Like many others, last year was massively transformative and eye-opening for me. As we moved through the hardship of trying to process multiple acts of violence against Black bodies, I was left wondering how I can help; what can I possibly do to make a true difference in our community, fighting to be seen and heard. While the obvious and warranted focus for most was taking action against the multiple public atrocities, I focused my attention on a coinciding crisis that was not getting the same attention – the Black maternal health crisis. According to the CDC, Black women are two to five times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women; in some areas of the country like NYC this number increases to twelve times more likely. The US has the highest maternal mortality rates among developed countries. These numbers are completely unacceptable, especially because most maternal deaths are preventable.
As a new mother of two, I was shocked to start learning about the numerous Black women dying along the childbirth continuum – from during childbirth to a few hours or weeks postpartum. I was embarrassed that I had no idea this was happening to other women who looked like me and were celebrating the same milestone of bringing forth new life. As I continued to see stories about young Black mothers not making it through childbirth, leaving single Black fathers to raise children who will never have a chance to hug and kiss their mothers, I realized that this crisis is counteracting the efforts to heal and rebuild the Black family that so many young Black mothers and fathers are working to do on their own terms. I thought, how can we begin to make changes to the systemic inequalities that we are facing when the very beginning of so many Black infant’s lives are being marred with such irreparable loss. The necessary and passed due systemic changes must begin with ensuring our Black mothers and infants are able to make it out of the hospital and through the first year alive.
Once I decided to take action, I knew that the calling to be a doula was how I could do my part to support our community and advocate for Black mothers who are not being taken seriously in their concerns. But I still had so many questions: why is this happening so often, and how did we get to this point? As I was preparing for training, I was so excited to jump in and do some research independently. I came across a film from 1953 entitled All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story, which I coincidentally had to watch again a few weeks later for training. Though the Georgia Department of Public Health produced this film, it gave great insight into the colonization of the birth world and transition from the majority of births taking place at home to the push for birth to move to the hospital. The film followed grand midwife, Mrs. Mary Coley, as she was introduced to the new expectation for childbirth that was becoming highly standardized and technical. Black women (Grand midwives) who were a trusted part of the community and understood the experiences of the women giving birth were being replaced by white men who were ignorant of the culture and were focused on standardizing childbirth rather than allowing the women’s bodies to take the lead. This shift was detrimental to all birthing bodies but especially to Black women.
Not only were these Grand midwives who were well respected and valued members of their communities being removed from the birth experience, but Black birthing women now had to rely on being cared for by white men who were being fed stereotypes of Black women and Black motherhood in particular. One of the first readings I started for training was Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts. Though the facts in this book are so disturbing, it helped me to understand the historical context of how the government viewed, and often still views Black motherhood. Roberts makes it clear that reproduction and hence motherhood was one of the many ways Black people were made to seem lesser than their white counterparts. From slavery onward, reproduction and motherhood were used as tools for white supremacy to continue to thrive: “The degrading mythology about Black mothers is one aspect of a complex set of stereotypes that deny Black humanity in order to rationalize white supremacy.” [i] Why, if white doctors believed these myths would they be willing and eager to provide Black birthing women with top-tier care comparable to the care they provided to white women? Not only did these stereotypes have consequential effects on Black mothers, but other views about the Black race as a whole were put on the back of Black mothers, blaming them and their awful choices for why Black people were inferior:
As biological and social reproducers, it is only natural that Black mothers would be a key focus of this racist ideology. White childbearing is generally thought to be a beneficial activity…Black reproduction, on the other hand, is treated as a form of degeneracy…Black mothers, it is believed, transmit inferior physical traits to the product of conception through their genes. They damage their babies in the womb through their bad habits during pregnancy. Then they impart a deviant lifestyle to their children through their example. This damaging behavior on the part of Black mothers—not arrangements of power—explains the persistence of Black poverty and marginality. [ii]
These views did not magically disappear when the country became desegregated and Black women were then allowed to birth in the same hospitals as white women. No, these thoughts continue to persist on throughout the medical field. It is well documented that a large percentage of medical students and even doctors still believe that Black patients have a higher pain tolerance or even feel less pain altogether. It is also the negative images of Black mothers that persist, such as the Black single mother or the “welfare queen” that cause so much harm to birthing Black bodies. These viewpoints are the reason Black women are continuously ignored and undertreated. This also contributes to why so many Black women are afraid to speak up about how they feel and what they need.
To truly tackle the Black maternal health crisis, we need to continue discussing the history of how the problem started and how it continued, getting us to this point. We need to be including this conversation in general discussions about Black history. We also need to continue including medical professionals in these conversations to tackle the root of the problem, including relevant and factual information and solutions in medical training. As a birth worker, I am committed to remembering the historical context in my approach to supporting and advocating for my clients. With this issue’s historical context included in broader Black history conversations, we can widen the support of this issue, including more than birth workers, and work on dismantling the roots of the crisis, ensuring more of our mothers and infants are coming home together.
[i] Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts, pg 8
[ii] Pg. 9
Lawren Fortune is a mama of two busy bodies, three and almost one, and wife to her college sweetheart. She is a former corporate travel retail buyer who traded in her career in fashion for birth work, wanting to make a difference and advocate for Black birthing bodies. She loves reading, cooking with her daughter and pole dancing. She is in the process of getting her doula certification from Mama Glow and is founder of Birthing Reclaimed, based in the DMV area. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website and Instagram @birthingreclaimed coming soon.