Reimagining Birthing in the South Bronx

Sculpture by Edgar Degas

“Women are the gods of the universe because we are the only ones that can reproduce life and nurture a seed inside our body for nine months and develop bones and the heart and the blood system and liver and all these things that enable a human being to be alive.”

– Zakiyyah Madyun, African American healer.

Jennifer Dohrn, a midwife and a professor of nursing at Columbia University who works with public health workers in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, comes at the subject of this book from her own professional experience and the perspective of a longtime political activist who has devoted much of her life over the last several decades to the empowerment of the women of the world. Especially women of color who give birth to children every day of the year and perhaps every hour of the day around the clock. In the acknowledgments, Jennifer thanks her sister, Bernardine, her brother-in-law, Bill Ayers, and her three children—Amilcar, Haydee and Atariba—as well as her late husband, Haywood Burns, a lawyer who represented Angela Davis and prisoners after the rebellion at Attica,  and who died in an automobile accident in South Africa in 1996. Yes, it takes a village, a global village.

No anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist or working-class organization in the US made birthing a major issue in the era of the war in Vietnam. None I know of. They might have. After all, what’s more important than birth and birthing—it’s essential labor— and what’s more of a fundamental right than the right to the health and well-being of mothers and children? Breathing and pushing are necessary, as the title to Dohrn’s book makes clear, but sometimes pushing and exercising patience come first. Pushing for social change is also primary for Jennifer Dohrn.

It should come as no surprise to readers to learn in Mothers, Midwives and Reimagining Birthing in the South Bronx that the US is “the only high-income country with a rising maternal mortality rate,” that the rate is highest in the Non-Hispanic Black population, and specifically where you’d expect to find it, in Mississippi, Louisiana and neighboring states. In 2020, 20,000 infants died in the US. That’s way more than died in Norway, Sweden and Iceland, countries that apparently care more about women, children and about birthing than the US.

Mothers, Midwives and Reimagining Birthing belongs to the Palgrave Studies in Oral History. Interviews with some of the  women who gave birth to children at the revolutionary Childbearing Center of Morris Heights in the South Bronx are at the heart of this volume. It would have been helpful to know the questions they were asked and when the interviews took place. The women tell stories of hope, resilience and camaraderie. Far ranging, the books touches on subjects such as obstetrics, gynecology, the pandemic, Cuban music and the role of comadronas  in Latino cultures and doulas where there are no trained midwives.

But why a book about birthing, midwives and children that focuses on the South Bronx, a New York City neighborhood notorious for crime, violence and street drugs?  (Yes, it’s also the birthplace of hip-hop). Jennifer Dohrn spent much of her time at the Childbearing Center of Morris Heights in the South Bronx, which served for years as a vital resource, and the source of essential services for thousands of women. Alas, the Center is now closed, and so Dohrn’s book provides a history of a singular place that made a qualitative difference in the lives of women, some of whom lost sons and lovers to guns and bullets.

Most of the interviewed women come from poor, Black and brown communities, and also many of them come from the Caribbean and from nations in Africa where female genital mutilation is a centuries-old practice that continues to this day.

My favorite quotation is from Zakiyyah Madyun, an African American healer, who says, that birthing “was like a train passing through me.”        

Poverty has long thrived in The Bronx, where the crime rate is far higher then the crime rate in the rest of New York, and higher than the national median. The Bronx is home to the poorest congressional district in the US, New York’s 17th. You’d be right to call it Third World. But as Dohrn shows, it’s more than an underdeveloped borough. Families, communities, and midwives in The Bronx have nurtured women who were pregnant, women in labor and women with new-born infants.

Dohrn contributed several chapters to Mothers, Midwives and Reimagining Birthing in the South Bronx on crucial topics, including racism, the transformation of legacies, and the need to bring about better birthing practices and create safer environments for motherhood.

Annette Mwansa Nkowane, a nurse and midwife, based in Lusaka, Zambia, provided the forward in which she wrote, “well-trained and supported midwives can potentially provide 90 percent of all essential sexual, reproductive, maternal, and newborn health services.” Nkowane added that the lesson learned in the Bronx can “contribute to accelerated reduction of maternal and newborn mortality rates.”

Women in the US are increasingly turning to midwives. But with over 94.8 percent of births taking place in hospitals, only 8.7 percent are attended by midwives.

Many of the women who were interviewed for this book were initially leery of midwives and the Childbearing Center and were inclined to go to a hospital and seek a doctor. They had to overcome doubts and suspicions; all of them were pleasantly surprised by the care and the love they received from women they regarded as “girlfriends.”                                                                   

Rosie Hernandez, who was born in The Bronx, says, “From my mother and grandma, I learned birth was natural, you did it amongst women, you did it with your support group, and you breastfed your baby, right? To me that’s what birth is. At hospitals it’s information about you, but away from you.”

 Lizette Aguilar, who calls herself half Puerto Rican and half Afro-Peruvian, says that she felt like a number at the hospital where she sought help. ”I didn’t feel respected, either; I might have been viewed as uneducated because I was a woman of color.”

Zakiyyah Madyun adds that “women are the gods of the universe because we are the only ones that can reproduce life and nurture a seed inside our body for nine months and develop bones and the heart and the blood system and liver and all these things that enable a human being to be alive.” The names Rosie Hernandez, Lizette Aguilar and Zakiyyah Madyun belong to the world and reflect the diversity in Dohrn’s book.

Dana Keys, from Georgia, says, “Growing up in the South, I didn’t think anything about birthing because for some reason, sex and where babies came from wasn’t spoken about.” Her church didn’t believe in birth control and so she “started having babies almost right away.”

All of the women whose voices echo across the pages of this book speak frankly and without shame or embarrassment about their bodies and themselves. They talk candidly about breastfeeding, menstruating, waters breaking, conception, dilating, contractions, morning sickness, C-sections,  miscarriages, latching on, labor, postpartum depression, leaking and more.

Photos enhance the text; the index makes it relatively easy to find topics such as the World Health Organization, Midwifery (which is derived from the Middle English term “midwif,” meaning with woman), and the names of scholars and activists like bell hooks who provide food for thought with comments such as “Until the legacy of remembered and reenacted trauma is taken seriously black America cannot heal.”

 Mothers, Midwives and Reimagining Birthing in the South Bronx: Breathe, Now Push is a lively, energizing and healing text meant for mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters, and for the guys— fathers, brothers, uncles and husbands— who have stood by their family members, wives and lovers, held their babies in their arms and who have aimed to reimagine fatherhood.

Too bad the Panthers didn’t add an 11th point to their ten-point program. They might have proclaimed, “We want health care that prioritizes people not profits and that provides the best medical practices for mothers and children.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.