Birmingham Blues: Reproductive Justice and My Friend Emily

Marcy Bloom

Marcy Bloom reflects on the beauty and the violent history of Birmingham, Alabama -- from the Civil Rights movement to protecting reproductive health today.

This is part one of a series about Birmingham, Alabama.

Are there places in the world about which you have very real images and feelings although you have never been there?

Such were my reflections recently about Birmingham, Alabama. Nicknamed "The Magic City," it is the largest in Alabama. Today it is a leading banking and bio-technology center, a major medical and research hub, with beautiful parks, dynamic museums, a renowned ballet company, opera, and symphony, home to numerous cultural festivals, and a rich nightlife with a very popular music scene.

Of course, as is true of anywhere, Birmingham has many other sides to its texture, demographics, population, and history. As I was reminded by many while I was there, this modern city is also a core part of the fundamentalist Bible Belt. Juxtapose that with my memories from the 50s and 60s of Birmingham as "The Tragic City" and a center of the civil rights struggle for African-Americans.

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I vividly remember the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many other courageous freedom fighters engaged in nonviolent protests and demanded their right to humanity, equality, and dignity. I can never forget the hate, brutality, and ferocity of the white supremacist Eugene "Bull" Connor and his henchmen attacking the peaceful civil rights marchers with whips, fire hoses, and vicious dogs.

It seems like only yesterday that four African-American girls were killed on September 15, 1963 by a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan at the 16th Street Baptist Church. In fact, I went to that church during my recent Birmingham visit. It is truly beautiful and I have always been drawn to this haunting place through faded photographs and grainy TV images.

That place and that incident of death and destruction by racist terrorists in 1963 affected me greatly at the time and always stayed with me. I was 12 years old, about the ages of the girls who died, and I could not quite grasp how anyone could hate that deeply, hate so clear, vicious, raw, and ingrained as to attack a house of worship and peace, and kill young girls with their whole lives ahead of them. I am not sure I completely grasp it today.

Little did I know, in my own youth and innocence of 1963, that I would later enter a profession where I dealt daily with both compassion for the lives and health of women and vitriol by anti-choice protesters. Their view of God, society, sexuality, and women is so twisted, so distorted, and so one-dimensional that they would — and some do — kill in the name of life and in the name of God.

Back in 1963, I also could never have predicted that in the course of my role as executive director of Aradia Women's Health Center in Seattle, I would later meet, and eventually become close friends with, another victim of a different kind of bombing: Emily Lyons. This time the attack was perpetrated by a different type of terrorist: the anti-choice, anti-woman religious extremist who, like the KKK in times past, also sets bombs meant to cause fear, death, destruction, and severe injury.

Actually, Emily Lyons is a true survivor and her passion, dedication, strength, and courage are unlike anyone's. She is my hero. I am always inspired by her Southern wit and quiet charm and her amazing ability to take back her own life in spite of the extensive injuries suffered at the hands of one hateful Eric Rudolph, whose bombing of the New Woman All Women's Health Clinic (NWAWC) on January 29, 1998 changed her life forever. As it did so many others, including mine.

The incomprehensibly vicious attack on Emily brought back my childhood memories of Birmingham, which during the terrorist attacks against racial equality of the civil rights era had become known for a time as "Bombingham." In 1998, a different kind of "Bombingham" emerged once again in "The Magic City." A nail-filled bomb meant to destroy, kill, and maim blasted off part of the front of the building that houses NWAWC, and shattered the front door. As if that was not enough, far more terrifying and devastating, it did succeed in killing Robert "Sandy" Sanderson, an off-duty police officer who was the clinic's security guard. It also very seriously injured Emily, the director of nursing, who since then has endured twenty-two surgeries, is blind in one eye, has scars on many parts of her body, and still has shrapnel in her body. But her indomitable spirit and dignity are not scarred. As outlined in her moving book "Life's Been A Blast: The Inspiring Story of Birmingham Bombing Survivor Emily Lyons", she has persevered and has learned to move forward and live a full life.

Her devoted husband Jeff, the co-author of their incredible story, has been by her side every inch of the way through Emily's perilous journey of recovery. When you are in the presence of these two individuals, their very accessibility, openness, generosity, and thoughtfulness are extraordinary. They have been though pure living hell, an ongoing nightmare of pain and suffering, and yet emerged stronger, smarter, and more committed than ever to women's lives, choices, and dignity. They are passionately in love, have interesting lives filled with good work, family, and protective animals, and are not consumed by bitterness. They certainly were not been deterred by the violent words, bigotry, and the hate of Operation Save America (OSA) that recently descended on their city from July 14-22nd in an attempt to close down Birmingham's two remaining women's clinics that perform abortions.

As I was preparing to go to Birmingham, I thought on what would see and learn. I knew that the resolve of Emily and Jeff would be strong. I also knew that Alabama NOW, Birmingham NOW and numerous other local and national organizations were effectively mobilizing to protect the clinics, staff, and clients from the distorted ravings and destructive actions of Flip Benham, Operation Save America's leader, and his misguided extremist followers. And I thought back to OSA/Operation Rescue (their original name) and their mobilizations over the years. Fortunately, they are much smaller in numbers now than in years past.

I recall when Operation Rescue (OR) was first getting started in 1988 with their disruptive and sexist national actions of blockading clinics to attempt to stop women from getting abortions. On one occasion during a blockade we had positioned a 15 foot ladder on the side of the building of Aradia Women's Health Center so that women could climb up to a second story window to get into the clinic, as OR had completely blocked the front entrance! The determination of women to do what they believe they must do regarding their pregnancies and the future of their lives has never ceased to amaze me. Imagine, in a country where abortion is legal, needing to dodge anti-choice protestors and climb a ladder through a second story window to get into the clinic where you will receive safe abortion care. It was outrageous then … and it remains so. And we are still doing things like this today…

I have the deepest respect for the power and strength of women. I also knew that OSA would try to be as disruptive as possible in front of Birmingham's two remaining clinics and I geared up for my visit there. (See Andrea Lynch's powerful blog.) I knew that the clinics would undoubtedly stay open, but it would not be simple or easy.

Stay tuned for the second part of Birmingham Blues.

Culture & Conversation Race

‘I Burn, and I Hope’: Today’s Writers Revisit ‘The Fire Next Time’

Shonte Daniels

It’s 2016, but the world James Baldwin described in the early 1960s seems no different from the world we live in now.

The first essay in James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time is a letter to his young nephew regarding the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the racial discrimination Baldwin’s nephew will face. Baldwin details the hate his nephew will encounter, and the people who will only see him, a young Black boy, as an animal. But Baldwin’s warning is not used as a fear tactic; rather, Baldwin pleads for his nephew, and for Black youth as a whole, to live with compassion, to survive “for the sake of your children and your children’s children.”

He ends the book by demanding everyone—everyone meaning Black and white people who are conscious of U.S. race relations—change the minds of hateful people. “If we do not dare everything,” he writes, “the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by the slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!”

Now Jesmyn Wardan English professor at Tulane University and a recipient of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction with her second novel, Salvage the Bones—has compiled a collection of 15 essays and three poems (ten of which were written specifically for the book) that arrives 53 years later, at the time of the fire Baldwin forewarned. Not every person has pushed to bring an end to racial injustice, and so everyone is burning. But so long as there are activists, philosophers, and artists, there is always hope we will one day pull ourselves out of the flames: That is the message I took away from Ward’s The Fire This Time. The collection acknowledges the pain and brings the reader a sense of hope that the fire this time is not permanent.

Featuring great contemporary Black writers like Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, and Kevin Young, The Fire This Time uses Baldwin’s thoughts on race to discuss current struggles and Black people’s dogged determination to love each other amid centuries of hate.

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Released today on what would have been Baldwin’s 92nd birthday, the book is grounded in the country’s history to help readers better understand the context of our present moment. As Ward states in her introduction, “We must acknowledge the plantation, must unfold white sheets, must recall the black diaspora to understand what is happening now.”

Slavery may have been abolished more than 150 years ago, but, as the book suggests, the world has not overcome its racist roots, nor has it granted Black people any new means of safety.

When I initially sat down to write this review, the Freddie Gray case had just concluded with zero convictions against the Baltimore, Maryland, officers involved in the death of the 25-year-old Black man. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke had addressed the acquittal to a resounding applause at the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, Black parents still live in fear for their children playing in the park, street, or pool. Despite claims of a “post-race” society—one in which people are not discriminated against or murdered because of the color of their skin—the targeting by law enforcement of some racial groups over others remains rampant. It feels as if, especially for those with power, the Black body is still another beast to be tamed. It’s 2016, but the world Baldwin described in the early 1960s seems no different from the world we live in now.

This connection between the past and present is the central focus of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” when she talks about how shortly after she was born four Black girls were killed at an Alabama Baptist church on September 15, 1963, and how 52 years later, “for African-American families, this living in a state of mourning and fear remains commonplace.” Shortly before her essay originally appeared in the New York Times, on June 17, 2015, nine parishioners were shot and killed at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Dylann Storm Roof [the shooting suspect] did not create himself from nothing,” she writes. “Every racist statement he has made he could have heard all his life. He, along with the rest of us, has been living with slain black bodies.”

This association is also made in Clint Smith’s poem, “Queries of Unrest,” in which the author writes, “Maybe I come from a place where people / are always afraid of dying.”

Despite the dark nature of the topics addressed in the book, a thread of hope is weaved throughout the entire collection. As Ward writes in her introduction,“I burn, and I hope.”

The Fire This Time isn’t interested in creating plans on moving forward as much as it is about discussing the humanity of Black people.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers questions historians’ portrayal of Phillis Wheatley and her husband John Peters, asserting that their relationship could have been loving rather than tumultuous; Kiese Laymon thanks OutKast and his grandmama for letting him find his “funky” voice; and Emily Raboteau writes on the importance of murals in urban communities that she photographed around New York, which teach civilians about their rights when engaging with the police.

Amid loss and fury, love binds Black communities together. Our love for each other is what keeps the fire burning as we are shouting for our lives to matter.

However, The Fire This Time is not just a book for those inside the diaspora; Ward urges those who don’t identify as Black or consider themselves part of the diaspora, and those who lack understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, to read this book and educate themselves on the ways in which Black people are unequivocally human. The collection could change the minds of those who see the Black community, and especially the Black Lives Matter movement, as menacing. It’s an educational and emotional read that shows Black people are hurting and loving simultaneously. Kiese Laymon says it best in his essay “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” when he writes, “I’m going to tell Grandmama that her belief is the only reason I’m still alive, that belief in black Southern love is why we work.”

The Fire This Time develops a kinship with non-Black folks through the use of the collective “we.” For example, Isabel Wilkerson speaks to Black people about the continuation of trauma against us and in “Where Do We Go From Here?” (which originally appeared in Essence magazine’s special Black Lives Matter issue). Or Carol Anderson’s “White Rage,” where she takes a historic look at white supremacy in the wake of Black death: “When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Missouri … it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male.” Instead, Anderson argues that what we’ve seen is an example of white rage, a backlash from white people who have “access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors,” and can hurt Black communities through means of law and order.

The diversity of perspectives in The Fire This Time is necessary, as the collection seeks to show its readers that Black life, like Black art, can never be extinguished.

In fact, The Fire This Time places a strong emphasis on the difference between life and Black life to ensure the reader understands it, and never forgets the way race alters everyone’s living. The difference between life and Black life is that the latter is always questioned, threatened, or destroyed, due to racism. Whether attending a funeral, walking at night, or even listening to music, a Black body gives ordinary life new context.

The authors of the pieces that fill The Fire This Time have come together, under Ward’s direction, like a family sharing their fears, their rage, and their happiness. Reading through the collection felt like sitting through a discussion with aunties and grandparents. The reader must hear her elder’s stories, which are honest and analytical, comical and devastating.

As Edwidge Danticat writes in the final essay of the book, “Message to My Daughters,” Black people want a future where our children “have the power to at least try to change things, even in a world that resists change with more strength than they have.”

The Fire This Time will not leave you feeling completely hopeful of the future—it is not naïve in its optimism—but it does suggest that there is always room for societal change, so long as we continue fighting for it. Like The Fire Next Time, this book still hopes for when the fire will bring peace. “When that day of jubilee finally arrives,” Danticat writes, “all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.

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