Book Review - African American Herbalism: A Practical Guide to Healing Plants and Folk Traditions by Lucretia VanDyke

Release Date: May 17, 2022 Simon & Schuster

Author: Lucretia VanDyke

About the Author:

With a journey that began when she was just a little girl mixing herbs, clays, and muds on her grandparents’ farm, Lucretia VanDyke has had a lifelong connection to plants.
Her quest for knowledge and interest in the traditional approach to wellness has led her to training extensively in Haiti, Southeast Asia, Thailand, and Bali. Lucretia focuses on integrating indigenous healing rituals, plant spirit medicine, holistic approaches to food/herbal medicine, ancestor reverence, and meditation into your modern daily practice.  As she herself said,  “She has climbed the mountain to meet and learn from the elders about the wisdom of the plants and their medicine and have come back down to share what I have learned”.

About the Book:

I chatted with this wonderful herbalist and author, while she was traveling between Atlanta and heading towards her hometown of North Carolina after recently returning from Haiti, about the release of her upcoming book and her journey to writing the book.  Talking with Lucretia was like talking to an old friend as she shared about the recent spiritual journey that she has been on since the COVID 19 pandemic and how that led her to the evolution of her new book.  As she talked about using poke for a plant spirit meditation and the beginning of a 7 day spiritual bath, she explained how plant medicine and ceremony with the plants led her to a complete upheaval in her personal life and opened her up to the voices of the ancestors that were guiding her to write this book.

According to Lucretia, the seeds to her writing this book were really planted about 4+ years ago at the New England Herbal conference after listening to a conference by Ayo Ngozi, a fellow teacher along with Lucretia at The Black Magik School, on The Future of Herbalism.  Even prior to that conference she was stirred by the writings and work of Leah Peniman, author of Farming While Black and co-director of Soul Fire Farm.  Peniman’s work first started to pique her interest in bringing the stories that she has known and gathered over her life from a very young child foraging in the forest to the current present to the community at large. At that herbal conference she was approached by a publisher to write a book about canning, which ultimately didn’t pan out.  Going through the process of trying to write that book actually slightly delayed the process to her really being able to step into the space for this book. However despite those obstacles, she continued to find herself in spaces with Black authors which gave her back the confidence that she could indeed do this work.  Fast forward to February 2021, and after doing a calendula based ceremony at the Mississippi with the goal of bringing a publisher to her that was willing to  publish the book she really wanted to write and voila!  About 2 months later she was approached by another publisher to write her current book on African-American Herbalism.

Her desire to bring this work forth has also been influenced strongly by her experiences in the herbal community in terms of wanting to be able to share the story directly from the African-American perspective and point of view-- as Lucretia says “To tell our own stories”.  She had actually been teaching on this subject of African American herbalism for 3 years before being approached for the book.  Her current work delves into the history of African-American herbalism going as far back as ancient Egypt, Yoruba influences along with the transatlantic slave trade and through the evolution of the American South and it’s impact on herbal practice.   Of particular note, she mentions how she wanted to tell the stories in her book without the spectre of the stories being couched in “slave” medicine.  With that intent in mind, as she started undertaking the research of these practices of particular note, she really had to use the plants to help get her through some of the trauma of reading these historical documents, in regards to how people of color were punished for the use of these herbs as medicine by bringing in mimosa for the grief and holy basil for support. 

In African American Herbalism, Lucretia has several goals in sharing these stories with the world.  This book shows not just the medicine of the plants traditionally used in African-American culture but also the stories behind these plants and how they were traditionally used in America among the African-American community from historical use through current modern tradition.  In this wonderful work Lucretia has shared with us some of the stories that have been passed down by oral tradition, explored the true links of plant-spirit medicine, and created a space for Black herbalists to know that these traditions are as she says “in our DNA”.   As she has weaved together these stories, her goal is to contribute to the development of a defined space for African-American herbalism inclusive of the ways of the spiritual influences of Black ancestors and traditional African practices throughout the diaspora.  In the book alongside the stories of the plants, she has also included some of her favorite formulas as well as recipes that are easy to whip up in the kitchen to encourage more interaction with the plants outside of the traditional tincture or tea.  She shares stories in this book about how plants have “spoken” to Black people over time and how African-American herbalism is really a practice that, although based in African traditional practice, it is one that evolved to unique practice under the transatlantic slave trade.

African American Herbalism: A Practical Guide to Healing Plants and Folk Traditions is set for release on May 17, 2022 and is available both in print at your favorite national bookseller and e-book form.