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Black Lives Matter

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November 20, 2014

Last February I attended Take Root, a reproductive conference that serves activists and allies from red states, over the course of three days on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. It was a brilliant and affirming experience. One panel stood out the most.

On this panel, a pair of black midwives recounted experiences providing prenatal and delivery care to black women. One of the midwives talked about how cultural sensitivity is extremely important in her work. Apparently in the eighteen-odd months between Trayvon Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal, she saw that the number of stress-induced complications drastically rose in black women’s pregnancies. Not only that, but several of the black women in her care had nervous breakdowns, panic attacks, and insomnia. The midwives discussed the absolute necessity of holistic reproductive health care, care that took culture into account as much as physical well-being.

These were some of my first thoughts when the news broke that the grand jury in Ferguson were soon to decide whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown. What black parent feels truly safe raising a black child in the United States? And underneath signs that scream “PantsUPDontLOOT,” communicating to white and black people alike the ruthless entitlement to black lives white people believe they have, is there such a thing at all as raising a black child safely? Because the state has communicated time and again that it will turn a blind eye to those who decide to attack a black person they arbitrarily decide poses a threat to them.

That’s a reproductive justice issue: the institutional violence and the systemic and personal forms that uphold it. The institutional violence is the St. Louis police and the Missouri government actively and obviously lying to Ferguson citizens, the media, and the federal government about what did and didn’t happen between Wilson and Brown; institutional violence is allowing Wilson to go into hiding on 100+ days of paid leave. Systemic violence was GoFundMe’s refusal to remove two fundraisers for Wilson. Personal violence was Wilson believing that Brown, an unarmed black child who, by most accounts, willingly surrendered and ran away from him, was a threat that deserved to be eliminated.

It’s both a cycle and a web that affects everything else, right up to and including the OB/GYN office, where black women cannot necessarily trust their physicians to provide them with humane care. The same attitudes that corrupt the people who donated to the anti-black billboard over St. Louis and the fundraisers in support of Wilson are the same attitudes that corrupt black women’s maternity ward nurses and their children’s teachers and white people who claim that affirmative action beneficiaries “steal” their educational opportunities. And it’s no wonder that, faced with so much hostility on so many different levels from so many different directions, those black women in the midwives’ care broke down. There’s no amount of love that can protect against that — to birth and raise and love a black child anyway is an act of formidable courage.

Reproductive justice is not a one-size-fits-all movement. It’s not even one-size-fits-most. I think we as a movement could stand to be more honest about how much reproductive justice encompasses. If it’s full agency in making the decisions about if, when, and how to parent, then we must be cognizant of the ways that black parents not only don’t have that agency, but how that agency is indiscriminately taken away by the village that’s supposed to help us raise our children.

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