permission slips from licensed physicians. Their medical bags were inspected, and they required to only carry state-issued health manuals inside of them. Standardization has always been a tactic of segregation. (rootmama.co)








As a sense of freedom, we ran from our humble beginnings of farming, midwivery and share cropping (which I come from on both sides), to the northern cities to separate ourselves as far as possible from what was our grandparents and great-grandparents reality. Not realizing that farming is revolutionary! Building a garden is revolutionary! Remember in the 40s when they were called victory gardens? This was how we were able to obtain freedom of our bodies and our health centuries before.







Respect to Those Who Came Before Us


George Washington Carver Emma Dupree Imhotep



Dr. Sebi (Alfredo Darrington Bowman) Doctor Cesar Dr. Llaila Afrika

Harriet Tubman Francois Mackandal Granny Hayden James Still



Edmond Albius Marie Clark Taylor Booker T. Whatley




And all of those who went unrecognized or unnamed throughout history.



 


Have something else to share, leave it in the comments below!





This blog post is an excerpt from my new book, Herbal Holistic Healing: African Herbalism for Modern Times.