The Ethos of Black Motherhood in America: Only White Women Get Pregnant. Kimberly C. Harper. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. 118 pages (including Appendices). $95 Hardback, $45 e-book.
Review by Elizabeth Topping
PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition
Georgia State University
Date posted: April 2022
Topping, Elizabeth. (2022) “Book review: The ethos of Black Motherhood in America: Only white women get pregnant,” Rhetoric of Health & Medicine: Vol. 5 : Iss. 3.
Read below or download here.
In The Ethos of Black Motherhood: Only White Women Get Pregnant, Kimberly C. Harper analyzes the historical construction of the ethos of Black motherhood through interwoven strands of rhetoric, history, and intersections of race, class, and motherhood. These topics have received attention over the years, though they are not always addressed through the lenses of intersectionality and rhetoric with a reproductive justice thrust. Readers unfamiliar with reproductive justice history, content, and theories might start with works cited in annotated bibliography published in Reflections, Volume 2, Issue 20, by Lori Beth De Hertogh et al. (2020), An Annotated Bibliography on Rhetorics of Reproductive Justice. The texts, organizations, legislation, and additional readings covered in this bibliography provide a comprehensive background on the issues addressed in Harper’s book. However, Harper’s work stands apart in its comprehensive, intersectional, and rhetorical focus that leads readers from chattel slavery to modern injustices, and to potential, tenable solutions.
Following the organization of the text, this review is divided into two sections. The first half focuses on how stereotypes and tropes of Black mothers developed and changed from the days of chattel slavery to the modern era, linking them to long-standing policies to control the fertility of Black women. This section culminates in the discussion of how American ideology and ethos work together, with a particular ethos created for Black women that underlies and rhetorically justifies harm. The second half moves to current media and literary representations of Black motherhood and pregnancy and associated social impacts. Throughout the book, Harper highlights instances of resistance—a thread that gains steam in the second half of the book as she shifts to a reproductive justice framework that shows how the ethos of Black motherhood is a social justice issue that needs redress..
The first three chapters lay the social, medical, and legal foundation for the fourth chapter. In the first chapter, Harper examines chattel slavery, the tropes regarding Black women that developed in this era, and enslaved women’s resistance. These tropes are, as discussed in Chapter 3, are the mammy and “breeder woman” (p. 26), , “pillar[s] of the family” (p. 8), the “matriarch” (p. 29), “unwed welfare queen” (p. 34), and “teen mothers and pregnant crack addicted mothers” (p. 37). When slavery was still legal, these original tropes emerged from the need to ideologically justify control of Black women’s fertility in this time, to ensure a steady supply of enslaved children; after abolition, these tropes shifted to justify limiting fertility. The book illuminates the lesser impacts of such tropes on white women, as well, introducing Harper’s intersectional focus. Chapter 2 links these original tropes to religious and scientific anti-black attitudes, which laid the foundation for racist attitudes the US generally and specifically in antebellum medical culture. Doctors in the emerging field of obstetrics partnered with slaveowners to treat enslaved women, which assumed a biological immunity to pain and often required medical experimentation, including testing smallpox vaccines, nonconsensual medical treatments (p. 14), and, perhaps most infamously, James Marion Sims’ manifold experimental reproductive surgeries during which he withheld anesthesia only to enslaved women (p. 18). Combined with the aforementioned need to control fertility, and corresponding attitudes typically blaming the enslaved for their circumstances, Harper explains how racism was baked into the very formation of modern reproductive medicine. Chapter 3 continues the discussion of tropes regarding Black motherhood, tracing their evolution from the immediate post-slavery years to the modern era. Harper links her discussion to the legal dehumanization of Black personhood, built into the core of our national ideology, to show that the value of Black bodies has always been based on what white elites demand of them. Though the tropes of Black motherhood seem contradictory on the surface, the exposure of the underlying justifications and ideology illustrates how each is invested in the same narrative: that Black women are inferior, unable to love or care for children, and not fully deferent or feminine; thus, their ability to procreate must be managed.
The fourth chapter gathers the threads of the first three chapters to develop the theoretical crux of the book: A racially based national ideology depends on ethos being constructed for various groups within the nation. In this case, a national ideology that dehumanizes Black individuals intersects with motherhood (and class, as the introduction points out) results in a constructed ethos of Black women that yields unacceptably high maternal mortality rates. This chapter displays one of the great strengths of the book: rather than cover ground that other writers have (such as Ibram X Kendi (2016), Deborah Kuhn MacGregor (1998), Gertrude Frazier (1998), and Dorothy Roberts (1997)), Harper takes these works as foundational to the book’s interdisciplinary analysis of the rhetorical underpinnings of national ideology and the function within it of ethos, specifically of Black mothers. Once the book defines the interrelationship between ideology and ethos, Harper discusses maternal ideology. The book’s intersectional analysis views maternal ideology through the following lenses: institution/ideology, experience/role, and identity/subjectivity (p. 50). From here, Harper moves into rhetorical theory regarding ethos, particularly from feminist scholars (such as Jane Donawerth (2002), Shirley Wilson Logan (1995), and Cheryl Glenn (2004)) who have contributed important insight into how ethos works differentially according to social positioning. Harper provides a particularly insightful revision of Lindahl Buchanan’s (2013) chart of god-terms of motherhood to account for the impact of race, which leads into a discussion of the rhetorical power of silencing (or muting) and listening in what are life-and-death situations for many Black mothers—turning the historical tendency to speak for others to a responsibility to listen instead. Some of the discussion in this chapter (for example, the intersections between a machine-based view of pregnancy and capitalism) at first seem a little disconnected, but they are important for understanding the second half of the text.
With the ethos of Black motherhood and its impacts (and resistance to it) established, Harper shifts the direction of the second half of the book to exploring current representations and situations of Black mothers as well as documentation of the slow change being made. Chapter 5 presents an initial survey of popular pregnancy literature as well as a more formal survey asking Black mothers about pregnancy literature from their medical providers. In both cases, the majority of images are of white women and their children; Black women rarely appear on these books or pamphlets, fewer Black children are seen, and Black fathers are absent altogether. Harper acknowledges that her methodology with pregnancy books in particular is open to criticism, but that the dominant trend she uncovered shows quite clearly that, as the subtitle reads, “only white women get pregnant.” Many pregnancy literature writers rely on previous publications as well as authoritative medical discourse, the discussion notes, which favors representation of white women and their children. To explain the impact of such publishing decisions, Harper quotes extensively from Toni Morrison (1998) that white America continues to silence and erase, or other. Black women—with deadly consequences.
Harper than turns her attention to important developments in the history of reproductive medicine in Chapters 6 and 7—the limits of Roe v. Wade and the impacts of the loss of a midwifery tradition. These chapters are the beginning of the book’s turn toward reproductive justice—a more complete approach to justice for (potential or actual) mothers, families, and communities. Harper notes that while the pro-choice movement has had important victories, the movement’s efforts do not translate into access or improved care for Black women. The book’s intersectional focus leads to a discussion of how growing restrictions on reproductive care such as abortions and contraceptive access impact all women in the US. However, because of historical medical inequities arising from, in part, the ethos of Black motherhood, these legal limits impact Black women more. Even so, resistance continues, as Harper picks up this thread again to discuss the various organizations reimagining the pro-choice movement to be more equitable.
Looking backward again in Chapter 7, Harper discusses how the loss of the midwifery tradition within Black communities led to a change in a culture of maternal care. As Black women shifted from homebirths to hospital births and physician-directed pregnancy care, they became more exposed to the racist attitudes underlying obstetrics from the beginning of the specialty. This exposure causes both physical and psychological harm, which Harper illustrates through her own pregnancy experiences and a range of statistics. Though midwives and doulas still remain difficult for many Black women to access, Harper notes that activist organizations, internet access, and current attention to Black maternal health are nudging the conversation, and a culture of care, in the right direction.
Chapter 8 completes the turn to reproductive justice. Bearing children safely under conditions the mother chooses is not the only concern; those children must be able to realize their full potential, which requires healthy communities. Defining reproductive justice as “strategy for redressing human rights issues that impede families from raising their children in life affirming environments” (p. 97), Harper walks readers through what it means to lack such, detailing the threats facing Black children today: the school-to-prison pipeline, white citizen violence, and police violence. This part of the book presents a systematic account of how micro and macroaggressions work, and how Black men and women continue to be silenced. Harper ends with a vision of a realized reproductive justice strategy: “When our children can leave home and roam freely in society and we expect they will return home, then reproductive activists have created a safe and healthy environment which is a core value of reproductive justice” (p. 105). However, since these goals have not been achieved, Harper notes that resistance remains vital and that Black mothers resist in all things out of love for their children (p. 106). This chapter provides a window for readers unfamiliar with the scope of reproductive justice as defined by the SisterSong Collective and other activists (Ross & Solinger, 2017) and brings together the book’s intersecting strands of history, politics, race, class, and motherhood to a vision that redresses the centuries of harm to Black women. Her intersectional focus throughout the text allows readers to see this vision expansively—benefitting all, but benefitting in direct relation to the harms inflicted over our history.
Over four hundred years of pro-slavery discourses and the resulting ethos constructed for Black motherhood cannot be undone in a short time, but Harper provides some concrete, very workable solutions: implicit bias and rhetorical training in ethos for medical professionals as well as for technical and professional communication (TPC) professionals and computer science students, and a reimagining of maternal health. Other writers have noted how little attention is paid to race in medical education and how this oversight perpetuates the harmful stereotypes that inflict such harm on Black mothers. Harper’s suggestions differ in that a simple recognition of implicit bias is not enough to force change; rhetorical training would allow these students to examine and understand the extensive force of the very intersections examined in this book. The work of reimagining maternal care has already begun; this chapter summarizes two separate bills introduce in 2019 and early 2020 that would enhance the reproductive health of women. Harper’s final words remind us how vital resistance is: “While the image of Black motherhood is slow to change and may never change, Black women have not let society’s ill-conceived perception stop them from demanding that their voice be heard and that is what is most important. Our Voice. Our Need. Our Action. Our RESISTANCE” (p. 112).
The Ethos of Black Motherhood is a needed contribution to emerging work in reproductive justice in the field, and it would also fit nicely into broader discussions at the intersections of race, class, gender, and reproductive justice. Through Harper’s multistranded analysis, readers can see how intertwined these traditionally separate scholarly avenues of exploration truly are in the actual lives of the people around us—and Harper graciously gives us a rhetorically informed, robust way to build on the excellent activist work already underway.
Buchanan, Lindahl. (2013). Rhetorics of Motherhood.
De Hertogh, Lori Beth, et al. (2020). An annotated bibliography on rhetorics of reproductive justice. Reflections, 20(2), p. 26 – 59.
Donawerth, Jane. (2002). Rhetorical theory by women before 1900: An anthology.
Fraser, Gertrude. (1998). African American midwifery in the South: Dialogues of birth, race, and memory.
Glenn, Cheryl. (2004). Unspoken: A rhetoric of silence.
Kendi, Ibram X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America.
Logan, Shirley Wilson. (1995). With pen and voice: A critical anthology of nineteenth-century African-American women.
McGregor, Deborah Kuhn. (1998). From midwives to medicine: The birth of American gynecology.
Morrison, Toni. (1998). “Toni Morrison uncensored.” Interviewed by Jana Wendt. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQ0mMjII22I&t=6s
Roberts, Dorothy. (1997). Killing the Black body: Race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty.
Ross, Loretta J, & Solinger, Rickie. (2017). Reproductive justice: An introduction. University of California Press.
Elizabeth Topping is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, maternal and public healthcare, and motherhood. Her dissertation focuses on the contribution of the United States’ first rural nurse-midwifery service, in eastern Kentucky, to the modern medical system.