Click here to tune in tonight, @9PM EST for the series premiere of “Shiphrah and Puah Stories”!
“Shiphrah & Puah Stories” celebrates Caribbean midwives and matriarchs, and documents the nutrition, rituals, and pampering practices that have kept Black women safe during pregnancy, childbirth, and throughout the postpartum period.
“Shiphrah & Puah Stories” is a call for us to save ourselves, despite dismal statistics for maternal and infant mortality rates among Black women and babies in America.
This blog has been living in my body & soul since October 2017. It was then, shortly after my 43rd birthday, that I traveled to Kansas City, Missouri to attend the ProDoula Annual Conference, dubbed “Speak Your Truth”. Despite my reservations about going to Kansas City after the NAACP put out a travel warning for that area, I knew that I had to be there to hear my sister speak. We had never met in person, but our hours of conversation via telephone and FaceBook had forged a kinship bond, that pulled me to show up for what I knew to be a historical event.
I was not disappointed. In fact, that night I and nine other Black women were divinely appointed by “Dr. Doula”, as she is called. Not only did she summon us to the stage and cast words of affirmation and insight upon us, she did it in a room that was overwhelmingly filled with White women. Women who in every other arena would have been the center of attention, watched as Dr. Doula spoke life into us, and made us speak it into ourselves. I stood there crying, profoundly aware that we were being initiated. Dr. Little Mason wasn’t teaching me anything about myself, or giving me any traditions that I wasn’t already a part of. She was simply letting me know that she already knew who I was, that The Most High had sent her “on assignment”, and giving me the charge to be more of myself from that point forward.
This was no ordinary keynote speech. Dr. Doula embodied the role of African griot and historian, as she told of her experience as a woman of highly melanated skin in the circles of birthworkers, which are predominately populated by White women. She was “singing my life with her song” as she illustrated the microaggressions and inherent bias that Black women in America face at the hands of our “well-intentioned” White counterparts. But more than that, she put on a clinic on what it is to truly doula someone. Those White women in the room, who on any other night would have been able to jump in and save the day with their White savior complexes, were in no position to do so. At that moment all they could do was truly “hold space” for those of us who were being restored and acknowledged, as well as our ancestors who literally birthed this entire nation, or fed it at their breasts.
By the time that her presentation was over, I was forever changed. Her presentation was so interactive, and I was so clear of my mission, that for a moment everything made sense. Dr. Doula was illustrating how Black women’s contributions had been erased from the history of childbirth in America. She collected tiny Post-Its on which we all had written the contributions of Black women to childbirth in America. And at one point she started burning them. That was just too much for me to take, in my stirring moment of self-actualization. I screamed out, “No! Don’t do that!” Yet, she continued. I realized that the burning and destroying of our history could only be stopped by us.
I jumped onto the stage and blew out the flame, sending embers flying. Thankfully Dr. Doula is as quick with her reflexes as she is with her wit! She quickly patted them away, preventing any accidents, and stared at me with the stare that African women have stared from time immemorial, to get folks back in line with the quickness! I did no such thing. She had given me a charge and I was going to keep it. I proceeded to snatch the papers away and start reading them out loud, one by one. Soon, others joined me and read the contributions for everyone present to hear.
Today, ProDoula released a video documenting this phenomenal event. I invite you to listen to it, and be forever changed as I was. Remember, as in the Sankofa symbol from the Akan people of Ghana, the bird turning its neck around. . .it is not taboo to go back for what you have lost!
Amber Williams is a puppeteer. Yes, you read that correctly. She heard about a job opening, through her sister, and the rest is history.
Did you know that puppeteers must not only be able to maneuver their hands intricately but also convey emotion with those movements? Or that there is a test, that involves an egg, to see if one is going to be able to learn to operate marionettes?
This energetic, articulate, 25 year-old mother of four children is a puppeteer, at the Puppetworks theater in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York.
While chaperoning my daughter’s class trip to see “Puss in Boots” at Puppetworks, I was impressed with Amber’s rapport with the children. It also occurred to me, that I had never before seen a black woman who had the skill of professionally operating a marionette puppet, much less did it for a living! When the show was over, I left my card and hoped that Amber would call. Just a few days later, she did!
Amber agreed to meet with me, so that I could write a blog highlighting her work with Puppetworks. Little did I know that Amber would inspire and move me to tears, during our meeting, with her dignity and wisdom which were gained through overcoming life’s trials.
Amber was placed in foster care, specifically a group home, after the death of her mother when she was only 16 years-old. She described how trying it was to see her mother slip away from life and into death, on that fateful day. Her story was punctuated by tales of the perseverance and determination that she mastered at a young age.
The mother who had provided for her, loved her, and allowed her to pursue her love of art, dance, and anything creative, had been in poor health. She died while being treated in an area hospital. The death of Amber’s mother cemented her desire to learn more about natural healing and remedies, as well as using spices and herbs as preventive medicine.
Amber attributes her flawless hair to the natural potion of oils and emollients, which she formulated and tested on her own hair, and that of her children. Wait. So she’s a chemist too?
Amber is a mother of four children, two boys and two girls, which includes a set of fraternal twins. Her first child was a big part of Amber’s motivation to work hard and save her earnings, when she was still living in a group home.
Photo credit: Yael B. Yisrael
Imagine being a teenager in a group home, grieving the loss of your mother. Then, add the disappointment of your father’s unwillingness to provide adequate care in your mother’s absence. Next, envision getting so frustrated that you choose to become an emancipated minor, and sign yourself into foster care. Finally, think of how difficult it would have been to work super hard outside of the group home, and also take five-dollar cleaning jobs in the group home, all while being a teenage mother.
What a work ethic Amber had at that age! But it gets even more amazing. Amber realized that the New York City foster care system was obligated to move her belongings, once she obtained an apartment. So, while saving for a down payment, she also purchased items for her new apartment. The apartment that she had only seen in her mind.
When her room began to be overcome by boxes and bags, staff and other residents would comment and laugh at her. But Amber had a plan, and she pulled it off. She did by using her logic and drive to succeed, which are skills she employs today in her work as a puppeteer.
A major part of Amber’s identity is that of being an artist. She explained that being a dancer has also had a big impact on her work as a puppeteer. Puppeteering is a dying art. The creating and repair of marionettes is an even more endangered art. Most 25 year-old New Yorkers are only using their hands to swipe touch screens. Amber is using her hands to bring marionettes to life, as well as to help repair them when they are injured!
Photo Credit: Donovan Hall
“Some of the puppets are falling apart,” said Amber, as she explained that almost all of Puppetworks’ marionettes are vintage. The tree fiber used in the joints of the puppets, which allows them to move, is not even made anymore. She talked about the time that she spends learning to repair the puppets, and also how to give them lifelike qualities when operating them. The Chief Puppeteer, Michael Leach, has been a mentor to Amber, as has Donovan Hall who is also a Puppeteer with the company. Nicolas Coppola and James Wojtal, Jr., the Puppet Builders, are part of the small, tight knit crew at Puppetworks, who have taught Amber so much in this newest form of her artistic expression.
Amber also shared that having a set of twins who spent time in the NICU after being born two years ago, was a challenge that she overcame through faith and perseverance. She even helped save one of the twins’ lives, once they were home, by using the CPR training she had received before they left the NICU, when an Acute Life Threatening Event (ALTE) occurred. Amber is a phenomenal woman, yet so easy to talk to.
Throughout the entire interview, Amber reflected on the joy that she uses to approach life, despite obstacles. One such obstacle, is her battle with the chronic disease sickle-cell anemia, which means that she must take extra special self-care. The NY winters and having a job where she’s using her hands so much, mean that heating pads and heat treatments are a go-to for Amber to relieve pain.
I’m so thankful that Puppetworks hired Amber, and that I chose to be a chaperone on that trip, because meeting her reminds me that there are no obstacles too great for art to conquer.
We are very fortunate to have access to so many artistic and cultural outlets here in Brooklyn! With the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and the hard working grind, it’s easy to forget to take some time out for recreation and art. However, please make some time to take advantage of all that our borough and city have to offer.
Puppetworks is one such resource, with a rich history. Please visit their website, and show your support, via attending shows and giving them donations. Your children will thank you, and you will be quite entertained!