Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Legends
Narrative

Folk Medicine, Copper Penny

UB: Ok, well I’ll tell you the story about Mom Mae

N: Mom Mae?

UB: Um, her her name, Mae, was her name

N: ok

UB: and, um,  we called her Mom Mae, cause, she was a mother, a mother to a lot of people growing up. And Mom Mae was born into slavery

N: mhm

UB: um, around 1857 or something like that. When I, (clears throat) when she first came to the community where I was born, which was public housing,

N: mhm

UB: in Chester, um, she was already in her 80s and that was, uh, that was around 1942, right at the, uh, after we had entered into, the United States had entered into the World War 2

N: mhm

UB: um Mom Mae, um we often referred to her as a witch doctor

N: mhm

UB: Um, but that was because we didn’t know what else to call her. But she was a, uh, a person who practiced folk medicine

N: mhm

UB: and where she got all of this knowledge, um, I really don’t know but I believe, um, much of it came from West Africa

N: mhm

UB: um, her mother was also born into slavery, um, and during that time, uh, in the early 40s, I was born in 41, 1941, um, doctors were not available for the most part to black people

N: mhm

UB: and it was a time, uh, that, uh, that penicillin had been discovered but all that was being produced was being used by the military.

N: Mhm.

UB: and I, I, and it just wasn’t available to people, uh, who were seriously ill, and I was one of those people, with pneumonia

N: mhm

UB: um so, in my neighborhood, when people got sick they called Mom Mae

N: mhm

UB: to come and, and to uh, and to help out. Now She understood a lot of things, about medicine and curing people

N: mhm

UB: but she couldn’t explain, she couldn’t explain how she knew it

N: mhm

UB: uh, for example, she knew that um, uh that garlic had an antibiotic properties, she also knew that honey had antibiotic properties. And so she used garlic and she used honey, in a number of cases, cuts, infections, stuff like that.

N: mhm

UB: um, she, she also knew, and and this was very interesting to me, many of the households in my community, uh, would keep, there were no refrigerators, there were ice boxes with blocks of ice in them, but in the icebox, you would find a, uh, a small cup with, uh, vinegar in it

N: mhm

UB: and a penny, a copper penny

N: mhm

UB: and, I don’t know whether you’ve had any chemistry or not, or if you would understand what would happen-

N: Not since 15 (says with a chuckle)

UB: Not since you were 15, ok so the penny, the copper penny and the vinegar interact, uh, form the chemical reaction

N: mhm

UB: and it produced, uh, copper acetate. Now Mom Mae knew nothing about copper acetate or chemistry she just knew that when the penny turned blue, blue-green, that you could rub that penny on sores and it would cure fungal infections

N: interesting

UB: Copper acetate is a, is a fungicide

N: mhm

UB: and when I was growing up, it was really common for ring worms to be spread around from one child to another and ring worms are caused by a fungus infection and there’s lots of skin infections, um um, that are caused by fungus, getting into scratches. So you take the penny after it turned green and rub it on the, on the sore, and it would cure it.

N: interesting

UB: and, and, we all, we all knew that that’s what was going on but we didn’t understand it, not until I was an adult and looked back on this that I see what she knew and how she did it

 

Folk medicine is a staple in culture, ancient and modern, and is a basis of much modern medicine. Thus use of folk medicine is seen by some to be a source of magic, often being practiced by a select chosen few such as shaman, witch doctors and medicine men, for example. This bit of folklore was given to me by an informant, now in his late 70s, who experienced it first hand, and was then retold it as he grew up. He remembers it because of all the help this woman, Mom Mae, brought to his community. Mom Mae was not a trained doctor, but someone who was able to learn these things, probably through oral tradition, a show of her West African heritage that had survived through the atrocities of slavery. It is interesting to see how other can survive without the use of modern medicine. I interpret this as proof that the idea of “modern science” is not so modern, but acts as an example of the concept of colonizing what is often the culture of people of color and calling it new and innovative. My informant sees it as extraordinary that this woman came into his community and was able to help so many people, seeing the circumstances of the story, I agree, given her age, background, the year, etc, this woman was a god sent to a community in need. She, to me, represents those who dedicate themselves to helping others out of care, sharing their knowledge for good.

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