Historian Tamika Nunley can see the U.S. Supreme Court through the window of her office in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where she is serving as the library’s Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History this summer. It’s a great vantage point, she said, not only for looking out at landmarks of American government, but also for reflecting on the ways laws and judgements have negatively influenced Black maternal health throughout American history.
“I think the Library of Congress is one of the most democratic institutions we have, one of the best examples of what is possible in our democracy,” said Nunley, associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “It’s been a great synergy for me to be in the library and to think about the relationship between what the government does and the work that I’m trying to capture … . The building is glamorous, but the work itself – I think we don’t oftentimes value what it means to live the life of the mind, that in order to produce this knowledge, we really do have to get quiet and we have to read, we have to study, and we have to try to understand.”
Nunley is using her time at the Library of Congress to build the historical context for The Black Reproductive Justice Archive, a digital collection of oral histories from people at the forefront of addressing the Black maternal health and reproductive crisis. The archive will be housed on a website available to the public and feature a database of oral histories, critical essays, and multimedia forms of storytelling from medical and legal professionals, doulas, organizers and others. Her project is supported by a New Frontier Grant (NFG) from A&S.
Today in the United States, Black women are three to five times more likely to face maternal death than white women, regardless of social, educational and economic status, Nunley said; Black infants are more likely to face life-threatening complications or mortality, and both are likely to receive poor treatment from America’s hospital systems.
While this has become more understood in this contemporary moment, what’s less understood is Black women’s reproductive lives during the earlier periods of American history, said Nunley, who is writing a book on the subject as well as building the oral history archive.
“I’m thinking about the history of Black women’s relationship to reproduction, which includes reproductive history, law and medicine,” she said. “It’s been fascinating research to conduct while simultaneously launching an oral history project on Black women activists, providers, doula collectives, who are on the front lines of addressing the crisis. There is the historical component to it, and there is the very present on-the-ground moment we’re trying to capture through this project with the New Frontier Grant.”
The Black Reproductive Justice Archive will focus, at first, on Cleveland. Named one of the worst places in the U.S. for Black women in terms of health, economic, social and political outcomes, Nunley said, it also has a Black middle class that’s been affected by the crisis in Black maternal health.
“In Cleveland, there are interesting dynamics happening with advancements in medicine and also rampant levels of poverty, bureaucratic challenges and barriers to accessing health care benefits,” Nunley said. “It is an important place to begin because it captures ways that other American cities might be struggling with this issue, as well.”
Cornell doctoral candidate Arielle Rochelin, a specialist in Black women’s history, together with undergraduate researchers, will collect oral histories. The goal is to eventually expand to other American cities.
Black women’s historical struggle for reproductive justice is far from over, Nunley said, a reminder, as America just celebrated Juneteenth as a national holiday, that “legal freedom is only the beginning of a long, long, rigorous fight for equality.”
“I think the fight for reproductive justice, particularly for Black families, is a testament to that fight and the persistent fight that has to remain ongoing until we realize more equitable conditions,” Nunley said. “I think it’s a sobering reminder of the work that still remains.”
But Juneteenth is also a celebration, she said, of the creative ways Black people have found to “embody joy in the face of incomplete revolution.”