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In some parts of the world, traditional herbal remedies are the norm. When we think of natural remedies we tend to think of older generations living in remote areas, in far away countries, with little access to modern healthcare. We rarely think about the ancient medicinal plants that might exist in our very own cities. On today’s episode we look at plant and herb medicines through the lens of Michele Elizabeth Lee the author of Working The Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African-American Healing.
Featuring: Music Credits:
MAKING CONTACT PRODUCER, host intro read by Monica Lopez:
In some parts of the world, traditional herbal remedies are the norm. When we think of natural remedies we tend to think of older generations living in remote areas, in far away countries, with little access to modern healthcare. We rarely think about the ancient medicinal plants that might exist in our very own cities. Making Contact’s Anita Johnson has more. 22 sec
Anita Track 1: Nestled in the Skyline Hills of Oakland, California residents have a volcano in their backyard at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. 8 SEC
Michele Cut 1 – 34 sec
It’s an old volcano, really, really old, ten million years old, they say, and the entire park is structured around the energy of this volcano as it exists today. There are certain trails which are just old lava rock trails, lots of medicine plants have evolved here, and that’s what we’re on the hunt for today. I haven’t been here in a while, so we’re just going to go looking to see what we can find. So let’s go this way.
Anita Track 2: 20 secs
Michele Elizabeth Lee, a practitioner of traditional plant medicine and a native of Oakland, California, was raised in a family of traditional healers from Mississippi and Louisiana.
On this day, I joined her for a walk at Sibley to look for medicinal plants and herbs that grow wildly in the preserve.
Michele Cut 2:1:22 sec
Now we’re going to go down this trail a little bit and then we’re going to go up because I know we were talking about Thistle last time and we’re looking for and there was a lot that was dried up. So this is a thistle right here and that is related to like the milk thistle which we talked about, which is really good for your liver and your kidney. And thistle in general is a blood cleanser and a mental stimulant. You can actually even eat it if this is an edible plant, if you can pick off all of the spines because you see there’s a lot of spines here and you would just take your knife and in and try to pick them off, either on the stem here or on this part here and eat them would be a lot of work to do. But if you’re really hungry and out in the woods and need to eat, you can’t eat that good morning. And then in terms of cooking it, I would just chop up the leaves and all of it and put it in a bit. The balls, the leaves everything and put it in some cheesecloth. So the spines and all of the other stuff don’t get out and soak it in hot water or lukewarm water for half a day and let the medicine come out and drink it. So, you know you might want to use a tablespoon. I kind of guesstimate anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon and whatever I’m doing, I try to intuit a lot.
Anita Track 3: – 12 sec
Michele is also the author of ‘Working The Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African-American Healing’, a collection of natural medicine and health practices that emerged out of the necessity to survive.
Michele Cut 3 – 00:54 sec
There’s a bunch of pine cones in there, which is also good medicine. You know that you would use with the pine tar, the pine sap from the tree and the leaves, and you’d want it, not want it to be as dry as that. But if it was, I’d still use it when I’m making a big brew of pine to deal with cold cough and congestion or as immune booster because there’s tons of vitamin C and pine. I would take that pine cone, put it in a pot with a bunch of pine needles to cover the bottom with slicing off a piece of tree bark or wood that has some pine tar sap on it, putting it in there, throwing some water on top, putting some lemon in there, boiling it, steeping it down and then topping it off with some peppermint. You know that peppermint candy? I wouldn’t use that today. That’s what those folks use. I would actually use peppermint and put some honey in it.
Anita Track 4: – 25 sec
The described remedies are derived from African, Native American and European cultural practices. Many natural healing traditions emerged during the period of colonization and slavery in the United States. Experts like Michele Elizabeth Lee are bringing life to these home remedies that were once paramount for survival.
Ambience: 10 sec
Anita Track 5: 14sec
I met up with Michele at Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland, California to learn more about plant medicine and what inspired her to preserve this history of traditional African-American healing in North America.
Michele Cut 4 – 1:26 sec
It’s a tradition that I grew up with that I just thought everybody else grew up with, and it wasn’t until I got older that I realized it was really something special. And so that’s why also I wanted to let and and people would look at black folk medicine or who do medicine as something like old wives tale. And I knew that these remedies and the knowledge went so far deep into a medicinal practice that I wanted people to know. No, this is these aren’t old wives tale. These are tried and true proven remedies that work and that people knew how they worked and why they worked. And so there’s that knowledge that’s there. That’s one other one was I wanted to I felt like as black folks, African-Americans, indigenous African descent and Americans. We’re often not given the credit for the amount of expertise and knowledge that we have and that we brought here in order to survive. And then I felt like my ancestors were telling me to do this, to document the tradition before more of the old folks die off who carry the knowledge.
Anita Track 6: 20 sec
Inspired to preserve and pass down the knowledge of her ancestors, Michele delved into a six-year project. From 1996 to 2002, she spoke with herbalists, healers and community elders mainly from the southern region of the United States to hear first-hand accounts of how people used plant medicine for healing.
Michele Cut 5 – 4:32
Hattie Hazel Pagues-Clark, who is from Scotland County and Laurel Hill, North Carolina? And one of the things that and and she was here about the same age. I’m sixty two now, so back then and her son, Junior and my son were good friends when we lived down in North Carolina. And one of the things that she told me and she she used these types of medicines is traditional medicines all her life. You know, most of the black folks down there, a lot of them have the intersection of the African and the indigenous. And she said that during the times when her children were teething, her grandmother would go and find a wasp nest that was empty and she would get it so that they can tea on the wasp nest, which was also would be like an anesthetic for their gums and also give them something to knock on. So I thought that was that was pretty amazing. Where are you going to find a wasp nest, right? And she says, Let me read some from the book. I was raised in the country way in the country, John Station area and Lawrenceburg, North Carolina. I was naturally born right here on Snead Grove Road. Little house still standing up. Bless its heart. You see that chimney part right there. And we actually went out into the field to see that little house, which was covered in vines. My father was born and raised in South Carolina, right near McCall. His mother was Indian and his father’s mother was Indian. And my mom’s side, my grandmother was Indian to a Cherokee. Her name, I’ll get this was Califia White. Like Queen Khalifi, I was like, wow, how from way back men and their knowledge, their connection to who we are much more is probably deeper than we realize. She was a pretty brown skinned woman. She had straight hair reddish. I loved her hair. She taught me a lot. My grandmother taught me my momma how to use the medicines, and they both taught me, taught me rabbits. Tobacco is the best medicine. I make tea from rabbits tobacco every year, starting in October. So there we go with the preventative, you know, remedies, treatment so that you don’t have to go like, Oh, she’s really sick. And now I’ve got to, you know, get her to be on sick. If you’re taking care of yourself and doing the preventative all year long, the cleansing, seasonal and all of that, then you don’t have to get the heavy duty medicine and get sick. Talk about the rabbit. See, what is that? Yeah, she do the rabbits, tobacco rabbits. Have you heard her rabbits, tobacco? So rabbits? Tobacco is also known as Cat’s Foot, Everlasting Life, Everlasting Poverty, Weed, Sweet Balsam and a number of different folk names. It is good, good for colds, congestion and flu. The health benefits of medicinal properties are anti-inflammatory A. Spasmodic antiviral diuretic. It’s a expectorant and also can be a mild sedative so that the expectorant deals with congestion and flu. Rabbit tobacco was a popular medicine and a tobacco substitute used by children in rural areas because of its mild sedative effects. So I guess they were getting a little high. Rabbit Tobacco Medicine was smoked for respiratory ailments, which I have smoked it before. Put it into it. Thank you. Now I’m remembering in a pipe. You know, and you would think that if you have respiratory ailments or if you’re coughing, you wouldn’t. But they did put it into a pipe and you would smoke it. And it would help to relieve sinusitis and head colds and congestion in hot teas it would use to treat viral infections, sore throats, fevers, diarrhea, colds, congestion, flu, pneumonia, asthma and coughs. Rabbit tobacco may also have diuretic and anti spasmodic properties. It’s an herb that is often used with other healing herbs in preparation to treat other ailments.
Anita: How did you come in contact with these people?
Michele: where it was, were by word of mouth, you know, some I started off with my family and then I. Then they would tell me someone else and then they would tell me someone else and they would tell me someone. That’s really how it went by word of mouth. Simple as that, whether wherever I was living at that time.
Anita: Well, why was it important for you to include the stories of these people in the telling of traditional, you know, healing medicine?
Michele: Well, because let me just read this part in each section that I interviewed. I talk about the people’s lives, but also there’s a whole section on ailments and remedies like, for example, Mrs. Wood says, and this is why it’s important. When I was growing up, I never heard nobody have no high sugar or high blood pressure. None of that in those dates. Several people told me that. People made their own remedies and healed themselves, because in those days they didn’t see no doctors and they weren’t able to, they didn’t have the money, the doctors would come if you had the money and and sand for them, but it depended on how far they were from you because they drove a horse and didn’t have no cars. So it was important for me to have their words authentically because in the academic world, too often it’s misinterpreted, or then it’s regurgitated from the point of view of the academic. And I wanted to steer clear of that because it was them. It’s not me, it’s not about me, it’s about them and their wisdom. And that’s why these and all of the stories connect the ailments and remedies by themselves are not fully understood unless you knew who she was, where she came from and who she knew that her ancestors were. She knew her grandparents or great grandparents, you know, and Mrs Ola B Hunter-Woods and each section I put down when the person was born and when they died. So she was born October 2nd nineteen oh five.
Anita Track 7: 20 secs
It’s stories like Ola B. Hunter-Woods and Hattie Pegues-Clark and the use of Rabbits Tobacco, that reflect a traditional knowledge of a people and their connection to the land. A cultural consciousness that helped folks thrive despite the moral depravity of colonization and slavery.
Brandi Mack Cut 1 – 22sec
Early on when we were stripped of everything and came here.
Anita Track 8
Brandi Mack, she’s a holistic health educator and permaculture designer. 3 sec
Brandi Mack Cut 2:
We have to leave some of our things like our shade, nuts and, you know, but we were smart, put certain seeds in our hair and bring them into cornrows and brought the plants over and planted them right. Sometimes Martha will leave you somewhere for days that they found who owned you. So we would get over here and still plant out the medicine that we needed to center on dandelions and things that need to happen, right?
Anita Track 9:
It was this deep knowledge about herbal medicine combined with the need to survive, that allowed traditional African-American and Indigenous healing practices to flourish. We can see examples of this impressive medicinal plant expertise in the life stories of people like Hattie Pegues-Clark, or George Washington Carver. 27 sec
Brandi Mack – 54 sec
If one should want to get an example of early botany and medicine folks. George Washington Carver was so smooth and smart and I’ll say but also frail because part of what allowed George Washington Carver to stay and become the botanist that he was was that he was able to go out to talk to the trees, and he would come back and be able to fix a teacher for Massa. And he would feel good, and they said, Wait a minute, wait a minute, you making this stuff? It is making us better when you go out and talk to these plants and trees and things. So we’ll give you a little cabin to make up those concoctions. So it was more than peanut butter. I have to remind folks, because this is the one thing again the society will ever see as soon as we hear George Crumb. Oh, that was peanut butter. That was like one of the last things that George Washington Carver elevated and brought to this country around holistic medicine.
Anita 10: 10 sec
It’s this overlooked history that many healers and holistic educators like Brandi Mack and Michele Elizabeth Lee are working to hold onto in the face of adversity and modernization.
Michele: 2:02 MINUTES
Well, when people migrated up from the south to the north, you know, a lot of them wanted to. They felt they were too countrified and didn’t really understand the value of being countrified or having all of this land instead of moving up into it, you know, an apartment or a tenement and a little lot in the north. And and then just leaving a lot of folks, you know, said that they didn’t the people I interviewed, but that their children or people they knew would go up north and leave the countrified medicine. You know, so maybe it skipped a generation or two before we came, you know, back to it. And then throughout gentrification in all across the country, that is actually just destroying the habitat where a lot of the herbs used to be as when we went out, I would go to different spots and now I was looking, where to take you? I was like, OK, well, a year ago, there used to be a field of conferee and Mullen and these other herbs here. Now there’s two buildings that are here. People are looking at some of the plants and and as weeds, you know, and what’s the word I’m looking for invasive, you know, and that they don’t want him there and they’re they’re replacing them with more drought resistant. Can I quote unquote, because of the weeds are there through the drought, then they’re also drought resistant and they’re medicine, you know? But these other plants that are more decorative that really aren’t doing anything except making the landscape look decorative and could possibly be damaging the soil, particularly if they put the wood chips down, which are most of them have die in them. So that is really good. It’s it’s it’s damaging our access or our ability to go out and get these medicines that used to be out there.
Anita 11: Michele is acknowledging not only the extreme environmental devastation that comes with industrialization, but also the total loss of ancestral ways. 8 secs
you know, we don’t have our sense of community and self, and we never had sovereignty within this country. But at least to be able to contain who we are. And that’s, I like to say, the comfort and confidentiality of the black community. And since that, that’s been pretty much decimated and absolved and we are absorbed into the dominant culture now, then we’re kind of like going along that way in our ancestral ways or lost. It’s not being passed down, and so everyone’s being pushed in going towards corporate medicine to heal themselves. I mean, if we don’t control our destiny, if we don’t control our communities and our environment, if we don’t control the knowledge of our history and and we’re not taking command of it, then we’re it’s difficult for us to do this because we don’t know who we are and where we came from, you know, and what we did in order to survive. So it’s difficult. It’s challenging.
Anita 12: Michele believes that environments that lack open spaces and fresh, affordable food options can induce illness, cause psychic trauma and intentionally produce unhealthy communities. By acknowledging our ancestors’ connection to nature, she sees a pathway that will allow people to move toward a healthier way of life.
Michele: The environment we live in now creates a lot of mental health. We are not born into this world with high blood pressure, the environmental conditions and the diets we have and other things in our movement, our meant are the the the the mental stuff that we have to deal with on a regular basis, whether it’s directly or indirectly an indirect trauma, as with George Floyd or, you know, any any of the other ones who’ve been been murdered or there’s been really no justice that affects all of us, you know, and which affects our bodies. So and then and then also. Our diets, you know, all health comes from our diet. The diet is a healthy diet, is not necessarily promoted anymore. In our communities, we have a lot of food deserts, you know, like where I live in East Oakland, there’s really no good place to get healthy foods out there. And a lot of people, if you don’t have transportation or if you don’t have, you know, a lot of money, you’re going to resort towards a corner store and other places where you know you get fast foods. So it’s in and we don’t even know that we come from this because we’re not in control of who we are and our communities. We think we are. But if you’re connected to the phone and the social media and what’s on the TV and even the music, you know, we’re not connected anymore.
Anita 13: That’s Michele ELizabeth Lee, author of “ “Working The Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African-American Healing”
Anita 14: You’re listening to A History of Traditional Root Healing on Making Contact. To stay up to date with our shows and get more information about the people profiled in this episode, visit us at radioproject.org. Now back to the show.
FADE OUT MUSIC –
Ambience and talking about another plant…35 sec
I have some tobacco here, and whenever I’ve come into the forest, you know, I know that there are particularly special energies here in the forest and I like to offer something back always like as a prayer. So I offer the tobacco and a little bit of water if I, especially if I’m going to take anything out.
Anita 15: That’s Estrella Davina. She is a mentee and friend of Michele who joined us for our walk through the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve. With this offering of water to the land both Estrella and Michele exhibit an Indigenous practice of respect of the land and reciprocity. Michele Elizabeth Lee.
That’s right. Yeah, a lot of times I’ll just say, ase. You know, which is us, which is African, our whole, which is native. So, you know, particularly when we take something that we’re not supposed to take, that karmic energy comes back and the same like Sister Soraya was saying in the forest. A lot of times when I go out to gather stuff from up north or here, I’m usually by myself and I’ll sing my own songs. You know, there’s really only one song that I remember that I learned in North Carolina, but it’s so powerful, and I’m going to sing it to you right here. And it’s very short as I walk through the forest and I’ll talk to my ancestors or talk to, you know, other ancestors of friends that I know and I say, tiny what g ho tani. What your whole one tongue could tie. One tongue could tie Tani what she ho tiny. What G ho one tone could tie. One tone could tie. That means great spirit energies of the universe. I’m here. I am grateful and thankful for you. I’m walking in the way that I hope honors you and an imbalance of you. So acknowledging all of the spirits and the energy, uh, for good. And I usually carry a stick. This is what my grandmother, my Mississippi grandmother, told us. You know, taking a stick, and it’s also in the book, as had been confirmed by sister Imani Ajanaku, who had the Botanica way back on the day and foothill in high in Oakland, or 47. You take fine a stick and you hit it on the ground three times and you call your ancestor. Now my great my grandmother taught us that long time ago when I was a young girl, particularly if we were in trouble. Now, if you get in trouble, call Mama and Monia, call Aunt P Zoot. Hit it three times in the ground. So usually I look for a stick while I’m walking. I’ll sing my song. I’ll just talk to the ancestors and I hit my stick.
These traditions demonstrate a core principle of reciprocity – an understanding that the earth does not belong to us, but rather we belong to the Earth. This awareness that we are all interconnected was instilled in Michele at a young age by her elders. Now, it is her responsibility and passion to pass this knowledge on to the next generation.
Yes, it is has evolved to be a good part of my work, I enjoy speaking about traditional African-American healing practices. I enjoy talking about the history of our people in this country, much of it which is not told a lot of schools don’t teach history anymore. So I interweave them together in part history, as well as that knowledge base to keep it going and to hopefully spark an interest in the youth and the people I’m talking to to continue this tradition and to explore more, and also, most most importantly, so that they can take their own health in their hands. I also like giving information the historical and medicinal knowledge information because I want people to know and particularly the youth to know that we come from a tradition of resiliency of scientific and medical knowledge, being able to be Jedi and pivot in our situations, no matter what they have been and are today and continue to thrive. And I really love starting off my talks and conversations with, did you know it was an enslaved African who taught the process of inoculation against smallpox that led to a vaccine that was the first instance of inoculation slash vaccine in this country and colonial America, let me say, and it was brought here by an enslaved African named Oni Simosx who showed the person who was enslaving his master because so many people were dying of smallpox and they had no cure for it. And a lot of enslaved Africans were not because they brought their tradition from Africa. So our knowledge base, our resiliency, our ability to persevere and to make a new and survive is astounding. And oftentimes, historically, we don’t hear that whether we’re getting the kind of manufactured educational version of history of this country and or from somewhere else. It always just deals with a lot of times our history here being enslaved and coming out of slavery. Well, when we came here, we brought our knowledge and our abilities and our perseverance to not only moved the whole country forward, but also to survive and thrive and to make it a much better place for everybody. And so I also want to plant those seeds in their traditional healing practices as a community practice honoring our ancestors. Mentoring also, I know that mentoring is not just stop with the person I may be working at at that time because a lot of them are working in the community and giving the information in the community. And if I can help them to be better and to grow in the way that they need to grow, then that’s what it’s about. But also it’s a two way street.
Anita: Michelle Elizabeth Lee is committed to preserving traditional African-American healing practices and knowledge – similar to that of well-known holistic health practitioner Queen Afua and educator Luisah Teish, Ph.D … all in line with traditional African and Indigenous healing and the maintenance of one’s mental and physical health.
Michele Ending: The power to heal ourselves and to stay healthy is within us. And to get in touch with your own bodies because we should know us more than any doctor can tell us and to know when you know, to consult with the doctor, look at the doctor as not the all. It’ll all be all but as a partner with you in maintaining your health, and that we come from a strong line of people who survived. So that resiliency and that knowledge is within us. 42 SECS
Anita 19: Reporting from Oakland, California, I’m Anita Johnson
Ambience of us on the trail.
Music Fade Up
Anita – Ending Credits 20:
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