Event in Strip District celebrated their critical roles
by Renee P. Aldrich
For New Pittsburgh Courier
The Midwife Center for Birth & Women’s Health on Penn Avenue in the Strip District recently celebrated not only Women’s History Month, but also the designation of 2020 as “Year of the Nurse & Midwife.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) so selected 2020 as the time to celebrate the work of nurses and midwives because May 18 will be the 200th birth of the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. Irony is not lost that this year’s designation is in direct correlation with the nurses who’ve been on the frontlines in this battle against coronavirus.
A specific element of the March 7 event at the Midwife Center, however, was that of paying special homage to the “Granny Midwives.” In the early 1600s to the mid-20th century, poor and rural American women in the South gave birth into the hands of Black women, known as Granny Midwives.
The Midwife Center’s mission is to provide exceptional, client-centered primary gynecological, pregnancy and birthing care in southwestern Pennsylvania’s only independent birth center.
Jotalloa Davis, MSN, CNMW, former Midwife at the Midwife Center who recently left and relocated to her home in Philadelphia, shared with those in attendance that her vision for the event was triggered by an email she received announcing the WHO’s designation.
“I knew that for this celebration, we would bring to the front the stories of these midwives, to help mitigate the erasure of Black women in medicine,” Davis said.
The Granny Midwives were Black Midwives who birthed America and were an integral part of the life of many enslaved and Black women in general. They taught women about birth as a natural occurrence of God to bring children into the world, safe and without the presence of clinical intervention. She shared: “It was important that we lay the groundwork for this event.”
A main highlight of the event was the unveiling of a commissioned piece of art by local multi-media artist Bekezela Mguni. The piece gives a look at not only the Granny Midwives, but at the role of Black women as a whole, down through the ages in the area of childbirth and beyond.
The program opened with an introduction by Jessica Brown, a mother of three who was first a client, and then went on to serve on the board and the advisory board. While holding her 7-month-old, she gave passionate words around her and her family’s joyful experience at the Midwife Center.
“Giving birth to my last child, I was amazed at the beauty of having a water birth; with my husband and two young sons present. The Midwife Center makes you think about birth differently, that it isn’t a sickness where you have to go to a hospital, or where baby matters and mommy doesn’t, or mommy matters, and baby doesn’t or daddy doesn’t, or the family in total does not matter,” Brown said. “The Midwife Center handles birth from a family perspective—and as a result it is truly a part of the fabric of my family.”
Mguni was introduced by Davis. Mguni has a very comprehensive background which includes a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh. As a self-taught artist, she was a 2015-2016 member of the Penn Avenue Creative Accelerator Program with the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. She continued her examination of the relationship between literacy and liberation in her March and April 2016 artist residencies with The Black Unicorn Project’s Reading Room. Her work celebrates memory and storytelling as a means of cultural preservation and retention. The Black Unicorn is a Black, queer feminist library and archive.
Before the unveiling, Mguni first expressed her deepest gratitude to the Midwife Center and Davis for their vote of confidence in choosing her for this assignment—one which she considered to be a most honorable opportunity. She spoke of the piece she created in commemoration of the day. She felt it was important to “saint” Black women.
She said: “Black women have made the most sacrifices and, for me, they represent the ‘Divine’ so I wanted to create a series that honors them.”
She referenced J. Marian Simms, who, in this country, is called the father of modern gynecology. Regrettably he got that distinction as a result of his experiments in which the bodies of Black enslaved women were exploited and brutalized—the speculum was created as a result of the work done on Black women without the use of anesthesia. Therefore, this violence against Black women’s bodies resulted in many medical advances made in reproductive health today.
Mguni’s discussion continued: “We continue to face challenges of inequity in all facets of our lives today as women, and as mothers. These need to be solved.”
However, they will not be solved without retracing “our steps to see where we come from, and not fear the uncomfortable conversations,” Mguni added.
In South Florida, midwives taught that the things needed in labor are patience, confidence, and endurance. These are the same elements required in order to face and resolve the issues we face today in making and equitable space for all in this planet.
Mguni’s piece, aptly called, “Witness—Honoring the Lives of the Grand Midwives,” is a 36 X 48-foot hanging quilt on a canvas. It is a compilation of quilting, digital fabric printing, color play and collage. She intends on providing a bibliography of resources along with an “information key” where folks can learn more about each midwife and her story.
She closed her comments by stating that this effort is to demonstrate that Black women came to this country with skills.
FEATURED IMAGE: JOTALLOA DAVIS, MSN, CNMW, BEKEZELA MGUNI