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Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren’t Breastfeeding?

I’ve heard this argument before and have read similar, but I stumbled upon this article recently that is from 2009. The author doesn’t go into much detail about her theory on why she believes slavery may be the reason Black women have lower numbers in breastfeeding, but here is a small excerpt, and of course you can read the full article here:

Slave Owners Purchased Us As Wet Nurses

To get to the bottom of this breastfeeding business, it’s important to go back. Waaay back. A long time ago, black women were notorious for nursing. In fact, slave owners used and purchased black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others. “On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants. On the other hand, wet nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children,” writes historian Wilma A.Dunaway, in the book The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, published by Cambridge University Press. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the health detriment of their infants, Dunaway writes.

Now, one of the legacies of slavery is the severe social inequality in economics that still has a large impact in Black and communities Of Color today, and the article talked about the belief that breastfeeding is for poor people — an idea still situated in many communities.

Breastfeeding is for Poor People

But there’s more to our story than breastfeeding interrupted at the hands of slave owners hundreds of years ago — though many may argue that some vestiges of slavery still exist in the mindset of the black community. Aggressive marketing by the formula companies in the 1930s and 40s made formula-feeding the choice of the elite — “the substance for sophisticates” — white or black. And who doesn’t want to be like the rich and famous? That marketing continues to this day, down to the formula company-sponsored bag of goodies you probably received on the way out of the hospital. Then there’s something I call the National Geographic factor — that is, most of the images we see of black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women in Africa whose lives seem so far away from the African-American lifestyle and experience.

“‘Breastfeeding is for poor people,’ my mom once said to me,” explains Nicole, a 37-year-old mom from New Jersey, who breastfed two children for a year. “My mom is a very progressive woman, but this was the thinking of her generation. I couldn’t believe it.”

Well, Black women DO breastfeed! But there is no denying our numbers could use a drastic increase, which is why I want to start this conversation here. Do you believe being enslaved and forced to feed a white slaver’s baby left a legacy and is the reason for our lower rates? Does the image above (that I found on a postcard for sale on eBay) hit a nerve with a tradition of being mocked? Or is it more advertising? Is there more to the story? Well, I have my theory and believe it can be all and neither and more, and I will be getting into that. But for now I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

11 thoughts on “Is Slavery Why Black Women Aren’t Breastfeeding?

  1. Hi there. This comment isn’t directly about this post, sorry. But I just wanted to say “Hello” and tell you that I am an IBCLC who doesn’t have children. So I get what you’re going through as far as this journey. I have felt very respected among clients and other healthcare professionals; I’ve also had people react in negatively. But educating those people is my calling. They are sadly mistaken if they think that bf is a topic only for parents of young children to think about. Keep going…

    1. I have to reply to this as well. I’m a grad-school bound pediatric anthropology student who has extensive knowledge about infant needs, breastfeeding, and childbirth — both from a medical and a cultural/social perspective. I’ve spoken at conferences and been asked for my expertise on a number of projects pertaining to these topics. Yet, whenever I’m at a baby shower or something I’m completely left out of the conversations about birth and infant care because I’m not a mother myself. To me, it’s completely silly to think that having sex that resulted in conception makes you any more qualified to be a parent than the next person, but this is how it is in most cultures. We even have a name for it in medical anthropology: “authoritative knowledge.” Anyway, I decided some time ago that baby showers are not my cup of tea, and that people will perhaps stop questioning my “opinions” (apparently science = opinion to most people) about breastfeeding, or infant sleep, or whatever, once they realize that my own children have turned out just fine (largely because I, unlike them, decided to wait until I was fully informed, stable, and ready for the sacrifices I’d have to make). Many of their opinions still won’t change even then. For example, once I heard someone say, of my friend’s child who was homeschooled (and also breastfed into toddlerhood) that it was “weird” for a child to be reading earlier than his or her peers, spelling out words in the grocery store, or for him to enjoy mathematics. That is when I realized, some people, you can never satisfy. That was when I decided that these are people whose opinions I should not value. This allowed me to let go of their ignorant comments, and to care less about showing up to their parties looking stylish and busy, so that they’d see that I’m just “too busy” and that’s why I don’t have kids yet.

  2. I’m SO excited to find another “no-child IBCLCer!! I haven’t been in this area for long, but yes, there is a ton of discrimination towards us w/no kids, though I do have to admit I’ve had more positive reactions so far. Even when I first began this journey, found out very quickly that bf is an area where all of us need concern ourselves for numerous reasons, as you know!! What interests me is when I hear women who have children and those who have bf criticizing our inclusion. I won’t stop!

  3. I don’t think todays black woman is linking slavery to the reason why she is not breastfeeding. I believe there was a whole generation on black women who breastfed post civil war.

  4. Very interesting. I’m interested in hearing more of your thoughts and insight. I have to say since I first came across the original article and also posted this, I have had a much broader outlook on it, and have been meaning to get around to writing about my thoughts on it now.

  5. I”m not sure how to piece it all together, but I do know that I find breastfeeding to be absolutely liberating for both me and my son. So, somehow it makes sense that the most oppressed sector of our community would have the lowest breastfeeding rates. How do we go about changing that?

  6. Hi Tara, Thank you for your comment. I know that myself and others have spent countless hours coming up with new ideas and working on ways to end these disparities. Blogging is just a small forum — for me, at least. There are several coalitions as well as individuals and groups who are also working in this area. I’m not sure there is a real concrete answer or a concrete solution, unfortunately.

  7. Also, I did receive your comment on the book suggestion on circumcision and definitely appreciate it. I’ve been waiting around for the comment to show up so I can respond on that post (Tell me something good . . . . TO READ, but for some reason it is not, and is only showing up in the admin area only. But thank you again.

  8. It is true black women where forced to feed white babies with our milk because of the vitamins and melon that we naturally produce in our bodies made for OUR children. Slave master in turn gave our children cow milk. Our children didnt come from cows so why drink that milk. They want to be like us so they take from us . dont be fooled feed your child whats yours.

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