Granny Midwives & Black Women Writers is a fascinating look at the practice of midwifery both as a medical profession and as an “evolving cultural icon” in the literature of African American women. According to Lee, there are “an increasing number of scholars who are now asking what has been lost with the demise of a strong granny tradition,” a tradition, I might add, that has been shrouded in mystery and silence. Historically, the term “granny” was used as a monolithic racial category for women deemed too old for the fields or too old for their masters’ sexual advances. Also termed “cotton dollies,” these women delivered the slave population. Granny midwives on the whole were viewed differently from plantation “mammies,” who delivered the babies of their owners and raised their children. After slavery, many mammies resumed their role as caretaker of the plantation owner’s household, while granny midwives assumed a more prominent role within local African American communities. As Lee notes, “‘granny’ was a label that never let the women forget they were black lay midwives [. . .] but as members of a group known for taking names thrust upon them and reinvesting those names with their own sets of meanings,” grannies, in the past decades, have embraced the term “not as a racial epithet, but as a derivative of grand—wise women who stand tall in their communities.” It is this spirit of recovery that allows Lee to reinvent her use of the term within the present study, and use the granny midwife’s profession as an unlikely site for the epistemological discussions of black women’s resistance.
In chapter 1, Lee considers the influences of western science that circumscribe the identities of granny midwives. Under such auspicious headings as “Hands of Iron and Hands of Flesh” and “Hygiene and the Body,” Lee dissects and analyzes those political and social forces which pit the granny midwife’s body—her hands, her gender, her race—against those technological advances made in the medical establishment that sterilize and depersonalize the birthing process for the prospective mother. Considered a lucrative business, child-birthing became a contested site of forceps and hands, of white men and black women, as medical personnel criticized and demeaned the image of [End Page 505] the granny midwife in the public sector. Well-circulated posters and well-placed circulars distorted the likeness of the granny midwife. She was deemed “too manly” and “too dirty” by some, “too ignorant” and “too superstitious” by others who felt that she was unable to deliver the babies of classed American women. This vilification within the medical community alienated the majority of granny midwives, and subsequently these women found themselves marginalized within the health-care profession as a whole. In other words, the granny midwife, the woman whose professional history can be traced back to West Africa, where her “spiritual gift” made her an honored member of her community, found herself disempowered and subsequently excluded from the practice of childbirth altogether.
Lee’s statistical data is staggering. In North Carolina, for example, “there were 6,500 lay midwives, representing one-third of all babies born” in that state in 1925. Of this number, 80 percent were black. By 1950 only 10.9 percent of the births in North Carolina were midwife-assisted, and by 1988 “there were no official records of any deliveries in North Carolina by lay midwives.” Changes in the medical profession, coupled with legal intervention (it was a misdemeanor to practice midwifery in North Carolina), may explain the drop in numbers, but as Lee makes clear, the cultural devaluing of the practice of midwifery and its place within the child-birthing process altogether frames a web of circumstances for the granny midwife that made it hard for her to compete with the changing times.
It is against this backdrop that Lee theorizes the life and work of granny midwives. In a tradition reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s work as a folklorist/ethnographer of Eatonville culture, Lee, through oral autobiographies, ethnographic materials, archival data, and literary novels, interweaves the oral...