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April 13, 2022

Gendered as Laborers with Jennifer Morgan & Dorothy Roberts

Two Black women on a light brown background with podcast logo and episode title

A Select History of Race, Labor, & Reproduction in the U.S.

“Black women are at the heart of the history of the Atlantic world.”  Jennifer Morgan

What does it mean to be gendered as laborers? Both physiologically and economically? 

How has that served colonial and U.S. economic interests? 

And how has the U.S. responded when Black women’s labor and reproduction no longer served racial capitalism?

Tune in to time travel with us: your host, Taja Lindley, and our guests - Jennifer Morgan and Dorothy Roberts - as we discuss historical evidence and insight into these questions.

Be sure to support this work at where you will be able to access exclusive content (including the upcoming Taja Tuesday Artist Talk) and full length interviews. 

Jennifer L. Morgan is Professor of History in the department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University where she also serves as Chair.  She is the author of Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Duke University Press, 2021, enter E21MORGN for a discount!); Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in the Making of New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and the co-editor of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in America (University of Illinois Press, 2016). Her research examines the intersections of gender and race in the Black Atlantic. 

Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law & Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, with joint appointments in Africana Studies, Sociology, and the Law School, where she is the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights. An acclaimed scholar and social justice activist, she is author of Killing the Black Body; Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century; and Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.

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Creator, Host and HBIC of the Black Women’s Dept. of Labor: Taja Lindley

Audio Engineering by Lilah Larson

Music by Emma Alabaster who also served as the Pre-Production Associate Producer

Additional Music Production by Chip Belton

Vocals by Patience Sings

Mixing and Mastering by Chip Belton

Lyrics by Taja Lindley and Emma Alabaster

Logo and Graphic Design Templates by Homegirl HQ

This podcast is produced by Colored Girls Hustle 

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Producer’s Note: The Black Women's Dept. of Labor is produced as a podcast. Transcripts are generated using a combination of transcription software and human transcribers, and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting by contacting us.

[00:00:00] Patience Sings: My labor’s the foundation. Life at the intersections. I am my own creation. I do not dream of work.

[00:00:20] Jennifer Morgan: You can't think race without reproduction. 

[00:00:23] Dorothy Roberts: The reason why this public health issue became criminalized was because the policy was focused on Black women. 

[00:00:33] Patience Sings: I do not dream of work.

[00:00:37] Jennifer Morgan: They are gendered as laborers.

Black women are at the heart of the history of the Atlantic world.

[00:00:43] Dorothy Roberts: We can look at every unjust policy and see how Black women end up being the focus but also at the front of resistance. 

[00:00:55] Patience Sings: Black women the foundation. Life at the intersections. Source of divine creations. Now listen now converse.

[00:01:10] Taja Lindley: You are listening to the Black Women's Department of Labor. A podcast and project by yours truly, Taja Lindley. Where we examine the intersections of race, gender, and the double entendre of labor: to work and to give birth. 

It's been a long minute, y'all. Okay?! And I am so glad to be back in your headphones and your speaker boxes with a new season and a new direction. It took time to conceive, birth and nurture this pivot. So, thank you, thank you, thank you for your patience and for your support. 

This work continues to be supported by listeners like you. If you'd like to contribute to the sustainability of this project and this artist - hi, hello, that's me - head on over to TajaLindley where you will have access to the full length interviews with each of our guests, plus some other content, including the upcoming Taja Tuesday Artist Talk. 

More on that later. Now let's get into the first episode. 

As a memory worker, I love to start with reviewing history and origin stories that can help us make sense of why and how we got here. So we're beginning the Black Women's Dept. of Labor podcast with conversations with two of my fave scholars. 

Jennifer Morgan and Dorothy Roberts. 

Their body of work provides documentation and insight into the meaning and experience of labor for Black women in the U.S.. And hearing from them feels both important and foundational for the episodes to come. 

 And here's a little fun fact. Jennifer Morgan used to be my professor back in the day when I was an undergrad at New York University. 

 Her book, "Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery" was on the syllabus and really blew baby Taja's mind. Okay?! 

Professor Morgan is a historian whose work explores how enslaved Black women lived. And she does this work with depth and with care. 

And speaking of care, just a little care message off the top. This episode is primarily focused on experiences of reproductive oppression. And will include conversations about rape and state sanctioned violence. So please, take care of yourself as you listen. 


[00:03:31] Jennifer Morgan: I do this research because I want to make the argument again and again, as loudly as I can, that Black women are at the heart of the history of the Atlantic world. That by leaving Black women out of that historical narrative, you are misunderstanding what has happened.

The first people to survive the middle passage, those ships often had large numbers of women in them, and nobody had really done the work to do a social history of those women's lives. Because Black women's lives are not seem to be historically significant or important. So it requires a certain amount of tenacity from the historian. 

Um, The way that I started was to read the colonial records. The records of the British legislative bodies. The original settlers. I was reading English travel narratives. Because I was interested in what a person who voluntarily left England to go to Barbados - what they might have thought about labor, about human difference, about who should do what kind of work. What does it mean to presume that someone else should do work for you? 

 um, It was slave owning men from Barbados who were the first settlers, white settlers, to South Carolina.

But what was super interesting to me is that Barbados had a balanced sex ratio among enslaved laborers. From the very beginning, there were basically equal numbers of men and women, which meant that women were doing the hard work of sugar cultivation. Because any skilled job on a plantation - animal husbandry, constructing buildings, building roads, manning ships, carrying things from place to place, running wagons - all of that would have been given to men to do.

That means that if you imagine a 17th century sugar plantation, you should really be thinking that the people who are working in the fields are predominantly women.

I think we imagine the enslaved domestic worker, the housemaid, the cook, the scullery maid, the woman who's tending to a white woman's babies. And those jobs are there, but they are not held by a large portion of enslaved women. 

[00:05:36] Taja Lindley: So let's backtrack. 

Before we talk about the labor of enslaved people, we need to remember and revisit how the transatlantic slave trade started. Right before it began, Europeans were exploring Africa and writing about African people in a way that relied on distorted notions of African women's bodies, African women's sexuality, and their capacity to withstand pain. 

Professor Morgan read these traveler accounts as part of her research. 

[00:06:00] Jennifer Morgan: The ways in which European, mostly male, travelers wrote about African people increasingly relied on imaginary tropes and claims about Black women's bodies. 

One is the idea that Black women would give birth without pain. This was a really important way to describe African people as not being sons of Adam or not being part of the Christian pantheon. uh, Because of course the curse of God on Eve, is that Eve and all human women would bring forth their children in pain.

If Africans allegedly gave birth without pain, that meant they weren't the same descendants of Adam and Eve that Europeans saw themselves to be. So that's a very significant claim to say that these women don't have pain in childbirth. What that does is it produces this idea of difference that is, God-given. And that allows Europeans to imagine that Africans are a different kind of people than they are.

[00:07:05] Taja Lindley: There is even documented evidence that white medical students and residents, in the time of now, believe that Black people have a biological disposition to withstand more pain than their other patients. 

And you might remember the story of Dr. Susan Moore. A Black physician in Indiana who was hospitalized with the Rona in 2020. A couple of weeks before she passed away, she posted a video on social media where she documented how she had to beg for treatment, including pain medications that her white doctors refused to give her. 

It is deeply disturbing that these false, fantastical beliefs prevail today and lead to Black folks being undertreated for pain. 

[00:07:43] Jennifer Morgan: And this precedes the language of race, right? I mean, there's also descriptions of people's skin color, et cetera, but it's complicated. It doesn't start out with color. It starts out with other claims that people aren't civilized. That they don't have the same kind of bodies. 

 I remember a travel account that said that there was a whole tribe of people who lived off the aroma of apples. I thought, oh, that's fascinating. 

But a more telling one is an image of a woman whose breasts were long and distended. And that their breasts are so long that they drag on the ground. And this is a quote, "like the utters of a goat." And that they give birth to a baby, wrap the baby onto their back and then throw their breasts over their shoulder to nurse those babies. 

This is not something that is physiologically possible. But it appears again and again. What I argued is that this is another way in which European travelers are trying to associate African women with labor, with work.

Because if you can throw your breasts over your shoulder and nurse a baby, while you go about your day, that means that you don't have to create a space of time for women and infants to heal from birth or to parent children. There's no need for a woman who can do that to be allowed to stay indoors safe and quiet with a newborn baby. That's a woman who can nurse their baby while they walk around immediately after giving birth, like an animal, is somebody who is well positioned to be stooped over in your field undertaking agricultural work. 

 We have to recognize the way that African women and Black women born in the Americas were situated in the European imagination as always people who do hard labor. And that's not to say that they are not gendered. Those women are gendered, but they are gendered as laborers.

I think sometimes people think that gender is about femininity. Or that African women, because they are seen as workers are not being gendered as female. I think that that's a misreading. I think it's about having a too narrow understanding of what gendered femininity looks like. And that in fact, African women were being profoundly gendered as women, but as women who were always subjected to a certain kind of expectation about their labor.

[00:10:15] Taja Lindley: When I was a student in professor Morgan's class, I remember this particular piece of information really sitting with me. Like, many public conversations about anti-Black racism have largely focused on and center the experiences of cis-gender men. And while I think that's changing and shifting, by and large, this has been and continues to be the case. 

Now in her class and in her book, that was the first time I learned that the ideology of racial difference is inextricably connected to European beliefs and perceptions of African women's bodies. Which means: if we're talking about anti-Black racism, and we ain't talking about women, then we're missing the point. If we ain't talking about gender, then we're missing the point. 

[00:10:56] Jennifer Morgan: One of those travel narratives that I talked about said, in ascribing this kind of alleged lack of pain to African women in childbirth, the author literally said: "African women do not need a six week laying in period after giving birth as our women do." There is this presumption that there's this kind of period of recovery, for example, that a European woman would have after giving birth to a child. And the presumption was that African women didn't need it.

[00:11:28] Taja Lindley: This notion of being gendered as laborers also makes me think of the underwhelming and non-existent paid parental leave policies in the U.S. which, by the way, is not on par with most so-called developed countries. 

And to be gendered as laborers brings to mind the politics of refusal, as well as the concept and practice of rest as resistance. Shout out to the Nap Ministry for developing this framework and practice for Black folks.

Now when professor Morgan and I were discussing labor, it wasn't just childbearing and agricultural work. There's also the labor of enduring consistent and unrelenting violence and assault. 

[00:12:02] Jennifer Morgan: Today, if you go to visit the um, surviving slave forts in the coast of Ghana, for example at Elmina. There is a staircase that goes from the governor's quarters above the jails, the cells, down into the women's cell. So the women's dungeon, there is a staircase from there into the governor's quarters. And that is so somebody could go down there, grab a woman, bring her upstairs, rape her, and then return her down into the dungeon. That is literally built into the architecture of the slave fort.

Uh, We know that sailors were routinely given access to captive women onboard slave ships to rape over the course of the journey. I just want to be clear that the labor that these women are doing, the ways that they are gendered, is about their identity as sexual outlet for white men, as well as hard laborers. They're doing both of that kind of work.

I don't want to suggest that European women are protected from sexual violence or from incredibly hard labor. The point that I do want to make is that the presumption that African women are unprotected and are always already involved in hard labor. 

[00:13:16] Taja Lindley: In 2008, I got to visit Elmina Castle when I lived in Ghana for six months. I was there for a human rights fellowship and I visited that dungeon that Professor Morgan mentions here. And I got to tell you: the energy of the past was very palpable in that physical space. And it gives me chills just remembering my visit. 

The sexual labor required of African women before and during transport was unfortunately not the only time that they would encounter such atrocities. Their bodies would continue to experience racialized violence for years to come on the lands of the so-called new world, where their wombs were the site of the invention and perpetuation of race. 

[00:13:56] Jennifer Morgan: Slavery is not something that just happened for the first time when Europeans started to capture and transport Africans to the Americas. What's different about what we think of as racial slavery, Atlantic slavery, what's different is this idea of a hereditary mark of enslavability.

African women's reproductive potential - the capacity of a woman to give birth - is at the core of the idea of race. And is at the core of the idea of hereditary racial slavery. 

 That's the logic system that race creates. In order to have an idea that enslavability is inherited you have to have a reproducing woman. That person is also somebody whose children, whose descendants will always also be enslaved or at least enslavable. 

That is the key connection for me between gender and race. It's what my colleague Elise Weinbaum calls the "race reproduction bind." You can't think race without reproduction because the thing that race is, is something that you inherit from your parents. The idea of race is that it's inheritable.

After reading the travel literature and the records of the legislative bodies and stuff like that, I was reading the probate records. These are the records of people's wills and the inventories taken of their property after they died. 

Slave owners knew that a woman might have children. And so in their wills, they would often use language like "the first child that shall happen to be born of my Negro woman, Mary, shall go to my son" or " the second child that shall happen to be born of my Negro woman, Mary, shall go to my daughter." So there's this idea of a kind of speculative future. Like this hasn't happened yet, but it might. 

If you think about speculative finance, if you think about a way of capturing the future, capturing futurity, that is what the slave owner was doing. He may very well have known that the likelihood of Mary living for more than another year or two was quite slim, but nonetheless, he recognized that there was this investment that he had made, that he got to own her future children.

That is a key aspect of both racial slavery, but also of the logic of race and racial thinking. A logic that is, let me be clear, profoundly illogical, but is also profoundly violent. It's a profound violation to capture the futurity a group of people in that way by reaching into the future and holding that person's children in bondage. It's a very violent maneuver.

[00:16:39] Taja Lindley: The speculative finance of the womb. Like, whoa. 

This is big because racism is operationalized in an imagination of the future as much as it's invested in the time of the present and rooted in the past. This understanding really raises the stakes for me around afrofuturism, speculative fiction and the use of our imaginations to write our destinies, to author the next chapters of our personal and collective stories. 

African women and their descendants were expected to do hard labor of all kinds: childbirth, physical labor, and enduring sexual violence. How then were they expected to manage both their reproductive lives and their agricultural work requirements? 

[00:17:23] Jennifer Morgan: They are expected to do both of those things: to work in the field, to also take care of their own children, to take care of other people's children if a woman dies or is sold away. But they're also expected to just endure the loss of their own children to the secondary slave trade.

 I mean, it's a hard thing to imagine if you have not raised a child or had a child, like, what does it mean to have a child in a context that's so profoundly unstable. Or that's so profoundly saturated with violence. It's a challenge to us to think historically about what reproduction in that context means.

Despite that challenge, it's easy for me to imagine that sometimes giving birth to a child under enslavement is an act of resistance. And sometimes it's an act of incredible despair. I can see it being both of those things. 

The effort to reclaim your future to say: "I am a parent to this child, I'm going to do everything I can to protect this child, despite what I know about what's happening around me." That might be an act of incredible resistance. 

[00:18:26] Taja Lindley: Resistance looked like taking up arms, having and raising babies, running away, and choosing to have intimate relationships even while knowing that you can be potentially separated.

[00:18:37] Jennifer Morgan: Black people resisted slavery. That's just a fundamental truth. There is no enslavement without an effort to push back on it. Sometimes that effort is as big and as public as taking up a weapon and trying to fight your way out of the system. There are other ways of resistance that are a little more private or internal and women can be found in both of those categories of resistance. 

We know that people who run away from a plantation are often hidden in other Black people's homes or in other Black people's quarters. And so we know that women are doing that as well. Uh, We know that there are individual acts of resistance. The poisoning of a slave owner or the murdering of a slave owner. So there are those more violent and eruptive acts. 

We know that women participate in revolts. We know that there are stories of women running away to join rebel men. We know there are women who are punished who are hung, who are executed for their participation in slave revolts in New York, in Virginia, in North Carolina and South Carolina, in Jamaica and Barbados, in Antigua. Like we also know that women support rebels or support runaways. 

We know that women raised their own children and raised other people's children under slavery. We know that families were formed. We know that people took care of each other, like in the most fundamental ways, people fed each other, people nursed each other when they were sick, women, men, older people, younger people. There are communities that develop under enslavement and they develop despite the claims that Europeans have that African people don't love or care or feel or any of that. We know that's just a profound lie and that there's all sorts of evidences of the ways in which communities are formed.

 The very fabric of people's connections to each other emerges, despite the ways in which their bodies have been commodified and put into the marketplace. The marketplace is not a place of kinship. In fact, the marketplace might be seen as the antithesis of the family. And Black people's family life is always already destroyed by the marketplace and yet they maintain kinship ties. 

[00:20:46] Taja Lindley: The time period that professor Morgan is talking about is around the same time that American gynecology was being birthed. If you've been rocking with this podcast since it was called the Birth Justice Podcast NYC, you'll remember that I interviewed Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens in episode two, about the origins of American gynecology. 

And in that episode, we talked about J. Marion Sims, among others, who built their medical careers on the literal bodies of Black enslaved women that they routinely experimented on. I'm talking about surgeries and procedures done under the institution of slavery, often done without the benefit of anesthesia or other comforts available at the time, in the name of science. 

The interest and investment in enslaved Black women's reproductive health was not a charitable affair. Rather it's for all the reasons professor Morgan mentioned earlier, like speculative finance, the secondary slave trade, as well as perfecting surgeries and procedures for the benefit of white women and building the medical careers of white men. 

Enslaved Black women like Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy are the foremothers of American gynecology. And without their bodies and without their labor, gynecology, as we know it would not exist. 


[00:22:09] Taja Lindley: After slavery is abolished, the United States develops new and remixed ways to manage and surveil Black women's reproductive labor. 

[00:22:17] Jennifer Morgan: Enslaved women and men and children's bodies were commodified, it means that your act of giving birth is an act of making the slave owner more wealthy. So there's a commodification that is happening. 

And the reverse of that, is that after slavery, there is a almost immediate de-valuing of Black life that happens. You are leaving behind a system in which Black life has been valued: in terms of commodification, but not valued in terms of humanity. And so the devaluation of Black women's reproductive capacity is something that we're living with some very strong evidence of right now. 

It's not something that just emerges in the 21st century. There is a long history of Black women being subjected to medical experimentation, being vilified for their capacity to have children, being accused of producing criminals rather than children. We have a long history of that. 

[00:23:10] Taja Lindley:

There's so much more that Professor Morgan mentioned in our interview that we did not have time and space to cover in this episode. I highly recommend you check out our full conversation at TajaLindley to hear more of what she had to say. 

Our next guest, Professor Dorothy Roberts, is a legal scholar and advocate who has and continues to write about the historical and current violations to Black women's reproductive freedom. 

We're going to fast forward now to the mid late 20th century, where Professor Roberts' research connects the history of slavery to present day practices and policies. 

[00:23:42] Dorothy Roberts: Throughout U.S. history, there is a common ideology that Black women do not have meaningful relationships with their children. And that certainly links the slavery era to today. And I would say it explicitly links the policy and practice during slavery to break up Black families, that will to tear Black children away from their mothers. 

As we know, slavery was reinvented in different ways through incarceration, convict leasing, apprenticeship of children. Uh, But as you move into the 20th century, Black children are seen more and more as disposable and Black women's childbearing is seen as having no value. In fact, being a harm to society.

Now, those may seem like different interests with respect to Black women's childbearing, but they are both based in the idea that Black women should have no control over their bodies and reproductive lives. That we need to be supervised by white people when it comes to our childbearing, whether it's to encourage us to have more children or to discourage us, or prevent us from having children. 

The disparaging of the family bonds of Black people and the denial of any thought that Black people should have autonomy over their own lives and their own families and their own communities - that is consistent through U.S. history.

[00:25:22] Taja Lindley: This history and present day reality of Black women's reproductive oppression led Black feminists to create what we now know as reproductive justice. 

Professor Roberts' research on the criminalization of Black women who use drugs during pregnancy really illuminates what gets missed in a white feminist approach. 

[00:25:39] Dorothy Roberts: Reproductive rights was framed by mainstream organizations exclusively as a question of the right to abortion. And it wasn't clear at all how these prosecutions of Black women for using drugs during pregnancy - women who wanted to have babies and, as I argued, were being punished for having babies - how that fit into this mainstream, narrow view of what reproductive rights entailed.

 I firmly believed that the reason why this public health issue of drug use during pregnancy became criminalized was because the policy was focused on Black women.

To understand that you have to understand that this was during the so-called crack epidemic and the war on drugs. And there was a big media blitz about how crack cocaine was more dangerous than any other drug. So there was the aspect of it that was focused on Black people in general and particularly Black men using crack cocaine and becoming violent.

And of course, federal law sentenced possession of crack cocaine many times greater than possession of powder cocaine, which by itself was racist and intended to target Black communities. But there was also this targeting of Black mothers who were painted as if they were completely reckless. They were selling sex for crack. The media even said crack was depriving them of maternal instinct. They couldn't be good mothers. 

And then there was the corollary false image of the so-called crack baby, who was supposed to be a Black baby born after being exposed to crack cocaine in the womb. And suffering from these unique medical problems that no other drug exposed baby was experiencing. 

There were even statements that crack cocaine deprived fetuses of social consciousness. I mean, just these very extreme and profoundly disparaging ideas about Black children who were exposed to crack cocaine in utero. 

It wasn't just that their health was harmed. It was that their entire personalities were affected by it. They were predicted to become criminals and the media portrayed this completely false and unsubstantiated image of this dangerous crack baby who was irreparably damaged. 

And so that image supported the view that Black mothers should be punished for drug use while pregnant. Not so much because they harm their children, but because they created this danger for U.S. society. 

Also my main argument was that this was just a continuation of a long history of devaluation of Black mothers. We needed to see it as punishing them, not protecting their babies, but punishing them.

[00:28:57] Taja Lindley: Let me be clear and underscore: punishing Black pregnant and parenting people is not a charitable, well intentioned cause of the U.S. government to care for Black children and babies.

On episode 10 of the Birth Justice Podcast NYC, Erin Miles Cloud shared some important wisdom about the history of child welfare and the nefarious ways it has been weaponized against Black parents, especially during this quote unquote war on drugs. 

And many of these punitive practices and policies are rooted in false narratives and biased research. I asked Professor Roberts to share more about where these inaccurate notions and distorted beliefs came from.

[00:29:35] Dorothy Roberts: So thousands and thousands of these babies were removed from their mothers at birth. We know that that's harmful to babies and they were being literally warehoused in hospitals.

In fact, there was a term developed called "boarder babies" for them because they were being boarded at the hospital, not given the kind of individual nurturing that babies need. So of course they displayed agitation and lack of development because they weren't getting the care from their mothers that they should have.

And that was the hospital's fault and the child welfare's fault, not the mother's fault. Mind you, the mothers were being blamed by this. They were being portrayed as abandoning their children when in fact the children were being taken from them. 

 So more recent research has followed these children and compared the ones who were exposed to crack cocaine in the womb versus those who weren't, who had a similar socioeconomic background and grew up in similar neighborhoods. 

And what the research finds is that there is no significant difference between the children who were exposed to crack cocaine and the ones growing up in the same neighborhoods who weren't. And the reason for the problems that these children had at birth had to do with structural racism. It had to do with poverty in their neighborhoods. It had to do what their mother's inadequate prenatal care. It had to do with their mother's chronic health problems that they had all from structural racism that puts Black mothers in less healthy conditions.

 So it was a mixture of racist stereotypes, false predictions, and flawed research that contributed to this image of the crack baby and predictions that these babies would turn out to be monsters that were dangerous to U.S. society.

[00:31:34] Taja Lindley: These concerns about Black women quote unquote reproducing criminals and dangers to society, also translated into national welfare reform. 

[00:31:43] Dorothy Roberts: So at the same time, during the 1990s, that Black women were being targeted for prosecution, for drug use during pregnancy, which was based on a devaluation of their childbearing, we had the buildup to the abolition of the federal entitlement to welfare. And, under the Clinton administration, Congress passing a welfare restructuring law, which President Clinton signed in 1996, that ended the longstanding federal entitlement to income support for children.

Congress put time limits on how long you could get welfare, which was not the case prior. It also made it clear that the purpose for welfare was to push women into low wage work, to get them married and to limit their childbearing. Congress blamed poverty on women refusing to work, not getting married and having too many children. Although it didn't explicitly say Black women, it was targeted at Black women and it was fueled by another false image of Black women. 

There was circulating - beginning under the Reagan administration, but still circulating - the idea of the Black welfare queen who was supposed to have babies just to get a welfare check and then spend all the money on herself and not care for her children. 

Many people thought that Black mothers made up the bulk of the welfare roles. In fact, they weren't. Most people on welfare were white at the time. But still, this image supported the view that welfare had to be ended. 

 One of these laws that could now be passed after 1996 is something called family cap policies or child exclusion policies and laws.

Prior to 1997, welfare recipients had a federal entitlement to an increase in their benefits if they had another child or children. After 1996 it was no longer that entitlement so states could pass laws - and many states did - that deny any incremental increase in welfare benefits if the recipient has another baby or triplets. 

Let's say you're receiving welfare benefits and you have triplets. You still just get the amount for the one child you had before, not for the additional three children. You have to survive on the already puny amount for the one child. These laws were explicitly passed to deter women from having children while they were on welfare. 

 The family cap policy might coerce, someone into getting sterilized because they're afraid to have another child because they won't have any support for that child.

[00:34:37] Taja Lindley: What Professor Roberts brings up is an important through line for Black women's childbearing after slavery. And that is: deterring Black women from having children, including coercive and involuntary sterilization. 

[00:34:49] Dorothy Roberts: There is a longstanding policy in the United States to use sterilization as a tool of oppression and Black women have been targeted for decades, since the eugenics era, with this weapon of coercion and punishment. 

And I actually think more than a way to limit a population, it's a way to punish and disparage and degrade a population. And of course it is an extreme harm to the person who is sterilized. It serves all of these unjust purposes. With that backdrop of longstanding approval of sterilization abuse in the United States, most of it occurred in federally funded programs.

And even though those programs well, first of all, they were supposed to officially end after World War II, but we know that they went on into the 1970s. And even now we still see instances of coercive sterilization in prisons and detention centers. But one way in which this has been used as a weapon of punishment is when judges condition probation on sterilization. And it's hard to know how often this goes on because these kinds of decisions won't be recorded in a judicial opinion.

They're a part of a probation agreement that gets filed, but it's very hard to find them. Researchers can find, easily, court decisions that are recorded. And there are search tools that keep track of them, but things like plea bargains and probation conditions that happen in open court without a judicial decision attached to it happened all the time without attention, unless somebody is tracking them. 

And so we know of cases that came into the news where judges conditioned probation orders on sterilization. I should say on use of contraception. I said sterilization because some forms of contraception are virtual sterilization, like Norplant.

 Let me just explain how this would happen. So someone is arrested and charged with a crime and it can be any kind of crime. It doesn't have to be a crime that has anything to do with child bearing. In one case, a woman was charged with writing bad checks, and the judge gave her the choice: you go to jail, or you get implanted with Norplant. 

Now that had nothing to do with writing bad checks. Not that it really matters. You shouldn't be conditioning probation on denial of your right to reproductive freedom. Period. But it doesn't even make sense in terms of a sentence to condition probation for a crime that has nothing to do with reproduction other than being based just on the stereotype that certain people have some innate propensity to criminality and therefore they shouldn't be having children. 

This is a, an idea that we could even trace back to eugenics when people who are predicted to have criminal propensities, to have inherited a trait that would make them prone to crime, were sterilized as punishment.

And the U.S. Supreme Court did consider such a case in Skinner versus Oklahoma. And that was a case where the court held it violated the equal protection clause, because there were certain crimes which tends to be perpetrated by impoverished people like stealing chickens - this is one of the examples in the case - that where the penalty was sterilization and other crimes like embezzlement that were more likely to be perpetrated by wealthier white people, which weren't punished by sterilization. And the court found that that was a violation of equal protection. 

But of course, the leading eugenics sterilization case - Buck versus Bell involving an impoverished young white woman who was sterilized against her will because she was deemed to be feebleminded and to have a trait she would pass on our children - that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme court and has never been explicitly overturned by the court.

The case of the Relph sisters in Alabama in the 1970s whose mother signed so-called consent to sterilization of her 12 and 14 year old daughters with an X. She couldn't read the form and clearly that's not any kind of consent, but her daughters were sterilized in the family services program in Montgomery, Alabama. 

This idea that certain people should be punished with sterilization either, because they seem to have too many children or, and this often goes hand in hand, they're seen as passing down some socially devalued trait to their children, that idea that ideology, which is the essence of eugenics, manifests itself in a number of kinds of policies and practices.

And then also, there were proposals for bills in Congress and in state legislatures to condition welfare on sterilization. Now none of those bills passed, but they were being proposed during the 1990s at the same time the welfare restructuring was being debated. 

[00:40:43] Taja Lindley: It's worth noting here too, that welfare reform in the nineties also ushered in work requirements for cash benefits. So in addition to being discouraged from pregnancy, there was a requirement to work. Another double entendre moment that we will revisit later in the season. 

And I also want to bring your attention to the podcast song lyrics, which mentioned Black women as the foundation. 

And there's multiple meanings of that phrase. One meaning is how the treatment of Black women sets precedents for how other pregnant and parenting people are treated too and paves the path for the criminalization of pregnancy that we see today. 

[00:41:16] Dorothy Roberts: In the late 1980s, early 1990s, we began to see the passage of fetal protection laws and court decisions that upheld the punishment of women for pregnancy outcomes, including pregnancy losses, like miscarriages and stillbirths. 

Again, the initial cases were against Black mothers who use drugs during pregnancy, but now, now that that precedent has been set, we see the net expanding and there have been arrests and prosecutions of white women for meth use during pregnancy, or opioid use during pregnancy, punishment of white women for miscarriages. All, again, beginning with the targeting of Black women. But once you have this legal precedent and a policy in place, it can spread to other women and it has done that.

And so today we have the increased punishment of pregnancy. Period. Criminalization of pregnancy. There still is a distinction though. I see a very clear distinction between the uniformly punitive approach to crack cocaine use during pregnancy and the far more sympathetic approach to opioid use.

This is what I was saying about the prosecutions of Black women for drug use during pregnancy. Turning this health problem into a crime was a powerful way to explain the poverty and poor health of Black children. And it also became a model for a punitive approach that could be applied to any pregnant person. Black women are this convenient scapegoat for policies that avoid grappling with the suffering and injustice that comes out of a white supremacist racial capitalist system.


[00:43:28] Taja Lindley: Okay. We've covered a lot of ground from the transatlantic slave trade to the secondary slave trade. From forced sterilization to medical experimentation. From welfare reform to criminalizing pregnant people who use drugs. From coercive birth control to building kinship as resistance. 

And even with all of that, the history presented in this episode is incomplete. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is so much more to say about race, gender, and the double entendre of labor that I look forward to exploring in this project and in this podcast.

Now, before we close out, I'm want to acknowledge the ways our communities have always resisted, escaped, carved their own spaces and paths to freedom and liberation, sovereignty, and intimacy in the face of violence.

[00:44:15] Dorothy Roberts: When you look at resistance against the policies that I've stated, you can find Black women at the forefront of the resistance and as authors of the radical changes that have happened to try to topple them.

It's both that we become convenient scapegoats that you see this assault on us, but also the recognition that we can be the fiercest fighters against it. And we're the ones who can imagine something outside this box of white supremacy and racial capitalism, because we don't have a stake in it. I think that's why you see that we can look at every policy, I really believe every unjust policy, and see how Black women end up being the focus but also how we can be at the front of resistance.

[00:45:11] Taja Lindley: Jennifer Morgan spoke to this as well. And reminds us why history remains both relevant and important to understanding what is unfolding today. 

[00:45:18] Jennifer Morgan: The pandemic is just the most recent example of looking at where we have arrived and recognizing that if we don't understand the role of race, racialized violence, racial slavery, and other forms of colonial subjection - if we don't understand the role of that in our history, we cannot possibly explain what's going on right now. 

We've talked a lot about the violence that we're living through and the violence that we've inherited, but I also feel like there are these places of possibility and accountability that help me to not feel despair.

 Um, you asked how does being a historian of Black women's reproductive lives change me. It also makes me think a lot about the hopefulness of being a Black mother, of being a woman who understands herself to be in community with other Black people. And to see that as a place of deep history that I can identify as early as the history of the nation, I can identify women who were saying like, I am here and I am going to use whatever I have to make connection, to build kinship, to press back against this onslaught of violence and subjugation that is being directed at me, but I'm going to push through that. And I think that that is a deep history of resistance and heroics. I feel pretty positive about knowing that.

[00:46:43] Taja Lindley: And what a great way to bring this episode home. Thank you to our esteemed guests, Jennifer Morgan and Dorothy Roberts for sharing their wisdom, insight, and expertise. Please be sure to check out the show notes to learn more about their work. 

If you're enjoying your listening experience, tell a friend! And leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts or on our website. If you'd like to share your story or perspective with us, write us a message or leave us a voicemail at BlackWomensLabor .com. 

You can find us on Instagram @BlackWomensLabor and in your inbox, if you sign up for our newsletter. 

And be sure to support this work y'all at TajaLindley where you will be able to access exclusive content and full length interviews with each of our guests, including Jennifer Morgan and Dorothy Roberts, who you heard from in this episode. 

Speaking of Patreon, I've got a cute Patreon-only event coming up called Taja Tuesday Artist Talk. If you sign up for the Creative Conversation level or above, you will get access to the live virtual event going down on Tuesday April 26th. My artist talk will center cards and cosmos, and the ways I weave tarot and astrology into my personal rituals and my creative process. The presentation is recorded so if you can't make it to the live event, no worries. Check the show notes for more info! 

This podcast is created and hosted by yours truly, Taja Lindley, also known as the HBIC. 

Audio engineering by Lilah Larson. 

Music by Emma Alabaster, who also served as the Pre- Production Associate Producer. 

Additional music production by Chip Belton. 

Vocals by Patience Sings. 

Mixing and mastering by Chip Belton. 

Lyrics by Taja Lindley and Emma Alabaster. 

Logo and graphic design templates by Homegirl HQ. 

This podcast is produced by Colored Girls Hustle. 

[00:48:28] Patience Sings: Birthing new possibilities of rest. Birthing new possibilities of play. Birthing new possibilities of pleasure. Birthing new possibilities of purpose. Birthing new possibilities of love. Birthing new possibilities of presence.

Dorothy RobertsProfile Photo

Dorothy Roberts

Professor, Scholar, Author

Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law & Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, with joint appointments in Africana Studies, Sociology, and the Law School, where she is the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights. An acclaimed scholar and social justice activist, she is author of Killing the Black Body; Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century; and Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.

Listen to her full length one-on-one interview on
Interview length: 00:51:20

Jennifer MorganProfile Photo

Jennifer Morgan

Professor, Author, Scholar, Historian, Mother

Jennifer L. Morgan is Professor of History in the department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University where she also serves as Chair. She is the author of Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Duke University Press, 2021); Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in the Making of New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and the co-editor of Connexions: Histories of Race and Sex in America (University of Illinois Press, 2016). Her research examines the intersections of gender and race in in the Black Atlantic.

Her recent journal articles include “Partus Sequitur Ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery,” in Small Axe; “Accounting for ‘The Most Excruciating Torment’: Trans-Atlantic Passages” in History of the Present and “Archives and Histories of Racial Capitalism” in Social Text. In addition to her archival work as an historian, Morgan has published a range of essays on race, gender, and the process of “doing history,” most notably “Experiencing Black Feminism” in Deborah Gray White’s edited volume Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (2007).

Morgan serves as the Council Chair for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture. She is the past-Vice President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians and is a lifetime member of the Association of Black Women Historians. She lives in New York City.

Listen to her full length one-on-one interview on
Interview length: 00:52:07