Home » Blog » African American Herbalism: North American Black Herbalism

African American Herbalism: North American Black Herbalism

Half 2

North American Black Herbalism

Many new or modified natural traditions arose inside Black communities in North America. These traditions had been most celebrated, documented, and depended upon within the Southeast, the place slavery was most concentrated. Typical components included a mix of African, European, and Indigenous therapeutic modalities, medicinal herbs, religious practices, and folklore. Voodoo and Santeria are examples of this fusion whose observe is mostly targeted within the Caribbean, Louisiana, and different elements of the Deep South. Santeria is a department of the standard faith of the Yoruba individuals from Nigeria that merged with Catholicism as a method of survival. Thus the customary African gods are addressed beneath the names of Catholic saints. Voodoo is a spiritual observe from the Vodun faith of the Fon and Ewe tribes of Dahomey (now often called Benin) that additionally has some syncretic components of Catholicism.

These traditions use medicinal vegetation in several methods from a lot of latest North American/European-centric herbalism. Some options embody using talismans, mojo baggage, and different gadgets representing energy and magic—usually within the pursuit of therapeutic and safety, or, within the case of dangerous intentions, hexes on enemies. A few of these practices are encompassed by the phrases “hoodoo,” “mojo working,” and “rootwork.”

The trade and fusion of data that occurred within the southeastern United States manifested a specific constitutional system of evaluation that’s nonetheless practiced as we speak, as documented within the guide Southern Folk Medicine by Phyllis D. Gentle. African American and Indigenous traditions additionally influenced one of the well-known historic herbalists of the South, Tommie Bass. Bass was additionally a trainer of Phyllis Gentle’s.1,2 Tommie is understood to have studied as a youth with an aged Black midwife by the identify of Mollie Kirby.

Black girls specifically had been usually accountable for therapeutic and serving to throughout the complete trajectory of life— from start to loss of life—all through the southeastern United States for hundreds of years. The observe of African American midwifery long-outlived slavery till it was outlawed, particularly in lots of elements of the South the place there was a rush to “modernize” birthing practices. Maude Callen is one southern midwife whose life has been documented; others wrote their tales in autobiographical kind.3–6 Black girls continued to maintain white kids as a matter of observe properly into the mid-1900s within the southern US. A resurgence in Black midwifery is underway at the moment. (See blackmidwivesalliance.org)

Among the main native vegetation of North America integrated into the Afro-botanical therapeutic custom embody:

  • Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
  • Cudweed (Gnaphalium)
  • Satan’s strolling stick (Aralia spinosa)
  • Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum)
  • Dogwood (Cornus florida)
  • Jap crimson cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Holly (Ilex )
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
  • Pine (Pinus)
  • Sumac (Rhus)
  • Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • Black cherry (Prunus serotina)
  • Wax myrtle, or bayberry (Myrica cerifera)
  • Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)


Some vegetation launched into North America from Eurasia which have discovered a house in African American therapeutic embody mullein/mullet (Verbascum thapsus), peach (Prunus persica), and pomegranate (Punica granatum). The guide Resources of the Southern Fields and Forest by Francis Porcher provides a big survey of helpful plant data from the South through the Civil Struggle.


Black Herbalists in Literature & Historical past

A few North American Black herbalists have whole books devoted to their perspective, together with Maude E. Scott of Florida and John Lee of North Carolina.7,8 Clearly, in each instances their practices had been influenced by each mainstream natural literatures in addition to Indigenous data handed down by elders. Emma Dupree is one other North Carolina herbalist who has been honored, as seen on this YouTube video.

A variety of different healers are additionally given monographic remedies within the distinctive guide Working the Roots by Michelle E. Lee.9 An incredible quote from that guide is: “My mom didn’t carry us to no physician” by Oscelena Harris, typifying the can-do angle of many Black individuals in rural locales. The guide Black Indian Slave Narratives by Patrick Minges presents a deeply advanced look into the lives of a number of individuals and their connection to slavery and combined ancestry with fascinating tidbits of botanical lore, together with the making of persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) beer.10The African American Slave Narratives documented by the Works Progress Administration is a trove of data about all manners of life within the South from the 1800s to the early 1900s that may be present in print and on-line.

The Gullah/Geechee group of the Sea Islands off the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia represents a particular group that was remoted from mainstream society into the mid-1900s. At the very least 76 species of vegetation have been documented for medicinal use from this space.11,12 Fairly a couple of different vegetation which are recognized to be medicinal in West Africa are additionally discovered on this eco-type and will thereby be theorized to have a conventional use as properly.13 The Gullah/Geechee at the moment are greatest recognized for his or her world-famous baskets that mirror solely a fraction of their practices and world views associated to herbalism and spirituality derived from African roots. The group hosts the Gullah Geechee Herbal Gathering, which is a one-day convention for Black and Indigenous individuals and other people of Gullah Geechee heritage. This annual convention is geared in direction of exploring the historic and cultural makes use of of herbs and plant medication within the Gullah/Geechee Nation and throughout the diaspora.

George Washington Carver is likely one of the most well-known Black scientists of all instances. He labored with all kinds of vegetation in addition to fungi, however might be greatest recognized for arising with a large number of purposes for the peanut. Many books have been written about his life.14–16 Much less recognized is his connection to a Black herbalist and midwife named Mariah Watkins. In Asheville, NC, the place I largely reside, one of many first public food forests of the trendy age was established round 20 years in the past and is called in Carver’s honor.

A basket of persimmons in front of a sign reading Dr. George Washington Carver Edible Park

Harriet Tubman is most well-known as somebody who helped liberate enslaved peoples. Nonetheless, she was additionally a naturalist who was very educated in regards to the vegetation round her. She employed herbalism to assist the parents in her cost. Activist and farmer Leah Penniman writes about this and extra of the African American natural custom in her guide, Farming While Black.17

A mural of Harriet Tubman in place at the Burton Street Garden in Asheville, North Carolina

A mural of Harriet Tubman in place on the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina

Madam C.J. Walker is likely one of the first self-made Black millionaires, and the primary self-made feminine millionaire (of any race) in america. She was accountable for a line of herb-based well being and sweetness merchandise. Her life has now been made into a visible collection for tv along with being the topic of quite a lot of books.18–20

The good migration occurred when hundreds of thousands of Black people left the violence and segregation of the Jim Crow South.21 These migrants usually took up residence in large cities or manufacturing areas within the north or traveled out west. California, specifically, served because the incubator for a doubly diasporic Black natural custom.

One individual of necessary historic significance is Onesimus who was born in Africa however was enslaved and transported to Boston, MA. There he taught Cotton Mather the surgical strategy of smallpox inoculation, which was recognized in different elements of the world however not then practiced in North America. His story is a tragic case examine within the exploitation of Black data that goes again centuries.

One other instance of uncredited mental property was how Black individuals taught people like Jack Daniels distill, and the importation from Africa to the Americas of the process often called the “cesarean part.”

Use of Doubtlessly Toxic or Uncommon Crops and Non-Crops

Throughout the African pharmacopeia and the diaspora, a lot point out is product of utilizing probably poisonous vegetation. Some key examples embody bitter melon/cerassee/sorosi (Momordica charantia), castor bean (Ricinus communis), dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Mexican tea (Dysphania ambrosioides), poke (Phytolacca americana), crimson sage (Lantana camara), and rosary pea (Abrus precatorius). Within the case of cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), enslaved girls generally took company to keep away from undesirable pregnancies, which was usually the results of  sexual assault by enslavers, through the use of this plant.22

Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) and Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius)

Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) and Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius)

Using probably uncommon or endangered vegetation is a part of the Afrobotany custom. Some examples embody varied orchids, pitcher vegetation (Sarracenia minor), and Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria).

Alcohol manufacturing is one thing with a legacy of observe within the African American group as with many different teams from world wide. Some examples of vegetation used to make alcohol embody cherries (Prunus spp.), elderberries (Sambucus spp.), grapes (Vitis spp.), and persimmons (Diospyros spp.). Alcohol can, after all, be useful or dangerous relying on the context.

Non-Consensual Contributions of African Individuals to Advances in Medication

Since not less than the 18th century, Black individuals have been topic to “harmful, involuntary, and nontherapeutic” medical experimentation by the hands of white medical doctors and medical faculties.23 They’ve been used, each forcefully and deceptively, because the testing brokers for novel medicines, medical trials, surgical methods, and contraceptive explorations, together with the terrifying “Mississippi appendectomy” carried out on younger Black kids perceived as girls and ladies. Their lifeless have additionally been dishonored as Black our bodies of enslaved peoples and sharecroppers have traditionally been stolen for anatomical dissection and examine.12

European therapeutic traditions employed on slave-holding plantations usually relied on poisonous elemental substances like antimony, arsenic, lead, and tin.24 Unethical experimentation on Black topics with these poisons was half and parcel of slavery-era medical trials. Physicians like John Quier and James Thomson used smallpox inoculation and inoculation by the illness often called yaws (an infectious bacterial an infection of the pores and skin) in unethical methods as properly.24

Sadly, unethical practices of the standard medical group in North America have continued into fashionable instances. Notorious instances recognized worldwide embody the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment carried out on Black males beginning within the Nineteen Thirties and the case of Miss Henrietta Lacks and the unauthorized use of her cervical cells for medical analysis.25 In the course of the Tuskegee experiment, Black males had been left to undergo from syphilis (and deceived by the experimentors, who didn’t inform them their prognosis) even after efficient remedy had been developed. (The examine was carried out from 1932 to 1972.)

The pursuit of the misguided “science” of eugenics within the early 1900s is one other instance of the horrific historical past of African American “healthcare.” Barbaric practices geared toward “enhancing” the genetic high quality of the inhabitants by controlling African American copy, together with people thought of “inferior,” was practiced for many years. Compelled hysterectomies and unethical radiation experiments—particularly in an incarceration context—are a despicable legacy of the jail industrial advanced specifically. Many accounts of those horrendous historic experiments and operations had been discounted or stored secret to guard the reputations of influential white physicians and establishments. Because of this, there was little to no accountability, repercussions, or reparations for the medical traumas inflicted on Black individuals.

Understandably, there’s additionally a long-lasting legacy of generational trauma inside Black communities round healthcare. Black persons are generally stereotyped for being immune to fashionable medication with out acknowledging their traumatic historic experiences. That is all of the extra necessary within the face of the present COVID-19 pandemic and no matter future challenges lay forward.

What’s extra, Black people proceed to undergo by the hands of healthcare: Black toddler mortality charges and loss of life charges from most cancers are disproportionately excessive.26,27 Black Individuals even have much less well being care protection than white Individuals and fewer entry to high-quality well being care suppliers, which ends up in much less testing, life-saving diagnoses, and applicable and well timed remedy.


Black Lives Matter

In as of late of demonstrations, it bears mentioning the intersectionality between Black and brown lives and the potential for damage whereas protesting. Sevensong is certainly one of my nice influences relating to emergency response care from an natural perspective. The Orlando Grief Care Project is one other good instance of oldsters working on this area. This text within the LA Instances may be very illuminating: “Why are so many turning to Black herbalists? Their remedies are tailor-made for 2020.”

Some people talked about embody: Abi Huff Ancestral Apothecary, Jamesa Hawthorne Jaw Ham Herbals, Karen Rose Sacred Vibes Apothecary, LA Herbalists Collective, Regina Pritchett In Her it Blooms, Sade Musa Roots of Resistance, and Adaku Utah of Harriet’s Apothecary.



Clearly the trail of African American herbalism has been a protracted and winding route. It began with the mixture of a various array of cultures from the African continent and meanders by the tragedy of slavery. As soon as located on new land, African Individuals wanted to adapt their data to the vegetation at hand, generally with the assistance of native  Indigenous teams. Many of those wealthy traditions have fallen away within the transfer towards urbanization during the last century. That stated, herbalists persist all through the Americas, and a brand new wave of curiosity is beginning to take maintain. Within the third a part of this weblog collection I’ll supply many extra assets for additional exploration about this fascinating topic. My best intention with this work is to each spotlight the contributions of African Individuals from the previous, and to encourage and inform the parents that may profit from this information within the current, and sooner or later.



  1. Crellin JK, Philpott J. 1997. Attempting to Give Ease: Tommie Bass and the Story of Natural Medication. Duke College Press; 1997.
  2. Patton D. Mountain Medication: The Natural Cures of Tommie Bass. 1st ed. Pure Reader Press, LLC; 2004.
  3. Smith MC. Take heed to Me Good: The Story of an Alabama Midwife. Ohio State College Press; 1996.
  4. Logan OL, Clark Ok. Motherwit: An Alabama Midwife’s Story. Untreed Reads Publishing, LLC; 2014.
  5. Smith CC, Roberson MHB. My Bag Was All the time Packed: The Life and Instances of a Virginia Midwife. AuthorHouse; 2003.
  6. Bovard W, Milton G. Why Not Me?: The Story of Gladys Milton, Midwife. E book Publishing Firm; 1993.
  7. Scott ME. Leaves of Inexperienced: A Handbook of Natural Cures. Leaves of Inexperienced Inc.; 1996.
  8. Payne-Jackson A, Lee J. Folks Knowledge and Mom Wit: John LeeAn African American Natural Healer. Greenwood Press; 1993.
  9. Lee ME, Allen-Taylor JD. Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Conventional African American Therapeutic. Wadastick; 2014.
  10. Minges P, ed. Black Indian Slave Narratives. John F. Blair Publishers; 2004.
  11. Morton JF. Folks Cures of the Low Nation. 1st ed. Bangor-Brewer YWCA; 1974.
  12. Mitchell F. Hoodoo Medication: Gullah Natural Cures. Rev. Summerhouse Press; 2011.
  13. Ayensu ES. Medicinal Crops of West Africa. Reference Publications; 1978.
  14. Kremer GR, ed. George Washington Carver: In His Personal Phrases. College of Missouri; 1991.
  15. Vella C. George Washington Carver: A Life. Louisiana State College Press; 2015.
  16. Clark G. The Man Who Talks with the Flowers: The Intimate Life Story of Dr. George Washington Carver. Martino Positive Books; 2011.
  17. Penniman L, Washington Ok. Farming Whereas Black: Soul Hearth Farm’s Sensible Information to Liberation on the Land. Chelsea Inexperienced Publishing; 2018.
  18. Bundles A. Self Made: Impressed by the Lifetime of Madam C.J. Walker. Scribner; 2020.
  19. Oluonye MN. Madam C.J. Walker: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Millionaire. CreateSpace Unbiased Publishing Platform; 2014.
  20. Ball EL. Madam C.J. Walker: The Making of an American Icon. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 2019.
  21. Wilkerson I. The Heat of Different Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Nice Migration. Reprint. Classic; 2011.
  22. Culpepper Ok. Cotton Root Bark as Natural Resistance. J Am Herbalists Guild. 2017;15(2):45-52.
  23. Washington HA. Medical Apartheid: The Darkish Historical past of Medical Experimentation on Black Individuals from Colonial Instances to the Current. Anchor; 2008.
  24. Schiebinger L. Secret Cures of Slaves: Individuals, Crops, and Medication within the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. 1st version. Stanford College Press; 2017.
  25. Skloot R. The Immortal Lifetime of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books; 2011.
  26. Hearst M., et al. “The Impact of Racial Residential Segregation on Black Toddler Mortality.” American Journal of Epidemiology 168, no. 11 (December 2008): 1247–54.
  27. American Most cancers Society. Most cancers Details and Figures for African Individuals, 2018.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *