Do Black Women Breastfeed on the ‘Down Low’?

‘Birthing A Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South.’ Harvard University Press, 2010.

I had so much fun being a guest on the View from A Rack radio show on Tuesday! I honestly could have stayed on and talked for a hour (probably more).

Speaking of the hosts from the show — I wanted to bring up something one of them, Afrykan Moon, said on a previous show — maybe 2 weeks ago when she talked about another woman who coined the term ‘undercover breastfeeders’. If I remember correctly she brought this up because of the larger conversation that many people have overall on how ‘Black women don’t’ breastfeed’ — and she mentioned the name of a woman who coined this term (though I don’t remember who it was). This was the first time I had heard this. This also went along with the fact that some people believe that the information that we hear about Black women having the lowest breastfeeding rates is a myth. I’ve heard of several Black breastfeeding advocates say they don’t believe that Black women have the lowest rates because many other Black women they know have breastfed. To be honest with you I don’t know exactly how I feel about it — as far as my feelings about ‘undercover’ breastfeeding. I was drawn to breastfeeding works and so as I’ve said before my participation did not come by my thoughts on a statistic or what something like the CDC says, though I have used this information many times in my talks and otherwise to promote breastfeeding. But for me just about every Black woman I’ve ever known has breastfed.

I know there are politics and issues for Black women — what we’ve been through in this country and also how society has treated us and our bodies, which is another reason I’d think that we may not see Black women so nursing in the larger, more public view. But now I wonder about the other aspect of this, and think about another reason that is also rooted in slavery’s legacy. As I was writing a paper recently and preparing for a webinar about IBCLCs, I read some parts of a text by Marie Jenkins-Schwartz in her book ‘Birthing A Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South that made me think of punitive reasons that Black women nursed in secrecy — covertly. In this text, Marie Jenkins-Schwartz talks about how Black women would often sneak and nurse their babies during this time and faced severe penalties if they were caught, but many continued to do so. Here is a small paragraph from the book.

‘Allowances of inadequate time for breastfeeding evoked impassioned words from former slavers. Denied the opportunity to feed infants as often as they liked during slavery, some mothers tried to sneak away from work to give a child an additional feeding. If they were caught, they were punished. A Texas woman was whipped for coming from the field without permission to nurse her infant. A Tennessee mother was more fortunate. When she was discovered in the quarter with her infant, her mistress only threatened punishment should she try to do the same again. On Barrow’s Louisiana plantation, the enslaved Candis apparently wanted to breastfeed  her infant more often than the masters allowed. By his own admission, her stopped her four times in one day from attempting to leave the field for this purpose. Peggy Perry described a heart-wrenching situation in which she was unable to suckler her newborn infant. The overseer would approach her in the field to tell her when it was time to return to her cabin to breastfeed. She was allowed only fifteen minutes — not enough time to walk there, nurse the baby, and walk back’ (Pg 224-225).

I don’t have all that many thoughts on this paragraph or any other aspect just yet, other than I can see some validity in the idea of ‘undercover’ breastfeeding given that what was once a survival tactic may have become a legacy. But I really just wanted to put some of my early thought out there. I’d be interested in knowing what others have to say about this passage and Black women’s breastfeeding statistics and the idea of it being ‘hidden’ or ‘concealed’. 

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