By Natalia Sucre, Research and Writing Librarian
The second virtual roundtable hosted by the Peer Leadership Group for the MCNY Library Black Maternal Health Initiative (BMHI) flowed directly from the narrower focus our first roundtable. The big topics and questions that were placed so passionately on the table during that discussion by guest speakers, peer leaders, community partners, and audience members became the centerpiece of round two: the social determinants of Black maternal health, structural racism in U.S. healthcare, the impact of the Roe v Wade reversal on Black and Brown communities, the power of the Reproductive Justice framework.
Our guest speakers –Dr. Allegra Cummings and Dr. Renata Ferdinand— were the perfect pairing of practice and theory. Dr. Cummings is a medical doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology with expertise in vaginal birth after cesarean, and Dr. Ferdinand is a university professor working in Black Motherhood Studies, Black Girl Studies, and autoethnography and narrative writing. The dynamic conversation between them showed how in action the practice/theory binary gets all tangled up.
What’s in a Story?
As a writer and educator who uses autoethnography to expose systems of historical oppression, Dr. Ferdinand grounded our discussion in a key concept: “When Black women tell their stories, they are the experts. We don’t need anyone else to tell us what our story is.” This is why, Dr. Ferdinand underlined, “the activists of the Reproductive Justice Movement relied on stories.” The expertise that emerges when Black women tell their stories informs a broad, nuanced, and holistic platform for working toward justice on reproductive rights. The foundational definition of Reproductive Justice that Dr. Ferdinand quoted demonstrates how centering Black women’s voices and experience produces a platform with these qualities: “SisterSong defines Reproductive Justice as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Reproductive Justice here is not limited to choices around abortion, a point that both guest speakers emphasized.
At the same time, the act of telling one’s story as a Black woman is also the process of finding one’s voice and agency as Dr. Ferdinand’s Autoethnography of African American Motherhood: Things I tell My Daughter exemplifies. The roundtable’s excited reception of Dr. Ferdinand’s work and thoughts on autoethnography was vivid proof of that power. Dr. Ferdinand expressed her fear that the Roe v Wade reversal will mean “we will lose those stories,” the stories of Black women from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. For Dr. Ferdinand, whose autoethnographies often involve intergenerational storytelling (see here and here), when Black women tell their stories they gain voice, access a therapeutic process, and, most important, make key connections over time and space in a way that creates new knowledge. Adding to this analysis, Dr. Christopher Jackson, a member of the audience, pointed out that such storytelling links back to slave narratives and folktales –sources of invaluable information for changemaking. As Dr. Ferdinand put it “we need those stories.”
Stories of A Practice
With her 20 years plus experience as an OBGYN of color in upper Manhattan, Dr. Cummings brought to the discussion a wealth of stories that intertwined her personal and professional medical experience. Well aware of studies that show having a doctor of color dramatically decreases Black infant mortality (see here and here), Dr. Cummings emphasized the importance of being a trusted provider for Black and Brown birthing people in her community – just being there for her community. But we learned that it is no small feat for doctors of color like her to maintain continuous service in the same community, in a healthcare context where there are not enough providers of color and navigating hospital affiliations is difficult. Oher reproductive health issues such as uterine fibroids, which affect 60% of Black women in the U.S., provided an excellent example of how having a Black OBGYN makes a difference. Dr. Cummings remembered her mother’s experience with a diagnosis of uterine fibroids: the white male doctor suggested a hysterectomy. In contrast, she provides patients with a wide range of options as well as in-depth health education resources to catch the condition early on.
On the reversal of Roe v Wade, Dr. Cumming’s account of her medical experience took on the force of testimony. She spoke to the reversal’s ripple effect: doctors in states where abortion is banned no longer easily able to take care of patients in need of healthcare for miscarriages or complications –routine cases she herself handles regularly; low-income residents of those states unable to travel out-of-state for their healthcare needs; resources stretched thin in states like New York where abortion is still part of healthcare. Dr. Cummings also spoke of her fear that the reversal is a sign of more regulation to come around decisions that she as a doctor sees as distinctly personal –not only abortion, but also transgender transitioning. Her response? “Trying to make sure that we have the rights just to be safe, to be healthy, to live our best lives, to live our truths and have autonomy.”
In acknowledging the mental health issues triggered by the Black maternal mortality rate –a question raised by a peer leader—both guests speakers emphasized what Dr. Cummings called pushing back against “all the doom and gloom.” Dr. Ferdinand discussed her work with autoethnography as a form of individual and communal therapy and spoke of the sense of responsibility she feels as an educator to introduce students to the Black history routinely neglected in our high school curriculums. Next year, she is planning a whole program at City Tech on all the issues faced by Black women and girls. Dr. Cummings shared a wonderful tool that she recommends to her patients who are facing this disproportionately high maternal mortality rate in their demographic group: Protecting Your Birth: A Guide for Black Mothers. But she also made clear the imperative of finding and implementing institutional solutions, for example through the work of the Cornell Central for Health Equity. In this vein, she discussed her own work on the Weill Cornell Health Equity Alliance Committee which aims to combat physician bias by developing protocols for treating every obstetrical emergency the same way.
Dr. Jackson challenged us all to think about how we each spread awareness in our inner circles on the Black maternal health crisis, “connecting the stories with the issues.” We heartily thank our guests for their rich, full responses to that challenge. And please stay tuned, as the BMHI Peer leaders continue to develop ways to engage the MCNY community on these Black maternal health imperatives.