The History of Black Women & Breastfeeding

While all women suffer under the weight of the complexities of breastfeeding, some are more overburdened than others, usually because of racial and socioeconomic factors. For over forty years, rates of breastfeeding among African-American women have significantly lagged those of non-Hispanic white women. When it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition, twelve months of exclusive breastfeeding, rates among Black women are about half that of white women. While all women struggle with the structural barriers, the African-American community also battles a host of cultural barriers when attempting to breastfeed. The implications are severe. In the United States the African-American infant mortality is 2.4 times the rate of white non-Hispanic babies. One main reason for these infant deaths is that African-American babies are disproportionately born too small, too sick, or too soon. Black women have some of the highest rates of preterm births and low birth weight babies—the ones who need the protective benefits of breast milk the most. Breast milk is easier to digest for underdeveloped digestive systems and has been proved to reduce the risk of necrolitis, a leading cause of death among preemies. For a large percentage of black infants, access to breast milk can be a life or death matter. 

This makes the racial disparity in breastfeeding rates, which has been closing ever so slightly in recent years, even more unacceptable. The reasons for this disparity, which spans socioeconomic status, are varied and nuanced. They range from lack of support from medical professionals to a lack of role models to the historical trauma of Black women being used as wet nurses during slavery. Black women in slavery were forced to stop nursing their own children to provide breast milk for the children of the slave owner. “On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants. On the other hand, wet-nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children,” writes the historian Wilma A. Dunaway in The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced Black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the detriment of their infants’ health, Dunaway notes. 

This stunted breastfeeding experience created a stunted mothering experience and the commodification of Black women as breeders and feeders. As such, white women were crucial to creating a market for Black enslaved mothers’ breast milk and the nutritive and maternal care Black women provided to white children. Through slavery and dynamics of race and class, an enslaved mother’s ability to suckle became a form of invisible skilled labor. This led to exploitation. It meant that not only were Black women being exploited on the basis of race, they were also being exploited as women who could breed more skilled labor and as tools to enhance the health of the slave owners’ children and the quality of life of his wife. A white woman’s decision to borrow, hire, or buy enslaved wet nurses often broke the already fragile yet sacred bonds enslaved mothers had with their children and must have caused familial trauma beyond our imagination. A Black enslaved mother’s child could be sold at any time, leaving her bereft. She could be prevented from feeding her own child—stripping from her her key role as a mother. 

This structural interference into a Black woman’s role as a mother is critical to consider. As slaves, Black women were never allowed to fully participate in the protecting and nurturing aspects of motherhood, including the act of breastfeeding. Slave mothers often fought for their motherly rights—the same rights white mothers naturally took for granted—and often lost against their domineering slave masters. The power dynamic and the two distinct definitions of motherhood were clear. White women were granted ownership of their children as one of their God-given rights as a mother. This ownership could only be lost through divorce or death. White mothers never lived with a constant fear of separation. On the other hand, the ownership of motherhood was not the right of Black slaves and they were consistently deprived of the true meaning of motherhood because they did not “own” their children. As historian Michele Mock notes, “maternal instinct is corrupted when viewed in the context of slavery. For a slave cannot ‘own.” White middle- and upper-class women were able to choose whether to breastfeed their children or turn them over to a wet nurse when they viewed breastfeeding as beneath them. They had a choice that Black women did not have. Whatever “sacred” bond was created through breastfeeding one’s own child or using your agency to choose to have someone else to do it for you—none of this was possible to achieve for enslaved Black women. In the process, African-American babies and children were dehumanized, a de facto necessity in order to legitimize the denial of maternal rights, maternal bonds, and the nurturing that was taken from black babies and given to white children. Devaluing Black children also allowed them to be violently disciplined and ultimately sold or otherwise separated from their parents. 

Either way, the possibility for a legacy of historical trauma due to the dysfunctional nature of black women’s motherhood experience is clear. Over the years since slavery Black women have continued to be perceived as good caretakers for other people’s children but distrusted as mothers of their own children. This stereotype also gave rise to the “mammy” archetype, followed by the stereotypes of welfare queens and domineering women. The role of black women as caretakers of white people’s children is reinforced in popular culture as seen in the bestselling book and movie The Help and a litany of movies and television shows, including Gimme a Break, starring Nell Carter, and Gone with the Wind, featuring Hattie McDaniel as Mammy (McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award because of that role). These media stereotypes create negative associations with Black mothers, and since breastfeeding is generally associated with “good” mothering, there is often an assumption by medical professionals that Black women don’t breastfeed. Therefore, Black women repeatedly overreport that physicians and other health professionals did not educate them about breastfeeding or only mentioned it in a cursory way. Moreover, the negative association of breastfeeding with slavery and mammy-ism is still very present among the grandmothers and other family matriarchs who are highly influential in modern black family structures. These grandmothers and great-aunts often pass on a cultural legacy of viewing breastfeeding as something that African Americans were forced to do for others. This leaves Black women with a disproportionate lack of multigenerational support and means that, in addition, they receive negative cues about breastfeeding. 

Body politics also loom large for African-American mothers when it comes to breastfeeding. They face a particular legacy of embodied exploitation, in which their sexuality and reproduction were appropriated by white men or demonized as dangerous and out of control, exotic and primitive. Black women and their bodies have been the subject of much scrutiny—viewed as a threat to the fragile white woman during slavery and the antithesis of white and wafer-thin standards of beauty. The act of breastfeeding cannot be separated from the narrative of Black women’s bodies. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the many cultural nuances of breastfeeding. The river of historical trauma among women of color runs deep and wide. Yet there is often a one-size-fits-all message that ignores the nuances of breastfeeding for different ethnic groups. As a result, racial disparities still linger.

 

Check out this list of resources and Irth’s own Breastfeeding Resource Page for more ways to become informed about nursing and enhance your own breastfeeding experience: 

Black Breastfeeding Week
IG Handle:  @blkbfingweek

Black Breastfeeding Week Founders Social Media Handles:

Kimberly Seals Allers @iamksealsallers on Instagram 

Kiddada Green – @askkiddada on Twitter

Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka @anayahrose on Twitter 

Black Breastfeeding Focused IG Handles: 

Black Moms Breastfeed – @blackmomsbreastfeed

Black Women Do Breastfeed – @bwdbf

Black Mothers Breastfeeding – @bmbfa

Chocolate Milk Mommies – @chocolatemilkmommies

Melanated Milkies – @blackfamsdobreastfeed

Black Girls Breastfeeding Club –  @blackgirlsbreastfeedingclub

 

Excerpted from The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) by Kimberly Seals Allers 

 

 

 

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