Lessons from African-American Midwife Traditions

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Commentator Kristal Brent Zook says there are a lot of lessons medical practitioners could learn from African-American midwife traditions. Zook is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a contributing writer for Essence magazine.


In Washington, DC, an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum for African American History and Culture explores the rarely heard stories of African-American midwives. "Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support" spans from the African-based practices of the 17th century to current beliefs held by African-American nurses and midwives. After touring the exhibit herself, commentator Kristal Brent Zook thinks today's mainstream medical professionals could learn a lot from midwife traditions.


What's most striking about these historical midwives is not just the fact that they brought countless lives into this world without running water, electricity or modern medicine, but even more inspiring is how they did it. They brought bibles to read aloud and help mothers pass the time as they waited on pregnant women, massaging and bathing them and their children, cooking and cleaning for their families. Along with scissors, bags and smelling salts, we're told that midwives also carried items to pamper mothers in their heavy medical bags: rose water, talcum powder, a comb. They used peppermint and chamomile teas to calm the nerves, ginger, mayapple and hot peppers to encourage labor and black hot(ph) herbs to ease the pain.

These are images of humble, round-shouldered women as they made their way along the side of the road in simple white aprons and heavy black shoes. They walked sometimes up to 10 miles each way for regular pre- and post-natal visits. Their labor was more often than not done for free. At times they accepted small amounts of cash or perhaps a chicken for payment. Mostly it was enough to know they were doing God's good work. These are woman, notes author Toni Morrison, who inspired nephews and grandsons to stand when they entered a room. At a time when few Americans cared whether a black woman lived or died, midwives and mothers at least had each other. I think it would be difficult indeed for a child to come into this world in such hands and not know they were loved.

In the 1920s, however, the exhibit tells us that state governments heightened their efforts to train, control and regulate midwives with the long-term goal of elimination. State officials frowned on the fact that African-influenced midwives still believed in dreams, signs, visions and revelations. They frowned on the fact that they still looked to ancestral forces for empowerment as they buried placentas, left sharp objects under Mother's mattresses and shaped the heads of newborn babies by gently massaging them into form.

Because of new regulations, midwives were now forced to get permission slips from licensed doctors to perform their services. Suddenly their homes had to be inspected for cleanliness, and their moral character had to be reviewed and assessed. Self-education and experience were no longer valued as midwives were forced to attend training classes. Even their medical bags had to be inspected and approved, and no herbal teas or bibles were permitted. In fact, the only reading materials midwives were allowed to carry were state-issued health manuals. And we wonder why black people distrust doctors today?

When calming nervous mothers, Alabama midwife Miss Margaret Smith was known to whisper, `Listen to me good.' Her words should be mandatory hearing for health-care professionals everywhere.

CHIDEYA: Kristal Brent Zook is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and contributing writer for Essence magazine.

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