BLACK BREASTFEEDING AND THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND: Do our women hold the answers to our own ‘gaps’?

Below is a paper I wrote for my anth theory class. The assignment was to conduct a short ethnography making some connection with a reading we had done over the quarter. As you will see I chose to focus on Sigmund Freud and examining the mind because of a conversation I had with a woman on the ferry — and because lately I have been thinking about the impact of mental health on Black breastfeeding. I want to tell you up front that I personally believe there is more to the story. I have said in this paper and it is my belief that when it comes to the ‘gaps’ in Black women’s breastfeeding I tend to look past protagonists. I hardly place my focus on Black women alone when trying to figure out ‘why we don’t breastfeed,’ even though this is not to say that I don’t think Black women are autonomous beings who make choices when it comes to nursing or that there may not be some insight gained from a method such as examining our minds. There’s just a bigger picture. And that bigger picture involves everyone. That’s what I think. That’s how I roll.

Of course this is extremely lacking in the grand scheme — we only had a 9 page limit and about 2 weeks to put this together — not 300 pages and 2 years, LOL. But in any case the thought about it all seems interesting enough. I didn’t change any of the wording or anything from the piece that I turned in. This is an unadulterated copy. And btw, I received permission from my participants to publish their responses to my questions on this site. BTW again, I haven’t been graded on this assignment yet. I literally just turned it in a few hours ago. What grade would you give me? *wink*

Update: I received a 3.7/4.0, for my grade.

Here’s my paper:

What can the unconscious mind tell us, if anything, about the way we participate (or do not participate) in traditions that have been around since time began? These are also ones that assist in causing a healthy physical, emotional, and psychological level of wellness for all parties involved, for generations. My initial intent for this ethnography was to try and ascertain if the practice of psychoanalysis would be a viable tool to build a framework around Black and African American women’s breastfeeding traditions. A recent conversation with a woman of African descent who I met while on a ferry ride from Seattle to Bremerton, is the inspiration for my concentration on the human mind and Black breastfeeding. This woman, during our conversation on breastfeeding among Black women and the staggering maternal-infant mortality rates said to be linked to the low numbers of this group, wondered if there is a correlation or other such link to the historical trauma of Afro-descendent people in the country, which she suggested, may have caused internalized conflict that continues to hinder the participation of women. I saw this as a avenue for exploration in order to try and gain a deeper understanding on how the function of the mind can potentially lead to a greater understanding of the reasons for the gap in rates by race and ethnicity, in the United States, as well as potentially offer some additional ways to steer my research interest on this topic in a new direction.

If there is anything that can be said about Black women in US society, it is that this group has a history that is recognizably different from all others. Black womanhood has been subjected to distinct forms of unjust treatment, stemming from varied levels of racialized and gendered oppression that has spawned the length of her time in this country, and scholars, activists, and others continue to look to this legacy for insight and to understand new ways to interpret this legacy. Historian Leron Bennett, Jr, has called chattel slavery the cruelest chapter in American history (2003). Many others, myself included, believe that the legacy of this institution created a lasting impact on the lives of Black people throughout the country, and that it also holds a great deal of responsibility for the continued disruption of this biological function between a mother and her infant. One way this has happened, some claim, was with wet nursing. There are many who believe that wet nursing, a practice where a woman breastfeeds a child that is not biologically hers, is another avenue that may answer questions to this legacy. During slavery Black women were forced to discontinue feeding their children from their own bodies, in order to give their milk to the slaver’s baby. Although a number of bloggers and other Black lactation activists say that there are contradictions with this account, because they say a number of generations post-slavery have a rich breastfeeding tradition, others hold strong in their beliefs that this is indeed a determining factor.

The overall cultural climates in the United States and sentiments on breastfeeding have teetered throughout the years and across generations. Many members of each racial backgrounds have, at different points, been in favor or not in favor of this tradition. This was due to attitudes around race relations, anti-immigration discrimination, and women’s movements (Boswell-Penc, 2006) – largely white women’s desire to work outside of the home. Today, there are many individuals, organizations, and healthcare officials who advocate that an infant’s first food come directly from its mother, yet Black women are seen to, over the past 40 years, lag behind all other groups in this area (Seals Allers, 2012). According to various reports, including the United States enter for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they have the lowest percentage of both initiation and duration (MMWR, 2013), and this lack of human milk is said to cause various consequences in health, subjecting babies to greater instances of ear infections, gastrointestinal difficulties, upper respiratory infections, among many others including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which research suggests breastfeeding can thwart by approximately 50% (M.M. Vennemann, et al 2008). Breastfeeding has also proven to aid in preserving the health of the mother, decreasing her chances of developing certain cancers, depression, post birth bleeding and others. From many angles it appears that the overarching sentiment once again is that ‘Breast Is Best!’ and those who do not engage in this tradition are often seen as non-conforming, abnormal, morally defiant.

Sigmund Freud, in the lecture pioneering his work of psychoanalysis, attempts to use the tools of psychology to analyze individual character, in order to see what one’s issues may be – or what they stem from. Freud states that it is through conversations with each individual that will allow the psychologist and other mental health professionals to understand what is buried deep within the psyche of those who are said to be non-conforming – meaning they fall outside the overarching culturally constructed standard. Freud explains that the process of psychoanalysis has a number of elements, and the first he says, ‘declares that mental processes are in themselves unconscious and that of all mental life it is only certain individual acts and portions that are conscious,’ (Freud, 1916-17) whereas the second – ‘instinctual impulses which can only be described as sexual, both in the narrower and wider sense of the word -plays an extremely large and never hitherto appreciated part in the causation of nervous and mental diseases’ (ibid). Freud states that the goal of ‘uncovering the unconscious’ (ibid) is to explore those areas that are outside of the physical realm and to examine those parts of the mind that are not accessible to the physical realm.

Although psychoanalysis has been used for decades, and no doubt has been a viable tool, my personal issue with this type of framework, however, is that it does not appear to view issues through a holistic and all-encompassing perspective, but it looks mostly to individual action for answers and solutions. This is problematic for me because it places the sole person as the primary purveyors of an issue, generally disregarding a larger picture that contributes to individual and group behavior or ‘non-conformity’. My general focus as a social scientist in this area promoting breastfeeding among Black women, has been to look outside of the protagonists, in these instances the mother-infant dyad – into areas where the greater ‘collective conscious’ and larger group plays a part in creating and maintaining a structure which I believe interferes with this tradition: racism, sexism, and other structural power dynamics, for example.

In her work on the current condition of African Americans in the United States, Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary describes the current state of Black people as having characteristics she explains as ‘post traumatic slave syndrome’ (PTSS). DeGruy explains that PTSS is a condition that is a product of a sordid history and manifests with symptoms that interrupt self-esteem, among others.  African Americans are those whose family lineage extends from West African roots, and whose backgrounds can be traced to those who were enslaved in the Americas are said to possess this syndrome. Dr. DeGruy Leary describes PTSS as:

‘a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. A form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites. This was then followed by institutionalized racism which continues to perpetuate injury’ (DeGruy Leary, 2005).

I believe that in future work integrating concepts of PTSS, along with Freud’s psychoanalytic framework may provide some feasible working solutions to gauge the greater issues surrounding Black breastfeeding – or at least a way to begin to construct a larger picture that may offer more important information at the individual level. At this point, there is very little research on the Black breastfeeding experience and psychological discourse, and so more in-depth information making these connections has yet to be seen.

Finding Research Participants:

Finding participants was a bit complicated for this project – especially those who are ‘non-conforming’ non-breastfeeders. One reason is because my work deals with a more theoretical approach, instead of practical. This means that I have not done hands-on clinical support or worked with a mother who may have had difficulties, work that some advocates engage in. Also, in my own social circle, nearly every Black woman I know has breastfed her child or children, at least at some point if not exclusively. This is true of my sisters, as well as my friends. I also am connected to a number of other Black lactation advocates online – and most all have nursed. So, although we deal with disparities and inequity, there are a number of women and people challenging these. My first attempt to draw in participants was through Twitter, an online social media venue. For me, this would offer the opportunity to draw in various people from my ‘focus’ group, since many of my followers are readers of my online blog, a site where I write exclusively about Black women’s breastfeeding narratives. On March 16, 2014, I initiated a tweet and asked the question if anyone wanted to be interviews by me and if so to direct message me, as it would be less than 10 questions. My hope was that I would be able to find a local advocate who would be willing to participate, in person. My message read:

I need 2 women to interview. Black/African American — one who breastfed, one who did not. Wanna be interviewed? < 10 questions. DM me.


I selected two participants for this ethnographic research, both who self-identify as Black women. Age was not a determining factor at this point, since I felt it was important to try and gauge, as best as I could viewpoints from each end, regardless of age. I also felt it was important to work at gathering as broad of a narrative as possible which is why one participant breastfed and the other did not. Even though there are of course, different cultural perspectives when it comes to breastfeeding, for the purposes of this ethnography ‘conforming’ to the current climate of normativity when it comes to breastfeeding means breastfeeding. My questions were posed in order to attempt to get a better understanding of the dynamic between someone who is said to conform and one who does not.


Participant #1: Self-identified Black woman who did breastfed. (Responses are italicized)

1. How old are you? 29

2. How many children do you have? 3

3. What is your knowledge of breastfeeding? Extensive. I breastfed for almost 5 consecutive years.

4. Do you have a family tradition of breastfeeding? Kind of. Everyone who has had children started out breastfeeding.

5. How long did you breastfeed? Almost 5 years.

 6. Why do you think you breastfeed? It’s better for the baby and it’s easier and much cheaper and more convienent (sic).

Participant #2: Self-identified Black woman who did not breastfeed. (Responses are italicized)

 1. How old are you? 41

2. How many children do you have? 3

 3. What is your knowledge of breastfeeding? I didn’t know much about breastfeeding until I had my third child. I didn’t breastfeed my first two children probably because of that.

4. Do you have a family tradition of breastfeeding? No. No one in my family. I am the only one who has done so and it was only with my last child.

5. Why do you think you did not breastfeed? I breastfed my third child after I moved and was introduced to a different group of people that I had known previously. Before that it just never occurred to me to do anything other than feed a baby with a bottle.

Although concrete insights from a such brief set of questions and with only two participants is not possible, I believe this process can be used as a starting point, in order to begin gaining more insight on the breastfeeding narratives of Black women’s lives. This area can potentially offer ways to examine more concrete insights. This avenue will also allow for the construction of new questions, in order to begin gathering ways to formulate new ideas on this tradition and work towards decreasing the gaps and the various health consequences.

Though I am not formally trained in psychology or educated on how to administer a way to gauge analysis of the mind, I believe it is possible to ask questions as well as other therapeutic interventions with the attempt of obtaining insight that may work to ‘uncover the unconscious’. The history of Black women and Black people in the United States is complex. There are various traumas that are associated with these many complex stories that would also need to be explored, in order to gain a better understanding. There are also various ways African, Black and African American people have worked to resist such traumas, which also must be taken into consideration and to aid in the examination. I also believe that a set of questions that are more complex will be needed for future research. For example, it would be necessary for more in-depth inquiries on family history, as well as gathering insight regarding each participant’s geographic background and family lineage if known, to see the connections to the transatlantic slave trade, if any. Also, I believe it would require questions geared at assessing their personal feelings and sentiments on body image, and relationships with their children, among others. The methods used in this ethnographic research, attempting to use the framework of psychoanalysis are starting points that can guide a much more in-depth study on the role of breastfeeding among Black and African American women in the United States, and may prove feasible in gauging where Black women lie in this age-old tradition.


 Bennett, Leron Jr

2003 Before The Mayflower: A History of Black America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company.

Boswell-Penc, Maya

2006 Tainted Milk: Breastmilk, Feminisms and the Politics of Environmental Degradation. Albany: SUNY Press.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

2013 Progress in Increasing Breastfeeding and Reducing Racial/Ethnic Differences, United States 2000-2008     Births. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 62(05): 77-80.

DeGruy Leary, Joy

2005 Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Portland: Uptone   Press.

Freud, Sigmund

1916-17 Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, Sigmund


Freud, Sigmund


M.M. Vennemann, B. Brinkmann and C Sauerland

2008 Does Breastfeeding Reduce the Risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Pediatrics 123(3): e406-e410.

Seals Allers, Kimberly

2012 Why are black women less likely to breastfeed? The Guardian.

2 thoughts on “BLACK BREASTFEEDING AND THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND: Do our women hold the answers to our own ‘gaps’?

    1. More times than I can imagine I wonder if I am making any impact or reaching anyone AT ALL. I really appreciate you reading my blog, Sarina. And I hope your curiosity morphs into radical awareness and super radical action that challenges every reason ‘y ppl don’t Bf as much’!

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