This article and accompanying video discussion were produced for The Oaklandside by YouthBeat interns Sophia Hawkins, Sofia Verani, and Sara Lam. YouthBeat is a local non-profit that teaches media production skills and creates professional development opportunities for young people in Oakland. Hawkins wrote the introduction below and moderated the discussion, and Verani and Lam contributed to research and video editing.
The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others reignited the Black Lives Matter Movement and made anti-Black racism a mainstream issue. But law enforcement agencies aren’t the only institutions that have claimed Black lives and deserve to be reexamined. Another is the health care system, where Black people—and particularly, pregnant Black women—have long suffered from unequal treatment and harmful medical practices borne from racism.
Today, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women, a disparity that becomes even greater as women age. After learning about that statistic, I found myself seeking out and reading stories about Black women who’d died during childbirth—scrolling through articles and seeing photos of their babies, as their families described how devastating their loss was. Taking it all in made me question my own future: Is having children someday something I should reconsider, knowing there is a possibility that I might not make it through childbirth to raise them?
As a young Black woman, I always found myself riddled by anxiety around expressing my concerns about my reproductive health. Fortunately, as I continued my research, I also discovered information about alternative birthing methods and learned about the supportive and often critical role that doulas and midwives—including Black doulas— play during childbirth. Learning about their existence put me more at ease.
I wanted to know more about what doulas do, and how Black doulas specifically are viewing their work in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. So I organized an online discussion with three women who are serving the Oakland community as doulas and helping Black mothers reclaim the birthing process: Linda Jones, co-founder of Black Women Birthing Justice and a birth and postpartum doula who has been practicing for 30 years in the East Bay; Samsarah Morgan, executive director and founder of the Oakland Better Birth Foundation and a doula with over 40 years experience; and Jewel Buchanan-Boone, a full-spectrum doula and a member of the Roots of Labor Birth Collective.
You can read a portion of the conversation below, or watch a longer version in the video above. Both versions have been edited for length.
How would you describe the role of a doula for someone who isn’t familiar with what you do?
Jewel Buchanan-Boone: A doula is a support system. We help to not only deal with the emotional components, but depending on where folks are giving birth, we also help to assist in hospitals and home births and birth center settings to coordinate and facilitate the entire flow with as much intention as possible. So if folks are needing anything specific—if they are dealing with challenging energies that can be found in some birth settings, whether that be from family members or care providers—we help to lift that up. We also help to advocate, liaise, and educate our clients on how to advocate for themselves.
How do you see Black Lives Matter connecting to your work, and to reproductive justice in general for Black women?
Linda Jones: What’s going on in hospitals right now is kind of the same situation we have going on with police. It’s a system that is very racist, for lack of a better word. The reason that Black women are dying so much more than white women—it’s nothing to do with our physiology, structure, who we are, or the fact that we’re Black. It has to do with the way we’re being treated at these institutions. When you walk in and you’re judged, just by being a Black person—that you’re going to be combative, or you don’t know anything about birth, or you don’t have a partner, or you didn’t want to be pregnant, or you don’t know how to take care of your children and they’ll be taken away from you—if all this is judged when you first walk up to a counter or you first have your baby, it just goes downhill from there. Because we aren’t treated well, and we aren’t listened to about our own bodies. What we’re doing in the Birth Justice field is trying to change that paradigm, so that Black women are being listened to, and that we do know our own bodies, and we don’t need to be cut open to have our babies.
It’s an amazing phenomena that western medicine has taught people that they can’t have babies anymore. If you’re 35 and a minute, you’re supposed to be, you know, geriatric. That’s not true. You could still birth the baby just fine. They don’t have to listen to these people that tell them they’re broken and that they can’t do something, so why don’t we just cut this baby out of you. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We need to help them be empowered in themselves to be able to express the comfort they want, and to get it as well as they can.
Samsarah Morgan: Looking at Black Lives Matter, it’s very helpful and it’s positive and I certainly support it—and Doulas have been crying about this way longer, far before people even knew what Black Lives Matter was. And now here we are in COVID and doulas are not allowed—they’ve basically been cut out of being in-person with their clients and inductions are going up, and C-sections are going up. I’m fully aware, and I’m sure my sister birth-workers are fully aware, that that means there will be more Black women dying and more Black babies dying. That’s exactly what it means.
Jewel Buchanan-Boone: BLM, for lack of a better word, is trendy, and it’s mainstream, and there’s still work that has to continue to be done. We’re still not humanizing trans people, you know, trans folks can have babies too. Trans folks can breastfeed. Trans folks need reproductive care and they should not be excluded from this. Solo moms by choice or solo moms by circumstance consistently have to be reinserted into the conversation because we’re still dealing with the respectability politics of being good enough as Black people, even within our own communities. It’s still an uphill battle, so the more that we can do to give folks the tools and the language to advocate for themselves and to deconstruct notions that are actively harming our communities, [the better].
What are some misconceptions about doulas?
Samsarah Morgan: Doulas are not considered essential health workers. So that really lets us know what the patriarchy really thinks about us. And I was kind of thinking that they were kind of, sort of, getting ready to have respect for my profession and respect for what we’re doing. But when a crisis hits, you see who is who and what is what.
Linda Jones: We’re not killing [birthing mothers], the doctors are killing them. You need to address what’s going on there. But then all of a sudden, like [Samsarah] said, COVID hit, and now not only are we not saviors but we’re not even allowed to come into the building. So it’s very counterproductive [but] I haven’t given up hope yet. I know that we will be back at the hospitals.
How do you advocate for yourselves and your profession?
Samsarah Morgan: The bottom line is, it has to come from families. So when your Kaiser doctor tells you you can’t have your doula, you need to push back on that. When your insurance company won’t cover something that’s good for your health, the consumer—because this is a consumer driven society that we live in—has to push back on it. That’s how doulas even got to be in the hospital in the first place, because birthing people wanted them and fought for them to be there.
Jewel Buchanan-Boone: And if we’re looking at the history of Black people birthing in this country, the police institution and the carceral state is not independent of the medical industrial complex, which also feeds the prisons and also feeds the broader notions of capitalism. They’re all intrinsically intertwined. That’s why you have children who are able to be taken at birth and placed into a foster care system and money changes hands for every child that is placed in foster care, you know—there’s so much insidious stuff that’s happening. And so we have to provide alternatives to divest from these institutions. But also, as a citizen, I want my government to do what it’s supposed to do, and do it well. If I’m going to a hospital, I want to be able to go in and be taken care of with care and dignity and have the proper medical attention to be able to leave there alive. And, you know, hopefully in better shape than when I went in—we shouldn’t be leaving shell-shocked.
Samsarah Morgan: Overall, this is not a safe country for any woman to give birth. This is not a safe country for any person to get pregnant. This is the most dangerous country of all the Pacific countries, industrialized countries. This is the most treacherous one to do that activity, okay, because money drives medicine. In other countries, they have single payer. It’s not because they love women so much more than we do in this country—not at all. It’s that in that structure they’re trying to save money, not waste money, and so it makes sense to let the midwives—who are paid less than a trained surgeon—it makes sense to let them catch the babies. Once you’re afraid of birth, they got you.
Linda Jones: People over the years have called and said, ‘I’m so afraid to have this baby.’ That shouldn’t be. That’s man-made, it’s not something that’s inherited by a woman when she’s born, you know. That’s man-made, that we’re so afraid.
Samsarah Morgan: Another piece of that Black Lives Matter scenario is that, yes, we shouldn’t be afraid. But what I’m hearing from young Black women is that their mamas are telling them to get the epidural. Their aunties are like, ‘Why would you want to feel that?’ Because that mama or that auntie was robbed of the information, knowledge, or support to allow that person to have that experience, and then they’re denying it to their daughters or their young women that have to fight, and cut off their families if they want to have a home birth, and save up the money to do it. Then they’re keeping it quiet from their families because the family will not support them. And that’s internal work that we have to do—that’s our internalized oppression that also is part of, in my estimation, the Black Lives Matter movement. We have to decide that our Black lives matter, too. And because our Black lives matter, it makes perfect sense that we’re going to support our family member or friend in having a home birth, and we’re not going to tell her scary stories about someone else’s birth—because why would you do that? That’s the act of a traumatized person.
Jewel Buchanan-Boone: We’re a product of our environment. Even when we’re creating new progressive movements, we have to understand that even those movements are bred out of being products of the environment. We still aren’t talking about our birth stories; we still aren’t talking about the fact that Black women who are leading this movement, Black queer folks who are leading this movement, are consistently still dealing with, you know, the folks who actually don’t want liberation, who just want to be where the white man is—and that includes in the birthing room. They don’t necessarily want Black women liberated, and Black birthing folks liberated to be able to have their babies. They just want to be the [obstetrician], they just want to be, in the end, making the right call and having their signature on the situation. But no one wants to sit in front of, you know, 1,000 of their peers during a ground round, saying these are the decisions that I made that resulted in this black woman dying.
Thank you all for coming. This project wouldn’t have been possible without you three amazing women, and I would like to thank you for the work that you all are doing in our community.