For Black women, pregnancy presents a multiplying set of vulnerabilities which illuminate the intersectional frames of race, gender, and class that increase their susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence, especially forms of violence that are less visible in public conversations about Black life. The risks of pregnancy affect women’s physical and mental health, and for Black women these concerns are amplified by their experiences of structural and quotidian forms of racism. The history of devalued Black motherhood in America presents the foundation upon which contemporary forms of state violence against Black women have evolved.
In particular, issues such as money bail exploitation, shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth, inadequate support for survivors of domestic violence and people with mental health conditions, as well as alarmingly high maternal mortality rates for Black women are not commonly understood as sites of state violence in the same ways that police brutality and killings are. For these reasons, this essay uses a reproductive justice lens to describe the connections among these issues and the ways that pregnancy goes unmarked as a site of risk for state violence. Further, this essay links contemporary practices and the historical narratives of Black motherhood that demean the experiences of Black mothers or minimize their pregnant status. Finally, I consider how Black maternalist activism, such as the #FreeBlackMamas initiative organized by the National Bail Out Collective, can be used as progressive tools for change.
Pregnancy is typically considered a protected status for women. We observe this phenomenon in everyday courtesies such as giving up a seat on the bus so a pregnant woman can sit to formal protections like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which outlaws workplace discrimination against pregnant people. The physical vulnerability of the pregnant body invokes notions of care, concern, and safety for the mother and the developing child, even as it conjures ideas of feminine strength and the power to produce life. In addition, we are inundated with the American cultural obsession with pregnant femininity, as exemplified by coverage of celebrity pregnancies. Some high-profile Black women such as Beyoncé and Serena Williams have used this hyper-maternal imagery to celebrate their pregnancies and to insert beautiful images of Black motherhood into popular culture. However, their emphasis on images of pregnant femininity belies the ways in which institutions typically engage with pregnant Black people. Sympathy and support for Black women’s health and well-being, adoration for their changing bodies, and protection of their maternal rights are easily disregarded, regardless of Black women’s class status, due to negative ideologies about Black motherhood.
Black mothers are seen as “bad” mothers who are violent, promiscuous, negligent, lazy, and unfit. These symbolic qualities mark their reproductive choices as excessive and lacking in good old American “personal responsibility.” Black mothers are also masculinized, even when pregnant, and their families are scapegoated for a host of social problems, especially crime. Harmful ideas about Black motherhood emerged during slavery to decouple Black mothers from the sentimental bonds of white femininity, allowing Black women to be exploited without legal or moral consequence, and leading to the general sense that Black women are undeserving of the care reserved for pregnant white women. These ideas have endured and evolved well past the end of slavery and they retain their utility as contemporary tools of subjugation. As law professor Priscilla Ocen points out, “the historical subordination of Black women in the context of slavery and post-Civil War punishment systems has shaped their racial and gender identities and those identities in turn have shaped punitive responses to social problems associated with Black women in the era of mass incarceration.”1
For example, the prison industrial complex relies on the exploitative system of money bail, which confines people in jail after they are arrested simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Judges and prosecutors set exorbitantly high bails that are difficult for most people, especially Black women, to post. This system has dire consequences on the lives of incarcerated women and their families. While it is unclear exactly how many women are in jail because they cannot make bail, 2016 statistics show that there are upwards of 200,000 women locked up in jails or prisons nationally. Forty-four percent of those women are Black, and 80 percent are mothers. In some cases, women may not even know that they are pregnant until they are arrested. Once they are imprisoned, pregnant women face dire health risks, humiliations, and violations, including the practice of shackling their arms, legs, and bellies during prenatal care and childbirth. Ocen traces the modern practice of shackling pregnant prisoners to the post-Civil War histories of punishment within the convict-lease system and chain gangs. She explains that “what began as a mechanism to control and demean Black women has become the prevailing mechanism for the treatment of all female prisoners.”2
The intersecting issues of shackling of pregnant prisoners and the system of money bail has Black women within its cross-hairs. Six states still legally allow shackling during childbirth, but other methods of restraint are allowed even in states where shackling is outlawed; there are no reliable national statistics or federal oversight on the practice. However, a 2017 report provided by the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics Project gives a glimpse into the issue in its study of Cook County Jail in Illinois, the largest single-site jail in the country. From April 2016 to May 2017, the jail held nearly 300 pregnant women in pretrial custody, most of whom were held because they could not afford bail. Of those 300, 17 of them gave birth while in custody. Given the recent media coverage of Black women’s dismal maternal-mortality rates–Black women regardless of class status are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women–we have to ask: How many incarcerated Black women die due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth?
Mainstream media coverage has largely focused on anti-Black state violence in the form of police shootings of unarmed Black people, mostly young men. This media coverage contributes to the general impression that these events are the totality of anti-Black state violence. However, state violence refers to a myriad of policies and practices used by the government or legal institutions such as the police, courts, prisons, immigration detention centers, legislatures, hospitals, militaries, schools, and child welfare agencies. By looking closely at the constellation of institutions that enact state violence and by broadening our definitions of what constitutes violence, our perspective can shift from one that understands brutality against Black people primarily as a problem between Black men and the police to a standpoint that recognizes how violence affects other segments of our communities, albeit in different forms. This is not to say that Black pregnant women are not also shot or beaten in their encounters with police; the killing of Charleena Lyles in Seattle in June 2017 illustrates the multiple vulnerabilities of Black pregnancy. A survivor of domestic abuse, Lyles was four months pregnant and in the presence of her three children when she was shot by police in her home.
Altogether, these examples provide a glimpse into multiple and overlapping forms of state-violence faced by pregnant Black women. However, it is clear that typical forms of maternalism do not afford Black women shelter from assaults by the state. How do we demand justice for Black pregnant women when society has already deemed them unworthy of sympathy and advocacy? Using the reproductive justice framework undergirding the #FreeBlackMamas campaign offers a compelling approach. Reproductive justice centralizes the complex reproductive experiences of women of color to advocate for change using a human rights framework.
Since 2017, the #FreeBlackMamas initiative has raised funds to bail out nearly 200 mothers, tying their advocacy to the Mother’s Day holiday each May. Unlike the Hallmark holiday that focuses on rewarding “good” mothers with cards and flowers, the #FreeBlackMamas action acknowledges all Black mothers – single, queer, trans, young, elder, immigrant – and does not tie their protection to a limited idea of “good” motherhood. Maternalism typically relies upon notions of maternal respectability to bolster women’s claims for political voice. #FreeBlackMamas adapts that maternal appeal and applies it to mothers that the state finds disposable. It is imperative that we continue to complicate our notions of state-sanctioned violence, especially as it affects Black women. We must draw attention to the experiences of pregnant Black women regardless of their conformity to exclusive notions of “good” motherhood and use a reproductive justice framework for our analysis and action.