As I sit down to plan my short piece as a guest for Nyumbani kwa Mama, academic jargon from my A level media lessons enter my mind. I think about intertextuality. I remember that class, it gave me ‘a’ piece of vocabulary that I needed. Accustomed to speaking broken English with a limited range of vocabulary, then add to that a cockney accent -‘intertextuality’ was a new gem to add to my growing vocabulary slowly gentrifying my urban vernacular. ‘Intertextuality’ is the relation between texts and in media used to analyse the relationship between film and literary texts or other pieces of motion picture.
As I read through the narrative of Miss Margaret’s autobiography on a warm September day, intertextuality becomes a ‘thing’ of it’s own. With nuances of Sojourner Truth, Jarena Lee, Du’bois, Booker T Washington and Carver as well as other such narratives, the story of bitter sweet emancipation rears its head weaving and piecing together the lives of the liberated during the period of Abolition and Reconstruction.
Interwoven in those narratives are the female slave as an educator, nurse, midwife, doctor, herbalist, pharmacist, civil rights leader, deliverer, pastor and almost “all things to all men”. Yet historically there is a lack of respect for the black female body. Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman” embodies this, “Motherwit” documents this as well as “Listen to me good”, and a whole array of literature when they dared to speak on it.
Amongst that, amongst such craft and occupation with an endless array of skills, (despite the lack of resource, training and support) where she would be all of these, she was viewed as ‘unfeeling’ and fell a victim to her own silent testimony.
The female slave or liberated negro woman, was perceived as unfeeling and savage; and as such, ironically was often left as charge over the most prized possessions of their white masters. What manner of ‘civil’ person would leave their most vulnerable family member to the mercy of a bitter savage? Who would leave the one who was to be heir of all the accumulated wealth gained with the blood and extortion of someone or ‘something’ so apparently “savage”, so apparently unfeeling? What a contradiction!
Now that my sentimental frustrations have ‘cathartically’ been laid on the page, what I really want to discuss is the unparalleled value these women had in the birthing community and how we can learn from this today.
Now, I want you to listen to me good, in the UK statistically speaking birth outcomes for women of ethnic minorities are poor. When compared with their counterparts from other ethnicities black women have the worst outcomes in Europe, the United States of America and in the United Kingdom.
Historically speaking black women have had poor outcomes due to the conditions of slavery and poverty but despite modern advancements and improvements in some areas, even in the UK where there is free access to healthcare and maternity services- including midwives, c-sections and mortality rates are still highest amongst us and our babies.
What really struck me about the illustrious narrative of Margaret Smith was that, but for the work of granny or lay midwives many MORE women would have been lost in her time. Even when obstetrics took over and the granny Midwife was outlawed in America; according to Linda Janet Holmes’ commentary, outcomes didn’t really improve for a long time and blacks still fall to the bottom today. Additionally, the outlawing of lay midwifery was really a cloak and dagger style attempt to portray the lay Midwives as the cause of high mortality rates for America’s failings in maternity care.
“…Doctors were never scrutinized like midwives, despite findings that white women receiving private medical care had higher maternal and infant mortality rates than poor and rural black women going to prenatal clinics and having midwife-supported births.” Listen to Me Good 64
What was remarkable however was that the work of the midwives was a redeeming work. Not only did the women physically deliver babies but also delivered the mothers from the threat of death not from birth but from the harsh conditions that arose because of poverty. Unlike today the post-partum support, the village, the community provided the mother with not only vital ante-natal care but also post-partum care which is so essential.
So what can we learn from this?
Well, I hope you listen to me good,
First, the work of the lay midwife was crucial and in the modern world her person is exemplified in the continuing work and ethos of traditional lay Midwives, doulas, and experienced Midwives. Skilled birthkeepers need to surround the woman.
Secondly, woman will always need her village. While women are capable of birthing their own babies, extra support can help the transition into parenthood especially as those hormones are settling. Michel Odent records that elephants will provide a ring of protection around the birthing mother and even birthing dolphins have maternal aid from fellow dolphins. The new mother needs her protection- mentally, physically, emotionally and medically.
Thirdly, let us do away with secrets, the damaging secrecy that fails to inform the world of the negligence that WOC face today. Despite statistics revealing poor outcomes when it comes to mortality, I fear that qualitative data is lacking and does not account for poor post-partum recovery and conditions that arise as a result from things like c-sections, lack of support for vbacs, post-natal depression and more. This is a tradition that can die; women of colour being quiet about abuse, traumatic or simply distressing treatment or experiences in birth. Let us dispel the myth that we are ‘unfeeling’ or that we think or feel less because of our silence. In the early chapters of Listen to Me Good the writer details how women would spare their children the grim record of abuse and I remember Margaret Smith saying,
“…A colored person is going to stay in his place… I might get something I did not want… I say as little as possible… “Yes ma’am. That was it. What I was thinking, I said that to myself. I keep that to myself, inside myself” Listen to Me Good 126,127
When I attended appointments, I remember feeling a sense of helplessness and the need to keep certain things insidemyself. I would only dare to consider at best uttering them to African midwives whose charge I was occasionally under. Now I am grateful from my Doula circle who ‘get it’.
Finally, the secret in improving outcomes might be a much simpler and cost-effective than government funded tricks and treats- a simple return to traditional, granny style midwifery. The seeing of all female bodies as sacred, delicate yet strong, the passing on of knowledge and tradition, the sharing of love, the giving of time, the feeling of touch and the gift of respect for the undisturbed birth.