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Jamesa Hawthorne

Why are so many turning to Black herbalists? Their remedies are tailor-made for 2020

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This past summer, in the middle of the first pandemic wave and months before the second surged across the country, people on the internet — particularly young people on the internet — were searching in unlikely places for healing. Not just any healing, natural healing. Healing that got back to the basics in a time that was anything but. They looked to their screens, scrolled for answers and found them through an Instagram hashtag: #BlackHerbalist.

One of the 55,000 posts tagged on #BlackHerbalist led to the Instagram page of Jamesa Hawthorne, a gender-nonbinary Black herbalist and the L.A.-based owner of online apothecary Jam Haw Herbals.

Hawthorne’s feed made herbalism feel accessible — necessary, even. One post broke down the process of making a tonic for burnout. The straw-colored oat tops of a soon-to-be milky oat tincture turned lime green as they soaked in a liquid, transforming into what Hawthorne described as “an oatmeal bath for the brain.”

Hawthorne’s digital voice possessed qualities — warmth, comfort, knowledge — that also functioned as a balm from the sweltering intensity of mid-June. Protests had erupted over the extra-judicial killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and others. The pandemic, meanwhile, was taking its toll on the physical and mental health of the masses.

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Sensing that their Black clients might be looking for a space to be heard, Hawthorne posed a question: “What is most prominent on your heart today?”

“The lynching of Black men during a time that is supposed to be liberating,” wrote back one.

“Staying grounded in all of this pandemic and uprising as a new mom,” responded another.

Hawthorne, 29, has long felt drawn to support Black people through herbalism, the ancient practice of preventing and treating physical, mental and emotional ailments with medicinal plants that has roots in cultures all over the world. Herbalism is a rich tradition that dates back thousands of years, but it hasn’t always been a practice that young people turn to for healing.

Hawthorne is among a new generation of healers determined to deliver this modality to Black people who need it. The herbalist was intimately familiar with the unique combination of grief, sadness and rage that many Black people, especially young Black people, felt this summer. Upon receiving the responses in a Google Doc, Hawthorne devised a plan: They would send out free herbal care packages to Black people to help them cope.

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Jamesa Hawthorne, an herbalist, poses at their home in Eagle Rock. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Los Angeles Times)

The packages were elaborate compositions of herbal care tailor-made for 2020: Jam Haw Herbals’ Immunity Builder, made with antiviral elderberry; stress-fighting reishi; blood-nourishing astragalus and lung-supporting thyme (a preventative potion for travel, seasonal change or a global health crisis). There were also herbal blends to use in teas or baths (to help with stress or sore muscles); a creosote-infused shea butter salve (to soothe irritated skin); flower water sprays (a quick and gentle herbal pick-me-up); and flower essences made by soaking flowers in liquid to imbue the patient with the flower’s specific positive energy. (Hawthorne used borage flower, said to bring courage.) Hawthorne, along with friends Sinclair Shigg and the artist Davia Spain, assembled and sent out 30 care packages.

This kind of generosity is precisely what those scouring the #BlackHerbalist hashtag on Instagram have been looking for. Not just wellness but herbal remedies rooted in ancestral narratives and administered by someone who gets it. Black herbalists, by virtue of their identity and practice, have a keen understanding of what Black people — and other people of color — need to heal.

Natural treatments are the bridge between the experiences of Black people who needed healing then and those who need it now.

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Remedies for the spirit

Karen Rose, who owns Sacred Vibes Apothecary and Sacred Botanica in Brooklyn, is regarded as a pioneer in herbalism education. She describes her job as a Black herbalist as part troubleshooting, part counseling. Many times, customers approach her knowing they need something but not sure what. She investigates: “Why do you think you have the headache?” she asks, running down a list of possible causes. Maybe it’s related to a female patient’s cycle or a hormonal imbalance? What about computer screen fatigue or sleep deprivation? Is it because of a food allergy? “It’s asking those questions and then recommending herbs based on our knowledge,” she says.

Over the summer, when calls to #SupportBlackBusiness were strong on social media, Rose noticed a wave of young Black people who hadn’t used herbal remedies reaching out to explore their curiosity. They flooded Rose’s Instagram—where she prepares herbal concoctions, gives astrological forecasts and offers sage advice for her more than 50,000 followers — and her community shop, looking for ways to bolster their immune system against the virus and rid their nervous system of the anxiety the pandemic stirred up.

Karen Rose, owner of Sacred Vibes Apothecary and Sacred Vibes Botanica in Brooklyn.
(JazzShoots)

Sacred Vibes Apothecary typically carries herbal blends for biological and physiological issues such as sleep, digestion, anxiety, stress, allergies, pregnancy and circulation. But recently, Rose says, adaptogens such as reishi and immunomodulators such as astragalus — which can help the body respond to stress and protect the immune system — have been selling more. As have nervines for the nervous system, said to help people process anxiety, grief and overstimulation.

The change could be interpreted as a response to the times. Extraordinary circumstances have driven people to search for solutions outside traditional Western medicine. “Herbalists started to become who people felt safe with and relied on for healing,” she says.

Rose’s herbalist education began in Guyana, where she grew up drinking “bush tea” as a natural part of everyday life. It continued when her family immigrated to Flatbush, Brooklyn, a community teeming with healers from the Caribbean. “Immigrants in New York, that’s where we turn to for support,” Rose said. “There were really knowledgeable people in there that could help you.”

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When she left Flatbush and pursued a formal herbal education, she found that the systems catered mainly to white, Western interpretations of herbalism and were a far cry from the traditions she knew. She attended herbal conferences in the 1990s while completing a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship program at an Arizona apothecary called the Herb Stop, but the conferences lacked the spiritual connection to the plants — and Black teachers on their lineups. “I stopped going because no one at that point was talking about spirit and plants,” she recalls. “Gone were all the stories about why the plant was used, gone was all the ancestral tradition behind it, gone was this rich legacy of people whose medicine you’re using.”

Frustrations over the Western appropriation of herbalism are shared among many Black herbalists. “We’re not about to act like racism isn’t in herbalism,” says Regina Pritchett, 34, who runs the online apothecary In Her It Blooms from her home base in Lansing, Mich., “I know I’ve felt uncomfortable in a lot of these herbal spaces, and I’ve had to deliberately seek out teachers who are of color.”

The L.A.-based herbalist and educator Sade Musa started Roots of Resistance to help people of color connect to their traditions. The educational project hopes to challenge narratives that minimize, or erase, Black contributions to herbalism. Musa hosts wellness consultations and classes, such as the Herbal Tea Turnup series, which delves into the African origins or uses of various teas. Musa describes these classes as a “family reunion” of sorts — a space to cultivate joy and a sense of community. There she tries to equip her students with tools to push back on “the white supremacist myths prevalent in mainstream herbalism.”

“Just being near a plant can have a soothing and grounding effect on our spirits,” Musa said.

“Connecting with plants as medicine can build resilience in our bodies, fortifying us against
stressors — such as living in a white supremacist society.”

In Brooklyn, Rose started an apprenticeship program through her Sacred Vibes Apothecary in 2010 — a year after the shop opened — so no other Black herbalist would have to feel as though they were the only one in the room. She has mentored close to 400 students with a focus on reconnecting the next generation of Black and brown healers to their roots.

“I made it a point that I was going to educate as many Black women, as many BIPOC-identifying people as I could get my hands on with the intention of reclaiming our medicine,” she says.

Abi Huff, a Northern California-based herbalist and educator.
(Courtesy of Abi Huff)

During the pandemic and uprisings, reclamation has taken the form of activism. Musa has been involved with multiple herbal mutual aid networks to serve Black people since summer, including volunteering with the L.A. Herbalist Collective. The grassroots effort supports at-risk communities with herbal medicine and, in the wake of worldwide protesting over racism and police brutality, began providing resources to activists on the ground.

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Upon learning that COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting Black and brown people, Pritchett established an online herbal apothecary to address the underlying health conditions that made people of color more vulnerable to the virus. She also put out a call for Herbal Reparations on Instagram, urging her followers to support Black, Indigenous, queer and trans people of color in getting a wellness consultation and custom herbal medicine through her apothecary.

Herbal Reparations has raised enough money ($2,390 from 96 people) to provide 20 consultations to healers, activists, protesters, frontline workers and parents.

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Creating safe spaces

For Abi Huff, a Black and Filipino herbalist from Sonoma, activism has meant prioritizing her Black clients.

“It feels really good to create safe spaces for people who are holding the same things that I’m holding — the same emotional pieces,” says Huff, 42.

Huff works as a faculty member at the California School of Herbal Studies, the Healing Clinic Collective and Ancestral Apothecary, an herbal school in Oakland where she’s transitioning into an ownership position. Through Ancestral Apothecary, Huff has held workshops that provide a dual service to Black students: They are specifically built for Black attendees and raise money for the school’s Black student scholarship fund. The fund has raised nearly $8,500 and has put 60 students through the school’s summer and fall courses.

“Folks of color — in particular, we’re talking about Black folks — are constantly running this low level of stress, fear and need to protect ourselves,” Huff says. “That’s always being impacted. Plants are a really amazing way of helping us unpack and unwind a lot our anxieties, our stresses so we can actually access those things that need to be healed and brought forward.”

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One graduate from Ancestral Apothecary’s Cecemmana herbal training program, Danielle Benjamin, has begun to pay it forward. She has developed an Afro-Diasporx Ancestral Healing Meditation Circle at the school. She’s encouraged by the way Black herbalists have aligned their vocation with the moment.

“Right now, Black herbalists, Black people in the world of wellness, are stepping up naturally because we’ve been called to this work on a soul level, and it’s way bigger than just us,” Benjamin says.

Danielle Benjamin of Ancestral Apothecary in Oakland.
(Courtesy of Danielle Benjamin)

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This sentiment — and the Black herbalists who came before — have powered Hawthorne’s work since last June. They never miss an Instagram post from pioneers like Rose and were one of the many people who tuned into Huff’s online class on plant accomplices for stress and trauma this year as well as Musa’s Herbal Tea Turnup classes.

Hawthorne wants to pay it forward the way those they look up to have. The herbal care package giveaway was an affirming venture in the right direction. It offered a new way to help Black people get the healing they deserve. It was so fulfilling that Hawthorne briefly stopped accepting custom herbal orders. “I wanted to be able to pour into my community,” they say. Hawthorne used the extra time to provide Black folks with herbs. Doing so at such a pivotal moment in history felt revolutionary.

Yet in another sense caring for other Black people using plants is the job — one that sustains Hawthorne on a spiritual level.

“For me,” they say, “it’s about connection to the plants, connection to where the plants come from and how that intimacy with the plants can ripple out into our connections with each other.”