Conversations around the impact of slavery on Black women’s health are not as common as they should be. If they are had at all, it’s typically during an academic conference but almost always relegated to a scholarly journal. And even that attention is rare. So, it was very significant for Nikole Hannah-Jones to explore this connection in the Oprah Winfrey-produced six-part docuseries, “The 1619 Project” from the Onyx Collective currently streaming on Hulu, the latest iteration of the controversial New York Times opus that started it all.
In episode two of the series titled “Race,” Hannah-Jones kicks off her spotlight on Black women and motherhood with a focus on Chrissy Sample, a working mother in Brooklyn, in New York City, who lost one of her twins during her pregnancy. After Sample describes her experience of encountering indifference from her white doctor throughout her pregnancy and receiving very little care, Hannah-Jones travels back to enslaver Pierce Butler who owned an extensive plantation, or more accurately slave labor camp, in Georgia, near Savannah.
Hannah-Jones Is joined by Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, author of The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation and other books, on the grounds of what was once the Butler Plantation. On that ground, they discuss the endless sexual assault enslaved women endured particularly at the hands of Roswell King Sr., founder of nearby Roswell, and his son Roswell King Jr.
One of the many sobering facts they present is how enslaved women were valued based on the number of children they could potentially have, with their value increasing if they had children who made it to age 5. Berry and Hannah-Jones also discuss forced reproduction or breeding. The episode notes the climb of the enslaved Black population from just under 700,000 in 1790 to nearly four million in 1860. Because the congressional ban of the importation of Africans took effect in 1808, Hannah-Jones correlates the population explosion to forced reproduction, with sexual assault also playing a role.
“Rape was so prevalent during slavery,” she states within the episode, “that today a quarter of the genetic makeup of Black Americans can be traced back to Europe through the paternal line.”
In conversation with entrepreneur Ryan Wilson at the private club he co-founded, The Gathering Spot, at the tail-end of January, Hannah-Jones shared that “this episode is very hard, but I wanted us to, as a society, have to confront what we’re still doing to Black women and Black babies.”
According to the CDC, in 2020, Black Americans had 2.4 times the infant mortality rate of white Americans, with a maternal mortality rate 2.9 times the rate of white women. The recent “Aftershock,” produced and co-directed by Tonya Lewis Lee which is also on Hulu, explores this, personalizing the crisis. Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” as aforementioned, puts a historical lens to it.
“I wanted to do something that particularly spoke to Black women in the institution of slavery, and Black women today, the particular burden that Black women carry, no matter our income, no matter our education,” she explained.
“My dad was born on a cotton plantation in a sharecropper shed because Black women could not deliver in the hospital in his hometown,” she also told Wilson. “So this is a really tough episode, but I hope that people will watch it and learn to understand the particular burden that the Black woman has had.”
Of course, critics continuously question Hannah-Jones’ advocacy of linking the past with the present to address today’s glaring racial disparities. But the truth, as Hannah-Jones points out, even using her personal life as the product of a Black man born in Mississippi who married a White woman in Waterloo, Iowa to illustrate certain points, is that they are connected.
“There’s nothing wrong with Black women. We have a Black woman and OB-GYN in (the episode) who says ‘there’s nothing physiologically different about Black women that we should be producing these terrible birth results,'” Hannah-Jones noted. “It is the society, and that’s what the entire ‘1619 Project’ is trying to do or say, ’There’s nothing wrong with Black folks; it is the society.’
“And if you see it,” she continued, “you can’t pretend you don’t know and don’t do anything about it.”