It has been a few weeks since the Black Infant Mortality Awareness Roadtrip and I promised to write about it. These are my ‘lessons from the road’. For those who don’t know, I took 10 days and traveled to five states in the South to interview Black Birth Workers about what they do, how they do it, and what obstacles they face when doing it, in relation to addressing Black infant mortality. I interviewed midwives, doulas, lactation consultants, and breastfeeding educators. The Black women I interviewed were well credentialed or had none at all. They were low income, and middle class. They were high school graduates, and college graduates, They were mothers themselves or not yet mothers. They ran for profits and not for profits. What they had in common was their commitment to address health disparities in maternity care through their own particular area of expertise. I will not discuss the interviews themselves or the women in them here, that is for another time and purpose. What this essay concerns itself with is my lessons learned from this awesome experience. Thank you to Elephant Circle, Praeclarus Press, Center for Social Inclusion and Uzazi Village for financing this trip. It was a blessing to meet every person we spoke with and their stories carry much weight and value to me. Special thanks to my companion on the trip, Jolina Simpson, who was the perfect Thelma to my Louise. Jolina and I flew into Houston (just about a week ahead of the devastating hurricane that flooded it), and from there went to New Orleans, LA, Montgomery AL, Tupelo MS, and finally Memphis TN. We met the most amazing women, women who are really doing the work. Women who are sold out to this cause and have dedicated their lives and livelihood to it. We sat down in each place with each woman in her place of business or in a fastfood restaurant with free wifi, hotel lobbys or in her home, but no matter where we met, each woman was eager to share her story. This is what I learned.
We must unlearn in order to relearn. There is so much garbage that African-Americans have been fed about themselves and their culture in this country. We must recognize the lies, refuse to listen to them and begin to discover the truth about who we are, not who this country says we are. We must return to our elemental roots. The scapegoating and gaslighting that this country and dominant culture people continuously feed us a steady diet of is killing us. We can’t afford to believe the lies any longer. We must claim our rightful nature, and the inheritance and ancestral legacy of our true culture. We must stop believing the lies told about us, fed in abundance to everyone who lives in this country that we are weak, deficient, inadequate, and small. These are all lies, repeated over and over and over until we think they are truths. They are not. We must throw off these lies, the greatest of which is that we need them. America is like an abusive lover, that tells us we are nothing without them, that no one else would have us, that we are too stupid to make it on our own. Those are all lies. We must reconnect with our true heritage, the ones stolen and buried. We must unearth them, decipher them, and put them on again. That is our salvation, not anything that dominant culture has to offer.
Put self first. As African-American women we are subject to the notion that everyone comes before us. Everyone’s else’s needs must be met before our own. This too is a lie. We cannot give from an empty cup. As I write this, I am here, in central Missouri, at an event I am hosting for Black Birth Workers, called, The Gathering. We are taking a week, to walk in nature, to eat nutritious food, to hear the sound of our own voices. We must make this a daily discipline. Putting our needs first isn’t selfish (another lie), it is essential. Do that which fills your own soul, then you will be able to do for others what needs to be done. Put money into your savings account FIRST, not if anything is left over. Do your yoga or take your walk, FIRST, not if you happen to have time in your day left over. Have that cup of coffee or tea that you love FIRST, not after the children have been tended and are out the door. Write in that journal, knit that sweater, sew on that quilt, meditate in the meadow FIRST, don’t save your bliss or whatever fills you, until after everyone else is served and you have nothing left to give yourself. Serve yourself first. Fill your own cup first. This is difficult to do as we have always been told it is wrong (a lie). It is essential. We give too much. We do too much. We cannot continue at this pace and be effective for long. We will burn ourselves out. We will use ourselves up. We will lose what is most important- our very own self. Precious women, tend to yourself, your body, your mind, your soul and your spirit. You are queens, and queens are not served last, they are served first.
We take on too much. We think we can do it all. We cannot- or at least not well. As Black women we are continuously adding to our plates. We can’t keep doing that and be effective. We have to choose, choose wisely but choose. We cannot do it all. That too is a lie. What I observed during my travels was Black women being effective but also being overloaded. Overloading of your plate causes burnout. Put some back. Let others shoulder their portion. Don’t take it all on. Consider carefully what is yours to do and let others do the rest. Learn to say no, and mean it. Learn to delegate and do it. Please stop this destructive habit. The world won’t come to an end if you don’t do it. Someone else will step forward to shoulder the burden, and if they don’t, it will still be okay. Make your lives manageable and livable. You’ll live longer and happier lives if you do. Remember you deserve some happiness, it’s not just about the work you do or what you accomplish in the world. Dump everything that leeches your energy and gives nothing back. Doesn’t matter if it’s a spouse or a business partner or a subordinate. Get rid of them and enjoy some psychic and soul bound peace. Do the work that is yours to do and allow others to do theirs.
Black women reap little but sow much. If you want to get a lot done with little resources, ask a Black woman to do it. We are the mothers of invention. Everywhere I went, this is what I saw. If we were well resourced, I’m convinced we could fix the world. We do so much with so little. I fear it is because we are overlooked and ignored that we have learned this skill. We are not thought to dream big dreams- that is for others. So we must piece our dreams together from the scraps others leave behind. It turns out, our patchwork quilts made from other’s leftovers are the most beautiful of all. I don’t understand the mystery of this. I chalk it up to God’s grace. Those who grandstand get the glory, but those who do the work, get the results.
Money most often flows around us but rarely to us. We are being consumed. That consumption often comes in the form of being used for someone else’s purposes. That someone else is always getting paid. We get a pat on the head, a thank you, or a few token ‘gifts’. We must recognize when we are being used for other’s gain and say no. We must demand that the money flow directly to us and our communities. They are fat ticks that feed off our community’s life blood. We must remove these blood suckers and demand the right to assess, diagnose, and implement our own solutions in our own communities. We are not organisms for them to study under a microscope. We are living, thriving, vibrant communities and no one, NO ONE, is more suited to the work of serving and solutioning our communities than we ourselves. We must start our own IRBs, do our own research, pitch our own RFPs, start our own foundations, find our own internal philanthropists or grow them. We can self-actualize our communities instead of being food for others. First we say no to crumbs and hand outs, and demand a place at the table where decisions are being made, OR better yet, make our own damn table.
White opposition is real, and most often comes in subtle forms from those who call themselves our allies. Be very careful with whom you align yourselves, your work, your mission. If they are not willing to be your subordinate, it can only mean they see themselves as your superior. Stay far away from these people. It doesn’t matter that they have better credentials (that’s only a confirmation that they have greater access and resources). Only you can be the expert on your community. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve worked with ‘this population’. This isn’t a ‘population’ to you. It’s your community- and as a card carrying member, your knowledge as a member will ALWAYS trump their knowledge as an outside observer. Yes, they come with resources that you may need. Consider the cost. Whatever you do, don’t let them hold the purse strings to your efforts. He who holds the gold, holds the power. Don’t give others ultimate power over the work you do by being able to shut it down. Make do with a little on your own (see lesson 4) rather than a lot that is controlled by someone who has veto power to overrule your decisions. It won’t be too long before what you want to do is a) too extreme b) too pricey c) too outside the box d) too ethnic or cultural e) too uncomfortable. Then they will put the cabash on your work and you won’t see it coming. I’m not saying all white people are not trustworthy, I’m saying you must be very careful with whom you align yourself, Black or white. (Some of the greatest and most damaging opposition I’ve faced is from my own, mostly African-American board). However overt white opposition was a reoccurring theme during my trip. They often sent Black faces to do the dirty work. Just because someone calls themselves an ally does not mean that they are one. I too often saw so-called allies and ally organizations oppose Black leadership, Black collective action, and impede Black progress. Actions still speak louder than words. Take the time to vet people and see what they are really about, not just what they say they are about. When people tell you who they are, believe them.
ConclusionsWhat are my conclusions from the observed lessons of this trip? Health disparities aren’t an accident. They are a reflection of American’s disdain for African-Americans. They are rooted in historic oppression and colonialism and manifest today in everything from planned gentrification, to continued redlining, to abandonment of communities in crisis. So what is the solution to health disparities if the country gains from our collective losses? We must do it. We must be our own solution. We must start our own, and do it ourselves. Start from scratch. Start from nothing if you must, but start. Arthur Ashe said it best: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. Finally, we must restore the village way of life. We must return to collective action, collective caring, and collective living. What we cannot do alone, we can do together. We can make our lives better, improve our health and wellbeing; physical, mental, and spiritual. This we must do for ourselves