Juneteenth Reflections: Black Maternal Health from Slavery to Today

Juneteenth Reflections: Black Maternal Health from Slavery to Today

This Juneteenth, I find myself reflecting deeply on the historical and ongoing struggles Black women face, particularly in the realm of maternal and infant health. As a Black woman and the founder of maternity and baby apparel brands, I understand the profound impact our history has on our present. The legacy of slavery has left a lasting imprint on Black maternal health outcomes, creating disparities that persist to this day. This post explores the harrowing experiences of enslaved mothers, the lasting impacts on Black maternal health today, and calls to action to address these disparities, benefiting all mothers and children.

The Painful Legacy: Enslaved Mothers and Their Struggles

Conception and Pregnancy

The experience of conception and pregnancy for enslaved women was marred by violence and coercion. Enslaved women were often forced into sexual relations by their enslavers, leading to pregnancies that were the result of rape. Harriet Jacobs, in her autobiography "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," vividly describes the sexual exploitation she endured and the constant threat of her children being taken away. Jacobs' account provides a first-hand look at the dehumanization and trauma experienced by enslaved women.

Enslaved women were expected to continue labor-intensive work throughout their pregnancies, with little regard for their health or well-being. The lack of prenatal care and the physical toll of forced labor often led to complications. John W. Blassingame, in "The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South," details the harsh conditions under which enslaved women lived and worked, highlighting the lack of medical care and support during pregnancy.

Postpartum and Child-Rearing

The postpartum period for enslaved women was equally harrowing. They were given little time to recover from childbirth before being forced back to work. Their primary role was not only to care for their own children but also to serve as wet nurses for the children of their enslavers. Deborah Gray White, in "Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South," discusses how this practice deprived enslaved mothers of the ability to nourish their own infants adequately, often leading to malnutrition and poor health outcomes for their children.

Enslaved mothers lived in constant fear of their children being taken from them and sold. The trauma of witnessing their children being torn away and sold to distant plantations left deep psychological scars. This separation was a calculated effort to break the bonds between mother and child, further dehumanizing enslaved women and stripping them of their roles as mothers. Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved," while fictional, is based on real events and provides a poignant portrayal of this trauma. The character Sethe's experiences illustrate the lengths to which enslaved mothers would go to protect their children, even in the face of immense suffering.

an enslaved Black woman in the antebellum South in a dimly lit cabin, cradling her newborn baby with tenderness

Lasting Impacts on Black Maternal Health Today

Maternal Mortality and Morbidity

The legacy of slavery has left enduring marks on the maternal health of Black women in the United States. Black women experience maternal mortality rates that are three to four times higher than those of white women. This disparity is a result of multiple factors, including limited access to quality healthcare, biases in medical treatment, and the chronic stress associated with economic instability.

The maternal morbidity rate, which includes severe complications during and after childbirth, is also disproportionately high among Black women. Conditions such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, and postpartum hemorrhage are more prevalent and often less effectively treated in Black women, leading to worse health outcomes.

Preterm Births and Infant Mortality

Black women have a preterm birth rate that is about 50% higher than that of white women. Preterm birth, defined as delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, can lead to a range of health issues for infants, including developmental delays, respiratory problems, and increased risk of chronic diseases. The stress of societal inequities and the lack of access to comprehensive prenatal care contribute to these higher rates of preterm births.

Infant mortality rates are also significantly higher among Black infants. According to the CDC, Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to white infants. Factors contributing to this disparity include low birth weight, preterm birth, and limited access to quality pediatric care.

Socioeconomic and Environmental Factors

Socioeconomic disparities play a significant role in maternal and infant health outcomes. Black women are more likely to experience economic hardship, lack of insurance, and inadequate access to quality healthcare. These factors are compounded by environmental factors, such as living in neighborhoods with higher exposure to pollutants and lower access to nutritious food and safe recreational spaces.

The chronic stress associated with navigating a society rife with racial and economic inequities also takes a toll on Black women's health. This stress can lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth and low birth weight. Addressing these socioeconomic and environmental factors is crucial for improving maternal health outcomes for Black women.

Calls to Action: Solutions for Equity in Maternal Health

Improving Access to Quality Healthcare

Ensuring that all women, including Black women, have access to quality healthcare throughout their pregnancies and postpartum periods is essential. This includes expanding access to insurance coverage, increasing the availability of culturally competent healthcare providers, and ensuring that all women have access to comprehensive prenatal and postpartum care.

Community health programs that provide support and education for pregnant women can also play a vital role. These programs should be tailored to address the specific needs and challenges faced by Black women, offering resources such as nutrition counseling, stress management, and breastfeeding support. Improving access to quality healthcare benefits all mothers by promoting healthier pregnancies and better outcomes for both mothers and their babies.

Addressing Medical Bias and Education

Healthcare providers must be educated on the historical and contemporary challenges faced by Black women. This includes training on implicit biases and the social determinants of health. By recognizing and addressing these biases, healthcare providers can improve the quality of care they provide to Black women, which in turn improves outcomes for all patients.

Medical schools should incorporate curricula that focus on the specific health challenges faced by Black women and other marginalized communities. This education should extend beyond theoretical knowledge, incorporating practical training and community engagement to ensure that future healthcare providers are equipped to offer equitable care. Addressing medical bias benefits all mothers by ensuring that every patient receives respectful, competent care.

Supporting Research and Policy Change

More research is needed to understand the specific factors contributing to the disparities in Black maternal health. This research should inform evidence-based policies and interventions aimed at reducing these disparities. Policymakers must prioritize funding for research on Black maternal health and ensure that the findings are used to inform healthcare practices and policies.

Policy changes should also address the broader social determinants of health, including economic inequality, housing instability, and environmental justice. By addressing these root causes, we can create a more equitable society that supports the health and well-being of all mothers and children. Supporting research and policy change benefits all mothers by creating a healthier, more equitable society.

Community Support and Advocacy

Building supportive networks among Black women is crucial for improving maternal health outcomes. Community-based organizations can provide vital support, education, and advocacy for Black maternal health. These organizations play a key role in raising awareness, providing resources, and fostering community connections.

Advocacy efforts should also focus on engaging allies in the fight for maternal health justice. This includes encouraging individuals and organizations to support policies that promote equitable healthcare, provide resources for community-based initiatives, and raise awareness about the disparities faced by Black women. Community support and advocacy benefit all mothers by creating a network of care and support that helps everyone thrive.

a Black doctor and a baby in a contemporary healthcare setting, receiving compassionate care from a diverse team of doctors and nurses.


The legacy of slavery has left an indelible mark on Black maternal health, creating disparities that persist to this day. The higher rates of maternal mortality and preterm births among Black women are a reflection of historical trauma, economic inequality, and biases in the healthcare system. As we commemorate Juneteenth, it is crucial to acknowledge these disparities and work towards systemic change.

Improving Black maternal health requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the social determinants of health, improves medical education, and fosters community support. By advocating for reproductive justice, addressing biases in healthcare, and building supportive networks, we can create a future where Black women can thrive and experience equitable maternal health outcomes. As a Black woman and founder of maternity and baby apparel brands, I am committed to using my platform to raise awareness and advocate for change. Together, we can work towards a future where all women have the opportunity to experience safe and healthy pregnancies.

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