February is Black History month. We, at the Midwives of New Jersey want to make space to recognize the importance of black history while also acknowledging that it merits celebrating every day, not just one month a year. Black history deserves immense respect and visibility as we move forward in working towards a brighter, more equitable future for black birthing people and their families.
Black Midwifery History
Black history is U.S. history, and black midwifery history is our midwifery history. Knowing the roots of our profession in this country is vital to our understanding of the important work we do with all populations, but especially for black families. Over four centuries ago, Midwives, “granny Midwives,” or “lay-Midwives” were traditional healers who were brought to the U.S. as enslaved Africans. These midwives arrived with the generational wisdom of health, healing, and community that they diligently and passionately utilized as they took exceptional care of both other enslaved people and the families of their white enslavers.
Although birth began to move into the hospitals in the late 1800’s with the education of white, male obstetricians, granny midwives continued to be instrumental to the health and care of folks in the poor and rural South into the 1950’s. (For a full documentary see: All my Babies) However, over this same span of time, local and state laws, under the guise of “safety” and “formal training,” began to eradicate these traditional, “lay-midwives.” This systematic erasure of black midwifery has had disastrous consequences for black communities that are glaringly evident today.
The Black Maternal & Infant Health Crisis
There is a black maternal and infant crisis in this country and in our state that can be directly traced to this historical censoring of black knowledge and wisdom, as well as the presence of systemic racism in our institutions and the perpetuation of oppression against black communities.
We know that midwives can play a huge role in decreasing these disparities, and that black midwives and care providers in particular can have a greater impact in achieving better outcomes for black families. In 2019, black midwives comprised only 6-7% of the midwifery profession in the U.S, and we will need many more to help combat this crisis.
Acknowledging and Celebrating
We want to acknowledge, celebrate, and uplift black midwives and birth workers doing this vital work now and shine a light on the incredible and invaluable influence they have on the health of birthing people and their babies in our country and our state. Among these modern-day healers are midwives and advocates who are working diligently to improve maternal and infant care for black birthing people all over the country like Jennie Joseph, Shafia Monroe, and the late Claudia Booker.
National and local organizations like the National Association to Advance Black Birth, The Black Midwives Alliance, and Ancient Song Doula Services are on the ground providing community support, increasing awareness for the midwifery profession, organizing scholarships for black student midwives, and advocating for policies that will positively impact black and indigenous communities as a whole.
As care providers, we have directly benefited from the wealth of cultural wisdom of the historical black midwives and from those we are honored to work alongside today. The contributions to the field of midwifery are immense and deserve year-round recognition and amplification. We hope that you will join us in celebrating these voices past and present and contribute to a better future for black birthing families by spreading awareness, fighting racial inequities, and supporting black midwives, students and the advancement of midwifery education.
Happy Black History Month.
In love and solidarity,
The Midwives of New Jersey.