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Linda Janet Holmes honors birth traditions that survived slavery in new book

A book called Safe in a Midwife's Hands: Birthing Traditions from Africa to the American South is featured. The book has an orange cover with two sets of hands holding a baby. It is written by Linda Janet Holmes.
Whittney Evans
VPM News
Linda Janet Holmes launched a lifetime of work as an activist dedicated to learning about and honoring alternative birth traditions and the Black women behind them.

The Virginia author and health advocate recently spoke with Morning Edition's Phil Liles.

Hampton resident Linda Janet Holmes studies alternative birthing methods and the Black women behind them. Her new book, Safe in a Midwife's Hands: Birthing Traditions from Africa to the American South, explores those practices and their resurgence.

Holmes’ research comes at a time when Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than White women.

VPM Morning Edition Host Phil Liles recently spoke to Holmes about her book. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.

Note: This excerpt has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Phil Liles: Linda, what was the reason? And why was it so important to write this book?

Linda Janet Holmes: I think that it really goes back to my own childbirth experience, you know, four decades ago, which is similar to what we're hearing now, for many women — particularly Black women — who are experiencing health disparities.

I had some real ideas about wanting to have a natural childbirth, minimal technological intervention, feeling that I was empowered during my birth experience. But that's not what happened. That experience, in many ways, has shaped the rest of my life.

I ended up working with nurse midwives at the medical school in New Jersey. And then I worked with the health department in New Jersey, working on health disparities. And I also had a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Humanities where I wanted to talk to women, midwives who actually guided childbirth in the way that I had hoped my childbirth experience would have been.

You traveled to the African continent and spoke with midwives about their traditions?

Yes, I went to Alabama in 1981 to interview a last generation of traditional African American midwives, who essentially were continuing the practices of their mothers, their grandmothers and their great-grandmothers; some of whom were enslaved.

Being spiritual, not using any medicine other than maybe some teas, keeping the mother active during labor, using alternative birthing positions. A lot of times they were criticized for not using the medical model of care. I became really curious about what the health department and what doctors were calling superstition, being backwards, being untrained.

I sensed that there was more to it than that. I worked with a nurse midwife whose name was Peg Marshall. She was working in Ghana, and I was sharing with her some of these rituals. And she said, "Oh my goodness, that sounds like a naming ceremony that I saw traditional midwives using in Ghana."

And that's what began my reading and my explorations. Because I believed in my heart that somehow these Black women — despite enslavement, despite the Middle Passage — have managed to continue these practices.

Why do you think that some women today prefer a midwife to a hospital setting?

More recently, there have been medical studies and scientific studies that document the wisdom of these practices. I mean, the mother needs to be in the most relaxed state possible to have the best, healthy outcome for both her own physical health and for her baby's health.

And I think about how now we have to kind of go into the birthing space like warriors, you know — making our demands and then getting defeated. You want to be comforted. You don't want to be having to be on a march or something for human rights or birthing rights. That's not what you want to be doing in the birthing space.

Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.
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