According to the latest TikTok trends, herbalism is the new glow-up hack. For decades, herbalists have used plants for healing purposes and to study the impact of mixing different herbs on the body. Today, herbalism has gained traction as more and more people, especially Black herbalists on TikTok, share testimonies of herbalism’s non-toxic healing abilities. Many herbalist influencers have been using the platform to share recipes for everything from skincare and hair growth to diet and spiritual practice. Though herbalism practices are quickly gaining mainstream popularity amidst heightened demand for herbalists and restorative care services, herbalism has been in my roots for generations as an Afro Latina. And in many ways, it’s been a means of survival.
For many people in my family and community, herbalism was a way of staying out of medical debt. We couldn’t afford the best health care possible; most of us were raised on Medicaid. This type of insurance is typically provided by doctors who are not from the neighbourhoods they work in and are therefore disconnected from their patients and their struggles. Most of the time, these doctors are overworked in urban communities and at low-funded facilities. The wait times are long, and we usually leave feeling beside ourselves. Herbalism is a way of reclaiming traditional roots while providing ourselves with the healthcare and compassion we deserve.
According to herbalist Brooklyn Guillebeau, lack of compassion in the medical space is a common narrative surrounding Black and brown people. “Racial inequality has poisoned the healthcare system. Many Black people have been misinformed, ignored, and undermined by ‘professionals’ that we’re supposed to trust.” She explains, “We couldn’t depend on the healthcare system to take our emotional and physical state seriously. Black people are losing their lives due to the lack of compassion from many doctors, who just see us as statistics. ”
And for many Black and brown women like me on TikTok, herbalism goes far beyond the #foryoupage. According to author and nutritionist Afya Ibomu; Black enslaved women used herbalism to remain connected with their African heritage — similar to today. Throughout history, Black women in America have been cooks, gardeners, herbalists, midwives, nurses, and more. “We brought rice from Africa when we were stolen by Europeans and used our knowledge to start [what would become] the rice trade in the United States,” Ibomu continues. “During the enslavement of Africans, Black women would have to cater their cooking styles to European palettes. We used our knowledge of herbs and spices to make their meals taste good.”
Of course, enslaved Black women also cooked for their own families and themselves, as well. “Black women used their ability to make food taste good to show their love [for their families]. This cuisine became known as soul food; it’s now a tradition in the Black community and America. Black women always do their best in the circumstances they find themselves in.”
As the U.S became more industrialised, the days of farming fresh foods came to a near end. People began to purchase more processed foods. This also became a time when Black women were choosing more soul food options. Afya adds, “Naturally, this caused a movement away from herbalistic traditions.” The herbalist lifestyle has faded in and out of the Black American community throughout the years. However, there are smaller communities that have held onto their traditional roots like the Rastafarian spiritual practice for example.
Herbalism today is dominated by white, western herbalists--many of whom are adopting and profiting from Black, Asian and Indigenous practices. Herbalists Guillebeau and Brianna Cherniak have used their TikTok platforms to reconnect with their roots while helping Black women heal through herbalism. For them, herbalism is a way of reclaiming their body and ancestry.
“Everything we know in western herbalism was taken from indigenous and African peoples,” Cherniak tells R29Unbothered. “Herbalism [has been] brought over to the western world, repackaged, and sold to the masses. This knowledge is ours. Reconnecting with that truth is important.”
Guillebeau and her business partner are the owners of Bee and Tee’s Botanicals, an online plant based product store. “We noticed that Black representation in holistic health care is lacking. It’s time for us to reclaim our traditional roots and heal one another,” they share. “We have had so many young, innovative Black individuals who want to become herbalists. They want to learn; they want to teach their families. That's where it starts. You have to start with the youth, and this knowledge will travel for generations on.”
“I think there is a new generation of herbalists, doulas, and holistic healers in the Black community,” says Ibomu. “Our inner knowing from our ancestors is waking us up to reclaim our native healing ways.The beautiful thing is that herbal and ancient ways of healing are working. I believe this is what is spreading among Black women and the Black community.”
Despite herbalism practices being carried on through generations, there has been a significant disconnect due to lack of accessibility and information for those who live in urban communities. The rediscovery of herbalism is now becoming the beginning of a rebirth — a reconnection with what once was. “We’re reclaiming what is ours. Embodying what our ancestors always imagined us to be. If you are of African descent, you probably have a medicine woman or a healer in your bloodline,” Cherniak states.
Recently, the Black Tiktok community has not been shy about vocalizing their issues on the app. Many have talked about feeling robbed by white creators who have constantly repurposed their culture, creativity, and content. Since then, the Black community on TikTok, especially Black women, continue to blossom as their most authentic selves, unapologetically reclaiming their culture and creativity that has been in their ancestry for generations. A great example of this is herbalism. After a less than easy year, the herbalist movement on TikTok has inspired many Black women to reflect on the importance of deep healing. Women of colour, including myself, are seeing the beauty in not playing the role of the “strong woman” and now, we’re facing our traumas and allowing ourselves to feel.
“Herbalism has taught me that every single thing is interconnected,” says Cherniak. “We are not separate from nature. We are just nature experiencing itself. The same way trees have roots, a trunk, branches, and leaves, all of our body systems connect.”
“Herbalism is mending Black women back together,” Guillebeau shares. “We are natural-born healers, and we are reverting to the ways of our ancestors. Black women are freeing themselves from the constraints of this world that have held them down. We are taking healthcare back into our hands through herbalism and healing the ones around us. It’s time for us to think about ourselves; it’s time for us to bring our community back together. Most importantly, it’s time for us to be free.”