Audre Lorde, the prolific Black Feminist theorist and activist, self-described as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” taught us that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
This is the underlying mission of a controversial billboard in Dallas that has sparked conversations around Black women’s right to have abortions free of guilt, shame, and stigma. The billboard, created by the Afiya Center, the only Reproductive Justice organization in North Texas founded and directed by Black women, proclaims unapologetically, “Black women take care of their families by taking care of themselves. Abortion is Self-Care.”
For some people, bodily autonomy is not something that Black women have a right to claim. As I’ve written previously, “Black women have had to fight for access to the full spectrum of womanhood, to be treated not as breeding chattel but as fully human. We know white supremacy to be a feminist issue on the most intimate and painful level because systemic oppression has always been mapped on the bodies of Black women.”
This nation was built upon our backs and the backs of our children, and we unequivocally have the right to decide when, where, how, and under what circumstances we enter into motherhood.
In an op-ed for Dallas News, Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, wrote that, “Black women are twice as likely to die from pregnancy-related issues as white women…Restrictions on abortion are not only harmful to Black women but also contradictory to the strong support for abortion rights by black people in Texas. Ninety-five percent of Black adults in Texas believe that a woman’s ability to control whether and when she has children is an important part of financial stability for herself and her family.”
In 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an early supporter of Planned Parenthood, called family planning a “special and urgent concern” for Black families living in cyclical poverty in the United States, a critical issue that this nation has the resources to address.
Abortion is self-care.
Arline T. Geronimus, a public health researcher and associate director and a professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan, conceptualized “weathering” to describe how the chronic and cumulative ramifications of white supremacy have detrimental impacts on the health of Black people in the United States, particularly Black women.
According to Geronimus, “…Black women experience accelerated biological aging in response to repeated or prolonged adaptation to subjective and objective stressors…[Between the] ages 49–55, Black women are 7.5 years biologically ‘older’ than White women.”
And, according the NIH study “African American Women’s Beliefs About Mental Illness, Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors,” simply existing as a Black woman in the United States places one at risk for developing mental illness:
The rates of mental health problems are higher than average for Black women because of psychological factors that result directly from their experience as Black Americans. These experiences include racism, cultural alienation, and violence and sexual exploitation.
The women believed experiencing family-related stress and social stress were possible causes of mental illness. The family-related stressors, including trauma, family problems, and violence, are supported in the research literature. Davis, Ressler, Schwartz, Stephens, & Bradley (2008) found that African Americans in low-income, urban communities are at high risk for exposure to traumatic events, including having relatives murdered and their own experience with physical and sexual assaults, all of which are associated with the onset of post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.
And that stress, that stress that drowns Black women in toxic quicksand, has compounded physical ramifications.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, 82 percent of Black women over 20 years old are either overweight or obese compared to 1.3 percent of White women. And, according to a 2014 American Heart Association report, Black women (49 percent) have higher rates of heart disease than white women (32 percent).
These truths are why Marsha Jones was surprised by the response to the Afiya Center’s billboard.
“I knew we were going to get reactions from Black women that were really strong, but I thought they would want to know what we mean. I really didn’t expect such a visercal backlash,” Jones told ESSENCE.
When Jones saw a billboard, put up by Pastor Stephen Broden and the Black Pro-Life Coalition, which read, “Abortion is not healthcare…It hurts women and murders their babies,” she knew her organization had to respond.
“I was enraged when I saw that. We had to answer to that,” Jones said. “You can’t put up a billboard that doesn’t have factual information. You are attaching shame and blame to Black women’s choices.”
Further, Jones said, the idea that self-care is as simple as a day at the spa or a massage angered her even more.
“We have the right to raise our children in safe environments, with clean water, and healthy food,” Jones said. “That’s a conversation about generational poverty. Let’s talk about this. Let’s deconstruct systems. For me to think that a day at the spa would solve anything…after that spa-day, I still have to come back home and deal with the systems that are killing us.”
In the 2010 report, “Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health,” published in the Qualitative Health Research Journal, researchers found that “health disparities in Black women, including adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity, and untreated depression, can be explained by stress and coping.”
According to Amani Nuru-Jeter, associate professor of epidemiology, community health and human development of the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley, “Prolonged elevation [and] circulation of the stress hormones in our bodies can be very toxic and compromise our body’s ability to regulate key biological systems like our cardiovascular system, our inflammatory system, our neuroendocrine system. It just gets us really out of whack and leaves us susceptible to a bunch of poor health outcomes.”
A 2011 CDC report on health disparities found that 37.9 percent of African American women died of coronary heart disease before the age of 75 compared to 19.4 percent of White American women. We were also more than twice as likely to die from strokes before the age of 75 (39 percent) than our White counterparts (17.3 percent).
For Jones, the truth is clear.
“Self-care is healthcare,” she said. “We have to change the way we’re talking about it. We have bought into the notion that we are to blame for the destruction in our communities, and we can’t carry that shame. There are Black women faced with real-life decisions about their own health and well-being. They have to decide whether to finish school or continue to live in poverty. They have to decide if they want another child, when the violence of capitalism makes it extremely difficult to take care of the children they already have.”
“The very soil that our children play in causes adverse outcomes that could affect them for the rest of their lives, but we shouldn’t take that into consideration?” Jones continued.
Make no mistake: Abortion is a personal and political decision. A woman’s body cannot, should not be legislated, and hypocritical attempts to do just that are acts of ideological and political warfare.
“The people who are against Black women making the reproductive choices that are right for them are not pro-life,” Jones said. “They’re pro-pregnancy.”
Jones speaks facts. There are Black children trapped in a dehumanizing foster-care system who are too often left homeless when they age out of that system. Conservative politicians scream out bloodthirsty support for the death penalty, which disproportionately leads to the execution of Black people.
Still, they fix their faces to pretend to care about Black children and Black families.
“Sometimes, Black women experience pain they are unable to walk through, and we have the right to live to our fullest expectation,” Jones said. “Our babies are dying. Are we prepared to deal with the system that is killing us?
“It is not our Blackness that is killing us,” Jones said, “but how this system treats our Blackness that is killing us.”
For Jones, even though the institutional and systemic effects of white supremacy on Black women’s emotional, physical, and psychological health are apparent, they are not the sole reasons why she is a staunch reproductive justice advocate and organizer. Black women have the right to make their own reproductive choices, regardless of their circumstances, and that is worth fighting for as long as it takes.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Jones told ESSENCE. “And we’re hiding it with movement work. I’ve been asked, ‘How far are you willing to go to support a woman’s choice?’ My response is that I’m willing to go all the way to labor. There is no stopping point for me. It’s not my body. It’s not my choice. I owe that woman support. Women will sit with me and attempt to justify their decisions, and I see them trying to move through the shame and stigma, and I stop them right there. I tell them, ‘You don’t owe anyone an explanation for your choice. It’s yours.'”
Even with all the backlash the billboard has received, Jones said she stands by the Afiya Center’s decision to erect it, and would not change a thing.
“I’m good,” Jones said. “We wanted people to talk about this. Even in 2018, Black women are held to a different accountability as it pertains to how we parent, and that has to end. We have the right to life. We have the right to be appreciated and affirmed. The Afiya Center goes hard for Black women. We go hard for Black people. And that’s not going to stop.”
“One of the things we talked to my staff is that we’re going to let it play itself out,” Jones said. “We will not take the billboard down. We said it. We meant it.”
Click here to learn more about the Afiya Center.