Matriarchal Rituals at the Site of Rebirth: An Interview with Sankofa Ra
Hello BWB fam,
Today's contribution to the Matriarchy Project is an interview with womb priestess Sankofa Ra. Sankofa Ra is a born and raised New Yorker whose introduction to African spirituality and midwifery came early, through the rituals and self-care practices of her maternal great-grandmother Emma Mae Wright and her maternal grandmother, Marie Robinson. In this conversation, Sankofa Ra details the journeys of these two deeply spiritual women as they migrated from the rural South of Savannah Georgia to urban New York, bringing with them old ways of knowing and being that would over time play a significant role in guiding Sankofa Ra towards her calling. It should be noted that observing these older African traditions against the backdrop of Christian cultural dominance in the U.S. was not a simple feat - it was an act that came with risks, risks that for many African ancestral women were too great to withstand. Yet within Sankofa Ra's family, these beliefs stubbornly persisted. And even despite the dual constraints of the demands of wage labor and dearth of midwifery practitioners in the North, traditional birthing protocols continued to find expression in Sankofa Ra's family, eventually becoming the base on which she cultivated her vast knowledge of the body, the spirit, nature, and the revelation that is giving birth, in both in a physical and spiritual sense. I am immensely grateful to have gained the opportunity to speak with Sankofa Ra about her family and lineage, and am thrilled that I am now able to share her experiences and wisdom with the BWB family.
-Courtney Hunter, Associate Editor for Mamablack
Let me just say it’s so nice to finally speak to you face to face via Zoom. You told me a little about yourself already in our email exchanges, but for the readers, can you provide a little background on who you are and what you do?
We all as beings have a purpose, we’re all here for a reason, and my reason for being here on this earthly plain is to continue building upon and restoring the African tradition of midwifery. To go into the term itself, the way I identify with it is as a calling – so it’s not something that you could go to school for, it’s who you are and where you come from. Its part of my calling to continue this rich legacy that has been fragmented through the transatlantic slave trade, through slavery, through Jim Crow, colonization, and more. And there’s so much more to it than just catching babies – even though that’s a wonderful service to provide. But as African midwives we provide the connection to nature, herbs, and the whole cycle of life. We prepare your body for fertility, for getting ready to give birth, and I’m not gonna get too deep into it but the reason we’re dealing with these high infant and maternal mortality rates is because we’ve become so disconnected from the richness of our culture that sustained us through slavery and after slavery. In a very short span of time we became disconnected from our rituals of self-care, our alignments with our ancestors, and the vast rich medicine cabinet that we have out in nature. Because unfortunately, many of us no longer live on farms, we don’t grow our own food, we don’t even know if what we’re eating is real food or not. So the stress of being disconnected from the land and our culture causes all kinds of unseen anxieties spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and socially. We have to reclaim what is ours.
"You see these statistics today about the growing maternal mortality rate in this country, but that only became an issue once white male doctors started interfering and getting involved in birthing."
I’m glad you said that because I do feel that the reason Black women tend to request Black midwives, beyond wanting to feel recognized and feel heard, is because we are cognizant of a spiritual shift that occurs in pregnancy that we need other Black women to help mediate.
Yes and I also just want to add some historical context – a lot of us are not familiar with the Sheppard Towner Act of 1921 in the United States. That was a very important act because It solidified the shift from birthing as a female responsibility to it being its own medical field dominated by white men. And so they put this act into motion to remove the Black and also European midwives. And with this campaign they promoted the idea that midwives were dirty, unhygienic, uneducated and all these other things. This was also an extension of the industrial revolution, and a mentality dictating that everything had to be sterile and operating like an assembly line. So you can see from looking at that and looking at how we’re treated in the medical field, especially in hospitals, how this mentality has manifested in the present day. But in the early 1920s there were over 43,000 Black midwives, that were documented and that we knew existed. So think about that – if you think about the over 43,000 traditional Black midwives that existed before they even started bringing aboard white nurses to tell these Black women who have been birthing them and their mothers and their mothers’ mothers, that they had to learn how to be clean, and how to operate with these standards that they formed – if that hadn’t occurred and the traditions were able to be passed on, that means that everybody today would know at least one or two people in their neighborhoods, who birthed you, or your uncle, or your father, or your mother. You see these statistics today about the growing maternal mortality rate in this country, but that only became an issue once white male doctors started interfering and getting involved in birthing. There’s actually a great book called “In the Way of Our Grandmothers” by Debra Susie – she goes into great detail about how step by step they got involved and removed traditional midwifery, completely disrespecting and annihilating the Black midwives, who were key to the survival of not just Black people but of white people too. We were helping to birth their babies as well, take care of them, and help them recover, so we were basically on the front lines of survival for everyone.
We just raise everyone’s children.
Yes, we’re the mother of everyone – literally since everyone comes from Black women. Nobody would be here if it were not for the womb of a Black woman.
You possess so much knowledge on the history of your calling, but how were you first introduced to midwifery, and to African spiritualism? Did you seek it out on your own or did someone lead you to it?
It’s interesting because my grandmother and my great-grandmother – they were both very spiritual. Even though they read the bible everyday they never went to church. They never went to Sunday service. And it took me a while to really understand and make the connections with what was happening. So for example my great-grandmother – and this is very common – she had a certain way she would do things, like she wouldn’t cross a tree a certain way. Like if you greet the tree the wrong way she would actually make you go back around and do it the proper way because there were just certain ways that you were supposed to approach it. You couldn’t cut the tree, you couldn’t sweep your feet with a broom – if you swept your feet with the broom you had to spit on the broom because to sweep your feet with it was to take away someone’s Asé, someone’s positive energy. And I would go through these things and find out that these were “superstitions” so to speak, that are here in the United States, but that also exist in certain parts of the Caribbean and in Africa. My husband, he’s from Ghana, and he’s said that they do the same thing with the broom, and have the same beliefs about how you approach certain things in nature. My great-grandmother and grandmother would do other things like go and visit these Yoruba priests, or go into these botanicas and get candles – my grandmother was always burning candles – she had candles for different purposes. I remember getting what we called the money tree and how that is used in the Ifa religion to remove bad energy and keep in good energy.
"Both my grandma and great-grandma had these spiritual connections that went beyond what people expected of African Americans during the time. They kept alive these older traditions of spirituality."
So they carried over and passed on all these beliefs from Africa?
Yes they carried it over. But it’s interesting because it wasn’t something they talked about it was just something they did. They didn’t say “I’m doing this because…” You were just exposed to it, they didn’t explain anything to you. Even with numbers. We all know about running numbers and back then you would go to the number man or the number man would come to your house. You would place a bet on numbers. They were also very adamant about dreams – I remember any time anything happened with dreams, my great- grandmother would get on the phone, and talk to others about her dreams. I remember she used to go down the street, go to the store, and in the store there was a room in back where they would have all these dream books. And for people that are old enough they’ll remember the big red book. It still exists, and you can buy it online now, and basically it had all these number combinations and explanations of what they meant. Running numbers back then was where a lot of Black people made money, illegally, but that was one of the only ways we could make money. But it was also our connections with our ancestors that were being preserved. My great Aunt too, she’s like 90 now and she always plays numbers, to this day - it was like a ritual for her. Any number that came up in their dreams, its like they had to act on it, they had to find out what it meant. So those were some of the introductions I had to African spirituality.
So you’re grandmother and great-grandmother were really the ones who introduced you to everything.
Yes, my grandmother was truly my spiritual guide. I was raised by her and my great- grandmother in the same place. My grandmother, she was a Virgo, and she was very organize - you could set a timer by her. I grew up with her teaching me yoga. She would always look up these programs with these yogis, and she would follow them while they did their poses. And we’re talking about back in the early 80s, about a Black woman born in the 1930s when the Great Depression began. She was into Yoga, she was into vitamins – she had this beauty ritual where she would use Pond’s cream to clean her skin and she had this thing about going to the beauty salon, getting a manicure. She was an avid reader and had books on Elijah Muhammad, tantric sex, mysticism - any subject matter you could think of, she had a book about it. She's what made me the bookworm I am. This vast collection that she had, along with her rituals of yoga, vitamins, and beauty regimens, really taught me the freedom of mind, body, and spirit.
Both my grandma and great grandma had these spiritual connections that went beyond what people expected of African Americans during the time. They kept alive these older traditions of spirituality. And I’m not quite sure when it started. I’m assuming it started once it came to New York because I really don’t know what was going on when they were in the South – they were born in Savannah Georgia. They were born in a rural area and they were all farmers. They had midwives in the South, who helped birthed them – and when that cycle broke is probably when they migrated to the North, which is pretty much the story of most Black people during the migration from North to South – them having to suddenly go to hospitals because they no longer had the community midwife there to birth their babies, and having to adjust to this whole new dynamic of being in an urban society as opposed to the country way of life. But yes they were my introduction to African spirituality. And they always gave me a choice, they never forced anything on me – even when I started going to church, my grandmother just asked when I was around 5 or so, if I wanted to go with my godmother’s mother every Sunday. And I loved it because I could ask questions – I’m an avid questions - asker, I’m always asking questions about anything and everything, and I got the opportunity to do that in the church through Sunday school.