In this episode of On The Square, Sapelo Square Arts and Culture editor Ambata Kazi-Nance speaks with renowned midwife, birthwork historian, and doula educator Shafia Monroe, founder of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, the leading birthwork training institute in the United States for Black midwives and doulas and the first nonprofit in the nation to promote home birth in Black communities and elevate Black midwifery.
They discuss the history and traditional practices of Black midwifery, the contemporary challenges of Black maternal and infant health disparities, and how birthworkers can and are impacting positive change for Black families.
Shafia Monroe, MPH, is an internationally known midwife, doula trainer, cultural competency trainer, motivational speaker, and writer. A lifelong learner of organic gardening and herbal medicine, she began studying midwifery at age 16 to help end high infant mortality in her community and organize for reproductive justice. She is the founder of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing (ICTC), the first national nonprofit to increase the number of Black midwives and doulas of color, as a way to diversify the midwifery profession for better birth outcomes.In 2016, due to her pioneering work in the 1970s of introducing midwifery and homebirth services to Roxbury, Massachusetts, her hometown, Madame Noire crowned Shafia the “Queen Mother of the Midwife Movement.” Though born in Massachusetts, she recognizes her Alabama roots and practices the southern form of healing, using the laying on of hands for pregnant and postpartum women, newborns, and families. Shafia is the keeper of African American birth tradition; she has spent over three decades studying the life of the 20th century African American midwife and has traveled internationally interviewing and shadowing midwives to learn their cultural rituals.
In 2013, she founded Shafia Monroe Consulting/Birthing CHANGE to help health care providers and doulas achieve cultural competency, increase clients, and improve birth outcomes. She is owner of SMC Full Circle Doula Birth Companion Training, LLC that is built on spirituality, and reclaiming traditional birth practices to heal and empower families to improve maternity care. Since 2002, Shafia has trained more than 5,000 SMC Full Circle Doula Birth Companions worldwide.
Shafia has received three Lifetime Achievement Awards and is a member of Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Oregon Doula Association, Black Coalition for Safe Motherhood, Oregon Health Authority, Office of Equity and Inclusion, Cultural Competency Continuing Education Advisory Committee, and many other associations.
Shafia is a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. She enjoys cooking for family and friends, gardening, walking, swimming, and riding horses.
Black Maternal Health Week is April 11–17, 2021. Learn more about it and how you can get involved at https://blackmamasmatter.org/bmhw/. More information about the Momnibus Act mentioned in the episode can be found at https://blackmaternalhealthcaucus-underwood.house.gov/Momnibus.
On the Square theme music was created by Fanatik OnBeats.
Artwork was created by Scheme of Things Graphics.
On the Square: Episode 2 – Black Maternal Health and the Black Midwifery Tradition- TRANSCRIPT
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 00:04
Welcome to On The Square, a special podcast brought to you by Sapelo Square in collaboration with the Maydan. I am Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, senior editor of Sapelo Square and curator-producer of this podcast, where every month we get on the square and into some real talk about race and Islam in the Americas.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 00:28
As-salamu alaykum [Peace be upon you], I am Ambata Kazi-Nance, Sapelo Square’s Arts and Culture editor. On this episode, we discuss Black maternal health and the historic and contemporary roles of Black and Black Muslim birthworkers in Africa and America. Our guest today is the queen mother of midwifery, Shafia Monroe. Shafia Monroe is a renowned midwife, doula trainer, cultural competency trainer, master of public health, motivational speaker, and writer. She is a lifelong learner of organic gardening and herbal medicine. She began studying midwifery in the 1970s, at 16 years old, to help end high infant mortality in her community and organized for reproductive justice.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts with roots in Alabama, Shafia has lived and worked in Portland, Oregon for over 30 years. She is the founder of the ICTC, the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, the first national non-profit created to increase the number of Black midwives and doulas of color as a way to diversify the midwifery profession for better birth outcomes. In 2013, she created Shafia Monroe Consulting to help healthcare providers and doulas achieve cultural competency, increased clients, and improve birth outcomes. She is the owner of SMC Full Circle Doula Birth Companion Training that is built on spirituality and reclaiming traditional birth practices to heal and empower families to improve maternity care. Since 2002, Shafia has trained more than 5,000 SMC Full Circle Doula Birth companions worldwide. Shafia mentors hundreds of people to follow their passion and healthcare as midwives and doulas. Shafia continues to lead on issues of Birth Justice and Health Equity through speaking training and using her social media platform to uplift issues, create discussion, and encourage action. We are honored to have Ms.Shafia Monroe as our guest today. As-salamu alaykum, Sister Shafia, and welcome to On The Square. Thank you so much for joining us.
Shafia Monroe 02:42
Wa alaykum as-salam warahmatullahi wabarakatuh [May Peace, Mercy and Blessings of GOd be upon you also], jazakallahu khairan [May God reward you with goodness], thank you for having me on.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 02:48
Thank you. So before we begin our talk about Black maternal health, can you share with us your personal Black Muslim theme song?
Shafia Monroe 02:58
That was a fun question. I decided I’m going to use Sam Cooke’s I Was Born by the River because that song makes me think that he was probably born in a little tent pod with the midwife, maybe just with his mom, unassisted, but it just brought me back to the era of that time and I love water.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 03:21
Thank you. Yeah, I love water, too. Awesome. That’s a great choice. Thank you. So, I know you began professionally studying midwifery at 16, but I’m curious to know your personal connection to birthwork because it seems to be so young to have that type of passion, it seems like it must be deeply rooted. When did you first learn about midwifery?
Shafia Monroe 03:53
I love this question and I’ve been trying to find an easy way to answer it, but what I tell people about all of us, myself included, is that we often look back at our life and we see that we’ve been groomed from the beginning. For myself, I’m going to say probably seven years old because at seven I began taking care of ill animals, any dog that was sick or I would find pigeons outside and I would bring them home and try to fix them. By the time I was 10 and 11, I was reading books on how to take care of dogs. I remember having a puppy that someone gave me, it was taken too soon from the house and I became known in my community as a person to give sick animals to. Someone gave me that puppy, I don’t know how I got it. My mom and dad let me keep it, but I remember having to read about how to take care of it. Getting up at night, it said put a hot water bottle in the box next to it wrapped into a towel. I did that. I had to get a clock that had a ticking sound and then I had to wake up every so often with the warm milk in an eye dropper to feed it, just like I would do as a midwife, getting up the same comfort measures. That puppy did die and we did bury it. I continued on up until about probably 15 wanting to be a vet, always taking care of animals, saw the puppies born, saw kittens born, just missed the horse being born, and also I was attracted to Elderly people who were ill. Even at the age of nine, I remember seeing Ms.Perriman, who was blind where I grew up, and I would always go to her house and sit in the house. She said, “well, do you want the light on?” and I realized that she sat in the dark because she couldn’t see. She even brought me to the seeing eye conference, so I learned how to do braille. I remember wanting to write Stevie Wonder a letter in braille. They gave me the little machine that would poke the holes and I learned how to use it,. I was going to, one day, write him a letter, but I never did.
Then fast forward to me wanting to be a vet, my mother died when I was 15 unexpectedly and I became Muslim a few weeks later, I became Muslim at 15 and I left my dad’s house, who was Christian, for whatever reason, that’s another story, but I moved into a Muslim family’s home to live with them. The wife was older and she was actually pregnant with her fourth child. I was just absolutely fascinated by her, Sister Hadi Yusuf. I remember her and she was so happy I became a midwife. I would take care of her, not taking care, but sitting around her. I’m 15, 16 asking all these questions. She gave me a book to read called Emergency Child. She was like, “Girl,l read this book and quit asking me all these questions.” I learned a lot from her and then she said, “You know what? You are so interested. Why don’t you become an obstetrician?” I had not really heard of it. I was planning on being a vet all my life, so that’s all I read about.
I read about what an obstetrician was and said, “Okay, I’ll become that.” Then I went to visit my uncle, who said, “Why don’t you come and become a midwife?” I looked that up and when I read about what a midwife was, somewhere along the line I read about these Black women who were midwives in the South who were spiritual and God spoke to them. They prayed during the burst and they were giving and coming to see you with your 15 kids and trying to bring a sheet or trying to bring greens out their yard. The midwives met together on Sunday and they prayed and they worked together and it’s like, oh, I want to be like them.
At the same time, being in Roxbury, which is a Black community in Boston, they had the second largest infant mortality rate in the nation. Each state claims having the worst outcome, unfortunately, but for that year, we had a very high infant mortality rate. So, I was learning about Black midwives and I learned about Black infant mortality at the same time as the Black power movement, the civil rights movement, the rise of nation of Islam. All these wonderful things around: taking the ownership, do for self leadership, back to Africa, millions of things that were happening in my world at the age of 15 that really shaped me, including my becoming Muslim. My name being Shafia, which was given to me, and Shafia, a lot of who don’t hear it, but it is one of the attributes of God, Al-Shafi, the healer. I’m a tool of the Shafia. That name, someone gave it to me saying you’re a healer and I’m going to give you this name, really meant a lot to me because I already knew that I wanted to be a vet and realizing that really midwifery and birthwork and veterinarian is all being a servant of the heale, Allah. It’s all about taking care of things that need help, whether it’s a human or an animal or a plant, it’s the same. It’s the same healing. It’s the same thing. I’m going to be nice to a plant. I’m not going to break the branch off. I’m going to water it. I’m going to give it what it needs for comfort. It could grow and it’s the same I’m going to do with a pregnant woman or similar to do with an animal, with the elder or a child. So, that is my journey, that part, and then I had to go further.
Once she told me to become a midwife and I learned what a midwifery was, well, what year is this? We’re in the seventies. There were no Black midwives around that time that I knew. It took me a while to try to find out how to even learn to do this, there was no one in my own community that was doing it. I was really the first Black midwife. I’m going to say I started learning at 16. I didn’t practice until I was really about 24. It was a journey to learn. I wound up going back to school, going to college, taking pre-med courses, and standing on the campus talking to every Black woman. “Excuse me, are you a midwife? Nope. Okay. Excuse me, are you midwife?” Finally, a Black lady from Uganda, an African woman said, “Yes, I’m a midwife.” Oh my God, I know you don’t know me, but you have to train me. She just looked at me like who is this crazy girl here asking me this?
One thing I’ll tell you all, consistency. My momma said the squeaky wheel gets the oil and I stayed on it. She was like, “Okay, come over to my house on Saturday.” She began to give me my first class, so I have a nice story of learning with midwives in Africa, with Muslim midwives in Pakistan. In the end, I found some older midwives from Alabama service and then, lastly, my dear friend, Majida Amanadine, we had a baby at the exact same time. I had a home birth for my son and the doctor said, “Oh, I just helped another Black lady.” He was a white Jewish guy. He said I just helped another Black woman have a baby a couple of weeks before you. I said, “Oh my God, give me her number” because nobody was having the babies at home in the 1970s in Roxbury. I was, I thought, the only person, I think she was a second person. So, we met each other. She was from Alabama, my dad’s from Alabama. Her mother was a midwife. She was a nurse and a midwife. We were just maybe four years apart and we ran the city. After that, we had a blast. We formed a nonprofit, which has actually documented the Official Childbearing Group, the first nonprofit in the country that promoted homebirth for the Black community as this form of self-determination to deal with the infant mortality that was happening then and is still happening today. We did a lot of political work, but mainly we just ran around catching people’s babies in their houses and training more Black midwives.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 10:42
Wow. That is quite a story. It makes me think about what you were saying, you answered a call. You always cared about animals and plants and people and so it definitely seems from Allah that this is what you were supposed to do. That’s amazing.
Shafia Monroe 11:05
It is. It’s amazing when you can see it and, like you said, on a spiritual level, I really thank the creator. I thank Allah that I was born to do this, but also that I recognized that I was born too. It didn’t shock me, like how’d you go from being a veterinarian to a midwife? Well, it was the exact same work. I was just being groomed. How do you get up at 11 o’clock at night to take care of something, like a meal? Someone’s in labor every three minutes you’re getting up to rub their back, every 15 minutes you’re getting up because of their transition, contraction every three minutes. You’re getting up and you’re staying there. It was a grooming to get up at night. I wake up so easily at night now since I was 11. I just wake up. If you’re in labor, that’s fine with me. I’m just going to wake up and pop on over to your house. I’m very grateful for the recognition and the experience that I had to do what I do today. It counts and nothing’s in vain. Everything is for a reason.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 11:56
Yeah, absolutely. So, just from what you’re saying, and then realizing how long that you have been doing birth work, do you know how many babies you have helped bring into the world?
Shafia Monroe 12:10
I tell people I’ve done, I would say, some hundreds, but not thousands because when I left Boston, Massachusetts in 1990 pregnant with my sixth child, I created the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, which is the first international nonprofit that really created a movement to promote Black midwifery, to elevate it as an independent voice. We’re not part of nobody, we’re our own organization. I labored on that nonprofit and birthed that, so that is what I was doing and was not able to do the birth, the actual physical births, and run this national organization that has done so much. I would say that midwifery is about catching babies for sure, which I love, but also I have talked with thousands of women on prenatal counseling. How to find a midwife, what their rights are, the childbirth classes.
I did catch a baby six months ago here in Portland, every now and then someone catches me when I’m not traveling because, before COVID, I was traveling probably 17 times a year. I did doula training all over the country, so every two months I was someplace else in the country, but, because of COVID, I’ve been still. So, someone says, “I’m having a baby!” Perfect, I’m not going anywhere, I can help you. She was just 20 minutes from my house, which is always my ideal birth, when they’re close by. That’s truly community midwifery because once the baby’s born, I like to practice like the Black women I read about, who come to your house every day. They clean your house, they change your bed, which I do. We run the bath water, wash the tub out for you. We massage you and I cook all my African centered postpartum meals and I bring them over. I make the tea while I’m there. I put the baby on my back, so mom can go to sleep. I do that for about 40 days, so if they are close to me, I can do a better job. I’m not driving an hour to get there and an hour to get back. I do like to do bursts that I call community midwifery, so I can do what I want to do according to my training.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 14:21
Speaking of your organizations and in your teachings and lectures, I’ve noticed that the words “traditional” and “full-circle” are prominent. I want to know, what is traditional childbirth? What do you mean by that? And what is a full-circle birthworker?
Shafia Monroe 14:46
Those are good questions. Traditional childbearing and, of course, the International Center for Traditional Childbirth in Portland, Oregon and Boston, Massachusetts, it was the traditional childbearing groups. I like that word because that word means information passed on by word of mouth and African-Americans, as a rule, weren’t allowed to read during enslavement were oral people, even in Africa we had the griots, who were able to give long historical stories. My teachings, though we do use evidence-based literature, are mainly based in traditions that are passed on by word of mouth because most of the things that we learn around the African-American midwife of the 19th, 20th century, most of it is not in a book. It comes from years of talking to elder people, men and women, over the years to get the information of when someone was having a baby.
My dad said, automatically at eight months, women would no longer pick anything up. He came from the rural South, 1913, where you were humping and chopping wood. Automatically, men knew they would take that over whether you were their wife or not. That’s just how they were raised. The information is by word of mouth and then full-circle. I use that word SMC full-circle doula because it has no beginning, it has no end. The African-American midwife in the 19th century didn’t have an end date with her work. It says that she worked until she died or she worked until that person died. Back then, midwives were not just working with pregnant women. That is actually a Eurocentric term because “midwife” is English, it means the middle, to be with the wife, to be with the woman, to help them. It’s not a bad thing, but for African-American midwives of old, maybe because of enslavement or whatever it was, we did everything. We took your sick babies, we even pierced the ears and, actually, I learned how to circumcise from a Black midwife from Alabama. She taught me how to circumcise. They even did circumcisions. We did a lot more, so it was full-circle.
Now, as we talk about the postpartum period that people are now talking about, where before you had the baby, you just went home, nobody cared. That was never part of the African-American experience. Definitely the midwife, but the whole family knew how to take care of every pregnant person. I’m writing a book now, and I’m saying, I’m in Boston and I remember being pregnant with one of my babies and all my friends have been from the south and they’re always saying the same thing, “Go back home to my mother.” That’s an African tradition. When you get pregnant, you go to your mom’s house, you go back to your village because they’re going to take care of you. These women get to go home, which means your mother’s cooking for you. She’s rubbing your back. She’s wrapping your stomach. She’s holding the baby. She’s telling you it’s okay, lay down, don’t stress out, and all the things that a loving mother does for their daughter. We know that when a person’s nurtured after the birth, she’s going to nurture her baby better.
Because my mother died when I was 15, I was like, “Dang, I’m not getting that.” I just hear them tell these nice stories, they would come back later. All African women, they save up and their Mother comes.That’s the tradition, your mother comes. There was no doula. Your mother, your aunt, your auntie, this whole doula thing. I’m teaching them because we don’t have it. I have four girls. They didn’t have any doula. I’m the mom. I showed up and did my job, not going to hire some stranger. I know how to take care of my daughters. She got her hot water bottles, she got her hands sanded, she got massaged. I fed her three little boys, I fed her husband, I took them out to the park, I came back and gave her food. We sit and chit chat for a minute. “Ok, you look tired. Go to sleep? No, your friends ain’t coming out right now, tell them you can come back later. You take care of your daughter and she’s like, “Momma, don’t leave.” The same with my daughter-in-law. My son’s like, “Hey, I got you a ticket. She’s in labor now in California.” I flew in from Portland to California. I like to get dressed up, so I came with a fur coat on still.She’s just like, “Thank you for being dressed up for my birth.” I would like to get dressed up. I don’t wear no scraggy laid out, this is a time of celebration. Of course, I took my shoes off and I got the coat off, but I like to go like, “We’re having a party.”
Ambata Kazi-Nance 19:02
You’ve already shared a little bit, but I wanted to hear from you some of the history, because I I’ve watched some of your lectures, which for our listeners, I would highly recommend you check out Ms.Shafia’s website, shafiamonroe.com, where she shares some of these lectures for free access. I’ve learned a lot from them, but I’ve noticed, especially now in the last few years, there’s been a lot of learning and also unlearning for African-Americans about our histories and cultures and our contributions to the world. You’ve done so many lectures on the history of birthwork in Africa, from Africa to the Americas and other parts of the world, and also in Islam. I was wondering if you might share, as briefly as possible I know that’s difficult, some of that history with us today and also you see this history existing in contemporary birth practices?
Shafia Monroe 20:06
I don’t know how much time we have, but let me know because I’ve been doing this for 40 years, so when I get rolling, I start to roll, so feel free to say. There’s so much to share, but I would say if I could give three main points about African tradition around birth, the first thing that we show is love. Besides, can you do a Roman therapy or at what acupuncture point, it doesn’t matter if you can show love and compassion, that is our tradition. Women are nice to the women who are in labor, the Southern Black midwives would call you “baby” and “honey.” They would not make you feel bad.
The second thing is that we have faith. From my study, I found that we didn’t have the same kind of fear of childbirth as we have today. Women were a lot stronger. It was just considered normal. It was considered God’s work. It wasn’t a big deal. In fact, there’s a study that took place in the sixties asking why Black women were less prone, back then, to go to prenatal care because they felt that it was not an illness. It was normal. Why go to the doctor? I’m just pregnant. I’m okay, which is a great attitude. Now, we run all these ultrasounds, all these tests, and a lot of fear is involved.
The third point is that we give birth standing up. We did not lay down. Traditionally in Africa and in the South, women were walking around to the last minute. They didn’t jump into bed right away. By the time they start working, they’re close to eight or nine centimeters and the women were always birthing. I read these great books in the years of the research, they had quilts that they would throw down on the floor, even in the slave quarters, because they remember that women would squat down to have their babies. Women did not lay on the back, they were either squatting or they had the babies on all fours or they leaned over a chair. Those birth traditions make it easy for the baby to come out. We should be birthing using gravity anyways. That’s why people are squatting, standing, and on all fours. Then we moved to people having the babies in water and people love it. I did have one water birth out of my seven and I did not get out of the tub, at that point, but it was still not squatting, it was sitting. We don’t tend to squat in the tub.
Those are the three things that I think I would let people know. It’s traditional to show love and compassion for a laboring person. Keep her upright and encourage her to walk around as much as possible. Let her know that she’s not sick. Teach daughters not to be afraid of having babies. We’re a society that’s afraid of our periods, we’re afraid of being women. “I’m going to have a baby, I’m going to have a c-section on my boyfriend’s birthday and I don’t want the pain. I don’t want to breastfeed, my breast are going to change.” I’ve heard some amazing things over the years. So, trying to eradicate all that, and it’s not our fault because the TV has perpetuated fear. Every show that you see of a woman having a baby, she’s always dying and she’s always being rescued by a doctor. We don’t see her being rescued by a nurse and she’s always on her back. We only know what we see, we’re programmed. So, finding ways to deprogram ourselves so that we can go back to our full self having babies, which is going to give us less problems, less c-sections and less interventions. The more things that happen to your body, the more problems because, again, as we know, having a baby is not an illness, it’s an experience. Maybe 9% of people will have a problem having a baby. Most pregnancies are problem-free and we’ve been conditioned that Black women are more prone to having maternal mortality, more prone to having early babies, though, this is happening. It’s not because of genetics. We know for a fact it’s due to racism. We have to address that. That’s the thing we have to address.
Islamically, I love to use Surah Ya-Sin. It’s good for anything around birth, but I also love that the little baby Jesus told his mother to shake the fresh dates on her while she was in labor. Even Muslim women are buying into the fear, but having more faith doesn’t mean we don’t use science, but using the Quran and even prostrating as long as you can is good. I see women sitting, they do what they have to do. If it’s a medical problem, we should push ourselves. If we can, make Salat [Prayer] as much as you can, because every time you go down, it gives the baby space to churn and that’s the exact same position that you use if you’re having a breach. They make you do that so the baby can flip from butt to head first. It is a good position if you can hold it, but, of course, always use your senses, use your reason. If you don’t feel good, definitely sit in a chair or sit on the floor.
The other thing, too, that I want to say, when people are making Salat who are Muslim, we can hold our babies. Our babies should not be crying when we make Salat because the Prophet (SA) said that when you’re making prayer and the baby cries, the Imam should shorten the prayer in order not to give the mother distress. That’s the Hadith, it’s a well-known one. When the baby is crying, women should pick their babies up. To let your baby cry when you make Salat, that’s not pleasing, in my opinion, to the Creator because Allah is about mercy and compassion, kindness and sensibility. That’s a new baby. Pick your baby up and all my kids make Salat. Every single one, I held them, they went down with me, back up and they never cried and it was wonderful. They grew up making Salat as babies because I was holding them to do it.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 25:31
I want to talk about Black maternal and infant health disparities in America. We do know that Black women are, in the standard statistic I know of, three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women and that America has an extremely high infant mortality rate for a developed country. I know a lot of the statistics are bleak and they add to a culture of trauma for Black Americans that gets so much attention in the media, but I see in your work and your approach to Black maternal health that there’s this push towards a culture of hope and healing and wellness. I think everything about your teaching style and the way you present and share your knowledge on your platforms is affirming and reaffirming that we, as Black people, as Black women, Black men, Black families, can overcome these statistics and improve our birth outcomes and I believe it, I see it, but I often wonder, how do we make this the norm? I’m thinking about the challenges within our communities. For myself, when I was pregnant with my son, I told people I was going to have a midwife and I wanted to have an unmedicated birth. I got a lot of criticism, I was laughed at, I was made fun of. It was like, “Yeah right, this isn’t going to happen,” and I feel there’s a lot of distrust and ignorance of midwifery and doulas and home births. Then there’s the external challenges, right? The medical racism, the medical violence that women are experiencing in hospitals across the country. I’m wondering, how do we overcome these challenges? How do we continue to fight for Black families?
Shafia Monroe 27:35
That’s what surprises me. When we talk about it from the Islamic perspective, I’m talking with Muslims and first I have to say, when I did midwifery in Boston, the majority of the females I served were Muslim. They were from the Nation of Islam and Orthodox. Those were the most women, but that was a long time ago. I don’t see that anymore. There’s been a lot of fear that has come in since, but I would always tell the brothers, you want your wife to have privacy. You should want a midwife. You don’t want some male doctor walking in on her. I would try to use that approach. Also, to be honest, I have talked to the Imams for years, and my husband’s an Imam and I’ve been in his ear, why are we not talking about pregnancy and birth from the Muslim perspective. We could because that’s what people hear and when the husbands, sons, and women hear the benefit, the conversation goes on. I’ve done the same thing with the Christian community and the Jewish, why are we not? We talk about breasts. We have pink day for Susan G. Komen around breast cancer in the church. We have HIV day. We have so many days that the churches have taken on, but I had never heard them take on infant mortality, breastfeeding, or maternal mortality.
Even breastfeeding in Islam, sisters are supposed to breastfeed, it says two years in the Qur’an. I’m not seeing two years. I’m seeing people at the Masjid were separated using a bottle. When I asked, are you still breastfeeding? Say, yeah, I just want them off, so I said okay. I’m of the opinion that you can still breastfeed here and encouraging women to breastfeed their children at the masjid. Even if they have to go and turn their back over, they want to do it. I think that’s the first thing and we really need to have a call to action within our own faith-based community, whether it’s Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. If you are Black, we need this message to be saying the same thing. Sisters, brothers you should be breastfeeding your children. Only one time in New York, I went to Jumah and there was an Imam who talked about breastfeeding. If I wasn’t Muslim, I would have hugged that guy. He talked about the importance of having your daughters and wives breastfeed.
I’ve been Muslim most of my, since I was 15. Only one time and that’s a shame. Only one time have I heard an Imam talk about the benefits, but yet it’s in the Qur’an that weaning your child should take two years. In my opinion, I didn’t wanna get going on it because, you can see, I’m getting a little irritated talking about this stuff and we’re not living up to them. That can make a huge impact. If your baby is born early and you’re breastfeeding, it’s going to save your baby’s life. If you’re breastfeeding, it’s going to help even hemorrhaging. That’s why, for home birth, you have to breastfeed. It causes the oxytocin to be released. It’s going to reduce stress. Just that alone is a first step for helping our babies who are born too small and helping women not to hemorrhage and make them have to sit down because only they can breastfeed. That’s your gift from the creator, to sit down and do nothing and making sure that our husband’s know. Say, when you’re breastfeeding, leave me alone and take care of me because I’m doing my job. Now, you need to do your job, which is make sure I have food, shelter, and a nice environment so I can produce milk and not say, “You can just give them a bottle or I’ll pump your breast so I can do it and you can go back to work in the kitchen.” No, do not pump, you all. That is your only hope of sitting still. So, don’t get no bottle. I’m breastfeeding.
That’s one easy thing that we could do and teach our children, boys and girls, early about the normality of pregnancy so that we can get rid of the fear and teach them how to take care of themselves. I’ve met so many women, even Muslims, who are anemic. Everyone has low iron and that’s a major health problem besides headaches. If you’re not pregnant and have low energy, once you get pregnant, it causes even more problems. I would always tell people, we have to look at preconception health. A new study just came out, it was on my Facebook page, facebook.com/shafiamonroeconsulting and it came from pub med. We think it’s just women, but now men who have poor health have a fractured sperm and they create embryos that are unhealthy. That’s why it takes two to make the baby and so it’s not just the woman’s fault that something happens. Both parties have equal responsibility for being in good health. We need our sons to eat well and not be around secondhand smoke.
Nutrition early in life and teaching is important. Like I said, I have four daughters. I’ve taught them all their lives that, once you start having your menstruation, you have to eat green foods every day, you have to take this kind of diet otherwise you’re going to be anemic. Fortunately, none of them are. My sons, because they were brought up in a midwife home, they already understand. The ones that got married, I told them, interview your wife when you get married. Does she want a homebirth that she’d been invested in for two years? These are the things that you want to ask as a man. What do you want your potential wife to do that you believe in around having a healthy birth? My son’s wives, they all had home births because that was important to them. They talked with them early. Would you have your baby at home if we get married? I think that if they said no, they wouldn’t marry them. I don’t know if it’s pressure or not, but at least have the conversations, no argument later. I always tell the woman that its your right to birth where you want because you’re having it.
In terms of maternal mortality, we have to learn to ask questions about the provider. Like, how long have you been a doctor? How many mothers have died in your care? Do you recognize hemorrhaging? Are you okay working with a Black woman and with a Black man, my husband and my son and my boyfriend? How will you protect me when I come through the hospital when I have my baby? What will you do to make sure that I’m okay, that I’ll be heard? That’s what they say the problem is, not that we don’t know what the problem is. We do. We walk in, Hey, I’m having a headache and bleeding too much. I don’t feel right and they send us back home. The stories are horrendous on my website, shafiamonroe.com, under blogs. I talk about the stories of Shalonda, who went back five times and her blood pressure was like 200 over 180. Those are like illegal numbers, literally, and they kept sending her home. So, her mother found her stroked out, dying and dead on the floor. The poor husband in the hospital is saying, “My wife’s afraid. She thinks she’s bleeding too much.” The nurse says, “We don’t have time right now. She hemorrhaged right in front of her husband. The blatant racism in the health care system, it’s on every level, maternal mortality, cardiovascular for Black men, prostate cancer, breast cancer, it’s everywhere. It’s not one thing and I think, when I say full circle and healer, we can’t just hone in on one thing because we have to fix the system. If the whole system is broken, we’re going to keep getting hurt on different levels whether it’s pediatric poor care for our children or our seniors not getting the right care or the pregnant woman.
I want to see, from a holistic approach, a fix to the systems. No matter what I have as a Black person, I’m going to get quality, equitable care. So, that is my message that we just keep pushing on everything. Make sure we’re voting, get to know your legislators because that’s also real. There were a couple of bills that just come out, I’ve lost the names of them, but it’s omnibus 12, the maternal mortality bill that just came out, they redid it, so there’s a lot of good things in it about how they want to address systemic racism. They didn’t say that, they said a whole bunch of other things that they’re going to do. It’s the Omnibus act 2021 and it’s the Black maternal health Omnibus act, which includes bills on maternal mortality and closing racial and ethnic disparity. I went through it. It’s really good, but I still want to hear systemic racism and how we hold hospitals accountable for those that have a high rate of maternal mortality for Black women because the CDC says that quote, 60% of maternal mortality is preventable. 60%, that’s huge. That’s more than half the people who die should not be dying. It could have been prevented. That means that the Black woman who died should not have died, which you already know. Therefore, if they’re dying, what are we going to do to hold these hospitals accountable for it? They’re getting federal funding and other types of money/. How do we hold the doctor accountable now? Yes, granted things do happen as a midwife. I’ve done the best I could and some babies aren’t gonna make it. I think that’s where my Islam comes in. We know that from Allah we come and to Allah we return, but at the same time, tie your camel. Have I done the absolute best? If I ignore that person, that’s different. No, I didn’t ignore them, I did everything possible, but if you say, “Hey, go back home, it’s not a big deal,” then it’s a big deal. I’ll end there.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 36:29
Thank you so much. That plays into my next question about fear in birth. I was thinking about when I was pregnant with my son, social media wasn’t really a big thing at the time. I recognize now how fortunate I was to have a quiet, peaceful time. I went walking every day. I went to my local park and went for long walks and enjoyed meals. I had a mostly peaceful time. I didn’t know about Black maternal health disparities at the time and, in a way, I’m glad for that. I think about how different things might have been for me if I was preparing for birth now. I think I would have a lot more fear. So, thinking of that, what would you say, especially to Black people, who want to have families, but they’re afraid because of what they’re hearing about birth trauma and mortality?
Shafia Monroe 37:32
I always tell people that, first of all, it’s your God-given right to reproduce if you choose to. I wouldn’t let the system dictate whether or not I can have a child and always, when I see a client, they say the same thing now, and I have to tell them to say out loud, “That’s not going to happen to me.” Don’t own that. Most Black women, by the way, are not dying. Yes, it’s a high number, but most aren’t. Most are living to raise their child. We had to put things in perspective and you look at the statistics, it’s 150 out of 100,000. There’s still too many. That’s how you measure it. If you look at how many per 100,000, yes, it’s higher than white people, but it’s definitely not 99%. You have to put it in that perspective and God bless those who’ve lost their lives having a baby and may God help their families. I don’t want to negate the severity because if that’s my daughter, I’m traumatized, but as a researcher, I have to look at the bigger number to tell this audience that, most likely, it’s not going to be.
You have to tell yourself that you are well, you gotta own that health. You have got to have that faith that you’re not gonna have a problem. You’re going to ask the right questions, so if you do have a problem, you’re gonna listen to your care provider and then follow directions. You’re going to find an African-American midwife, African-American obstetrician, African-American nurse practitioner, African-American naturopathic physician, these all who can deliver babies and, at the end of the day, you’re going to get a doula. If not, get a white midwife who’s kind to you because it’s not about the color. At the end of the day, any midwife has a better outcome, as a rule, compared to a medical provider because their training’s different. Get who you can get. If you can find a Muslim provider, interview your people and know that you’re going to be okay. I say, “Hey, I had seven kids and, like yourself, we came out fine.” Most of the people I know have come out fine. At the same time, you have to put the truth out there. I did meet a woman a couple of years ago, she was 29, and she lost three friends in two years due to maternal mortality. That was like a shocker.
That’s the thing about America. They make us afraid because we have everything too much. We’re more prone for COVID-19 right now, we’re having more reactions to the COVID-19 vaccination, we’re more prone for diabetes. What are you trying to say? Should we just like jump off the earth. Personally, I’m not going to own that. By the way, the maternal mortality rate for white women is climbing and they have the highest rate of suicide and no one talks about what they do. They have the highest rate of child accidents for their children. The kids are always falling out windows and running across the street and getting hit by cars because they don’t focus on them, they focus on us. They don’t talk about Latinos and what’s happening in their community. What are they more prone to? Or the Asians or the Native Americans or the Russians. We have to ask that question, why are they always focusing on us? Why do we have all these problems?
Ambata Kazi-Nance 40:31
That’s a great point that you make and that’s why I’m in contact with a lot of people in the birthwork world and I follow you on Instagram. I have that constantly feeding me hope and realizing that, in the knowledge, that that’s not the case, but I know who are you connected with? That makes a big difference. What are you following?
Shafia Monroe 41:02
Also, just know that these statistics are coming because of neglect. It’s different if I’m like, “Oh, I’m just going to die because I’m Black, there’s something wrong with me,” which is how they’re trying to promote it, but it’s not that I’m Black and healthy, but the people taking care of me give poor care and that’s the problem. Then we have to find out, we have to interview, the person because we’re not genetically inferior. We are actually very strong people as a race, very strong, which is why they brought us to this country to work because the other people they tried to bring in were dying from European diseases and we did not. We have to remember how strong we really are genetically and even babies that are born too small of African descent tend to live and other babies don’t. We don’t hear about the strength base. We have to go from resilience, like, we’re strong, our babies are strong and most likely going to be fine. If you’re hearing a lot of bad news, turn it off, don’t listen to it. That’s why I try to present from a strength based approach. I’m not going to feed into the negativity that’s not true. They’re not telling the truth.
The reason why African-Americans have more health problems is because we have inequity and equity means that, by design, they’re causing problems with certain communities, which are majority African descent, Native American, other groups, can’t access good food easy. The housing complex is built around toxic sites. This is a fact. Our schools are full of teachers, who could not work in the suburbs and wind up coming to our schools and teaching our kids, who aren’t qualified and then, because of one problem, they put detectors in our schools. Our kids are being treated like criminals at age eight and five years old. That’s the problem. That’s not teaching our kids Black history at birth, who they are. To give them the information, a lot of this is luck because, again, I grew up in a very blessed time. I come from a time growing up through the Black power era, where James Brown was singing, Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, and you got people with dashikis and beautiful hair raising their fist up. That affects you as a child and I grew up with that. My mother was like that.
It’s already in me that I’m okay and I’m going to be okay, but if you haven’t heard that, you didn’t learn that, and we’re sending our kids out into the community for a better education as the only child of color, the only Black child in the school, then our kids are affected by that. We have to counteract it. I went to Abraham Lincoln school in the seventh grade, a lot of Asian kids went there, Chinese children, but every Saturday or every day, they had to go to Chinese school to maintain their Chineseism, their language, their people, their accomplishments. The Jewish people go to Hebrew school on Saturday. We don’t have a school that we send our kids to learn about who they are. We hear this stuff like, “Oh my God, I’m genetically inferior, epigenetics. I’m in the industrial complex.” The majority, we don’t know what’s going on. We have to educate.
For birth workers in full circle, the main thing I teach in my training is exactly what you’re hearing. You’re an SMC full-circle doula. If nothing else, empower your family with the facts, information, and love of self as an African descent person. Love yourself as a human being and that is going to go a long way in making you feel good about yourself, that you have value, you have a right to be on this earth and to live your life in the best way that the Creator gave you. You’re more armed to go in there and definitely include the father in education, this is not just a woman’s movement. In the South with the Black midwives, it was a family movement, it was the community, never was the Black midwife alone. There’s so much documentation for always pulling the man aside, talking to him, educating him, comforting him, supporting him as well so he could go back into his home and do a good job. That’s what we need. We need a strong family because families make communities and the community makes the world. That’s what I promote in my training based on the tradition of the 20th century and the 19th century African-American midwife.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 45:05
Just to bring it home, because that was actually my last question about community, for those like us who are in this world of babies and moms and things like that, I’m thinking about people who are not in those worlds. When I tell things that I know to the people who know nothing about those things, I think we all play a role. If we care about Black women, if we care about Black babies, this is where it starts. For our listeners, how can someone who’s not in that world, how, as an individual, can they help Black mothers and Black families?
Shafia Monroe 45:51
I’m going to answer that, but I just wanted to say really quickly, there is a movement I feel in this nation that’s really demising the power of the family, and particularly the mother, because when we look at African artifacts and even Islam, when the Prophet said, after they asked who should I worship after Allah, “Your mother, your mother, your mother, and then your father.” In the African tradition, every artifact you see as a rule as a pregnant woman, a lot think about women in Africa so there is a lot of reference for women. Here, there is no reference for women and also we’re moving towards animals. People say now that they’re a mother of five dogs. Every commercial we see is a dog selling a car. Literally, there are dogs everywhere. I’m in the airport, all the dog pictures have masks on. No children, just dogs teaching us. So, there is a psychological movement happening right now that people aren’t aware of. Now we have people like, “I don’t want any kids. I got three dogs, Blackwood. I got four dogs.” They don’t want children. It’s okay if you don’t want to, but you don’t like children and you don’t respect people who choose to have children. That’s a big problem that we never had historically. Historically, with our kids or not, we valued children. When I talk to African women, I say, I have seven and they’re like, “Oh my God, you’re so blessed, alhamdulillah.” They’d make a big deal of it. I talk to American women and they’re like, “Why did you have so many?” I don’t get a compliment. It was like I did something wrong.
It’s the American shift and because we’re in this country, we’re going along with it. I don’t know if it’s the cryogenics or the planned parenthood in this tone or whatever else has happened, but there is a shift and this country is getting us more and more not to support families. We’re taught to go to college, get a degree, get a house, get a car, get an iPhone, and make money. Children are not in the conversation. Who’s having all the kids right now? The Russian immigrants. They are having very large families because America wants to <inaudible> this country. I teach cultural competency. We know that in 2050, it’s supposed to be a country of color and white folks, by the way, are not having children and they’re the oldest group in the country. They’re older because they’re not reproducing. We still are, Latinos are, but right now, they’re bringing in tons of Russian families into this country and they’re having like eight or nine children, so, by the second generation, they’ll be white Americans.It’s going to bring the numbers back up. In Oregon, the second largest language is Russian in the state. No one talks about it, but we’re focusing on dark-skinned Mexicans not coming in, dark-skinned Haitians not coming in, Africans can’t, but the Europeans are coming in like crazy by choice. So, just to be aware, there’s a shift going on. All I can say is people need to wake up, educate, and know that if you don’t have any Black babies, you don’t have no Black race, you don’t have no Black communities. If you care about not wanting to become extinct, that alone should motivate us.
It is our duty, as a Christian or Muslim or Bahai’i, all these faces we call ourselves. There is a creative reproducing energy so that, in itself, it is a spiritual act to take care of somebody and be kind to them. At least if they’re having a baby, congratulate people. I don’t know if you got any congratulations, but I talk to women all the time who are Black, I ask them, “Who congratulated you?” “Nobody, I didn’t get any congratulations.” Why are you having a baby? Are you sure you want it? Did you plan it? These are all American questions. Historically, you just say congratulations or people would really say, “God bless you,” 50 years ago. We don’t say that now. You’re going to keep it? Did you plan it? All kinds of questions that are personal, none about I’m happy for you. I can’t really express because I just see where we’re headed, but I’m glad you brought the question up and I hope that sororities and individual professional women and professional men can see this as a call to action, that we support our community to procreate if they choose to, and we can help them and not judge them and not say, “This is your problem. You wanted to have a baby. Don’t ask me to babysit,” or, “She shouldn’t have had it if she couldn’t afford it.”
All of these things that people say. “Well, she’s only 19,” when in fact she was raped by her uncle or father or brother, we don’t even talk about that and that’s every faith, Christianity, Islam, everywhere. We blame the young girl and, in fact, somebody exploited her and she’s too scared to say and we’re too naive to even ask the question or believe her when she tells us. We have a lot of work to do and, again, that’s what I’m all about, have been about, will continue to be about. I think that I have this blessing in me that I promote what I’m talking about to everybody consistently and I’m proud that so many people have taken that training. So many people are having the exact same conversation now that I am around the country. It’s percolating and I am optimistic. I do believe that in time we will do a full-circle because life is a circle, full-circle. Everything goes around. I think we’ll start coming back around because we are having this show and so many people are having podcasts on this conversation. New bills are passing. We get more Black midwives, more doula trainers, more men are supporting their daughters and wifes to be a midwife or to have a home birth or to have a water birth or wherever they choose to. I see a change. I see things getting better, but keep the conversations going, like more podcasting, more articles. We could get Beyonce or Erykah Badu to write a song about this, or whoever is the most popular to get it to the masses because we’re on Google and Google teaches nothing, by the way.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 51:28
Thank you. Yeah, I’m an optimist too. I do believe that I see so much good and, like you said, the good, it doesn’t get as much attention, but it is more so than what we see. That’s not good. So, thank you so much for being here today and for sharing your wisdom with us and I hope people are inspired.
Shafia Monroe 51:59
Thank you. Really quick, if you go to my website, shafiamonroe.com under midwifery, there’s a free chart that you can print out and it does give a history of all the work that Black midwives have given, and we do give out a scholarship every year, up to $2,000, to any Black midwife students. We’ll be announcing that again pretty soon and be sure to join the e-newsletter. Again, if you go through the website, subscribe, put your name in there, and I’m doing some recipes occasionally for my book, they’re going to be in there as well as updates.
Ambata Kazi-Nance 52:28
Thank you. You do have a lot of great recipes. I love all the food that you share.
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer 52:42
Thank you for tuning into this episode of On The Square: Real Talk on Race and Islam in the Americas, a special podcast series brought to you by Sapelo Square and the Maydan. We give thanks to our special guest today. Shafia Monroe. You can find more information about what we discussed, including links and more by visiting sapelosquare.com/onthesquare/ or themaydan.com/podcasts/. Our theme music was created by Fanatik OnBeats. Salaam-Alaikum and thank you for listening.