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In August of 2021, Denise Williams was rushed to Queens Hospital Center in New York City. Williams, a 29-year-old Black woman, had recently given birth and needed treatment for acute postpartum depression. Her family had hoped her stay would be brief, so she could return to be with her newborn, Adalee, and her 3-year-old daughter Avyanna. But two days later, Williams’ mother received a devastating and shocking phone call: Her daughter had died.

Charlene Magee speaks at a protest outside of Queens Hospital Center demanding answers for the death of her niece Denise Williams. Nicholas St. Fleur/STAT

Williams’ family was left wondering what exactly had happened. Tragically, this story is just one glimpse into a much broader crisis facing Black mothers and birthing people in the U.S. Black Americans are three times more likely to die giving birth than their white peers. In this episode of “Color Code,” we take a look at America’s Black maternal mortality crisis.  

In this episode, we hear from Williams’ family including her sister, Belinda Staley, and her aunt, Charlene Magee, who demand to know more about the death of their dear “Niecy.” We also hear from Katy Cecen, a reproductive justice activist who helped support the family in their search for answers; Shawnee Benton Gibson and Omari Maynard, who lost their loved one, Shamony Gibson, following the birth of her second child; and Rachel Hardeman, a reproductive health equity researcher at the University of Minnesota. 

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Family, friends, and activists gathered with protest signs in front of Queens Hospital Center in January on what would have been Denise Williams’ 30th birthday. Nicholas St. Fleur/STAT

You can subscribe to “Color Code” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud, and elsewhere. New episodes will be released every other Monday.

A transcript of this episode is available here

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To read more on some of the topics discussed in the episode:

  • A young Black mother died during treatment for postpartum depression. Her family demands answers. The City and The Fuller Project
  • Take a look at the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021. Congress.gov.
  • Why America’s Black mothers and babies are in a life-or-death crisis. New York Times Magazine 
  • Watch the “Aftershock” documentary, which features the stories of Shawnee Benton Gibson and Omari Maynard. 
  • Serena Williams’ account of a life-threatening emergency after giving birth to her daughter. Elle.

Check out some of STAT’s coverage on the topic, including stories from Nick: 

Find out more about Hardeman in this New York Times profile

And here’s a helpful primer from the CDC: Working Together to Reduce Black Maternal Mortality.

This podcast was made possible with support from the Commonwealth Fund.