Content warning: This post discusses pregnancy-related deaths.
Black History Month isn’t just a time to read new books and learn about interesting figures from the past; it’s also a reminder to take a look at the legacy of racism that is part of our nation’s history and the impacts that it has on Black Americans today. Carter G. Woodson, who originated the idea of a time set aside to celebrate Black history, believed that it would help “destroy the dividing prejudices of nationality and teach universal love without distinction of race, merit or rank.” Unfortunately, 95 years after Woodson’s first “Negro History Week,” systemic racism is still deeply engrained in our national culture.
The theme of this year’s Black History Month is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” There’s no better time to talk about one of the issues most personal to us as parents: Black maternal mortality.
Each of us who has gone through childbirth has experienced something that is both commonplace and extraordinary, universal and unique. We prepare for childbirth each in our own ways — reading, classes, yoga, breathing exercises, writing birth plans, hiring doulas, making playlists, packing overnight bags. The one thing we all have in common is a hope that we will have a safe delivery that ends with a healthy baby (or babies!) in our arms.
Usually, that’s the happy outcome. But each year in the U.S., about 700 childbirths result in the mother’s death, and Black women are disproportionately affected, dying at two to three times the rate of white women. That rate increases among mothers over 30, and among women with a college degree or higher, Black women are 5.2 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. At the heart of the problem, researchers say, is that Black women experience the “double-whammy” of racial and gender prejudice, including in health care settings. The issue gained national attention after tennis megastar Serena Williams shared the story of how she nearly died following her C-section and had to forcefully advocate for her own emergency care.
So, given the long history of racism and prejudice in our country, and the massive scale of the health care system, what can we do to help?
- Get involved. The March for Moms is a nonprofit organization that advocates for maternal health, including “lifting up the voices and concerns of Black women and families.”
Make a donation. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance works to advance health and justice for Black mothers. Commonsense Childbirth works to inspire change in childbirth and eliminate racial and class disparities in maternal care.
Educate yourself. This article outlines some of the concrete steps we can take to reduce Black maternal mortality. Change often comes from public pressure, and the more we know, the better we can…
Advocate. Contact your local elected officials and your healthcare providers to ask what they’re doing to address the effects of racism on maternal health care. And when they make promises — like last year’s candidates for president did — keep at them to follow through!
Today’s reality is tomorrow’s history. Together, we can help write a new chapter for Black mothers and families!