This week marks the 4th annual Black Breastfeeding Week celebration in the US. It’s been a long time coming, but thanks to the diligence of dedicated grassroots lactivists Kimberly Seals Allers, Kiddada Green and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, we now set aside the final week of National Breastfeeding Month to focus on Black mothers, babies and communities. It is a time set aside for us, by us to highlight breastfeeding disparities among Black mothers, and to celebrate and normalize breastfeeding in Black communities.
I was born to a sharecropper’s daughter in a small country hospital in North Carolina. It was the 1970s but it may as well have been the 1930s. In the country years crept by, and traditions held firm in the face of change happening in the rest of the world. There were more red dirt roads than paved ones, more people walking than driving, and babies were born at home and breastfed. Raising children happened as the village worked and worshipped and lived together trying to carve out a happy existence with the cards they had been dealt.
My mother was cut from a different cloth. She was made too free, too fast, too much for the country. She was more like the city girls and so were her mothering choices. In the city, Black mothering was evolving alongside Black feminism. Women were asserting their right to work and thrive independently. This was the cloth my mother was cut from. She was the first girl to leave home. She worked in a factory instead at home on the farm. She gave birth to me in a hospital, even though her sisters were having babies at home. And when she was confronted with the option to breast or bottle-feed, she chose the bottle without hesitation.
She didn’t know she was part of a huge national wave of mothers turning away from feeding babies at their bosoms and electing to bottle feed. She thought she was making an independent choice to do what was best for her in the moment. She needed to return to work. However, throughout the 70s, American women from every demographic were making the choice to offer formula as feeding from the breast became known as a relic of the past. The lowest breastfeeding rates in US history were documented in the 1970s, with Black mothers leading the pack.
Most US mothers returned to feeding at the breast in large numbers in the 80s and 90s, as the benefits of breastfeeding and the risks of formula feeding became more widely known and understood. However, Black mothers did not follow suit in a significant way. Forty plus years later, we are still playing catch up. If used effectively, breastfeeding is a powerful public health tool that can turn around the health status of a whole generation of Black Americans. It has the power to decrease obesity, diabetes and infant mortality rates. It helps fight and prevent certain cancers in women and children, and could absolutely drastically decrease the amount of infant deaths we are seeing in our poorest areas. Yet the disparity gap continues to grow between us and everyone else.
The reasons behind this slow shift are complicated and layered. Breastfeeding cannot be compartmentalized as a singular part of the black mothering experience. Just as the political and social environment of the 70s promoted a departure from breastfeeding, infant feeding choices today are weighed by a variety of factors. There is institutional and structural racism, inadequate prenatal care, and downright deceitful targeted marketing by formula companies, to name a few of the culprits.
There’s also history. So. Much. History.
The pain and the legacy of infant feeding has a sordid past that reaches back hundreds of years. And that pain is not easily forgotten. In the way that one cannot separate American Black-ness from this country’s history of depraved atrocities as it relates to Black bodies, one cannot separate Black woman-ness from bodily agency, sexuality, and motherhood. The four are so entangled when speaking of one, the others come barreling through demanding to be seen and heard. The stench of oppression is ever-present, and rests upon all parts of her experience. How Black women conceived and carried and fed and nurtured and so often lost – all under the looming threat of rape, torture or death from hundreds of years ago to now – informs decisions and attitudes yet today. One cannot expect Black mothers to simply return to the breast en masse after making that political and personal choice of freedom 40 years ago. This thing has levels to it.
Some issues run so deep and so far back that they elude outsiders. They are beyond the grasp of those who are not in it day in and day out. Those are the times when we have no choice but to save ourselves. It was so with Civil Rights. It is so today with police brutality. It is so right now with our infant mortality rates. Sure, allies can come alongside and provide support for the movement, but the real work has to occur on the inside – by those who are most directly impacted. And even then, maybe especially then, attempts at progress are met with roadblocking and confusion and bitter vitriol. That has never stopped us though.
We lactivists spend our days dreaming up ways to make Black breastfeeding more visible, to reach Black mothers in our communities, to create policies that protect and preserve the nursing relationships in our most marginalized communities. We do this because we know what’s at stake. We know that infant mortality in our communities is 2-3 times that of the general population. We see diabetes and obesity and other acute and chronic conditions – that are directly impacted by breastfeeding – ravaging our communities. We see mothers struggling to breastfeed without the support of employers or family members or healthcare providers and our hearts break for the babies who will not get to enjoy the best possible health outcomes because the system is set up for moms to fail. This keeps us awake at night. Haunts our dreams. Yet we keep running in the direction of progress and change. Why? Because black babies deserve the same start in life. That’s why this week is so vitally important.
During this tumultuous time in the lives of folks with Black bodies in the US, we must add one more thing to our plates:the fight for the health of our babies. America has been hard, at times brutal, on Black bodies. I know we are tired. But this fight, the one for the agency and the lives of Black mothers and babies, is worth the fight. We must get this right.
Portions of this blog post are excerpts from the forthcoming book entitled Tide of Life: A Social History of Black Breastfeeding in America.