“Silent Choices”: African American Women Open Up on Film

“Silent Choices”: African American Women Open Up on Film

by Faith Pennick

The debate over reproductive choice continues to burn, even with a pro-choice president currently in the White House. As we enter another presidential election year, the issue will not go quietly into that good night.

The recent reversal by the Department of Health and Human Services of a Food and Drug Administration ruling to offer Plan B (sometimes called the “morning-after pill”) over-the-counter without a prescription to girls aged 17 years and under is the latest reminder that politics remain front and center in the choice debate.

On Roe newscasts,
you hardly ever see
a woman of color
speaking about it.

What has changed is that African Americans have become a conspicuous target of anti-choice activists. Billboards have been placed in African American neighborhoods throughout the country: Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York City, to name a few. One displayed the offensive slogan: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Another billboard featuring President Obama appeared about a mile from where I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, proclaiming: “Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted.”

Both ads are veiled references to the cry of “genocide” — that African American women who choose to terminate their pregnancies are bad “race women” for not adding to the African American population. It is also an attempt to manipulate more religious African Americans who may not believe in abortion personally, even though the tactic in no way acknowledges the duality of the subject — that a person could disapprove of abortion, but reject criminalizing the procedure.

It is that thorny intersection of race, politics and religion that I wanted to explore in my documentary film, Silent Choices . The film is about abortion from the perspective of African Americans.

Why I Turned to the Camera

I made the film for three reasons. First, I wanted to give Black women a voice to talk about abortion and other reproductive issues. For too many years, the abortion debate was (and to a certain extent, still is) dominated by affluent white women, particularly in the prominent pro-choice organizations in the U.S. Involving more African American women in reproductive justice means that they literally have to see themselves in the issue. The politics and personal narratives in Silent Choices are reflected through the prism of what it means to be a Black woman in a racist and sexist (as well as classist) society.

Second, I wanted to highlight the work of African American leaders. I knew of numerous Black women who dedicated their lives to fighting for reproductive justice. However, their work goes unsung all too often. By producing the film I wanted to give women and men — including National Black Women’s Health Imperative founder Byllye Avery; author and Northwestern University law professor Dorothy Roberts and recently retired Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice president Rev. Carlton Veazey — a larger audience. Making Silent Choices was also my way of saying “thank you” to them for their tireless work.

The third and primary reason why I made the film comes to this: a simple statement made by a friend more than 15 years ago. This friend (who is pro-life) and I were having an argument about abortion. One of our typical arguments, actually. (Example: Friend — Abortion is murder and we should be more responsible. Me –Shit HAPPENS! Who am I to tell a woman what to do with her own body?) However, during this particular argument, she said something that shocked me into silence (the following is an exact quote): “Abortion is a white woman’s issue, and Black women have more important things to worry about.”

You could have heard my head explode after she said that. I couldn’t believe that such a statement could come out of an educated Black woman’s mouth.

At that moment, I felt invisible. And angry. Probably how Ida B. Wells felt when white suffragists told her and her abolitionist sisters to march BEHIND them. Except this came from a Black woman and a good friend who knew Black women who had abortions. I should note that my friend later appeared in Silent Choices and said in the film that she does not remember making that statement.

For years, her statement nagged at me. I couldn’t shake it, in part, because when I got over the initial shock of what she said, I knew that she had a valid point.

As I described, if you turn on any network newscast on January 22 of any year and see its obligatory report on the Roe v. Wade anniversary, hardly ever do you see a woman of color speaking about it. So if the mainstream media are the arbiters of what someone “needs to know,” then viewers are led to believe that abortion rights have nothing to do with Black women and women of color. This runs counter to the statistics from the Guttmacher Institute that African American women obtain 30 percent of the abortions performed in this country and Hispanic women account for another 25 percent.

Also, there are numerous social problems affecting Black women disproportionately including poverty, violence, HIV/AIDs, unemployment and underemployment, and single motherhood. So my friend is correct in this sense: a working Black woman who’s in school while raising children on her own is likely too busy to join a local pro-choice march. For many of those women, the issue of choice is something they deal with only when it affects them personally or a family member.

So, I decided to take these ideas and do what I do best: make a film!

Telling Our Stories Ourselves

Silent Choices features three Black women who had abortions, including one who had an illegal abortion in college. The film also examines the thorny history of race and reproductive politics, including the impact of controversial birth control advocate Margaret Sanger (who, contrary to much pro-life propaganda, did NOT force birth control clinics into Black communities) and the conflicting stances about abortion within the Black Power movement. The subject needs to be understood in the larger context of the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights and self-empowerment for African Americans. I felt that it was important to lay a foundation for understanding how and why African Americans advocated for or against family planning.

Even though I am pro-choice, I was adamant about not making a didactic “pro-choice” film. I wanted to show a true and fair look at abortion from a group of people who are rarely heard on the issue; to this extent I included a segment featuring Black pro-lifers. I can’t and won’t pretend that all African Americans are pro-choice. It would have been disingenuous not to include those whose views on abortion are opposite of mine, those who are also ignored by the mainstream media and the pro-life movement alike. I didn’t want <em>Silent Choices</em> to simply “preach to the converted.”

I wanted to show
a true look at
abortion from
a group rarely heard

Silent Choices was released in 2007, screening in film festivals and conferences throughout the country. The film was also released as an educational video by filmmaker co-op New Day Films.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Black women express their gratitude to me for showing perspectives like theirs on this issue. Others have said that the history and stories from those in the film shed new light on the abortion issue that may not have occurred to them. Probably the best compliment I received was at a film festival, where a fellow filmmaker told me that he is pro-life and that he loved the film. That made me very happy. I did my job.

Silent Choices took six years to complete. There were moments when I considered walking away from the project, primarily because fundraising for the film proved difficult. But I knew there was a place for the film in the discourse around reproductive choice. It fills a void — especially among documentary films — providing fresh perspectives on the abortion debate. In the time since I worked on Silent Choices, other scholarship and articles have been published about Black women and women of color as they relate to reproductive justice. That scholarship, along with the work of organizations such as the National Black Women’s Health Imperative and the SisterSong collective, continues to narrow the void as we create a more inclusive and complete understanding of the meaning and implications of reproductive choice.

Faith Pennick is an award-winning filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. For more information on her films, visit the Organized Chaos Mediaworks web site: www.orgchaos.com. She can be followed on Twitter @orgchaosmedia. If you are interested in seeing “Silent Choices” at home, for a small fee you can watch a digital stream of the entire film at New Day Digital. For educators and activists interested in purchasing the DVD for educational use, go to New Day Films.

Also see: Heading Toward Menopause, Still Caring about Abortion by Andrea Plaid in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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