I was fairly new to the study of plant medicine when I was introduced to herbalist Sade Musa, who leads the community education and healing projectRoots of Resistance. Part of my commitment to self-care and reducing harm meant getting in touch with Mother Earth and learning to seek her out in moments of overwhelm, but it was frustrating that most of the traditions I was being introduced to were European or repackaged indigenous practices. I was starting to feel like the only way to get in touch with my roots was to take every racist’s favorite advice and “go back to Africa.”
It was Musa who helped me realize the connection I was seeking could be found in my American homeland. In between posting herbal tea and tincture recipes, Musa uses her platform to call out popular herbalism texts for subtle and overt racism. She talks about how Black healing traditions are not just the foundation of White herbalism, but White Western medicine. She helps students reclaim herbs like turmeric and ashwagandha, which are typically attributed to Ayurvedic medicine but have been used by indigenous Africans for just as long and in similar ways.
At the center of Musa’s work is bodily autonomy. She says that “bodily autonomy is really key for anti-colonialism resistance, but particularly Black resistance. Whether we’re talking about emancipation from slavery or incarceration or medical apartheid, we’re talking about bodily autonomy. When we give people the skills to heal themselves as much as possible and connect that to how our ancestors would heal themselves as an act of resistance and self-determination, they gain the confidence to push back against the running narrative.”
Musa ended up with a career in herbalism despite that as an infant she nearly died because of herbal practices. Less than a year old and dangerously ill, Musa was taken to a Western doctor to be diagnosed, with plans to have her treated by a local healer. The problem came when Musa was misdiagnosed with mumps, so when her mother took her to a neighborhood medicine woman, the wrong treatment was administered.
As Sade explains it, “It’s a miracle I didn’t die. What did happen was it caused my neck to explode, and I had a hole in my neck. For years afterward my mom would massage vitamin E oil into my neck to reduce the scarring and to this day I still have huge scars on my neck. All because of lack of access to quality Western care and lack of follow-up.”
As Musa grew up, she couldn’t ignore how pervasive chronic illness plagued her community.
“I’m looking around and seeing all of these really sick people, a lot of cancer, diabetes, degenerative bones and tissue, so many things that were caused not just by personal behavior, but environmental racism and extreme stress. That’s how I realized that was an area that I wanted to work in.”
She began by studying pre-med, but switched direction just before entering medical school and became a medical researcher. She had hoped at the time to help diversify the medical research field, but was forced to leave due to a violently racist work environment. Biding time while she figured out her next step, Musa began teaching nutrition and herbalism classes in her community.
“Given that I was poor, I was also burdened with having to support my entire family, so I never even considered herbalism as a long-term option. Then as I began to get more serious in my studies and work with more people, I realized I could make a difference. It might not be as widespread as if I had done research in a lab, but teaching someone how to manage their diabetes or their blood pressure or take a few less pain pills per month or per week, that has a really big impact in their lives.”