Photo Credit: Ella Jardim
By Emelda De Coteau
African-American women are dying at alarming rates during or after childbirth, and not enough of us are talking about it. Where are the rallies, social media posts, and media spotlights for us? Who stands up and speaks out for the mamas whose lives end too soon each year in the richest nation in the world?
According to a recent article in the New York Times: “The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality — the death of a woman related to pregnancy or childbirth up to a year after the end of pregnancy — is now worse than it was 25 years ago. Each year, an estimated 700 to 900 maternal deaths occur in the United States.”
And the rate continues to climb for African-American women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report “white women accounted for 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births from 2011 to 2013. During that same period, however, African American women accounted for 43.5 deaths per 100,000 live births. That means black women die from pregnancy-related issues nearly four times more often than white women.”
Since slavery’s inception, the bodies of black women have remained devalued. Writer, lawyer and activist Andrea Ritchie links state violence we see today with a history of disdain for women of color, penalized for falling outside the confines of a Eurocentric femininity revered in American culture. Within her book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, she writes: “Unlike white pregnant women, perceived to exemplify the highest standard of womanhood, Black pregnant women were entitled to no protections except those required to protect slave owners’ “property” in the form of future Black children.”
Hundreds of years later, the definition of whose lives matter, and those who do not persists. This March, The National Perinatal Task Force released a report examining maternal and infant health disparities in depth, and found while there are significant health challenges contributing to maternal mortality among African-American women (cardiovascular diseases, hemorrhaging, non-cardiovascular diseases, etc.), heightened stressors such as institutionalized racism, socioeconomic inequality, and intimate partner relations worsen the already heavy load. All of these factors have a “weathering” effect, which researchers characterize as the body’s response to chronic stress over time.
Beginning in 1986, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started following deaths related to pregnancy through its Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System; since then the number of women dying has steadily increased. The organization classifies pregnancy-related fatalities as “the death of a woman during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy from a pregnancy complication, a chain of events initiated by the pregnancy, or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiologic effects of pregnancy.”
Another study, cited within the New York Times found even higher education levels among African-American women were no buffer against negative birth outcomes; a white woman with a high school diploma has a better chance at a healthy birth than an African-American woman with a Master’s degree. Native American or indigenous women suffer from similar disparities as they too are heavily impacted by racism and economic inequalities; there is a lingering distrust of medical institutions in many Native American communities whose deep wounds of hurt go back centuries.
This kind of unresolved pain effects mothers of color in numerous ways. Erica Garner, daughter of the late Eric Garner, who rose to national prominence for her activist work and stance against police brutality, died from a heart attack on December 30, 2017, less than a year after giving birth to her second child. In the wake of the tragedy, journalists, bloggers and women in online spaces began raising their voices about the correlation between the daily stresses of life many African-American women face, limited access to quality health care, and high maternal mortality rates.
During an interview Garner herself lamented the limited help in coping with psychological issues: “In the black community, a lot of people don’t seek the help they need as far as mental-health services. I tried to sit down with a therapist and the cost is $300/hour just to sit down and talk with someone. So that’s another obstacle we have to face when stuff like this happens.”
These divisions are what fuel organizations such as Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA); their advocacy work centers black women leadership. And, according to the mission, focuses on “technical assistance, trainings, and capacity building for grassroots organizations, maternity care service providers (e.g. clinicians, midwives, doula networks and community health workers), academia, and the public health industry.”
BMMA also cultivates collaborations with mainstream entities and Black women-led initiatives, placing maternal mortality and morbidity within a wider global context. There are resources on their website – from tool kits to literature and trainings (ex. – webinars), and the opportunity to support their work through donating. While SisterSong, America’s largest maternal organization working on behalf of African-American women, also consistently speaks out, spearheading campaigns such as “Trust Black Women,” and views reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
For centuries, African-American women have resisted the ideological toxicity of white supremacy. And we continue to do so, whether the culprits are abusive police officers, indifferent medical institutions, or a culture bent on dehumanizing and erasing us. As a community we must consistently grapple with reimagining and recreating a world where birthing and raising babies and children is liberating not stressful.
As I type these final thoughts, I hear the fierce and authentic words of writer / thinker Audre Lorde pushing us all forward: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” May we accept her challenge to dismantle these broken systems with one intentional action at a time.
Emelda is a loving wife, mama, creative, and believer seeking God anew in each moment. Although based in Baltimore, this daughter of a Honduran immigrant feels at home throughout the world. She serves as founder of Women Creatives Chat, a community dedicated to empowering all creative women through events (both online and live, including bi-monthly chats for creatives, a quarterly book chat series on Instagram featuring writers from the WCC community, and a Facebook Live Show), workshops and daily doses of inspiration on Instagram and Facebook. She is co-founder of Cocktails and Creatives Events which connects women artists with the larger community through live and virtual gatherings.
She blogs at Live In Color, about faith, activism and motherhood (which is soon becoming Pray With Our Feet), is a columnist for Beautifully Said magazine, and contributing writer for the Pretty Entrepreneur blog (a community which empowers women of color in business).
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