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Salvaging the Bones Means Fighting for Reproductive Justice: Jesmyn Ward’s Literary Representations of the Trauma Produced by Attacks on Reproductive Rights, Comprehensive Sex Education, and Access to Maternal Health Care


“Salvaging the Bones Means Fighting for Reproductive Justice” argues that Jesmyn Ward’s novel is a pivotal contribution to twenty-first-century discussions of reproductive justice and a powerful challenge to Republican rhetoric and policy that impact Black mothers and their children. Like Black scholars of reproductive justice, the novel critiques medical and governmental institutions that neglect women by limiting access to reproductive health care such as abortion services, prenatal care, and postnatal care, and fostering health care environments that deny Black women’s full humanity and value as mothers. My analysis of maternal death and teen pregnancy in the novel shows how Ward links bodily and psychic trauma to institutional structures that injure Black women and their children. In this way, I reveal how literary works can help readers connect trauma to structural causes and begin to envision social and institutional change. By combining close readings with a discussion of attacks on reproductive health care in the South, I ultimately argue that Ward offers an urgent literary indictment of structures that produce maternal trauma and calls readers to engage with visions of reproductive justice that will allow Black mothers and their children to thrive.


  • Reproductive justice
  • Black feminism
  • Reproductive health care
  • Teenage pregnancy

I offer thanks to Laura Lazzari for organizing a 2019 NeMLA panel titled “New Representations of Motherhood in the New Millennium” and to panelists at NeMLA for their feedback on an early version of this chapter. I also am grateful to my colleague Suzanne Edwards for her expert advice during the revision process. Finally, I am indebted to graduate students, especially Justin McCarthy, in my “Post-45 U.S. Women Writers” course at Lehigh University for their thoughtful engagement with Ward’s work, which helped me to clarify my arguments in this article.

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  1. 1.

    There are a few published articles that focus explicitly on pregnancy or sexuality in Salvage the Bones; see Marotte 2015, 207–220; Edwards 2015, 141–167; Henry 2019, 71–85; and Locke 2013, 12–19. A series of other articles address representation of Hurricane Katrina. See Clark 2017, 341–358; Lloyd 2016, 246–64; Manzella 2018, 188–198; Crawford 2018, 73–84; Green 2018, 126–143; and Jellenik 2015, 221–237. For Jesmyn Ward’s nonfictional account of her family’s experience of Hurricane Katrina, see Ward 2008, 34–41. Other articles address Ward’s intervention into representations of poverty in canonical U.S. literary works; see Railsback 2016, 179–195; and Moynihan 2015, 550–567.

  2. 2.

    The critique offered here is not new. In the 1980s, the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP) was a central intellectual and activist force in moving beyond a limited focus on abortion rights to a broader reproductive justice platform that addresses “external challenges confronting communities of color and constraining their reproduction—population control, sterilization abuse, unsafe contraceptives, welfare reform, the criminalization of women who use drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, and coercive and intrusive family planning programs and policies” (Silliman et al. 2016, 8). For a strong history of the foundations of reproductive justice and key Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American leaders as well as organizations in the movement, see Silliman et al. 2016. In the 1990s, Dorothy Roberts continued this critique as she intervened into “public and scholarly debated about reproductive freedom [that] center[ed] abortion, often ignoring other important reproductive health policies that are most likely to affect Black women” (1997, 5). For Roberts , activists and scholars need to explore the full range of policies and institutions that limit Black women’s “reproductive autonomy,” including their ability to access safe birth control, prenatal care, childcare, and the financial means to support their families (1997, 5). For more recent accounts of the foundations and current aims of reproductive justice activism, see Ross and Solinger 2017; Ross et al. (eds) 2017; Briggs 2017; and Gurr 2015.

  3. 3.

    While I focus on the value of Ward’s novel for elucidating the stakes of reproductive justice, Edwards shows how the novel intervenes into “black feminism … increasingly identified as a sexually conservative discourse whose adherence to a politics of respectability hinders its capacity to respond in meaningful ways to the lives and cultures of contemporary black women” (2015, 149). Her essay powerful illustrates the text’s value for broader conversations about representations of Black women’s sexuality beyond a focus on pregnancy (Edwards 2015, 156–162).

  4. 4.

    See Ross and Solinger 2017; Ross et al. (eds) 2017; and Roberts 1997.

  5. 5.

    For an account of the history of reproductive politics that includes analysis of the Trump era, see Briggs 2017. For recent discussions of Mississippi’s attack on abortion services, see Carlsen et al. 2018; Andrews 2018 and 2019. Also, see Lai 2019.

  6. 6.

    See Lockhart 2015, 132–137. In her study, Lockhart notes that “maternal hemorrhagic deaths are among those causes of peripartum mortality which are most avoidable. A statewide review of maternal deaths in North Carolina from 1995–1999 found that 93% of obstetric hemorrhage deaths were preventable; in California from 2002–2005, 70% of such deaths were deemed preventable” (2015, 132).

  7. 7.

    For further detailed discussion of the impact of racism on pregnancy , see Giscombé and Lobel 2005, 668–669.

  8. 8.

    For more information on reproductive activists work to support training and funding for doulas and midwives of color, see Ross and Solinger 2017, 261–266. For more information on the need to expand Medicaid programs for reproductive health care for low-income women, see Roberts 1997, 184–185. For Mississippi’s recommendations about increased “medical insurance and medical care,” including prenatal and postpartum care, see Mississippi State Department of Health 2019, 22.

  9. 9.

    For information about the Affordable Care Act, see Ross and Solinger 2017, 140–141.

  10. 10.

    See Henry 2019, 71–85, for a beautiful discussion of how memory operates in the novel. Henry writes, “Salvaging preserves and transmits experience at a time when Black lives remain precarious and disposable due to poverty, lack of medical care, rampant racism, and unpredictable killings through state-sanctioned violence” (2019, 74).

  11. 11.

    See Edwards 2015, 160, for another reading of Manny as a “callous lover who uses Esch for sexual gratification.”

  12. 12.

    Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States 2014, 3.

  13. 13.

    Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States 2014, 3.

  14. 14.

    For another critique of Mississippi’s sex education curriculum , see Ross and Solinger 2017, 177.

  15. 15.

    Carlsen et al. 2018.

  16. 16.

    Carlsen et al. 2018.

  17. 17.

    Ward 2011, 188–189.

  18. 18.

    For discussion of systemic racism and failing emergency management systems that neglect Black communities in Ward’s novel, see Clark 2017, 342 and 343–347; Green 2018, 126–143; Lloyd 2016, 246–264; and Manzella 2018, 188–198. For a discussion of “food inequality” and the “history of race and class divides” exacerbated by Katrina, see Crawford 2018, 73–84, especially 80.

  19. 19.

    For other accounts of the value of kinship for survival, see Clark 2017, especially 347; and Green 2018, 142.

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Correspondence to Mary Catherine Foltz .

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Foltz, M.C. (2021). Salvaging the Bones Means Fighting for Reproductive Justice: Jesmyn Ward’s Literary Representations of the Trauma Produced by Attacks on Reproductive Rights, Comprehensive Sex Education, and Access to Maternal Health Care. In: Lazzari, L., Ségeral, N. (eds) Trauma and Motherhood in Contemporary Literature and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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