Reviewed by Associate Editor Nikki Shaner-Bradford
In Osaremen Okolo’s investigation of the myth and reality of fertility amongst African American women, “Blackened Fertility: The Lasting Discourse of African American Female Reproduction After the Civil Rights Movement,” Okolo contrasts the concept of hyper-fertility that is forced upon African American women with surprising statistics about the prevalence of infertility amongst these women. She illustrates the progression of this narrative of hyper-fertility along with the socially accepted concept of the Welfare Queen, concerns of overpopulation (in particular the growth of nonwhite populations), and the results of this ideology as translating to forced sterilizations and the development of widespread but oft-ignored fertility challenges.
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Okolo’s research is her examination of the role of popular media in both contributing to and refuting these ideas. In particular, she notes that part of the aim of her work was to amplify the voices of black women whose gynecological health was simultaneously exploited, fictionalized, and overlooked. She does this by noting two magazines for and by African American women, Essence and Ebony. It was these publications that aimed to target issues specifically within that community that discussed concerns over infertility, birth control, black female identity, and the overpowering voices of black men within the conversation of black reproduction. The complicated history of being an African American woman within a country that often actively suppressed that identity meant that ideas about birth control and sexual empowerment in the wake of forced sterilizations and the hyper-fertility narrative were inherently controversial. Okolo emphasizes the importance of providing space for women to create their own narratives, however, for her paper concludes that this suppression and popular narrative have contributed to a lack of fertility treatment offered to and sought out by black women.
Along with this analysis of media and popular culture, Okolo traces the legislative debates and political platforms that contributed to the rise of this narrative. She discusses the was in which the image of hyper-fertility was projected upon the African American mother through political manipulation and exploitation of the idea of the Welfare Queen as an ideal scapegoat for other societal issues. She discusses the rise of this narrative with the Reagan administration, and the way in which this rhetoric undermined the reproductive agency of African American women around the country.
The strength of Okolo’s writing is in her ability to contrast this complex and overlooked history with the current reality of infertility and inaccessibility for proper healthcare amongst African American women. It is clear through her thorough examination of this history that these issues not only persist, but build upon their past. She draws a clear correlation between the historical narrative of hyper-fertility amongst African American women and the notable inequity in fertility care today. Ultimately, Osaremen Okolo eloquently discusses a complex and important issues while both illustrating the development of the problem and the current reality that remains.