#BlackLivesMatter: A Radical Afro-Descendant Midwifery and Birthing Stance On Systemic Genocide

momma africa

I have been grieving since the decision was made on Mike Brown. Since I got the news that Akai Gurley was gunned down and that there would be no charges for the murder of Eric Garner. It pains me to think of Amadou Diallo, who was killed when I was in high school in my own neighborhood, walking distance from my after-school program. #BlackLivesMatter is personal to me. And the personal is political. Because not only could these men be my brothers, I could have a son of mine shot because he has dark skin. I can be one of them. I am mourning the murders of Tarika Wilson, Aiyana Jones, Miriam Carey, Shereese Francis, Shantel Davis, Sharmel Edwards, Rekia Boyd, Tyisha Miller, Yvette Smith and countless other Black women who have been killed by police officers. I am enraged that Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Ken Holtzclaw was release from jail as he faces charges for sexually assaulting 7 different African American women while he was on duty. As a midwife, I am sick of knowing that not only are Black women being shot and killed, we are also being annihilated quietly at the hands of medical professionals.

I have been in an increasingly mounting state of utter rage since I realized that Black and Latina women have terrible outcomes in maternal and reproductive health. I can still remember how the information hit me like a ton of bricks during my birth doula training in 2010. African American women are four times as likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts. Research states that the infant mortality rate ranges from 4.8 per 1,000 live births for Central and South Americans to 7.3 per 1,000 live births for Puerto Ricans. My Quisqueyana roots’ island has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, seven times higher than the United States. We are more likely to have a C-section, and have low-weight premature babies. We also have the highest rates of infant mortality and morbidity. We have more complications. We are subject to receiving terrible care and not getting informed consent when we are getting reproductive and maternal care. Just this summer, it was brought to the attention of the United Nations that the United States is in violation of a U.N Convention on racism in healthcare. This is a serious matter. It is the number one reason I decided to become a midwife. Because it is an act of resistance and because women like me need a health care provider who understands the nuances of being Black and is interested in their health.

There are midwives who are aware of the disparities affecting women of color. It is not enough and we need more midwives to attend us. Especially because of the historic dismantling of Black granny midwives in this country, it is our responsibility to understand how this made low-income Black and Latina women subject to being sites of experimentation by obstetricians and gynecologists. I personally do not consider hospitals safe for women of color with uncomplicated pregnancies for a couple of reasons. African American and Latina women are likely to be living in poverty in this country. Low-income communities often have sub-par hospitals so the care they can get is not culturally sensitive and at times cruel and abusive. Furthermore, the trauma that can be experienced in a hospital sets the stage for the bond between mother and child, thus producing a cyclical dysfunction in our families that is not being nurtured by our current medical system. Black mothers do not often have the resources and support necessary to them to be able to have healthy pregnancies and postpartum periods.

Additionally, I am deeply insulted by the fact that I need to be licensed to practice midwifery. I am even more pissed off that I cannot legally practice in New York because I don’t have a masters degree but will be able to do so in New Jersey. Why is this infuriating? Because it was through the implementation of licensure that granny midwives were wiped out. It disrupted the tradition of apprenticeship  that our ancestral mothers brought with them from the African countries we were stolen from. I will get my license but reluctantly so, as it is a reminder that I must continually practice Sankofa and go back to fetch the knowledge that was stolen from us at the hands of the American medical system. I also cannot bring myself to get a masters degree in midwifery. I have had to jump through one hoop to get this far and stay as close as I could to apprenticeship. I am not doing it again.

To promote birth outside of a hospital birth is one of the most radical things I can do for my women. They have been bamboozled by modern medicine to hand over their bodies without receiving the respect they deserve. The racism that they are likely to face in their routine gynecological and maternal care is alarming and quite frankly, I am sick of hearing the stories. I would be remiss not to mention forced sterilization on women of color, such as the infamous “La Operacion” that deceitfully sterilized Boricua women in Borinquien; women of color have also been sterilized while incarcerated and probably without consent. African American and Latina women can benefit greatly from the midwifery model of care that would give them a much more sympathetic ear and care centered around them. To have more midwives of color in our communities would further provide health care professionals that understand their reality and can help advise them on their health. We can promote the uncovering of knowledge that is still being held in our grandmothers and mothers by supporting community health plans and meeting spaces. Our future generations depend on us being radical about our bodies.

Radical comes from the Latin word “radix” meaning “root”. The root of many human dis-eases begins at birth. Racism is a stressful condition to live in. When a person is in a state of chronic stress, they are susceptible to illness because their bodies are out of balance. Stress causes hypertension, which is one of the dis-eases African American and Latino people suffer from. It is not a coincidence that living under the conditions we do and having this be our state of being for generations is continuing to keep us sick. For people of color, we must not only address other systematic ills such as the gunning down of our women and men but also understanding how this genocide begins in the womb.

I stand for justice and for respecting Black lives. I think so much of the mothers that must bury their children when they are murdered. Black and Latina mothers must carry the burden of fearing their child might be killed. Our hearts are broken in a way that most won’t understand. What justice is this that we must explain to our children at some undetermined point that they might lose their lives to a reckless cop? Often, when women of color around me see the violence threatening to snuff us out, they are reluctant to have children. While that is an understandable sentiment and I don’t judge the choice, a conversation I had made me aware that we need to do the opposite. Remember the infanticide that would occur on the Transatlantic Slave Trade when our ancestral mothers wanted to save their children from our current fate; remember the other infanticides when we got to this side of the globe. Remember the forceful sterilization that has happened and is happening to women of color around the world. Remember we have the highest rate of infant and maternal mortality in this country. This is a full-on genocide. The reason I have no tolerance for neutrality is because this has been going on for 522 years now. I’m sick of this shit. To get us to psychologically subscribe is part of that. They are not only murdering us on sight but also before we even get here, and choosing to birth is an act of resistance. I encourage us to love our children shamelessly and deeply. Fight to preserve our lives. Demand and seek better healthcare and birthing options. Resist. Revolt. Rebel. I will do my part to expose the inequities and create new possibilities for my people.

The Postpartum: Reflections After Midwifery School

Sometimes, after a woman gives birth, they need to tell their story over and over again because they are trying to put the pieces together to an otherwise indescribable event: birth. The magnitude and impact of delivering a child is so deep and so beyond our conscious mind that they have a hard time getting a grip. Everyone around them mills around them, continuing with their lives while the postpartum mother experiences a vast amount of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual changes. They are often neglected, in the sense that all the attention was on them when they were pregnant and few understand that they need support more than ever with a new child and a new reality to come to terms with. This is the most accurate way to describe how I’ve been feeling in the last 2 months postpartum from midwifery school.

I began my formal midwifery training last September 2013. It was conception. It was the beginning of gestating a brand new life and identity that I could never foresee how it would turn out. My year away from all that was familiar was hard. It had its stresses, worries, sleepless nights, and sudden growth spurts that only those going through this with me understood. I felt supported by my community from afar yet also isolated, unable to be honest and raw in the way I could be with a select few friends who got me through school with long hours on the phone. A major worry was finances, a common theme in my life. I am grateful to everyone who supported me to be able to pay for school and all my expenses (I owe some perks and am working on those). School itself was a challenge. One that I have yet to feel complete liberty to be frank about.

For starters, it was direct entry. I chose to learn this way because it does not sit right with my spirit to be trained in a hospital. I had to learn on the spot and that included emergency situations. I’ve seen hemorrhages and babies that needed help breathing. I’m glad I have not seen anything fatal but I didn’t have time to process what I saw – I had to keep going. The birth center I trained at is an incredibly high volume, so I saw nearly 100 humans come into the world plus the clinical hours of prenatal care I gave to the women of Juarez. It was a lot. There were so many long hours, as much as being awake for 36 hours straight and catching up to 2 babies in a 24 hour period. No time to recover, just keep going. It is a lot even now, as I struggle to tactfully write about this experience. The range of emotions felt varied from joy to rage for many reasons.

It was hard to be one of the only women of color training at this school. A lot of the rage came in here; again I don’t feel at liberty to flesh out exact details about why this was at times infuriating. I guess you can say that there was a lot of cognitive dissonance to deal with. For me, there has not been an opportunity to be solely trained by Black and Latina midwives for a variety of reasons. There is a sadness that comes from having had to learn from white midwives. This is not to say that I am devaluing how much I was taught. Most of my preceptors were great teachers and I connected with a few who I am still close to. Still, it speaks to the fact that the numbers of Black and Latina midwives leave much to be desired, as well as the fact that many women of color cannot afford to be trained for a variety of reasons related to the historical disenfranchisement of Afro-descendant people. It speaks to the removal of granny midwives and our own ancestral knowledge of birth; it is painful to know that this was stolen from us from the medical system.

Then there was dealing with my personal life outside of my education. So many things were happening for me, in terms of growing up, becoming an adult child of divorce, and as always, matters of the heart. I felt pregnant with this new person I would be at the end of this journey. I got to spend a whole year being known solely as Ynanna. I can count on one hand how many times someone called me by my birth name. I realize as I sit in the South Bronx where I was born Carmen that this is a huge shift in my reality. Midwifery made me come face to face with my own birth several times. It made me question who I am and how I came to be who I am. It also opened up this well of emotions and feelings about the world. I could feel myself feel increasingly enraged about the world I have to send these new creations into. Especially because they were Mexican-American children, the reality of their struggle was real to me. Because I was with women, the violence against women in this world made me want to break something. Becoming a midwife has made me even more passionate about human rights and less tolerant for pettiness. Perhaps borderline impatient but definitely more headstrong than I’ve ever been.

It has been hard being back. I know I am happy to be home and have been received rather warmly by those who waited for me to come back. But it’s like coming home with a new baby. What am I supposed to do with this new creation? Who is going to help me figure this out? Just like a postpartum mother has to answer these questions alone, so must I. What do I do with these emotions, particularly rage? How do I adjust to life outside of birth? Currently, I am waiting for my diploma from school and am figuring out how to study for my licensing exam so I can practice legally in New Jersey. I am looking for steady employment in maternal and reproductive health because I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve worked too hard to do anything but my career.  I hope to serve women of color because we don’t always have access to the best and most compassionate care. I can’t bear the thought of not being in service to my community. Mostly these days, I’ve been alone, like a mother nursing her new child, trying to make sense of this new person she’s become and birthed.

Gravida –

Meaning pregnant.
Full. Abundant.
Gravida implying gravity.
The weight of being with child.
My mind always hears ‘grave’
In Spanish
Serious. Important. Momentous.

Pendulous bellies swollen
With lives that we cannot predict;
Heavy with a new life
An entire universe of a person
Weighing on these hips.

Though I am nulligravida –
Never pregnant, never this copious –
I have held laboring women
Their weight on me as I make myself
To support
To hold
To guide them
As they prepare to release
This load
This body
This life
This Royalty
This burden
Of mothering while Black.

It is a grave situation that
Breaks backs and
Breaks hearts
Knowing we must give our lives
Holding our breaths
That these children might be

It is too real
Painful to feel your heart
Hold so much water
Leap into your throat
Nearly suffocating you
With the probable tears
That may be shed at birth
At a funeral.

This act of resistance
To still create in the ghastly face of
Death, destruction, execution –
Genocide –
In fear of this precious cargo
This gift of hope and promise
Being taken too soon from momma’s arms
Too soon from dreams coming true
Too soon
Too intentional
Too much history
Replicating itself
By a system
By overseers turned officers.

La situación esta grave.
The situation is serious.
If we didn’t love these children so much
We might commit infanticide just so
They can leave this planet on our terms.
We pray to our ancestral mothers for strength
To endure our children’s probable fates
To resist this darkness.

Gravida. This gravity.
Who will hold this weight but us?
The mothers
The ones sacrificing our bodies
Our wombs
Our hearts at risk of being annihilated –
Our arms nearly broken
For the way a child will fall heavy
Con esto
Tan grave.