Time-Travel with Three Black Healers

Written by Jess Turner of Olamina Botanicals for Apoterra Skincare

In 2015, organizers from the Movement for Black Lives issued an appeal that the month of February, fêted as Black History Month since the 1960s, be celebrated as Black Futures Month. Their call was an invitation for us to travel through space-time to a destination we have yet to reach: a time and a place where Black people—where all oppressed people, everywhere—are free.

Black healers’ work affirms Black life where the dominant system does not. Remembrances of such healers offer us crucial examples of what can be; their work serves as living, breathing proof of how we can care for one another. Celebrations this month are an opportunity to acknowledge Afro-descended people’s contributions and imagine the day when Black history is understood as American history. In order to see the path to this future, we must first reckon with the past and locate ourselves in the present. 

As Afro-diasporic people living in nation-states that were built upon the stolen labor of our ancestors, but have nonetheless been blessed with our brilliance—and continually held accountable by our struggles for liberation—the practice of self-determination approaches speculative endeavor. Understanding our past engagement with plants to attend to the needs of the body allows us to travel in time and celebrate our ancestors in equal measure. 

Emma Dupree — Community Herbalist (1897–1996)

Dupree was born in North Carolina in 1897, the second-to last of eighteen children, to parents who had been enslaved. Nicknamed “little medicine thing,” she showed a penchant for healing herbs from an early age. In a 1979 documentary about Dupree produced by East Carolina University’s School of Medicine, we see the herbalist leading a visitor around her herb garden, identifying plants, sharing remembrances of the people she healed and details of how to prepare various remedies. At one point, Dupree picks a small bunch of White Mint and buries her face in its leaves. Her demeanor, already quite lively, shifts into a perceptively higher octave. She smiles, brightening as she relates the plant’s powers as a mood elevator. Dupree’s practice and her relationship with herbs are a testament to the intimate connection between the human body and the vital, life-giving essence of plants. 

Margaret Charles Smith — Midwife (1906–2004)

Born in 1906, Margaret Charles Smith was present for the birth of more than 3,000 babies in her long career as an Alabama midwife. Many of those she tended were poor and disenfranchised Black women weigh extremely limited access to care. Smith supported folks who had nothing to pay, or who could only compensate her through modest trades. Alabama outlawed midwifery in 1976. Smith’s own mother died three weeks after giving birth to her. She relied on an arsenal of healing plants to ensure that no one under her care would suffer the same fate. Her work embodies a sentiment from the members of the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical Black feminists who, in 1977 wrote that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

Lauren Oya Olamina — Fictional Character

As the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s novel The Parable of the Sower, Lauren Oya Olamina’s journey with plants demonstrates that building relationships with what is growing around deepens our ability to aid our comrades in struggle. Lauren comes of age in a Los Angeles that Butler sets at some point in the 2020s, under political conditions disturbingly similar to our own—followers of a jingoist political leader named Jarret menace people they consider outsiders, in an effort to bring his sinister vision into being. Against this disturbing tableau, her study of native plants becomes central to her survival preparations should her small gated community be besieged by fiendish mobs of the desperate people prowling its barbed wire perimeter. Throughout the book, Lauren’s intimate knowledge of plants ensures the survival of those she cares for again and again. 

As we work toward the day when we are all transported to a literal or figurative garden, where we can stand with the sun shining on our faces, and a bundle of aromatic mint in which to bury our noses, we can look to these figures, real and imagined, as inspiration for our continued struggle. 


About the Author

Jess Turner is a Black herbalist, grower and educator who organizes, ferments, forages, grows healing plants and crafts herbal goods in New York City. Her work is centered on helping frontline communities—low-income, working-class and BIPOC communities who experience the first and worst impacts of climate change—build autonomy through connection to the land and plants growing around them. In cities, these plants are often discarded as weeds. Having farmed and studied herbalism in Hawai’i, North Carolina, St. Croix, the Bronx and New York’s Hudson Valley, Jess now helps steward 20 acres of public land in Manhattan along the Hudson River. Her apothecary is Olamina Botanicals

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