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I am a radical Black feminist anthropologist and PhD Candidate of sociocultural anthropology in my 8th year in the graduate program. I’m a birth worker, lactation educator, and I do a whole lot of other things in the community centering Black women, including anti-racist work, organizing events, and more. I’ve worked with individuals and non-profits around the country towards the goal of breastfeeding equity.
I can’t say why breastfeeding made it to the top of my list despite all of the things that are going on in the lives of Black people. I would have never expected myself to be here. I’ve never birthed a baby so I didn’t have an experience that drew me in, like many others in this work. But I grew up in a breastfeeding culture — and my grandmother, my mother, my sisters and my friends were my influences. So I was nearly in disbelief when I learned that today Black women are breastfeeding our babies much less than we have in just about all of our previous moments in history, and that this devastating reality is causing multiple layers of trauma in health & wellness.
Only just over 50% of Black women in the U.S. initiate breastfeeding, and the number drastically decreases in the ensuing months when it comes to sustaining the practice. In my research location those figures are even lower. My political-academic work looks at Black and African Americans in the U.S., with a focus on the state of Mississippi and a concentration in the Delta where, coincidentally, I was born, have a family history and the state also has some of the greatest challenges in breastfeeding in the country. I’m interested in understanding why this exists as well as uncovering ways to transform the Black breastfeeding narrative for a healthier outcome for women and children.
At the start of this ‘lactation journey,’ my objective was to chronicle my adventure to becoming an IBCLC — a Lactation Consultant certified through the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners. I felt this area involving clinical applications would allow me to have a literal hand in helping to end devastation among my community since it required pursuing an educational skill set where I would learn various techniques to assist women, including helping them put their baby to their breast — but I stopped pursuing that goal after obtaining a Certified Lactation Educator certificate, an initial step along the route. My belief is that although at the surface professional breastfeeding services such as lactation consultants appear just and equitable, allowing more women the opportunity to provide their milk to their infant, the IBCLC credential is a facet of the same legacies of injustice that are perpetuated when breastfeeding becomes an object of medical and institutional attention and intervention. To put this more bluntly: I believe the IBCLC credential is devastating to breastfeeding health and significantly disrupts community sovereignty. This is especially true for Black women who have had a distinct injustice at the breast as enslaved wet nurses, and a lengthy history of reproductive trauma at the hands of the medical establishment. My master’s thesis, Uncovering Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy in Professional Breastfeeding Services: The Greater Complexities of IBCLCs, would explore this in more detail. So my focus moved away from becoming a healthcare professional. I stopped pursuing the IBCLC credential all together, and my concentration on community participation and critical social theory in breastfeeding deepened. I applied to a PhD program in order to expand my advocacy in Black breastfeeding, go deeper in my work and become more effective, exploring the disjuncture and find out why Black breastfeeding rates are so low and ways to change that. But the main focus of my research is not directed at understanding breastfeeding professionalism. I’m interested in social dominance and structures of power. I examine areas such as race, gender, geographic location and other social and political markers to explore how society dictates who gets to attach their baby to their breast, and essentially determines who lives and who dies. My project looks at as many aspects of Black breastfeeding, to understand why the overwhelming gap in our own practice exists and find ways to close it.This is my focal point rather than on mechanics (how to latch a baby to a breast, information about breast pumps, milk storage, etc).
I’ve been doing this work for more than seven years and here are the main areas that drive me:
- This ethnographic fieldwork – breastfeeding research is the next-to-the-last step for me. It’s been a long road. But what’s left after completing this critical research is to write a dissertation and then — graduate. I plan on writing much of my dissertation while I’m in the field, so finishing up and then walking across the stage, will ensure I become a doctor.
- I have a unique vantage point. To my knowledge there exists no other anthropological work done about Black breastfeeding by a Black anthropologist. This isn’t surprising at all, given the history of anthropology and the fact that its racist framework made many Black people ambivalent, at least, about practicing. And if Black women are breastfeeding in such low rates, the link between these two makes sense. Rather than being a surface discipline, anthropology has an incredible set of tools that explores multiple angles and asks a completely different set of questions than various other areas involving medicine, community relations, feminism and more seem to. A brand new set of practical and theoretical knowledge emerges from a radical Black feminist anthropological paradigm and benefits everyone who is working towards a shared goal, including advocates and activists, healthcare professionals, academics and more.
- The innumerable struggles Black women have faced at the hands of this racist and sexist society. I believe breastfeeding acts as a partial recompense for so much Black women have had to endure historically and now, a debt I vowed to somehow repay.
- My heart is in it. Even though I sometimes get extremely discouraged and feel very little support, my passion for uncovering what is at the bottom of breastfeeding injustice has been unwavering since day one, and I think that does say a lot.
- The Spirit called me to do this work! I have mentioned several times that even though I am committed to uncovering the significance of this tradition, this work is nothing I chose on my own. For me, being here is an explicit result of spiritual guidance, a call I heard one day while while at a friend’s. Breastfeeding has layers of significant meanings that go far beyond clinical and medical benefits. Black people and breastfeeding need this work.