The Black Birth Renaissance
of the 21st Century
of the 21st Century
A conversation with midwife, Afua Hassan, about her journey to midwifery and the influence of grand midwives in her life
Afua has been a midwife for more than 30 years and "caught" more than 800 babies. She felt the "call" to be a midwife at an early age and has been heavily influenced by the legacy of Grand Midwives. She is the owner of The Birthing Place, a birth center in Houston, Texas.
You graduated from Brown University with degrees in Pre-Med and African American Studies and you have said that you did not know midwives still existed until you met one at the university's clinic. Was there ever a point where you had to switch from a medical perspective about birth to one where birth was natural?
I always viewed birth as natural, but I didn't know midwives still existed. As soon as I heard the word "midwife" I knew that was me and what I wanted to be. At that point, the only way I knew to connect with moms and babies was by being an obstetrician. When I heard there was still a such thing as a midwife, I knew that was what I was and I decided to go be it.
When you moved to Houston in 1983 and began to work with midwives, were any of those midwives grand midwives?
Well, I came to Houston because midwifery was legal in Texas and I was looking for a place to study midwifery. I went to a Childbirth Providers of African Descent conference. In fact, that's where the beginning of ICTC (International Center for Traditional Childbearing) came from. Shafia Monroe was a member. The founders were Ayanna Ade and Rashida Mujtabah. They met and I was going to one of their conferences in Atlanta, but missed it. I met Makeda the next week at Black Women's Health Conference and she told me to go to Tennessee. In Tennessee, I met Rashida. From there, I went to meet Ayanna. She was really calm and said she would find a place for me to study. I moved to Houston 15 days later and have been here ever since.
Do you consider yourself to be heavily influenced by any of the grand midwives? And did you apprentice under any of the grand midwives?
Oh, yes... Definitely! Ayanna, Rashida, and I even attended a birth with Shafia in Connecticut. And at Houston School of Midwifery, which was run by a Nigerian named Mercy Inyang. She had a school and she had a practice and we all worked there. Even Ayanna and Rasheda, even though they were practicing midwives, with Mercy also, so it has become a family affair.
What particular things do you do in your practice that area direct result of having met and worked with grand midwives?
My practice is all about family. Like I said, when I came to Houston I was 23. I have taken a little of all of them to make me who I am. Ayanna was very nurturing. She would clean people's houses, bring them food and mopping the floor. It would tick me off in the beginning because I didn't have a car and I would be ready to go. But she wanted to make sure they had everything they needed. I don't mop the floor, but I make sure people have food and I clean up whatever we mess up. Ayanna would mop the whole house, but I would mop where the birth was going on. She would wash clothes and fold clothes. And we would wash clothes, and hand them to the husband to fold up. With all of them, there is a little of them in me in my practice.
The name of your birth center, The Birthing Place, was already the name you used when you were only doing home births. You have stated that "the birthing place is a state of mind rather than a physical address.? How do you convince or talk to women about that philosophy?
Generally, moms come with the idea that they want a natural birth. I don't try to convince anyone to have an out of hospital birth. That's something that they have to want, because in my initial consultation I ask them what the worst thing is that could happen. They usually say, "The baby could die." I let them know that they could die, too, because we deal with life and death. With that being said, they really have to take that into consideration when deciding to have an out-of-hospital birth. Once that decision is made, I spend time reassuring them that birth is as safe as life gets. And so, whatever that is that's what birth is. How safe is life? You just gotta live it. That's where we start our conversation.
Has there ever been a time when you were unsure of yourself as a midwife and, if so, how did you overcome it?
I wasn't unsure about myself as a midwife, but I wasn't making any money and I had children that I had to feed. It was an expensive hobby. I talked to a grand midwife, Margaret Smith, who was doing it when there was horse and buggy and sometimes she would just get a chicken for payment. She was a midwife I would stop to see on my way to Connecticut and then on the way back. I told her I had to feed my kids. She told me to stop by on my way back home. I told Ms. Smith I may be coming back really late. She said no matter what time I got there she would be there. I got there at about 12:30 in the morning. She had a farm and went out, then came back with a big slab of cured pork and said, "Here, now you can feed your kids." I'm a pescatarian, but of course I took it and said, “Thank you so much.” I told her how much I appreciated it. She was really committed to making sure that I continued to be a midwife. She said, "No, you have to keep doing it because if you don't do it, who's gonna do it. The moms and babies need you." So I kept doing it.
For more information about the work Afua has been doing through her work at The Birthing Place visit www.TheBirthingPlace.com
Do you have a birth tradition or story you would like to share from an elder?
#BirthHERstory - I am so excited to share this video of Mama Roberta Ingram. As I listened to her share about her own self-discovery and how she and the sisters she surrounded herself with reconnected to our birth traditions, I am inspired to believe that it is possible for Black women to do that again in their own circles. I am convinced that the ability to heal ourselves and our families is within our power, as it always has been. I believe this is especially true because we have so many resources available through technology and are able to communicate with one another as never before.
Mama Roberta did not continue in birth work, however, she gave a bit of advice at the end to those that may be considering birth work. It reminded me of a comment I made recently on a Facebook post:
"All I can think about are our ancestral mothers... They have so much expectation for us. They want to us to restore. They want us to 're-member' who we are and walk confidently. They want us to manifest our gifts and talents in ways they could not. Through our success in our passions, callings and chosen career paths in birth, we vindicate them and bestow upon them the honor they were denied. Let’s be bold as we move forward in this work."
Mama Roberta represents the type of women I hope will rise up to reclaim the birth rites of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
When we help Birth HERstory Traditions we are acknowledging the BLACK BIRTH RENAISSANCE that is happening around the world!
When we share our stories, practices, or traditions from women of African descent in America, we help preserve African American Birth HERstory. It is our responsibility as descendants of African women who were trafficked to the U.S. to hold their stories and know their practices, so that we are able to continue their tradition of being self-reliant and self-sustaining as communities of Black women. Do you have a birth tradition, story or practice that you would like to share? Do you know someone who could be interviewed that has a story to share that shows the connection between modern Black women and their traditional birth practices? Send Dr. Doula a message and let her know.
My work is informed by my background – experiences, expertise, exposure, education & environment – as a woman, mother, wife, sister, educator, researcher, scholar, advocate, birth ally and legacy builder.
(Please note that the information shared on this blog is for information purposes only. Pregnant women should consult their PCP before following any practices found within the series on the Birth HERstory Blog.)