Shamony Makeba Gibson was in her hospital room, recovering after giving birth, when she said something that worried her mother.
Gibson had just delivered her second child, Khari, a healthy baby boy, via C-section at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital on Sept. 23, 2019.
But in the delivery room while prepping for her surgery, Gibson told her mother, doctors had briefly struggled to insert an IV in her hand — likely because of a blood clot, she said they informed her.
Shawnee Benton-Gibson’s concern for her daughter was based on her years of reproductive justice activism in New York City, working with mothers and families dealing with issues like postpartum depression and stillbirths.
Back at home after leaving the hospital, Gibson felt fatigued and short of breath, her mother recalled in a phone interview with THE CITY.
“I talked to her about pulmonary embolisms, but she said they checked her in the hospital for it,” Benton-Gibson said.
Besides, her daughter argued, she was taking anticoagulants — commonly prescribed after surgeries, including C-sections — and was wearing compression undergarments the hospital gave her to improve circulation. But her fatigue and shortness of breath persisted.
‘My Best Friend’
One evening in early October, watching TV in the Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment she shared with her partner and their children, Gibson collapsed. EMS workers resuscitated her and rushed her to Interfaith Medical Center, the nearest hospital.
There, doctors found blood clots had spread to her lungs and legs.
Gibson — an artist who was “very funny” and “loved to sing,” according to her mother — died 14 hours later on Oct. 6, two weeks after her son was born.
The cause of death was the condition her mother had suspected: a pulmonary embolism. She was 30 years old.
Her children live with Omari Maynard, their father and Gibson’s partner of seven years.
“She was very fiery like me,” said Benton-Gibson, 51. “She was my best friend.”
Stark Disparities Persist
On Thursday, Benton-Gibson joined other women like her — grandmothers left to help raise their grandchildren after the sudden deaths of their own daughters — for #HearUs, a virtual pre-Grandparents Day event to raise awareness about Black maternal mortality.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 700 women die in the United States each year from pregnancy-related complications. By the CDC’s estimates, two-thirds of those deaths occur in the days and weeks postpartum — and about two-thirds of deaths overall were determined to be preventable.
A 2017 study by the medical journal The Lancet found that the United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world — a trend that’s steadily increased over the last two decades.
Brooklyn, where Gibson lived, is home to three neighborhoods that rank highest in the city for non-fatal but serious pregnancy-related illness, or severe maternal morbidity, according to a 2016 study by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
In Brownsville, which has the city’s highest rate of such incidents at 497.4 per 10,000 deliveries, 79% of all deliveries were to Black non-Latina women.
The borough is also home to the neighborhood with the city’s lowest rate of severe maternal morbidity — largely white Borough Park, with a rate of 113.3 per 10,000 deliveries, according to that same DOHMH study.
Gibson’s death was particularly wrenching for Davis, who worked at the city’s health department for more than a decade.
She knew Gibson and her mother well from their reproductive justice work in Brooklyn. Benton-Gibson was the first person to offer Davis a public speaking opportunity on maternal well-being, she noted.
“I can tell you that she has saved lives,” Davis said of Benton-Gibson’s activism. “I can tell you that Shamony [also] has saved lives. And all that knowledge was not enough to save her own life.”
The Thursday evening event — equal parts memorial, group therapy session and rally — brought together women from New York, California, Alabama and Georgia who’d lost their daughters, and in one case, a grandchild as well, to complications stemming from childbirth.
‘All that knowledge was not enough to save her own life.’
Most of those women have embraced a life of activism after the sudden loss of their loved ones.
Among them were Maddy Oden, of Oakland, Calif., who became a doula after the 2001 deaths of her daughter, Tatia Oden French, and her grandchild Zorah, during delivery.
Also attending was Wanda Irving, mother of Shalon Irving, a 36-year-old CDC epidemiologist in Atlanta who died in 2017 from complications of high blood pressure weeks after delivering her daughter.
“Women know their bodies best and know when something doesn’t feel right,” Shanna Cox, associate director for science for CDC’s Division of Reproductive Health, told THE CITY. “The campaign is encouraging women to speak up — during and after pregnancy — if they have health concerns.”
Calls for Justice
Benton-Gibson, a longtime community organizer and licensed social worker, founded The A.R.I.A.H. — Association for Reproductive Innovation through Artistry & Healing — Foundation, which “works to stop the devastation of Black maternal mortality,” in the aftermath of her daughter’s death.
“I’m conflicted: Do I cry? Yes. Am I upset about this? Yes. Do I sometimes wake up and feel like ‘What the…?’” Benton-Gibson said at the event.
“But my bigger stand is that that girl lived all the days that she lived, and I don’t want those days that she lived to be in vain so that the day she passed took over,” she added. “But how she passed — that’s what every breath in my body will be about, because I’m making sure that this never happens again.”
It’s a similar position to the one Bruce McIntyre found himself in nearly six months ago when his partner, Amber Rose Isaac, died during delivery at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx in April during the coronavirus crisis.
On Aug. 1, McIntyre hosted a “Mothers March,” a rally for Isaac and others who died from pregnancy-related causes. Dozens, including Benton-Gibson, attended the event and donned purple in Isaac’s memory.
Also at the march was the family of Sha-asia Washington, who died during delivery on July 3 at Woodhull Hospital, where Gibson gave birth last year.
“I’m staying up all night holding the baby that she should be here holding,” Desiree Williams, Washington’s mother-in-law, said at a separate rally in July in front of that hospital. “It’s not fair, it’s not right. My son is broken down, it’s not right.”
‘She Was Really Happy’
Gibson, an artist who specialized in dance, was “very savvy in graphic design,” and “loved to travel,” her mother said. The Medgar Evers College graduate had visited 10 countries.
She wanted a big family, Benton-Gibson said: five children, which she tried talking her out of, without much success.
“She loved the idea of having children,” she said.
Courtesy of Shawnee Benton-Gibson Shamony Makeba Gibson and her partner, Omari Maynard
When Benton-Gibson became pregnant for the second time in 2019, she knew exactly the kind of birth she wanted.
She had delivered her first child two years prior, a baby girl named Anari, via C-section. When she found out she was expecting Khari, she pored over information about natural births, and at one point even considered a home birth.
She researched doulas and midwives in her area and eventually hired one of each, including a Black doula who lived a short walk from her Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment.
“She was really happy, had a baby shower and everything,” Benton-Gibson said.
But after she checked into the hospital, doctors told her she needed another C-section.
Before that news, she had told her mother, “This birthing experience is going to be different.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
In April, a 25-year-old black woman named Chikesia Clemons was violently arrested by police at a Waffle House restaurant in Alabama.
A video of the arrest that went viral shows police pulling Clemons from her chair and throwing her to the floor. In the process, her breasts are exposed and her dress rides up in the back. When she attempts to cover her breasts, the two officers on top of her threaten to break her arm for “resisting.”
Clemons’ experience is not uncommon. In the U.S., black women are not afforded the same regard for bodily privacy as white women.
Another example: In an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department, the Department of Justice found that the Baltimore Police Department frequently engaged in unjustified strip searches of African-Americans. In one instance, Baltimore police conducted a strip search of a black woman, including an anal cavity search, on a sidewalk in broad daylight and in full public view. The woman’s pleas to not be forced to disrobe in public were ignored. Her offense? A broken headlight.
While the #MeToo movement has been successful in bringing down several high-profile assailants, critics continue to argue that it has been monopolized by middle- and upper-class white women, particularly white Hollywood actresses. This, despite the fact that a black woman, Tarana Burke, created the Me Too campaign more than a decade ago. These criticisms reflect the fact that black women have experienced sexual violence differently than white women.
As a philosopher of race and gender who has written about sexual harassment, I offer historical context on the ways that black women experience sexual abuse, often by the authority of the state, as a way to think about black women’s contemporary experiences as the kinds of experiences that #MeToo should address.
In this Dec. 8, 2017, file photo, Anita Hill and Fatima Goss Graves join a discussion about sexual harassment in Beverly Hills, Calif. The sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh recall Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas in 1991, but there are important differences as well as cautions for senators considering how to deal with the allegations. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File)
History of black women’s bodies on display
As early as the 17th century, European men wrote travel narratives about their trips to West Africa to capture, enslave and trade African people. Their writings offer a window into how they perceived African women and what they thought primarily European male readers would find titillating.
In particular, their descriptions of West African women’s style of dance played a role in shaping European perceptions of black women’s sexual immorality and availability.
These travel accounts were the popular media of their day and offered some of the first reports of continental Africa to average Europeans. For example, Frenchman Jean Barbot wrote of African men and women “knocking bellies together very indecently” while “uttering some dirty mysterious words.” Meanwhile, naval officer Abraham Duqesne characterized African women as desiring the “caresses of white men.”
Because African women differed from European women both in attire and bodily movement, European travel writers regarded African women as sexually available and immoral. European settlers carried these attitudes to the United States where enslaved black women were subjected to violent sexual abuse and forced nudity as routine social practice, in ways that would have been unthinkable toward white women.
Sexual violence and the father of gynecology
By the 19th century, treating black and white women differently was firmly entrenched in society. Nowhere was this more evident than in the practice of J. Marion Sims, the physician widely regarded by gynecologists as the “father of modern gynecology.” The convention of the period was for physicians to conduct gynecological examinations of white women with averted gazes while the patients remained as clothed as possible.
However, Sims also conducted medical experiments on enslaved black women that ultimately resulted in a technique to repair vesicovaginal fistula, an opening that can develop between the vaginal wall and the bladder or large intestine, sometimes as a result of childbirth. The enslaved black women were stripped completely naked and examined on all fours, as Sims and other physicians took turns using a specially created speculum that enabled full viewing of the vagina. Private citizens were also allowed to watch these experiments and they, too, were invited to witness the full exposure of enslaved women’s vaginas.
Sims conducted his experiments without anesthesia, despite the fact that ether was known and in use by the time he performed later surgeries. Black women were denied anesthesia on the grounds that black people did not feel pain in the same ways that white people felt pain, a perception that still exists today. For example, one study found that when people viewed images of blacks receiving painful stimuli, like needle pricks, they responded with less empathy than when they viewed similar images of white people in pain.
Sexual violence in a court of law
In New York in 1925, another historical example shows how black women’s exposed bodies have been treated with indifference. Kip Rhinelander, a member of New York’s high society, was set to wed Alice Beatrice Jones, a working-class biracial woman. Their union drew national attention.
Although New York did not legally prohibit interracial marriage as other states did at that time, society strongly disapproved of interracial marriage.
Once their marriage was made public, Kip filed for divorce on the grounds of fraud. The salient question in the divorce hearing was whether Kip knew that Alice was black at the time of their marriage.
In order to answer that question, Alice’s attorney suggested that Alice bare her breasts in front of the all-white male jury, judge and attorneys in order to prove her racial identity. By viewing the shading of her areolas and legs, he said, the jurors could assess whether Kip – who had admitted to premarital sex with her – should have known her racial identity.
The judge directed Alice to follow through. Neither Alice Rhinelander’s tears nor her connection to a prominent white family could save her from the indignity of forced nudity in front of strangers. Ultimately, the jury decided that Alice was, in fact, “of colored blood” and that she did not conceal or misrepresent her racial identity.
The past is present
The hostility to black women’s bodily privacy and dignity in these examples isn’t accidental. Rather, it is part of the history of how black women have been cast in U.S. society.
In the Sims and Rhinelander examples, the legal status of enslavement and weight of the court validated the coercive display of black women’s bodies. The Department of Justice found that the Baltimore police used the weight of their badges to force compliance with public strip searches. Likewise, in the Waffle House example, although Clemons’ initial exposure may not have been intentional, the police responded to her cries and her attempts to cover herself by using their authority to threaten her with further harm.
This is a unique form of sexual violence experienced by black women. The convergence of race and gender in black women’s lives has created the social conditions in which black women are coerced and often expected, under threat of punishment by the government, to suffer the exposure of intimate body parts.
Race and gender converge in black women’s lives and have created the social conditions under which black women are coerced and expected to suffer the exposure of intimate body parts, or else face punishment. If movements like #MeToo are serious about combating sexual violence, then they have to also understand these practices as sexual violence.
About 700 to 900 women die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. And for every death, dozens of women suffer life-threatening complications. But there is a stark racial disparity in these numbers. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die than white mothers. Nevertheless, black women’s voices are often missing from public discussions about what’s behind the maternal health crisis and how to address the problems.
It is estimated that up to 60 percent of maternal complications are preventable. One way to prevent them is to talk to and learn from women who have nearly died from these complications. So, we reached out to nearly 200 black mothers or families that shared stories of severe complications as part of our maternal health investigation Lost Mothers.
Since this disparity has existed for decades, we were interested in learning how it might have affected generations of black women — and maybe even women in the same families.
We also know difficult conversations can sometimes be easier with a loved one. We asked women if they would be willing to discuss their near miss with their mother or daughter.
To help navigate these tough conversations, we gave each pair of women a tailored set of questions and got out of the way (you can download a copy of the questions here). We spent an hour recording them, some in their living rooms and others over the phone. We’ve organized these conversations by the complications each woman faced. We included several generations of women from 6 to 64 years old.
A postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) occurs when a woman experiences heavy blood loss after giving birth. In developed countries, pregnant women nearly die from this complication more than any other. The most common cause of PPH is uterine atony, which means the uterus isn’t contracting effectively after delivery. However, having fibroids (benign tumors in the uterus), any kind of infection or a systemic blood clotting disorder can also cause PPH.
Heather Dobbs was 41 weeks pregnant when she went into a prolonged labor. Eventually she was induced and had an emergency cesarean section at a hospital near her home at the time in rural Texas. Dobbs, 37, an educator and editor now living in Covington, Georgia, says there were no further complications. After the C-section, both Dobbs and her new son Cameron were fine and went home.
Two years later, in 2016, Dobbs was pregnant again. Because of her emergency C-section with Cameron, she was scheduled for another C-section and could plan the birth of her second child. She picked Feb. 8. It was two days before her own birthday. Dobbs was excited and felt prepared to welcome her first daughter, Claire, into the world.
Then came the uterine atony. During her C-section, her doctors said her uterus was “boggy” — it was soft, enlarged, floppy and would not contract as it was supposed to. It also wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Heather:Listen They were just bringing fluid after fluid, after fluid bag, and I finally said to myself: You cannot die on this table before you get to hold your daughter. And that’s the last thing I remember.
Claire was born healthy. But Dobbs’ postpartum hemorrhaging — as a result of uterine atony — forced the doctors to perform a full hysterectomy.
Heather:Listen And then, the doctor came in to talk about the hysterectomy with me. And, I just remember … you know how you watched Charlie Brown, and it’s like, womp womp womp womp womp womp. It’s like, what is she saying? I knew it was serious, but they had to eventually call her back in to re-explain. “You were bleeding out. You lost a tremendous amount of blood, and you had to … We had to take your uterus.”
The emotional toll of the hysterectomy and the complication that caused it led to postpartum depression. The support of her mother — Avis Glover, 63, a career nurse, who had two C-sections herself — has been important in her recovery.
Avis: How do you manage, you think, with the long-term effects of your experience?
Heather: Listen At my darkest hour, it was like why plan anything? Everything’s just going to go however it goes anyway. You don’t have any control, so that was really difficult. But then at the same time, it made me aware, you have two kids that you have to care for now. And in caring for them, you must care for yourself, so you can’t have the anxious mom, and the depressed mom, you have to treat it.
Fibroids are benign tumors in the uterus. They are most common in 30- to 40-year-old women. Fibroids, however, are three times more likely to occur in black women than white women. They also tend to occur at younger ages and grow more quickly in black women, causing more severe symptoms — like heavy menstrual bleeding and pelvic pain — contributing to complications such as postpartum hemorrhage.
Preeclampsia occurs when a woman with normal blood pressure develops high blood pressure during pregnancy and when protein is found in the urine. Left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to other serious complications for both the mother and the baby. Preeclampsia affects at least 5 to 8 percent of pregnancies. When black women have preeclampsia, it presents earlier than in women of other races.
Asha Ivey-Stephenson, 37, and Wanda Irving, 64, became friends through Wanda’s daughter, Shalon Irving. The three first met in Michigan in 2002 while Asha and Shalon visited graduate school programs they were interested in attending. Years later the friends reconnected in the Atlanta area where they both settled. Close in age, both wanted to become mothers. Ivey-Stephenson would be the first. She got pregnant in 2015 when she was 35 years old. Ivey-Stephenson has fibroids, a complication that affects 80 percent of black women. No one knows what exactly causes fibroids or why black women are so susceptible.
Ivey-Stephenson’s fibroids kept her in the high risk perinatal unit for a month and a half. Her stay was so long that Ivey-Stephenson had her baby shower at the hospital. In mid-December she delivered a healthy baby boy.
Asha:Listen This is something that Shalon and I actually bonded over. She helped motivate me through as well. My challenges that I was referring to primarily stemmed from my uterine fibroids and it’s something that African-American women deal with. The majority of my friends have, whether it’s small, large, multiple fibroids. It’s something that my mother had, so I knew that most likely I’d have it.
Five days after she delivered, just as she was about to leave the hospital, Ivey-Stephenson’s blood pressure skyrocketed.
Asha:Listen There were points where [my blood pressure] got so high, we were all not sure what was going to happen. When I got home, I had to have physical therapy, occupational therapy and regular nursing. Occupational therapy and regular nursing came to the house because I had lost so much muscle tone. Basically I couldn’t walk. So I had to learn all that over again. And it was just, trying to do that plus trying to breastfeed, trying to do all these different things was challenging.
During all of this, Irving was part of her network of supportive friends.
A little over a year later, in January 2017, Irving celebrated the birth of her first child — a baby girl she named Soleil. But Irving was a mother for just three weeks. Her postpartum complications became increasingly serious. She ultimately died due to complications from high blood pressure. Soleil was left in the care of Irving’s mother, Wanda. Ivy-Stephenson has stayed close to the family. Wanda sat down with Ivey-Stephenson to share this conversation, and her advice for other expectant black women.
Wanda:Listen My one regret is that Shalon told me once, she says, “I know my body. I know there’s something wrong,” and that’s what I would recommend to every black woman, if you know there’s something wrong, please don’t stop until you find someone who will help you figure out what’s wrong, and not just take a lot of the paternalistic kinds of answers or the general answers, “Oh well it’s nothing. It comes along with pregnancy,” or “It’s part of childbirth,” or it’s part of whatever. You know your body better than anyone else. You live in that body. If there is something you’re feeling that’s wrong, then do something.
A uterine rupture is a tear in the wall of the uterus. While rare, this complication is dangerous not just for the mother but for the child. When the uterus tears, the unborn baby can be expelled into his or her mother’s abdomen. The baby can be deprived of oxygen and the mother can experience severe blood loss. A well-known risk factor for a uterine rupture is a uterine scar. Most uterine scars arise from a prior cesarean delivery.
In March 2014, Heather Lavender was 32 and nine months pregnant when she went into labor. Her mother, Brenda Bagby, her sister, Melissa, her doula, and her son’s father rushed Lavender to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she was also an intensive care nurse.
After many hours of labor, she had a pain in her abdomen, which gradually became unbearable. That pain turned out to be a uterine rupture. After an emergency C-section to deliver the baby, doctors had to perform a hysterectomy to stop the massive blood loss.
Heather:Listen You know as long as my baby is OK, you know … God can’t be that cruel to have me lose my uterus and my baby all at the same time. So at that point I was just really hoping and praying that my son would be OK.
The rupture, however, was catastrophic for her son. Cruz ended up outside of the womb and without oxygen. As a result, he suffered severe brain damage. When Cruz was born he never moved, opened his eyes or cried.
Brenda: How are you different now than before your complication?
Heather:Listen I think for most of my life I’ve been a pretty positive person and I just don’t feel that way about myself anymore. I feel purposeless, I don’t feel that I have like true joy in my life, I don’t care. I pray for an early death. I don’t want to live to be an old person … and I know it’s wrong.
Cruz lived nine days on a ventilator in the neonatal intensive care unit before Lavender and her family decided to remove him from life support.
Heather: How do you remember my son Cruz, your grandson?
Brenda:Listen It’s hard sometimes, I couldn’t stand the sound of the machinery after a while. I just wanted it to stop, I didn’t want to hear more beeping. No more alarms. So I am glad we got to have a little bit of time without all of that. And when they extubated him, when they removed him from the breathing tube it was clear that he wasn’t going to be able to be with us for very long. So being able to go home and have that quiet time with him that we wouldn’t have had otherwise was really a blessing and having the pictures that we have from that helps me every day.
In 2016, Lavender moved from Baltimore, Maryland, to Farmington, New Mexico. This conversation was recorded during a visit from her mother who lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Lavender continues to practice as a nurse.
Spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, often occurs late in the pregnancy or during the postpartum period. It’s when a tear forms in one of the blood vessels in the heart. It can slow or block blood flow, causing a heart attack, abnormalities in heart rhythm or sudden death. Hormonal changes during pregnancy are thought to trigger this complication. Despite treatment, it may recur soon after the initial tear or even years later.
As in most SCAD cases, Candice Williams, a high school teacher, was healthy throughout her pregnancy. She was 30 at the time. She did not have a heart condition or a previous history of hypertension. But five days after giving birth to her first child, Aniston, in 2011, she nearly died.
Aniston is now 6 years old and wanted to ask her mother this:
Aniston: How did you get your heart attack?
Candice:Listen That’s a good question baby, doctors aren’t really sure. I’ve seen at least four doctors related to the heart attack and all they can tell me is that it is a rare occurrence and that it has something to do with my hormones so when I had you my hormones were unstable as women’s hormones are after they give birth so I guess that caused my heart to start hurting baby but it wasn’t your fault.
Williams, now 37, was home from the hospital when her chest started to hurt. The pain got so bad that her mother, LaVerne Maynard, rushed Williams to a nearby hospital in El Centro, California. Because that hospital wasn’t equipped to treat Williams, she was airlifted more than 100 miles to a hospital in San Diego.
LaVerne: What is the hardest moment for you?
Candice:Listen The hardest moment was probably being life-flighted and I only remember parts of it, I guess I was really scared and I kept thinking about Ani and if I … if something happened to me, I had no idea what was going to happen to my baby. So that was the hardest moment. It’s still the hardest moment.
After more tests, doctors concluded that she had experienced a SCAD. Rather than operate on her, they gave her blood thinners, beta blockers and aspirin to prevent another attack and help heal the heart on its own. She was hospitalized for four days and released.
Candice:Listen I had a relatively good diet, I was not overweight and SCAD often happens to women who don’t have any prior health issues. So people think because I had a heart attack that I had high blood pressure or I didn’t eat right or didn’t exercise but I was actually the opposite of that.
After surviving this SCAD, her doctors advised against a second pregnancy. But, five years later, in March of 2016, Williams gave birth to a second daughter, Leah. This time, she had no complications. Williams pays more attention to her body now. She takes blood pressure medication once a week, sees her cardiologists every six months, exercises, and watches what she eats.
Peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM) is a form of maternal heart failure. It’s when the heart isn’t strong enough to pump enough blood to the vital organs so they can function properly. A mother may experience PPCM up to six months postpartum. On average, PPCM affects black women at a younger age (27.6 years old) than non-black women (31.7 years old). And despite similar rates of treatment, the recovery time for African-American women was at least twice as longas that of other women. Little research has been done to understand the differences in severity and recovery.
In 1992, about a month after Anner Porter gave birth to her second child — a boy she named Norris — she was at the OB-GYN complaining of exhaustion and numbness. She said she was told to eat some beets to improve a low iron count. Two days later, Porter nearly died. Her heart failed to pump enough blood to keep her vital organs going. This is called postpartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM).
That was the first time Porter had heard of PPCM — from an emergency room doctor diagnosing it as her organs started to shut down. Ever since that postpartum heart failure 25 years ago, Porter has suffered heart complications.
Jennifer: Tell me what happened in the postpartum period that changed your life?
Anner:Listen Oh wow, OK. Twenty-eight days later I still found it extremely difficult to function. I was extremely fatigued. Was constantly experiencing shortness of breath. Coughing all the time unable to lie down, heart palpitations, I had significant weight gain, excessive swelling in my legs, belly, feet, ankles. I remember each day became unbearable and each night became a nightmare. At that point I knew something was wrong with my body.
In the years since the cardiomyopathy, she has needed two separate heart procedures: a defibrillator implanted in 2010, and open-heart surgery after a silent heart attack in 2012.
Anner: Do you look at your own life differently?
Jennifer:Listen Yes, I do. Seeing how something simple can — like childbirth — put so much stress on your body and seeing everything that you went through in terms of how you drastically had to change your diet, how you were going from no medication to five to six different medications, how your body reacted. Seeing how different stress in certain activities in life you couldn’t do in terms of like walking up the stairs, you couldn’t do. How little things like driving, you used to lose your breath and you used to have that plastic bag … not plastic … paper bag in your purse in case something happened, you had that, so yeah it has changed my life.
While the cause of PPCM remains unknown, Porter believes awareness among women and clinicians can save lives.
Anner:Listen I don’t want any other woman to experience a near-death pregnancy like I did, I feel that I must continue to bring awareness about this deadly disease that actually has no cure in sight.
These vignettes are snippets of hours-long conversations. The women talked with each other about their formative years, their painful memories of death or near death, and the advice they would give to expectant and new mothers. Often, what they heard from their loved ones surprised them.
If you’d like to facilitate your own conversation with your mother, daughter or granddaughter, we have written a list of questions. We encourage you to use them and record your own conversations.
Download or print out this form with our suggested questions. But also feel free to make it your own.
Find a quiet space to record. We encourage you record this conversation using your phone or a digital recorder.
Feel free to share anything with us at [email protected]. Privacy note: nothing will be published without your permission.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
How many of you remember the song Trade Winds? Some of us might hear Randy Crawford in our heads as we look at the words; some of you younger ladies might hear The Winans.
Here I stand looking, looking around me
While all around me, what do I see?
Unhappy faces behind a painted smile
Heartache and loneliness dressed up in modern style
Unhappy people livin’ in sin and shame
Reflections of myself, life is no easy game
We’re caught in the trade winds, the trade winds of our time.
Randy Crawford (pictured above) released her version of Trade Winds in 1981. The song was also covered by Roberta Flack and Lou Rawls. (Photo courtesy of israbox.com)
There’s no indication that this song was intended to be a “Christian” song, but I hear the call of God in it as surely as I hear His call to Moses at the burning bush, or His call for justice and unity through Dr. King’s Dream. As each of these men were, we are now today living in a time that is ripe for action because it is rife with opposition to the word and will of God.
When I look all around me, I, too see so many things. When I look out my back door, I see young men sending up smoky tendrils of hopelessness as they puff their lives away with cigarettes, both legal and illegal. When I look out my front door, I see women and families going through the mundane routines of life, and when we say “hello” I see the fixed glaze of people who have resigned themselves to a certain existence. When I look across the pews in my church, I see people who raise their hands in worship but who sometimes seem uncomfortable extending their hand in fellowship. I also see those who are fervently seeking God for how to make a difference in the world around them. I hope to see more of those people.
When I look at Christian websites and media, I see us catering to the temporal, fleshly part of ourselves by showcasing the talented, the beautiful, and the up-and-coming, rather than the needy, the lonely, and the down-and-out. Do we have anything to say to those who need a friend, to those whose marriages are sinking fast, whose children are God knows where doing God knows what with God knows whom? Is there a Word stored in our hearts that can penetrate the weary and sin-sick soul of that mother of three in prison for the second time? Or can we only repeat what we read in the pages of our Essence magazine, recite lines we heard in the latest Tyler Perry flick, quote language from Michelle Obama’s last public appearance, or maybe cite one of those “sayings” we heard our stylist borrow from her mother during our last visit to the salon? Sisters, we need to give more because our times demand more. Nothing short of the gospel will bring a change.
When we look around the media and read other women’s explanations for why we are still sleeping with our boyfriends – or girlfriends for that matter – do we not hear God’s call to to act? Does His Spirit, whom the Bible tells us knows the mind of God, not remind us that He is holy yet forgiving? A Washington, DC minister, in response to the issue of many Christian singles being sexually active, is described in Essence magazine as encouraging black Christian women to “embrace both sides of their nature [sexual and sanctified] by recognizing all people are sexual and many church practices are from a different time.” Do we have a response to that? Can we tell anyone that God designed sex to be experienced between a husband and wife and that if we are experiencing it some other way, our experience is contrary to what He wants for us? Does anyone have the courage to further explain that if a woman is not now living up to that standard, God forgives and can empower her to live according to His will going forward? And when we are chided for being out of touch can we brave enough to echo 1 Thessalonians 4:8 – “anyone who refuses to live by these rules [regarding sexual sin] is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God”? Or are we joining the chorus of other voices excusing sexual misconduct based on arguments citing the “complexity” of our lives?
Sisters, when we look around at the women in our families, the women with whom we work and play, and we see slumped shoulders too accustomed to carrying the weight of their worlds, do we know how to tell them of God’s sufficiency for their struggle, and that they can rest in His strength? Or do we simply become the company that misery loves by telling them to “be strong and keep it moving”? Where is the demonstration of the remedy we carry within us? What has happened to the power of the gospel we say we believe? Could it be that we are speaking one of those “other gospels” that has the power to manipulate but is powerless to change us? Our brothers, sisters, children, bosses, preachers, doctors, celebrities, and politicians need to know Jesus. They need His strength, wisdom, compassion, and grace. We are in a unique position to lead them to Him. We have been at the bottom of this country’s social, economic, political, and ecclesiastical structures forever. We know the sting of gender and the stigma of color, but our weaknesses qualify us to be vessels through which His power can flow. It’s time for us to live boldly in that power so that people can see the difference it makes in their lives to know and trust God.
“She must be loosed from her bands and set to work” – Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (Photo courtesy of cooperproject.org)
If we need inspiration, we can look back a couple hundred years or a couple thousand years. Anna Julia Cooper of the post-reconstruction era black clubwomen’s movement put in perspective our need to rise:
Now the fundamental agency under God in the regeneration, the re-training of the race,…must be the black woman. With all the wrongs and neglects of her past, with all the weakness, the debasement, the moral thralldom of her present, the black woman of today stands mute and wondering at the Herculean task devolving around her. But the cycles wait for her. No other hand can move the lever. She must be loosed from her bands and set to work.
What are these bands that bind us? Consider the strongest one. Our color, rather than being a prism reflecting the beauty, power, and tenderness of Jesus, has become a cord that ties us to people and ideologies which oppose Jesus and His teaching. Christ has become subject to color. Thus have we forfeited the very source of our true power. When faced with opposing positions we almost always choose the one with color at its foundation. Consider poverty. Policies targeting poverty are almost universally based on ties to color. We’ve heard the reasoning that blacks are in poverty primarily because they are black. Yes, color-based discrimination is a factor, but the Bible also speaks of several other reasons people end up in poverty, not the least of which is their relationship to, or rebellion against, God. We rarely acknowledge any of the biblical reasons; yet we without fail heartily embrace the solutions which put race at the heart of a problem. Similarly, if a person whom we hold in high regard ascribes to ideas directly opposed to the word of God, we often vocally support him/her, justifying ourselves by pointing out the need for blacks to advance in society. In these ways and many others, color is our governing allegiance, relegating the supremacy of Christ to the back of the bus.
Our color alone can’t save anyone, relieve anyone’s suffering, or provide a solution to their generational bondage. But our color nailed to His cross and taken up as our cross allows us to enter into the fellowship of His suffering through the shame and rejection that comes because of our color. And if we are partakers with Him in suffering, we are also beneficiaries of His resurrection power. It’s time we brought this power to bear on the entrenched problems of our communities and our world. Sisters, let us be loosed from this band and set to work. Let us no longer stand mute wondering at the task before us. The voices of the white and black feminists, the white female conservatives, and the new black atheists are being heard. Now it’s our turn. Let the voice of the black Christian woman rise as we contend for the faith that has been given to us once for all time.
RECLAIMING A FEMALE AGENDA: Scholar, author, and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.
For several years, I’ve been particularly interested in what’s happening with women, specifically Black women, especially Black Christian women. And so I have been exploring what it means to occupy each of those spaces, a unified identity that I call BCW (Black Christian women).
Questions of identity, markedly so for women of color, are critical because they fundamentally answer many of the determinative inquiries of our lives. For example: Whom do we love and who loves us? How are we able to live out our commitments to family, friends, and faith? What ideas become our focus spiritually, economically, politically, and professionally? How do we communicate and deal with our unmet needs and desires? Similarly, movements like Black Girls Rock! and the Spelman protest against misogyny in the rap industry are concerned not only with mass-marketed stereotypes and public perceptions of Black women, but also with how the manufactured persona affects how our families, co-workers, lovers, and fellow congregants view us.
These things matter not just for us who are already of full adult age and experience, but also for those younger and future generations of Black Christian girls (BCG) who follow. What will they learn from us about what it means to serve God wrapped in deep brown, café au lait, or bronze skin?
I will explore these questions and others in this series. Given that this is an election year, I thought it appropriate to examine BCW identity first through a political lens. I conducted an interview with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. She also is the host of a new eponymously named weekend news show on MSNBC. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, specifically related to the impact of stereotypes on the political involvement of Black Christian women; and the role of the gospel in our politics. The context for our conversation largely centered on reproductive issues, as these have dominated political discourse as of late, and provide an interesting perspective from which to consider larger issues of identity.
This excerpt from our discussion was edited for clarity and conversational flow.
CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Over the years, Black women have been portrayed in various unflattering ways by society. There’s the “Jezebel,” who’s promiscuous and sexually undiscerning, and the “strong Black woman,” who’s resolutely independent and often viewed as almost masculine in demeanor. How do you think these sorts of stereotypes play out for Black women, and Black Christian women, in reproductive politics?
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: As much as it is the thing that can get women riled up in the public sphere, the fact is our reproductive lives are only one part, one relatively short part of our long lives as women. But they shape so powerfully how people understand who women are. So this is a relatively brief part of our overall life, but the choices we make: whether or not we choose to ever have children, how many children, whether in marriage or outside of marriage, whether as teenagers or older women. Every single reproductive choice you make, to the extent that other people know about it, ends up being a potential source of judgment, criticism, and shame. I think that is particularly true for African American women. Part of that is the Jezebel stereotype, part of it is the broad sense that so many different groups of people feel they have every right to weigh in on the choices that Black women make.
Obviously there is an element of this that goes back to the legacy of slavery where Black women’s reproduction was to the financial benefit of those who owned them, owned their bodies, and therefore owned their children. But it is also part of the discourse of the 1980s about the so-called welfare queen. The whole world has a right to speak about whether Black women have children. There’s almost no part of American culture and political life where there isn’t some group that feels it has the right to speak about Black women and their reproductive choices. So all of those negative stereotypes then weigh in on us as we’re trying to make decisions as autonomous individuals about our own lives, and all those criticisms are very loud in our heads.
CWC: It seems one of the true dangers of the stereotypes is that they are not only placed upon us by others but we also use them to limit ourselves. For example, once we’ve made a certain choice, there’s always the interminable second-guessing. Then if we feel any sense of regret, disappointment, or self-examination over the decision, the stereotypes and shame hit us again because we don’t feel at liberty or like we have permission to get help to deal with what we’re feeling. Do you think that’s the case?
MHP: Absolutely. You hear critics of abortion say that all women regret their abortion. But all women also regret their children. There’s no reproductive choice that you ever make that isn’t one part regret and one part happiness. We’re complicated, we’re not automatons. So do you regret an abortion? Sure, you feel like, What if? But at the same time, you might ultimately think it was the right decision for you. Similarly, do you love your children? Absolutely, every second of every day, but sometimes you just wish they would go to sleep and leave you alone! So there’s no choice you make that isn’t complicated. But I think that’s part of what happens in the way that we talk about women, almost as though they’re not human and can’t have complicated relationships to all of the adult choices that they make. The single biggest issue in shame is not that it’s just about the judgments others make of us, it’s about the judgments we make of ourselves that then limit our ability to seek help, to vocalize our own experiences, to claim our right to have complicated feelings about it.
CWC: Given the fact that African American women have such a close identification with faith and with the church, why do you think that image hasn’t become part of the stereotype about us?
MHP: I think it depends on the circumstance. Undoubtedly in the context of policy-making we normally hear about the negative version of who Black women are, but I also think there’s this whole thing of how Black church women are depicted on TV. I hate depictions of Black church on TV because they make it seem like a show instead of worship. For example, the number of times they show a Black woman at church in the throes of ecstatic religious passion, but without any understanding that it’s not a show or a dance to be performed; it’s an act of worship.
So I do think it’s a part of our stereotype, but one that is largely misunderstood — one that is assumed to be in a lot of ways almost funny. I also think it’s an interesting counterpoint to the Jezebel stereotype. On the one hand you have this vision that Black women are sexually lewd, lascivious, loose hip-hop hoochies, and then on the other hand that we are these church ladies. So I think it’s all about what is useful for the people who are developing the stereotype.
CWC: Great point, because another way that the faith stereotype often manifests is in this idea that says, “Black women are supposed to be some of the most devout, the ones who hold their religion most closely, so why is there so much pathology in your community, why isn’t that piety being reflected?” What’s your response to that? Is our Christianity lived deeply enough so that it’s truly transformative?
MHP: I suppose I have a different experience of what the supposed transformative aspect of the gospel is. When I think about what I mean when I call myself “Christian,” it really is about living in a state of grace, and knowing in a very powerful way that my human failures are not the end of the story about who I am. It doesn’t mean I take them lightly or that you can behave any way you want. For example, I know some devout Christian women who curse like sailors, but they are also the people that would take their last egg and cook something for someone on the street. Or they stay on their feet late at night cooking for church events and barely get a thank you for it. Similarly, I know women who have one or two children out of wedlock but are profoundly and devoutly religious people. And I don’t experience that as their moments of morally failing God, quite the opposite. I see it as part and parcel of their Christian faith.
CWC: Given how pervasive and longstanding these stereotypes are, what are effective political resistance strategies for Black women? You make a reference early in your book to a need for the creation of “new forms of politics.” Is that what you consider an effective political resistance strategy?
MHP: More than anything, what I’d really love to see us doing politically is putting ourselves at the center of our own political agendas. This is particularly true for women in Christian communities. We often internalize the message of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think we shouldn’t internalize that message. It’s obviously an incredibly important lesson, but we internalize it in a way that no one else in the church does. So other people are perfectly happy to put us on the cross. For me, the goal of the Christian narrative is not to turn Black women into additional sacrificial lambs, but that the liberation of the Cross is meant for Black women as much as it is meant for every one else. We have a right to say when something isn’t good for us. But instead, what we’ll often say something like, “It’s not good for me, but it’s good for Black men. And so I’ll take the hit on this one because I want to do what’s right for Black men.” I think the new model is the one that goes ahead and puts Black women and our politics at the center.
CWC: Why do you think the political involvement of African American women hasn’t continued on an upward trajectory after the civil rights movement?
MHP: I think that we romanticize the moment of the civil rights movement in certain ways. Part of it is a visibility question. When we had a reason to vote, like we did in the 2008 election, we showed up and did. So if you ask why do I think involvement has fallen off, I believe it’s in part because we haven’t seen active mobilization on the part of political parties and organizations saying Black women matter so let’s go out and make sure they are engaged. When it did happen, we were right there and organized and prepared to go into it.
Subsequent parts of this series will consider several of the ideas brought out in this interview.