We The [White] People Killed Erica Garner: Black Maternal Mortality + White Birthworkers

Before you begin, a trigger warning. This is written with the white birth worker in mind, for those who are earnest, yet perhaps green in their allyship and activism; this is for those who need to muster up the courage and action to utilize their position of privilege. Lastly, as terrible as it feels to acknowledge our complicity in a system of oppression, we, white women, who seek peace on earth by working in the birth world need to step up. Discomfort is the very least we can experience if it will have any positive impact on the life of a woman of color. Nothing I say here is new. It might make someone angry and I know I can write and rewrite this a million times and still not get it right. And so it goes...

Erica Garner

Today, December 30th, 2017, we, with the full weight of U.S. American history and it's white, colonizing progeny, killed Erica Garner. A strong voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, she was forced into activism as a result of the premature death [murder] of her father, Eric Garner in 2014 after he was killed by New York police officers with an illegal chokehold. His unfortunate last words--"I can't breath." Erica was killed by our racism. 

Erica, 27,  was not only an activist and a daughter, she was a postpartum mother. In August of 2017 she gave birth to her second child and shortly after she had a heart attack. Doctors soon discovered that her heart was enlarged. Instead of spending these precious months recuperating and bonding with her new babe, she continued to fight against the implications of police brutality in and upon her black community. Many women can attest to the weight of motherhood--we must integrate our social, maternal, and personal responsibilities--we do it at the expense of our own bodies. But black mothers and women of color have an entirely heavier burden--the systemic weight of racism.  

 

Her heart could not take the full weight and bloodshed of the racism system that holds up the U.S.A. It was too much for her to bear. What should have been a time of shoring up holy wellness and establishing a strong bedrock for health, her postpartum time [and all the traumatic experiences that led up to it] left her crushed. The experiential trauma passed down to her cut her life short. And it is cutting many black women's lives short. 

We have a crisis. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among the developed countries (and Texas is the highest in the country). However, the maternal mortality rate for black women is approximately three times the rate of white women in the United States. The World Health Organization states that black pregnant and postpartum women in the U.S. are dying at similar rates as women in Mexico and Uzbekistan. 

In April 2017 at the Birth Roundup Conference in Texas, the often exalted midwife Ina May Gaskin was asked a pointed question about maternal health disparities and outcomes among black women. Instead of giving a direct reference to the ancestral and current trauma imposed through our systemic structure of racism, she pointed to poor nutrition and the importance of prayer. Gaskin has produced and continues to contribute great importance to the birth community. However, while these factors are important to health and wellness during pregnancy and postpartum, she clearly missed the most obvious and important indicator of poor outcomes: racism.

NPR and ProPublica have been writing about the maternal mortality rates among black women, concluding that education and socioeconomic status of expecting and postpartum black women are not protective. Black women routinely do not receive adequate, culturally competent medical care, nor is their pain or experience believed when they present to a care provider.   

Black expectant and new mothers frequently said that doctors and nurses didn't take their pain seriously — a phenomenon borne out by numerous studies that show pain is often undertreated in black patients for conditions from appendicitis to cancer. When Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement who has become an activist to improve black maternal care, had an emergency C-section in Los Angeles in March 2016, the surgeon "never explained what he was doing to me," she said. The pain medication didn't work: "My mother basically had to scream at the doctors to give me the proper pain meds."

While women need to have a dedicated lifestyle to promote health and wellness during pregnancy and postpartum we all know the current structure really doesn't support any new mother. Our idea here of holy wellness begins with a cup of tea, but that is literally the MOST basic form of nourishment and can't compete with the spiritual and physical warfare one experiences on a generational basis. It's just a minute stepping stone towards sanity. 

In her last interview with Benjamin Dixon, the host foreshadowed a warning to Erica: "Self-care--take care of yourself...I can feel that, that pain that you feel right now that is weighing down on you...Don't let it take you out."

 

Perhaps it seems conflating to connect Erica Garner's death to the maternal mortality epidemic black women face in this country. But what I know as truth is this: this house was built with the lives and blood of sacrificed black and brown women. They've endured pains which can never be undone and we owe women of color infinitely better. 

We can do better. We can always do better. I have no good, easy answers as to how we can solve this issue. The entire ethos and purpose of Black Lives Matter is integrated into every nook and cranny of our social fabric. But, one place we can start as birth workers is to do our best in serving WOC by making a point to create and extend our networks to invite, include and learn from WOC birth workers. I'm not saying we should ask them to do any additional emotional or activist labor to teach--white women need to do the work in magnifying WOC voices. We have to beef up our allyship by listening more and "saving" less. To be clear, I'm not advocating that white women should not serve black women-NOPE. I'm just saying there are experts out there who are skilled in cultural competencies that we as white women may (and likely, do) lack and we can direct money/resources/clients/blog links/accolades back to them. I guarantee you there's a network of WOC care providers which already exists in your area who host networking events. Get comfortable being the only white person in a WOC meet up. 

Here's what I'm committing to in 2018:

  • connecting with and donating to organizations that specifically focus on the reproductive rights, access, and support for women of color
  • amplifying and magnifying women of color and their work in relation to holy wellness and self-care
  • creating opportunities to center women of color in women's gatherings
  • persistently seeking to understand, uncover, dispel, purge myself of any learned, undetected or retained racism
  • reading more literature and writing by women of color 

May Erica Garner and the many, many women of color who have died before their time rest in power. May our Creator cover and protect her children so they will not endure what she had to. 

If you are a white birth worker, here is a (very short) list of resources where you may want to start (and I will add to it as new resources come my way):

  • The Afiya CenterThe Afiya Center programming is centered around the experiences of black women and are designed to strategically address harmful reproductive health and abortion policies.
  • Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association- BMBFA’s goal is to have a national impact on the reduction of racial disparities in breastfeeding success for black families.
  • For Harriet- For Harriet is an online community for women of African ancestry. We encourage women, through storytelling and journalism, to engage in candid, revelatory dialogue about the beauty and complexity of Black womanhood.
  • Raising Women's Voicesa national initiative working to make sure women’s voices are heard and women’s concerns are addressed as policymakers put the health care law into action. We believe women are grassroots experts in what is wrong with the current health system and what it takes to fix it because of our roles as arrangers of health care for our families.
  • Cultural Competency Training- training for birth workers working with diverse populations in maternal and child health by Shafia Monroe Consulting
  • International Center for Traditional Childbearing-  The ICTC is an infant mortality prevention, breastfeeding promotion and midwife and doula training organization. The mission is to increase the number of Black midwives, doulas, and healers, to empower families, in order to eliminate infant and maternal mortality. This organization has chapters across the globe. 
  • SMC Full Circle Doula Training- an intensive 30-hour (3.5 days) prenatal, labor and postpartum doula training course led by Shafia Monroe, MPH and midwife.  
  • 26 Black/WOC Doula Trainers & Trainers in the US & Abroad- a blog by Faithful Birth Doula, Dasha Tate
  • 46 Books by Women of Color to Read in 2018- a list to dig into created by Eclectic Literature

And some of my fave Instagram women and organizations you should be following and learning from:

  • Tiny & Brave- counselor and midwifery student in Austin, Texas
  • Womyn's Medicine- Indigenous birth worker and midwife
  • Midwives of Color- supporting women of color in the midwifery path
  • Harriets Apothecary- A healing village led by Black Cis Women, Queer & Trans healers, artists, activists & ancestors, centering the genius of Black, Indigenous & POC folk.
  • Indigemama- ancestral healing
  • Tribe Midwifery- traditional home birth midwife
  • Motherbees- nourishing the mother
  • Decolonize Birth- a yearly conference centered on POC within reproductive health, full spectrum care and policy
  • Centro Ashé Herbal Center- connecting to our herbal, birth, & healing traditions in Costa Rica and Washington DC - workshops, herbal apprenticeships, & Chesapeake Herb Gathering
  • Black Moms Breastfeed- desires to decrease U.S. breastfeeding disparities by serving as a platform where Black moms and babies can rest in love and community

Better woman + better earth. Amen.


12 comments

  • In relationship to this intention: persistently seeking to understand, uncover, dispel, purge myself of any learned, undetected or retained racism
    Check out www.uhurusolidarity.org
    white people working under the leadership of a black power organization
    I’ve been involved for 17 years -
    I’ve learned more truth here than anywhere else.

    Anne Hirsch
  • Thank you Thank you Thank you. We have shared this piece in our community and will keep sharing.

    Doula Trainings International
  • Excellent article with abundant links and resources that any white birth worker can take the time to click on and educate (further educate) themselves. Will share on all my social media. Thanks for stepping up to write this, it is right on target in my opinion.

    Maureen Whitman
  • This article is so on target, I shared it on my own Facebook page and my organization page. Uzazi Village is committed to disrupting and eliminating maternal and infant health disparities in Black and Brown communities. We appreciate every donation to the work we do. www.uzazivillage.org

    Hakima Payne
  • Thank you for using your platform to get the word out.
    #sanantonionursemidwife

    Nikki McIver-Brown

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