A Conversation on Tea Culture, Ritual, and Spirituality with Charmaine Bee of Gullah Girl Tea

Interview by Lauren Ash. Photography by Nasozi Kakembo.

Charmaine Bee, the Founder of Gullah Girl Tea, is someone you could speak with for hours. Well traveled throughout the diaspora and incredibly knowledgeable about herbs and natural healing, she offers a lot of divine wisdom fundamentally rooted in her experiences growing up in the South amidst Gullah culture and rooted in what she has learned as a woman of color cultivating her craft as a healing artist and entrepreneur. Zakkiyyah and I have been sipping on Gullah Girl Tea, and sharing her teas with our community, since she first gifted us with some amazing healing blends in December. Issue 003: Spirituality offered the perfect opportunity for us to share more about Charmaine, and Gullah Girl Tea, as deeply spiritual and aligned with wellness and self-care. Be sure to follow Gullah Girl Tea on Instagram and on Twitter @GullahGirlTea and stock your cabinet, or gift a friend, with some Gullah Girl tea or tinctures.

LA: Something really strikes me from your website. You mention “tea culture” a lot. How do you perceive and experience a culture surrounding tea?

CB: It’s shifted and evolved, for me. Growing up, tea culture in my family was simply defined by drinking tea when we were sick. That was the only time we drank tea. There was rarely drinking for enjoyment; we didn’t drink iced tea. Hot tea was delivered when you had a cold coming on or when you were shifting out of a cold. And it was Lipton’s black tea. There was always this association of drinking tea when there was an illness.

The next step of tea culture, for me, was upon learning about various teas as an enjoyable healing beverage. The only tea that I knew about and drank growing up was Lipton’s black tea. So when I left home and began learning about different ways to approach wellness through food and through drinking, everything opened up. I learned about white teas, herbal teas and oolong teas. I previously learned about Life Everlasting and the herbs people drank to cure the flu at home, but I didn’t really know about my Grandmother working with these leaves. There was a period of time when I was exploring tea as a healing beverage and learning about different processes of refining the leaves and oxidation. I began to understand the healing properties of tea but also how we can enjoy it as beverage. People who drink tea to relax, people who drink tea as part of a meditation ritual, and people who drink tea when they want to feel energized. It doesn’t have to be this beverage that you go to just when you’re sick. I think my personal tea culture practices grew with these understandings.

So, I learned how tea can be engaged in a way where you experience enjoyment and healing at the same time. That’s now how I approach making my blends. I want them to be aesthetically beautiful, to smell really good, and to have a healing component.

LA: Do you have a personal tea ritual?

CB: Every morning without fail, first thing I do is meditate. Next thing I do is enjoy an herbal tea, usually. Today it was a black tea. Usually lemon balm is the base. It sets the tone for a calm day. Because the culture of New York is so quick and fast paced, my personal tea ritual sets my day. I have a lot of those things going on and my personal tea ritual allows me to set the day.

My community tea ritual and tea culture includes me thinking about my friends, who I may have not seen for awhile, who will be gathering together. I think about the intention of the gathering. Is it an artists space? Can I bring in teas that support this creativity? Teas that calm the mind and promote creativity. My approach is similar to Karen Rose, my teacher in herbalism: making medicine that tastes good as well as addresses a healing issue. That is a really big thing that she passed onto her apprentices.

LA: Beautiful! You spoke a lot about healing and ritual. You’re a business owner and it would perhaps be easy, because of a seeming need to focus more on getting things "done," to disengage from the spiritual, ritualistic elements of tea. Did you figure out early on, or later, that you would have to cultivate ritual in order to stay calm amidst a busy city and focused as an entrepreneur?

CB: It may have been a bit of both. Ritual was always a part of how I grew up. I grew up in the church. I had ritual every Sunday. I went to church every Sunday without fail. Every Thursday there was choir rehearsal [laughs] Every Monday evening there was usher rehearsal. Having life structured around the space of ritual was a really big part of my upbringing. When I left home, that was one of the first things that I stepped away from to define my own spirituality and my own ritual and what worked well for me. Although I do enjoy going into church spaces and enjoy the music in church, particularly black church services in other parts of the world, that ritual doesn’t necessarily align with what works best for me now. I have to say it has been an ongoing journey.

When I left home I started learning about different foods and beverages for healing and everything alternative to the way I grew up in South Carolina. You know, as soon as you leave home you have conversations with people from different spiritual backgrounds, different class backgrounds, you’re inundated with people who look like you and with people who don’t look like you.

Outside of my family, the church was my skeleton and my framing for how I identified with ritual. I definitely have to say that when I left the house and left the church at the same time and began learning about healing I dove right in to learning about other forms of healing traditions and practices. I also began learning about the history of Gullah culture and where our language came from. I started learning about how African spirituality manifests in the diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean, South America, and South Carolina. I learned about Yoruba traditions in Nigeria. I went to Jamaica and Cuba to see how spiritual traditions manifest in the revivalist churches and spiritual houses of Cuba. I went back home and then I went to Brazil and I went to the black churches there and I was like “wow, these services are really similar to the Baptist church experience from back home!” Also, with yoga practice I started learning about Buddhism and Hinduism and started looking at the Hindu deities and started learning about the similarities between those deities and orishas. I began seeing large connections. This was over a decade of ingesting, learning, and going to different places. A lot of it really brought me back home to look at our family and our passage as Gullah people. My Grandmother’s passage as a woman who spoke Gullah but who didn’t go to the Baptist church, but who went to the Methodist church....and my Mom went to the Methodist church. I was like “how did that happen?”

My ritual today begins with meditation; my yoga practice is one that is rooted is in Kundalini; while I’m in my Kundalini practice I’m thinking about my ancestors who practiced Christianity. When I’m meditating, I’m thinking about my Grandmother. While I’m taking hour-long walks, that is even a ritual. To keep me calm in the city. When I first moved to New York, I was like “this is a lot of energy!” and I wondered how to center myself. I really do feel like I’m coming to this place of home and it does relate to being Southern and Gullah, and is also related to this larger African, diaspora, spiritual network, which is related to a larger spiritual network.

LA: What’s on the horizon for Gullah Girl Tea? You offer teas, tinctures, tea gatherings...what’s next?

CB: There are a couple of things. Last year, during Afro Punk, a good friend of mine introduced me to the Candida cleanse. I learned how to cut sugar out of my diet. This has been a lifelong journey for me, especially with family members who are diabetic. Sugar is something that I tend to go to when things are hectic or when I get out of my ritual. It’s one of those things I’m trying to remove for life or have in small moderation. While I was learning of this cleanse, I offered Gullah Girl Tea tinctures at Afro Punk. My tinctures are alcohol-based. And lot of them have honey in them. This goes back to what I learned with my herbalist: to have medicine taste good. I incorporated some of that into my practice. At Afro Punk I would hand out tinctures and encountered people who were really curious about the intentions behind the tinctures and the herbs included in them, but did not want to consume them because they were alcohol-based. People were seriously trying to eliminate sugar from their diet, even if only for a short period of time. So, inspired by that experience, one project I’m working on now is to make tincture variations of all of my teas, including the Creativity Tea, the Post Break-up Tea, the RestFULL Tea. And I’m working on making a non-alcohol version of my tinctures for people who are interested in the intention behind the blends, and interested in supporting Gullah Girl Tea, but who don’t want to compromise whatever health cleanse or path they are on. So, as a part of my Kickstarter, I took a lot of the funds and invested in my herbs and in vegetable glycerin. Those will be ready by the fall.

LA: Yay!

CB: Yes! [Laughs] I’m excited about that! And, vegetable glycerin is still pretty naturally sweet. Also, I went over my Kickstarter goal by almost $1,000 which is really exciting! One of the things I want to do with that money is a YouTube channel where I share about herbal tea, recipes, and offer a space for people who can get information for free and learn about the herbs that they can put together themselves. Maybe someone will be inspired to become an apprentice in herbalism themselves! I just want to create a fun, accessible space where we talk about tea. I might have some of my friends come on and drink tea and make things together. I’m working on that project right now.

And I'm getting all of the Kickstarter rewards out to everyone who generously supported. I've been traveling a lot since the beginning of the year. Now I'm finally in one place with all of my teas. I called a customer recently to let her know that I was out of some teas and wanted to let her know her alternatives and we ended up speaking for about fifteen minutes. She was telling me about her family from my hometown. People are so generous with their own stories and I want to continue to share my own!

LA: That goes back to that first question about tea culture. It promotes dialogue and allows for different stories to open up. One last question, after studying herbs for awhile, like some people experience when studying crystals, have you experienced an intuitive knowledge and understanding when interacting with herbs?

CB: Yes! That does happen. I had a co-worker, who told me he had trouble sleeping at night and asked me what I would recommend. I was at the beginning of my herbalism training. I asked him some questions and kept seeing the color yellow. It just wouldn't leave my head. I started thinking about the liver. And thought "oh, bile is yellow!" I went back to what I had learned recently during my level 1 herbalism training. Maybe this is related in addition to some insomnia because he is up late at night on his laptop and then shuts the laptop and rolls over to try to sleep. That's definitely contributing to him sleeping throughout the night, but I thought something else was going on. So, I incorporated an herb for the liver. After that, I went to my teacher. I told her about my coworker and how I kept seeing yellow and that I thought he needed dandelion. And she said "yes, that's a beautiful formula!" I feel so fortunate to have had a teacher who is a holistic herbalist. She knows pharmacology, but she also honors the spiritual and the emotional aspects of working with herbs. That is how she taught me and how she teachers all of her apprentices. I feel really fortunate to have been nurtured in that training. Her affirming that was really affirming.

So, when I hear something in my intuition, even if it seems like this person wasn't bringing up a certain issue, I follow it. I research what I don't know, I go to my teachers, and I continue to learn. Studying herbalism and teas, especially after my Saturn Return, I know that my intuition is on point. You know, how we know that we have strong instincts, yet we question if we're on the right path or if we;re doing the right thing. For me, it's just been this journey of "yes! my gut is always on point!" It's the voice of my ancestors. It never fails me. It's definitely a part of how I practice.