When my son went away to college in 2016, I “penned” a poem titled “No #Hashtag For My Son”. While proximity to a parent or loved one cannot guarantee any child’s safety, something about him living away pushed me into more worry, more introspection, more helplessness, so I tried to write through it and the poem was the result.
I think of that poem, more often than I prefer. I think of it for every mother who has lost a child, whether to illness, inadequate healthcare, violence, hunger, or racism. No mother wants a hashtag for her child.
To counter the very words I “penned”, I write today as a Black mother in defense and support of her Black children–all Black children.
Admittedly there are numerous ways to defend and support Black children and many viewpoints from which to do so. I choose one: in utero (where arguably it all begins). As Black mothers, in order to defend and support our children, we must defend and support ourselves against the Black maternal health crisis that is a threat to our very existence and thereby the existence of our children.
The crisis impacts us all no matter where we live or don’t, how much education we have or don’t, whether we have access to healthcare or don’t and whether we have financial resources or don’t. To illustrate, I share a story of a mother who went to the doctor on what was to have been a routine visit. While there, her doctor felt that her blood pressure was elevated and sent her to a local hospital to be checked out. She went to ER, they ran tests, told her she was fine and that her doctor was unnecessarily worried and that she would be free to leave as soon he okayed it. Well, he did not. Rather, he insisted that she be admitted and observed overnight.
Begrudgingly she was admitted, and during the night every test she passed 6 hours prior, she now failed and was diagnosed with preeclampsia (aka toxemia), which according to the Mayo Clinic, causes high blood pressure and can damage organs such as the liver and kidneys. If left untreated, it can lead to health complications, including death, for the mother and baby. Preeclampsia is 60 percent more common in Black women than White women according to the Healthcare Cost Utilization Project. The only cure is delivery.
This mom’s labor was induced, and her child was born four days later and 5 weeks premature. This mother was a Black woman. She had an advanced degree, financial resources, health insurance, access to healthcare and thankfully a talented Black OB-GYN as her advocate. That Black woman was me.
As Black mothers we cannot educate ourselves out of this dimension of racism. We cannot access our way to healthcare out of it. And we cannot pay our way out (ask Serena Williams and other highly resourced Black women). The problem is not education. The problem is not access to healthcare. The problem is not access to capital. Succinctly stated, the problem is “[B]lack women are undervalued. They are not monitored as carefully as white women are. When they do present with symptoms, they are often dismissed” said Dr. Ana Langer, director of the Women and Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Black maternal health crisis persists because of implicit bias and structural racism. It is well documented that those realities affect how we are dealt with and cared for within the healthcare system. Black women are 243 percent more likely than White women to die of pregnancy or childbirth related causes, ProPublica reported. The healthcare system, like so many others, must be transformed from one that does not value the lives of Black women equally to White women, to one that does.
Put simply, racism kills us. Racism kills our babies in the womb, it kills our babies in schools, in hospitals, in our backyards, and in our streets. It kills them in infancy, childhood and adulthood. And the Black maternal health crisis is just one of the countless ways it does. So, the single most important thing we can do as Black mothers to defend and support our Black children is to continue our work, and do all that we can, every day that we can, in every way that we can, to dismantle racism and oppression.
This month the American Medical Association (“AMA”) released its 83 page 3-year organizational strategic plan to embed racial justice and advance equity wherein they:
envision a nation in which all people live in thriving communities where resources work well; systems are equitable and create no harm nor exacerbate existing harms; where everyone has the power, conditions, resources and opportunities to achieve optimal health; and all physicians are equipped with the consciousness, tools and resources to confront inequities and dismantle white supremacy, racism, and other forms of exclusion and structured oppression, as well as embed racial justice and advance equity within and across all aspects of health systems.
While the work cited by the AMA is yet to be done, I pray meaningful steps towards achieving their vision are realized.
The lives of Black mamas depend on it. The lives of our Black babies depend on it. The lives of humanity depend on it.
Let’s make sure our Black children begin their lives with their mothers, absent the trauma of having lost them in birth. Let’s make sure our Black children arrive safe, healthy and protected, ready to receive and live out their vibrant futures! Let’s defend and support our children by defending and supporting ourselves!
In love and service to our children,
Cheryl D.S. Walker
Interim President and CEO
To read the rest of our May Newsletter, click here.