It is understood around the world that women of color, specifically black women, face the most complex challenges in maternal, birth, and breastfeeding support. Maternal death, black infant mortality, and black breastfeeding rates at their peak, are still considerably low regarding initiation and continuation, although these rates have improved in comparison to numbers from the past. Black women in the United States are plagued with obstacles every day that help them to decide to quit breastfeeding and prevent them from continuing to nourish and nurture their children – our children. The obstacles are plenty, however the ones that stick out like a sore thumb are breastfeeding in slavery and the ignorance about it among the privileged, the way these horrific images of human bondage still affect the community of black breastfeeding mothers, and the evidence that the black breastfeeding mother has yet to be incorporated into modern breastfeeding literature in the form of positive breastfeeding media and imagery, which in turn alienates black women at the time of birth discouraging them from pursuing breastfeeding because they may be the only one in their family to ever do so.
When I decided to write this article in solidarity of Black History Month and black breastfeeding awareness week, I used Google to research the available imagery online of “black history breastfeeding”; and guess what I found? Among a few professional stock images, I not only found images, but Breastfeeding Portraits, of black women who were enslaved, sitting uncomfortably with the white babies whom they were forced to feed. “Saddened” didn’t begin to describe my emotions. How about agitated? Confused? Shocked? I was incredibly provoked to think that hardly any real life images existed of black women or of black FAMILIES who were consciously choosing to nourish their young with breast milk. My mother recently shared a photograph that my father captured of her breastfeeding me. I was very emotional about it since it was 7 years after I had my first child, and I had previously only witnessed one other black woman breastfeeding in my lifetime. She was the first mom I photographed for this campaign (above).
Black Breastfeeding History 101 – Americans Have an Ugly Truth to Face
More than 150 years ago, enslaved black women were forced to feed and raise the children of their masters. Under strict guidelines black slaves were required, unwillingly, to wet-nurse these [white] children giving them priority over their own. The alternative, of course, was to be beaten or whipped. The black and white babies were not allowed to share the same breast as it was compared to whites not being able to drink from the same water faucet. The infant mortality rate during this time was 28-50% and some records show that mothers may have smothered their own babies to spare them from a life of slavery.
If all of this is not horrifying enough, shortly after slavery was abolished many black women suffered from infant loss due to impoverished living that led to the lack of the necessary maternity care. Some of these women sought employment as a paid wet nurse and were often asked to sit for a professional portrait with the white child who they were nursing.
This woman was a paid wet nurse, after the time when slavery was abolished. As many black women suffered loss of their infants, lactation would give them the ability to work in this way.
I honestly did not recall anything about this aspect of black history from my high school history classes. LAST WEEK, I came across an image of this enslaved woman breastfeeding (above). When I shared it on our public Facebook page it hardly received engagement in comparison to many other posts, so I re-posted it in our closed group and opened up the topic for discussion. Almost every response was clear, this topic was not being discussed or even mentioned in history many followers were completely unaware of this horrific truth.
Posted to Facebook on 2/18/15
“Thank you for the honesty in this post. I was on another page with a similar picture and the commentary was so ugly. Sometimes the truth is terrible.” M.B. “My feminism class just a had a discussion on the roles of women in the 1800’s leading up to the civil war. I was grossly disappointed in the complete lack of mention of this issue. I’m actually going to touch on it in my research paper for the class and hopefully get to present it. If you had any good scholarly sources please share.” F.L. “Thank you for shedding light on this ugly aspect of slavery and breastfeeding. We have come so far, yet there is still much work to be done.” K.N. “I don’t get a lot of hits when I share posts with proof of racial issues past & present. Only when I post opinions that ppl don’t like but those same ppl going in on opinions are no where to be found when you post things with undeniable evidence such as pics. We can’t move on pretending things like this never happened. White denial = white consent. White privilege at it’s finest.” C.P. “People are quick to bring up the decreases rates of breastfeeding in the black community but they fail to acknowledge WHY. The negative associations that were produced from the torture these women experienced were passed down from generation to generation.” L.J. “I didn’t “like” this post on either page because it makes me so sad. That was such a terrible time in our history where we treated other human beings so horribly. Sure, plenty of other races have been enslaved similarity, as the Egyptians did to their own people, but this happened in OUR very country. I am so glad that the Civil Rights Movement occurred. I only hope that this Normalize Breastfeeding project helps push another civil rights-ish movement for breastfeeding in EVERY community.” B.G. ” It’s something to be proud of, our ancestors were strong women and though the slavery wasn’t the best they did what they had to in order to ensure that we could stand tall today. Take a look back and really think about it then understand our problems are nowhere near the caliber of theirs.” N.G. “Thank god you can produce enough milk for a baby with one breast. I didn’t know this either.” T.S.
In college, I learned about these types of situations in slavery, but they did not have any direct effect on my life until I became a “black breastfeeding mother.” Then, and only then was I able to look at these depictions of human cruelty and realize the overwhelming depth of disparities and inequities that African American women face in modern culture. I am a a first generation Ghanaian-American woman and breastfeeding is praised in our culture. My great great grandfather was actually a Swiss-German missionary who married my great great Ghanaian grandmother. My mother, grandmother, great grandmother and great, great, grandmother were never enslaved, and each were free to breastfeed their babies in their own right. Unfortunately, far too often today, African American families are being raised with the mentality that breastfeeding is “that slavery stuff.”
These images speak a truth about our people, beyond bondage, the ability of our ancestors dig down deep and into a pit of humility by caring for the children of the masters who once enslaved them.
Sherry Payne, a leading educator in maternal and infant mortality, and breastfeeding disparities and inequities shared her thoughts with me about these topics:
“African-American women and men are reclaiming breastfeeding as a cultural and human right. When I see young African American women mothering their babies through breastfeeding, I remind them that they are the vanguard of a new generation, and a new hope for our community. Child rearing without violence and indifference begins with breastfeeding. It is so much more than nutrition. It will restore vitality and positivity to the parenting role.” – Sherry Payne, MSN, RN, CNE, IBCLC
Normalizing Black Breastfeeding Today
There is purpose behind this article. It is to shed light on the ugliest part of normalizing breastfeeding in America, the history of breastfeeding for African American families. It is to open the eyes of the privileged to accept the evident truth that the STRUGGLE IS REAL for black breastfeeding moms and “breast is best” does’t fit into every family dynamic. Yet it is also to share with my readers, some of my own beautifully captured modern moments and inspirational photographs of black breastfeeding women in real life, today. These women were photographed throughout my journey as the only black birth photographer in San Diego County, over the past 4 years. Some were photographed specifically for this breastfeeding awareness project. (Images of myself were taken under my instruction, by my wonderful 1st Assistant, Marhait Santillan.)