Duke professor highlights racism in the birth process

headshot of Jennifer Nash
Jennifer Nash. Photo provided

Delivery room experiences are “ground zero of the black maternal health crisis,” Duke University professor and author Jennifer C. Nash said Tuesday, March 1, during George Mason University’s virtual Sojourner Truth Lecture, cosponsored by the Women and Gender Studies Program and the African and African American Studies Program.

Nash, whose third and most recent book is “Birthing Black Mothers,” discussed the role of birth doulas, particularly doulas of color, who she calls “agents of birth justice” and whose experiences she documented in the book.

Recent medical association acknowledgements and media reports have drawn greater attention to black mother and infant mortality rates, said Nash, who is the Jean Fox O'Barr Women’s Studies Distinguished Professor and professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke.

She referred to women of color doulas as “the necessary and perhaps only stopgap preventing black mothers and children from dying from obstetric violence.” Black mothers are four times more likely to die during childbirth.

“This outpouring of attention has made a singular point,” Nash said, “that racism is to blame for the life-or-death crisis that black mothers and their children face.

“I came to see [the delivery room] as a dense site of conflict, where bodies, politics, ideologies and desires dance around and sometimes collide with each other,” Nash added. “It is a space where actors, including obstetricians, midwives, doulas, patients and families with different investments in institutionalized medicine come into contact. And it is a space where ideas about illness and wellness, pregnancy and labor, timelines and medical intervention, interact and at times conflict.”

Tianna Cobb, a postdoctoral research and teaching fellow in Mason’s Department of Communication, moderated the conversation that followed Nash’s presentation. Nash met virtually with Mason faculty and undergraduates for additional discussion that day prior to the event. About 100 people attended the online lecture.

LaNitra Berger, associate director of the African and African American Studies Program and senior director of the Office of Fellowships in the Office of Undergraduate Education, presented the Sojourner Truth Community Partner Award to SisterMentors, a D.C. nonprofit that promotes education among women and girls of color.

The Sojourner Truth Faculty Award went to Jhumka Gupta, assistant professor of Global and Community Health in the College of Health and Human Services. Gupta’s work includes investigations of mental and reproductive health as it relates to gender-based violence.

Nash received the Sojourner Truth Lecture Award.

In its 22nd year, the Sojourner Truth Lecture bridges Black History Month and Women’s History Month.