The editors asked for my views on a court decision handed down before I was born. What follows are reflections on Roe v. Wade by a black nationalist, womanist-leaning, hip-hop-generation writer with an unshakable belief in every woman’s right to control her reproductive life but an uneasy relationship with American history, politics, and the struggle attached to obtaining and maintaining that right.
In its June 1992 ruling on Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the central tenet of Roe v. Wade—that states can’t criminalize most abortions. At the same time, this lesser-known but arguably as important decision gave state lawmakers across the country more wiggle room to restrict abortion access on a piecemeal basis.
Because of my age and proximity, the state-based, anti-choice backlash symbolized by Casey resonates much more than the sweeping feminist victory of Roe v. Wade.
I was a sixteen-year-old living in West Philadelphia during the Casey period. The defining reproductive health issues of my day were teen pregnancy and a new, deadly, sexually transmitted disease called AIDS. For my generation, The Pill was a given and Roe was an abstraction, the subject of an oversimplified historical narrative.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for my afterschool job teaching mostly black and Puerto Rican girls how to protect themselves from unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, I wouldn’t have participated in post-Roe activism at all.
Peer education was a fitting gig for me, an idealistic twelfth grader weaned on the sex-positive children’s book Where Did I Come From?, steeped in my mother’s black feminism, and motivated by my household’s black nationalist values of self-determination and community concern. True, I was a virgin for most of my tenure, but what I lacked in sexual experience I made up for in stats and demonstrations with props including a rubber penis model, cervical cap, Today sponge and female condoms the circumference of soup cans.
Under the mentorship of a groovy young white organizer named Jacqueline Ambrosini, I even joined an ad hoc, Planned Parenthood–affiliated sexuality education advocacy group called Teenvoices. While our primary goal was to push Philadelphia public schools to implement the comprehensive sex education curriculum the district had designed, we also discussed the Supreme Court hearing of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. We Teenvoicers learned the pro-choice argument against the state’s 1982 Abortion Control Act, which required a twenty-four-hour waiting period, parental consent for most minors, and spousal notification prior to the procedure. These regulations, we learned, placed an undue burden on girls and women seeking to exercise their constitutionally protected right to undergo a safe, legal abortion. To humanize the lofty and wonky concept of undue burden, we discussed what it might mean for wives in abusive marriages, incest victims under age eighteen, working women for whom two trips to an abortion provider would jeopardize their employment, and rural women without reliable public transportation.
Even without the crash course in my state’s obstructive abortion policy, I was unapologetically pro-choice. Common sense told me that abortion fell squarely in the category of “doing what you had to do.” If you weren’t the person carrying the fertilized egg, and if you weren’t emotionally, socially, financially and legally required to raise or pay child support for the resulting baby, best practice was to mind your own damned business.
In fact, under the rubric of “the personal is political,” I’m going to tell you—with her permission—that my mother had an abortion. She and my father couldn’t support a third little Solomon, so they made the choice. My mom mentions her abortion with the same pragmatism she’s used to discuss her intra-uterine device and tubal ligation. “I’m just not ashamed of it,” she has said, without prompting, on more than one occasion. “I believe in a woman’s right to choose, and I think all women deserve equal access to this choice.”
Based on my inherited pragmatism and the outspokenness I displayed at Teenvoices meetings, Jacqui asked me to speak out against parental consent at a pre-Casey press conference.
I said no.
I was not press-shy. I had already co-written a Philadelphia Daily News op-ed about the failure of sexuality education in city public schools, been quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer about school violence and the devaluation of black life, and provoked television news coverage thanks to an anti-racism speakout my friends and I orchestrated at our school.
But I drew the line at publicly aligning myself with “the abortion issue,” Roe v. Wade, and the institutional white feminists popularly associated with the ruling. Doing so seemed like socio-political suicide in my highly segregated, decidedly African American slice of Philadelphia community life. I just couldn’t see myself standing up on the local news in my six-inch Yoruba headwrap spitting soundbites about teen abortion access, then returning to the Christian faithful in my high school gospel choir and the “conscious,” quasi-Muslim, Afrocentric, and decidedly un-feminist Caribbean boys I dated.
I drew the line at publicly aligning myself with “the abortion issue,” Roe v. Wade, and the institutional white feminists popularly associated with the ruling. Doing so seemed like socio-political suicide in my highly segregated, decidedly African American slice of Philadelphia community life.
Then there were certain “political” adults in my orbit for whom “Mississippi appendectomies,” coercive welfare policies, and the specter of black genocide were very real. I didn’t want them lecturing me about the white supremacist, anti-immigrant eugenics movement of the early twentieth century; about the forcible, secret sterilization of poor black women, including Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer; or the forty-year-long “Tuskegee Experiment of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” a government-sponsored study that allowed hundreds of poor, black Alabama men infected with syphilis to believe that they were receiving medical care for “bad blood” when they were in, fact, being used as guinea pigs.
In her landmark essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw describes “gender subordination” among black women as “ambivalence among Black women about the degree of political and social capital that ought to be expended toward challenging gender barriers, particularly when the challenges might conflict with the antiracism agenda.” Based on what I knew of it, mainstream feminism didn’t provide much of an incentive for me to expend my own limited capital.
From the outside looking in, early 1990s feminism had little to do with policies that impacted all women regardless of race, class, or location. As a high school student, I saw feminism as a movement dedicated to the advancement of individuals who just happened to be white, thin, able-bodied, and heterosexual. The questions posed by lipstick-feminist, white-women-centered magazines I flipped through were broad, behavioral, and marketable: “Can women have it all?” they’d ask. “Can you be strong and sexy at the same time?”
Even the Second Wave structural question of women working outside of the home seemed irrelevant, because the women in my family and community didn’t have a choice. Every single African American woman I knew worked a paying job, as did her mother and grandmother. In my grandmothers’ cases, they cleaned—floors at schools, floors at the electric company, and the floors of white women’s homes.
Given my uneasiness about mainstream feminism, I just didn’t have the capacity to take on a potentially controversial issue like abortion.
I lack the poetic acuity of childhood memoirist June Jordan or the structural analysis of a Haki Madhubuti, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint how individual tenets of either system shaped my worldview at sixteen or even now. I can only say that my fiercely loving mom and baba made a calculated effort to place ideas of black affirmation, activism, nation-building, cultural genius, and gender equality at the center of our everyday lives. They did so despite the wicked, wicked early 1980s backlash against black liberation politics and the enduring pan-movement silence about sexism.
Along with my grandmother, Mamie Nichols, a longtime South Philadelphia anti-gentrification activist, my parents modeled the necessity of organizing. Baba was an active member of a Philadelphia group called the Kwanzaa Cooperative. Mom was on the board of the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Project and a founding member of Sisters Remember Malcolm, a group that honored and made contemporary the legacy of Malcolm X.
For my sister and me, this meant frequent trips to community programs where domestic revolution, South African apartheid, police brutality, the radical group MOVE, political prisoners, news media racism, and the devilish ways of Mayor Frank Rizzo were popular topics. This meant periodic visits by a non-criminal auntie who was nevertheless wanted in several states. It also meant being traumatized at age seven by an image of Emmett Till’s lynched and bloated corpse; mourning the murder of Malcolm X at age eight; and finding out the depressing facts of Reconstruction to counter the Hollywood version of black emancipation with at ten.
I learned the broad strokes of black feminism through my mother’s pronouncements and my baba’s cooperation. I remember her using Alice Walker’s “womanist” nomenclature to sum up her feminism rooted in black liberation struggles. I also recall her screaming at us about equal division of household labor and running down “full of shit, trifling brothers” who demanded the benefits of patriarchy without doing “manly” things like working a damn job. Pink wasn’t a sartorial option. Kwanzaa gifts for two little doll-loving girls included a Radio Shack math and science kit so we’d be ready to run a post-revolution world.
Now, all of this political thinking, activity—programming—was a blessing. But two ironies complicated my childhood and adolescence. First of all, “non-conscious” black people outnumbered us, and I lived in mortal fear of intra-racial ridicule of my nappy hair, Swahili name, homemade African-print dresses, and observance of Kwanzaa.
Second was that my parents, fed up with multiple school strikes, geographic exclusion from the city’s top magnet school, and a series of administrators playing loose and fast with young black minds, sent my sister and me to a predominantly white, rich, all-girl prep school in the suburbs. The plan was for us to acquire the skills we’d need to administer the revolution. For me, that meant a vicious triple consciousness. From third to eighth grade, I was, in turn, a nappy-headed new Afrikan unfamiliar with the rituals of bourgeois Afro-America; a proper-to-white-talking black girl afraid of betraying my parents; and a dark-skinned, working-class black girl navigating a world of extreme whiteness. After dealing with my own issues of racial and cultural identity, I just didn’t have the energy to take on gender.
Technically speaking, the court used the “undue burden” standard for evaluating each chunk of the law. A provision was deemed an undue burden if, by design or in effect, it created major obstacles for a woman trying to get an abortion before the fetus reached “viability.” Spousal notification was the sole “undue burden.”
Although I wasn’t sophisticated enough to see it at the time—and email, blogs, online progressive media, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other forms of instant communication weren’t there for organizers to instantly ring the alarm—Planned Parenthood v. Casey provided legal and official reinforcement for an anti-abortion movement that appeared to be on the fringes of sanity.
From the early 1990s to the 2010 Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, grassroots fanaticism served as the dominant image of the anti-abortion movement. If you weren’t in the trenches or paying close attention, it was easy to perceive radical anti-choice folks as a motley crew of clinic bombers and street-harassers; bait-and-switch crisis pregnancy counselors; demented fetus-doll-waving street preachers; and middle aged, white American terrorists, such as Scott Roeder, who in January 2009 walked into a Wichita, Kansas, church and shot late-term abortion doctor George Tiller to death.
At the risk of sounding overdramatic, I’m going to tell you that I regret my lack of involvement in the fight for reproductive rights. Maybe I would have made a different choice if I had known about Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, a civil rights and black liberation movement attorney and co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Perhaps my ambivalence would have dissipated if I’d learned about Reproductive Justice, a women-of-color-led, grassroots movement that decentralizes abortion and focuses on “the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments,” as the pioneering SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Coalition defines it. After all, the Reproductive Justice framework was born at a 1994 caucus of black women. Among other results, that framework helped Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice organize Vietnamese nail salon workers to protest toxic workplace chemicals. It led to the formation of Trust Black Women, a collective that gave laypeople and sympathetic legislators the language they needed to deconstruct racist billboards that equate black women’s reproductive health choices with black genocide. If I had known that radical women of color were fighting for reproductive rights and health care outside of traditional, white feminist pathways, I think I would have been all in.
Given that about 40 percent of American pregnancies are unintended, that black and Latina women undergo abortions at a higher rate than white women, and that financial instability is the foremost reason women give for ending a pregnancy, I think it’s high time for more women of color to get loud about reproductive health rights and for traditional gatekeepers to listen. As my mother recently said, we’re at war. There’s simply no room for ambivalence, queasiness, or fear.