On African Americans & Herbal Medicine in the United States
Nick Cannon, the American comedian, rapper, and film and TV actor, announced in 2020 that he would be completing a film about the infamous Honduran herbalist and healer, Dr. Sebi.
Dr. Sebi (Alfredo Darrington Bowman) was a Honduran of African descent who followed and promoted a vegan diet. As a herbalist and healer, he made and sold therapeutic supplements in LA, New York, and Honduras. His clients included Michael Jackson, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, Eddie Murphy, Steven Seagal, and John Travolta. He claimed to have found a cure for AIDS.
The upcoming documentary, Strong Enemies—The Untold Case of Dr. Sebi, was originally developed by the rapper Nipsey Hussle. Hussle, from the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, had begun documenting the successful defenses used at Dr. Sebi's criminal trials. (In New York state Dr. Sebi had been arrested for practicing medicine without a license. He was later arrested in Honduras for suspected money laundering and died in police custody.) However, the film was not completed before Hussle's own death by murder in 2019.
Acknowledging the true value of ancient healing traditions
While the story of this entire project sounds wild and is highly controversial, we want to recognize that there is, in fact, a long history of indigenous and traditional herbal medicine being discredited by the (historically very white) medical establishment. Yet that same plant knowledge has often then been adopted and sold for great profit by those in power.
We feel it's important to acknowledge that Black healing traditions have provided the base for White herbalism, and also much of Western medicine.
Harriet Tubman, for example, used herbs.
Herbal medicine -- using plants to heal -- is the oldest form of medicine, dating to prehistoric times. Healing plants can be found all over this Earth, and that ancient wisdom passed down through African healers should be given its due. We often talk about Aryvedic traditions, but in fact African traditions use many of the same plants, such as ashwagandha and turmeric.
Why this story matters -- to all of us
Black folk medicine and African American healing traditions have played a critical role in creating and evolving medical science. Often passed down through oral traditions, the medicine of indigineous people has absolutely informed our own understanding of the power of plants. And innovations continue to be made by such healers worldwide.
It’s time to learn the history of where a lot of thoughts and innovations are coming from today. Plant based and vegan lifestyles are modern practices, but they have a long, unsung tradition.
What's interesting to us about the story of Dr. Sebi is that it shows how often it’s hard to know what’s true or valuable once someone has been discredited by those in power. That’s an underlying aspect of systemic racism. This practice -- systemic racism -- is not only toxic, it destroys prosperity and security for all of us.
We can't wait for the film’s release.
What do you think about the history and use of herbalism in medicine? Be sure to let us know.
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FOR FURTHER READING
Working the Roots - Over 400 Years of African American Healing by Michelle Lee
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Handbook of African American Medicinal Plants by Maurice M. Iwu
African American Folk Healing by Stephanie Y. Mitchem
Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations by Sharla M Fett