Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Black History is one of struggle, triumph and HEALING. As African descendants in a Western World, we sometimes feel a disconnection to our own spirits, and the spirits of our ancestors. The spiritual practices, healing modalities, and lifestyles of our past were not only stripped from our lives, but attempts have been made to replace these with a program of Westernized culture. Our medicine is comprised of healing in various forms, all which honor the connection of mind, body and spirit. We were the first holistic practitioners, the first energy healers.
As Black History month nears to a close, I am compelled to research, remember and RESTORE what was never lost, just deeply hidden among pain and distraction.
Take a quick timeline walk with me through our rich history of alternative medicine.
Ancient Egyptian Origins
Black History is timestamped with the birth of humanity. We all know the first human originated in Africa, but do we really know what that means for us? Have we fully let that sink in? Our ancestors were the first to feel the Earth under their feet, to feel the sunlight warm their skin, and to gaze at the moon and stars at night. The knowledge they held is what we are all desperately trying to recover.
One of the earliest recorded methods of healing stem from Ancient Egyptian culture. Similar to the Ying and Yang concept of traditional Chinese medicine, the prior Ancient Egyptians recognized Ba and Ka, two sources of vital energy which flow through the human system.
The Egyptians believed when both energy streams run properly through the body, the flawless functionality of its organs is guaranteed. Hence, when they would be interrupted a sickness was very likely to occur. Balancing their body’s energy flow was considered a habitual necessary act. The Ancient Egyptians used “Wands of Horus”, which were copper and zinc cylinders containing quartz crystals to improve the immune and nervous systems. They also adorned themselves with various crystals to achieve balance and harmony within the body.
Kemet gave the gift of medical sciences to the world. The oldest written medical literature, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, dates back thousands of years before the Greek or Roman empires. This ancient script contains a large list of the diagnoses and treatments of different diseases. According to findings in the text, main medical practices in Ancient Egypt were very similar to what we currently call Eastern or Traditional Chinese Medicine. Healing practices included herbal medicine, acupuncture, reflexology, yoga, Reiki and Qi Gong.
Furthermore, the papyrus states that every priest/healer was a follower of Thoth (God of Moon, Magic, and Writing) and Sekhmet (Goddess of Destruction and Healing). Through Thoth they gained wisdom about connecting with the spirits, enabling them to find the root cause of illnesses. Whereas from Sekhmet they learned about the body’s energy veins (meridians), energy centers (chakras), and how to heal any type of disease.
Traditional African Healing
Traditional African healing is a holistic approach to medicine based on the premise of inter-connectedness. Disease is understood to be a misalignment or spiritual/social disorder that is either internal or external. It is believed that all people are made up of many levels of being which function together as a whole; moral, social, physical and spiritual, and if any of these parts are out of balance, the person will become physically ill or suffer spiritually. Illness and its treatment are not simply viewed in physical terms.
Traditional healers are generally divided into two categories – those that serve the role of diviner-diagnostician and those who are healers-herbalists. The diviner provides a diagnosis usually through spiritual means, while the healer then chooses and applies relevant remedies mostly made from indigenous plants (herbalism).
In Traditional African Medicine, A diviner is called by the ancestors to perform this role, and undergoes a formal initiation in order to practice. The healer serves a long term apprenticeship with an experienced healer, learning the medicinal properties of plants and developing their practice. The broad and controversial term "Witch-Doctor" is colloquially used to identify Traditional African Healers and Diviners in terms of Western understanding. The negative connotation associated with the word "Witch" has long been used by colonial settlers to cast an unfavorable shadow on spiritual practices in indigenous cultures. In Swahili, they are "Mganga", In Igbo, the "Dibia", and in Zulu, "Sangoma". I am looking forward to a time where African spirituality and healing modalities are no longer demonized, rather honored and respected.
African American Folk Medicine
During the most devastating period in our history, we were challenged to find new ways to heal and recover. Under the rule of our oppressors and seemingly worlds away from our homeland, we cleverly managed to continue to heal ourselves and each other with limited resources, a broken community and diminished culture. A conglomerate of African tradition and belief systems mixed with the European perspective birthed what we now call African American Folk Medicine.
African slaves who were taken away from their native lands carried with them their own native medical practices and knowledge. Unfortunately, a majority of what they knew about medicine had to be relearned because most all of their traditional remedies were based on naturally occurring plant resources that were available to them in Africa. North America was a whole new alien continent with a vastly different ecosystem. Their medical knowledge would change over time as countless generations of African Americans would soon be exposed to the medical cultures of both Native Americans and European immigrants.
The widespread uses of medicinal herb and holistic natural plant-based remedies by slaves of the early to mid-nineteenth century were as effective and in many cases exceeded the efforts of their white counterparts. There is no question that African American slaves have provided a significant contribution to the medical community of the United States and modern medicine.
The practice of folk medicine was handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The old wives' tales and home remedies our grandmothers passed down to us are still sometimes considered superstitious by many, but we never forgot their importance. The specific use of different herbs, roots, barks, spices, and other plants were contingent on their availability, and sometimes had to be used in secret. Nevertheless, African Americans continued to "live off the land" using powerful plant medicine on our loved ones before seeking outside assistance. We also held strongly in our understanding that the spirit's condition weighs heavily on the state of the physical body.
Fast forward to today, we find ourselves reaching back to this old wisdom and truth. Modern African Americans are embracing alternative medicine and holistic healing practices with a newfound excitement and urgency. Our bodies are designed to heal themselves. With the help of the Earth's abundant resources, we can find balance and begin to experience what it truly means to be "healthy". As an African American woman, I can't help but to feel a heightened sense of dignity knowing that I come from a legacy of men and women who throughout the ages have found ways to honor their connection to Earth as well as to Spirit. For those of us that still feel disconnected, know that it is never too late to remember and reclaim your healing. I am humbled and in awe of our resilience. I am PROUD.
Happy Black History Month,