OK, that title is kind of an exaggeration. I’m not necessarily ‘reading’ it at this particular moment, but the brand new copy of Birthing A Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South that I ordered just showed up in the mail yesterday! And I anticipate this to be one heck of an incredibly insightful and eye-opening thing. Even though narratives like this are often really hard for me to read because my feelings get extremely hurt looking at what Black women went through (and continue to go through) in these types of demeaning and degrading contexts — it usually takes me a while to get through stories like this because my emotions get to me and usually I find I have to put it down and collect myself, which sometimes takes a while. But as I have said many times before — learning about these is only what allows me to continue the work that I do to challenge the current issues that stem from this legacy. I also gain strength and new insight from learning the ways we creatively resisted and survived.
Going to doula training at the end of 2012 really allowed me up to see more of the social issues surrounding Black women’s birth. It was in that training through ICTC is when it dawned on me that in order to understand the greater complexities birth and reproduction must be examined more in-depth. I realize just how much I thought I knew about this area but didn’t. Also, I recently finished a class on the politics of reproduction that gave me a starting point in gaining more insight on why understanding this perspective is so crucial; not only is it important in a practical context, but reproduction reflects a much larger picture of power, class, resistance, gender and gender relations, technology and many others. It is linked to, can be — and in some contexts should be used as a starting point to examine many greater issues. Of course this does not mean that every Black woman reproduces — it’s not a simple as that. But it means that it should be looked at in greater detail to get a larger picture of any aspect of our lives. For myself, I had to recognize that I really don’t know ‘jack’ about Black women if I don’t know about reproduction. I think it really is that crucial.
‘The importance of their wombs and breasts for the future of slavery meant that the struggle for domination centered on women’s bodies’ – Birthing A Slave, Introduction.
Here’s the book’s description:
The deprivations and cruelty of slavery have overshadowed our understanding of the institution’s most human dimension: birth. We often don’t realize that after the United States stopped importing slaves in 1808, births were more important than ever; slavery and the southern way of life could continue only through babies born in bondage. In the antebellum South, slaveholders’ interest in slave women was matched by physicians struggling to assert their own professional authority over childbirth, and the two began to work together to increase the number of infants born in the slave quarter. In unprecedented ways, doctors tried to manage the health of enslaved women from puberty through the reproductive years, attempting to foster pregnancy, cure infertility, and resolve gynecological problems, including cancer.
Black women, however, proved an unruly force, distrustful of both the slaveholders and their doctors. With their own healing traditions, emphasizing the power of roots and herbs and the critical roles of family and community, enslaved women struggled to take charge of their own health in a system that did not respect their social circumstances, customs, or values. Birthing a Slave depicts the competing approaches to reproductive health that evolved on plantations, as both black women and white men sought to enhance the health of enslaved mothers–in very different ways and for entirely different reasons.
The author, Marie Jenkins Schwartz, appears in the video above discussing her research and this text. What does it mean to you that she is a white woman? Of course I believe there is definite insight in Birthing A Slave, and I also believe that everyone is responsible for, and needs to explore history — and that it is all of our jobs to work towards recognizing that in order to combat the various social issues then we all play a part in examining these areas. There have been, and there are still a number of people — myself included — that believe that sometimes stories that are not told by their respective groups have the potential to be ‘skewed’ and/or ‘exploited’ and maybe ‘less than accurate’ — whether intentional or not which is why I’m asking if it matters. To be clear, I am not at all implying that is the case here.
I hope I’ve made myself clear in this post on my more newly-found perspective on reproduction. If I haven’t, then make sure to leave a comment and tell me so we can discuss it further. And if you’ve read this book or haven’t and have any other insight or thoughts, then let’s talk about it.