“It doesn’t have to make sense to other people”: An interview with African Diaspora Childfree Sociologist, Dr. Kimya N. Dennis
The pressure of an entire community on your back can feel inescapable, and no one ever told me that it was possible for me to dig myself out
I wasn’t prepared for the responses to my most recent essay on living intentionally as a childfree Black woman and taking ownership of my womb. I never presumed I was alone in my sentiments on this subject, of course, but I also didn’t expect my words to resonate so deeply with so many people.
Writing that essay created a pathway for me to become acquainted and connected with other childfree Black women, one of whom completed the first sociological study of childfree individuals throughout the African Diaspora. She calls herself the African Diaspora Childfree Sociologist, and she just happens to be in the next town over. This week, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with her about her research and some of the larger implications of what it means to be Black and childfree.
Dr. Kimya N. Dennis is a Sociologist and Criminologist whose research interests include mental health and suicide. Her childfree research consists of speaking with and gathering stories from Black people “who have decided never to have biological or adopted children… It’s the first known study only about childfree people of African descent,” she says.
With 62 respondents across 6 nations, she considers her groundbreaking research a success because of how difficult it is to get African people to respond to studies, especially something like this. “Most African Diaspora people will have children, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” she notes.
It wasn’t until my mid 20s that I was finally able to be fully secure and satisfied with my own choice to live as completely childfree, after years of offering a half-hearted “Well, maybe I’ll adopt or foster someday” as a way to pacify the people who questioned and judged my adamant decision to never become pregnant. To be able to have this conversation with Dr. Kimya was a unique opportunity for me because I rarely get to have positive conversations with Black women about my decision to live childfree. I was keenly interested in her own journey and where the spark for her research came from.
“One night, I just sat up in my bed and said, ‘I’m not having children.’ I had already felt that, but [that night] I just announced it,” Dr. Kimya says.
That was five years ago. Out of sociological curiosity, she sought out publications with writings from and about childfree people. The resources were there, but none of them were about people of color. “That’s when I said, ‘Hmm. I’m a sociologist. I need to delve further into this.’ So, I began designing interviews and surveys.”
She was able to see where there were gaps in existing sociological studies, mainly that they seemed to be solely focused on white women. After determining what the available research was lacking, she decided she would be the one to address it by centering Blackness in her work.
“None of it talked about race and ethnicity, really… There’s really an absence of African Diaspora people who are making the decision [not to have children] and what that entails. So, I reached out to Laura Carroll, Marcia Davis, Amy Blackstone… and began advertising for research participants… Not shockingly, there were white women in particular who responded saying, ‘Why is this an important topic? We’re all childfree. Race doesn’t matter. Why are you trying to divide us? We’re united!’ And that reinforces why my research is important.”
This, of course, is the modus operandi of white women, asking us to understand the world only through the lens and experience of white womanhood while denying how their whiteness affords them a kind of womanhood that Black people have never been able to lay claim to in a postcolonial world.
Dr. Kimya’s work has also allowed her to the design the first known college course about being childfree. The course challenges pronatalism and delves into what it means to choose not to have biological or adopted children. It’s ultimately about “challenging this mold that we have to want to have children, and if you don’t have children then you have to make up for it somehow… it’s for anyone who believes in gender egalitarianism and challenging this narrow category where we all have to be the same way.”
Pronatalism is a new word for me, but not a new concept. “Pro-birth” is what I have used in the past to talk about the belief that creates societal pressure for everyone who is able to reproduce as much as possible, regardless of their health or personal wishes. It creates immense shame for those who are unable or decide not to.
Dr. Kimya spoke about how this shame shows up in our community. For instance, our elders and even our peers “will often try to find ways to humble [childfree people] and say, ‘We don’t really think you’re grown yet because you haven’t made what we consider to be Grown Black Folk decisions.”
Those who vehemently opposed birth control and abortion may call themselves “pro-life,” but what they really are is pro-birth and pronatalist. Even our public policy is pronatalist, and for white people, it is largely attached to a fear of white genocide. Dr. Kimya recommended Laura Carroll’s The Baby Matrix to me, the book that introduced pronatalism and a pointed critique of it into the mainstream, demonstrating how prevalent the pressure to procreate is.
For Black people, that pressure is often tied to the perceived need to birth revolutionaries against white supremacy, as I discussed in my last essay. According to Dr. Kimya, there are significant “parts of our culture in which Black women are told that if you’re not taking care of children, you’re not bringing up the future of our people,” and this is something that she and I have directly contended with in our respective work.
Dr. Kimya’s research also addresses and goes up against the “falsehood that African Diaspora people around the world are ‘heathens’… actually, African Diaspora people in the U.S. are overwhelmingly sociopolitically conservative. Very socially liberal as it pertains to racial dynamics, but very conservative as it pertains to everything else, including things like access to birth control and abortion… I oftentimes debate with my people because my people are so conservative.”
This conservatism is a big part of why she also teaches college sex education courses. The vast majority of us reach adulthood without having had proper sex education. Because we do not learn about contraceptives, either at home or in school, and live in communities that consider abortion to be a sin, the result is often unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies.
For me, and many others, the childfree conversation is ultimately about reproductive freedoms and reproductive health. Issues surrounding these things have been considered a white feminist project by society at large but this white feminism has never acknowledged how Black people have practiced resistance against reproductive control throughout history.
Reproductive freedom is something that belongs to us, too, as conservative as our communities may be in that regard. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge that reproductive freedom and reproductive health are things that many Black folks are fighting for, and that we are owed the right to decide not to reproduce.
It’s also important to recognize how cisnormative, trans-exclusionary, and gender essentialist pronatalist arguments are, and even our responses to those arguments sometimes. To say I am “less of a woman” for not having children and it is my “duty as a woman” to become a mother is to locate my womanhood in my body and its ability to carry a child.
It places an immense pressure squarely on the shoulders of cis women while making assumptions about our reproductive capabilities, and also ignoring that people of other genders can also give birth and raise children.
“For women around the world, having a womb is [often] considered the definition of womanhood. That’s not unique to African Diaspora women, but I would say that African Diaspora women have an extreme version of that,” says Dr. Kimya. “So, it’s almost seen as though African Diaspora women like myself who want to be independent of [children] are oftentimes not just seen as defying our womanhood, but defying our Blackness and defying our Africanness. People have explicitly said that we have fallen for the white people’s scheme, we’re killing out our people, especially some pro-choice folks regarding abortion. People say that it’s because I’m feminist, which means I’m following the white people’s model, going against religion, going against God’s plan.”
The list of accusations is certainly a long one. I know because I’ve also heard all of these before, and more. They tell me it’s selfish of me to not have children, but what about the selfishness of a society and community that demands I be pregnant with, birth, and raise Black children without sufficient systems in place to offer proper support or protect them, or myself?
This is why pronatalism feels especially egregious to me. Not only are pregnancy and childbirth more life-threatening for Black people and Black babies, but we also do not receive proper care from our racist medical system. Not only are Black children neglected and punished the most in public schools—the beginning of the preschool to prison to pipeline—but they regularly experience anti-Black violences in other spaces as well. From the nation-state, to law enforcement, to vigilantes with guns, to white women lying and weaponizing their white womanhood.
These are all valid reasons to choose not to birth Black children, but simply not wanting to have children is also reason enough. This is what Dr. Kimya believes and I’m inclined to agree with her. No qualifiers or explanations are owed to anyone.
She says, “I want people to know I’m still here. We’re still giving voice to African Diaspora people who want people to know that their childfree experience includes interlocking identities.”
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked what her ultimate response to those who take offense to childfree Black people is now, after years of ruminating on and researching the topic. Her response: “I say, ‘Get over it.’ When I’m feeling artistic, I say, ‘Get the hell over it’… The wonderful thing about freedom is freedom.”
My decision to live childfree deeply offends a lot of people, and I spent a lot of years wrestling with that. The pressure of an entire community on your back can feel inescapable, and no one ever told me that it was possible for me to dig myself out from under it. I had to make that journey on my own, and I’m no longer arguing with anyone about it.
I greatly appreciate Dr. Kimya and her work, and the fact that she is helping to create space for childfree people of the African Diaspora to own our narratives and to openly speak about them in positive ways. Reproductive freedom means the freedom to decide not to reproduce at all, and it also needs to be apart societal conversations about reproductive health.