Our Body Politic

Black Maternal Matters

Episode Summary

On this episode of Our Body Politic, Farai Chideya looks back at our conversations around Black Maternal health. First, she speaks with Aftershock co-director Tonya Lewis Lee and film subject Shawnee Benton-Gibson. Then, we hear from Dr. Rachel Hardeman about racism as one of the root causes of health disparities in the U.S. After, author Anna Malaika Tubbs talks about her book The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. We round out the show with Tressie McMillan Cottom who speaks about her horrific labor and delivery experience.

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya - Hi folks, we’re so glad you’re listening to Our Body Politic.

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This is Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. In this show we're remixing some of our best segments around the topics of motherhood and maternal mortality. Why. Because moms mom figures and fill in moms make the world go round. And we need to celebrate as well as protect them. Don't worry, dads, we see you too. But this one's for the ladies. When it comes to maternal mortality, the truth is, the numbers don't bode well for Black moms. In the United States, Black women, pregnant and giving birth die at a rate three times that of white women. The film Aftershock, co-directed by Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt , won a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022. The movie spotlights Shawnee Benton-Gibson’s story and other bereaved families as they grapple with loss and try to combat systemic medical racism dating back hundreds of years. In October 2019, Shawnee daughter Shamony Gibson died just two weeks after giving birth to a baby boy at only 30 years old, Gibson's death was one more fatality in a long epidemic of Black maternal mortality. Shawnee knows this problem well. She's a licensed clinician and author, and she was an outspoken reproductive justice advocate and activist. Long before the issue hit so close to home. Let's listen to a scene of Shawnee talking about the loss of her daughter in the film aftershock. 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:02:25] I never thought that this would happen to my family. Yes, because I do reproductive justice work. But, you know, just also, why wouldn't it be Black and brown? You know, she's a woman. She was having a baby. So why would we think we would be exempt? Because we have the knowledge. 

Farai Chideya [00:02:41] We were joined by aftershocks co-director Tonya Lewis Lee and one of the core subjects of the film, maternal health advocate Shawnee Benton-Gibson. So let's dive into the numbers first. A 2016 survey found that almost half of white medical students surveyed held false beliefs about the biological differences in Black patients. Like the myth of fewer nerve endings, the myth of feeling less pain. Another study found that Black babies are more likely to survive if they're cared for by a Black doctor. 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:03:15] The ambulance came, it seems like forever, but it was only minutes and I immediately started talking to them about what was happening. Like she just had a C-section. I'm telling them the symptoms, you know, they kept asking me. They kept asking my mother, she on any drugs or anything like that? Was she taking any drugs like, no, she doesn't take drugs. Next said people come in, she on drugs. But she did. She used drugs. 

Farai Chideya [00:03:38] And that was sound from both youShawnee and also from Amari Maynard, who was Charmaine's partner. What did you learn from that conversation with the EMTs taking your daughter as she was in crisis? 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:03:53] Oh my gosh, my brain was on overdrive that day. Um, but what I was very present to in the moment is the shock of what was happening to Shamony and the level of insensitivity, um, and focus on something that had nothing to do with what was happening in the moment. And I'm like, we have precious moments, um, to address what her medical emergency is. And, um, her life is in the balance. And 3 or 4 times you're asking me the same question about whether she is using drugs. And I wish I can say they were concerned about medications she was on, but no, they were concerned about illegal drug, um, substance use. And if they knew anything about Shamony and our family, that's just not us. Um, I'm actually we don't talk about this a lot, but, um, at 30 years of experience in addiction counseling, and, you know, if that was something to share, I would have shared it right out the gate. And so I'm like, this is what their focus is when they see a Black woman, when they see a Black family in distress, when they come into a home in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, the first thing they think of is that this person must be acting this way, or demonstrating these symptoms or these behaviors because they're under the influence of illegal drugs. And it was just jarring to the spirit. But I'm like, I'm about the business of saving my daughter. 

Farai Chideya [00:05:13] And Tonya, you know, the beginning of the documentary is so powerful. And so I mean, the whole documentary is so powerful. We cover Black maternal health and the losses of lives from this on a regular basis on this show. And I feel like you really were able to knit together an incredible focus on the disparities, but also on the passion and power of people like Shawnee who are able to bring this into focus. How did you choose what moment of this long journey to put into your film? 

Tonya Lewis Lee [00:05:46] It was really important for us to show who Shamony was, uh, as well as Amber. And we had the good fortune of having footage that, uh, Charmaine, sister Jasmine had shot. Because Jasmine, as an aspiring filmmaker, has documented a lot of their family's lives. So we had a treasure trove of footage of Shamony living her beautiful life, and we wanted to show who she was. We wanted to show who Amber was. And I think their spirit comes through and the people who are left behind through Shawnee, through Amari, through through Bruce, we get to know the beauty of these women, the love that they had. And I often say that what I've learned from the film is that grief is love, and these families are activated by a love of the people. They lost a love of each other, a love of community trying to make it better for all of us. And I think when you focus in on the love, the sadness and the trauma certainly is there. But the love is strong. And and then you realize that when we work together, we can really make the world a better place. 

Farai Chideya [00:07:05] I wonder if you can tell us first Shawnee and then Tonya, about how you have processed the connection to Amari and Bruce, the gentlemen who are the bereaved partners of the women whose losses are featured in this film. Obviously, Black maternal deaths are something that are considered a women's issue, but I think that this film really makes it clear that it's a human issue. It's a it's an issue that crosses genders. And you know, Shawnee, you lost your daughter, but you also have this member of your family who is parenting your grandchild. And how do you process your connection to him and other men who are dealing with this loss?

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:07:55] Oh, that's such a beautiful question. And it's so deep that, um, over the last couple of weeks, Amari and I have been talking about our relationship as it relates to other people's thoughts about our relationship and what it could be. This man is the father of my grandchildren, and he is forever family. Shmoney and Amari didn't get to marry in the sense that the world thinks of marriage, but he is forever going to be her partner, even if he manifests another relationship, which I hope he does. And we talk about that too. And so it's unfathomable to me not to be connected deeply to Amari. He co-created those beautiful babies that I get to be the grandparent for, and so I can't fathom not being connected to him in a deep way. And then to think about Bruce as an additional family member, um, a chosen family member is just a perfect opportunity for me to be covered in a deep way, which I want him to have. And then also for Bruce to get extended support and coverage. And we've been brought together by spirit. So who am I to interfere with that? And I also, I'll say really quickly, we debunk the myths about Black men, Black men and their relationships, Black men and how they emote Black men and how they care for family and partners. Um, and I love that we get to do that because there are so many false paradigms and narratives about brothers out there. So this film gives us an opportunity to make sure that that doesn't continue. 

Farai Chideya [00:09:36] And Tonya, how did you knit together Bruce and Amari story into this narrative of these women who've been lost? Amber Rose Isaac is the second woman whose life lost is helping to anchor your inquiry in this film. And I've heard so many times from people that they're so grateful to see accurate representations of men who step into the role of primary caregiver through circumstances they didn't anticipate. And there are many men who step into that role. You know, without the extraordinary circumstances, but specifically Black men who step into the role of caring for children and caring for community. How did you center these men? 

Tonya Lewis Lee [00:10:21] People have asked us the question, how did you find these men? As if we were. We were looking to cast them and looking for these perfect Black men. And the truth is that we we met Amari and Shawnee. Uh, Amari was two months into his grieving process. And thanks to Shawnee, we were able to film at such an early time. And this is who Amari is. Uh, he was a man who was grappling with his grief, who obviously loved his partner Shamony very much. He had two children to raise. Uh, he was looking for healthy ways to work through his pain. Um, and that's one of the things I also really think is interesting with the film. Amari, uh, works out, he paints and that he talks a lot about. 

Farai Chideya [00:11:14] Beautiful painter. 

Tonya Lewis Lee [00:11:15] Beautiful painter. And and that was really exorcizing his grief, a really healthy way of working through what he was going through. And also he was looking to reach out to other men who were going through similar situations that he was going through to offer support to them. And in that, when he had heard about Ambers passing, he reached out to Bruce. Uh, and because they formed such a connection, he introduced us to Bruce and and Bruce allowed us to follow him. And I think you you said it. Um, maternal health is not just about women's health. It's about, uh, a family's health. It's about a community's health. And so I think people often think about maternal health, maternal mortality and morbidity as only impacting women, but it impacts families, it impacts men, it impacts extended families and full on communities. And, uh, Amari and Bruce, um, are really showing us just through their actions, uh, what that impact is. And then you also see in the film Amari meets other men, uh, there are um, and Bruce two there. There are other men. There's a community. Amari. That one point said, you know, we're a member of this messed up fraternity that nobody wants to be a member of, and yet they have each other to be supportive of each other for themselves and for our extended community. And it's a beautiful thing. 

Farai Chideya [00:12:49] That was Tonya Lewis Lee, co-director of the film Aftershock, with advocate and film subject Shawnee Benton-Gibson. We've been revisiting our discussion about the documentary aftershock, co-directed by Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt. The movie shines a light on the ongoing crisis around Black maternal mortality in the U.S.. We're talking with co-director Tonya Lewis Lee and advocate Shawnee Benton-Gibson, who's featured in the documentary and lost her daughter, Shamony Gibson. Here's more of our conversation.

Farai Chideya - So, Shawnee, the film sort of ends with a focus on the forward motion of this movement. What has happened just in your life around the move to actually preserve Black women's life? As people who bear life, and people who deserve to live long and healthy lives? 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:13:47] When the cameras stopped, my life continued. I've been in this work for a very long time, training and developing the Department of Health staff doing Black maternal health work as far as coaching and speaking. I run a support group to those who have fertility issues, have experienced miscarriages, stillbirth, um, different types of birth trauma. So that work continues and of course the work has been amplified. I'm big on partnership and having a collective impact. And that collective impact work means that I'm working with organizations and entities across the country so that we can mitigate eliminate these issues. The work was existing when Shamony was alive and she was a part of it. It continued when she transitioned and it will continue after this film. What I love about the film is that it's a call to action. It's jarring, it's gut wrenching, and it's also joyful and hopeful. And a lot of people have been reaching out. So I'm about the business of responding to all of the folks who have reached out to us. Um, when the trailer was first out, we were promoting the film to now that it's out asking if we can speak, teach, co-create with them. And now that the film is out, I have more community. More and more people are asking what they can do and how they can be a part of that. And that's folks that I identify as Black, indigenous people of color, and also those who identify as white that are wanting to be a part of this movement. 

Farai Chideya [00:15:14] And I do want to, you know, I'm going to turn to you, Tonya, but I want to play a little bit from the doc of Shawnee speaking in Washington, DC, in front of a big crowd, uh, gathered to address this issue. 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:15:29] Black lives matter, but Black wombs Create Black Lives. And when we forget that, we forget our humanity. We want to make sure that our grandbabies, our children, have mothers to raise them. And that fathers are not left to figure it out on their own. We must stop this. Black lives matter because Black wombs matter. Black lives matter because Black wombs matter. Black lives matter because Black wombs matter. And a Black womb created you. 

Farai Chideya [00:15:59] Amen to all of that. A Black womb created me. And, um, you know, I can't help but think about just the devastating reversals in reproductive justice that have been happening, which we cover on a routine basis on this show. And, Tonya, you've been doing screenings in many places. And I saw one of them recently, and you talked about how kind of the white supremacy that underlay reproductive policies, including, you know, the banning of Black midwives, the persecution and prosecution of Black midwives, which you cover in this documentary, all of these things that were not about the health and the well-being of birthing, you know, women or just society in general, were institutionalized in order to create other structures of power or profit. So where do you go from here? 

Tonya Lewis Lee [00:16:55] The conversation continues. I mean, I think the key is what what we wanted to do with the film is really create a conversation. We're in this situation in the United States where we have these high infant mortality rates, maternal mortality rates, and that's the marker of a health of a nation. And you have the Black and indigenous populations that are dying at higher rates than the general population. But the general population is not doing that well either. And so we really have to examine what is the system that's set up. Why does it work the way that it does? I mean, often people will say, oh, well, the system is broken. Uh, the system is not broken. The system is working the way it was set up to work. And so we need to reimagine what it could look like. I hope that with Aftershock and in this sort of post Dobbs world, if you will, that we look at other industrialized nations that have better outcomes than we do, that have midwives integrated into women's health care. And I think we need to really examine what that looks like. Uh, when you talk about the history that we cover in the film about midwives. It was the taking of the birthing industry out of the hands of women, putting it into the hands of men and into hospitals to control, to do experimentation, to learn from, but also take the economy from the women. So we need to really reexamine what we're doing. And I will say also that abortion care, uh, is a part of women's health care, and we need to make sure that the conversation is inclusive of all of it so that, um, we're working for better outcomes and voting matters. I keep saying this to everybody. Uh, I know we get very frustrated with our political system. It's a disaster right now, but we the people can't give up. And we have to keep out there fighting, voting not only in our national elections, but in our local elections, because that's where all of this really happens. 

Farai Chideya [00:19:13] Well, that's fantastic. And, um, Shawnee, if there's anything you'd like to say before we let you go, please, please do say it. 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:19:21] Thank you so much. Just thinking about what Tonya stated. So when I was thinking about the title of this show, Our Body Politic, you know, I immediately thought about the political decisions that have been made that have embodied consequences for those whose voices are heard the least, if at all, for those who have been marginalized, um, for more time than we've been alive. And even some of the decisions that we've made here in the United States, especially under the former administration, have impacts globally, and that our decisions here have impacted access to contraception, access to abortion, access to reproductive health and care. It just it incenses me and it also stirs me up to take action to do something not just in the local community, but nationally and internationally. And when I think about, uh, maternal mortality and morbidity with the Supreme Court decision, uh, we're going to have, unfortunately, more near death and death experiences there, taking us backwards rather than forwards and the implications on our community. They're going to be devastating if we don't do something to shift this. 

Farai Chideya [00:20:33] Shawnee and Tonya, thank you so much, Shawnee. We're going to say goodbye to you. Thank you for joining us. I really appreciate it. 

Shawnee Benton-Gibson [00:20:41] My pleasure. Thank you for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:20:45] This is Our Body Politic. That was advocate Shawnee Benton-Gibson, who's featured in the documentary aftershock, co-directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee. I continued my conversation with Tonya to hear more about her career and her work in media and health. So tell me how you became the person who did this film. You have had a really interesting career, ranging from children's television development to this very brilliant, serious, heavy, but also just uplifting documentary. Give us a little walkthrough on how you got to this point. 

Tonya Lewis Lee [00:21:26] Back in 2000, I wrote a book called please baby, please. Uh, and my children were young and I was noticing that they were realizing they were Black in a white world and there were not enough children's books, television programing that featured kids of color. And it was like, somebody should write another book and maybe I should do that. And so after Please Baby, Please came out, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Minority Health, reached out to me and asked me to be a spokesperson for their infant mortality awareness raising program. A healthy baby begins with you here in the United States. So I had the opportunity to travel the country and learn about infant mortality, the causes. Uh, each community has a different need or have has different issues. And I had the chance to talk to groups of Black women about how we access our healthiest lives. Because, of course, when you're talking about an infant's health, you're talking about a woman's health in those conversations. Often someone would tell me the story about someone who passed away from childbirth complications. I did a small film about the infant mortality crisis called crisis in the crib, and had been thinking about how to tackle the US maternal mortality crisis. And when these articles came out in The New York Times and ProPublica in about 2017, 2018, I thought to myself, now is the time. I better hurry up and make this film. And so I met my co-director, Paula, in November of 2019, and she had a shared passion for maternal health that she had just finished directing her first film called 93 Queen. She had some good chops as a as a director, a way to tell a story that's intimate about a broader issue. And we met, and a week later we were like, we were making this film. 

Farai Chideya [00:23:39] That's amazing. 

Tonya Lewis Lee [00:23:40] Yeah. 

Farai Chideya [00:23:41] That was Tonya Lewis Lee, co-director of the documentary Aftershock and an advocate for women and infants health.

Now we turn to the many factors that can impact our health beyond our actual medical history. There's access to social and economic opportunities, jobs, schools and environment. Dr. Rachel Hardeman researches a root cause of health disparities in the U.S.. Racism. Doctor Hardeman is the founding director of the New Center for Anti-Racism research for Health Equity at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. We spoke to her in April 2021, around the time Derek Chauvin was on trial for the murder of George Floyd, and asked her about the links between his trial and what people who are Black and giving birth have to go through. 

Dr. Rachel Hardeman [00:24:27] I would actually say the two are deeply related. Um, you know, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, you know, we are watching this trial play out and re currently reliving the trauma that we experienced last May, watching George Floyd be murdered. Right. And and the pain that came with that as a member of the Black community. And, um, for me, as someone who grew up just six blocks from where the incident happened. From a public health standpoint, you know, first and foremost, um, you know, I think people all across our communities and all across the country are struggling right now. Um, as we lived through the trial and then, you know, as I think about my research, um, you know, we actually some of my research is actually sat squarely in the space of looking at does police violence, does, um, you know, living in communities where there are disproportionate amounts of police surveillance, does that impact birth outcomes? And we've actually found in some recent work that will be published soon that, indeed it does. So living in a Minneapolis community that is being over, surveilled by police is associated with poor preterm birth outcomes. All of these things happen within the communities that we live in. And so therefore, all of the ways that, you know, trauma is happening in those communities are racism is showing up in those communities. It's going to be inextricably linked to the ways that Black people, in particular, are able to give birth in healthy ways or not. 

Farai Chideya [00:26:01] What do you think of, you know, trying to legislate approaches to health and public health as part of, uh, a broad, sweeping approach to ensuring that Black maternal life and the children who come from it are preserved. 

Dr. Rachel Hardeman [00:26:20] I mean, I think we have to be attacking this issue from all sides and from and in a bunch of different ways. And so one of them is what we call public health big policy. Right? So things like the omnibus bill, which does some incredible things to really bake into the system, equity and opportunities for, um, for birth equity. Uh, we also have to be thinking about little p policy, uh, meaning what's happening in our health care systems and at the organizational level. And then we also have to be thinking about this at our community level. Right. One big piece of the puzzle that we've seen happen are, you know, get put in place over the past few years is just the attention by the popular press and the media to this issue. And I think that's incredibly important. And it's leverage, um, policy. It's leveraged resources. And, you know, it's also created a space for my scholarship and the scholarship of other, you know, incredible folks across the country who are really naming the root cause of, um, these maternal outcomes. And that's racism. And so I think what we have to do is be willing to continue to name racism as a fundamental cause for these maternal outcomes. It's going to require undoing racism and dismantling racism at all levels. 

Farai Chideya [00:27:36] My grandmother was an incredible person, and she died of what I consider race related medical malpractice, where she should have been diagnosed years before she was with colon cancer. Um, based on just everyday protocols. But she was given a antacids for her pain, and there's a lot of research showing that Black pain is not treated the same way that pain in white patients is treated. Um, and she passed away, you know, from what could have been curable. You also had an experience watching your grandmother navigate the health care system. Can you tell us about it and what lessons you've taken away from it? 

Dr. Rachel Hardeman [00:28:13] Sure. So. Um, I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother. And we we certainly share that experience, that lived experience of watching someone we love being mistreated by a system that, you know, it's supposed to be there to care for them and to heal them and to protect them. And for me as a child, um, you know, my my grandmother had, um, kidney failure, and she, um, was on dialysis and would go to a dialysis center multiple days during the week. I remember my twin sister and I spending hours doing our homework, sitting next to her at the dialysis center. And, um, you know, as a result, some other comorbidities crept in along the way. And, you know, as she sought out care for all of the things going on, she never felt as though the system was being responsive to what she was needing, what she was requesting, how she was feeling. And she got to a point at a very young age, you know, in her early 60s where she was just done fighting that fight and, um, ultimately decided to, um, discontinue her care, um, her dialysis treatments that were keeping her alive and entering the hospice. And, you know, at 60, you know, 61 years old, there's no reason that someone should have to make that decision for themselves. There's no reason that their 15 year old grandchildren have to watch them go through that. And I also think about I'm a mom. I have a seven year old daughter, and I had a wonderful birth experience. And I think about that birth experience, my birth experience, and I think about my grandmother's, um, horrible experience with the health care system. And the two shouldn't have to exist in the same space. Right. So I know what can be possible, right? I know what equitable care looks like. I've experienced it. And, you know, I feel like it's my duty. It's our duty to ensure that everyone has that opportunity. 

Farai Chideya [00:30:07] When you talk to your daughter, you know, and seven is that age where you know you're old enough to ask questions that are pretty interesting. What does your daughter ask about your your work or see in your work? Or how do you tell her about it? 

Dr. Rachel Hardeman [00:30:21] I talk to her a lot about my work, and she knows that the goal of my work, and the reason I work so hard, is to manifest racial justice, so that Black women and Black girls can live healthy and free lives, and that that work. That means that she gets to live a healthy and free life. And so, you know, we are always talking about what that looks like in our household and, and grappling with hard questions. I mean, we just talked to her the other day about the Chauvin trial and what that means. And, you know, I remember even last May when George Floyd was murdered, she kept saying, this time feels different. And on one hand, it broke my heart that at seven years old, she could say. This time feels different, right? But she remembered Philando Castile and she remembered Jean-Marc Clark. And, you know, now we get to talk about how how it is different, how George Floyd's murder has changed, certainly changed my work and changed the dialogs and the conversations that I get to have about how to again manifest racial justice. 

Farai Chideya [00:31:23] That was Dr. Rachel Hardeman, Blue Cross Endowed Professor of health and racial equity at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.


Every one of us has an origin story, a family and place and time we come from. Which shapes us. Anna Malaika-Tubbs took on the origins of some of the most powerful men during the Civil Rights era by turning a much needed focus on their mothers. She's the author of The Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, And James Baldwin Shaped A Nation. The lives of Alberta King, Louise Little and Bernice Baldwin all have lessons that are relevant today. We asked her about the life she was bringing into the world as she was writing this book, and how it felt to have that connection. 

Anna Malaika-Tubbs [00:32:23] It was beautiful. I found myself pregnant with my son when I was in the middle of doing the research for this book, and I was already so amazed by Alberta, Bernice and Louise, and felt very connected to them through Black girlhood and Black womenhood. But to go through that experience myself of becoming a mom and really understanding both the excitement and the deep love that you have your child even before you meet them. But you also experience extreme worry and extreme fear. And especially as a Black mother, um, where it's already so dangerous to be pregnant as a Black woman in the United States, to go into labor and delivery as a Black woman in the United States. Um, but then even if you do survive that, the experience of yourself and your child in the world, um, beyond your home is really scary. And so learning from them gave me not only hope and inspiration, but very tangible guidance on how you teach your children to be aware of what's happening in the world, but also to not allow them to be defined by those limitations, but instead to see themselves as change agents. 

Farai Chideya [00:33:35] I have to say that of all the stories, Louise's to me just absolutely caught my heart. Um, can you tell us a little bit about her and the arc of her life? 

Anna Malaika-Tubbs [00:33:44] Absolutely. And, you know, so interesting. Everybody relates very differently to each of the three. And different stories stand out to each of us. But I think one of the reasons Louise really stands out is that you feel even more shocked that you didn't already know these things about her. 

Farai Chideya [00:33:59] Um, yep. That was. 

Anna Malaika-Tubbs [00:34:00] Me. Yeah. The fact, you know, she was born in Grenada. Her grandparents were what are called liberated Africans, which means that at one point they were enslaved. And then at some point, the law changed and maritime laws, and they were able to gain their freedom. And so they knew what it was like to be enslaved. And they also held very strongly the need to keep their independence, keep their freedom, and taught their children and their grandchildren. Again, strategies for maintaining that that you needed to be self-sustaining, know how to grow your own food, have your own trail, um, etc. and also be aware of this continued fight for freedoms that it wasn't guaranteed. But we also couldn't lose it. And so Louise grows up with this experience. And so she leaves Grenada to join an international movement for Black lives, um, through the Marcus Garvey Pan-Africanist movement. And she eventually becomes one of Marcus Garvey's closest confidants. She writes letters for him. She writes for the Negro World newspaper. She's a branch secretary, just this incredible activist from this very young age. And this is how she meets her husband, which becomes important because they're sent around the United States, um, joining communities that are already responding to white supremacist violence, um, with this courage that they want to continue to incite. And so because of this, the Black Legion, which is kind of like a KKK group, follows them everywhere and really persecutes their family and attacks them in many different ways. And this leads to their home being burned down. It eventually leads to Earl, her husband being murdered, as well as her being put away against her will for 25 years. For life in a mental institution. 

Farai Chideya [00:35:40] You can't get much more wrenching the met, um, concatenation of events. And of course, her son Malcolm X was later firebombed and murdered. And you talk about some of the intergenerational trauma, um, that these three mothers must have experienced and seeing history repeat itself for their children. I mean, um, how did you process this as you were writing? 

Anna Malaika-Tubbs [00:36:06] It's heartbreaking. It's tragic. And I was very intentional to put this back at the beginning of the book, that all three moms are going to outlive their sons. I think we so often talk about the Last of Malcolm X and MLK Jr and James Baldwin, even though it happened later, as if it just as kind of a moment in history and we don't process how painful that is, the loss of life, the battle, again for our freedom. And so I say this at the very beginning, so we understand the humanity of these families and especially these women who in many ways sacrificed their sons to something much larger. So the book is a combination and a balance between understanding the very painful realities and also understanding the ways in which Black women still continue to create life, not only through their children, but through their activism, through their art, through their writing, to move forward and also progress the country forward at the same time. 

Farai Chideya [00:37:05] There's so much more to all of the stories in this book. But, um, we don't want to give everything away, and I'm going to wrap it up. Um, you had this great quote, um, a very painful quote, but but an amazing quote from Audre Lorde, um, raising Black children, female and male in the. The racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive. And it goes on a bit from there. But that just kind of, you know, was a gut punch. Um, how do you, as someone who is a mother and who is someone who has the ability to uplift mothers through this writing and this deep research, how do you process a statement like that, and where do you want to leave your readers? 

Anna Malaika-Tubbs [00:37:52] I think that statement is just so poignant because of how real it is. This is what it means to be Black citizens of the United States of America. And I do think it's translatable beyond the United States. But since this is my specific focus, a country where we have been denied our humanity so often and where we know our worth and we know our children's worth. But in order to again, not only move forward and hope and survive, but to live happily and find joy and still love one another, we have to be aware of the balance that we're constantly living in the middle of the need to find love, but to also fight and to survive and do what we can to make it easier for our descendants coming after us. Um, so that maybe that doesn't end up being the case for, you know, for forever. 

Farai Chideya [00:38:48] Anna, thank you so much. 

Anna Malaika-Tubbs [00:38:50] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:38:54] That was Anna Malaika-Tubbs, author of The Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X And James Baldwin Shaped A Nation.

Our next throw back is with Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I spoke with her about her collection of essays titled thick. Doctor Cottom writes about everything from her family to beauty to Obama's presidency, plus a horrific labor and delivery experience which resulted in the death of her newborn daughter. We started off the conversation with her reading a section from her book about visiting a party that was to support then candidate Obama running for office in a fancy white part of town, and the fascinating reflections she had in that chapter. 

Tressie McMillan Cottom - For all of his intimacies with his white mother and white grandparents. My first Black president doesn't appear to know his whites. There's no other way to explain Obama's inability to imagine that this nation could elect Donald Trump. Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else. Whiteness defends itself against change, against progress, against hope, against Black dignity, against Black Lives. Against reason. Against truth. Against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs. Even after Donald Trump was elected, Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates that all is not lost. Obama is still hopeful about the soul of white America. He said nothing about the soul of Black America. That is where my hope resides. 

Farai Chideya [00:40:37] That hit me because it felt like me in some ways. In the end, what I mean by that is, in some ways, I have been in what you perceive as the Obama role of constantly putting my hopes on white America to change. And I admit that it's not about me having a white savior complex, but about for years believing, you know, the angels of our higher nature brain and other people may disagree with me, but I do believe that some of the discourse that President Obama has engaged in. Mhm. He talked about snappy slogans like defund the police. And there seems to be this game of keep away with certain sides of the Black community. What are we to make of that in the sense of, you know, can you just come out and say, I want Black people to be happy? I mean, if you want to be a president or a senator, I mean, is that acceptable? 

Tressie McMillan Cottom [00:41:35] I think there's a maturation of your racial self. We all start in the Obama role, which is hopeful. You think you are being pragmatic, right? Like, let's just work this out because it seems like something that can be worked out right. Do you feel like if you just get the right words and the right vocabulary and you develop the right shared experiences, right. We do the same thing at work. That's the premise of everything we do in public life. The challenge is that the racial minorities, Black people are doing that maturation. But white people are not. And so they are. Never doing the process if they're never moving all of the work on the other side, um, is not going to change how white people view themselves in their own racial identity. That's the work that has to happen. 

Farai Chideya [00:42:26] Um, you know, I think it's, um, you know, the whole idea of the double consciousness. I think that there's, you know, many layers of consciousness where you're looking through the layers of class, gender, race, but but within, you know, I, I'm, I was just about to go on and on. But one thing, you know, and this is it was just so hard to read your journey with your pregnancy and that is reading it is a tiny fraction of what I can only imagine. It took to live in it. But you have a line in your book. When my daughter died, she and I became statistics. Um, and that relates to, I think, this question of how the lived experience of Black people, you know, is determined by this nation that we live in. What happened? What happened to you and your family? 

Tressie McMillan Cottom [00:43:24] I said I'd never write about, um, my, uh, medical trauma, which is fundamentally what the essay is about. Um, and then I started writing about neoliberalism and found myself wanting to talk about my pregnancy story. And I was thinking, what the hell is going on there? Right. And, uh, uh, it took me a moment to figure out that I was uneasy and hope I'm always uneasy with how Black lives get extracted into a data point and into a statistic. And especially as a sociologist and as an academic, I feel like we can rely on people's. Trauma for our own professional. And personal gain. And we can. Forget that a statistic is a lived experience. And one of the things I wanted to do was reanimate one of the most horrible statistics that I think we produce in this nation at the moment, and that is that Black women and Black babies are more likely to die in childbirth in the United States of America than almost any woman anywhere in the world. Yeah. I mean, that's just. Yeah. I mean, are you kidding me? Like, are you kidding me? The basic function of life reproducing in the wealthiest country in the world in the history of the world, and a moment of technological advancement that we are seriously talking about. Colonizing the moon and a middle class Black woman can go into the hospital, have a baby, and die. Right? Yeah. Um. And so my own birth experience became a way to think about what it means to be living in the most fortunate time in human history, and that this is still the best it has ever been to be a Black woman. 

Farai Chideya [00:45:08] And what is the role of incompetence? You talk about assumptions of incompetence in a way that really illuminated this horrific journey that you were forced to take. 

Tressie McMillan Cottom [00:45:20] Well, because I kind of like you talking. About seeing yourself In the Obama character in the essay. I saw myself in the narrative of the it's almost an immigrant narrative that we have in this country, which is, you know, if you work hard, you do everything right. There's a way that you can preempt and plan for the inevitable racism sexism classes, um, uh, that will shape your life, right? We have the same work twice as hard, right? And how much. That shapes. Our expectations of ourselves. And I think I was angry with myself for how I had accepted that I could somehow be decent enough, middle class enough, respectable enough that I would have a different experience than the typical Black woman. And so my reflection is on how the health care system, this bureaucracy, is set up for certain bodies to. Always. Be incompetent. There was never a performance of competence that I was going to be able to do in the emergency room. When I present and say, I'm having pains. And no. One tries to figure out why I'm having contractions and not just pains, you were bleeding. Yeah. And I wanted to let myself, you know, it was a process of me forgiving myself, too, for believing. Believing it could be different. Believing it can be better. I hope that's what I offer the other Black women in particular who read it, that there's a reason why you thought it could be different. And none of that is your fault. Just like it isn't your fault when the outcomes are not different. 

Farai Chideya [00:46:55] Yeah. I, I could talk to you all day, but you don't have all day. And so I just want to end with you, um, reading a little bit more from your book. And one final question. 

Tressie McMillan Cottom [00:47:08] Sure. I am, by most measures, pretty smart. My grandmother was smarter. She was do the times crossword in pen smart. She was teach herself liberal arts with a library card. Smart. She was, for most of her life, a domestic worker for rich Jewish people who sent me cards when I got good grades in school. The Edelman's, the Goldmans, the Finkelsteins. When she died quickly, thank God all of my grandmother's possessions fit inside the one bedroom senior living apartment in the small town where she had been born. She was far smarter than her PhD-having granddaughter, and she died poor. Smart is only a construct of correspondence between one's abilities, one's environment, and one's moment in history. I am smart in the right way, in the right time, on the right end of globalization. 

Farai Chideya [00:48:10] So what would you tell your grandmother today about how you are? What would you tell her if you could? 

Tressie McMillan Cottom [00:48:16] Oh. Wonderful question. Thank you. That's one of the saddest things for me is I'm having the greatest period of my life, both professionally and personally, and my grandmother didn't live to see it. Now, I don't necessarily ascribe to the same doctrine or religion that my grandmother did. I'd like to say that I'm Baptist, culturally Baptist. I know how to go to church and I know how to do the rituals, but I talk to God all of the time, and I want her to know that I had figured out how to talk to God and that we had a we had a fine relationship going. And I know that my worth is not determined by this world, and that I was going to be okay. 

Farai Chideya [00:48:54] Uh. Tressie. Thank you for joining us. 

Tressie McMillan Cottom [00:48:57] Thank you so much. Not just for having me, but for such thoughtful, wonderful questions. It's been a pleasure. 

Farai Chideya [00:49:03] That was Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Thick and New York Times columnist.

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