Commentary Human Rights

New Billboards Bring Messages to Empower and Inspire Black Community

Cherisse Scott

Our goal is to refocus the dialogue about Black women's reproductive health decisions back to the real conditions of our lives. Conditions which, if unmet, leave us vulnerable in many instances, with abortion as a choice we have been forced into.

If you live in Tennessee, you may have noticed billboards during your commute urging you to “Trust Black Women” and “Join Us.” They are intended to do something people in our communities haven’t seen recently: empower and inspire the Black community, and especially Black women.

These were, in part, in response to a set of shaming billboards, erected earlier this May, targeting predominately Black and low-income Memphis neighborhoods with racist and disturbing messages. Their divisive messages cloaked in moral concern blatantly pitted Black men and women against each other and aimed to guilt or shame Black women who would consider safe and legal abortion as the best health-care decision for their family.

When I first saw these hurtful and debasing advertisements, I had a visceral reaction.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of using billboards to shame women about abortion. Some of them have even compared abortion to both genocide and slavery.

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Fast forward to 2015, when anti-choice individuals have no problem co-opting the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to further their agenda of controlling and limiting women’s health-care choices. And yet, of course, they are nowhere to be found once our children are born. If I found out I was pregnant right now, I would highly consider abortion, if only to spare my child the threat of state-sanctioned violence he is likely to face. It seems from the time a Black child is in the womb, the system starts preparing for a future that will either put that child in prison or in the city morgue. Even now, as a Black mother raising a Black son, I am working every angle at my disposal to ensure he stands a chance striving against the reality of his life—a life that beyond his immediate family structure is not safe. When confronted with the staggering rates of mass incarceration of Black men and boys, why would I subject my child to the very real possibility of legalized slavery? For many Black women, abortions are as much an act of love as bringing a child into this world and raising it could ever be.

SisterReach Trust Me Billboard

The last thing women need are micro-aggressions, medically unsound facts, or shame for their health-care decisions. When I had my abortion I did not understand my fertility, an often too-familiar scenario among adult and young women, regardless of race or income. Add to that circumstances such as rape, incest, or dangerous pregnancy conditions including preeclampsia, a growing epidemic in the United States leading to maternal morbidity and infant mortality, and you have a dire need for reproductive health-care options which must include continued access to abortion care.

At SisterReach, our work is educating women and girls about their bodies; empowering them with resources to understand and advocate for policies that offer full access to their human rights; and enabling them to help their families and their communities with that education and by way of those policies. However, there is still much work to be done as the lived conditions of women and girls of color, LGBTQ individuals, marginalized women, and poor rural women are dire.

What Mommy Needs Billboard

The anti-choice billboard messages omit the context crucial to understanding why Black women oftentimes cannot or will not carry a pregnancy to term. For many women, choosing an abortion is an act of survival for herself and her family—for her unborn child, an act of mercy. For example, a woman experiencing intimate partner violence may choose an abortion as the only way to escape physical or financial vulnerabilities. For a rape or incest survivor, abortion care may be the only choice to not relive the physical or emotional trauma of the assault during pregnancy or when raising that child.

SisterReach understands women/womyn live at these intersections and others. This is why we created uplifting, supportive messages about their personal decision making and autonomy. Our goal is to refocus the dialogue about our reproductive health decisions back to the real conditions of our lives. Conditions which, if unmet, leave us vulnerable in many instances, with abortion as a choice we have been forced into.

One of our new advertisements, for example, includes a picture of a Black family with the words: “Our family’s success requires: lots of love, a living wage, affordable housing, a safe environment, healthcare, reliable transportation, safe and robust schools, a chance.”

Black Family Billboard

We believe that everyone is entitled to live happy and healthy lives. We believe that families deserve a dignified wage and should have access to comprehensive health care. And we believe that communities—this includes Black women and our families—deserve comprehensive resources and secure environments in order to thrive and succeed. Where are anti-choice groups when our children are victims of a failed education system, police brutality, and poverty?

The poverty rate for African Americans in Tennessee is 41 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Where is their concern when we are fighting for a living wage, equal pay, health care, or comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education for our young people? If they were truly “pro-life,” they would be interested in the lives of the full family before, during, and after birth.

In Tennessee we witness high rates of sexually transmitted infections, a lack of contraception access, and failure to offer comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education to our young people. At SisterReach, we are committed to changing these circumstances and we urge Tennesseans to join us in promoting the health and well-being of every person, in helping to end racism and violence against people of color and other vulnerable populations, and in focusing our outcomes on that which positively changes women’s lived experiences.

SisterReach Teen billboard

SisterReach will no longer allow this kind of emotional manipulation and coercion to continue. We work in solidarity with women’s reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations across the country that are defying these offensive messages.

In 2010, I joined with other Black reproductive justice advocates from around the country urging Americans to “Trust Black Women.” Like we did then, Black women today refuse to let these extremists judge our parenting choices and intimidate our communities.

Our overall mandate is simple: Trust Black Women.

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