As I travel the country as a breastfeeding advocate, I am rarely shocked by the comments I receive or the misconceptions people share. Except for the time a Black woman asked me to stop talking about that “slavery sh*t.”
The “slavery sh*t” she was referring to was likely the sad fact that many African Americans still negatively associate breastfeeding with our historical role as ‘wet nurses’ during slavery. It is true that slave owners used and purchased Black women as wet nurses for their children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others.
It is also true that because of this historical fact, Black women had a stunted and complex mothering experience.
“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 historian Wilma A. Dunaway, in the book The African American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, published by Cambridge University Press. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced Black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to health detriment of their infants, Dunaway writes.
But believing that breastfeeding is “slavery sh*t” is one of many nuanced cultural barriers that keep our infant mortality rate at alarming levels and denies Black women the many health benefits of breastfeeding including reduced risk of certain cancers.
In the US, Black babies die at twice the rate of White babies before their first birthday. This is mostly because African American babies are statistically more likely to be born too small, too sick or too soon. In those instances, a mother’s milk, designed by nature specifically for that baby’s needs, is that infant’s best chance at survival. For the rest of African American newborns, breastmilk is proven to reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections, ear infections, asthma and the likelihood of childhood obesity—health issues that are skyrocketing in our communities.
We need this more than ever.
Yet, for over 30 years, African American women have had the lowest breastfeeding rates, and though the rates for initiation have increased in recent years, Black moms still have the lowest breastfeeding rates of all ethnicities. And when it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition–six months of exclusive breastfeeding, among African Americans the rate is only 20% compared to 40% among whites.
In addition to our own cultural hang-ups contributing to this disparity, our communities have been the targets of aggressive marketing by formula companies. Back in the 1930s and ’40s formula feeding was marketed as the choice of the elite, “the substance for sophisticates” – White and Black. White women led the charge to infant formula. Black women followed suit. But when White women reversed course, led by celebrity cache and a new ideal of “good mothering,” Black women didn’t buy-in. Meanwhile, WIC is the largest purchaser of infant formula in the United States. Enough said.
Then there’s something I call the National Geographic factor–that is, most of the images we see of black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women in Africa with elongated ears whose lives seem so far away from the African American lifestyle and experience.
August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and as it comes to an end, I am imploring all Black women and men to rethink our ideas about our newborn’s first food. I want black women to feel empowered by their partners, family and community that the baby that you wonderfully made in your belly for nine months, can also be fed by your body and given the best preventative medicine for a healthy start to life.
It is not now nor has never been some “slavery sh*t” for us to reclaim responsibility for the health of our infants and give ourselves one of the most amazing bonding experiences of motherhood. It is not some slavery sh*t to demand that all mothers be allowed to truly “choose” their child’s first food without being subject to the marketing interests of pharmaceutical companies. It is some phenomenally empowered, we can and we will do what is best for our babies sh*t that the collective health of our community needs now more than ever.
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, a leading commentator on African American motherhood, author of The Mocha Manual™ series of books (Amistad/HarperCollins) and founder of www.MochaManual.com, a pregnancy and parenting e-zine, and Black Breastfeeding 360°. A respected breastfeeding advocate, Kimberly is currently an IATP Food and Community Fellow, funded by the Kellogg Foundation, with a mission to increase awareness of “the first food”—breastmilk, in vulnerable communities.