Taja Lindley is a Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist and 2020 Fellow for Socially Engaged Art. For years, the artist has also been consulting on and advocating for the issue of Black maternal healthcare, including as a co-facilitator in development of The New York City Standards for Respectful Care at Birth, which has led to the creation of her new Birth Justice Podcast NYC, premiering on July 8th, 2020. The day is in fact Lindley’s own birthday, and will feature an interview with her mother, Adrianne Robinson, about her birth in 1985. Over the course of the series, Lindley continues this approach, personalizing an issue that can feel remote when focused on statistics that obscure the lives and experiences of people experiencing pregnancy, abortion, and childbirth. What emerges from speaking with Lindley in the interview below, and in listening to her podcast, is the essential need to frame and understand Black maternal mortality as not only about healthcare inequality, but also about Black bodily autonomy, dignity and safety; a human rights issue at the genesis of the fight for Black life.
Kathryn McKinney: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to work in the space of maternal health/birth justice? How does it intersect with your previous work?
Taja Lindley: There are many origin stories! Some of which I discuss in the Prelude episode of the Birth Justice Podcast NYC (which I encourage folks to listen to).
The short of it is, I’ve had a number of experiences that led me to reproductive justice in general and birth justice in partiuclar: being the daughter of a Black mother; being the eldest of three sisters; being a Black woman navigating my sexual health and bodily autonomy; reading Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body in undergrad; volunteering as a full spectrum doula for several years supporting births and abortions in NYC; and, most recently, working as a Sexual and Reproductive Justice Consultant (and later, a Public Artist in Residence) with the NYC Health Department on maternal health projects.
Reproductive justice is comprehensive in scope. By its very definition, it requires us to look at all of the intersections of our lives and examine how they impact our health, our bodies, our autonomy, and our families. So, arguably, much of my work has been aligned with and in support of reproductive justice to date.
My most recent works (The Bag Lady Manifesta, This Ain’t A Eulogy, and accompanying installations), I grapple with the violent ways in which Black life is taken, namely through state sanctioned violence. Black maternal mortality, too, is another example of Black folks dying prematurely at the hands of systems and structures that were not designed to serve us (research: origins of police; research: origins of American gynecology). In my heart, mind and spirit, I’m still figuring out the ways in which all of this work intersects, but what feels most urgent and present for me right now is that my artwork moves through the continuum(s) of cycles of birth/death/rebirth (in physical and metaphysical as well as literal and symbolic ways), confronts the ways in which Black lives are treated as if they’re disposable, and calls on rituals of re-membering (such as storytelling) as strategy for social change.
KM: In New York, Black women are eight times more likely to die due to pregnancy related causes than white women, which is double the national average. In your experience, what do you see contributing to this? What are common misunderstandings about what this represents?
TL: Looking at statistics without an analysis of systemic inequity can lead some folks to think, “oh, these poor health outcomes are because people make poor choices.” This is not true. Differences in health outcomes based on race have more to do with racism than the behaviors or practices of particular groups of people. Because when we account for everything—class, educational attainment, income, etc.—there are still statistical differences in health outcomes based on race. For example: a white woman without a high school education has better birth outcomes than a Black woman who has a college degree.
The short answer to why this stat exists: racism. Point blank periodt.
And for folks who are unconvinced, I can offer some examples of how this shows up: not believing Black birthing people when they say they are in pain or something is not right (research: Serena Williams’ birth story); disrespectful medical treatment (research Amber Rose Isaac); the overmedicalization of birth, treating it as an emergency (instead of a natural life occurrence), which leads to the introduction of unnecessary medical interventions (research Sha-asia Wasington); and the ways in which racism causes stress and can deteriorate our health and bodies, making us more susceptible to high risk pregnancies and complicated births (research: weathering).
And there are many more reasons. I encourage folks to listen to the podcast to hear how people who are actively engaged in birth justice work—as advocates, birthworkers, activists, scholars and artists—make sense of how and why this is happening, and what we can do about it.
Black maternal mortality, too, is another example of Black folks dying prematurely at the hands of systems and structures that were not designed to serve us
KM: You’re kicking off the podcast series with an interview with your mother, a nurse, on your birthday. Can you speak about her influence on you?
TL: I mean—she’s my mom! She’s been a big presence in my life because she was my sole provider. And while she wasn’t perfect (I’ve learned no parent is), she did/does her best. We’re both Cancers; I was born two weeks before her 20th birthday in July. Interviewing her the podcast made me realize we’re a lot more similar than I had realized, or perhaps admitted to myself.
Growing up in a family full of medical practitioners (nurses, radiologist, phlebotomist), I thought for sure I wouldn’t be like them; but alas, here I am! What I’ve learned from watching my family in action around family members who have been hospitalized, is that they too don’t fuck around with this healthcare system. You would think as practitioners of health they’d have more trust in the system they work for, but as Black women, they know better. So they question everyone and everything, demand answers and information as well as proper care and treatment. Witnessing my mother and other family in action in this way is part of what spurred my activism, my desire for just and humane treatment, and my habit of questioning everything, including (so-called) authority.
As a memory worker, I thought it’d be important to start the podcast with an interview that gave listeners some historical context about New York City (a birth story from the 1980’s) as well as historical context of the host of the podcast, me. And how serendipitous to birth this new project on the day of my birth interviewing the first Black mama I’ve ever met!
KM: Can you describe how being an artist informs all of this work—podcasting, advocacy and activism, and working in institutions like the NYC Health Department?
TL: Artists have an ability to synthesize and map multiple, seemingly disparate pieces of information. The web that racism has built is ubiquitous—it is everywhere. It will take creative and imaginative thinking to dismantle it and other inequities (for those who choose to do that work) and/or to create new realities outside of racist the one(s) we’re living in.
For my work, I’m more interested in addressing the issue I’m grappling with and less concerned about the medium. Sure, I absolutely love performance and find power in immersive installation. But ultimately, everything I do and take on is my art practice. So it is not that being an artist informs all of this work. It is that the work itself is the art. So I challenge people to consider: how might the shape of something seemingly unartistic look/feel/be different because it is an artist who is holding/facilitating it?
And for the folks who are reading this who are (still) thinking, “but what is the art of this anyway?” Listen, it’s in the storytelling (research: oral history traditions). It’s in the questions. It’s in how I choose to enter and close conversations. It will also live in how these interviews get remixed and (re)used in future in-person experiences (namely performance and installation). And get ready for creative sonic experiences on the podcast—hoping to debut in season 2 (fingers crossed.)