See me as someone you love: Confronting the Black maternal health crisis with faith in ourselves

As Black Maternal Health Week amplifies the risks faced by Black birthing parents in the U.S., we must self-advocate for our humanity.

Black maternal health, Black maternal health week, Black mothers, Black pregnant women, Black pregnancy, Black pregnancies, Black birthing mothers, Black birthing parents, Black parents, doulas, Black doulas, Black midwives, midwives, Black OB/GYNs, Black doctors, Black obstetricians, faith and spirituality, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, Rev. Calvin Skinner,
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“Notes on faith” is theGrio’s inspirational, interdenominational series featuring Black thought leaders across faiths.

“If you look at me and you don’t see your sister or your daughter or your mother or your best, best friend,” said “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” alum Tatyana Ali, “then you don’t get to touch me.” After experiencing what amounted to a nightmare while giving birth to her second son, this statement proclaiming Ali’s criteria for choosing healthcare professionals attuned to Black women’s needs hit to the core as she conversed with various Black women on her show, “Recipe for Change.” That resolve was even more poignant because Ali was responding to a riveting story shared by her tablemate, fellow actress Kyla Pratt. As previously reported by theGrio, Pratt shared a harrowing story about the questionable care she received while daring to advocate for herself during her second pregnancy in 2013.

“Luckily, standing up for myself at that moment, my daughter is here now,” Pratt added, explaining that a nurse had initially dismissed her insistence that she was in active labor. “[The nurse] went to get my doctor; my doctor said, ‘You’re six centimeters dilated, and we have to do an emergency C-section. But because I was so small, it wasn’t showing up on the machine. In that moment, I didn’t really recognize when people weren’t listening to me because I was young, because I am Black, and because I’m a woman.”

Unfortunately, we know that the scenarios of both women are far too common. Even Black mothers within a sphere of extreme privilege, like Serena Williams, can attest that no amount of fame or socioeconomic status can guarantee access to responsive and entirely unbiased medical care. As Black spiritual practitioners and a married couple forecasting our own family, we find ourselves not only seeking out like-minded individuals for our personal care as we plan for children, but find insights like Ali’s and Pratt’s to be crucial examples of how to be intentional in our roles as pastors, justice advocates, and hopefully, parents. 

For one, non-birthing parent participation is essential in addressing maternal healthcare matters. Whether a partner, family member, friend, qualified advisor or enlisted advocate, no one in the process of giving birth should also be expected to bear the sole responsibility of advocating for themselves. In the absence of protocols that should make culturally competent care a national standard, many in our communities are creating those networks of advocacy for ourselves. Among these are initiatives like Black Maternal Health Week and its numerous local events curated by birth specialists in our community, like this weekend’s Black Maternal Health Conference in Knoxville, Tenn., where Rev. Calvin joins a panel about male advocacy in Black maternal health, a critical component in bringing awareness to our communities and stakeholders. Conversations like these reinforce that while childbirth may traditionally be seen as “women’s work,” the work of saving the lives of Black birthing parents is a communal endeavor. 

Having access to resources is also essential. While, as mentioned, there is no socioeconomic status that can ensure safety for a Black person giving birth, the systemic dearth of resources that affect the well-being of Black women in particular is an epidemic unto itself. All across the nation, Black Maternal Health Week sheds light on the ongoing maternal health crisis for Black women and birthing people. Statistically, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related health issues compared to white women, deaths that are, in many cases, preventable.

These persistent disparities in care are the focus of this year’s White House Proclamation on Black Maternal Health Week, which read in part:

“Women in America are dying at a higher rate from pregnancy-related causes than women in any other developed nation. Black women face even more risk and are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. That is in no small part because of a long history of systemic racism and bias. Studies show that when Black women suffer from severe injuries or pregnancy complications or simply ask for assistance, they are often dismissed or ignored in the healthcare settings that are supposed to care for them. People of color — including expecting mothers — also bear the brunt of environmental injustices like air and water pollution, which worsen health outcomes. Too often, Black mothers lack access to safe and secure housing, affordable transportation, and affordable, healthy food.  This is unjust and unacceptable.”


Without the odds in our favor, it is vital that we think outside the box about how to make this information both culturally accessible and a moral imperative, bridging the precarious gap between patients, practitioners and physicians. Encouragement comes in observing OB/GYNs like Dr. Joy Alison Cooper, who launched Culture Care, a digital platform designed to make quality Black doctors accessible to Black women. Serving women in California, Pennsylvania, New York and soon nationwide, Dr. Cooper recognizes how critical Black doctors are, not only to Black maternal health but in all communities, based on recently published research that confirms life expectancy rises when a Black physician is present in that community. 

Dr. Cooper notes, “Residents do not have to receive direct care from the Black doctor in that community; just having their presence favorably  impacts community health.” For Dr. Cooper, expanding the ubiquity, as she puts it, of Black doctors through the digital platform is her mission and contribution to addressing America’s maternal health crisis. 

How might the rest of us shift the culture towards honoring the humanity of others?

Tatyana Ali’s poignant statement underscores the importance of being seen and respected, echoing a core tenet of many faith traditions: the inherent dignity of every individual. Of course, within our reasonable expectations of dignity while in medical care, we may assume healthcare professionals have our best interests in mind. However, despite their rigorous training, there is still overwhelming evidence that lack of exposure to and bias against Black women and communities often gets in the way of delivering excellent, compassionate care. 

For some, that risk can be abated by revisiting our regard for those once known as “baby-catchers,” the midwives and doulas who were historically integral to our communities. In the same conversation with Ali, licensed midwife Kim Durdin explained how midwifery was systemically erased from our collective history, making room for injustice to become prevalent in the resulting racial apartheid of the reproductive space.  

“We know about so many instances where [Black] women were getting hysterectomies and getting sterilized without their consent; all different Black and brown women to this day,” said Durdin. “That’s part of controlling these bodies so that they don’t make too many children now — because that is seen as a problem.”

In fact, one of the greatest voices of social justice was involuntarily sterilized, namely sharecropper and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer

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Amid overwhelming challenges, there’s hope in recognizing the invaluable role of doulas and midwives, who not only provide physical and emotional support but also embody a model of advocacy and empowerment rooted in Black faith. By amplifying voices like Pratt’s and championing the doula and midwife model, we can potentially birth dreams of equity and justice in maternal health for all Black mothers and fathers. 

As faith leaders and pastors, we desire to serve and walk alongside individuals and groups grappling with this crisis to assist in their spiritual care and formation; to facilitate and curate safe spaces for vulnerability and accountability, and help create a toolbox to assist in building dreams and communities — and walking into one’s purpose in the process.  

We have discussed the role of faith as it relates to addressing reproductive justice. We believe faith can bring hope and empowerment in addressing these matters; however, even from our perspective as pastors, we confess the Black faith community has fallen short in addressing many of the issues that contribute to the anxieties associated with this topic. In research by Harvard sociology professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the incorporation of midwives and doulas has been described as cultivating a sense of dignity and respect. As we seek to better serve our communities, our missions are parallel.

To go further, we can also acknowledge that midwives and doulas not only share similar roles as pastors but also recognize their roles as an example of how to go about addressing the core of injustice, providing pathways to expand hope and empowerment. While there is a distinction between the roles of midwives and doulas, both play important roles in maternal healthcare. Between the medical aspects midwives address and the emotional and physical support of doulas, we can see how the skill sets each role provides are both holistic and divinely ordained.  

From conception to birth to postpartum, the biological process of bringing forth life entails so many steps, demands so much attention and requires intention by all who are involved with both parent and child. With that said, surrounding oneself with a support system of healthcare providers — including physicians, midwives and doulas — can ensure the most healthy process. As practitioners of the spirit, the Black faith community should stand at the ready to assist.  

The stories of Kyla Pratt, Tatyana Ali, and others convey the urgent need for equitable and compassionate care in maternal health. Through the lens of faith, the roles of doulas and midwives emerge as exemplars of empathy, empowerment, and solidarity, offering portals to healing and justice in the face of systemic injustices. The interconnectedness of spiritual values and social action invites us to recognize and uphold the divine spark within each individual, from conception on, as we strive for the flourishing and well-being of the collective.

Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones is a faith leader helping people find their groove in a fast-paced world, as a consultant for various arts and faith organizations and professor of music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. She is an award-winning author of Flaming? The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance (Oxford University Press). For more information, please visit

Rev. Calvin Taylor Skinner is dedicated to empowering frontline communities in Knoxville, Tenn. and the United Kingdom. He uses faith and policy to address energy justice, criminal justice reform, voter education/mobilization, electoral politics, and global affairs. Along with his wife, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, they lead InSight Initiative, a consulting firm focusing on capacity building and live events production.