Actress Gabrielle Union has managed to snatch my edges once again and remind me that my experience as a Black person is multifaceted.
For years, I’ve watched as Union—both the real woman and the characters she’s played—has put a face on many things I was personally experiencing: co-parenting, a partner’s infidelity, and pregnancy woes.
Then, last week, I nearly threw my phone across my office after seeing the Instagram image of the Being Mary Jane star and husband Dwyane Wade in a bed cradling their newborn baby girl.
After years of fertility treatments and almost 10 miscarriages, Union has moved into another stage of mothering. Once I gathered myself, I saw that the newest addition to Wade family—which includes Wade’s children from other relationships—was delivered via surrogate. All I could do was cry.
Here I am, this Black woman that’s gone through my childbearing years conflicted about whether or not surrogacy was something that my Black body was even capable or worthy of doing.
I’ve long wanted to be a surrogate, especially for people of color who can’t conceive or carry a pregnancy. Because freedom to have children is just as important as freedom not to have them. But I’ve repeatedly been told that “Black people don’t do that,” and I’ve learned not to speak too much about this dream in mixed company or with my most progressive friends. I know what’s to come: skepticism, too many questions, and insinuations that it’s bizarre or unnatural.
And then there are my own worries: How would I explain this to my teen daughter? Would carrying someone else’s child affect my own sex life and chances for romance? Would guys be turned off? And as a reproductive justice activist, I know just how dangerous being Black and giving birth in a racist world and health-care system can be; do I want to put my body through that risk?
Enter Gabrielle Union, validating me the same way she has unknowingly done time and time before. The news and affirmation left me uncontrollably ugly-sobbing. Seeing her in the hospital bed enjoying her first moments with her daughter was beautiful. At that moment, I saw a mother—nothing more, nothing less. I was reassured that fertility, blackness, and technology can intersect in a powerful way.
But as I scanned the responses to the Instagram post, my tears of joy and fulfillment became familiar tears of anger.
I read comment after comment of people questioning why she was in the hospital bed or wearing a gown, belittling her look of exhaustion, and criticizing the image. Some said her appearance was a hoax and she was doing too much because she didn’t even give birth. In this moment, too many used the opportunity to diminish the family’s celebration.
Given the long history of Black women’s fertility being controlled, surveilled, and insulted in this country, I expected Black and brown people to be celebrating Union’s intentional, beautiful new motherhood as a win for her and for us. But the harshest words were coming from the often hysterically funny but hypercritical world of Black Twitter and social media.
I asked myself: How is that Black folks could see anything other than #BlackGirlMagic in Gabrielle Union’s moment?
Easy: white supremacy. That’s how.
Since mainstream media has portrayed surrogacy as something reserved for white bodies and white families, we have no idea how to apply it to the Black experience.
Trust me: I too have struggled with this. My first introduction to surrogacy was a 1998 episode of Friends, so it doesn’t get any whiter than that. On top of it, the surrogate was Phoebe, a quirky white woman character who gives birth to triplets for her estranged brother and sister-in-law. It seemed like just another weird Phoebe storyline, like changing her name to Princess Consuela Banana Hammock or singing her beloved “Smelly Cat” anthem.
Until recently, most examples of surrogacy I saw featured a white body carrying a child for white parents.
In the last week, we’ve heard about Michelle Obama’s miscarriages and use of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Over the course of several shows and seasons, we’ve seen rapper Remy Ma struggle with pregnancy loss and trying to conceive again, experiences that she initially wanted edited out of her Love and Hip Hop appearances.
We need more of these stories—though I recognize everyone doesn’t have access to IVF or surrogacy—because when Black people have been shown struggling with fertility in television, there’s usually a shaming narrative. Character Veronica Fisher (played by Shanola Hampton) on Shameless blamed her past abortions and sexually transmitted infections for why she couldn’t get pregnant. On Being Mary Jane, Gabrielle Union’s character ties her fertility struggles to a past abortion and her career ambitions.
In this narrative, white bodies experience infertility despite doing everything “right” and now face infertility as a hassle without explanation or reason. Meanwhile, being infertile while Black is a punishment for past sexual behaviors, reproductive choices, and committing our childbearing years to success or not falling victim to the wage gap.
There have been surrogates in our communities for generations—if not in the high-tech way. We have raised one another’s children in a form of surrogacy that white normalcy has shamed. Our relatives and loved ones stepping in to love us through conditions and circumstances are no different than surrogacy in the reproductive sense. Black Americans have long created various models of family, and we have been maligned, not praised for it. Surrogacy should just be another type of family creation that’s open to us.