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A Journey to Unlock Centuries-Old Doors to Health and Healing

Three women road-trip to uncover African-American traditions of herbal medicine and natural healing

While on an "Herbal Walk" in North Carolina, we discovered Solomon's Seal. SOLOMON'S SEAL (Polygonatum biflorum & multiflorum) is an invaluable medicinal herb with a worldwide history of use dating back thousands of years. Photo Credit: Regine Romain
While on an "Herbal Walk" in North Carolina, we discovered Solomon's Seal. SOLOMON'S SEAL (Polygonatum biflorum & multiflorum) is an invaluable medicinal herb with a worldwide history of use dating back thousands of years. Photo Credit: Regine Romain

The journey started a week ago, on July 31.

Together, three women – a nurse, an herbalist and a photojournalist – set out on a road trip across the southern region of the United States.

Their mission? Recapture the African-American traditions and spiritual practices of natural healing through herbs-- traditions that quietly have been passed down and practiced for centuries throughout the Americas but have little, public documentation.

Regine Romain, Steffanie McKee and Ikeoma Walker are calling their sojourn, “I AM AFRICAN AMERICAN MEMORY.”

I Am is an active state which we are in. So right now, we’re meeting people, hanging out with folks and having a beautiful time,” said Romain, a photo-anthro-journalist from Bed-Stuy. “We want to know, What were the songs, the dances, the art, the incantations... What was it in the magic of their survival? That’s the living memory.”

Over the next 30 days, the women will be nomads journeying through the Gullah Islands, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Mexico, and finally, Belize.

McKee, a clinical herbalist and a graduate of Maryland University of Integrated Health, where she earned her masters of science in herbal medicine, said she has studied Ayurvedic, Chinese and Native-American natural medicine, but has heard very little about African Americans’ use of herbal medicine. So, for her in some ways, the trip has become an academic journey of sorts.

“We’ve been saying we needed to do something like this for a while,” said McKee. “Finally, we decided to just go, drive through the South, visit of all the older herbalist and document it as we go along. And so far, we’ve been able to connect to some really amazing people; it’s like a living journey, coming alive as we go."

Walker, a traveling nurse, researcher and dancer, said she became interested in learning about traditional African and African-American herbal practices after treating a few Gullah patients who were in their 90s, but who were perfectly healthy and had never before been to a doctor: 

“People at 30 years old today have chronic disease that they should not have. But these women had been picking cotton all of their lives and had never been sick. One I spoke to was in a car accident, and so the ER referred home health services to her. The other had just had surgery. And the doctors couldn’t understand why they didn’t have a primary care physician,” Walker said.

“They began telling us how they picked this or picked that from the field if they had a headache or any other illness. They had no high blood pressure. I was just amazed, considering their lifestyle. And so it’s this sort of knowledge that we’re looking to recapture.”

Romain pointed out that part of the reason why the natural remedies they're seeking have remained hidden is due to the negative connotations given the practices by Western culture.

“We’re in the Gullah now, and people still hold on to the medicine, because they’re fearful it would be exploited,” said Romain. “But the reality is, this type of root knowledge is what kept people alive in the harshest cruelest conditions of American chattel slavery.

“We want to capture their stories and honor them for being the guardians of that knowledge, and so we are sharing the journey through social media for those that also want to know.”

You can stay connected to the women of  “I AM AFRICAN AMERICAN MEMORY” via Facebook.

Lisa Lee-Gardner August 08, 2013 at 11:53 PM
So coincidental that I am working on my master's thesis in nursing education and I happened upon this site. Would love to compile information from our elders in Louisiana about folk remedies. We have been criticized for large lips, dark skin, and big butts as well, and all of those are now the envy of our critics. Maybe our home remedies will become highly regarded as well.
Gigi August 09, 2013 at 06:05 AM
Hi Lisa. Thank you for your comment. Yes the time has come for us to acknowledge and value our traditions. Our road-trip has been amazing and we are honored to share the rich history of our traditional herbal healing, artistry and spiritual folkways. Please stay tuned in to our journey via Facebook and Google+. Love+Light. Gigi

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