'Birthing A Nation: The Resistance of Mary Gaffney' uncovers the story of forced reproduction in the antebellum South and reveals the agency of Mary Gaffney – an enslaved woman who took control of her body and fertility.
Birthing A Nation: The Resistance of Mary Gaffney uncovers the story of Mary Gaffney, an enslaved woman who lived in antebellum Texas and endured the practice of “slave breeding,” in which enslavers forced reproduction to increase their profits. Gaffney, however, discovered a way to take control of her body and her fertility for almost a decade.
Stories like Gaffney’s — the daily acts of defiance by “ordinary” enslaved women — are rarely told, overshadowed by singular heroes like Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth. But these countless lost stories of quiet rebellion, too, dismantled the institution of slavery.
The film revisits a 1930s interview of Mary Gaffney by the Works Progress Administration, a federal work relief program that collected more than 2,300 first-person accounts of formerly enslaved people. In her own words, Mary describes “cheating” her enslaver out of the potential value of her offspring. Her testimony is supported by a tapestry of vivid memories from formerly enslaved men and women who explore what it meant to be an enslaved woman in the United States.
The history of enslaved women’s physical and reproductive labor illuminates the origins of today’s attack on women’s reproductive rights. But, this heart-rending and beautiful documentary is more than just history; it’s a testament to resilience, strength and the agency of those who fought against unimaginable circumstances.
Harrowing archival imagery is artfully woven into the narrative to convey Mary’s world, her relentless resistance, and her hopes for the future. Adding historical context and significance, a cast of Black women scholars informs the film, unearthing buried truths that have been omitted entirely from textbooks. Just as slavery was woven into the fabric of our nation, so was resistance in the soul of who we are.
Nazenet Habtezghi makes her directorial debut with Birthing A Nation: The Resistance of Mary Gaffney. The journalist-turned-filmmaker has contributed to numerous highly acclaimed documentaries for PBS, HBO and Netflix. Prior to working in documentary film, she launched Essence Magazine’s video platform with an interactive web series and executive produced a subsequent TV One special. Based in Brooklyn, she received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma.