Faith Mitchell: Gullah Herbal Remedies and Magical Healing

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Medical anthropologist Dr. Faith Mitchell will be speaking at 1 PM this Saturday at the Anacostia Community Museum, in conjuction with the museum's current exhibit, "Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Down Turner Connecting Communities Through Language," Mitchell, currently Vice President of Grantmakers in Health, a medical aid organization, spent time in the Sea Islands researching the herbal remedies of the Gullah people. On Saturday, Mitchell will discuss some of the medicinal plants she learned about, how they're used and how they became integrated into the culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands. I spoke with Mitchell about her research.

Why is there such a strong  herbal tradition among the Gullah?

I think it's because of the history of those islands. Because first the slave population and then the black population was so that they retained the use of traditional medicines, even when other parts of the South stopped using them as much. Also, because they were so isolated from doctors and hospitals, it kind of reinforced the use of the medicine there so that comparing the Sea Islands with some other parts of the South, it wouldn't necessarily be that the plants were different, but the tradition was stronger.

What are a couple remedies that you found to be most interesting?

Elderberry. It's something that the Gullah use in the Sea Islands, but it's also used by the Native Americans, and it's also used in Europe. People use it for different things, which I think, just in terms of the botanical issues is always interesting. First of all, how do people even notice that plants are medicinal, and then the fact that they use them for different things, you kind of wonder, well how did they decide what they were going to use it for? In the Sea Islands, they use elderberry for sores, which you could imagine would be pretty common with people who are agricultural, whereas the Native Americans used elderberry as a pain killer. In Europe, they used it for wounds, but also for colds and also as a laxative. So a lot of different uses, but a good plant.

How do the Gullah use these plants?

Boil it and make it into a tea. Depending on the plant they would use different parts, the flower or the leaves, the bark or the root, but they usually do make it into a tea.

Did you test any of these Gullah herbal remedies?

I tested a few, you know a lot of them don't taste that good, which is considered to be part of the effectiveness. If it's bitter then it's better for  you.

What does the word "Hoodoo" mean in your book?

Along with these herbal medicines, there's also a tradition of magical medicines that would be called voodoo in Louisiana, and actually the term "hoodoo" that is used in the title of my book is often used to refer to magic by the Gullah people and other parts of the South. So that was also something I was interested in. But it was much harder to find out about. Because even though people practice it, they don't want to talk about it. Sometimes, the same people who are specialists in herbal medicine are also specialists in magical medicine, even though you have to find that out from somebody else.

The substances people use are really different. For magic, people use stuff like black cat bones, graveyard dust, fingernail clippings. That tradition really comes from West Africa. People will sell you stuff and they'll say it's black cat bone, but you don't really know if it is or it isn't, and in a sense you don't really know if it's working or not. It's a very different frame of reference from a tea you're drinking for a sore throat, and you can tell yourself whether it works. People use magic to change their luck, to get somebody to fall in love with them. So that tradition is there too.

I would have these indirect conversations with people. They would say, "Well, I don't know anybody who does that stuff, and I don't know what they use, but I hear that when you get hexed, you feel like there's mice running up and down your skin, or you get bumps all over." So I'd hear about it that way.

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