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Meeting in Denton takes look at black infant mortality and maternal morbidity rates

Profile image for Dalton LaFerney
Dalton LaFerney, For the Denton Record-Chronicle

A prevailing argument to remove the Confederate monument planted on the south lawn of the  Courthouse on the Square inDenton is that it represents a legacy of oppression that in many ways still resounds today.

On Wednesday night, Willie Hudspeth, who has led the effort against the statue, and who is running for Denton County judge, offered more evidence that racist ideologies present in the days of the Confederacy have lingering, fatal effects on black people in the United States.

Hudspeth is seeking the Democratic nomination for county judge against Diana Leggett in Tuesday's primary. The winner will face current Denton County Commissioner Andy Eads, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary, in November.

At the town hall-style meeting, Tarrant County filmmaker Lindell Singleton presented a project he is working on, a documentary called The_Gap. The film calls attention to the fact black infants are more than two times as likely to die in their first year than white infants, according to data from the United Way and other sources.

"Our goal is to simply explode that idea, and shred it forever, and by shredding it, we can have a meaningful and powerful dialogue about what we need to do to resolve this," Singleton said.

Nikia Lawson, founder of the Fort Worth-based nonprofit The Natural Birthing Project, told the dozen-or-so audience members that a combination of factors — from stress and uncertainty, to poverty and institutional racism — have conditioned black women to often not seek the proper treatment.

As Singleton described her, Lawson is "boots on the ground" on this issue. Since 2011, she and a network of volunteers at her nonprofit have provided pre- and post-natal care and education for pregnant mothers.

To her, the fact that black babies and mothers are more likely to die than whites underscores how hundreds of years of racial discrimination in the United States has touched almost every corner of black life here —  from its beginning to its end.

The mythology of "the strong black woman," Lawson said, has worked to persuade politicians, medical professionals and everyday people that somehow black women can withstand more pain, and therefore do not require the same standards of medical care.

She said this has deep roots, going back to the days of black midwives for white mothers. Many black women, Lawson said, were forced to breast feed white babies, but were not allowed to breast feed their own. This kind of double-standard is reflected in the mortality rates, she said.

Singleton said this project began six months ago while he was researching for a another film, about how asthma affects black and Latino boys in Texas. He said infant death studies from the United Way demanded his attention to the issue. He and the other producers are in the process of researching and forming a script for the documentary.

"It takes educated women to empower themselves — not just to know the material, not just to know the content and the context, but apply that to the situation," she said. "Mamas and babies are dying. Mamas and babies who look like me die at a higher rate. And we have to look at what are those factors that are bringing that about."

After her presentation, Lawson was to travel to Irving in the pouring rain to help a mother work through early labor.

"We're trying to create a healthy environment for the baby to grow," she said.

FEATURED PHOTO: Documentary film producer and director Lindell Singleton, left, and Nikia Lawson, founder of The Natural Birthing Project answer questions from the audience during a town hall meeting Wednesday night at the Denton Police Training Center. The meeting brought attention to black infant mortality and maternal morbidity rates throughout North Texas. Jeff Woo/DRC