a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I am sitting in an apartment in the Riverwest district of Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the United States. The location is somewhat arbitrary—simply a quiet writing retreat while my husband visits in-laws across town—and yet here I am, in the top floor of a historic bungalow, one of two original homes on a circle otherwise filled with long, thin apartment complexes, their balconies lit for Christmas or cluttered with old folding chairs. Yesterday, when I walked to the nearest food co-op, I passed an organic nursery, a community garden, a few bars, a soup kitchen, and a park with scarves and bags of mittens tied around the trees. “Riverwest isn’t always very safe. Be careful,” one of my in-laws told me when I had said where I was going. For a moment I had second guessed my trip. Then I remembered “not safe,” from a white person, usually means “not white.”
This is the scene I have come here to describe: a few days after the birth of my son, my doula, a black woman, knelt on the floor in front of me, applying baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and dish soap to the blood-stained carpet in our master bedroom. She knelt on the floor on her hands and knees, dipping the washcloth into a bowl of hot water, dabbing the afterbirth, while I—white—sat on the bed, above her.
Though the reasons I did not join her on the floor are understandable—I had just given birth, and my swollen, stitched perineum bled each time I moved—the discomfort of the moment did not escape me. We were in Arkansas, and a white woman was reclining in bed while a black woman scrubbed her afterbirth from the floor.
A few facts: I grew up in Minnesota, in a white, suburban neighborhood followed by a mostly white college town surrounded by farmland. I did not, ever, in my years of education, have an African American teacher. I did not have an African American neighbor until I went to graduate school. I do not remember reading picture books about African American figures, save a few about Martin Luther King, Jr. and one with grainy images of two princesses in Africa, and I do not remember watching any shows or movies that featured African American characters until the Cosby Show, which partly explains why it took five months after moving to Arkansas for me to realize that the city I now lived in, the neighborhoods I passed through, and the institutions I visited, had once been segregated—that “Whites Only” signs had once hung above drinking fountains and bathrooms, that blacks once lived on the east side of Conway, whites on the west, and that these lines were enforced. I mention this time period—five months—because although my experiences and perceptions are not unusual for someone who looks like me, they have repercussions. For five months, I was blind to the very real history of my adopted hometown.
A white woman reclines in bed while a black woman scrubs her afterbirth from the carpet. The carpet is cream. The bowl of water begins to turn red. The woman scrubbing pauses every now and then to lean back and rest on her knees. “I don’t want you doing this by yourself,” she instructs the woman in bed, who nods, compliantly. When the woman scrubbing stands up, she reaches a hand for the wall.
When my husband and I discovered I was pregnant with our second child, we realized we would soon outgrow our rented, two-bedroom duplex, and because a mortgage on a three-bedroom home cost less per month than rent on a three-bedroom unit, we began to look for a house. “What neighborhoods do you recommend?” I asked my mostly white colleagues. “Which elementary schools are best?”
Though a few said their children had attended the elementary school nearest downtown, the majority recommended the western half of the city—and preferably the very western part of the city, comprised primarily of newly constructed, gated communities, with private swimming pools and private playgrounds, all hidden behind five-foot brick walls. Their elementary schools glistened. Their test scores soared. Their poverty level paled compared to other schools in the district. Their students paled, too.
“We were zoned for Ida Burns, but we moved so that the kids could attend Woodrow Cummins,” one woman told me. “It’s been such a great experience,” she added. “You really do have to think about the schools.”
My husband and I do think about the schools. We have long conversations about the schools. We want our kids to go to good schools, but we also want them to grow up within their diverse community, and when we find a house that we like, not in west Conway, but south Conway, a more racially and economically mixed part of the city, schools appears on both sides of the pro-con list I create.
The truth: the neighborhood I am writing this from in Milwaukee does not look so different from my husband’s childhood home in South Milwaukee. Though Riverwest perhaps contains more homeless and more city bus riders, the architecture itself is similar: pale brick duplexes, stone bungalows, and old churches. What distinguishes the two is the people. When I walked to the food co-op yesterday, I saw white millennials in skinny jeans walking home from work, African Americans waiting for a bus, and an older couple looking for a table in the tiny café that served kale salad and three-bean soup. I saw peace poles in front gardens and lawn signs stating “Black Lives Matter” or “I pledge to grow more food.” This, in contrast to South Milwaukee, a blue-collar manufacturing town, which is mostly working class and white. Walking around my husband’s old neighborhood, I’ve seen signs for parochial schools, but never a Black Lives Matter sign or a pledge to grow more food.
The truth: on my walk to the food co-op yesterday, I was pleased to see the urban gardens and the Black Lives Matter signs and the peace poles, but when I passed the park with the scarves and mittens tied in plastic bags around trees, and the sign for the soup kitchen, and the barred bars, and the bus stops filled with grizzled, gray men and tired, African American commuters, I recalled my in-law’s comment and wondered if I was safe.
The truth: there is a lot I am afraid of and blind to. There is a lot that I overlook.
My doula was scrubbing my afterbirth from the floor because my son was unintentionally born at home—an accidental, unintentional homebirth to complement his accidental, unintentional conception. I can recall the sharp terror I felt when the pregnancy test turned positive, and I can recall the adrenaline rush when my water broke next to our bed, and my son’s head pressed against and tore my perineum, and I realized we were not going to make it to the hospital.
I can also recall my doula’s comment after the first responders arrived and carried me and the newborn on a stretcher down our steep driveway to the ambulance. We had purchased the house in south Conway just two months before, and neighbors we had not yet had the chance to meet—African American on one side, Caucasian on the other—came out of their homes in the early morning to watch the flashing lights and my body swaying on the stretcher.
“Those were really great first responders,” my doula said. “They were respectful. Not all are like that.”
My doula posts a photo of the first responders on her social media page and praises their work. In the photo, three white men, dressed in full firefighter gear, smile into the camera from the cul-de-sac of our new home. The photograph gets nearly three hundred “likes”—more, my doula tells me, than any other photo she’s posted. She looks perplexed when she says this, almost as if she can’t quite understand why this, of all her photographs, elicited that kind of response.
When the first responders arrived at our house after the baby had been born, they found me sitting on a towel in the bedroom, wrapped in my husband’s bathrobe, holding my son. My son was still attached to the umbilical cord, which was attached to the placenta, which lay in a plastic bowl beside me. The first responders took our vitals and cut the umbilical cord, and when my son began to root, they left the bedroom and stood in our living room while I nursed him. This, I suspect, is what my doula meant when she said they were respectful. They did not rush us to the hospital, or act, in any way, as if I was inept. Instead, they waited while I nursed, looked at our bookshelves, and chatted with my doula about skin-to-skin contact.
I am thankful for the EMTs’ discretion and patience, perhaps in the same way they were thankful for my composure. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got the call,” one of the men told me in the ambulance. There was fear in his voice, as well as relief, which reminded me of a co-worker who once gave birth in her bathtub. Uninsured, single, and fairly obese, my co-worker had complained of indigestion for months, and when the indigestion turned out to be a preterm baby, she went into shock. Hers was certainly a different birth scene than mine.
But I also suspect that when my doula said, “they were respectful. Not all are like that,” she implied something more. This past fall, during the midterm election, the undeveloped field across from my daughter’s elementary school erupted with Republican political signs. Two weeks before the election, the firefighters added their endorsement, and a “Firefighters Support!” label appeared above the sign for the incumbent state senator, a man who has been cited more than once on Twitter for hate speech against Muslims and people of color. Despite the state senator’s angry rhetoric, despite his racist comments—or maybe because of them—he won.
It begs the question: how would the first responders have reacted if I were not clearly middle-class and white? Would they have respected me as much? Would they have trusted me when I said I was fine and when I asked to breastfeed? Would they have given me that space?
I am trying to reimagine my birth. In Conway, all the doctors, physician assistants, and nurses in my OBGYN clinic were white. All the doctors and nurses I encountered in the hospital were white. One black woman has written that white doctors consider her “a problem waiting to happen.”
If I were black, and I knew the first responders would consider me a problem waiting to happen, how would I feel, hearing the sirens approach my driveway, those heavy boots stomping into the house?
I have brought with me, to this apartment in Milwaukee, a manila folder with articles about racism and birth. “Nothing Protects Black Women from Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth,” the title of one article from ProPublica and NPR reads. It, like many other articles that have come out in the last year and a half, discusses how black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die of pregnancy and childbirth than white women—and how the causes go back to institutional racism and unconscious bias. African American women aren’t taken as seriously, they have less access to quality prenatal and postpartum care, and they are often forced to work with medical staff who harbor unconscious contempt for black patients. In addition, they experience chronic health conditions that result from “weathering”—the long, slow wear caused by racial stress. They die from maternal conditions white women are less likely to die from. Even if they are wealthy and educated, they are more likely to die.
I have also brought with me notes from a public panel titled “Informing the Village,” during which my doula and five other scholars, activists, and healthcare professionals—all women of color—discussed the state of black maternal health in Arkansas. As thunder rumbled and window fans pushed humid air into the room, the conversation kept returning to combativeness:
Black women need to stand up for themselves but are afraid of seeming combative.
African American women, in general, are stereotyped as combative.
If a black woman asserts herself, by questioning a procedure or requesting clarification, medical professionals call her combative.
Once a black woman is considered combative, white people treat them differently.
“They’ll call security or dope you up,” an audience member stated.
After my son was born, I began to feel bouts of rage. My husband and I had proceeded with the unintended pregnancy not because I wanted a second child at that time, or felt it was the right thing to do, but because I did not think my marriage would survive the alternative. In those postpartum days, when my body leaked blood and milk and I was waking every two to three hours at night, I wanted my husband to sacrifice himself the way I had for our family. I wanted him to give up his body—to feel ripped, mauled, and forced to give up his body—in the same way I had. The realization that he couldn’t—that as a white man in a patriarchal and racist society, he had never been expected to—made me seethe.
“I’m really mad at you, and I don’t know how long that will last,” I once said. We’d been talking about sexism, and feminism, and household chores, and each time I brought up an inequity in our marriage, he sidestepped, insisting he wasn’t a bad person, that he was doing his best, and that I was over-exaggerating.
My husband is not a terrible man. He makes my daughter’s lunches and carries our son on his shoulders and does so much of the cleaning that I once had to ask him where he stored the vacuum. Yet in that moment, his defensiveness sat between us, a silencing orb, and I realized how often I had swallowed my anger in the face of his discomfort.
These are the conversations I think of when I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. In a racist society, DiAngelo states, even progressive whites have been socialized to protect their white privilege. They will twinge with discomfort when discussing race. They will avoid that discomfort by living in mostly white spaces (often for “good schools”). They will insist on their individuality, their independence from history. They will assume the trials and tribulations of non-white people don’t apply to them. When they hear racist comments, they will say nothing in order to protect the feelings of their white colleagues and friends. They will bristle at any suggestion of white privilege. And if pushed, white women will slump with guilt, or berate themselves with self-blame, while white men will redirect the conversation, draw attention to their own victimhood, or undermine and question the observations and analyses of minorities. In effect: progressive whites will avoid, and thus affirm, racist, societal norms.
I read DiAngelo’s book with a combination of fascination, recognition, and horror. Add “sexism” to “racism,” and you have my husband, unconsciously shirking whenever our discussions of inequity shine the light on him. But of course, keep the focus on race, and you also have me.
My doula has begun advocating more and more for black maternal health. She regularly participates on panels like the one I attended and shares articles like those I’ve stored in my manila folder. She has worked with other birth workers of color in the state to create a company specifically tailored to protect and empower African American mothers. In the past two years, she has served more women of color than she had in the eight years before.
In response, she has received some pushback. “I have been accused of being divisive in birth work because I’ve been focusing on the care and treatment of Black women in birth,” she writes. She follows this with the Facebook post: “Do not confuse my passion to heal the brokenness in maternity care for Black woman as an effort to be divisive. Maybe take a moment to consider how you may have ignored the harshness of these issues because they don’t seem to affect you. To uplift a downtrodden people group is not divisive. To seek to heal or restore what has been damaged is not divisive. It isn’t about you.”
She of course is right. It isn’t about you, which is to say, it isn’t about me. And I need to be honest here. I am trying very hard to not make this about me. To not make this about the ways I did—and sometimes still do—ignore the harshness of the issue—the ways, when reading about black maternal mortality, I have frowned with concern, but pushed the thought aside, believing it didn’t affect me, or that it wasn’t my issue to deal with, or that I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. I have told myself I can write about sexism, and misogynistic politics, and breastfeeding and breast pumps, but no, not racism, this isn’t an essay I should write. I have told myself, other voices are more important. The voices of women of color are more important. I have told myself, no one needs to know about that moment in my bedroom, when I sat on the bed, and my doula knelt on the floor, scrubbing my afterbirth, and I realized this scene had been taking place for generations—very rarely were our roles reversed—and that I was complicit.
I am sitting in Milwaukee, a near-empty coffee cup on the windowsill, papers on maternal mortality spread across the floor. I am sitting here, pausing. Not sure what to do. Soon, I will return to Arkansas, and it will all be there: the house on the cul-de-sac, the drop-offs at my daughter’s south Conway school, the field where the firefighters endorsed their conservative candidate, the small red stain that remains of my afterbirth, not on the floor but the wall, more maroon than crimson, but still visible. I will stare at it until the light changes and my breath softens and I get off of my bed.
The truth: black women die from childbirth three to four times as often as white women. I am a white woman. The numbers bear repeating.
The truth: when I told my husband I was mad at him, and that I didn’t know how long that anger would last, he began to listen. He whispered, “I know. That’s okay.”
The truth: outside my window, joggers pass along the path near the river. The joggers are white. The middle-aged men and young couples, on the other hand, who exit the apartment complex next to me and enter their salt-stained cars, are mostly black. One of the women is pregnant.
The truth: a light snow is falling and I am listening to anger.
Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fourth River, Sycamore Review, and Zone 3. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org.