A new book by Annie Finch delivers abortion stories from some of our most loved writers.
Abortion isn’t an easy subject to broach, but it seems particularly difficult in the Black community. This is mystifying, since one in four women will have an abortion over her lifetime. While abortions have dropped over the last 15 years, Black women continue to have the highest abortion rate (27.1 per 1,000 women) compared with 10 per 1,000 for white women, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
When I received a copy of Choice Words: Writers on Abortion, I was heartened to find that so many Black writers had contributed. Poet, activist and editor Annie Finch has assembled the work of our community’s literary giants to lend voice to this common experience.
“In doing my research for this anthology, I was amazed at how many prominent Black writers have taken on abortion,” says Finch, who lives in Washington, D.C. “Collectively, these works validify the range of abortion experiences, including those of women of color. It’s time for abortion without apology.”
“Once I was pregnant & shamed of myself.” That’s a line from Ntozake Shange’s 1975 seminal choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. It describes the enduring stigma of unplanned pregnancy and abortion. Women are forced to endure the experience in secrecy, which adds to the trauma of the decision.
As contemporary poet Tara Betts writes in “The Promise,” included in Choice Words, “I promised on Catholic-school skirt/ communion dress dragged deep/ into dreams, I would not say a word.”
Several of the Black poets in Choice Words addressed the socioeconomic reasons women seek abortions. In her poem “Motherhood,” Georgia Douglas Johnson speaks to her unborn child: “Wait in the still eternity/ until I come to you./ The world is cruel, cruel, cruel, child,/ I cannot let you through.”
We don’t often hear from the women who terminate a pregnancy under duress – how would we? But literature allows us to imagine the voices that have been silenced. In “Abortion,” the late poet Ai writes from the point of view of a man who has come home to find his wife has aborted their child: “What can I say, except that I’ve heard/ the poor have no children, just small people/ and there is room only for one man in this house.”
Langston Hughes is one of the few men in the collection. Although famous for his poetry, the collection includes one of his short stories, “Cora Unashamed,” which chronicles the life of a Black housekeeper. When Cora gets pregnant, she chooses to keep the baby, who is later stillborn.
Her defiance feels courageous for the 1930s and remains so today: “Cora didn’t go anywhere to have her child. Nor tried to hide it. When the baby grew big within her, she didn’t feel that it was a disgrace. … Cora was humble and shameless before the fact of the child. There were no Negroes in Melton to gossip, and she didn’t care what the white people said. … Let the people talk.”
In “The Mother,” Gwendolyn Brooks describes abortion as an act of love: “Abortions will not let you forget./ You remember the children you got that you did not get.” She adds: “Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you/ All.”
In “Haint,” Teri Cross Davis wonders if the aborted child is still inhabiting her womb, causing later miscarriages: “Science tells me/ you are still whispering/ inside my bones/ that years from now/ cut me to the marrow/ and microscopes will read/ the rings of your insistent story.” She asks the question that haunts her: “Do you still cling? Or are you willing/ to let another call my womb/ home?”
People expect women to feel regret after an abortion, but studies show that the most prevalent feeling is relief. In “The Virginity Thief (A Letter to My Man),” Thylias Moss attributes many of her personal and professional achievements to her choice to terminate a pregnancy.
She says that her life was “made possible because I had an abortion following my loss of virginity: rape at age fifteen that resulted in pregnancy fathered by Charles Jones, twenty-five-year-old Deacon in my mother’s church, and director of the choir I was in.”
Feminist icon, poet Audre Lorde describes her own abortion as a shift “from safety towards self-preservation,” and Gen X poet Lauren K. Alleyne echoes that sentiment in “Gretel: Unmothering” – “There is a live thing inside me,/ I know—I carry its heart./ Forgive me, little bun,/ but I am no oven.”
Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.