As the state increasingly regulates our health, Black women are finding freedom in herbal medicine
Natural health cures are too often put off as superstitious, unsanitary and ineffective
Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
By Meagan Jordan
With the roaring debates regarding vaccinations and the recent abortion laws passed in both Georgia and Alabama restricting the rights of people with uteruses to choose whether or not they want to give birth, America’s healthcare system is under scrutiny. Whether one agrees or disagrees with either side of these issues, it is fair to say that many Americans feel that their health autonomy is being regulated and restricted.
At the same time, there has been a surge of Black people, especially Black women, finding ways to free themselves by returning and teaching the knowledge of traditional herbs, which have been a vital part of our health for centuries.
As movements that center Black lives increase, many have yearned to go back to the original traditions of their culture. For some Black people, that path traces back to plant-based healing, a tool that was used during civil rights, on the plantation and in Africa well before many of our ancestors were forcibly brought over to this country.
This past January, at four months pregnant, I participated in an online class called “Grandma’s Hands: Pregnancy/Postpartum Herbs and Nutrition in the Southern Tradition,” ran by Devin Bailey Nicholas (who goes by the name Divine Izearth on social media). The online class mimics another class that she travels around the United States teaching.
“I grew up with my mom using over the counter medicine and remedies like chamomile tea,” Nicholas told me in an interview. “So we will have chamomile tea when we got sick and then my mom would take a spoonful of Vick’s and put that into the chamomile tea.”
Nicholas was born and raised in the city of Chicago, and her ancestors came from the Mississippi Delta.
“My mission is traditional Southern healing in the Black perspective because we have a healing tradition,” Nicholas explained.
When she began her journey with herbs in 2002, it wasn’t as widespread and discussed as it is today. “It was a niche group of people that was into natural herbs in general,” Nicholas recalled. “So, when the herb stores and health food stores started opening they weren’t huge.”
But despite the number of Black people learning about herbs and their healing properties, Nicholas says too many are still unaware of the Black historical customs, rituals and traditions involving herbs.
“We have to know and understand that there’s African traditional medicine and when there became a diaspora because of the slave trade, medicinal modalities of using herbs to heal also came with us,” Nicholas argued. “We adapted to the land that we came to, whether that was America, Jamaica or Puerto Rico, we have our healing modalities.”
When taking Nicholas’ course—a class filled with pregnant women and aspiring and practicing doulas and midwives—I learned about herbs and plants like red raspberry leaf, which helps with a mother’s breast milk production; calendula, a herb used to heal bruises; and cotton root, a known remedy that allows mother to induce their birth naturally. Historically, Black midwives and healers used these remedies to heal, but as much as they knew how to bring and sustain life in the world, they also knew how to take it away.
“Women have been having abortions safely with herbs and plants since the beginning of time,” wrote Monique Ruffin a spiritual mentor, leader and astrologer, on Instagram. “You don’t need permission from white men to do what you desire with your womb.”
On the post, Ruffin, who has a 12 year-old son, shared her experience with how she used oil from neem—an herb that has been said to be used for birth control and abortions—a few years ago to successfully terminate her pregnancy.
“Any information we have about our bodies comes generally from the western medical industrial system,” Ruffin lamented.
From Ruffin’s observation, instead of people understanding their bodies, they rely solely upon a white supremacist healthcare system that breaks their pockets and often doesn’t include the needs of those who are marginalized. Most times, natural ways of curing one’s health are put off as taboo, superstitious, unsanitary and ineffective, common rhetoric that made it illegal for Black midwives to service their communities, especially in the 1900s.
“As much as I do think we are beginning to start learning more and asking questions, it’s a new thing,” Ruffin told me. “It’s easier to do the fast thing than the natural thing that might take a little longer. Take the menstrual cup. It’s so much better for our bodies, it’s much more cost effective and still many women are just like ‘ew, that’s messy,’ and I understand that. But, there’s a trade off. You can’t always have the convenience for the thing that’s best for you. We are addicted to convenience.”
Since Black people first became enveloped into the anti-Black culture of America, we have been prevented from visiting hospitals and unjustly used as experiments, which is what happened with the Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Because of these incidents, many Black Americans are legitimately skeptical about medical procedures and doctors’ guidance. How can an institution that has excluded, prevented and exposed a group of people give the best advice on our health and needs for survival? According to Nicholas, the key is keeping our customs alive and knowing our bodies.
Like a mother, herbs—which come from the Earth—have the ability to create or destroy life. So it’s important to research their properties and proper dosages before attempting complex procedures like abortions. But this is the power and wisdom Black women are returning to. Going forward, as tighter restrictions on health care continue to play out in America, Black people will continue to do what we’ve always have—find creative ways to meet our needs.
Meagan Jordan is a culture writer based in the tri-state area. She focuses on issues surrounding race, identitiy, sexuality and religion and pays attention to how these themes formulate the thread of culture. She is a proud alumna of North Carolina A&T State University and received her Masters at Columbia Journalism School