Opinion: Dying man’s plea felt by Black mothers

People raise their fists Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in Kansas City, Mo., as they protest the death of Black people, including Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
People raise their fists Tuesday, June 23, 2020 in Kansas City, Mo., as they protest the death of Black people, including Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

As George Floyd gasped for air he cried out for his mother. We understood his plea for deliverance by the one who undoubtedly had loved him and tried her best to protect him. From the accounts of his siblings, the family had very little but their mother made certain that they were clean, well-fed, attended school and graduated. Their home was a place where other children in the neighborhood wanted to be. So in the final moments of his life, George Floyd called for his mother’s protection once more, this time from the harm and pain he endured as police savagely pressed the life out of his body.

Beginning from conception, the journey for Black mothers and their children is fraught with deadly obstacles all along the way.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, what is a Black expectant mother feeling right now as she witnesses the protest in response to the horrific deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery? How is a pregnant Black woman internalizing the acts of violence perpetuated by racism, as it confers the belief that Black lives do not matter? Seeing the sadness in the face of Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother as she cried out for justice for her daughter and hearing Wanda Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, say, “he’s not with us because two men followed him while he was jogging and killed him” is heart-wrenching. But for an expectant mother, hearing George Floyd’s pleas and the sorrowful expressions of the surviving mothers can affect the body and the mind in ways that can lead to deadly outcomes for expectant mothers and their babies.

Regardless of socioeconomic background, nationally Black women are twice as likely to give birth to babies born premature and with low birth weights, placing those babies at considerably greater risk of dying before their first birth than babies born to white mothers. Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die as the result of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. College-educated Black women here in Georgia are 2.7 times more likely to die from pregnancy complications. And babies born to well-educated Black women in this state are 3 times more likely to have worse birth outcomes than white women with college degrees. Furthermore, well-educated Black women have worse birth and maternal outcomes than white women who have only high school diplomas. The reasons for adverse birth and maternal outcomes for Black women is complex, but it is widely agreed that racism is a contributing factor.

Racism kills.

Because of racism, the extra burden of caring for and worrying about our Black children, from conception through adulthood, takes its toll on us. Beneath the underlying causes that place us at greater risk for deaths from coronavirus lies the corrosive effect of racism on health that accumulates over time. Our hearts race too fast, our blood pressure stays too high, and our immune system is compromised, all because of having to be ever vigilant to the probability of having to confront racism.

Research is showing that the negative mental health effects of police violence on Black people as compared to White people result in Blacks experiencing more mental health days that last for months in the aftermath of unjustified police violence.

In our own study in metropolitan Atlanta, we found that Black pregnant women’s anticipating that one day their children would have a negative encounter with police was linked to signs of depression during pregnancy. In other words, even when children are in the womb, Black mothers worry about protecting them from racism, and that worry can build to the point of having negative consequences for their mental health.

Fear for the safety of our children just grows as they grow. On the first night of the protests in Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reached out to her son pleading for him to come home. For everyone to hear, she admitted that even though she was the mayor she would not be able to protect him.

Our children are out there. They are in their schools. They are in the parks; they are out there in the streets and highways. They are in their homes and jogging on the roads. Wherever they are, their lives are meaningless to those who without hesitation would kill them, merely because of the color of their skin.

As Black women navigate through everyday assaults from inequity, racism, and sexism, we make every attempt to shield our children. In the final moments of his life, George Floyd cried out for his mother. Hearing him say her name, I felt anguish knowing that if she were alive her warmth and caring for him was insufficient to protect him, or herself, from the consequences of entrenched racism that infiltrates every system of this society.

No doubt George endured pervasive racism throughout his life, and his life was taken by the most inhumane display of racism. He was buried next to his mother.

Certainly, there is work going on in Atlanta and elsewhere aimed at eliminating the inequities and racism on all fronts which jeopardizes the lives of mothers, fathers, children and families within communities. Organizations that are working toward this include the Center for Black Women’s Wellness, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, March of Dimes, and Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia, which are forging toward the goal of achieving birth equity for all mothers and babies.

Still, events of the last several months signal that, as a nation, we fall short of the destination of “liberty and justice for all.” In this moment, what is required is bold collective action for lasting changes steeped in equity and justice in health care, housing, education, policing, employment, and income.

We have been here before. We must ask will there ever be a time when Black people will no longer have to cry out?

Fleda Mask Jackson, Ph.D, is a scholar, educator and activist. She is president of Majaica LLC, a national research firm and think tank. Her work is aimed at advancing the well-being of Black children, families, and communities via methods informed by community-based, culturally sensitive research that can be translated into practice and policy. She has been a Professor of Applied Public Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and a visiting scholar in Psychology at Spelman College.

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