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Black Women Re-Defining Agency, Organizing for Reproductive Justice

March 3, 2011

by Alisa Bierria

Right-wing organizations continue to purchase billboards that attack black women and our reproductive lives.  Purchased by a group called That’s Abortion, one billboard recently showed up on the corner of  Watts Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, featuring a photo of a black girl and the caption, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”

Lamar Advertising, which owns the billboard, agreed to take the ad down, but this isn’t the first time these kinds of ads have gone up (last year, it took a movement of women of color in Georgia to battle similar billboards in the state) and, as ColorLines rightly notes, it won’t be the last.  Indeed, the Georgia billboards have now shown up in Los Angeles.

Sistersong & Trust Black Women, released some helpful and sharp talking points to counter the violent messaging of these billboard campaigns.  One of the talking points that I particularly appreciated highlights the agency of black women:

Reinforce agency of black women
African American women have struggled to control when and how we have children for centuries. Access to birth control and abortion services are vital to our ability to have lives with dignity. Every African American woman who utilizes her full range of health care options, including abortion services, does so based on her own private circumstances and must always be able to do so with dignity and safety. We trust black women and recognize that each woman who chooses abortion does so, not because she is ill-informed or a dupe, but because she is making the best decision for herself and her family.

This is very much on point, and I think it’s interesting that we have to make a case for black women’s agency.  How do we describe an agency that is exercised on a terrain of political conditions designed to dehumanize and undermine us?  As it relates to reproductive rights organizing, is the mainstream pro-choice framework useful when the available options from which black women can “choose” often reinforce punitive reproductive policies that threaten black womens’ bodies, reproduction, and lives?

Myth-making & the perils of “choice”

Consider the following cases of black mothers acting as agents to protect their children:

Kelly Williams-Bolar, an aspiring teacher and single mother in Ohio, experienced a break-in in her home and filed 12 different police reports related to crime in her neighborhood.  Worried about her children’s safety, she “chose” to falsify records to gain access for her children to a safer school in another district.  She was jailed, fined for thousands of dollars, and could potentially lose her ability to teach because of a felony record.

Specialist Alexis Hutchinson, an army cook and single mother in Georgia, was called to deploy to the war on Afghanistan, but her mother, who initially agreed to take care of Hutchinson’s son, could not do so because she was “choosing” to care for her own child, a sick sister, and a daycare center based in her home.  Faced with the threat of her child being put in foster care by the state, Hutchinson “chose” to not go to Afghanistan until she could figure out a different plan.  She was arrested, nearly court-martialed and incarcerated, and has lost some veterans’ benefits.

These black women are agents and acted deliberately to protect their children, but the political and social conditions in which they acted — racialized poverty, militarism, education inequity, gender violence — criminalize their mothering acts.  Further, when black women analyze and describe the context of racism and misogyny that shapes the options available to them, they are accused of not taking responsibility for their actions, of not recognizing their own agency.  See this comment on the Kelly Williams-Bolar post on this blog as an example.  Suggesting that black women in situations like Williams-Bolar’s do not take responsibility for their actions is a disingenuous position because there is a legacy of black women being constructed as intrinsically blameworthy no matter what they choose.

If black women choose to have abortions, will we be publicly demonized, criminalized, and ostracized in our own communities?

If we choose to have children, will we be pathologized and publicly blamed for creating social burdens on the state?

Flyers from C.R.A.C.K./Project Prevention who disproportionately targeted black neighborhoods with flyers like this one. Their original billboards read "Don't Let A Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit."

If we choose to take birth control, will we be coerced into taking dangerous, provider-controlled contraceptives or risk being subjects of potentially fatal experimentation?

If we choose to protect our children, as Williams-Bolar & Hutchinson did, will we be criminalized and denied access to social resources and opportunities to live in safe environments?

Many of these consequences of “choice” land differently depending on where black women are socially located with respect to class, disability, skin color, sexuality, gender expression, formal education, etc.  However, the targeting and the blaming are often premised on a mythic construction of black women in general.  For example, Dorothy Roberts describes how a caricature of black women motivated blame-based legislation during the health care reform negotiations.  She writes,

Under the program envisioned in the House bill, government-sponsored medical professionals are charged with exhorting fertility control among poor women, based on the mistaken premise that reproduction among the poor leads to crime, neglect, low educational attainment, and dependency. …

The House health care bill codifies some of the worst stereotypes of low-income mothers, suggesting that bad reproductive choices and misguided family practices make their families poor.  Similarly, the provision blames low-income mothers for raising criminals and accuses them of maintaining unstable and neglectful home lives for their children.

Black mothers in particular have been subjects of deeply-embedded stereotypes about sexual and reproductive irresponsibility that have supported a long legacy of repressive state policies, including sterilization and coerced birth control.  The mythical “welfare queen,” portrayed as a black woman who deliberately becomes pregnant to increase the amount of her monthly check, was propaganda used to support welfare reform.  Several state legislators even proposed bills requiring women to use birth control or undergo sterilization as a condition of receiving welfare benefits.  Immigrant women and other women of color have suffered similar injustices that devalue their reproductive decision making, as well as their parental rights and family practices.

Stereotypes such as “welfare queen,” which is grounded in a long history of myth-making about black women, become entrenched as “common sense,” so it seems obvious to some that black women’s reproductive and sexual choices are causing “social problems” such as crime, poverty, disease, etc.   This view puts black women in the absurd position of not being imagined as human, but still somehow held responsible as bad choice-making agents.    This perverse “logic” is then used as justification for why others (the state, corporations, and even our families and communities) must violently wield control over black women’s bodies.

We might also consider the “choices” available to black women as political agents in a moment when there is a comprehensive movement to end affordable abortion services and access to  birth control.  This includes the recent House passage of a bill to completely defund Title X, which provides funding for community-based health clinics — including local health departments, tribal organizations, public and private nonprofits, faith-based organizations, hospitals, and community health centers — relied on by low income women for reproductive and sexual health services.  This is clearly a vicious attack on women and our right to health care.

However, some services funded by Title X are not always safe for women of color, sometimes traffic in racialized population control programs, and, because they rely on funding from the state, are constantly vulnerable to policies that harm women such as “gag rules” which prohibit doctors from  discussing abortion with and providing truthful information to their patients.  (For details, please check out Roberts’ groundbreaking book, Killing the Black Body, especially chapter 5.)  We should resist the organized assault on sexual and reproductive health care from the right, but we must also question the “choice” to either mobilize for a health care system that can be deeply problematic for women of color or risk the very real possibility that more women with low or no income will be without affordable reproductive health services.

Can we reach for a politic that’s not just about access to options that result in punitive consequences and reinforce violent perceptions of black women, but instead centers our humanity, dignity, and the real conditions of our lives?   Can we create openings for black women to complexly define ourselves as agents on our own terms?

Self-definition & insurgent agency

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.  - Audre Lorde

Cover of Outlaw Midwives, Vol 2. Art by Soraya Jean Louis

Agency is a politicized experience.  Oppression can distort any choice we make into some racist and sexist fantasy of expectations, which, however untrue, is  legitimized with institutional power and can be used as a justification to hurt us.  However, we can develop insurgent agencies that acknowledge the conditions of oppression that shape our lives, but also make space for us to actively invent alternative definitions, options, and opportunities that reflect our actual selves.  This helps us make choices that don’t instantly trigger blame, but instead allows us to be creative, responsive, deliberate, and genuinely accountable.   There are many organizers, collectives, and mothers who are gathering testimonies, shifting paradigms, and making space for this kind of work.   Here are just a few examples:

The upcoming book, This Bridge Called My Baby: Legacies of Radical Mothering, which is still open for submissions (deadline: April 1, 2011).  From the call:

All mothers have the potential to be revolutionary. Some mothers stand on the shoreline, are born and reborn here, inside the flux of time and space, overcoming the traumatic repetition of oppression. Our very existence is disobedience to the powers that be.

At times, in moments, we as mothers choose to stand in a zone of claimed risk and fierce transformation, the frontline. In infinite ways, both practiced and yet to be imagined,  we put our bodies between the violent repetition of the norm and the future we already deserve, exactly because our children deserve it too.

The amazing outlaw midwives zine.  Download the zine here.  From the contribution of Black Women Birth Resistance:

Our mission is to gather birth stories that name the traumatic birth incidences of Black women & lift up our resistance to the social control of Black women’s bodies by the birth industry in the South.

We will use these collective stories to build strategy and action towards responding to and transforming our birth experiences.

Young Women United in Albuquerque is mobilizing against the criminalization of mothers and Mamas of Color Rising in Austin is organizing for increased access to birthing options.  Together, they have launched a survey to learn more about the lives and experiences of mamas of color in the US:

Concerned with the way our US society and government treats caretakers, especially poor and working class mothers of color, this survey was created by members of Young Women United in Albuquerque, NM and Mamas of Color Rising in Austin, TX as well as individual women across the country.

We put together this survey as a way to hear from you, Mamas of Color, about your experiences, feelings, ideas, and knowledge as a parent in the US. In gathering this information, we hope to identify issues affecting our lives, find common experiences and collectively organize as Mamas of Color.

These organizers, and many others, are creating breathing room for us to define ourselves rather than being interpreted through a distorted logic that create set-up scenarios disguised as “choice.”   These strategies support us to conjure and create subversive opportunities to actualize insurgent agencies for self-definition and movement building.

Alisa Bierria is a member of INCITE! and the New Orleans Women’s Health & Justice Initiative.  She is also a grad student in philosophy at Stanford and works with the UC Berkeley Center for Race & Gender.

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