Charles Johnson IV always wanted to be a dad.
And so, when he found out he was welcoming his first son, Charles V, with wife Kira Johnson in September of 2015, he was, in his own words—over the moon. The news that the two would be welcoming a second son in April of 2016 only heightened his excitement about fatherhood. Charles and Kira relocated to Los Angeles, and sought out a “shiny” hospital in Beverly Hills, Cedars-Sinai, to ensure optimal care. It had a stellar reputation—it was named one of the best hospitals in the United States, and is known for excelling at caring for the most medically complex patients across various specialties.
On April 12th, 2016, at their doctor’s recommendation, Kira and Charles went into Cedars-Sinai for a routine scheduled C-section, and for what was supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a procedure for a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy ended in life-altering tragedy. Their son, Langston, was born healthy—but, after over ten hours of hemorrhaging, Kira passed away.
Charles Johnson joined members of the Mama Glow Doula Training Program at Brown University to detail Kira’s tragic birthing experience, honor her legacy, and tell the story of how he harnessed his pain into his fight for Black women and birthing people everywhere. The Mama Glow Doula Training Program is the lab-component of a course aptly titled Reproductive In/Justice. In the course, students work to use the lens of reproductive justice to interrogate the entanglement of long-standing histories of white supremacy and capitalism with some of our nation’s most pressing contemporary crises related to reproduction.
Mama Glow Founder, Latham Thomas, who was appointed as Visiting Professor of the Practice of Gender Studies in Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, invited Charles Johnson with the goal of getting students to grapple with the question of what it means to be directly impacted by systemic failure.
“We are in a place of education and scholarship,” says Thomas, “A lot of what students are listening to, reading and writing about is from a place of theory, but from above. While Charles is an advocate, he is also an impacted individual.” The audience included students from a wide range of educational backgrounds—pre-med, biology, and other science related majors; graduate and public health students; and social sciences, such as medical anthropology and bioethics—all united by their interest in the principles of birthwork.
When recounting all the things that went wrong the morning of Kira’s passing, Charles Johnson cites what he calls a “compassion deficit” as the root. In a moment of desperation after hours of Kira going without any treatment besides IV fluid, Johnson pleaded with a nurse, who asserted that his wife “just [wasn’t] a priority” at that moment. Unfortunately, their lack of care on a fundamental level would start the cascade of events that resulted in Kira’s death.
Johnson’s advocacy work started with his grieving process. “As the days turned to weeks, and my world got turned upside down, and I was trying so desperately to put the pieces back together, I began to hear stories.” With Johnson’s bereavement process came the illumination of the sacred and comforting nature of storytelling. Unfortunately, the stories spoke to a maternal health landscape that brought more fear and tragedy than comfort. “I heard stories of other families that had horrific birthing experiences and other mothers that experienced outrageous instances of obstetric violence.” Johnson heard stories of mothers like Kira, who made the ultimate sacrifice while giving the gift of life. Initially, he deemed these stories to be comfort measures—attempts at supporting him during an incredibly difficult time. As he began to hear more and more stories, however, he realized that the birthing experience of many mothers around the world mirrored that of Kira’s.
“The more I was hearing these stories, the more I was thinking ‘something is not right’, and I began to do more research for myself. I came to understand that we were in the midst of a maternal mortality crisis, and it is shameful.” Johnson’s horror and shock were not limited to the fact of America’s maternal health crisis alone. Upon learning about the issue, he came to understand our nation’s routine, and often intentional, obscuration of women and birthing people. “I was struck by two things: how is this happening in our country, and how is this something that not everybody is talking about? How is this America’s dirty little secret?”
Many members of the audience look to make strides within the sphere of maternal health. For many people, that involves navigating complicated spheres that stand as uncharted terrain—like politics. When asked about what galvanized him to change others’ realities under these circumstances, Johnson expressed the necessity of resolve. “If there is something in this world, whether it directly affects you, or it doesn’t—but you believe that it should change—make it your business to make sure that it does. There is nothing special about me. I don’t have a background in advocacy. I’ve never been in politics. I just refuse to accept the hand that I’ve been dealt. I refuse to allow what happened to my family to happen to other families.”
For many people, the maternal health crisis is more than an amalgam of hard facts and statistics. The stories of those harmed and lost at its hands are personal and often engender feelings of anger, anxiety, and sadness. Johnson views advocacy as a medium for release. “There are so many things in my life that are beyond my control, and I wish they turned out differently. The only things that I can control and that I pour myself into are this work and my kids. This work is part of my process, because if not, I don’t know what I would be doing with this anger, and with these feelings.”
While Johnson acknowledges the significance of legislation, his organization centers material support first and foremost. He explained that directly interfacing with communities to ensure that they have tools, resources, and information is key to supporting their survival in the face of the unfavorable conditions he is tirelessly working to change. He also emphasizes that survival is not the threshold. He wants families to thrive.
“Women, families, mothers, birthing people in our country, at a bare minimum, should have the right to a safe, dignified, joyful birthing experience. That should be a fundamental human right.”