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A variety of herbs and spices are laid out on a wooden surface, including long pepper, cloves, cinnamon, fresh turmeric, and more.

The Power of African American Herbalism

The Power of African American Herbalism:

A Blog Series at The Chestnut School of Medicine

A variety of herbs and spices are laid out on a wooden surface, including long pepper, cloves, cinnamon, fresh turmeric, and more.

Herbs and spices used in Africa include long pepper, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, coix (a.k.a “Job’s tears”), and more!

Plantiva’s formulas draw heavily from Asian herbalism, but we’re always excited to learn about other herbal traditions! People on every continent have always made good use of the plants around them – for food, textiles, medicine, and more.

We recently came across a fascinating blog series written by ethnobiologist Marc Williams and posted over at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, which you can read at this link - African American Herbalism: A Blog Series. We always knew that people in Africa have a deep knowledge of the plants that grow there, but this blog series opened our eyes to the relevance and importance that African botanical knowledge continued to have after enslaved peoples were forcibly relocated to the Americas.

Wooden blocks form the shape of the continent of Africa, against a corrugated black background.

It all started in Africa.

The blog series begins with the roots of African American herbalism in the home continent of Africa, a place teeming with biological and cultural diversity. From Madagascar (an island with many plants unique or “endemic” to the island) to Ethiopia (home of coffee and frankincense) and more, Marc touches on the incredible resources available to African peoples. It seems every region of Africa must have its own herbal traditions meriting a lifetime of study!

After summarizing some of the most noteworthy food and medicine plants originating in Africa and some of the continent’s spiritual and healing traditions, Marc next discusses African botanical knowledge in the context of the Americas. European settlers were often dependent on Africans for their agricultural and medical expertise. Healers like Graman Quassi who practiced in Dutch Guiana/Suriname – first as an enslaved person and later as a freedman – continue to be remembered and celebrated to this day.

Glass jars stand on a black shelf, including one containing Quassia.

The plant and medicine called Quassia is named in honor of Graman Quassi.

 

The blog series then turns its focus to North American Black herbalism, especially in the Southeast where spiritual and medicinal practices from African, European, and Indigenous peoples were fused. Out of this grew a new system of medical assessment and treatment that is still practiced today, especially in Appalachia and the South.

 

Marc then delves into the crucial roles played by Black women and men in fields from medicine and midwifery to agriculture, cosmetics, and the culinary arts, highlighting the contributions of people both famous (such as Harriet Tubman - who knew she was an herbalist?!) and those less well known (such as Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire of any race in the U.S.). He rightly calls attention to numerous examples where not only Black bodies but also Black knowledge have been shamefully exploited throughout the centuries.

A Black woman wearing a long, 19th century dress stands in a room with furniture from the 1800’s.
Many Black women throughout history have served as healers,
including Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame. (Harriet Tubman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The blog closes with a lengthy section of resources for further learning, including a list of books that look absolutely fascinating.

We can’t possibly do this blog series justice in a short summary, so we encourage you to head over to the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine and read the whole thing for yourself! It has three parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) so be sure not to miss any of them.

Also, go check out Marc Williams’ website, https://www.botanyeveryday.com/, where he teaches about plants!

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Plantiva is not associated with the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, Botanyeveryday.com or Marc Williams. We just admire their work!

If you find our content useful we’d appreciate your sharing it on your social media feeds. We’re a small family company with limited advertising dollars, so every bit of extra exposure helps! Also, if you have questions or comments, please post them below and we’ll respond as quickly as we can!

GLOSSARY

Endemic: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/endemic-species

Quassia: https://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/q/quassi01.html

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