Black Midwives and Reproductive Justice: The Work of Assistant Professor Keisha Goode, Arielle Bernardin and Jernessa Cruickshank

Zoom portrait of Professor Keisha Goode and student researchers Arielle Bernardin and Jernessa Cruickshank

Assistant Professor of Sociology Keisha Goode has been researching Black midwifery in the United States since she was a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center.  Her dissertation, completed in 2014, was the first scholarly study of contemporary Black midwives in the US.  As midwives and scholars Drs. Mimi Niles and Michelle Drew noted in their 2020 essay Constructing the Modern Midwife: White Supremacy and White Feminism Collide, maternity care in the United States is unique in that midwives are underused because of obstetric dominance.  Only 10-12 out of 100 births in the United States are attended by a midwife.  Yet, globally most childbearing women are attended to by midwives and only turn to an obstetrician when complications arise.  Further complicating the picture, over 90% of midwives are white.  Goode calls the current state of midwifery in the United States “ahistorical.”

“Midwifery is an ancient, communal practice,” Goode notes.  “Its roots lie in Black and indigenous traditions around pregnancy, childbirth and all aspects of sexual and reproductive health.”  Compared to doctors and medical professionals, The Midwives Model of Care is more holistic and relationship-centered.  Their model seeks to address social determinants of health such as food and housing security.  Goode points to the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act as a milestone in the decline of Black midwifery in the United States.  “Obstetricians began to view midwives as competition,” notes Goode. “They undertook a racist, classist and sexist public relations campaign that labelled midwives as unclean, unskilled and unsafe.”  The Sheppard-Towner Act established federally- funded midwifery training and education programs, led by primarily white public health nurses, and targeted primarily at Black midwives in the South.  This marked a turning point not only in the delegitimation of community-based midwifery, but also the rise of physician-attended, hospital-based birth as the social and cultural norm.  Goode notes that by the 1950’s, midwifery in the United States was largely practiced by Black women in the south.

The feminist, Women’s Health and home-birth movements in the 1960’s and 70’s saw a revival of midwifery, but the practitioners were primarily white women.  Goode notes, “The racial makeup of the midwifery workforce has shifted drastically. When I completed my dissertation, roughly two to three percent of US midwives identified as Black.  Today, that figure is closer to five percent.” Goode’s dissertation focused on the experiences and perceptions of contemporary Black midwives in their professional organizations and education programs.  Her work ultimately reported on how midwifery operates as a microcosm of U.S. structural racism, failing to develop and retain Black leadership. Goode’s research was widely circulated in the midwifery community just as the field was beginning to acknowledge and address structural racism.  This attracted the attention of National Association of Certified Professional Midwives (NACPM).  In 2015, Goode was appointed as the organization’s first fully voting public member of the Board of Directors.  NACPM was the first in the national midwifery community to appoint a public member.  Goode is currently the Vice President of the Board.

In the Fall of 2019, Associate Professor of Sociology Jillian Crocker introduced Goode to Arielle Bernardin (Biology, class of 2021).  Goode and Arielle began working on a research project that utilized unexamined data Goode had collected during her dissertation research.  Goode and Arielle’s work focused specifically on the reported experiences of Black midwives caring for Black people who were giving birth to baby boys.  The collaboration between Goode and Arielle led to a paper to be published in a special issue of the Journal of Maternal Child Health focusing on the Black maternal health experience.  Birthing #blackjoy: Black Midwives Caring for Black Mothers of Black Boys During Pregnancy and Childbirth, which is currently available online, places special emphasis on the use of social media to announce and celebrate the birth of Black boys.  The #blackboyjoy hashtag developed in 2016 and is often used on social media to accompany images of Black men and children smiling, laughing, playing, and simply experiencing joy together.  In their paper, Goode and Arielle note that the high rates of premature death among Black males creates the need to “reclaim and honor the fullness and humanity of Blackness.” 

Jernessa Cruickshank (Psychology, class of 2021) was required to complete an internship in order to complete her minor in Women and Gender studies.  Jernessa fulfilled her internship requirement by working as a research assistant for Goode.  Jernessa conducted research on elective egg freezing among Black women.  The prohibitive cost of elective egg freezing makes the procedure unavailable to most people, especially people of color.  In Spring 2021 Prof Goode, Jernessa and Arielle began working on quantitative content analysis in which they coded and analyzed images on Black midwives’ Instagram accounts for how they normalize and celebrate physiologic birth and Black families.  Goode’s goal is to turn this work into a manuscript in 2022 with Arielle and Jernessa as co-authors. 

Beyond mentoring her students’ research and publishing efforts, Goode is about to publish a single-authored book length study on Black Midwifery. Goode has a contract with Columbia University Press for a book that will be an expansion of the research she completed for her dissertation.  The book, tentatively titled Birthing, Blackness and the Body: Black Midwives and the Pursuit of Reproductive Justice will include the content analysis completed with Arielle and Jernessa. 

Arielle also considers her work with Goode to be a profound educational experience.  She notes that “Midwives and birth workers show a deep interest in the patients and families they care for.  They learn about their patients’ cultures and educate them on different birthing options.”  Arielle is currently a student in the Early Medical Education program at SUNY Downstate.  She applied during her senior year with the help of Biology Lecturer and Pre-Health Advisor Dr. Eric Schwartz.  She plans to take the MCAT by May and become a matriculated student at SUNY Downstate Medical School in Fall of 2022.  Her work with Goode influenced her professional goals.  She plans to become an Obstetrician/Gynecologist who will work collaboratively with midwives.  In her words, “The individualized care and deep relationships that midwives provide show us a way to transform the birthing process.” 

Jernessa is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Social Work at SUNY Stony Brook.  As a graduate student, she continues to research and advocate for Black midwifery.  Reflecting on her research with Goode, Jernessa notes, “Black birth is about more than just pregnancy and delivery.  It’s an entire journey of pregnancy and the new life of a human being. There are alternate approaches to childbirth, and the relationship between child-bearer and midwife has benefits that go beyond a traditional doctor-patient relationship.” 

SUNY Old Westbury is an institution that has always taken pride in its commitment to social justice and student growth.  Goode’s outstanding work as a scholar and a mentor exemplifies these values. 


Written by Jon Kleinman

Dr. Keisha Goode
Arielle Bernardin
Jernessa Cruickshank
Black Midwifery
Reproductive Justice