by Jamarah Amani
Moments like this make me miss Mama Claudia Booker more than ever. I wonder on a daily basis what her response would be to this post, or that piece or other. How many discussions, texts, calls and emails we would have shared by now. How she would probably be telling me what I need to be doing to support Black midwives. I crave her guidance and her wisdom in this very moment.
Mama Claudia was the very first member of NBMA in 2018. She called me when she saw the email inviting Black midwife elders to be involved. She usually responded to my emails with a phone call. She asked what she could do to support. She took the time to remind me how important this work is and how glad she was that I was doing it. She affirmed me, as she always did, including the first time I met her in 2009 at the International Center for Traditional Childbearing conference in Harlem. I was a student then, and she told me she couldn’t wait to hear about me catching babies.
An esteemed midwife, doula, lawyer, educator, advocate and mother, among many other roles that she played, Claudia Booker, who passed from her earthly body just over a month ago, was the epitome of a Black midwife elder. She would cuss you to pieces when you were wrong and put you back together with love, just like any Black mama. She was constantly evolving, and holding herself and others accountable to high standards in the process. She was unapologetically Black, she never checked her opinions at the door and she became a fierce and fiery ally for the Black queer community.
As a Black midwife who is queer with the closest people to me in my family being gender non-binary and transgender, it is painful to see when people exclude LGBTQ folks, intentionally or not. I remember coming out as a queer midwife. At first I thought it wasn’t a big deal. I was already out to my family, friends and in my social justice circles. But as I got more anxious, I realized that coming out in midwifery was a different beast.
Mama Claudia was the elder I could have this conversation with. She was the one who got it, the one who I could laugh with and tell my fears to. She called me a couple weeks after one such conversation in 2017 to ask for my advice. My advice! Usually I was the one who went to her for advice, but I was honored that such an esteemed elder would call me out of the blue. But we were cool like that, so I learned.
She asked me what topics I thought should be included in a LGBTQ inclusive workshop she was planning for Black birthworkers. She wanted to know about the right language to use, how to make sense of the alphabet soup (LGBTQIA+), how to make it relevant to birth workers without alienating folks who might not yet be ready for these conversations. She said she wanted to be careful because “Black folks are tender.”
Black folks are tender. She was so right. We are forced to wear hard shells in order to survive, but we are tender underneath. We are carrying years of generational trauma within our spirits and our bones and trying to heal. Black birth workers are in the work of healing, we always have been. But we are also weathered from what has been done to us - every table that we have not been invited to, every time we got fired or dismissed for not using the right tone to a white woman, every time we witness the oppression of our people and feel powerless.
Concepts of the collective (“I am because we are,” “We are family”) are common in African cosmology and African-American culture. There are themes such as being invited to the imaginary “Black cookout” and having an invisible “Black card” that show us how important acceptance is to being part of the collective community. Building a resilient community and having spaces for dialogue that are separate from white people and other POC is more important than ever before. This is how we strategize and ensure safety. We need these protective elements because often the spaces we work in are toxic and draining.
Black doulas witness obstetric violence consistently in hospital rooms, and even though they advocate, they are not always listened to because the medical industrial complex is inherently violent and racist. Black midwives are on the front lines in their communities, often working for barters or for less than their services are worth. Black midwives work hard, managing risk factors and fears of their Black pregnant, birthing and postpartum clients, fighting against the odds for healthy outcomes. If they are serving white families or working in predominantly white environments, Black midwives will have endless amounts of microaggressions to contend with, trying to mitigate internal harm and deflect without getting fired or replaced. Black student midwives are struggling to find their place, often in unwelcoming preceptorships (if they can even find a preceptor), hostile learning environments and battling biased testing and certification standards.
And we have always been here. Always. National Black Midwives Alliance exists because the struggle for us is realer than ever.
The Covid-19 pandemic is raw for us because the high stakes are so high. We know that every headline of devastation is going to be ten times worse in our communities. We anticipate that the economic impact that lasts a year or two for most white folks, will last a generation for most of our people. We know that many doctors do not see us as human and do not think we experience pain, so the roll out of testing and treatments will not be equal. We are scrambling, trying to find solutions and to take care of our communities, our families and ourselves.
We have history to remind us that the case fatality rate for Black people was higher than whites during the 1918 Spanish flu even though there were less infections among Black folks. This was due to higher co-morbidities, lack of access to treatment and discriminatory practices in health care. History shows us that not much has changed, therefore we cannot expect much will be different with this pandemic.
We can also surmise from recent history that Black LGBTQ+ folks will have it the worst and will often be unseen. Queer Black smokers have a higher smoking rate than any other sub-population, which leads to more severe complications of Covid-19. Transgender people often delay seeking medical treatment to avoid being shamed, misgendered, called by the wrong name and otherwise violated. Black LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be unemployed and for longer periods of time, so the economic impact will be felt more deeply. The life expectancy of trans women of color is still estimated to be 35 years old and likely to get worse with this pandemic. This is no time to erase anyone, particularly the most vulnerable.
Mama Claudia taught me to speak Black truth to white power. Mama Claudia taught me that there is no wrong time to do the right thing. Mama Claudia taught me that anyone can learn and change and grow, no matter their age or background. Mama Claudia taught me that the structures that exist within and around midwifery that maintain the status quo of white women’s power must be torn down. She taught me that it is our duty to consistently do the things that bring our people into movement for birth justice, and that every one of us matters in the grand scheme. She was my lighthouse when I would feel overwhelmed or betrayed. She would tell me to dust myself off, put on my “big girl britches” and get back to work.
I have been in this midwifery game long enough to remember in the early 2010s when the International Center for Traditional Childbearing was among the first of midwifery conferences to be gender and sexuality inclusive in their conference registration with drop down menus on the website that asked people their pronouns and how they identify. I specifically remember telling Mama Shafia Monroe how affirming it was to be seen in this way. I thanked her then and I thank her now for being a pioneer.
Inclusion of transgender and non-binary people is not erasure of women but the concern about white women erasing Black women is a valid one because we have all witnessed it time and time again. The racialized history around the use and control of language illustrates the power dynamics at play. This is where intersectionality matters, to uplift Black voices in discussions of gender and sexual identity.
And no, we cannot look to white midwives to save us or give us our language. We have to figure out how to include and embrace all of ourselves on our own terms, with leadership from Black LGBTQ+ midwives. This is more important than ever. I wish Mama Claudia were here in the flesh, with her voice to guide us with courage and wisdom. But I feel her spirit, calling us to be a force for our people. All of our people.
Please join the conversation at Black Midwives Unite! on Facebook.
Mama Claudia Booker