In 2020, actress and activist Tatyana Ali wrote an essay titled Birthright in Essence magazine, where she detailed the experience of pregnancy and birth through the Black woman’s lens. In the essay, she unveiled a reality all too familiar for Black birthing people—navigating “paradoxical” feelings in the face of birth trauma. Excitement at the joy of bringing a child into the world, and indignance at the blatant refusal to honor her preferences for what the process looks like. Ali harnessed the galvanizing power of anger into a lifelong endeavor—to create safe birthing experiences for not only herself, but birthing people everywhere. Tatyana Ali talked about her birth trauma and her motivations within the birth space at the third Doula Expo, the first and only festival for birth workers, families, caregivers, and the brands and organizations underpinning their efforts.
Doula Expo Emcee Tatyana Ali and Mama Glow Founder Latham Thomas kicked off the second day of programming with a fireside chat, where they talked about what actuates Tatyana Ali in her advocacy efforts. Little known to the audience was that their similarities brought them to the same spaces long before the Doula Expo. Among their vast set of experiences is their work with Beverly Bond of global women’s empowerment brand and movement Black Girls Rock.
One medium through which Ali raises awareness about maternal health issues is speaking and writing. She opened the talk with her reflections on the power of storytelling and the role of Black women’s agency in the process. “We are storytellers because we’re human. That’s how we understand our experiences. That’s how we understand where we are in the world, and who we are. I also understand the importance of us being able to tell our own stories. For us to be able to drive what the narratives are about. I know that as an actor, I’m speaking for us. That’s a part of it. That’s how I was raised. There’s no line for me, in terms of my work as an actor and an activist,” she said.
For Tatyana Ali, speaking up is an act of compulsion, rather than intentionality. Her personal experiences only amplified her innate desire to represent and speak up for people. During the talk, she explained how her lactation experience sparked an entirely new journey of learning—one which aligned her with many birthing people and organizations such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance.
Two months into her pregnancy with her second child, she found herself on a stage in what she described as a “state of panic”—one that dissipated as she was comforted by birthing people with similar experiences, and the advocates working tirelessly to improve outcomes for them. “That was my exposure to the reproductive justice movement. That was my exposure to midwifery. I had heard the term doula, but I didn’t really know.” The radical potential of birth work lies in its ability to equip people with the knowledge to communicate their realities. “I was embraced by this community, and then I was able to speak about what happened.”
While storytelling felt natural to Ali, who has been acting since she was four years old, her initial lack of knowledge of the terminology that accurately captures birth trauma and the conditions conducive to it paralyzed her—until she started interfacing with people on the frontlines naming the deficiencies of the current system. “I didn’t even have the words before this experience.” Thomas echoed these sentiments. She talked about the importance of being able to name violence, and the brutalities and indignities that birthing people often experience. Not having the space to name them, said Thomas, results in a slow death—if not immediate.
“When we surface psychic wounds, which is what trauma is, and we actually put salve on it, it is usually through the opportunity to speak, be held, be seen, be recognized in our vulnerability, and to be embraced.”
Ali cites these major experiences as manifestations of what Black women go through on a daily basis. She expressed that while Black women have reached a level of liberation, they find themselves pushing through the weight of stigma more often than not. “When I go to the grocery store, I deal with stuff and I push through. When I go to my workplace, I deal with stuff, and I push through.” To Ali, creating new realities for Black birthing people is about rejecting the bias underlying the belief that Black women must suffer in silence. “There’s no room for that when you’re in labor. There’s no room for that when you need to birth your baby.”
The power of the Black birthing person’s voice goes beyond their ability to tell their stories. During the chat, Ali and Thomas stressed the importance of leaning into our voices in the political and legislative sphere. Ali expressed appreciation for the Kira Johnson Act, which was pushed by maternal health advocate and 4Kira4Moms Founder Charles Johnson, all while underscoring the need for additional progress. Like many other people fighting to improve outcomes for birthing people, Tatyana Ali’s ultimate wish is to get the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act passed—in its entirety.
“And when I think about the Momnibus bill, I want us to travel, go to cities, go to towns, and inform people about what this package is about and what it will do. It is the kind of policy that would infuse birth centers and training, and it includes research for indigenous communities. It would change things for everybody.”