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New film 'Aftershock' explores Black maternal mortality through the stories of two women and those t

(Courtesy of Onyx Collective)
(Courtesy of Onyx Collective)

Shamony Gibson had just given birth to her second child when she began to experience shortness of breath and pain in her chest. She explained her symptoms to doctors and nurses during hospital visits, but was ignored and told to stay off her feet and rest.

That advice proved fatal. Shamony Gibson died of a pulmonary embolism in October 2019, after blood clots moved from her legs to her lungs and stopped her heart.

Social worker and activist Shawnee Benton Gibson says what happened to her daughter is the result of medical racism.

In the U.S., the maternal mortality rate for Black women is three times the rate for white women. A new film, “Aftershock,” debuts on Hulu Tuesday and explores this statistic, following Shamony Gibson’s and another Black woman’s stories and the families they left behind.

“People are just wired to view the complaints of folks who look like my daughter and myself differently,” Shawnee Benton Gibson says. “We are viewed as medication or drug-seeking.”

Shawnee Benton Gibson also learned that doctors still perpetuate myths that Black women don’t experience pain the same way. When Black women do speak out about pain they feel, they’re often told they’re being dramatic. Gibson says that kind of thinking makes it difficult for Black mothers to get support.

In one clip from the film, Shamony Gibson’s partner recalls what happened when the family tried to call for help. When the ambulance arrived at their house, paramedics repeatedly asked if she was on drugs.

Shawnee Benton Gibson says the reason her daughter couldn’t keep still while the paramedics tried to take her vitals was that she was in pain and struggling to breathe.

“There was a lot of impatience with Shamony,” she says. “She was fighting for her life… But they view that as her demonstrating symptoms or the after-effects of being on drugs.”

Having been through traumatic births herself, the film’s co-director, Paula Eiselt, sought to uplift stories of Black women. Eiselt also read articles exposing the U.S. as the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth.

Eiselt adds that what happens to Black mothers in the medical space is a continuum of Black women being historically dehumanized.

“We are the only industrialized nation that does not have midwives in our system,” Eislelt says. “Every other country whose rates are better have integrated midwifery care and also have a slew of other social services that the U.S. does not have.”

In the aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Shawnee Benton Gibson says there will be more near-death and death experiences, especially in communities where access and resources are limited.

“If you’re forced to have a baby, if you’re not listened to on that level and put in a dire situation, then dire outcomes ensue,” she says.

Gibson remembers her daughter as someone who was very busy and always called her about new things she wanted to do.

“I miss having that energy and that drive and that fierceness in my life,” she says. “She was one of the people who could check me and hold me accountable.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.


Watch on YouTube.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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