A Black Midwesterner’s Perspective on Abortion Access, Regional Culture, and Why People Should Care About the Midwest

When reporting on the Midwest, media outlets often forget about communities subject to state violence and suppression.

[Photo: A young, Black woman sits by the Navy Pier in Chicago.]
The media frequently presents it as “flyover country." But that is not the full story of the Midwest. Page Light Studios / Shutterstock.com

The abortion bans sweeping the South in places like Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisiana are getting a fair amount of attention—as well they should. But what cannot be denied is that legislatures in Midwest states like Ohio and Missouri are passing equally extreme abortion bans, and there has not been a similar national response. The fervor and outcry that accompanied the wave of restrictions in the South looked like abortion support fatigue once that wave hit the Midwest.

Instead, the Midwest remains the butt of jokes. The media frequently presents it as “flyover country,” which informs how people identify the region: as a so-called sanctuary for racist, sexist, and bigoted state legislatures. But that is not the full story of the Midwest.

When reporting on the Midwest, media outlets often forget about communities subject to state violence and suppression. They focus on white, rural, and conservative people—the very groups overrepresented in state legislatures, who are using religious exemptions to isolate, dominate, manipulate, and ignore millions of constituents.

As a third-generation Midwesterner who was born and raised in Indiana, I learned from media fairly early on that the center of the country was a great region to grow up, but not the place to discover who you truly are if you are anyone other than a white, cisgender man. I also learned from the media that coming back might be difficult once I lived in the largely anonymous social, cultural, and political meccas of the coasts. A series of life circumstances brought me and my work in the reproductive justice movement into focus when I moved from the East Coast to Cleveland, a city that is a blue dot in the vast red state of Ohio.

I started a conversation on Twitter last month about why Black Midwesterners are left out of the conversation about the region and found myself building community with folks who feel the same way.

The conversation continued, with others noting the cultural breadth of the Midwest’s food, culture, literature, and the “Midwestern manners” that have a language all of their own, much like the South’s.

As the conversation continued, more Midwesterners who are white, but who are not rural, conservative, cisgender men chimed in. They named the challenges of being identified with a demographic whose political views largely do not align with theirs.

The conversations about the assumptions the media, society, and people in other regions make about Midwesterners continued throughout the dialogue about who we are and how divergent our political positions are, particularly on issues of race, gender equity, and reproductive access.

The same level of indifference expressed toward the Midwest in the blanket assumptions about politics is evident in the broad response to the bans on abortion access. Illinois is the only example of political progress in terms of reproductive rights, with the passage of its Illinois Reproductive Health Act (SB 25) which protects access by repealing “outdated and unconstitutional prohibitions on reproductive health care and … regulat[ing] abortion like any other form of health care.” Known as the “abortion oasis in the Midwest,” Illinois is also one of two states in the Midwest that provides Medicaid coverage for abortion, the other being Minnesota.

In addition to frequently leaving out the ways that the bans are impacting the Midwest, the media has made hardly any mention of organizations that have always been on the front lines for access. The investment of dollars and media attention toward those who are most impacted by the bans has barely scratched the surface. Ask these organizations listed above (and many others not listed) if the Midwest is receiving the level of investment in leadership and the social, political, and economic change that it needs to scale up resources for the constituents who are left behind.

Who’s to blame in this? Any entity or person who has ever discounted or discredited the social, political, and cultural diversity in this region. Those who privilege the voices and experiences of white, right-wing conservatism as the standard for political involvement in this region have done a grave disservice to the people of the Midwest. In fact, the media typically covers legislators who would have you believe that they do not have Black, Indigenous, or people of color constituents who disagree with them. You also might be under the impression that there are not people across the Midwest who are invested in dismantling in the white supremacist patriarchal machine. Those assumptions could not be further from the truth.

In a New York Times piece last year, Tamara Winfrey-Harris shares what it will take to make Black Midwesterners more visible: It requires acknowledging the experiences of black Midwesterners, even when this means adding unflattering nuance to the stories we’ve long been told about their white neighbors. Because without centuries of economic and cultural contributions from black people in flyover states, America would not be America at all.”

This astute analysis of why Black Midwesterners are invisible to the country opens the door for drawing attention to the other diverse communities not frequently considered—like the Hmong people in St. Paul, Minnesota, home to the group’s largest U.S. population outside of California; the Muslim community in Hamtramck, Michigan, which is the first U.S. city to have a majority-Muslim city council; or Latino people in Chicago, who lack the economic opportunities and health-care access needed to support a thriving population. Midwesterners are known for our tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and for not feeding into the self-importance of celebrity, but ignoring the people who add texture, complexity, and innovation in this region is not funny at all. In fact, it’s careless and disrespectful.

Like the native Cleveland-based hip-hop group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony said in their Grammy award-winning song “Crossroads,” “Now tell me, what ya gonna do, when it ain’t nowhere to run; When judgment comes for you.”

As a country, we are all running toward the 2020 election. Midwesterners know this to be true, since that’s the only time the media considers us in the larger national landscape. As that time draws nearer, we need media outlets to be in conversation with Midwesterners who vote for the lives, bodies, and families of the rising U.S. electorate: young people, people of color, unmarried people, LGBTQ people, and, yes, women and people who will always need abortions. Right now, as Midwesterner and ReproAction Co-Founder Pamela Merritt says, “gerrymandering is the ultimate tool of white supremacy.” And indeed, it is threatening the power of this vote. There are people on the ground in the region whose work, voices, and experiences need to be lifted up.

It is my hope that our media—and the non-Midwestern members of the public—will do its due diligence and work to learn more about how Midwesterners are holding down our families and communities and lifting up their needs, voices, and experiences as critical and important in the global political landscape.

If you consider yourself a thinking person with good sense, this Black Midwestern lesbian feminist encourages you to direct your attention to middle America of the United States, otherwise known as the Midwest.