Inside African-American Folk Healing Stephanie Mitchum talks about her new book African American Folk Healing, which explores the traditions and art of black American home remedies.

Inside African-American Folk Healing

Inside African-American Folk Healing

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Stephanie Mitchum talks about her new book African American Folk Healing, which explores the traditions and art of black American home remedies.


Now to the art of folkways and a little pop quiz. True or false: putting your purse on the floor will make you lose money? Logic says no, but many of us still believe it.

That's why author Stephanie Mitchem began collecting stories from around the country and folk recipes to fix those daily bouts of bad luck. Her new book is called "African American Folk Healing."

Stephanie, great to have you on.

Ms. STEPHANIE MITCHEM (Author, "African American Folk Healing"): Hello, nice to talk with you.

CHIDEYA: So in the preface to the book, you make it clear that some people talk about this as superstition or even primitivism. You have an argument that that's not the case. Please make it.

Ms. MITCHEM: My argument is that it is part of our culture. It's part of what we did to defend ourselves and what we continue to do as we defend ourselves. And we don't stop and think about it. We just automatically do it. For example, if your hand - if your right hand itches, that means you've got money coming, but if your left hand itches, it means that you're going to lose money. Well, where did that come from, and why do we still retain it?

CHIDEYA: Why do we?

Ms. MITCHEM: Part of it is that it is part of our culture, and one of the things that I thought about in relation to this is that it is part of a mystical tradition. It's an intellectual tradition. Certainly it's the way we think about things. But it's not all from the head. It's also from the heart and from the spirit.

And so we continue to support these ideas, whether they are supported in the rest of society or not. And we learn them from our mothers, whether we're aware of it or not. Or we learn them sometimes from another older woman in the family and it starts just with how we care for our bodies and how we care for ourselves.

CHIDEYA: You talk about how, in your family, there were herbal remedies and tonics that also you used traditional western medicine. How did your family blend those two traditions?

Ms. MITCHEM: It was very interesting, and I - the pattern that I saw on my family I see over and over again in other families. And that is, as we get more education, we just begin to blend in the new information with the old information. So it's a form of what is called hybridity.

So my grandmother was - or one of my grandmothers was actually trained as a nurse. So we learned proper ways of taking temperatures, for example. But then we might treat the fever with something that was an herbal remedy.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you think about how other people deal with this, not just your own family, but other African-American families, are you ever worried that by saying this is culture, this is tradition, you're justifying things that may not actually do people well either medically or sometimes even mentally?

Ms. MITCHEM: I think that we find ways to blend them. We don't do the exact same thing that happened to our - I don't know - to our grandmothers. So we don't do the same type of practices. We don't have the same herbs available. They used to go out in the yard and do something with Poke salad. And we don't have that option. We live in more urban areas that are developed differently. We learned to blend things.

And so there are folks who are very concerned that African Americans continue to utilize patterns that are not necessarily helpful. But in this day and age when it is so difficult to actually get health care, it's going to be a little bit difficult to make these ideas disappear.

CHIDEYA: What you're talking about reminds of all of the research that's gone into the Amazon, for example, or parts of Africa where people have been using roots and herbs for a long time. And now, scientists are coming in and validating some of the work that has been done for years, for generations and centuries. Do you think there needs to be more research on how African Americans have used roots, herbs, homeopathic remedies and to see what works, what doesn't, and what might even be broadened in the future?

Ms. MITCHEM: Sure. I found a lot of older records, sites. So while I'm looking at the contemporary period, I really am going back to the beginning of the 20th century and coming forward. So it's also historical. But one of the things I found in older records from the '60s in - actually, housed at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, were reports of people who basically said, oh, you know, all that stuff that's in the pharmacy, they stole it from us. So there's an idea that many of these things did belong to us, anyway, and who did not take credit for - or we do not get credit for them.

That, also, is happening in parts of Africa, in many traditional medicine groupings. So I've been told that there are traditional healers, who will meet, and quite often, the folks, who are sitting there in front of them, are from pharmaceutical companies.

CHIDEYA: Now, last question, you say here in your book, the beliefs that birds take cut hair - and you go into all of what that means - and we get headaches as a result, does not deny the existence of a supreme being, but emphasizes the wonders of the divine in new ways. So you don't see this as being oppositional to religion?

Dr. MITCHEM: Not at all. African Americans are some of the most creative, or people of African descent are some of the most creative, religious people in the universe. We find ways to bring many things together, and that's part of what I love to study.

CHIDEYA: Well, Stephanie, thanks for sharing your folk wisdom with us.

Dr. MITCHEM: All right. And thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Stephanie Mitchem is a professor of women's studies and religious studies at the University of South Carolina. Her book is "African American Folk Healing."

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