Ambata Kazi-Nance is a writer, editor, and teacher born and raised in New Orleans, LA, and currently residing in the California Bay Area with her family. She holds an MA and MFA from the University of New Orleans. She is the Arts and Culture Editor at Sapelo Square. Her writing has been featured in Muslim American Writers at Home, midnight & indigo, CRAFT, Peauxdunque Review, Cordella, Mixed Company, and Love Insh’Allah (online). Currently, she is writing a novel. Visit Ambata's website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
by Ambata Kazi-Nance
Stage brightens to reveal three Black women varying in ages from late 50’s to 70’s. They sit on throne-like chairs, wearing the clothes of regal African women. They are midwives, representing the Black American midwife tradition, known commonly as the granny midwives. The youngest is Candy Lynn. Like the sweetness her name implies, she wears a wax print blouse and skirt in a bright shade of pink. She clutches a hand-knit doll, also wearing pink, in her lap. The next is Jane. She carries a more aristocratic air. Her clothes are sapphire. The last is Ora, the oldest of the three. Gone is the gray dress and simple chignon. Now she wears a gown of emerald green, the color of wisdom. A high golden headwrap covers her hair. They look out boldly and assuredly at the audience. Candy Lynn is the first to speak.
CANDY LYNN: The elder women, the midwives, they were always just…there in our community. Like the mailman or the store clerk, just an everyday fact of life. I never thought I’d be one, never saw myself doing that work.
(Smiles and touches the doll in her lap) I only ever wanted to be a mother. From as young as I could remember, that’s all I wanted to be.
(Primps the doll) Every year for Christmas, my mother made me a new doll. I had a little crib in my room just for them. Had them all laid up next to each other, nice and neat. I played with them too, picked them up one by one (she picks up the doll in her lap and holds it up lovingly, then snuggles it into her arms), talked to them, even got up in the night to tend to them. Had a little plastic milk bottle and cloth diapers and everything. Loved them like they were the real thing. (laughs lightly)
Met James when I was sixteen. A blacksmith and a darn good-looking man, but it was the kindness in his eyes that won me. (smiles wistfully) Got married and set up house quickly, and got ready for the babies to come. (pauses, her voice turns sad)
But the babies…they just…wouldn’t come. It was the strangest thing. I kept waiting and praying, praying and waiting…(shakes her head) nothing. Every month, watching the blood bloom, trying to read something in its scentless petals. Every month, cycling through hope, sadness, then grief. Over and over.
When I reached thirty years of age, and still my womb was cold, I knew I needed to imagine something else, something different. It was during that time that a friend of mine, a sweet sister friend, asked me to sit with her during her labor. Said she saw it in a dream, clear as day, that I was supposed to be there. (looks matter-of-factly at the audience) You don’t argue with dreams.
So I said yes. I was there with her for the whole thing. The midwife came and went, checking on her, but I stayed. Went on for days with hardly any rest. Fed her, walked with her, rubbed her back, gave her water. A cool cloth for her head and neck when she needed it. She rocked, I rocked. She swayed, I swayed along with her. Soon enough I was huffing and puffing and grunting along with her. (laughs)
Her time came to let go. I don’t know how to explain it, it was just a shift in the air, a sudden stillness. Then the midwife pulled me over. She took my hands and pulled them down low where the head was coming out. Didn’t say anything, just thrust my hands down there like it was the most natural thing in the world for me to do. And the baby, he came out in a whoosh and I caught him (demonstrates with the doll). I caught him, just like that. (clutches the doll to her chest) And the feeling. The rush that spread through my body. It felt...it felt like I had given birth, just for a brief moment before I handed him off to his mother.
I was crying. We were all crying. Mama, midwife, baby, and me. (laughs and wipes her eyes) Oh. (she shakes her head with nostalgia)
(Sighs with satisfaction, then speaks starkly) Couple of things were born that day. A baby, a mother…and a midwife.
(Looks directly at the audience) I never had a child of my own, no. But as a midwife, I became a mother of thousands.
Pause. Spotlight moves to Jane.
JANE: ‘Witches,’ they called them. ‘Conjure women.’ Never to their faces though. See, we had a little more than most folks at that time. Not a whole lot, but enough to make ourselves prideful. Enough to stuff some in our backbones to make ourselves taller, so we could look down on everybody else. Had no choice but to call on the midwives when their time came though, albeit grudgingly. Nobody else was coming out to deliver our babies. Or take care of the other things no one dared mention.
They helped bring life into this world, but sometimes, maybe, they used ways to take it away too. Not every baby is joy, you see, depending on how it came to be. But we don’t like to talk about those things. For that reason, that suspicion, they were kept at arm’s length.
Despite the names they called them, or maybe because of them, I was fascinated. They could look at the night sky and read the moon, and know who was about to give birth, and whose blood was coming. Often, they knew a woman was pregnant before she even knew. They could name all the plants, down to the littlest stubborn shrub bush, and tell you what each one was good for, and bad for too. ‘Magic’ the others called it. The word sizzled as it came out of their mouths. The heat pricked my ears and turned my eyes, carefully hooded, towards the midwives.
I witnessed my first birth when I was twelve years old. By that point I was sneaking off whenever I saw the women walking determinedly through town with their black satchels firm at their side. They were always walking. I followed them as much as I could, except sometimes they walked so far I got tired or scared I’d get caught, and turned back.
I followed one of them one day, an old woman, out to a little busted up shack, nothing but a few scrawny chickens pecking the dusty earth. I squatted down behind a tree a few feet away and waited, for what I don’t know. Must of fell asleep at some point. The bellows coming from the shack stirred me. The sun was going to bed and I knew I was going to get it when I got home, so I figured I’d make it worth my while and take a look-see.
A fire was going at the hearth. The only light in the room. The birthing mother was on her knees clutching the back of a chair; the midwife hunched on a low stool behind her, kneading her lower back with her fists. I figured her arms had to be real strong to do that like that. Then she spoke.
(her voice turns low and gravelly) “Girl, fetch some more water.”
Couldn’t figure out who she was talking to since it wasn’t but the two of them.
“If you’re gonna stand there in the shadows like that, you might as well do something useful.”
She had seen me, but not with her eyes it seemed, for they never looked my way. I could’ve run, but I had no desire to. So I went and got a bucket of water.
“And toss some more wood on that fire.”
Soon enough she had me working. Setting up all the little pots that held different tools, little scissors and brushes, gathering freshly washed linens. Made me wash my hands real good before I could touch anything.
Then the baby started making its way out into the world, bottom first, like it didn’t want to let go. Some might have been scared or turned sick, but not me. I didn’t flinch nor blink. I watched this woman open herself in a way that didn’t seem humanly possible and I knew then, women were magical beings.
When my own blood came I took strength in it and told my mother I was going to train with the midwives. She had always accused me of being too womanish anyway, so what could she do? I certainly didn’t care what any uppity folks thought. I went with the midwives and I watched and learned the things they could do with just their hands. How they could reach into a woman and unwrap a caught cord without the mother knowing or feeling a thing. Use those same hands to mold and shape a newborn’s head and rub the life into them to free their cries.
Caught my first baby when I was eighteen years old. By the time I was twenty, I was the one walking around town clutching my satchel. I could name all the plants and read God’s messages to the mothers in the night sky. (pause, she looks up to the invisible sky, then to the audience)
Not everybody loved the midwives, you see, but they did respect them because, like me, they recognized their power.
Pause. Spotlight turns to Ora.
ORA: I was called to do this work when I was still in the womb myself. It was pressed into my soul by The Creator of All Things. Our ancestors that crossed the waters in chains carried nothing but their traditions. I am a descendent of the first Black midwives who stepped on these treacherous shores. I had to take our traditions and keep them alive. In a new world that didn’t love us, didn’t care for us, didn’t give a damn beyond the backbreaking work we did, we had to take care of each other.
I learned the ways of the midwife from my mother. All us girls had a basic knowledge, but I was the only one who took to it, found myself within it. It was natural for me, foraging for herbs and roots with the women—chamomile and mint to calm the nerves, ginger to soothe the stomach, raspberry leaf to strengthen the uterus and prime it for birth. May apple and hot pepper to get the contractions going, black haw to ease pain. Sitting up with the mothers for long hours while they labored, it was where I felt most useful, most at home.
(Gestures with her hands) My mother showed me how to use my hands to feel the baby inside the womb, how to turn the baby if it wasn’t in the right position. She could tell, just by looking at a woman, how she would give birth, and I learned, too. Twin babies, breech babies, feet first, we saw it all. We lost some babies, sure, some mothers, too. But it was rare.
Midwife, partera, qabila (shrugs dismissively)…back home, we were simply called, healers. It doesn’t matter what you call us, really, for we have always been, and always will be, ‘with women.’
Ours was a time when we were everything: mother, nurse, doctor, and doula. These women weren’t strangers to us, and neither us to them. We knew them long before seeds were planted in their wombs. You do this work long enough and your hands are the first to touch two and sometimes three generations in one family. Our work is more than just catching babies though. Our work starts long before and continues long after the baby cracks the sky with that first cry.
We have to be with the women every step of the way, making sure they are eating well and taking care of themselves. Give them a little gentle chiding when they aren’t. Mind the children and cook up a little something so she can rest. And make her feel good, too, pamper her a little. Comb her hair, massage her feet, rub a little rosewater into her temples, make her feel sweet. A mother needs to feel loved so she can give love. So we nurture them, and help them build up their strength for the hard work they have to do.
And it is hard. Hardest thing a body will ever have to do. And maybe a fearful thing, too, but not so fearful that we can’t do it. Our history tells us we can and we have, from the very beginnings of time.
CANDY LYNN: From Hawa, Eve, our first mother, we learned how to birth ourselves into this world.
JANE: When Pharaoh called for the slaughter of the Israelite babies, it was the women, those blessed with the healing touch, who protected them. It was their chain of protection that shielded Moses from the slaughter, so that he could bring forth the divine message and save his people. The midwives feared no pharaoh because they answered to God, not man.
CANDY LYNN: Maryam, alone and afraid, shook by pains that threatened to split her open, sought shelter and guidance, some means of comfort and assurance. The angel Gabriel brought her to a tree with leaves to shade her, and a trunk for her to rest her burden. From it dropped dates to strengthen her in her time of need. Sacred fruit to fortify her womb and her courage to birth the Messiah. She called to God and He answered, soothing her with the reminder that she had been chosen above all women to carry this gift to the world. Even the Creator is a midwife.
ORA: Throughout time, through all traumas, we have been here, bringing the next generation into the light. The pulse of history sings an ancient, familiar song. Look within, and find your strength.
Note: The Midwives is an excerpt from the play M Power: A (Re)Birth Story by Ambata Kazi-Nance.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Toi Derricotte, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.