loader image

America’s Forgotten Mother

17 Feb, 2022

by Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

TRIGGER WARNING: discussions of infant loss, maternal mortality, and family separation

She’s been on my heart, lately: the Black enslaved mother in our nation’s history. I can picture her, feel her loss and terror. And yet, her experiences are unimaginable compared to mine, I think, as I rock my baby girl in the wee hours of the morning. I hold her safe and free in our mauve-painted nursery piled with books she’s allowed to learn to read in a house she’s allowed to own. Instead of being owned, herself.

The history of motherhood for the Black community in the United States is one of horrendous loss, fear, and mourning. And on this Black history month in particular, the Black mother is so vividly in my heart.

I recently re-read a Langston Hughes poem that I remember from a lit class ages ago, written from the perspective of a Black mother. Her words linger with me:

All you dark children in the world out there,

Remember my sweat, my pain, my despair.

Remember my years, heavy with sorrow —

And make of those years a torch for tomorrow.

Make of my pass a road to the light

Out of the darkness, the ignorance, the night.

(Hughes, 1931)

As a white mother raising a suburban family in the year 2022, I am hardly the intended recipient of this poem. Yet, it speaks to me in these early mornings as a banner of hope for the sisterhood of mothers who continue to struggle. It calls to me as a maternity caseworker, fighting for change and support for the women in my community. And it painfully sings to me a reminder of the bleak experiences of mothers who came before us, who underwent useless harm, unspeakable trauma, and familial loss for the sake of someone else’s economical gain. My stomach turns at the thought.

We still fight, side by side, for that mother.

We fight for the mother brought to unknown soil, separated from her babies and children, and bred as a means for financial gain of her captors.

The mother who watched her child, ripped from her arms, be sold off and never seen again. We ache for her. My heart rips in two simply typing those words. Those words were her reality.

We cry for the mother, who, during a pregnancy which may have even been forced upon her, begins to recognize that her entire maternal experience is forced to be the vehicle for the continuation and spread of slavery.

What a burden she carries. What a realization for her to learn that her legal worth is balanced on her ability to continue to produce further enslaved peoples {9}.

We fight for the mother who knew there was a 50% chance of her child dying in childbirth or within the first year due to derelict conditions and lack of nutrition {10}.

And then, there’s the mother who was used carelessly for medical and experimental practice by white physicians. Often, her baby’s deaths were blamed on herself instead of on the conditions in which she was forced to live during her pregnancy {10}.

Let’s also not forget the mother who was legally free in the 20th century, but still socially enslaved in a world that found her earning a meager wage by raising someone else’s white children, or farming someone else’s land, just to keep her own family minimally clothed and fed.

Consider the mother whose prayers began and ended with vigilant petitions to keep her family safe in a world that continued to view her as a commodity—as a blip in the system built for anyone but her.

_______

It isn’t hard to see how Black mothers (and entire families) remained understandably leery of the healthcare system for decades upon decades to come in the American post-slavery era. Some of the earliest federally-funded community healthcare programs in the 1960’s were actually created to offset this hesitation of Black families to seek healthcare. Clinics such as these offered safe, reliable healthcare for African American communities to build trust in physicians {10}.

And yet, this was hardly enough to bridge the gap in access to care and overall wellbeing between the Black and White communities.

Unfortunately, a gap continues to persist today.

Today in the United States, a Black mother is three times more likely to die from pregnancy and pregnancy-related health events than a White mother {1}. Further, the modern disparity in infant mortality rates is actually wider than during parts of the slavery era; we know that “in 1850, enslaved infants died before 1 year of age at a rate 1.6 times higher than that of White infants,” whereas CDC data from 2016 shows that today, “non-Hispanic Black infant mortality is 2.3 times higher than mortality among non-Hispanic White babies” {10}.

These numbers are staggering, and there are plenty more like them, with Dallas County numbers consistent with these national ones.

Abide Women’s Health Services, a Dallas clinic dedicated to providing holistic and accessible care for women, speaks to these disparities. Abide’s website shares data from the 2016 Dallas County Health Assessment, which identifies that maternal mortality, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, and low birth weight rates are all significantly higher for Black women and babies than those who are White, right here in Dallas County {11, 6}.

These persisting disparities, and a desire to provide respectful care to mothers who need it, fuels Abide’s goal to make a positive impact on birth outcomes for Black women and their children in the Dallas area. One of their objectives is to make healthcare a safe space for women and families who may have had

discouraging, disrespectful, or racist experiences in the past, or who may carry understandable hesitancy in approaching the medical community.

If you’re local to the DFW area and hopeful to become involved in this important work, learn more about Abide’s mission and foundational values at www.abidewomen.org as they lead the way in targeting the disheartening realities that many of our Black mothers and children face right here in DFW.

_______

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the Black maternal and infant mortality rates in the United States, but helplessness does not have to be our response. In the Dallas Fort Worth area in particular, there are a wealth of opportunities to become involved in responding to this crisis. For starters, ChristianWorks’ own BecomingMom program offers free, licensed counseling for any expecting parent or parent of a child 36 months or younger. Volunteers can donate diapers and wipes, as well as other items, that we distribute to parents in the BecomingMom program.

Pregnancy Resource Centers throughout DFW offer free medical and educational care for pregnant women, as well as offering social support and mentorships. To find one in your area that we refer clients to, contact us! There are a few listed below that our maternity support professionals recommend; these centers are often seeking volunteers for various roles. We also keep on hand a list of housing resources, mental healthcare, and other supports for pregnant and parenting mothers if you would like to learn more from one of our professionals or caseworkers.

But most of all, becoming aware of the need for safe and inclusive maternal care is highly important. Where are the gaps you can fill in your immediate community? Seek those out. Stand with us as we continue to fight in solidarity for our Black mamas—not just in history, but today.

_______

DFW-Area Pregnancy Resource Centers

*not an exhaustive list

Woman to Woman (Downtown Dallas & DeSoto locations)

Thrive (multiple locations across DFW)

Real Options (Allen, TX)

Woman to Woman (Denton, TX)

Hope Women’s Center (McKinney, TX)

Pregnancy Women’s Center of Rockwall (Rockwall, TX)

Fort Worth Pregnancy Center

Fort Worth Pregnancy Help Center

MidCities Women’s Clinic (Euless, TX)

Pregnancy Center of Rockwall and Mesquite (Rockwall, Mesquite, TX)

Prestonwood Pregnancy Center (Richardson, TX & other locations)

Brazos Pregnancy Center (Granbury, TX)

_______

References:

1. Birthing while Black: Examining America’s Black Maternal Health Crisis. March of Dimes. (2021). Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.marchofdimes.org/news/birthing-while-black-examining-americas-black-maternal-health-crisis.aspx?gclid=Cj0KCQiAuvOPBhDXARIsAKzLQ8HbDvfKsfHgRxt1oMXBFa2XBF8pNpWzCX2xe4pisgGF3YIt4PeWLw8aAsclEALw_wcB

2. Booker-Drew, B. F. (2021, May 11). How this Dallas mom is helping protect Black mothers and their babies. Texas Metro News. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://texasmetronews.com/10439/black-maternal-mortality-cessilye-smith-abide/

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, September 6). Racial and ethnic disparities continue in pregnancy-related deaths. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0905-racial-ethnic-disparities-pregnancy-deaths.html

4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, November 25). Pregnancy mortality surveillance system. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternal-mortality/pregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Freproductivehealth%2Fmaternalinfanthealth%2Fpregnancy-mortality-surveillance-system.htm#trends

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 9). Working together to reduce Black Maternal Mortality. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 6, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/healthequity/features/maternal-mortality/index.html

6. Community Health Needs Assessment. DallasCounty.org. (2016). Retrieved February 9, 2022, from https://www.dallascounty.org/departments/dchhs/community-health-needs-assessment.php

7. Hughes, L. (1931). The negro mother: Poem. Golden Stair Press.

8. Morgan, J. L. (2004). Laboring women reproduction and gender in new world slavery. University of Pennsylvania Press.

9. Morgan, J. L. (2018). Partus sequitur ventrem. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 22(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-4378888

10. Owens, D. C., & Fett, S. M. (2019). Black maternal and infant health: Historical legacies of slavery. American Journal of Public Health, 109(10), 1342–1345. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2019.305243

11. Why we exist. Abide Women’s Health Services. (2022, January 13). Retrieved February 3, 2022, from https://abidewomen.org/why-we-exist/