'The tentacles of racism': On giving birth while Black in America

In this moment of societal reckoning over anti-black racism, I can't help but think about how this journey, at so many turns, has been compounded in its complexity because I am a Black mother.

'The tentacles of racism': On giving birth while Black in America
Jessica Greer Sangobowale

My son, Ethan, will soon turn three.

Each year, in days preceding both of my children's approaching birthdays, I notice myself entering into a period of reflection. I scour and mine the landscape of memories and milestones that helped usher us to this summit. I let unfurl those vivid moments I hope to commit to memory and emblazon on my heart forever.

I think about all of the 'lasts,'—the constants that will soon vanish from our everyday reality. The last days kissing his plump baby cheeks. The last days scooping up his body and cradling him. The last days of his sweet and particular pronunciation of words, "Dank you, mama." The last days of his magnetic reach for me when he first wakes in the morning.

I wonder about the ways his emotional self is becoming more defined and about his personality traits, blossoming and solidifying in their grooves. I savor what I can and slow myself to drink in exactly who he is in this precise moment.

I also find myself doing a great deal of reflecting on where I am in this mothering journey. What I've endured. What amazing wonders I've born to witness in the evolution of this little soul. How I've been both levitated and humbled—and how far there is yet to go.

In this moment of societal reckoning over anti-black racism, I can't help but think about how this journey, at so many turns, has been compounded in its complexity because I am a Black mother. Even in my children's earliest memories, even going back to the beginning, in the sacred space of their first breaths, in the crossing over between my womb and this world, since birth, racism has colored our experience.

The tentacles of racism threatening to strangle black women are manifold. They're behind the chipping at your heart when your daughter, who goes to school beaming with pride about her first day wearing her natural hair "out", comes home with a piece of her innocence lost because a classmate has told her to, "put your hair back," because it looks, "crazy and messy."

A viewpoint and question about herself, now entered into her consciousness, that will always now hover in her comings and goings, unable to be erased.

This same racism rears itself in every vestige of life, sometimes subtly as micro-aggressions in workplaces, other times overtly.

These racist forces spring up when least expected; on vacation, for instance, ironically where you've retreated for rejuvenation. Always lurking, in otherwise mundane spaces, like a doctor's office, at after-school pickup, the grocery store. Sometimes it enters in whispers, rising like a thick fog from a forest of pines to envelope you slowly. At other times, it delivers a punch that flattens you on impact, leaving you sucking for air just to steady yourself.

Racism's reach is institutional and systemic, though also extending to and executed in routine, unassuming and deeply intimate exchanges. The potential for the wounds are as deep as you can imagine, infinite, cumulative and psychic.

Childbirth is yet another one of those spaces where this evil is prone to surface.

Up to four-times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications, Black women's maternal mortality rates are a known force behind our disappearing. As a Black woman and mother-to-be, these are facts I once absorbed with weighty dread. They compounded my anxiety over the already fear-inducing mystery of childbirth.

I knew, as many mothers would share tales from their own childbirth war stories, that I'd "be in for the fight of all-time." But knowing there was a good chance of losing that fight, and possibly my unborn child's life too, hung an unknown horror over me.

The absurd idea, that for no sound medical reason, simply because of the irrational bigotry my skin color might provoke, I might incite deadly harm, dangled a fear that ate at me throughout both of my forty-week pregnancies.

Now that I've survived two births, these tragic statistics, once only known in abstraction, cut at me differently than other objective facts, igniting a righteous anger within me. I've seen for myself just how high the stakes are when prejudice snakes its way into the moments leading up to, during and following childbirth.

Looking back now, I'd had hints of bias in my medical care throughout my pregnancy. I'd walked into appointments with specialists, there to assess my baby's in-utero heart health, who instead of focusing on just that, posed out-of-place questions, oddly launched at the outset of my appointment, like, "what is your birth control plan after birth?" The insinuation and assumption being that I didn't mean to have this baby and wouldn't need or want another. I'd walk away from other appointments feeling unheard and in tears, made to feel that I'd already failed before my baby's beginning. But the most guttural blow I absorbed was amidst the intense storm of childbirth.

I recall being in active, advanced labor. After tens of hours of contractions boring into my body, I decided on an epidural. As it's been since the beginning of time, the singular experience of childbirth took its course, searing pain descending, locking itself upon me. In this desperation, in this vulnerable state, maybe and perhaps because of it, I was reminded of my place in America.

After too long a wait, a senior anesthesiologist arrived at last, perking my hopes for relief on the horizon. In tow was a team of pupils in training, there to observe and learn. With the richter of pain intensifying and my patience shortening, the anesthesiologist took considerable time to explain anatomy, steps and procedures to his students—all evidently more crucial than alleviating my suffering.

While I rode the seismic quake of back-to-back contractions, his pupils stood there, observing. As time progressed, writhing in agony, I struggled staying in one seated position long enough for the needle to be administered to my spinal cavity. In this moment, instead of offering assurance, the anesthesiologist actually turned to condescend, "Are you going to be a problem? You're not going to cause trouble here, are you?"

I wanted to eviscerate him. But...then I caught a flash of my husband's gesture in the corner of my eye. He was signaling at me to cool it. A towering, brawny black man, with skin the hue of ground coffee, who despite his gentle, joyful and generous spirit, has spent a lifetime practicing and perfecting this "behavior check" because of his appearance.

He spoke one word, my name, drawn out and calm, "Jessssss." Just in his tone and delivery, just in his posture, arms spread like wings and raised palms of peace, I could plainly read his terror. His fear for me, for my health, for the possible compromise of our son's safe passage into this world.

Pure worry coursed in his quiet attempt to disarm me—to steer us away, as best he could, from having what deserved to be a joyous achievement turn swiftly dark and tragic; an irreversible nightmare. That is the steep edge we are always navigating.

We named our son 'Ethan,' meaning, "firm, enduring and long-lived."

Before he was born, I pictured him strong and soaring, like a hawk. His natural disposition is everything I envisioned before I first held him in my arms.

Today, I am blessed with toddler Ethan, in the twilight days of his two-year-old self. I am profoundly fortunate for that. Too many black women whose names we'll never know are dying in obscurity; vanishing, for no good reason. These mothers never got to meet their babies, witness their firsts, take stock of the awe-inducing stages of each passing year and dream for their futures. This is not lost on me.

Ethan's favorite place to be is the beach. He starts howling like a wolf called to the moon when he senses we're near from his car seat. He loves to pretend he's soaring like a bird, his arms spread wide, ducking and running through the sand in the wild winds of the shore. I often send out prayers he'll be enveloped in such grace forever.

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