A profound fireside chat about the impact of the Black maternal health crisis on Black fathers, between radio personality Charlamagne tha God and Charles Johnson IV, maternal health activist and founder of 4 Kira 4 Moms, held at the 2022 Doula Expo, was deeply moving. 

The Doula Expo by Mama Glow is an annual festival celebrating birth work, policy change, and centering organizations rooted in solutions in maternal health. The event is the first and only gathering for birth workers, families, caregivers, and the brands and organizations designed to support them. Founded by maternity lifestyle maven Latham Thomas, Mama Glow is New York’s premiere maternity lifestyle brand committed to supporting women along the childbearing continuum. 

In front of nearly 1,000 guests, Johnson shared the tragic story of his partner Kira Johnson, who lost her life in childbirth at the hands of medical negligence in 2016. This tragedy is the inspiration behind his work to dismantle the systemic flaws within the healthcare system, “we have to have a serious conversation about the lived experience of Black men who are navigating birth with their families and the impact of loss.” said Johnson. He continued, “It’s not enough for Black women to survive childbirth they need to thrive."

Johnson is currently suing Cedars-Senai Medical Center for wrongful death after staff performed a rushed C-section on his partner, leading her to die from internal bleeding within hours of childbirth. Through the lawsuit, his mission is to set a new precedent for how Black mothers-to-be are treated in hospital settings. 

Below are highlights from the enlightening and emotional conversation.

Charlamagne Tha God: When my wife got pregnant with our third daughter she was told that she had to have a c-section. She was terrified. All I kept thinking about was your [Johnson] story. I just wonder as a father and a husband, what are the range of emotions you go through in that situation? You had the joy of birth then the agony of death as well. 

Charles Johnson IV: Six year later, I’m still trying to comprehend it. To be honest, the fact that this even happened is beyond my comprehension. But that range of emotions from joy then just being with a loss that you never saw coming. We walked into the hospital that day with the thought that we would walk out ready to raise our little boy…it was our second time going through this. We were supposed to be pros, it was supposed to be easy. Its not just being a bittersweet moment, you go through waves of anger and anxiety. 

The toughest thing is having a candid conversation about the lived experiences of Black men and fatherhood and what that means. While Kira was suffering and she was in so much pain, she kept saying to me “baby please stay calm.” She knew that if I raised my voice, slammed my fists, or got up in those doctors’ faces, then I would no longer be seen as a father trying to advocate for my wife, I would be seen as a threat. Everyday, I struggle with thinking what should I have done differently if I acted on those impulses. But the other outcome, if I had turned up and been removed from the situation, was bring away from her when she passed away. 

Charlamagne Tha God: We never hear from Black fathers and how they are impacted by the Black maternal health crisis. How do we support Black fathers who are navigating the birth experience and not feeling empowered to even want to have kids because of stories like this? 

Johnson IV: I appreciate you bringing that up because when I first started advocating, it seemed like no one else was talking about this. I was baffled and doing everything I could to scream on the top of my lungs to raise awareness. The result of that was when people were learning [about my experience], they were left terrified. 

It’s not enough for Black mothers to survive childbirth, we need to be doing things to make sure they thrive before, during, and after giving birth. That means while we’re working on informing and reforming these systems, it’s important that we empower families with the tools they need to navigate these situations. When they sit with their provider it’s important to ask two questions: do they know about the Black maternal health crisis? And What are they doing to make sure that you thrive? Based upon their responses, you’ll find out a lot. If they get offended, it’s a red flag.

Charlamagne Tha God: What information about childbirth have you learned because of this that could help the next couple not experience a tragedy?

Johnson IV: The biggest thing is understanding and being informed of the options that are available to you. I believe that doulas matter. Every birthing person that wants a doula should have free access to one. Doulas should be paid a thriving wage. Also, families should have access to the birthing experience of their choice whether it’s at home, the hospital, that’s their choice. Being informed of the available options, the truth about those options, and the potential consequences of those options you make. Even being informed about integrated options of care, like working with your OB and doula if you choose to.