Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

"There Is a Balm ..." Spirituality & Healing among African American Women

Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

"There Is a Balm ..." Spirituality & Healing among African American Women

Article excerpt

Finding Balm

There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul..

--Negro spiritual

Mama Leslie is African American and a practicing traditional midwife--that is, one who use folk methods rather than nursing school training in her practice. She was 42 years of age, a single mother, and had been practicing for ten years during the time I interviewed her in 2001. I contacted Mama Leslie as part of a larger study about black women, healing, health, and spirituality. Her words serve as a rich introduction to this essay.

Mama Leslie reported to me that she is the only black traditional midwife in the metropolitan area, possibly the state. She became a midwife during the time she herself was pregnant, as her dissatisfaction grew with medical doctors who insisted on hospitalization; she particularly disliked those who intimated that Caesarean birth was a high likelihood in their practices. She referred to the medical profession's tendency to force delivery or perform a Caesarean after so many hours of labor as "a technological birth, not a humanistic birth, not a holistic birth." Hospitals and birth are antithetical, as far as Mama Leslie is concerned. "Basically people die in hospitals." The midwife who worked with Mama Leslie during her pregnancy invited her to study.

So far, Mama Leslie has caught 75 babies during the time of her own practice. She clarifies the language of catching babies, as a lifeguard not a deliverer: "I don't deliver babies. I can't do that. " Catching babies is more holistic, a sense of working with mother, and whoever her support persons are. Because she works with the families so closely, she usually senses when the delivery date nears, calling the family more often. If necessary, Mama Leslie induces labor with a mixture of orange juice and castor oil. She stated, "It's a trick of the trade, from other midwives," women with whom she meets annually. She is selective about the families with whom she will work, based on the mother's physical health, the possibility of a successful home birth, and the conditions surrounding the birth family. She showed photos of the birthing processes and of ongoing interaction with parents and children. Mama Leslie talked about the processes of birth as spiritual, with babies making choices whether or not they want to come in the world and mothers' having the ability to control aspects of their bodies' operations, such as the amount of blood loss, barring hemorrhage.

Mama Leslie's objectives include healing families and breaking cycles. This sense of healing starts from her personal commitment to grow. "It's about conditionings and breaking those conditionings for me to be all I can be. Or to be in the world and not experience love, joy, and peace." The heart of her spirituality is simply stated: "There's only one truth, being one with God. Anything else is an illusion."

This essay considers some of the dynamics of black women's healing concepts, often held in families, passed from mother to daughter. There is a recurring spirituality that surfaces when black women speak about healing. As with Mama Leslie, the movement against mainstream medical understandings can lead to some personal choices. The potential for this creative choice is a combination of culturally derived understandings of wholeness and illness. Through all of this, the consideration of how black women are understood in American society alternatively constructs gender, consequently empowering black women to make creative, Mama-Leslie-like choices.

My explorations of the meanings of healing among black women began in Detroit as part of a larger analysis of black women's spirituality. Health concepts of black women were an important location to explore spirituality--bringing intense focus on cultural understandings of body and soul, of the family and its members, and of the person and the community. While I draw from cultural and historical studies, ethnography fills in some of the blanks about the real meanings of black women's lives. …

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