Manuscripts/Mixed Material [Harlem Conjure Man]
“Some of my customers have a dozen other names for cascara, like bear berry bark, pigeon berry bark, chittem wood, and so forth. I like sacred bush better. It takes a long time to learn all the names. You have to be careful. Take bear's root. That's something else. You take that for dropsy. Some people call it robin's rye, hair cap moss or golden maiden's hair. But poor robin's plantain is something different from robin's rye. Poor robin is used for warts. It's an astringent. Another name for it is rattlesnake weed.
“If you want chinchona, you ask for quinine. My herb customers have a better name. They call it priests' bark, which goes way back to the medieval Latin, pulvis jesuiticus. See, they know more about the history of medicines than most doctors.
“Most white people don't know how much they depend on herbs. There's been a widely advertised cough medicine on the market in recent years, for example. It's a good medicine. But what's it made from? Extract of thyme. Before most people ever heard of it, the people in Harlem were buying 10 cents worth of thyme and making a brew when they got a bad cough.
“It's the same way with ephedrine jelly. That's a popular cure for colds. It's nothing in the world but an extract of ma houng, a Chinese herb. In Harlem, they've been using ma houng ever since I can remember. You can pay a lot of money for a widely advertised tonic laxative. People around Harlem who know about herbs could tell you to get some dandelion root, rhubarb, sacred bark and a little May apple root and make your own. Ten to one, if you took this home-made remedy, you'd feel much better.”
And so, after these two little visits, you can readily see why I have been almost converted to the cause of roots and herbs. So much so that I am impelled to make a further, more exhaustive, search for the fascinating conjure lore of Harlem.