A few weeks ago, I came across a postcard that I was given at a conference last year. I got the postcard (advertisement?) because it has a picture of Fannie Lou Hamer on it, and in my home and office, I like to display images and quotes from inspirational women, especially black women. Hamer was a sharecropper from rural Mississippi who became a leader within the civil rights movement in the United States. I was happy to have something with her likeness on it. It was only later that I looked at the text on the front and back of the card, which read in part, ”Often called the ‘spirit of the Civil Rights Movement,” Hamer worked tirelessly on behalf of the rights of others—including the unborn. [She said,] ‘The methods used to take human lives such as abortion, the pill, the ring, etc. amounts to genocide. I believe that abortion is legal murder.’” I realized then that the card was distributed by an organization called Consistent Life, who, in support of a “consistent ethic of life,” is “committed to the protection of life threatened by war, abortion, poverty, racism, capital punishment and euthanasia.”
I was conflicted about the use of Hamer’s image for this organization’s purposes. It is true, Hamer did have those views about abortion and birth control. But I did not know if her image and story was being manipulated for a particular political and religious agenda—one I do not align myself with. I put the card in a box of other images and quotes. I didn’t display it, but I didn’t throw it away, either, which is why I came across it again a couple weeks ago as I was cleaning and decorating my home office. I had the same misgivings about the image as before, and I set it aside again.
Then yesterday, as I was doing research on medical experimentation on Black Americans, I came across this passage in Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid (2008, p. 190):
“One day in 1961, Hamer entered the hospital to have ‘a knot on my stomach’—probably a benign uterine fibroid tumor—removed. She then returned to her family’s shack on the plantation to recuperate. But in the big house, ominous tidings circulated. The owner’s wife, Vera Alicia Marlow, was cousin of the surgeon who had treated Hamer. Marlow gossiped to the cook that Hamer had lost more than a tumor while unconscious—the surgeon removed her uterus, rendering Hamer sterile. The cook repeated the news to others, including a woman who happened to be Hamer’s cousin, and thus Hamer was one of the last people on the plantation to learn that she would never have a family of her own.
‘I went to the doctor who did that to me and I asked him, ‘Why? Why had he done that to me?’ He didn’t have to say nothing—and he didn’t. If he was going to give me that sort of operation then he should have told me. I would have loved to have children.’ But a lawsuit was out of the question, Hamer recalled. ‘At that time? Me? Getting a white lawyer against a white doctor? I would have been taking my hands and screwing tacks into my casket.’
…She always spoke of her ‘Mississippi appendectomy’ as the galvanizing force that propelled her into a national leadership role, and she always spoke regretfully of the children she would never have.
She was a lifelong opponent of birth control.”
This passage made me cry. I have to confess I was ignorant of Hamer’s non-consensual sterilization even though it was so crucial to her life as an activist. I was see a clearer pattern to Hamer’s work. For days, I’d been ruminating on the introduction to theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, in which she argues that the black body is “the most vivid reminder and remainder of slavery” in a nation that lacks political memory (2-3). Erasure of the history of slavery and its legacy is subverted by the presence of black bodies who are its descendants. Although she is careful to avoid “voyeuristic sentimentality,” Copeland argues that the visibility of black bodies in pain raises questions about freedom and about being human.
I see the truth of Copeland’s words in the postcard I have. You can use Hamer’s words to argue against abortion. But unless you contextualize her words within her embodied history and her broader commitments to the value of life, specifically the lives of black Americans, you dishonor her. To be fair, the organization using her image on its marketing materials did speak of Hamer’s anti-war sentiments and her belief in the biblical righteousness of her causes. But it neglected the reproductive violence done to her, a crucial and painful part of her body’s narrative.
As FAR contributor Grace Yia-Hei Kao recently noted, reproductive justice is about more than debates about birth control and abortion. It is a commitment to allowing the underprivileged to access the same opportunities for self-determination that the privileged have as they concern sexuality, children, and family. Within a liberationist framework, the morality of abortion cannot be discerned apart from these larger issues. As a black feminist, I refuse to pretend that the abortion debate is unrelated to issues of poverty; sexual violence; surrogacy; sterilization; access to birth control; artificial reproductive technologies; infant mortality; prenatal, postnatal, gynecological, pediatric and mental health care; foster care and adoption systems; and concerns about black babies who grow up to be racially profiled, assaulted, and killed. As a theological ethicist, I refuse to assign concerns about “sanctity of life” to only conservatives, liberals, or progressives, seeing all sides struggle to consistently affirm the value of life for all created beings.
I don’t agree with everything Fannie Lou Hamer stood for. I doubt whether I agree with the entire agenda of any political activist. But I respect that her broad concern for human life motivated her to seek to secure social support, safe environments, and healthy communities so that underprivileged and underrepresented black Americans could live without fear of violence from individuals, hate groups, and the government.
I also mourn for her and the decisions about parenthood that were taken away from her.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.
Categories: Black Feminism, Body, Christianity, civil rights, Contraception, Death, Embodiment, Family, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, General, Human Rights, Infertility, Justice, Loss, parenting, Politics, Race and Ethnicity, Racism, Reproductive Justice, Sexual Ethics, Social Justice, Violence Against Women