by Jamarah Amani
April 8, 2020
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
“[Annie Daugherty] was the midwife of the entire town. She delivered most of all the children in [Black Mountain] for the people who couldn’t afford to go to the hospital or have a doctor no matter if they were black or white. That was my grandmother,” Katherine Daugherty Debrow told a local filmmaker in 2001.
An African American woman working and raising her own children in the early 1900s, Annie Daugherty provided vital services to mothers in the Swannanoa Valley who otherwise may have had to go through childbirth alone. “I remember stories about her being gotten up in the middle of the night in snowstorms and riding mules and everything else to go to a house to deliver babies,” Katherine continued.
Since being brought to America as slaves, African American women have historically provided midwifery services to both black and white women. According to a study at Kenyon College, “Before and after Emancipation, African American women relied upon one another for medical care…. In caring for themselves and their families, these women developed relationships with strong church, neighborhood, and family ties.”
Born in the High Top Colony community of Black Mountain on April 3, 1888 to parents Robert Morehead and Hannah Carson, Annie Morehead became part of the Daugherty family around 1900 when she married an older man from her neighborhood, Benjamin Daugherty.
The Daughertys have been a presence in the Swannanoa Valley since its beginnings, and the Daugherty name shows up in the valley as early as the 1850 census, but also on early land grants and in the 1858 upper Swannanoa tax scroll. The first African American Daughertys most likely came to the valley as slaves in the late 1700s or early 1800s, but records dating back to that period, especially records of African Americans during the 18th and early to mid-19th centuries, are difficult to track. Ben’s mother, however, according to oral tradition, was a slave of a Caucasian Dougherty family in the valley at the time of his birth.
In 1920, Ben was 70 years old, and he and Annie, who was less than half his age, had seven children—the oldest, Lillie, was 19 and the youngest, Charles, was 5.
Annie was well known in the Black Mountain community not only as a midwife, but also as a Sunday School teacher. The neighborhood children would meet at her house on Sunday mornings to walk with her the two miles from High Top Colony to the church. Annie’s dedication to the community’s children and mothers made her highly respected within the town.
“I can remember going into Black Mountain when I was a little girl,” Katherine Debrow began. “And people that she had delivered babies for, they would always give me money: pennies, dimes, nickels, quarters. I would come home and I’d have two pockets full of money.” Katherine continued, “And they called her Aunt Ann, black and white,” explaining that calling someone who was not a relative “Aunt” or “Uncle” was a sign of respect.
The hospitals that admitted African Americans were located over 15 miles away in Asheville, and thus were used little by black women in Black Mountain. Though there were a multitude of white doctors in the valley at the time, and Annie was delivering babies during the Jim Crow era, she also attended to white women.
Inez Smith Daugherty (1912-2007), Annie’s niece, explained that she only remembered two midwives in Black Mountain—Annie and another woman, Mary Hayden. Both Annie and Mary were black, so for folks—black or white—that couldn’t afford a doctor or didn’t have the time to make it to one, Annie or Mary made house calls regardless of the time of day, weather, or race of the mother.
Historically, midwives were not only called upon for deliveries, but also sent for during times of illness. Inez Daugherty, who was delivered by a midwife in Burke County, recalled in 2001, “If they got sick, the whites sent and got Aunt Annie. And not always just for delivering a baby. They would call her for a lot of other things.” In a 2003 interview, Inez remembered, “My first cousin, she had a baby. And it had jaundice. And Aunt Mary Hayden went down to see, and she told my cousin what to get and what to do, and it cured the baby.”
But in the 1920s, state governments began to require midwives, who had traditionally been trained in the craft by one of their female relatives, to get permission slips from doctors to practice, have their homes inspected for cleanliness, and have their moral character assessed. Around this time, the government also began to ban the use of herbs and poultices traditionally used by midwives, severely handicapping what relief midwives had been able to offer their patients.
These new regulations disproportionately affected African American and low-income families. But Annie continued her practice. She began frequenting the town pharmacy for a tincture of opium called paregoric that eased the pain of childbirth.
Sadly, on March 28, 1959, as restrictions on lay midwives continued to debilitate the traditional practice, Annie Daugherty passed away in a tragic house fire that also took the life of her son, Benjamine.
By 1970 lay midwifery had been outlawed completely, thereby severing many of the strong bonds that had been built between the town’s two African American midwives and the women—black and white—in the community. Now women were forced to pay the steeper prices for doctors and midwives had to attend modern licensing courses or give up the traditions they had been practicing for generations.
Source: SWANNANOA VALLEY MUSEUM
On April 3, 1888 Annie Daugherty was born in the High Top Colony community of Black Mountain. She is one of many ancestor midwives whose life and legacy connects us to our heritage and healing practices. Find out more on the history of black midwifery and learn how you can contribute to our ancestor timeline in this featured video.
Here is an article and video featuring information about Black midwives
Rooted: Understanding the History of Birth Justice and Growing a Movement
Bringin' in Da Spirit (trailer - watch below)