Why Karlesha Thurman’s graduation picture is so dangerous to the racist and sexist American society

Posted on Posted in Black Feminism, education, nursing in public



Over the past few days I’ve had a few people send me the link to this story about the ‘controversy’ about a mother breastfeeding at her graduation. The first time I saw it, when I clicked to open it I literally had to calm myself down because I felt like I was almost hyperventilating. I was literally in awe. This one held a special significance — in my thoughts it was one of the most powerful images I’ve seen. This one was a big deal. 

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t think there was anything more powerful than a Black woman breastfeeding in a public place. The fact that a Black woman would publicly expose her body in a way that nourishes herself and her baby in a society that has always looked upon her as vulgar is powerful. But I get to extend the conversation in this case. If you’re unsure exactly who Karlesha Thurman is or what happened, then just know that the picture in this post says it all. A 25-year-old Black woman breastfeeding her three-month-old newborn during college graduation — because Black women do breastfeed. I think this image sums up a very good portion of my research interest. And more than 1,000 words, it offers at least a zillion because is speaks to everything from the transatlantic slave trade, to the control of Black women’s bodies, gender dynamics, Black women’s intellect, the ‘politics of respectability,’ and more.

Karlesha Thurman has received a lot of support, which is wonderful. What is also awesome is that Black women and breastfeeding is on so many people’s minds these past few days, because of this. Tell me what Black lactation activist could ask for more than to have a story like this make national headlines, underscoring the significance of Black women and breastfeeding?

The backlash and ‘controversy’ tells a lot about the story, too. Also, that many Black men have called her out of her name is hurtful and disappointing, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Misogynoir didn’t start last night. And why this image is so controversial must be looked at via a critical historical lens, and then we can see why it is much more powerful than many realize — and it starts with slavery — and the gendered division of it and Black women’s devaluation throughout history. Harriet Jacobs, from ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’ said that ‘Slavery is terrible for men; but is far more terrible for women. Black women, in addition to all of the hardships faced their own distinct terrors. In ‘Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism,’ bell hooks wrote that:

‘A devaluation of black womanhood occurred as a result of the sexual exploitation of black women during slavery that has not altered  in the course for hundreds of years. I have previously mentioned that while many concerned citizens sympathized with the sexual exploitation of black women both during slavery and afterwards, like all rape victims in patriarchal society they were seen as having lost value and worth as a result of the humiliation they endured.’

After chattel slavery ended it continued:

‘Systematic devaluation of black women was not simply a direct consequence of race hated, it was a calculated method of social control. During the reconstruction years, manumitted black people had demonstrated that given the same opportunities as whites they could excel in all areas. Their accomplishments were a direct challenge to racist notions about the inherent inferiority of dark races

. . .Everywhere Black women went, on public streets and shops, or at their places of work, they were accosted and subjected to obscene comments or even physical abuse at the hands of white men and women. Those black women suffered most were those whose behavior best exemplified that of a “lady”. A black woman dressed tidy and clean, carrying herself in a dignified manner, was usually the object of mud slinging by white men who ridiculed and mocked her self-improvement efforts. They reminded her that in the eyes of the white public she would never be seen as worthy of consideration or respect.’ 

And this has been the overarching sentiments since then that has flowed into every aspect of Black women’s lives.

Being a Black woman in academia is no joke. It’s definitely not a walk in the park. At one point in the United States history, Black people were severely punished, beaten or even faced death, for attempting to learn how to read. Black women aren’t supposed to be there, which is why this makes this conversation much more interesting. It is no surprise that Black women face such b.s. in educational institutions, and why our input is almost always ignored, rendered invisible. There’s a reason behind it all. And there’s a reason that Black women have the lowest breastfeeding rates of any group in this country. And why Black babies are dying in greater amounts that others, and why there are disparate health outcomes, something breastfeeding can help impede. Is anyone really surprised that people have responded to this setting with racism and sexism? This same country that has castigated our very essence — this society that hates Black people and hates Black women.

But here’s the caveat:

When Karlesha Thurnman uploaded an image of her baby girl nursing at her graduation ceremony, U.S. society (and people around the world) witnessed resistance to years of oppression in one still photograph. It became indisputable evidence that challenged our so-called ‘inferiority,’ in academia, and more. It publicly disrupted the notion that our bodies are deplorable and only worthy of participating in US society as dominated people via white supremacist capitalist patriarchal outline. It rejected years of  controlling images and stereotypes that had been instituted to keep Black women subservient — a ‘Mammy,’ caring for white household and ‘happily’ neglecting her own. A hooker, sexually deviant or  a ‘welfare queen’. She’s not a wet nurse, being forced to feed a slaver’s baby while her own go unattended to, are malnourished, not receiving the benefits of her time and affection, dying. She’s not toiling in the fields sun up to sun down, delivering her baby where she stood, passing it to another so she can get back to work. She’s not a house servant, or a ‘breeder’. She ain’t sleeping with somebody’s man trying to hide the ‘evidence’ — a so-called ‘bastard’ child, as if there is such a thing anyway. She wasn’t raped, or otherwise sexually assaulted (This is not to victim blame. In the context of Black women’s history, rape was (and still is) a tool of terrorism, which is how Black women face/d a distinct form of punishment than Black men and this has also been an area of contention, as far as Black women and our so-called ‘respectability’), and moves us towards a more empowering avenue.

Breastfeeding is not just breastfeeding. Not for Black women. Or Black people. And the benefits extend far beyond ideas on food and mainstream thoughts on nutrition. But it highlights reclaiming our body, healing and restoring community and zillion and one others that has a transgenerational impact. Breastfeeding helps save our lives. It is a biological site that operates as a gateway into a historical past by allowing us to see what is happening now and also what the future may hold,on a road towards radical change. A radical rehumanization. This is another reason why the ignorance and foolishness upset me, but Black people who called her out of her name and demeaned her infuriated me on a level differently than others. And even though I recognize that it is a product and remnants of this same legacy does not mean it makes it any easier. It has to stop.

Putting a Black woman’s breast into the mouth of a Black baby at a graduation ceremony from an American University in a nation built on a foundation of white supremacy challenges a nationwide, systematic and structural effort that has, for 400 years, worked vehemently to erase Black women. It culminates with breastfeeding injustice, by working to thwart the list of health inequities that Black people continue to face in excess, a direct result of our legacy in this country. This picture looked four centuries of oppression in its eyes and provoked responses about why this is even a conversation. This picture called America out on its shit.

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