(Issue 10) Health/ Sex/ Wellness Feature: Simiya Sudduth

Interview and Foreword by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Emma Connell

I first met Simiya in October of 2020. I was halfway through my pregnancy and stumbled upon an Instagram post advertising free BIPOC/ Queer affirming Prenatal Yoga. I signed up immediately and logged onto zoom for my first class the following weekend. Simiya’s yoga practice unearthed a power I had been yearning to access but didn’t know how to. I was brave (or crazy to some) and sought out a homebirth midwife to follow my pregnancy and delivery, and I knew that in order to achieve an unmedicated homebirth, I would have to believe in my own power more than I ever had in my entire life. Simiya offered community, as well as physical and spiritual techniques to guide each pregnant person into unlocking their inner knowing. I learned that birthing is all about trust, it’s about unlearning the notion we’ve been conditioned to believe that birth is dangerous and our bodies cannot handle pain.

In our conversation, Simiya and I discuss the interconnectivity and fluidity of spirituality, birthwork, art, motherhood, and queerness. Her presence radiates off the page, the same way it did when she stepped into the virtual space in full embodiment as a queer Black Indigenous mother of two, as an artist, a healer, and a nourisher. It is through connecting with folks like Simiya that I gain the confidence to walk through the world as a mother and as an artist, living in my truth.

Photo by Emma Connell

Carolina: Where are you from? What’s your cultural identity? 

Simiya: I’m from Inglewood, California. I was born in Los Angeles. I live in St. Louis, Missouri right now, it’s where my parents met and where they grew up… it’s my family home so that’s why I’m here. Identity is a little complicated for me. I identify as a mixed race person but in the history of Black mixed race people in the United States, we have so much mystery in our history, that a lot of piecing together of my heritage comes from stories from my grandmother. I identify as a Black and Native American person and of course there is white ancestry there, as many of us have in the United States, so identity is a little complicated for many of us. I identify primarily with Blackness but I definitely recognize my Indigenous heritage as well.

C: I very much resonate with that. My mom is Afro Brazilian with mixed heritage and my dad is German, but I grew up in the U.S. so I have a very different understanding of race from my parents. I grew up in very white spaces and growing to understand and embody my Blackness has been a journey. It’s why we started Mixed Mag. But tell me a little bit about the work you do. You’re a wellness practitioner, how did you come into that space and what’s under that “umbrella”? 

S: In technical terms, I am educated as a fine artist. My higher education background is in visual arts, sculpture, landscape architecture, but I’ve always been a very sensitive and intuitive person with an attraction towards spirituality, the occult, anything kind of “weird”. I leaned into my attraction to yoga, tarot, wicca, veganism. As a teenager, I was a punk and I still very much am one on the inside and outside. Anything that was “counter culture” was attractive to me. So my attraction to spirituality led me into wellness work. I wanted to expand my creative practice and have a more expanded mind after engaging with art in an academic way. It was about tying my artistry and creativity together with my sensitive inner self. That led to diving deeper into yoga, reiki, and birth work. I am drawn to things that are mysterious and very powerful. 

Photo by Emma Connell

C: Were you into birth work before you became a mother or did that experience jump start your interest in that realm? 

S: I remember being in my early twenties and realizing I wanted to have a baby at some point but it felt like such a freaky idea, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the pain. I didn’t feel like I could guide anyone because I’d never had a baby but it was something that I was drawn to. I thought breastfeeding and natural birth were amazing but I didn’t get into this work until I had my first child. When I had my second child I did my doula training with her when she was an infant and I’ve been doing this for almost seven years now. My doula and birth work practice is evolving now at seven years later.

C: How do you feel that motherhood influences you individually, your outlook on life, and the work you do? 

S: We can critique the idea of “productivity”, but I feel like I’ve never been more productive or motivated to pursue my dreams as my authentic self as I have as a mother. Motherhood was a portal to push me into realizing myself in a different way. It led me to heal things and step into my full potential, which I feel like I’m now just starting to crack open. The children have definitely influenced me. Having a child no matter if you have a c section, vaginal birth medicated or unmedicated, really makes you realize how strong human bodies are. It makes me feel like I can do anything…. I had two babies! 

C: Oftentimes I think about before I became a mother and I’d complain that I was “too busy”. What was I really doing? I really was wasting hours of the day watching netflix or something like that, and while rest is absolutely important, procrastination becomes difficult when you’re a parent. Urgency is different now. I have an hour while my son naps so I have to be intentional about how I’m going to spend that time. Do I need to nap or relax or do I have the energy to work on one of my projects or workout? It makes you view time very differently. 

S: I know there’s more work to be done to get in touch with my strongest self and I’m enjoying the journey along the way, but I feel you when I think back like, “what was I doing with all that time!” I have a very different view on time now and that’s also different now that my children are with their dad half the time and with me half the time. When they were babies I did attachment parenting… breastfeeding, co-sleeping, all that. They’re older in school now and they’re still young, but when my children are not with me, I have such a drive to get a lot done and when they’re with me I can be present and I can give my attention to them. 

C: Do you teach your children about birth work? Do you incorporate that into how you raise them?

S: They just know about it from me. If I have to go in the middle of the night they know I’m going to help a baby be born. My youngest would come with me to some meetings because I was breastfeeding her. They hear me talking about birth. They ask, “how is the baby, what happened?”

My oldest is nine and she’s asked if she can attend a birth with me and even asked me if I could be her doula when she has a baby. They understand. There’s also a sense of rejection sometimes. My youngest really likes yoga, she’s a very sensitive spiritual child but sometimes it’s like, “ugh, this yoga stuff, I don’t want to do it.”

C: I feel like that’s pretty developmentally normal for kids to reject what their parents do from time to time. What are some of the major challenges birthing people of color face and how do you empower your clients to navigate the medical industrial complex? How do you give agency to your clients or educate them to feel empowered in their experience?

S: This is a big one for me, because I got into this work based on the experience I had during the birth of my oldest daughter. I had a white doula who confided in me and literally said: “I am so overwhelmed by what happened to you, I’ve never seen anything like this.” She is great at what she does, but I think that unless you are trained to work within the complexities of the racist medical system, you are not going to be the best provider for a person of color. She was really shocked by what happened to me and my children’s father is a white man, so when the two white people are shocked, how do you think I’m feeling? My second birth was really awesome but because I was transferred to the hospital from a homebirth, I had the social worker called on me. They flagged me as “no prenatal care”, even though my midwife accompanied me to the hospital. Thank god that when the social worker came into my room, my midwife was with me and was able to insert herself and speak up on my behalf. Even though the birth at the hospital was great the second time around and I felt supported by the staff, there was still an incident where you’re flagging me for no prenatal care even though my baby was healthy, I was healthy, my midwife and doula were with me. It made me realize that I needed to get into this work to advocate for folks like me. I serve a range of clients from pretty wealthy white people to families at the Jamaa Birth Village, which is a nonprofit that offers sliding scale services to low income folks. In my private practice I was also doing a sliding scale to serve people who are low income or I’d apply for grants so I could support people for free while still honoring my needs as a single parent and as a professional. Just holding space by sitting in the birthing room can prevent things from happening because there is another person watching. There are moments where I ask the doctor to remind my clients of their options. I do my best not to take over any agency of anybody because I don’t believe in the victimization of anyone. I will act more as a coach to step in and explain things further for clients, walk them through procedures before they happen, and make sure their requests are being heard. I help them make a game plan while they’re pregnant to help them educate themselves so they can take pride in their agency and empowerment. 

Photo by Emma Connell

C: Your prenatal yoga classes were so invaluable during my pregnancy and I don’t know if my homebirth would’ve been as successful without them. It was such a great space to center myself and I learned such great techniques that I utilized during labor. In addition to birth work, you also have a farm called The Muthaship. Can you talk about the urban farming work you do? 

S: I’ve always been a plant lover. I loved gardening with my grandparents who raised me. During undergrad, I loved making art that had to do with food or plants. I spent some time in grad school for landscape architecture because I wanted to make public art and ecological art. I always envisioned myself starting a farm or designing a park, maybe I will still do that. Farming goes into the wellness work and the artwork because working with plants has been very healing for me. Not only has it been a way for me to heal myself and connect with my ancestors, it also goes into the connection between food, the body, and the spirit. I talk to my prenatal clients about the importance of nutrition and self care. If you’re not eating well you can still grow a healthy baby, but the baby will suck from you and you will be starting off your parenting journey with depleted mineral stores, which is not healthy. I find it so important to eat well and connect to nature. The farm is a collaborative space. I share the urban farm space with another person but we’re doing our own individual practices within the space. 

C: It’s very cool! We are all very multidisciplinary at Mixed Mag. Everyone on our team and most of the people we feature are talented in a multifaceted way, which I think is also connected to coming from mixed heritage. How does art intersect with your wellness work? Are you still a practicing artist? 

S: Definitely. Everything ebbs and flows. Right now, I had the opportunity to do a text-based piece on the side of the contemporary art museum here in St. Louis. It’s an affirmation piece that I made with some fabric that was passed down to me. The best way to describe it is that I view my whole life as my art practice. I did a lot of experimentation with performance art when I was an undergrad and it opened up my mind to what art can be. With this installation, the affirmation piece drew on my spirituality. It’s contemporary art, it’s text-based. I’ve also done public sound healing performances with my collaborative partner who is a pretty well known underground Hip-hop producer and artist. It was a way for me to share something with him and for him to share his beats with me. We’re going to go to a residency at the end of august to make an EP. 

Photo by Emma Connell

C: That’s so exciting! You made a very concerted effort in your prenatal yoga classes to create space for and affirm queerness. Do you identify as queer? How does that impact the work you do or the way you move about the world?

S: Queerness is like being Black. It’s a part of my identity, it’s also a rejection of societal norms as well. Upon first glance as a woman who has two children, you might not think I’m queer but queerness looks so different and can mean so many things. I knew I was queer as a kid, my grandmother knew as well. She’d be like, “when such and such comes over, do not close the door.” It’s a huge part of how I view everything as fluid. It’s an expansion for me. When I do sound healing performances, I often use sound bites from Bell Hooks and Audre Lorde. They both really influenced my understanding of queerness, as well as Adrienne Maree Brown, she’s really helping me right now with her book: Pleasure Activism. Art, wellness, and queerness, it all intersects. 

C: It’s really inspiring to see someone living authentically as a mother. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of examples of mothers pursuing lives outside the heteronorm. I often find myself now as a mom feeling like I have to fit into the appearance of being in a heteropassing relationship, when in reality the past few years have been so eye opening in discovering my own queerness. I’m really trying to push back on this voice inside me that says I should shut down that side of me. 

S: It can be really hard and I’ve gone through waves of being more myself and times where I tried to be more “normal” as a mom. I feel like I am suffering when I am not being my authentic self and right now I feel like I’m going through a blossoming or cocooning. We’ll see where I’ll be a few years from now! I’ve been diving into a form of meditation and reprogramming through neural manifestations. It’s all about rewriting your brain. In my yoga classes, I talk about manifestation and thinking positive and this type of meditation is all about accessing your subconscious. This process made me realize how hiding parts of your authentic self is operating from a place of low self worth and who is that serving? This is what society says I should be. That can be applied to queerness, mothering, art. It’s helping me realize that the healing process, although it can be very raw at times, is helping me step forward into the world as my best authentic self. 

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