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Dying, Living and Resisting in American Society: Radical Black History, Radical Care & Why Black Breastfeeding Matters


If you’ve ever been curious about what my presentations looks like I thought I’d share this one from recently (can you tell school is out and I have some time on my hands?!). This presentation was from just a couple of months ago, when the graduate students held a conference so we could share parts of our research with each other. I chose to present a paper I wrote from a class I took on culture and illness in the context of care and what this entails and what it means. My former adviser suggested I take this class, and to be honest with you at first I was really reluctant because I initially didn’t see how it would fit into my research interest of Black breastfeeding. But that completely changed after a few weeks. Not only was I intrigued by care, but I could see clearly (in my mind) how it had been enacted through many ways. My point with this paper and presentation was to examine and show how care has been experienced by Black people in the United States — in forced care, in gendered division of care, how we have also used care as resistance, and how Black breastfeeding fits into its context. Of course I’m not trying to say that Black people who don’t breastfeed don’t fit into this context of care, self-care, radical care, etc — of course not — but here I was looking exclusively at this particular area to start a new conversation for me in this area.

I really wanted to seal an image of a Black woman breastfeeding in the minds of my audience, which is why I put this picture I found on google at the very end on the last slide, and made it one that would be on the screen the longest — during Q&A (p.s. it’s one of the editors of the anthology ‘Free to Breastfeed: Voices of Black Mothers’). There were quite a number of questions from the audience that day — the people were all really engaging, and someone came up to me afterwards and told me about a Black woman nearby who majors in anthropology and who is a breastfeeding mama. Now, that was exciting!

I’ve put the actual notes I wrote up for this presentation under each slide so you can see each point I was making. But I never read verbatim from my notes, so they probably sound a bit different in real time — shorter in some places and longer in others, but I hope you understand my presentation but if you don’t and have a question, leave a comment. And feel free to give me feedback. And if it’s worth it maybe I’ll post the entire paper I wrote about Dying, Living and Resisting in American Society: Radical Black History, Radical Care & Why Black Breastfeeding Matters, sometime somewhere.

 The inspiration for this presentation stems from a class on culture and illness, and Care. I was interested in seeing how ‘Care’ has been experienced by Black and African Americans in the US – from colonial times to the present. Of course I have read scholarship and such on this history, but I have not really seen or heard of it dealing explicitly in the context of care, so this is the reason I decided to focus on this topic. It also really allowed me to link this idea much closer to my own research interest.


CARE: WHAT IS IT? And why do we care?: A basic definition of care is explicit attention given to something or someone, in order to work towards the comfort, health or happiness of that particular entity – to maintain its welfare.

In some instances, one party is seen as being in a more suitable, or stable position than another i.e. the caregiver or caretaker who is enacting a service where his or her mental or physical characteristic is viewed as positioned more firmly than the person or thing on the receiving end.

Another way to view care is as an experience that involves both parties. This can mean that regardless of the dynamic, whether it involves a worker and patient, for example, each one is on the receiving end of services which enhance their emotional, physical or moral well-being and satisfaction.

 Reasons for caring are to bring dignity, respect and to humanize a subject. And these translate into ‘Creating a person’

What’s been interesting as I’ve been researching it to see how this concept is translated by different people. Annemarie Mol, for example shows that a radical transformation of healthcare is what ‘creates a person, since her vision means that it takes into account nuances and variations and does not offer a one size fits all approach. African American historian Nell Irvin Painter says that understanding a true story of history and seeing how Black and African Americans have experienced life in the US since 1619 is what creates Black Americans, for example.


CREATING WHITE AMERICANS: FORCED CARE: Now, focusing on Black people in the US meant that they were ‘forced to care’. The institution of slavery worked to build an establishment — an empire meant that W. Africans were treated as ‘bodies’ required to ‘maintain the welfare’ of slavers.



What distinguishes this form of infant feeding from co-nursing, per, is the power dynamic. In this context, wet nursing meant that all of the benefits associated with nursing ones own infant was usurped in order to attend to the slaver’s.

Marie Jenkins Schwartz tell us thatBlack women’s bodies were not only used as a ‘site’ to repopulate, in order to ensure a level of ‘ongoing and care’ that would ensure this dynamic for future generations, but this is also a way were also forced to use the comfort needed for their own children and feed a slaver’s baby.


The MYTH of Care: Mammy: The eruption of the Mammy character provides one of the greatest insights on how Black women were seen. It’s important to know that the Mammy is a MYTH, but she is depicted as anything but.

The marked difference in the construction of this character, from the idea of ‘forced care,’ however, is the notion that, unlike other Black Americans who had been explicitly forced into subservient roles, Mammy was constructed under the fabricated notion that she gladly and willingly made herself available to tend to white women and children, which inevitably meant caring for the entire household.


LYNCHING: When dominant care threatened: In working to frame this in the context of care and moving further away from a more legalized form of domination – chattel slavery and being ‘owned’ and post emancipation with the rise of the KKK, I believe it meant that the care whites were used to was under a direct threat, yet they worked ardently to continue to instill the dynamic where Black people and POC remained subservient, and to continue to institute the primary tenets of white supremacy. Dejure and Defacto racist segregation was one way this was instituted, along with what we see here with public lynchings, bombings.


FROM CIVIL RIGHTS TO BLACK POWER: Turning Care Inward. I understand that there were various instances where Black people worked to challenge the idea of ‘forced care’ through various acts of resistance, but since I only have 15 minutes and I want to show a much larger structure I thought this could be explained as Black people in the US, on a large scale began to challenge the ideas of the time, jim crow, de jure and defacto racist segregation, and lynchings which were emotionally and psychologically damaging.


WHY BREASTFEED: Here are numerous reasons. As we can see, there are numerous benefits to breastfeeding — keep in mind this list is not exhaustive.

So, at this particular point I had been interested in seeing how breastfeeding fits into the concept of care for Black people – and begin to understand more about how it ‘creates a human.’ Of course I’m not insinuating that Black people are not human but there is no denying that this legacy has worked to dehumanize and there have been consequences to that which I believe shows in these low breastfeeding rates.



 When it comes to Black women and BLACK PEOPLE in the US, this list gets complicated and we are forced to add an additional layer of insight, given this history.

Black women breastfeed in significantly LESS numbers than any other racial group in this country. The most current breastfeeding report card from the CDC shows that although the numbers of Black women initiating breatfeeding has increased to about 50-59% this is still a significant lag behind all other racial groups, of which major health and social consequences emerge.

According to the Department of Heath and Human Services, African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whitesThey are almost four times as likely to die as infants due to complications related to low birthweight as compared to non-Hispanic white infants.

I think that the current breastfeeding rates speak OF and can speak TO this legacy and I also believe that it offers the same level of social and political resistance or ‘CARE’ as, for example the civil rights and Black power movements, just as a couple of examples.

Also, Black breastfeeding challenges many of the ideas about the so-called inferiority of Black women, the non-desire of this community to want to tend to our own families – the time we take out to tend to our infants, as well as disrupts the notion that our own bodies have been sites of rejection, but only worthy of participating in care as dominated subjects.


THE MOTHER-INFANT DYAD: But this big issue is.

Often times we see this in the overarching messages on breastfeeding: That is is a tradition (the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way) that involves the mother and a baby. On occasion, we see some advocates calling for the help of the father or other partner, and sometimes the close-knit community but if we look closer, the images always come back to the mother and a baby.


BREASTFEEDING +ANTHROPOLOGY+BLACK FEMINIST ANTHROPOLOGY: Much of the work that is out there deals with mechanics. And then when things don’t go right we often tend to blame the Black woman (as always), for not succeeding.

I don’t think anthropology or Black feminist thought needs to be romanticized but for my research interest, I think this paradigm would allow a more holistic way to view this practice, and offers an additional layer of insight. It adds another dimension.

Right now, I’m looking to use this lens to begin understanding how this tradition is experiences by people on a much broader scale – ‘non-traditional’ people, people of various genders, sexual orientations. I think beginning to understand that will allow for the understanding of greater ways to work towards the cause, which I believe is transgenerational justice.





Questions, Comments, Thoughts?

 Make sure you tell your audience that breastfeeding is not a ‘fix-all’ button!

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