Words: Simon Lunkenheimer
Photography: Shakira Hunt
Words: Simon Lunkenheimer
Photography: Shakira Hunt
A couple of weeks ago our author had a deep and emotional conversation with Tsehaitu Abye, the person behind Black Dragons Breakfast Club — a cannabis education and empowering society based in Philadelphia (U.S.A.). Her activity, instructive work and shared knowledge inspired us the whole way from April 2020 till here and her’s is the credit to the theme of this issue: cannabis is medicine. We will never get tired of repeating this mantra. Please get to know the cannabis activist reclaiming the narrative.
GROWTH REQUIRES DISCOMFORT
Tsehaitu, which is pronounced “say hi to” as she explains on her social media, was born in Philadelphia. From being a workers organiser for several years to working on a cannabis farm with her partner to the formation of different brands, like cannabisnoir – in hindsight her development seems to have taken the necessary stages in a progressions to the founding of Tsehaitu’s Black Dragons Breakfast Club: a safe space for conversations on cannabis, destigmatisation and related topics as well as healthy living and self-realisation. As she proclaims: “Black Dragon Breakfast Club is not a place for discrimination or separation. It is inclusive though it has a Black and female first policy.” Her parents have Ethiopian and Hawaiian roots and quite soon in her childhood their family would move to Hawaii, where her dad worked as a teacher while her mom was raising the kids and early on teaching them about the importance of wholesome food and knowledge of self. As Tsehaitu said: “I would spend half my childhood in these Ashrams, learning about Yoga, Buddhism and the likes.” Still in Hawaii she got her bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies. These multi-cultural influences, a later discovered generational trauma alongside her heritage, and a lot of different experiences shaped her as a person and made her become the organiser and leading figure she is today. But one might almost refer to her as a shaman or a chief, because the vibe she gives off is far from jovial or superior in a discriminating sense. Her attitude is very reminding of a first-among-equals like understanding of leadership paired with an accountability for lived experiences.
This understanding of accountability probably stems from her years in worker organisation, where she was “working for a good cause in a rigged system” as she realised. While worker unions are organised likely to most endeavours under capitalism, they adapted and applied the systematics they were originally set up to subvert. So Tsehaitu was caught in a precarious work situation, where her skills would prevent her from being promoted. “I actually was too good at organising people in the streets, so they would not promote me to a position away from the street organisational level.” This struggle found its closure in a phone call later on, where Tsehaitu called out a well known union recruiter and former boss of hers for being a racist gate keeper. The same guy that tried to employ her on a low paying wage as an emblem of identity politics for some union because of her blackness and assumed queerness, showing his inherently racist logic. She studied for another degree in Business Administration and worked with a start-up for the unjust compensation of 100 dollar a week, so Tsehaitu was already concerned with her situation as Black woman in America and in and out of depressive states, when she learned that her father actually had not left the family by will but was incarcerated and then deported for the cultivation of marihuana. Yet another terrible case of the war on drugs being a cultural war and a war on POC-communities, where a teacher and father was deported for growing cannabis, a crime that is non-violent, a crime without a victim. So she realised things had to change: quitting the unjust work exploitation and consequently reclaiming agency through self-employment and selfhood through vision: Black Dragon Breakfast Club was born and Tsehaitu got in contact with her father to work through their history meanwhile visiting Ethiopia to trace her roots.
“My mother was definitely a part of that 70s guru alternative type of energy. It was never pressed on me, but I always appreciated these open eclectic spaces where it was all about love, elevating yourself, different colours of people, different classes of people — when you where in this space — something greater happens. So I know we got the capacity to do this.”
TAKING THE SHAME OUT OF IT
This capacity — to change perspective and to achieve well being, the capacity for inclusiveness and mutual support — seems to be at the foundation of Black Dragon Breakfast Club through Tsehaitu’s endeavour to change the perception of cannabis. As she told us, it all came together successively. When she curiously visited a cannabis conference alongside a group of friends and realised there were mostly white business men talking numbers, she felt the urge to agitate BiPOC people into this cultural space with its creative affiliations and its indigenous roots.
With its capacity to influence our state of being through stimulation, relaxation and healing cannabis helped Tsehaitu to better her way of living. If the persistent stoner cliche is a lazy, confused, uninspired loner, Tsehaitu is proving the opposite to be possible and wants us to join in. So instead of advertising for the blind consumption of convenient products (talking numbers), she agitates people to be proactive and form community around cannabis (talking perspectives).
Tsehaitu herself always kept it quite traditional: she told us that she has been smoking her weed with tobacco for a long time. Back in Hawaii it was spliffs because of her European friends and when she came to Philadelphia she started smoking blunts because she wanted to appear rough and tough like the guys. That is so real, and we feel the aesthetics but Tsehaitu’s journey into well being also brings with it the need to cut off tobacco or at least to not be relying on it: “Currently for me, that’s what I am trying to deal with: I have consumed blunts and tobacco with my cannabis out of a cultural thing, out of wanting to be a part of some vibe or a clique, out of wanting to be cool. And I see myself now needing to lean myself off of it, but I want to separate the judgement out of it and to be able to come from a place of care for your body and I guess trying to take the shame out of it.”
As with the fear of stigmatisation due to cannabis use, there is also shame involved in tackling bad habits and addiction. Both problems circulate around the assumed unspeakable state of deviance and aberration and anybody can find themselves in this circle of unspeakable shame from time to time, but to tackle problems unapologetic is another main pillar to Black Dragon Breakfast Club communal momentum: there is mutual respect in communication. As Tsehaitu put it: “When someone chose to say one thing is bad over the other, I was like “your are a meat eater, you eat Mc Donalds, you smoke cigarettes, you drink alcohol every night, and you wanna criticise my cannabis and my tobacco on weekends? You don’t make any sense to me!” So she is informed, she wants to quit, but on her own account. That is within boundaries, and to know and respect boundaries is key to accountability. Tsehaitu told us growth requires discomfort and we want to add that accountability then is key to recognise your struggle for growth from someone else’s.
“Once you get your [medical marihuana] card, it is still federally illegal. Once this changes, it will still be the shame and the stigma and the history, that you gonna have to work through. It is also really expensive. You gonna be dealing with your family members and different people looking at you in different ways. That’s why we need community!”
“Cannabis is Medicine” sounds like a bold claim to most people, especially if they are to believe that medicine can only be bought in a pharmacy. Now cannabis and related products are available in pharmacies and even in drug stores in some places, but they have been medicine ever since. Just cause some system lays claim upon it, does not change its essential aspects. The same goes for the food you eat or not, your routines, your self-worth as well as the consumption of drugs and meds — medicine or better yet a medical treatment should contain more than a shortcut to relaxation or escapism from pain. Just like a pill you drop so you can continue eating unhealthy, this will only shift the problem and in most cases aggravate the problem over time. And this is where Tsehaitu comes into play. She is not a doctor and not a scientific researcher, and even though she is very informed in this medical-scientific segment, her approach seems more wholistic. In the alternative space of health conscious people, there can often be a lot of elitism. So back in Philly she asked herself: “Why do people eat so bad?” and the answer is: “There is food deserts everywhere. Where are people gonna get vegetables? And then there is sugar, it is causing diabetes, right? But are we overanalysing and criticising people because of the sugar they are consuming? We don’t. Black people in the community and the neighbourhoods don’t even have healthy places to eat and that’s true. The money that my mom had when we were younger, she spend all on food. We would travel an hour to get to a grocery store with healthy food.”
As we talked it became clear, Tsehaitu is far from a western or any narrow-minded understanding of medicine. Everything you apply or do to better your personal state can be viewed as medicine or therapy. And it seems as for Tsehaitu’s personal growth it was an important step to discern between cannabis as a reliable option for anxiety relief and the shame involved in the stigma, so she can have the one without the other. To take in the psychological and spiritual but also recreational benefits without being criminalised and apathologized; without the guilty conscious, the degrading stigmatisation and the insecurities. This seems to be key to her understanding of cannabis as medicine. An understanding that is not only based on deductions and science, but an understanding that is also very spiritualistic and connected to communal- and self-care.
A state of mindfulness, an urge for knowledge of self and a blunt — that could be the start of a deep conversation or meditation, something to support our healing. Because in this way you will not strive for perfection as in highly functioning but for balance as in well being. Most problems will not dissolve simply because we can consume more legally: “Once you get your card, it is still federally illegal. Once this changes, it will still be the shame and the stigma and the history, that you gonna have to work through. It is also really expensive. You gonna be dealing with your family members and different people looking at you in different ways. That’s why we need community!” One can use cannabis, not solely as another crutch to escape or forget for short terms, but as a tool to enrich our experiences, as a stimulant in communication or even as an instrument in a social or meditative ritual.
Get to know more about the Dragon’s temple: