What You Don’t Know (And Should) About Black Breastfeeding

Woman Black Breastfeeding | Work & Mother

Photos of black women breastfeeding are hard to find. (Shout out to Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz for this one!) That’s why we love women like Ana Rojas Bastidas of Orolait, who find their own models and get it done. She says...“social responsibility runs deeper than a message of solidarity. Your actual dedication to diversity will reflect in what it is you regularly put out to the public. Using stock images is cheap and easy but oftentimes where the buck stops on effort. Saying you would have used the image if the image existed is an excuse.”

In the days after the murder of George Floyd, I pledged to listen and learn. I started with a topic that I was already immersed in and was near and dear to me: breastfeeding. It didn’t take long to realize just how much I still have to learn.

Wet Nurses and The History of Black Breastfeeding

Black breastfeeding has a complicated history dating back to enslaved wet nurses. Slave women were often forced to act as wet nurses for white women’s babies, often at the detriment of their own children. 

In his recent work on the visual cultures of enslavement, MarcusWood argues, Black milk, slave mother’s milk, was stolen in vast, unknown, incalculable quantities as generation after generation of white infants ‘drank, and drank’ from the nipples of the ‘Mammy’ and Mãe Preta [her Brazilian counterpart].” While Wood conflates the mammy stereotype with enslaved wet nurses, he regards this theft of enslaved women’s milk as a point of trauma for enslaved women.13 Evidence from enslaved and formerly enslaved people supports this assertion.” From the Journal of Southern History 

This is heart-wrenching. I feel physically ill when I read about this. I cannot imagine the trauma of someone ripping my baby away from me so I could nurse and prioritize the health of their baby instead. Before really diving into this historical issue, I was aware that wet nurses existed, and to some degree that slaves acted as wet nurses, but not like this. Not the systemic cruelty of letting slaves’ own babies be cast aside. 

“Slaveholders forced enslaved women to wean their own infants early (from around six months), so they could return to their labors; yet, ironically, wet nurses had to feed white children until they were about two years old.” – Mothers’ milk: slavery, wet­nursing, and  black and white women in the Antebellum  South 

No wonder the black community has a complicated relationship with breastfeeding.

Despite the heaviness my heart is feeling, I do feel a sense of hope and purpose as I continue to lead Work & Mother. Many current black breastfeeding disparities revolve around going back to work and not having the proper resources, space, break time, or advocacy to pump. This is an area where I strongly believe Work & Mother can make a big difference in the lives of all women, but especially in the black community where the challenges are strongest.

Breastfeeding success often lies in the knowledge you have at the beginning of your breastfeeding journey and the support around you once you begin. Work & Mother is dedicated to continuing this conversation, gathering resources, fostering community, and taking action as we approach black breastfeeding week in August.

As a small first step, I’ve compiled a reading list of powerful articles and resources that will help everyone raise their own awareness about the truths of black motherhood and black breastfeeding:

Black Motherhood & Breastfeeding Reading List

There is much more to explore as we discuss black lives matter and systemic issues that plague our community, such as black maternal health and black paternal stereotypes of absent fathers (if you’re not following @thedadgang yet, get to it!).

Will you join me sharing resources and openly listening, learning, and responding in support? How else can we learn and evolve? We are listening…  

More to come next month, in celebration of Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In particular, August 25 – 31 is Black Breastfeeding Awareness Week and we look forward to celebrating and supporting our community during that time.