We have to reclaim our legacy as midwives and the narrative of the granny midwife of the rural south.
My heritage runs deep. Before my roots reach the rich soils of Africa, they run through rural Arkansas on my maternal side.
At RootMama we celebrate Black heritage, culture and history every day, all day. And we’re still happy to see a special emphasis on Black heritage during the month of February from the greater community.
It was Shafia Monroe who first introduced me to the Legacy of the Black Midwife. Her presentation allowed me to hear my calling to become a birth worker. I became even more interested in my own personal lineage and familiar ties to Black midwives. My great-grandmother had 17 children at home. I called on her strength and wisdom as I went through my own birth at home. I talked with my aunts and found out that it was a midwife, Ms. Cecily, who delivered my great-grandmother's first 10 or so children, including my grandmother.
Granny midwives were the experienced, wise, highly-respected and highly-regarded members of the community that cared for pregnant women and assisted in childbirth. Granny midwives operated on African principles of holistic, compassionate and Spiritual care. She used her intuition, herbs, roots, nature and her genuine love for her people to serve families. Because of the communal nature of our communities in the rural South, living was so much more that exchanging green currency. People paid her with eggs, livestock, crops and whatever they had. No matter how currency deficient a community might have been, the granny midwife was always taken care of. She waded through swamps, mud, and rivers to reach her families on foot, by car, by boat or by any means necessary. It was tradition to maintain the highest standards of cleanliness, hygiene and sterility. In fact, the US medical industry studied and implemented the hygiene and sterilizing practices that they learned directly from the granny midwives. Unfortunately, they fail to attribute the hygiene practices to these granny midwives.
These Queen Mothers provided comprehensive care to the family serving as counselor, prayer warrior, mother, nutritionist and friend. She cooked for the family, constructed a crib for the new baby, knitted infant clothing and stepped in to assist wherever needed.
I set out to research some granny midwives in Arkansas to not only remember the overall contributions of the collective, but to know more individual names.
It’s obvious who has written the ‘history’ of granny midwives. I specifically looked for information on granny midwives in Arkansas. The encyclopedias recall of our foremothers as “superstitious.” They say this because they were hostile to African culture. The grannies worked with roots, herbs, intuition, prayer, ‘laying of the healing hands,’ blessing oils, tonics and spoke in tongues. To the “outsiders” who look down on our culture, they sum up our ways as “superstitious.”
They frequently refer to the granny midwives as “illiterate” and take shots at their intelligence. Truth is, we speak an entirely different language. Also, the historians fail to mention that their forefathers went to great lengths to keep books and education from the Black population in the U.S. They fail to mention the terroristic tactics levied on the Black population that sought to learn and master standard U.S. English. Written command of a language doesn’t equate to intelligence. Talking down on the grannies’ command of written English without historical context is irresponsible.
As history would tell it, the so-called ‘saviors’ were the public health agencies who were so ‘concerned’ about the infant and child mortality rate that they wanted to ‘train’ the granny midwives. Truth is, the majority of their so-called ‘trainings’ had to do with filling out birth certificates and reporting births to the government. They also ‘trained’ the midwives to refer mothers to hospitals and clinics. The history talks about tolerating midwives as a quote “necessary evil.” During World War II, many doctors and nurses were abroad leaving states like Arkansas with one doctor for every almost 2,000 people. The plan was to abolish midwifery. During the abolition process, they would steal and appropriate the granny midwives methodologies and attempt to erase their contributions from history all together. They would exploit a chosen few, like Mami Odesa Hale, to facilitate the appropriation process.
It’s funny how these historians work. They only write about the chosen few Black people that helped them spread and enforce exploitation of the Black population. So we can easily find these ‘liaisons’ that worked with the granny midwives and the public health institutions. We can find their names and their contributions documented. But what about the midwife that tracked the muddy trails, climbed the mountainous terrain, went without food to feed a hungry family, woke up in the middle of the night to attend a birth? Where is the documentation of her name?
History accounts in a passive and indirect account of the reality of state economic, social and physical terrorism against the Black community. They say things like “there were no beds for Black patients in the hospital” instead of explicitly saying that white doctors, nurses, administrators and the police that worked for them denied Black patients access to the hospital. So a granny midwife might attend thousands of births in her lifetime. I want to know her name.
The state attack and attempt to abolish midwifery was not an altruistic endeavor as they would like to portray. To the contrary, it was economically driven. To this day, the labor and delivery department is the cash cow of modern hospitals. Additionally, the states received federal funding and political clout based on documented population size. With granny midwives attending births and often not registering the babies with the government, this was seen as lost money. The infant and maternal health disparity between Black community and others remains shockingly similar now as it was back then. However, there is an almost 100% report rate of births to the government. So the government achieved its goal of documenting births but I believe it never had a sincere goal to improve the infant and maternal health of the Black community.
So, the government decided to ‘crack down’ on midwives. They manufactured an esteem and privilege to get a ‘certification’ from them. Yet, these seasoned professionals had been catching babies and caring for families for decades. What was the state gonna teach them about birth?
As I rip and run my metropolitan area providing prenatal support, birth companionship and postpartum care to families, I reflect on the tenacity and dedication of the granny midwives of the rural south. Her legacy lives on in my elders and contemporaries who carry on this great work and inspire me also to carry on the torch.
Written by: Freya Morani