by Karen L. Culpepper (With a Lyrical Soundtrack from Jill Scott)
Content note: This Article discusses sexual violence and abortion
Past: Once upon a time…
To the indigenous grandmothers of African descent that survived the middle passage, to the Black women and girls who endured the horrors of slavery in the US and to the grandmothers of the Jim Crow era, like Recy Taylor, who did not receive reproductive rights or justice, we welcome your presence. You endured the burden of physical cruelty, mental torture and psychic attacks, a resonance that is coded, and sometimes expressed, in the present day by way of intergenerational transmission of trauma. May you continue to share your stories from the other realm, so that we may continue to acknowledge your experience in this realm
“Tell me how you feel if I
Tell me how you feel.
What if I was gone forever?”
How It Make You Feel
– Jill Scott
“I believe if slavery would lasted much longer the negro race would have depopulated because all the negro womens they had become wise to this here cotton root. They would chew that and they would not give birth to a baby. All of their Masters sho‘ did have to watch them, but sometimes they would slip out at night and get them a lot of cotton roots and bury them under their quarters. If they could just get enough that root to get one flower that was enough to do what they wanted it to do” ~Dave Byrd of Texas, an ex-slave, recounts his experience of cotton root bark, Federal Writers‘ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
Baby I am not sure I can put into words the horrors of slavery. It was brutal and inhumane. The slave owners were primitive savages. What kept me in the midst of it all, you ask? Two things: the wisdom of the ancestors and love.
Don’t ever forget: you are the descendant of brilliant African people enslaved in the United States. Those white folks did not know a thing about the crops we cultivated in South Carolina. We were brought from Africa specifically for our knowledge of agriculture, but folks don’t usually claim that as fact. We created fertile ground for crops like tobacco, indigo, rice and cotton. While we worked the land, we planted seeds of hope, strength and possibility and watered those seeds with our blood, sweat and tears.
I give praises to the ancestors because ironically we were the growers of the very plant spirit medicine that allowed us to have sovereignty over our bodies. I was told stories as a young child about how Mandingo woman had established a deep relationship with cotton root bark to regulate reproductive outcomes such as preventing and terminating pregnancy. Honestly, we would have had cotton in the United States whether they liked it or not because my Mama told me a story of how some of the women tucked all kinds of seeds in their hair before they were stolen from the Motherland. Who would have thought that the plant we worked with year ‘round would enable our bodies to be the site of resistance?
As a young enslaved woman, I found myself at the intersection of providing physical labor and the expectation to reproduce, literally create more property. My Mama tried to protect me as best she could. One day while Mama was off completing a task, the Master’s wife, Miss Betty, encouraged her son to rape me, which he did. I was so ashamed. I jumped up, fixed my clothes and went back to watching the youngers. I didn’t have the courage to tell Mama. The next morning when I went to the big house, Miss Betty forced me to drink a concoction of black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) to ensure the arrival of her grandchild because Mama knew all about plants from catching babies with Big Mama.
About a month and a half later, Mama witnessed the concoction routine as she prepared breakfast. She pulled me aside and without saying a word, I burst into tears and hung my head in shame. Mama knew my truth. Although she was devastated, she just held me close and kissed me on my forehead. Little did Miss Betty know, cotton root bark is a force to be reckoned with and I had seen it in action many nights when Mama would help other women terminate a legacy of suffering. She gave me a decoction of cotton root bark and cotton seeds that night and within a few hours, I delivered a huge formed clot. Mama laid hands on my womb space and gave me another tea to tone down the bleeding because we had to be up in a few hours. She was off to the river to perform a ritual and release my baby back to the Earth. Mama held me all night.
From that day forward, Mama taught me everything she knew about plant spirit medicine and had me chew on cotton root bark every day moving forward. We were emancipated a few years later. I stopped chewing on that root bark once I met my beloved. I never knew choosing to love someone could be such a beautiful act of resistance. He held my hand and treated me so gently. I had never had that before that moment. I never wanted to have a baby before meeting him. His love kept me here and he gave me something so sacred to love: your great, great grandmother.
Present: 45: A menace to society
“I wonder if I gave you diamonds out of my own womb, would you feel the love in that or ask why the moon? If I gave you sanity for the whole of humanity, had all the solutions for the pain and pollution. No matter where I live, despite the things I give, you’ll always be this way.”
Hate on Me – Jill Scott
“A BOLD vision for reproductive justice means trusting Black women to determine our future.”
– Monica Simpson, SisterSong
Matter is neither created, nor destroyed. Same script, different cast, new day. Has much changed in the realm of reproductive freedom and sovereignty when it comes to the bodies of Black women and girls? The same wicked frequency of white supremacy and privilege is alive and well today. The only thing that has changed about plantation life is that the “Last Plantation” is in the center of Washington, DC. White men are STILL making critical decisions about women’s bodies through the creation of legislature and by eliminating funding to programs that directly impact their ability to make safe, critical choices about their own bodies.
Can Black folks and other folks of colour in the United States truly ever feel whole and complete under the suffocating frequencies of capitalism and corruption? To be Black in America is to exist in the presence of racial and economic injustice and emotional, mental and spiritual harm. Is it possible to show up in our unique totality on a land that never considered our ancestors equal, whole, complete human beings? These are the days of truth, you know. One lesson we’ve learned from 2016 is however folks are show up these days–believe them.
Donald Trump, also known as 45 by those in resistance, is a chief teacher of this lesson. We cannot believe his word, but we can believe his intent. He is a threat to the very fabric of the United States and he is a threat to humanity, particularly in terms of Black women’s reproductive justice. Based on an article in the Huffington Post, over the course of one year, Donald Trump has restricted $8.8 billion in US foreign aid funding for international health programs that provide or even mention abortion. For young women and girls in Kenya, this means no access to condoms, no access to safe abortions (unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death), no access to family planning, no access to cancer screening and no access to antiretroviral medication in a country with a very high HIV population. The impact is swift and evident with young women in Kenya returning to clinic sites pregnant, some even suicidal and many resorting to unsafe abortions.
Here in the US, the impact of stress on Black women’s health is the root of many health negative phenomena. According to a recent piece from National Public Radio (NPR), Black mothers in the US die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health. And according to recent data, in some areas, like New York City, Black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers.
Unfortunately this phenomena was embodied and expressed through the loss of activist, Erica Garner. Erica lost her father, Eric Garner, who suffered from asthma, to senseless police brutality after a New York Police Department Officer used an unauthorized chokehold. Erica had give birth to her son three months prior to her death and had suffered from the effects of an enlarged heart. According to the New York Times, “an asthma episode precipitated a major heart attack.”
What was the “seed” that caused Erica’s death? Most likely a combination of racism, stress, grief, and compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that I have observed consistently in activist spaces where folks align themselves with the suffering of others. It often shows up as literal fatigue and can express as apathy, depression, anxiety and contributes to the erosion of vitality in activists. As a member of the Oxalis Collective here in Washington DC, we thrive to create and curate healing spaces for activists. We have worked with a reproductive justice organization to educate and introduce healing justice as a framework. This framework provides a container of principles that encourages healthy, whole activist communities and sustainable movement spaces.
Future: Possibility (For the sake of the youngers)
“When I wake up, everything I went through will be beautiful.” When I Wake Up – Jill Scott
“I am rooted in radical organizing traditions that always call on spirit and ancestors to allow us to root our political work in a much larger frame of how are we transforming on a cellular level what oppression has done to us, individually and collectively. And how will we not just survive but heal and be well and create new ideas or renew?” – Cara Page
Wise grandmothers, our elevated ancestors. We give thanks for your presence. We give thanks for the container you have created for us all. Thank you for keeping your torch lit in dark times. Thank you for showing us the way and passing along your wise teachings.
I am dreaming of a world that affirms all lives.
A world where folks can all love who we choose.
A world where we acknowledge our wretched past history and through community ritual, atone for our destructive past aggressions.
A world where folks acknowledge their privilege and leverage that knowingness to work towards justice, conscious allyship and the radical distribution of resources.
A world where the bodies of people of colour are not a canvas for harm and trauma.
A world in which access to information and economic power is not granted to the few.
A world where we cultivate a connection with all living beings, plants and creatures.
A world that encourages community and economic empowerment through entrepreneurship that is rooted in models that are sustainable.
A world where we our foods sources are fully disclosed and consist of healthy, ethically grown sources and accessible food markets.
A world that weaves in healing justice as a foundational tool to bring light and healing to our experiences, triggers and traumas in this realm and generations forward and back.
A world where we are safe in a space of our design called home.
Grandmothers, we need your guidance and protection now more than ever. May we channel your firmness and unwavering will to live. We know in our hearts that you did not survive for us not to live our best lives. May our dreams be big enough to hold us all.
Karen L. Culpepper is a clinical herbalist in the Washington DC area. Karen’s unique herbalist contribution centers on the ways in which plant medicine can support deep healing. Her particular focus areas are intergenerational trauma and its impact on physiology and vitality. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.