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National Geographic

GIVING BIRTH IN A TIME OF DEATH: A LOVE LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER. A photographer turns the camera on her own pregnancy after documenting high mortality rates for Black expectant mothers.

I found out I was pregnant, for the first time, with a girl three months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the U.S. and forced me to shelter-in-place in Los Angeles. As a photographer, I have often documented what it’s like to be pregnant as a Black woman in the American South. COVID-19 pushed me to document my own experience as a Black pregnant woman living through extraordinary circumstances.

I REMEMBER ASKING my mom what color I was. I knew that I descended from German immigrants on my father’s side and enslaved people on my mother’s side. But the forms at my Tennessee elementary school only listed three options: White, Black, Other. “I am your mother,” she told me. “You are my child, from my body.” I didn’t know then what a gift those words were, and how they would root my experience in the world.

As a photographer, I have spent a lot of time documenting reproductive rights, childbirth, and motherhood, often focusing on what it’s like to be pregnant as a Black woman in the American South. I have witnessed heartbreaking moments while doing this work, and beautiful ones, too. So last December, when I found I was pregnant, I thought about all the women who had shared their stories with me over the years. …

Because of COVID-19, my in-person appointments turned into phone consultations, which worried me. I thought back to the statistics I’d learned while reporting on maternal mortality rates, knowing that Black women in this country are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Black women are disproportionately diagnosed with gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, and I knew that diabetes ran in my family. What if something had already gone wrong? What if they couldn’t identify it by phone? (Why giving birth in the U.S. is surprisingly deadly.)

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