Jennifer C. Nash is Jean Fox O’Barr Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her new book is Birthing Black Mothers, which examines how the figure of the “Black mother” has become a powerful political category. She has previously published two other books with Duke University Press, The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography and Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality.
In your acknowledgements, you write that Birthing Black Mothers was born alongside the birth of your own daughter. How does this personal, lived experience inform your work?
Perhaps all scholarly projects are born of the intersections of the experiential and the intellectual, even as academic life hasn’t always made it possible to name these intersections. I’ve always been deeply interested in how scholarly interests shift, move, and change in response to the conditions of our lives. The questions that we pose are fundamentally altered by the fact that we are embodied beings, that we contend with the world and its complexities.
In this project, I name the fact that the book was born with my daughter, or more specifically, born in the weeks before her birth, as I navigated life as a Black perinatal subject. I became very curious about the hospital, the birthing center, the obstetrician, the midwife, the doula, the prenatal check-up, and the lactation consultant. I wanted to understand how those spaces and actors operated, and how they constructed me as a Black woman patient (and how I represented myself as such) in a moment where those spaces were increasingly responsive to—or supposedly responsive to—the “crisis” in Black maternal health. I wanted to understand what it meant to birth in a moment when the very fact of my birthing (or soon-to-be birthing) body was saturated with a different kind of political meaning. Black perinatal bodies are newly imagined not as pathological but in need of education, information, support, and compassion. My project came to life as I experienced the compassionate—and, as I argue in my book, not unproblematic—maternal health institutions that imagined my body and my daughter’s body as distinctly in need of support.
You speak to the cultural impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in your introduction and throughout your book. What is the relationship between Birthing Black Mothers and BLM?
Even as BLM is often described—and, at times, criticized—for placing Black boys and Black men at the center of its conception of anti-Black violence, I make a different argument in Birthing Black Mothers. I contend that Black mothers have become a central icon of the movement for Black life. At times, Black mothers are described as representing anticipated loss, as preparing themselves (and their children) for anti-Black trauma that is to unfold in the future. Other times, Black mothers are culturally invoked to make visible the trauma of losing a child, and thus become synonymous with grief, trauma, and loss.
With the new cultural visibility of longstanding Black maternal health disparities, birthing Black mothers and perinatal Black bodies are now imagined—in perhaps the most literal way—to be a vessel of Black life. Black mothers are thus figured as standing at the intersections of multiple forms of state violence: they are guardians of their children’s lives, and they also experience medical racism, obstetric violence, and birth injustice that makes Black life precarious from its earliest moments. In this moment, anti-Black death is understood to take the form only of the police officer’s fist, baton, or chokehold, and to take the form of the obstetrician, the hospital, or the unwanted C-section. Black wombs are thus imagined as ground zero of crisis, as spaces under siege that require care and protection to ensure the viability of Black life.
In your third chapter, you focus on three celebrities engaged in redefining what you term “Black maternal aesthetics.” What was your inspiration for centering this chapter on Serena Williams, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, and Michelle Obama?
I was drawn to how this celebrity trio has rewritten scripts about Black motherhood, Black female friendship, and what Claudia Rankine calls “Black excellence.” My chapter is inspired by so many scholars who have written on Williams, Knowles-Carter, and Obama: like Rankine’s essay, or Brittney Cooper’s work on Michelle Obama. My own endeavor was to think about these three figures together, to consider their friendships, collaborations, and investments in championing each other. I particularly wanted to emphasize how the trio centers Black female friendship as a Black maternal ethic, as a distinct form of relationality that Black motherhood renders possible. This friendship has also been forged through their shared commitment to reshaping narratives about maternal affect, postpartum bodies, and the sheer demands of mothering. This kind of Black maternal friendship offers a very different public performance than another contemporary, hypervisible public performance of Black maternal relationality: the Mothers of the Movement. Described by Valerie Castile as the “fucked-up mothers club,” the group—including Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, Lucy McBath, Gwen Carr, and Geneva Reed-Veal—is a political affiliation forged through shared trauma. Their shared losses might be understood as born both from the death—or murder—of a child, and from the state inaction that marked many of these cases, including non-indictments and not-guilty verdicts. Knowles-Carter, Obama, and Williams offer a markedly different performance of Black maternal friendship, one rooted not in shared loss but in Black maternal pleasure, glamour, and playfulness, even as the collective—particularly Knowles—often operates in solidarity with Mothers of the Movement.
Your second chapter is dedicated to exploring the effect of women of color doulas and other birth-workers, whose personal care, you argue, is a form of political work. You write that much of this doula work is currently funded by the state, though you remain less than optimistic about the state’s support of and investment in Black life. Can you shed light on this seeming paradox?
The book’s second chapter (which is actually the first one I wrote, and perhaps where my biggest political and intellectual attachments remain) tracks my critical ambivalence about the paraprofessional feminist birth economy, particularly the work of doulas. I study a moment when doulas—particularly women of color doulas—are hailed as precisely the innovation that will save Black mothers’ lives. And it is now—increasingly—the state that insists on the necessity of doulas, with some states even working to cover doulas through Medicaid, and to recruit and train doulas.
Doulas are, as I argue in this chapter, outliers in the feminist birth economy. Unlike midwives—the birth professionals they are most often associated with—doulas are unlicensed and unregulated, and their trainings vary tremendously, as does their sense of what kind of labor birth work is, and what is required to perform this labor. This variation is powerful, and as I write in the book, it allows doulas to subvert and interrupt the norms of institutionalized medicine in ways that challenge the stronghold of medical capitalism and its logics of birthing temporalities that all too often result in unwanted (or unneeded) C-sections and other forms of birth violence. Yet it is a complicated moment when the state invests in paraprofessional birth work as the solution to Black maternal mortality, and when it insists that it is low-paid and heterogeneously trained birth workers (who, again, I emphasize are united by a deep ethical, political, and oftentimes spiritual commitment to the transformative qualities of birth) who are newly responsible for Black life.
You push back against the rhetoric of crisis which currently dominates discussion about Black mothers, converting them into “a political category synonymous with pain.” And in your conclusion, you encourage Black feminists to “freedom-dream.” What does this mean to you, exactly, and what alternative rhetorical frameworks do you envision?
My work has generally been interested in how Black women are rhetorically invoked to perform symbolic work for a host of actors. I have traced what Black women symbolize for academic feminism, for Black feminist theory, for the state, for hospitals, and for birth workers. In all of these cases, Black women become different kind of symbols: of pathology, trauma, grief, pain, and brokenness. I am also deeply interested in how Black mothers make themselves into symbols of certain sorts to become politically legible, to have their/our needs and demands heard and rendered legible. My call to “freedom-dream” is a plea for Black feminists to refuse to be seduced by the moment we are in, one where Black mothers are thought to simply need compassion. This moment feels appealing because Black mothers are not imagined as producing the fiscal and moral downfall of the state, but instead as requiring information, support, and education. But the moment is part of this much longer history of transforming Black mothers from complex people with heterogeneous demands and desires, into symbolic currency for a host of political movements which all too rarely hear or honor Black women’s needs. My call for freedom-dreaming is for Black feminist interventions that refuse the logics of the present, even as they can feel alluring.