by Karen L. Culpepper
Herbal medicine, or plant medicine, is a healing presence and a major healing tradition across the globe. Every culture in this world uses plant medicine in some form for food, healing and/or ritual. As a clinical herbalist with a deep love for folk medicine, I have always had a profound interest and curiosity about how groups of people, specifically Descendants of Africans Enslaved in the United States (DAEUS), used herbs traditionally. I discovered the opportunity to explore folk medicine in depth while studying herbal medicine in graduate school and cotton root bark became my teacher. I was guided to write my thesis about cotton root bark from a historical perspective through the lives of enslaved women who used the root as medicine from a space of social justice and reproductive empowerment.
Who and where was the original source of this understanding about cotton root bark? Knowledge about the cotton plant dates back to Mandingo women who used cotton root bark as an abortifacient during the first trimester of pregnancy. In doing research, I found that these women had the knowledge of long lactation for birth control, ritual abstinence, abortion and other forms of contraception. By using the root bark of the cotton tree, they were able to control their fertility during stressful times when there were limited resources, such as during drought or famine. This brings up the notion that enslaved Africans brought along with them their own traditions, values and existing knowledge about various plant medicines. In fact, in the Carolinas, plantation owners wanted enslaved Africans from very precise areas of Africa specifically for their knowledge around the cultivation of crops such as rice. Although enslaved Africans were eventually taken to a new land with a new language, there were some similar plants, food and herbs and quite naturally the knowledge of cotton root was easily transferred into the cotton fields of the southern states in the US.
The horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, from the interior trek in Africa to the middle passage from, to the breaking in period to enslavement in the Americas, are indescribable and beyond imagination and comprehension. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss summarized in their book From Slavery to Freedom (1994) somehow things went from producing crops to the “traffic[king] of human souls.” There are accounts of women being taken from their native land in Africa who grabbed soil and swallowed it as they begin their trek, possibly making it to the foreign land of America. The middle passage, a journey from Africa to the Americas, took anywhere from 1 to 4 months. Enslaved Africans were packed so tightly on ships that they were forced to lie on their backs with their heads between the legs of others in poorly ventilated area devoid of fresh air and sunlight, filled with urine, feces and blood. Arrival to the Americas did not bring relief. Sweltering weather conditions, the further breakdown of the family unit, forced pairings and rape accurately describes plantation life, not to mention the labor intensive crop called cotton, which required year round tending, harvesting and processing.
In the midst of this horror, a new branch of medicine was born called Allopathic medicine, with a specific branch dedicated to enslaved Africans called Plantation medicine. Enslaved folks were seen as less than and not human, therefore should be managed differently. Scientific racism began to rear its head with diagnosis such as drapetomania: is a mental illness that caused Black slaves to flee captivity. Dr. James Marion Sims “the father of gynecology” restricted his research to enslaved women, yet all the illustrations were of white women. Even though there was anesthesia available, he did not use any because enslaved women had a higher tolerance for pain (interestingly there was recently an article in The Washington Post (April 2016) about this very subject: pain management and racial bias). Doctors were working to perfect c[aesarean]-sections on enslaved women without using anesthesia because of their “high tolerance for pain”. As a result, this reinforced to both enslaved Africans and enslaved African Americans to take their own health and wellbeing into their own hands.
Self care became more of an underground phenomenon amongst the slave community, specifically in the realm of women’s health. Enslaved women had knowledge passed down from generations within their families, other herbalists or root workers and from Native Americans. Oftentimes an herbalist tended to the slaves because a visit to the doctor would cost the plantation owner. There were slaves that were granted their freedom because of their skill-set. Some plantation owners even acknowledged “Black doctors sometimes produced better results than white practitioners” and there was even a case in which a Governor freed an enslaved herbalist for their knowledge around venereal diseases. With slave women already claiming the role as herbalists and keeper of sacred recipes and remedies, they naturally fell into the role of being a caretaker and midwife amongst their peers in the community.
Women’s health concerns were very common amongst slave women and cotton was ubiquitous. Enslaved women used fresh cotton root bark as contraceptive by chewing on it throughout the day. There was one incident where this enslaved woman was forced to marry someone and could not stand her husband. She was not sleeping with him at all and he reported this and she received quite a few lashings. Furious, she said you all will never get any property out of me, since the status of the child took the status of the mother. She kept her word by chewing on cotton root bark and never bore a child. In The Eclectic Medical Journal (1860), there was a first hand account of the power and efficacy of cotton root bark to induce abortion. “My attention was called to the bark of the cotton root by two or three planters in Mississippi, during the Fall of the year 1857 and I witnessed it’s action in one case of abortion. A Negro woman collected some bark of the fresh root and some green seed (about a pint she told me) and made a quart of strong tea and drank about half of it. I was sent for by her master, but the drug had brought about such energetic pains that it was impossible to check them and she lost her child”.
Using scientific language, we now know that cotton root bark is an emmenagogue and oxytocic. In other words, cotton root bark has the following effects in the body: increases oxytocin, contracts the uterus, inhibits implantation and in higher doses induces abortion. There were accounts of plantation owners learning of the use of cotton root bark amongst slave women. As word began to spread to white physicians, they began to use another herb, black haw, as the antidote to stop miscarriages or abortions already in progress, however they often ran out of their supply of black haw because cotton was so abundant. It is fascinating to think in the midst of such suffering, enslaved women created a subtle and impactful way to protect their fertility, empower themselves reproductively and support themselves and each other through the use of plant spirit medicine.