Black Motherhood amidst Two Pandemics: A Lament for My Unborn Son

The author looking pensively at her unborn child. Photo by Kathy Ballard-Cowell.

On May 10th, 2020 I woke up to a few messages from close friends and family. They were wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day. Twenty-two weeks pregnant with my first child, I had not realized that technically it was my first Mother’s Day. I had recently begun to feel my son moving inside me, a son for whom I already felt immense love even though I had not yet set eyes on him other than through a grainy black-and-white sonogram photo.

While touched by the well wishes of my support group, I did not see this day as one to celebrate. Mother’s Day incidentally coincided with Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching becoming national news, and I could not stop thinking about what his mother was going through having lost her son to senseless racial violence and then waiting months for her son’s vigilante killers to even be indicted — a reality experienced by too many Black mothers. Since 2013, about 2,000 Black people have been killed by police, according to the researchers who maintain the Mapping Police Violence database — a number that doesn’t even include those like Arbery who died at the hands of vigilantes. Their mothers would also have to mourn instead of celebrating this day.

As a Black woman, I often ask myself when my unborn son will be old enough to be seen as a threat rather than as a child. Tamir Rice was only 12 years old when he was shot by police within seconds of their arrival at the playground where Rice was playing with a toy gun. The video of police shooting Tamir, then tackling his screaming sister to the ground before she could hold her dying brother, was one of the most soul-wrenching things I had ever seen. The police made no attempt to revive little Tamir because in their eyes, his life did not matter. Black lives never have in this country.

When my husband and I decided to have a child, we did not make the decision lightly. In addition to our fear of raising a Black child in a society full of racial injustice, we also weighed the risk to my health and my life. We live in a country where Black women on average are three to four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth because of individual and systemic racism, whether due to racial bias in medical treatment, hypertension and other indicators of stress related to racial discrimination, or redlining and other discriminatory practices restricting where Black women can live, work, or shop for groceries.

More surprisingly, education or income level is not the great equalizer that is often touted in race-based statistics. Black women with a college degree are five times more likely to die in pregnancy than white women with the same amount of education. Even my Ph.D. would not necessarily protect me, as Shalon Irving learned. She was one of many highly educated Black women to die at the hands of the US health system. I spent the beginning of my pregnancy interviewing OB-GYNs to see if they took seriously the disparities that Black women face and had protocols for mitigating them. I wanted to know if they saw my life as having as much value as their white patients.

Then COVID-19 arrived, bringing a whole new set of worries. In March, the city of Seattle became the first epicenter of the US-based COVID-19 crisis. I was just entering my second trimester, a time when many pregnant women breathe a sigh of relief for not having miscarried. Instead of sharing the news with friends, I continued to keep my pregnancy a secret to most people. There was, and still is, not enough data to know how pregnant women are affected by COVID-19. However, preliminary reports indicate pregnant women are at an increased risk and that mothers can transmit the disease to their babies through the placenta.

Thus, reaching the second trimester seemed inconsequential in the COVID era. And since social distancing meant that I only ever interacted with people through Zoom, which cropped out anything below my neck, no one witnessed my expanding belly. Publishing the shorter version of this article in the Boston Globe at 28-weeks pregnant was the first indication to my social networks that I was (hopefully) about to become a mother.

In the first few weeks after COVID reached the US, I attended webinars conducted by local health professionals about maternity in the age of COVID, trying to educate myself on the unique precautions I should take in navigating this new world we have found ourselves in. I also endured sleepless nights marked with panic attacks. I was sure many mothers-to-be wrestled the same demons. But as the general COVID-inspired fears began to slowly retreat, they were replaced by the much more visceral distress that lies at the intersection of COVID and white supremacy.

It was becoming more and more clear that Black communities would bear the brunt of and suffer most from COVID’s rampage. Over 20,000 Black people had died from COVID-19 when the US earned the dubious distinction of being the first country to reach 100,000 deaths — 20% of total deaths for a group that represents 13% of the population. In some locations, the disparities were even more stark. At one point in Alabama, for instance, Black people comprised over 52% of the deaths with just 27% of the population. And yet, there were some in law enforcement that lament not more of us are dying.

The surgeon general Jerome Adams myopically singled-out and chastised Black communities for their eating, drinking, and smoking habits. To him and the Trump administration, the disparities result from personal choices leading to underlying health conditions that make Black people more susceptible to serious illness and death. He failed to consider the social inequities that disproportionately harm these communities.

In addition to the increased likelihood of Black people being essential workers and thus risking greater exposure to COVID, there is a long and documented history of Black people receiving subpar medical care, from being denied medical treatment or being given weaker pain medication to being used for medical experimentation. Indeed, multiple reports have shown that medical professionals test and treat Black patients with COVID-19 symptoms at much lower rates than white patients. The current pandemic is replicating inequities at an alarming rate, no surprise to the communities living this nightmare.

Then there are the daily health risks Black people face, which are heightened in a COVID world. For instance, from March 17 to May 4, 35 out of the 40 people arrested for social distance violations in Brooklyn were Black even though the borough is 50% white and there is no evidence that Black people follow social distancing guidelines differently than white people. Black people have long been the target of law enforcement, regardless of where in the country we live. This pandemic has taught us nothing new.

It is unsurprising then that when the CDC updated their recommendations about the general public wearing masks, Black people wondered how such a simple request would negatively affect us. White people have long weaponized their supposed fear of Black people. Always on our guard for being perceived as a threat, we wrote op-eds and posted on social media our fear of being seen as threatening with masked faces. If we cannot receive the benefit of the doubt for doing mundane things such as enjoying nature (Christian Cooper), falling asleep in a study room (Lolade Siyonbola), walking in a hoodie (Trayvon Martin), or relaxing at home (Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Tayler), how are we supposed to walk through society in a mask and come out unscathed? While my anxieties around navigating COVID while pregnant are immense, my greatest fears stem from the truth that anti-Blackness will always be the most dangerous pandemic.

In life, people, regardless of race, have to deal with all sorts of difficult things because such is the nature of the human condition. However, white people’s privilege lies in the fact that they only deal with the trials and tribulations that all humans encounter. Black people must contend with those same worries but then add all the societal-induced issues on top — issues created and perpetuated in a country that refuses to address the rampant white supremacy that is the very essence of its being and infects everything it touches. It was obvious to me from the beginning that I was not just having to navigate being a person during COVID or a pregnant woman during COVID. I would need to survive being a Black pregnant woman during COVID.

~~~

I refuse to watch Black death anymore, even though videos of our public demise run amok on social media. These videos of Black people being murdered, shared millions of times across numerous platforms, fill the space that public lynchings had held for decades. Between 1877 and 1950 over 4,000 racial terror lynchings took place in the United States, predominantly in the south but in other parts of the US as well. These gatherings were well-attended, celebrated, and served as a warning to Black folks that their lives could be extinguished for any reason white people put forth. It was a mechanism to keep us in our place, and it exists till this day.

People now experience public lynchings in the comfort of their homes as these images move to social media platforms. Some people may share these atrocities in order to jar white and other complacent bystanders into action, but since the proliferation of filmed killings have rarely resulted in criminal indictments, let alone convictions, and since very few laws have been passed to successfully limit the numbers of Black people killed, this infatuation with Black death seems nothing more than a spectacle, one primarily experienced by whites. Like myself, most of my Black friends cannot stomach watching these videos, videos that signify our own mortality and lack of worth. I do not have the words to describe how the trauma burrows deeper and deeper into my soul with each video transmission polluting our consciousness.

This trauma was encapsulated most clearly in the murder of George Floyd by a white officer and his three accomplices. The fact that two of these officers were people of color show just how insidious white supremacy is — turning anyone into agents of harm. There was no reason for this excessive force on a handcuffed and pinned-down man other than a reminder that the law can take our lives any time it wants. I spent Memorial Day despondent, consoling myself in the melodic anger of Nina Simone’s haunting version of “Strange Fruit.” Each public execution or lynching becomes layered on the one before and the one before that. I was just about reaching my breaking point like so many of my fellow Black Americans.

As A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez wrote, “vicarious trauma is an integral aspect of Black motherhood.” When one of our children dies, we all grieve and wonder when ours will be next — such is the nature of structural racism. Heartache, therefore, should be added to the list of comorbidities that make us more susceptible to death from diseases such as COVID.

During my pregnancy, I have already witnessed the power of fear and heartbreak. Two weeks into the national protests on police brutality, my 27-week-check-up showed my blood pressure through the roof, something I had never experienced before. My doctor ordered some blood tests to see if this spike was indicative of a larger issue. The results troubled her enough to send me to OB triage that night for extra tests, which confirmed worrying levels of bile acids in my blood. It was looking like I had acquired a condition that would necessitate inducing labor four weeks before my due date.

While problems can always arise during pregnancy, it crossed my mind that these complications coincided with the heightened stress surrounding the recent racial turmoil. I took it upon myself to change my environment — a week-long trip to the nearby San Juan Islands for a socially-distanced vacation, a moratorium on social media engagement, increased time in nature — in addition to continued therapy sessions and meditation.

When I received follow-up test results after a couple weeks of concerted de-stressing, the concerning levels had gone back down. Two more weeks of tests confirmed the about-face. I asked my doctor if she was surprised by this change and whether she had any thoughts about why this change occurred. Admitting that sometimes the medical profession is unable to explain certain phenomena, she suggested I keep engaging in a stress-reduced lifestyle because it was obviously having a positive effect on my health. Perhaps this was a case of mind over matter. But I wonder how long it is possible to ignore the devastation surrounding me. It is woven into the fabric of America. I also recognize my class privilege. As a professor who is currently on sabbatical, I can make the decision to take time off to attend to my mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

As I focus on my well-being for the sake of my unborn son, I do so fully aware of the sacrifices that protestors are making as they put their bodies on the line. Spreading from Minneapolis, uprisings reached other cities such as Louisville where people are still waiting for answers after officers with a no-knock warrant forcefully entered a house and shot and killed sleeping EMT Breonna Taylor eight times back in March even though the actual suspect was already in custody. The only person to have been arrested and charged was Taylor’s boyfriend, who fired at the invaders out of fear for his and Taylor’s life. She would’ve been 27 last month. Instead of her friends getting to celebrate her life, a country mourned her death.

People are in the street not just protesting Floyd’s senseless death or Taylor’s, they are protesting all the numerous cases where cops and white vigilantes get away with murder. Those of us who march must do so not just for those like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery who have become household names. We must also march for all the people we don’t know or don’t see because society has labeled them as even less deserving.

We should be shouting the names of Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Iyanna Dior, Monika Diamond, Tyra Hunter and countless others because Black trans lives matter, too. Whether they are killed by police, denied medical treatment, or viciously attacked by civilians while bystanders look on, we must march for them and acknowledge their right to life as well.

In addition to the specter of death, demonization, and humiliation hanging over us, we endure a perverse mix of mockery and hypocrisy as we watch law enforcement apprehend armed and dangerous white suspects and terrorists while extinguishing the lives of unarmed Black people. Police exercise restraint when white protestors storm the Michigan capitol with automatic weapons but subject peaceful protesters demanding racial justice and even reporters to tear gas and rubber bullets. Meanwhile, far-right white supremacists are using the BLM protests to incite more violence, knowing that police will punish Black bodies regardless of who is actually the culprit. That is how American justice works.

However, the hypocrisy was most brazenly on display when a mostly white group stormed the yard of the Kentucky governor’s mansion to protest COVID restrictions before burning him in effigy at the Capitol — all without punishment — while mostly Black BLM protestors convened peacefully at the mansion a few weeks later, resulting in 87 felony arrests. We live in a country that coddles white rage, condemns Black anger, and revels in Black pain.

I feel these events act on the body, literally changing its chemistry. I wonder: how does my unborn child experience this negative energy — energy he undoubtedly feels within me in the supposed sanctuary of my womb. Trauma has a tendency to linger and transmit through our bodies, just as epigenetics suggest that the trauma of slavery is stamped in my DNA and passed down generationally. And if he does make it into this world, how do I protect him from a society that would rather he not exist.

How will I console my son the first time he is called the n-word? I was eight the first time it happened to me and remember it as if it were yesterday. That little white boy who cursed me hated me so much but had no idea why. It was just something he had been taught.

How do I ensure that my son does not become yet another victim of the school-to-prison pipeline? I remember how involved my parents were in my schooling, calling out teachers and administrators at each display of racial bias. The fact that a 15-year-old named Grace is currently confined to a juvenile detention facility for not doing schoolwork during a pandemic shows just how precarious being a Black child is in this country.

At what age should I warn my baby about dealing with the police and explain everything he must do to ensure his safety? I was 15 when I witnessed my first boyfriend kowtow to a racist cop in such a heartbreaking way just so he could survive the encounter. How do I prepare my child for the reality that the people who are supposed to protect him can also pose the most danger?

Meanwhile, the president has essentially called for more state-sanctioned murder, having referred to the protestors as “thugs” (a term almost always reserved for Black people) and having tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter took the unusual step of hiding his tweet from view and labeling it as glorifying violence even though social media companies have allowed the president to get away with things that most ordinary people could not for almost four years.

Trump’s history of calling white nationalists good people while unabashedly denigrating Black people and other racial minorities on a regular basis shows a firm commitment to white supremacy in the highest post in the land. The reports of protesters in Portland being snatched up in unmarked vans by federal agents in military fatigues demonstrate that these are not idle threats the president is making. His plans to unleash his federal goons on what he refers to as “Democrat” cities shows the systemic dismantling of civil liberties. This comes against the backdrop of the mysterious deaths of BLM activists since the Ferguson uprisings. Peaceful assembly and rightful protest have been criminalized.

But the president does not deserve all the blame. He simply reflects the true nature of this country and is a product of everything the US stands for. While white people complain about destroyed property, their silence about white sports fans rioting is deafening. The symbolic birth of this country emerged with white rioters in Boston Harbor followed by white people destroying Black property and lives throughout its history, encapsulated in the Tulsa Race Riots. Whether you are actively killing Black people with your guns/calls to law enforcement or passively killing us with your complacency and your hypocrisy, you are guilty of upholding white supremacy.

Hopefully, changes to policies and practices will come out of the protests demanding racial justice and an end to extrajudicial killings. While it is great to see confederate statues fall and racist names stricken from sports teams because racism and white supremacy should be stamped out wherever it lurks, those in power are only trying to do the bare minimum. Real systemic change needs to happen. Reallocating funds from militaristic police forces trained only in violence to community-led social services championing holistic approaches is the hallmark of a reimagined society. Police officers must also be held accountable for actions that go against the good of the people they serve. Killing unarmed civilians with impunity should not be the status quo.

Concerned these changes won’t come any time soon — or ever — my husband and I are having serious conversations about moving from the United States because we know that we and our son will never be truly accepted here and that our emotional and mental health will continue to suffer if we remain here. Considering the dire nature of the situation, we could probably be granted asylum because of the widely documented persecution and oppression that Black Americans face. And while it is important to note that the world is rampant with anti-Blackness, which is undoubtedly a global pandemic, very few places on Earth, if any, show as much contempt and unrestricted anger toward Black people as the US does.

But until the day comes when we reach our breaking point and leave, I will continue to rely on meditation, therapy, and a supportive network of friends and family to help assuage my anxieties about Black motherhood. I just keep reminding myself that 400 years of brutal and calculated assault have not brought on Black people’s extinction. Ours is not just a story of pain. It is one of survival and even thriving against the odds. I will do my best to bring my son into a world where he not only survives, he can feel loved, cherished, and supported in all the ways he deserves. That is my vow to him as a Black mother.

Maya Angela Smith is an associate professor in the Department of French and Italian Studies at the University of Washington and author of Senegal Abroad. A shorter version of this piece can be found in the Boston Globe here. @MayaAngelaSmith

Associate Professor of French and Italian Studies at the University of Washington. Interested in language, race, and migration. Author of Senegal Abroad.

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