Guest Post By Jamia Wilson
Turning thirty this year came with many lessons and challenges, including a gift of self-acceptance. One theme that has prevailed in my mind this year has been family. While my family, my faith, and my loved ones have always been of the utmost importance to me, the stunning loss of my beloved great-uncle ignited a renewed commitment to loving my family (biological and chosen) ferociously, faithfully, and unapologetically.
In celebration of Exhale’s Abortion Wellbeing Month, I reflect on the role that a loving family has played in my life and how important love and family is for the health and wellbeing of African American women who have abortions.
My great uncle taught me about what it means to feel loved by family. For as long as I can remember, Uncle Jeff lit up my life with his sparkling eyes, melodious laugh, and generous gifts on each of my birthdays. My grand-mother’s best friend and older brother possessed stunning beauty inside and out, and his strength of character and compassion impressed all who knew him.
Over a year ago, I visited with Uncle Jeff during a business trip. When I arrived at his house, he greeted me with a warm embrace and told me stories about his work, his love for his late wife, and his experiences in the military. He said he wanted me to know about his life because he was 90-years-old and he didn’t want me forget him. I expressed to him that I loved him and would never forget a soul as beautiful as his. At this moment he embraced me and said, “It feels so good to know that you love me. Thank you for that. I know I am not alone”. I will never forget that day, the last time I saw him alive, and the message he permanently burned into my heart.
When he died last year, I was devastated. At his funeral, I looked around the church and saw the whole family surrounding his coffin. As they played “Taps” and laid a folded flag in my grandmother’s arms, I fully understood what he had been urging us to see for so long—the importance of valuing and celebrating each other–and I will never forget his lesson.
In December, when I watched the premiere of MTV’s ”No Easy Decision” and saw the portrayal of Markai Durham’s family and their supportive and respectful response to her decision to end her pregnancy, the strength of her family unit reminded me of my own. I was drawn to Markai because her family’s sense of unconditional love and support in the face of adversity reminded me of my family and their unyielding compassion during challenging times.
I was pleasantly surprised by MTV’s presentation of Markai’s family during the show. Instead of exploiting and promoting negative stereotypes about African Americans, single-mothers, and multi-racial families, the network covered Markai’s experience with integrity. The Durham family and their friends were depicted authentically, and even though they weren’t perfect, they were real, loving, and caring without judgment.
As I watched the show and the interactions between Markai and her wise and supportive mother, I reflected on a phone conversation with my mom when I was 17 and just starting college. I remember calling my mother for advice about helping out a friend who had an abortion and couldn’t tell her family. I recall explaining my frustration that this friend could not confide in her own mother due to her fear of being disowned and excommunicated from her church. My mom praised me for being supportive and urged me to treat my friend like a sister, and be the family she needed in lieu of her own.
I asked my mom what she would do if I found myself in a similar situation and I’ll never forget her forceful but sweet southern-accented voice saying, “Don’t have sex until you are a responsible adult and make sure you use protection. I’m too young and fabulous to be a grandmother, but if you do find yourself pregnant, I will be there for you, and support you no matter what option you choose”. Years later, I remember those words, and I’m glad that I always knew that she would be there for me, no matter what, and without any stigma.
I’m thankful that Markai, me, and many other young women of color have mothers like ours who have our backs and respect our agency.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting around a table of diverse women of color and allies discussing the emergence of anti-abortion billboards targeting African American women who have had abortions in Soho.
One of the young women sitting across the table from me explained her frustration after hearing about a friend’s very young child asking her what the billboard meant. Her friend’s child saw how the young brown girl in the billboard looked a lot like herself. For three hours, we discussed what we could do to take action and prevent other women of color in cities across America from being targeted with such judgmental attacks—attacks which try to shame and disparage African American families alongside the billboards’ more overt, ideological messages about abortion. We knew that each attack on one woman’s dignity and respect was an attack on every one of us, whether we have had an abortion or not.
There is a long, ugly history of this kind of attack on pregnant African American women. I know about the insidious realities my foremothers faced during slavery. It is terrifying to fathom what life was like for women who were raped by their owners and forced to carry pregnancies to term in order to increase the workforce for their attackers. It is outrageous to imagine a time when families were split apart and forced to live in isolation while their kin were being sold far away. The billboards attempt to bring this hurtful legacy into our present lives.
When I think of the past, it reminds me why I am so grateful for my family. I will do whatever it takes to value and fervently love the people I share my life with. Having a family that supports me is a true blessing.
We often hear negative stories about African American families in the public discourse, but today, I write to recognize and celebrate the love and communion that has been holding our community together for hundreds of years. My great-uncle Jeff taught me that we are not alone when we share our stories.
We are never alone when we give our love.
Jamia is Vice President of Programs at the Women’s Media Center in New York City. after serving in several roles related to youth leadership development, grassroots organizing, and communications. Jamia worked for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and served on the PPFA Structure and Governance Committee and the Pro-Choice Education Project Steering Committee. Jamia was honored as one of the “Real Hot 100″ by the Younger Women’s Taskforce, and she has been nominated twice for Women’s Information Network’s annual Young Women of Achievement Awards as well as awarded NYU’s Department of Student Affairs’ Fall 2007 Hallmark Award for Wellness and The Center for Multicultural Education and Programs NIA Administrator Award. Watch Jamia’s speech at the February 2011 “Stand Up for Women’s Health” rally!
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