The Mis-Education of Birth Culture


“White people! White people! White people!”
“Why am I angry?”
“Why don’t I wanna deal with white women no more…?”
“I am angry because they act like I don’t exist…”
“That’s not my truth…”
“You won’t even acknowledge me…”
“You say you love me, but when you come to me, everything you tell me is about how frail I am and how weak I am…”
“If it was a man… that’s foundations for abuse and to continue to accept that…….”
“Some of the things being said sound… abusive…”
“Would you want to live with someone… would you want to be with someone, if they only saw your flaws?”
“If your only narrative that you can find moving forward has to do with ‘Black Maternal/Child Health and Mortality’… if you don’t find more that you can say… you ain’t my friend… I’m not gone play with you no more… ‘cause you don’t love me…”
“You say you think I’m great, but you don’t…”
“If you say you love me, don’t abuse me.”
“If you say you love me, I’m expecting to hear you talk about my greatness.”
“Just tell the truth.”

PDvideothumbnailIf you are surprised to see those phrases as the first words of my post, you are no more surprised than I was to hear the words coming out of my mouth as I watched the video from ProDoula’s “Speak Your Truth” Conference. “Why?” you may ask. Well, because (if you know me) then you know how measured I am with my words. If you know me then you would know that those frustrations I vocalized during the conference about birth culture in the U.S. are usually reserved for my closest and most intimate companions. And usually the only audience that I allow to hear my innermost TRUTH about these types of things or how I really feel are other Black people.

How appropriate that the conference was titled Speak Your Truth.

So here is another bit of TRUTH that I have only shared with my husband. (Not even Randy Patterson knows this.) When Randy first asked me to be the Keynote Speaker at the conference, I was hesitant. Again, you may ask. “Why?” Well, because I had vowed I would never talk about Black maternal and child mortality again. I had ZERO aspirations of talking about dying Black women and babies for an hour.

First of all, I know that there are scores of women of African descent that are championing efforts. They are constantly working to make sure that inequities and inequalities in birth culture that propagate negative outcomes for Black women and babies are addressed properly through legislation, the medical system and any other area needed. But I also noticed something else that has crept into birth culture.

What I noticed is that at first (as recently as five years ago) birth culture was fighting the use of language that specified African Americans’ challenges in birth, then SUDDENLY it became acceptable to speak about it as a major reason that birth culture needed to be overhauled. And SUDDENLY that was ALL the majority culture wanted to talk about when they talked about Black women. Our STRUGGLE had become normalized and accepted as OUR NARRATIVE and OUR TRUTH by many. That is only the smallest part of our story.

But I never told Randy all of that when she asked me to be the speaker. In fact, we chatted by Skype several times over the summer, before and after my volunteer birth work in the Dominican Republic.

I mentioned being hesitant earlier in this post, but I did not tell the full reason why I was cautious. The complete TRUTH was that I was concerned that there would be a point where ProDoula might request to know exactly what I planned to say during my Keynote.

I ran scenarios in my mind of what I would do or say if anyone demanded to know what I would be speaking about… None of the scenarios ended well. I can’t say I had a cause to be cautious about sharing it with Randy outside of my own personal baggage. So why was (is) that so important to me?

  • Because I value my investment into my mind and my intellectual property is one of my most prized assets in life.
  • Because my experience and history has shown that Black people do not always get credit for their work when they share it. (i.e. The Patent Office).
  • Because I do not desire my thoughts and words to be censored.
  • Because I know that my TRUTH requires some statements like those found at the beginning of this post.
  • Because there was no way I was going to justify myself and my experiences at a Conference called ‘Speak Your Truth.’

This was all happening in the late Spring and early Summer of 2017 after statements had been made that were offensive to many African American birth workers about the topic of Black maternal and infant mortality. Some Black birth workers had decided to be DONE with white women in birth work and their organizations, especially those who proclaim Ina May Gaskin to be the ‘Mother of Midwifery’ and other white women as the originators of birth support in this country.

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Randy never asked for specifics about my speech. And the fact that she didn’t ask made me even more nervous, because I knew as her friend that she was trusting me with something that is extremely precious to her: the membership of ProDoula.

As if that wasn’t enough, when I arrived at the ProDoula Conference, I was (literally) cornered by a few of the Black doulas. There were a couple who stared me in the eyes and said matter-of-factly, “You know YOU are the reason we are here, right?” “Ummm… huh, really?” was the best answer I could muster. They had no problem repeating what they had said and explaining themselves further. Another Black doula later said, “I am here to see if you are the REAL DEAL or if ProDoula just brought you here to get us to come.” Blink! BLINK!*

 

How was I to respond to that? These sisters had come with a certain expectation and NOW I was REALLY NERVOUS! How can one talk about Black women in birth without talking about the STUFF that is usually only reserved for family? When I asked them if they had my back, I meant it as a serious question. In retrospect, I believe I was able to speak TRUTH because of the energy I felt from those melanated women who had stood up front on that stage. I could feel them holding me up. I knew that they understood that for Black women, our TRUTH is not always welcomed, because it disrupts the fallacy of what many in the majority culture have been told is the TRUTH.

I have watched the video Erica created a few times now. I am finding myself referring to the speaker as “she” and “her” as opposed to “I” and “me”… It’s a little strange hearing myself say so much of my TRUTH so publically. I am still amazed that the ProDoula membership received me and my challenging message so well.

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The other piece of OVERWHELMEDNESS occurred after I left the conference. Randy called me a week after the conference ended and told me that Erica would like to come for a visit to get some additional video of me. YIKES! Both Randy and I have stayed in each others homes before, so the visiting was not a huge deal. What was a MAJOR deal was that THERE WAS MORE that Erica wanted to film of my life. I wondered what she could possibly hope to see or observe in my everyday life that could enhance what I had spoken about at the conference?

I will be honest. I have worked with many people who have not had the capacity to retain messaging through the editing process. I had no idea what to expect from Erica’s work, even though I understood that my almost two hour message would need to be edited down to a manageable length.

I sat with my husband and watched the video. Afterwards we looked at each other and said, “She did it…” I cannot fully express how it feels to know that even through the editing process, Erica was able to preserve this very challenging and necessary message, so that it can be shared with a larger audience.

When Randy asked me to speak at the ProDoula Conference, she only made one request. She said (and I will paraphrase a bit) that she didn’t want the ProDoula members to simply hear a keynote speech, but that she wanted to provoke them to action once they left. She acknowledged ProDoula’s effectiveness in equipping individuals to build sustainable businesses, but she also said she wanted to mobilize them in a different way. She said, “I want them to feel something after they leave the ProDoula Conference and I believe you are able to make that happen.”

There are seldom times when organizations with non-Black leadership are willing to promote a message that is important to Black people without making an effort to censor it to make it palpable to a more mainstream audience. ProDoula has remained true to form and trail blazed along a different path.

The last message I received from Randy today said: Let’s just get the message out there every and any way we can!”

Randy (because I know you will eventually read this post),

  • For the confidence placed in me to SPEAK TRUTH to the ProDoula membership…
  • For the honor you placed on the descendants of women of African descent who managed and maintained birth in this country for hundreds of years…
  • For the investments you chose to make that allowed the message to be preserved…
  • For the part you, Jerry and Erica played in helping share a message of TRUTH with a broader audience that may never have an opportunity to hear it…

I speak these blessings over you:

  • May your businesses continue to grow and prosper.
  • May your platform expand with each effort you make to leave birth better than you found it for all women.
  • May you be granted the deepest desires of your heart as you seek the highest good for others.

ASÉ! (IT IS SO!)

Connecting with Haitian moms


There is a unique phenomenon that I am trying to navigate with the Haitian moms in this setting. I will try to describe it to you.

If I had to guess, I would say that 1/4 to 1/3 of the women we are supporting are Haitian. At this public hospital, we are working with young doctors who either speak Spanish as a first language or as second language. Most of those who speak Spanish natively are Dominican and most who speak as a second language are Haitian. On any shift I have worked there may be two or three Haitian doctors. However, only the Dominican  doctors attempt to communicate with the Haitian mothers.

I know… Crazy, right? A Haitian doctor can be standing there hearing the mom speak in Kreole and not engage… or only engage en Español.

Navigating this medical environment en Español is a great challenge in itself. Making sure that I interact respectfully with the doctors is a priority. Some are very accommodating of our presence and invite us to participate in various aspects of the birth process and accept simple assistance with things when they find it makes their jobs easier. Others are more skeptical, so I am mindful about how I engage them.

Sometimes as I struggle to communicate with the doctors, a Haitian mom will begin to speak to me in Kreole.

May I take a moment to say how amazingly beautiful Kreole is? When they speak, it sounds like music and like honey rolling off of their tongues… Simply beautiful.

In those chaotic moments, when I have just realized that I did not understand what the doctor needed when they requested the lamp be turned on… or that someone bring a wheelchair… or understand what the doctor is saying after I ask what I am to be feeling for on the mom’s abdomen when I massage a mom’s belly to check for bleeding… or whatever else they say that is spoken so quickly that I am struggling to understand… I can get really caught up.

Often the Haitian mom we are attending to will begin to speak directly to me. In those moments, the only words I can muster are words in the language I have been trying to convey to the attending doctors: “Hablo Ingles… Hablo poquito Español… Repetes despacio, por favor…”

Before you think it is cruel of me to respond en Español, I must also make you aware that at least half of the Haitian moms I have encountered speak some amount of Spanish. So their effort to speak to me in Kreole is intentional and an effort to try to say something they did not want to share broadly with others.

When the Haitian mom’s begin to speak in their native tongue, I am hard pressed to find ANY of my Kreole… AT ALL… But the next thing they do is what hurts my heart the most. Most of them, after I respond in the only thing I can conjure up (which would be Español), divert their gaze from me and refuse to engage me again. It almost feels they sense a betrayal and now place me in the same category with those doctors who refuse to speak with them in their language in front of Dominicans.

ED07E891-B6B2-420B-926C-4312C8C5281F-4645-00000BAD006FD056Hold on…

I had to pause to make sure I downloaded Haitian Creole in my Google Translate App for work tonight. I realized it wasn’t downloaded properly last night while I was looking for a lifeline to the Haitian moms… and then I realized that it doesn’t provide pronunciation, so I hope I am able to remember some previous lessons about the Kreole alphabet.

I can tell you in another post about ways I am finding success with communicating with the Haitian moms. In this post, I just wanted to share this current challenge I am trying to figure out how to overcome over the next few days.

And please know that I do have a theory about why I am noticing this social cultural context in the hospital. I could be wrong, but it feels familiar. I notice a certain social context with the Haitian doctors as well that looks familiar. It’s not a complaint, just an observation. It could be for a myriad of reasons but I have my theory.

Perhaps I will share those thoughts in another post. I am headed to work now.

Send a sister some positive energy!🤰🏿🙌🏿🙏🏿👶🏾🤰🏾

 

Soy una MORENA en la Republica Dominica


I mentioned before that I was ‘concerned’ about how I would be received in the Dominican Republic 🇩🇴. The first gentleman I engaged with when I got off of the plane referred to me as la morena over and over again. His name is Victor and he was very helpful to me when I first touched down in Santiago.

I had spent as long as I could in the terminal trying to sort out my phone situation until airport personnel came over and asked for my tourist pass and started easing me toward the immigration stand… en espanol. I was the only one left except a woman I had traveled with from Chicago O’hare. She had been trying to manage her little boy and several large suitcases. We each grabbed one of the free carts for our luggage and finally headed out.

I was greeted by some stares, which I also get at home because of the way I dress. But it did seem a little different to me. Almost all of the people I saw looked like those I would refer to as Black people or people of African descent if I was in the U.S. At home, they may be described as ‘light skinned’ or even a medium brown. Most would pass the “paper bag test.” (I explained what that was to my housemates one day last week.) They all looked like some variation of my husband and some folks on his side of the family. Whether it was the complexion, the hair texture, or the facial features, there was generally something that pointed toward a connection to The Continent. Even with the variations in physical appearance, I still noticed the commonalities.

I pushed my packed luggage full of donations over to a place where I could think about my next actions. I had just realized that my portable charger was not working, my phone was almost dead and WhatsApp would not work with the airport WiFi. So I could not contact the driver that had been arranged to pick me up when I arrived. Not only did I have issues with WiFi, I also did not know what the driver looked like.

I moved through a crowd of people and found a spot. I must have looked like I was in distress, which I was but trying to hide. I was looking at my phone trying to remedy my situation and watching my bags and trying to think Think THINK about my next move and a solution all at the same time.

I did not notice Victor walk up, but heard a voice address me… en espanol. I looked up. I am sure I had my typical ‘deer in headlights’ look I always get when I have practiced a language only to hear someone speak and it sounds totally different. And they drop beginning and ending sounds here… And they speak so fast even the Latina women who are apart of our group have to ask them to repeat themselves sometimes.

Victor worked at the airport, so I was not totally terrified about allowing this stranger assist me. I stumbled for my words and finally decided to say said, ” No hablo espanol…” He laughed and started to speak more slowly with gestures. I could understand him better when he used single words or small phases. Somehow I was able to communicate that I was having trouble with my WiFi, needed an outlet and could not reach my driver. Then he laughed again. I wondered why he would be laughing when I was trying SO HARD to communicate with him. Then he started speaking to me in English. Actually, I laughed, too. I said, “Oh my God! I can’t believe you just made me struggle like that!”

Victor told me I could follow him and he could help me with WiFi. He took me to his work station, which was one of the bag wrapping stations. Do you know what those are? When you travel from some countries, you can pay to have your suitcases and bags wrapped in plastic so that people are less likely to go into them once you check them and they are being routed to your destination.

Victor was VERY kind to me. He allowed me to charge my phone at his work station and, after he saw that he also could not get my phone to connect to the airport WiFi, he connected me to his hotspot, so I could contact the driver.

While I waited, Victor and I had a chance to talk. He showed me his children and I showed him my sons… and my husband. He looked shocked and asked how old I was. I asked him how old he thought I was and he said 35, like him……… Bless his heart. He said he thought it was the cold weather in Chicago that was responsible for me looking so young… I’m not sure about that.

(True story: On our 21st anniversary, I got carded while out at dinner with Eugene. A gentleman at the adjacent table seemed amazed and asked if my husband had married a child bride………. I was SO CLOSE to be flattered, but ummm… NO!)

I told Victor that I was told that Dominican people don’t like dark people. He totally resisted that and said that those were ignorant people saying that. As people (others who worked there) passed by, I noticed he referred to me as la morena. He even referred to me that way when he left an audio message on WhatsApp for my driver en Espanol, so I asked him why he continued to refer to me as MORENA. He said it was a term of endearment and nothing bad. He did mention something about Black people too, but he was talking too much Spanglish too fast for me to understand.

(I later looked it up. The primary definition of morena(o) is “brunette” or a person with brown hair or eyes. Other definitions acknowledge the use of morena to reference a woman (moreno for men) with dark skin and its etymology to be linked to words used by Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards to describe Moors from Africa.) Last night while in a taxi, however, I noticed that the driver referred to Guy (a Haitian medical student we met at the hospital) as Moreno whenever he spoke to him. In the same way you would say Señora or Madame for women.

I talked to Nicole and asked her thoughts about it. She said that she did not see it as a bad thing to be referred to as la morena. I do not either, but I do acknowledge that there is something to be said about the fact that there is no term used for “light skinned person.” And that is probably because it as more of the norm here to be lighter. But why is morena(o) used as if it is describing an other?

Victor helped me understand more about his perspective when he said, “My parents are both white, but I came out this color. Do you know why?” I was shocked by the statement and the question that followed, but I surely wanted to know. He said, “Because my grandfather looked like you. I am the only one who came out with these features.” He did not seem to have an issue with it. He told me that his grandfather was Haitian and he still remembered the language.

While I was shocked to hear him refer to his parents as white I understood, because I know that many Hispanic/Latino people (regardless of identifying features) identify as white when given the five options for race on the U.S. Census – White/Caucasian, Black/Negro/African American, Asian, Native Mexican & Pacific Islander. To me, his parents look like people with European influenced features who are very light complexioned.

While in the DR, in the hospital and while out and about, I have had people walk up to me and begin speaking both Spanish and Haitian Creole. Once they realize that I am not native then they ask if I am Africana. Then I watch them process when I say I am from Los Estados Unidos and they say, “Oh… African Americana.” One Dominican guy said, “Right, but where are you from? What is your ethnicity?” I knew he expected me to respond with some African country or people group. Wouldn’t it be great if that lineage was never lost, stolen, or replaced?

All in all, my experience has been similar to what I experience at home. People are people, and people are different. And each person’s unique experiences helps shape their perception of the people in the world around them. To my surprise, I have been told that I muy bonita here more than I ever am at home in the same amount of time. I found I was noticed in a different way when I traveled to South Africa as well. Somehow, while the differences are acknowledged, color in the U.S. carries its own special historical context and baggage.

I have been approached by several men and learned to say: “He estado casado con mi esposo por 23 años. No nos compartimos con los demás. Él es el mejor para mi.” Gene laughs and says, “I nicknamed you and have been calling you Beautiful for over 23 years… I know what I have…” I think I might need him to upgrade and start calling me La Morena… I like it!❤️