Black Mothers Matter: Social Media can Shift the Agenda for Black Maternal Health

On 25th May 2020 the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black American man, by police officer Derek Chauvin, sent social media into an uproar that reignited the Black Lives Matter Movement. The use of the global hashtag ‘#BLM’ was everywhere: through television, newspaper and social media news headlines. A week later, on Tuesday 2nd June there was a viral ‘blackout’ on Instagram, where ’28 million users posted a plain black square along with the hashtag #blackouttuesday’ to support the black community.1 

Figure 1: George Floyd protest in Grand Army Plaza, June 7, 2020 credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org

 I am reluctant to say that until #blackouttuesday I did not fully understand that not being racist was not enough. It is a necessity to be actively anti-racist. Due to most of the world being in lockdown, what became clear during this time was how social media is a space to be proactively anti-racist. The rapid response and enthusiasm the Black Lives Matter movement received on social media accentuates the political power of social media. 

I am white, cis-gender and able-bodied. It is my duty to accept my white privilege and use my relatively unconstrained platform to promote and support the #BLM movement through my research. My work examines the representation of the pregnant body. The fundamental point of my thesis is that pregnant bodies are not autonomous, meaning that a ‘pregnant body is a public space’.2 I delineate and develop a theory of ‘pregnancy as performance’, understanding that pregnancy is a ‘narrative’ that is followed by mothers-to-be.3 

Black mothers have a different narrative. In I Am Not Your Baby Mother Candice Braithwaite explains how, for decades, Black mothers have been ‘trying to navigate life whilst being regarded as what is often painted as one of the lowliest in black British society: a baby mother’.4 In the first few pages of her book, she defines ‘baby mother’: ‘babymother […] the mother of one or more of a man’s children, who is not his wife or current partner.’5 Braithwaite’s book accentuates how baby mother remains an incredibly derogatory term:

The term ‘baby mother’ isn’t just a succession of piercing words solely cast upon single black mothers, it’s become a label which is used primarily to dismantle and disable the legitimacy of black women’s version of motherhood in general. It’s used to demean and perhaps unintentionally put a red mark through any ideas along the lines of assimilating black motherhood with positivity and success.6

Despite decades of Black feminist activism there is still continued devaluation of Black womanhood. In addition, an eight year longitudinal study documenting maternal mortality rates in the U.K shows how ‘women from black and Asian groups had a higher mortality rate than white women’ – this proves that racial disparity is prevalent, and it is Black bodies that suffer continually.7 It is time for change, and social media can facilitate that change. 

The ‘Black Mamas Matter Alliance’ is just one example of how social media is shifting the agenda for Black maternal health. The BMMA have created a network to promote a world ‘where black mamas have the rights, respect, and resources to thrive before, during, and after pregnancy.’8 The BMMA accentuates how social media is a resource that can be used to combat intersectional oppression. The reconfiguration of pregnancy on the internet has provided a space – via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and vlogs – for Black people to express their voice and to share their pregnancy stories that otherwise may have not been heard.

The positive power of social media can be seen through Serena Williams’s fight for Black people to get better hospital maternity treatment. In 2018, Williams used her celebrity platform to share her traumatic birth story, explaining that she ‘almost died after giving birth’.9  

Figure 2 Serena Williams at The American Issue for The FADER credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Her raw interview for CNN – consisting of ‘her own views’ – on black maternal health describes having a horrifying ‘pulmonary embolism’ 24 hours after giving birth.10 She highlights that if she had not had the medical team, she ‘wouldn’t be here today’.11 Williams ends with: ‘Every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth. And you can help make this a reality […] Together, we can make this change. Together, we can be the change’.12 Through my research I continue to advocate for change, question the representation of the black pregnant body, and recognise that the internet can and should be a positive space for change.

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  1. Paul Monckton, This Is Why Millions Of People Are Posting Black Squares On Instagram (2020) <https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulmonckton/2020/06/02/blackout-tuesday-instagram-black-squares-blackouttuesday-theshowmustbepaused/#6f6e07122794&gt; [accessed 2 September 2020]

 2. Rebecca Kukla, ‘Pregnant Bodies as Public Spaces’, in Motherhood and Space, ed. by Sarah Hardy and Caroline Wiedmer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 283-307 (p. 283).

3. Elizabeth Podneiks and Andrea O’Reilly, Textual Mothers/Maternal Texts: Motherhood in Contemporary Women’s Literatures (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010), ProQuest, [accessed 11 June 2019] p.2.

 4. Candice Braithwaite, I Am Not Your Baby Mother (London: Quercus, 2020), Kindle eBook.

 5. Braithwaite, I Am Not Your Baby Mother (London: Quercus, 2020), Kindle eBook.

6.  Braithwaite, I Am Not Your Baby Mother (London: Quercus, 2020), Kindle eBook.

7. Marian Knight, Kathryn Bunch, Sara Kenyon, Derek Tuffnell and Jennifer J. Kurinczuk, ‘A national population‐based cohort study to investigate inequalities in maternal mortality in the United Kingdom, 2009‐17’, Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, 34.4, (2020), 392-398, in Maternal Health <https://doi.org/10.1111/ppe.12640&gt; [accessed 8 September 2020] Braithwaite, I Am Not Your Baby Mother (London: Quercus, 2020), Kindle eBook.

8. Black Mamas Matter Alliance (2020) <https://blackmamasmatter.org&gt; [accessed 8 September 2020]

 9.Serena Williams, Serena Williams: What my life-threatening experience taught me about giving birth (2018) <https://edition.cnn.com&gt; [accessed 23 September 2020]

10. Williams, What my life-threatening experience taught me about giving birth (2018) <https://edition.cnn.com&gt; [accessed 23 September 2020]

11. Williams, What my life-threatening experience taught me about giving birth (2018) <https://edition.cnn.com&gt; [accessed 23 September 2020]

 12. Williams, What my life-threatening experience taught me about giving birth (2018) <https://edition.cnn.com&gt; [accessed 23 September 2020]

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Kate is a PhD student at the University of Chester, U.K. Her thesis titled, Following a Feminist Pregnancy Script: The Representation of the Pregnant Body in Contemporary Fiction, Film and on Social Media focuses on the struggles that pregnant people face during the gestation and postpartum period, particularly when the pregnancies are ‘unborn’, ‘unheard’ or ‘unsaid’. With her past work including The Representation of Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel, she is keen to research the literature, film and social media of today to gain insight into what it is like to be pregnant in 2020.

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