Breastfeeding research in Mississippi — help support it! (Video) #BlkBfing

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2016-06-16 07.31.59 am

I am raising money to help with a research project focusing on breastfeeding in the Mississippi Delta, USA.

My visit to the Delta will be from mid-August through the end of September 2016.

I am interested in breastfeeding among Black and African Americans because I am interested in helping to curb the staggering disjuncture and counter the maladies that more breastfeeding can help guard against. Currently, Black women have the lowest breastfeeding rates of any group in the country. These realities mean that Black people in America remain compromised, since breastfeeding can help counter various issues in terms of mental and physical health, environmental, and has countless other benefits.

This year will be my second visit to the location as an anthropologist, graduate student, and formal researcher, all are components of critical and transformative activist work. As of yet, I haven’t found other Black anthropologists in this country who concentrate on Black breastfeeding or who have done so. I believe my unique vantage point as a Black feminist anthropologist means that I bring a brand new perspective to the breastfeeding realm. It also means that a brand new set of questions can emerge, brand new theories are produced, and my work can highlight brand new ways of community participation to help center and heal historical wounds, contemporary traumas, and a list of other things that stand in the way of breastfeeding justice. My methods then and now in the Delta are to survey the area and to gather as much information as I can from professionals and residents regarding their views and perspectives on breastfeeding, to visit the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, various Health Departments, and to gather more everyday experiences that relate to this important subject.

Mississippi is important as an area of focus to me not only because I was born in the state and have ties to kin, am deeply connected to the land and its history, but also because to me, Mississippi harbors the richest history for Black people — in terms of radical oppression by the state and radical resistance by the people — many who fought and gave their lives voluntarily and involuntarily to resist dehumanization. I think this plays a tremendous role in the current status of the state and the fact that the region has the lowest breastfeeding rates of any state in the union.

Last year, with a small funding grant from my department, the graduate school, along with some community outreach, I was able to pilot this work and am looking to continue it even before extensive ethnographic dissertation research, in which I will live in Mississippi for approximately 1.5-2 years. I received no funding at all this year from my department, or otherwise, but do not want to halt this crucial work. The amount I am raising here will go toward travel to and from the state, intra-state travel, lodging, food, and various other supplies for the five weeks I am in the region. I appreciate any help with this.
* The image above of a Black woman breastfeeding, is from Time Life Magazine, taken at a public health department in Greenville, Misssissippi, in 1937. I do not own the rights to this image and am using it only for education purposes.

 

Thank you to those who have helped out so far, and thanks for sharing the word.

Uncovering Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy in Professional Breastfeeding Services: The Greater Complexities of IBCLCs

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Below is a paper that I just turned in and filed with my department. I had to submit a ‘research competency’ paper as part of the requirements for my graduate program for the MA (think thesis), and chose to extend the conversation I started about my views on IBCLCs, who I think are very problematic for several reasons as you may have already read and as you will further see. This is an introduction — a starting point. There is much more to this conversation that I will introduce.

[Also]: I am raising money to help with a research project focusing on Black breastfeeding in the South. I am returning to the ethnographic field (going to the physical site) from mid-August through the end of September 2016 — part of a much larger project toward breastfeeding advocacy and dissertation research, and need help with this endeavor. I would appreciate any support with it, which can be done by clicking the link to a crowdfunding page and donating towards it: Breastfeeding Research in MS, by using this url: http://bit.ly/28PuUor, or via paypal: lactationjourney (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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This article is under review with Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Black Voices on Activism, Resistance and Love as well as Transforming Anthropology. Do not cite without permission.

Acquanda Y. Stanford

Uncovering Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy in Professional Breastfeeding Services: The Greater Complexities of IBCLCs

Black American feminist and cultural critic, bell hooks, coined the term imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to highlight a non-prioritized system of domination that originates within the United States. Imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy, hooks argues, culminate, and work in unison with one other with the desire to ‘go out’ and dominate based upon a history of white rule, violence, and the subjugation of people and cultures and is what constitute the framework of this force. The United States with its reputation across all facets of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has been used to fuel this scenario within the U.S. boundaries and abroad. Imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy manifests in various ways, and especially with new establishments that are seen to promote breastfeeding via professional services.

Prior to the emergence of this phenomenon of professional practices within more medicalized contexts, breastfeeding had been a tradition that has sustained the human race, with overarching dominant sentiments that wavered between disdain and acceptance. For Black women, breastfeeding harbors a form of community autonomy as well as a distinct injustice and a complex narrative. Forced wet nursing during the colonial period, Black women were made to use their milk to feed a slaver’s baby during chattel slavery and is at the root of this history. This was done in order to alleviate the physical and social discomfort of more affluent white women, and many believe that Black women were most often only able to provide their milk to their own children surreptitiously and sporadically. But breastfeeding was also a primary component of autonomy Black women had while working as midwives both before and after the Civil War. The midwife, who was a prominent figure in communities, worked to ensure a woman was cared for and that her body produced proper milk for her baby. After emancipation, Women of Color from the U.S. and elsewhere gained employment via wet nursing, yet when anti-immigrant sentiments surfaced and stigmatized these women, the belief that a woman’s personality could be transferred from her breastmilk to the child led to the castigation of this practice (Boswell-Penc, 2006), essentially becoming a segue toward the acceptance and even favoring of artificial infant formula which was a nascent yet burgeoning idea. Though the picture remains complex when it comes to understanding the legacy of Black and African American women and breastfeeding, what is known is that this has greatly impacted the breastfeeding rates for generations.

According to various reports, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black women statistically rank lowest in all areas of breastfeeding. Racial and Ethnic Differences in Breastfeeding Initiation and Duration, a 2004-2008 National Immunization Survey, conducted by the CDC, highlighted these disjunctures, showing that in all stages of infant feeding from birth through 12 months, non-Hispanic Black women ranked lowest, with 54.4 percent breastfeeding at birth, 26.6 percent at six months, and just 11.7 percent at 12 months (MMWR). Lack of breastfeeding produces disastrous consequences. This gap means that in addition to a history of enslavement Black people in this country remained compromised and disproportionately impacted with maladies that an increase in breastfeeding can help thwart. Not only would more breastfeeding help counter physical ailments such as ear infections, gastrointestinal infections, upper respiratory infections, childhood diabetes, and help decrease Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by 50% (Milligan et al) among countless other positive outcomes, some believe that psychological damages stemming from a history of forced separation between Black women and their babies could be restored by the physical closeness breastfeeding requires. Other injustices could also be highlighted. For example, a Black feminist perspective looks at how Black women’s bodies have been castigated and maligned, and motherhood has been deemed inferior. Even though breastfeeding alone does not combat these stigmas, this and more could all be centered at this site, potentially creating a new narrative and frame of reference for Black women.

Today, we are in a period where providing milk from a woman’s body to her baby is seen as the healthiest way to nourish an infant. Breastfeeding has become highlighted in multiple settings, with women ‘returning’ to this natural tradition. But there are still gaps in Black communities. Blacks and others alike say that an increase in African American professional services, adding more figures with those who have formal knowledge specifically related to breastfeeding, would provide crucial groundwork for a greater understanding of their culture, and consultants who ‘look like us’ would be around potential breastfeeders and produce positive outcomes, since African American women would be more receptive among those who they could relate to. Bolstering breastfeeding promotion are individual advocates as well as Non-Governmental Organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and various hospitals who implement ways to encourage more breastfeeding education with the hopes that women will adopt this tradition. In 1991, for example, both the WHO and UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, with an effort to ‘improve practices that protect, promote, and support breastfeeding (who.int). A baby-friendly hospital is recognized by 10 steps that are part of the guidelines instituted by the WHO and UNICEF, and require hospitals to create an environment where breastfeeding becomes the primary method of feeding a newborn. This is done by training staff members, encouraging breastfeeding on demand – rather than nursing on a fixed schedule, discussing breastfeeding with pregnant women, and ‘rooming-in’ – keeping a baby in the same room as mother after delivery rather than moving it to a nursery (babyfriendlyusa.org). These, along with other steps will help ensure breastfeeding becomes part of the cultural norm. Baby-friendly hospitals are one facet of a larger endeavor to promote breastfeeding. In the past three decades additional efforts have been made to divert attention from manufactured infant formula and find ways to impart knowledge on individuals in order to promote more breastfeeding. Most notably this has been done with the eruption of International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs).

Towards the latter part of the 20th century, increasing awareness and so-called scientific data highlighting the various health benefits of human milk as opposed to artificial infant formula, which was greatly promoted instead of breastfeeding at the time, is what led to this newfound establishment (ibcle.org). To heighten this interest and encourage breastfeeding among pregnant women and those who recently birthed, medical professionals began working with local advocates with an effort to increase the population’s understanding of human milk as well as a mother’s desire to breastfeed and to offer hands-on assistance (iblce.org). In 1985 the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE) geared specifically toward breastfeeding education and promotion formalized and IBCLCs became the product of this initiative. A rigorous set of criteria, including enrolling in formal education classes in anatomy and physiology, nutrition, biology, cultural sensitivity and others, as well as taking lactation-specific courses and apprenticing for approximately one year to gain hands on experience is required. Once these requisites are completed the candidate then sits for a difficult and costly exam that is administered only one day per year around the world. Upon acquiring a favorable score, the individual is allowed to place ‘IBCLC’ behind his or her name for a certification that is recognized internationally, for period of five years. IBCLCs have been deemed the ‘Gold Standard’ in clinical breastfeeding support and lactation management. They have been viewed as adding a level of empowerment for women who make up the greatest majority of this enterprise, allowing them to participate socially and economically within the community. Their ability to effectively apply learned skills in latching a baby to a breast, offer information about infant nutrition, diagnose and treat women for ailments such as mastitis, engorgement, and other areas concerning breast health, including assisting women in reaching their breastfeeding goals is what has relegated these clinicians to the top of the lactation hierarchy. Mothers in large numbers, as well as some fathers and other advocates often rave of the help they have received. Many state that without this assistance initiating and sustaining breastfeeding would have been more complicated, if not entirely unsuccessful and this has been the overarching sentiment, as more and more breastfeeding professional services are on the rise. Worldwide there are more than 28,000 IBCLCs (IBLCE.org) and new certifications mean this number increases each year. The vast majority – over 50 percent – are located in the United States (IBLCE.org) with a notable amount in Australia and Canada. Lactation Consultants are employed in various sectors, and apply their specialized breastfeeding knowledge to their current work as registered nurses, dieticians, and obstetricians, while others work in government offices, non-profit organizations and private sectors, charging between $90.00 and $150.00 per consultation visit. In my own participation in breastfeeding advocacy I wanted to join the ranks of IBCLC. Once I learned of the severe disjuncture in Black breastfeeding, my desire to help curb the staggering amount of inequities caused by a lack of breastfeeding was at the forefront of this desire. I believed this avenue would not only provide an opportunity to have a literal hand in curbing social and health-related ills associated with the lack of breastfeeding, but I was also certain that since I grew up in an environment where breastfeeding was the cultural norm I would be able to recruit other people of African descent into this field, since the numbers of Black IBCLCs are few.

Other desires for more representation among groups of Color also brought along criticisms of the IBLCE and the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA). The grievance by Communities of Color has been that the criteria involved in becoming certified are unfair. They argue that the ways to secure this title are the for privileged and elite, which translates to the white middle-class woman, since money and access are needed to work toward this endeavor, and Women of Color are impacted by greater barriers and social circumstances that interfere with these. Black lactation advocates have criticized the certifying entity, stating that the requirements are too stringent: access to education, work, and the ability to obtain clinical apprentice opportunities are much more complicated for them, moreso, than others who do not face the consequences of racial and gendered marginalization. Black women are disproportionately impacted by a social environment that interferes with who is even in our homes and affords us the ability to obtain these credentials. Historically, Black women have been placed in predicaments where they have been the head of households, having to work and be away from family and have had greater difficulty accessing privileged endeavors such as volunteering for months without pay. Additionally, the predominantly white staff that makes up the administrative realm causes division in formal practices: these skewed perspectives influence how information appears on tests and what is relayed to clients. Many people who advocate for great diversity among IBCLCs suggest that increasing the numbers within this sector would allow more opportunity for groups to participate: more input and voices from these margins would assist with erasing health injustice. In response, there have been recent efforts on the part of the IBLCE and ILCA to examine their set of criteria, in order to create what they believe to be more equity within the institution. One way has been a formal summit to draw attention to these discrepancies. In August 2014, in Arizona, United States, the IBLCE and ILCA convened an ‘equity’ summit, asking for those who feel marginalized to highlight this and ways to restructure the curriculum. Various individuals came together to highlight ‘real-life experiences, obstacles, and challenges of underreprepresented people in the U.S. and across the globe’ (ILCA.org). In order to offer an opportunity toward certification for these communities, the IBLCE changed its criteria, reducing mandatory apprentice hours, and created different avenues toward reaching the education goals.

But breastfeeding professionalism is too often romanticized. It is too often seen as a facet of care, nurturing and community empowerment, rather than a site to trace domination and a U.S. attempt to expand the bounds of its desire for a global empire. At first glance professionals appear to work toward a positive outcome for promoting the breastfeeding tradition. Looking deeper into history, however, it becomes apparent that this newly coveted terrain in medicalization not only causes trauma at the local level by removing knowledge from the people, but is exceptionally problematic within and between various layers. This paper examines the infiltration of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as it manifests with the rise of breastfeeding professionals. It looks specifically at the IBLCE and the proliferation of IBCLCs. I will examine how, on the surface this newfound establishment may reflect an avenue toward strengthening a bond between mother and child, helping women reach their breastfeeding goals and creating a culture of acceptance on all levels of human lactation. Layers beneath this veneer, however, expose ‘blind spots’ that harbor a lengthy legacy of domination that remains a part of all facets. IBCLCs appear to work at countering the disruption of the physiological function caused by the interference of infant formula milk, but they only cause an increase in social discord on a local and global context. This means that not only does the IBLCE produce more inequity within this profession, but also it encompasses a legacy of injustice in creating a hierarchy and inevitable oligarchy where breastfeeding knowledge becomes consolidated, available only to those who have access and privilege. For Black women, IBCLCs pose an additional layer of destruction. A history of state-sanctioned intervention directly related to the breast has been faced by this group, and the mainstream biomedical model of healthcare has been built upon the dispossession of Black women and dismemberment of a shared autonomy once held by Black midwives. This devastation continues to manifest via this facet of reproduction, and is damaging to those in the United States, and abroad. I suggest that it is only through community participation and sovereignty, highlighting ways to create more radical awareness about breastfeeding within their own everyday understanding, is how communities can shield itself, and return this natural, healthy tradition and power back to their community.

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‘Bronislaw': The Anthropology of Black Breastfeeding in Mississippi

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Selfie of Black feminist anthropologist (me) researching breastfeeding rates in Greenville, MS, August, 2015

Selfie of Black feminist anthropologist (me) researching breastfeeding rates in Greenville, MS, August, 2015

A few months back, the editors of the new online magazine, Bronislaw (as in Malinowski, I think) asked me to write an article for their first edition. I thought it was a good opportunity and was happy to do so, and the edition was finally published the other day.

I thought it gave me the right opportunity to talk just a bit about what the anthropology of Black breastfeeding in Mississippi is, and my focus on breastfeeding — aside from this blog that I’ve been writing for five years, and all.

If my article sounds vague, then that’s because it is. Even though I have had a zillion and one people ask me about what went down there, I refrain because I have not spoken to the residents of the state about what I found during that short research trip. I refuse to put that information on a public platform. Even though I am confident the residents of Mississippi can handle their own, I have information that may be potentially sensitive. Besides that, going there just to get info and then disseminate it to academics and anywhere else is just not happening. I just don’t do anthropology like that. I have spoken some about it to activists — to folks who I know who would actually work to change society and change the Black breastfeeding narrative, and I will speak to folks who work specifically towards breastfeeding justice — so if I go to the ROSE Conference this year, this is what I will be talking to people about — but that’s it. There is no such thing as placing people on ‘display’  up in here. That’s not how I roll.

Anyway, here’s the link. Tell me what you think. The article is called An unlikely anthropologist doing unlikely work in an unlikely place: critical black breastfeeding in the Mississippi Delta

Seeking The Ancestors in Natchez, MS: 97.7 WTYJ’s ‘The Bottom Line’ on Black Breastfeeding

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If your’e anywhere near Natchez, MS, or can figure out how to stream the show online, then I will be on 97.7 WTYZ fm, on The Bottom Line this Tuesday, September 15th sometime between 8:30 and 9:30 pm Central Time. The producer of the show said he wanted to pencil me in and so I’ll have a 10-15 minute segment within that hour.

I actually just left Natchez on Thursday (I’m here in Jackson) and I already can’t wait to go back. People asked me why I wanted to go to this town — why breastfeeding research there? My initial reasons were to learn about the rich history of slave oppression and resistance, which is very strong, and to connect it to my views about breastfeeding being in the same capacity. But as I was there, it became more and more apparent that I needed to seek these ancestors and find out what they wanted me to know about their lives and stories and how they guide me and tell me to connect it to breastfeeding today. I’m still unsure of what exactly that is yet but I will keep seeking and listening.

It was the first time I had been there, but I really appreciate the town. It is full of incredibly rich history, is extremely haunted (I felt the presence of spirits very strongly at one point while touring an antebellum home), and I also got to hang out with some interesting and important people who are socially conscious and very politically active, and we got to share the important work each of us are doing so that really gave me a rush. My motel room was right next door to a grocery store so that was a change, I bought art from a artist’s co-op,  and I went to New Orleans over Labor Day weekend, inadvertently stumbling upon a small PRIDE Parade that was happening there and had a lot of fun. I’ll write more extensively when I get a chance, but I am currently drowning in writing projects — field notes, transcribing interviews and all things anthropology is no joke, and I’m so behind, but I just wanted to share this info. Listen in if you can.

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‘Mammy Caroline’ — this image is from the ticket of the one and only antebellum home tour I went on while in Natchez. After I visited the Visitors Center and saw the short 20-minute documentary on the history of Natchez, it quickly became apparent that this history was told completely from the white perspective, which is why I refused to go on other tours outside of this one which I only went on because it was focused on the owner’s experience of spiritual activity in the house and I was interested in that.

This image is of Nina Simone and it is of a small wooden plaque I bought that was created by an artist while I was in New Orleans. As I was looking over her inventory, she and I got on the conversation on how undaunted Nina Simone was (and continues to be) unlike any other artist we've seen. I'm extremely inspired by Nina.

This image is of Nina Simone and it is of a small wooden plaque I bought that was created by an artist while I was in New Orleans. As I was looking over her inventory, she and I got on the conversation on how undaunted Nina Simone was (and continues to be) unlike any other artist we’ve seen. I’m extremely inspired by Nina.

Black Breastfeeding: Constructing a Framework of Analysis and Action through the Lens of Black Feminist Anthropology

With all of my travel and busy-ness I realized I completely forgot to upload my ROSE poster — so here it is. I presented this poster at the Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere 4th Annual Breastfeeding Summit in Atlanta, that happened about two weeks ago, but seems like yesterday. The summit was in Atlanta, GA on August 19-21, and the topic this year was Building Bridges across the Chasm of Breastfeeding Inequities.There were various speakers — I missed 99% of the presentation by Camara Phyllis about racism and examining and eliminating its impact — the one I really wanted to see — and dang, I was so disappointed. Of course when I finally did make it to the conference center, during the break everyone was talking about it, and subsequently telling me how unfortunate it was that I didn’t make it once they found out I wasn’t there :/

The food was incredible. The my only grievance was that the caterers took it all away so soon after each meal time, LOL, and didn’t leave it out (I can tend to go several rounds when they got it like that — and make it like that). But I’m not bitter.

Anyway, my poster is about viewing how I work to highlight Black breastfeeding promotion via — well, through constructing a framework of analysis and action through the lens of Black feminist anthropology. I’m trying real hard to shine as bright of a light on this vantage point as I can. I want to make Black feminist anthropology as public as I can, and I think that showing this at a conference where there are folks who are both inside and outside of academia is ideal — that’s my kind of audience. Below is the poster. Below the poster is the abstract that was submitted and was published in the pamphlet.

Black Breastfeeding: Constructing a Framework of Analysis and Action via the Lens of Black Feminist Anthropology

Black Breastfeeding: Constructing a Framework of Analysis and Action via the Lens of Black Feminist Anthropology

What is Black feminist anthropology and its relation to Black breastfeeding, and what does an analysis of breastfeeding and action via critical Black feminist anthropology look like? Black feminist anthropology encompasses a body of knowledge that is based upon a multi-faceted set of converging characteristics that construct is framework, and among other characteristics, what is most salient are two primary attributes; being a black feminist an an anthropologist. Most often imposed within this framework are ways to work at instituting forms of thought and unequal treatment across various geographic locations and throughout time. In their distinct locations, both Black feminist and anthropology have too often omitted conversations on breastfeeding. More specifically, when looking at how a society functions, highlighting ways to center racism, Black women’s social position, and also creating an avenue towards challenging the inequity that underscores this legacy, it seems that human lactation never makes a space at the forefront.

How can Black feminist anthropology highlight the greater complexities surrounding the legacy of injustice in Black breastfeeding in the U.S.? Since breastfeeding is a biological function informed by cultural practices, which are influenced by social circumstances, via this rare and crucial vantage point, I will highlight how Black feminist anthropology accesses complexities surrounding breastfeeding injustice, and other less visible blind spots, while underscoring ideas that all operate on an avenue towards strategic and necessary change.

I really liked that I got to attend this year. I haven’t been since the first one, but it was nice being there seeing folks I hadn’t seen in a while, meeting folks I had never met before and hearing some of the presentations. Also, I may join NAPPLSC, which stands for National Association of Professional and Peer Lactation Supporters of Color — and it’s a new organization started by ROSE and is geared toward offering support to those in the profession. Now, we all know about my politics and how I feel about the increase in professional breastfeeding services, right?! In case you need a reminder or you have a question mark lingering over your head in order to understand why I’m even mentioning this it’s because I do not believe breastfeeding professionalism it is a form of justice, or that it is working to end breastfeeding inequity. If anything, I believe it is dong the exact opposite and reiterating various formations of injustice as well as establishing new and additional layers of it — including a hierarchy and oligarchy since it places the knowledge of a tradition that has sustained the human race into the hands of a select few who have access to formal education, funding and status — that’s just one reason — I gots plenty. And I stand on my views without apologizing for them. But if professionals of color feel they need to converge to offer a greater level of support to each other in order to offer a greater level of care for their clients, then that’s worth supporting these efforts with a 35 dollar membership fee. I think the founder of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington convinced me of that.

Acquanda talks Black Breastfeeding on the Reverend Rufus Williams Radio Show Greenville, MS!

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My attempt to take a selfie at the studio window sign thingy.

My attempt to take a selfie at the studio window sign thingy.

I just left the 91.9 WDSV (Delta Sounds and Voices) radio station here in Greenville, Mississippi, and was on the Reverend Rufus Williams Show. And I had no idea this was going to happen.

[in studio image coming soon]

The other day I interviewed two participants — a mother and a daughter, who I met while at McDonalds. The mother ended up inviting me to a women’s church service called Women Accepting Responsibility (WAR) that just started today. After the service, I was invited over their place to eat a Sunday meal, and while we were having lunch they mentioned that in about 20 minutes this radio show was going down and she meant to tell me about it yesterday, but forgot and that I can go to the station to talk about Black breastfeeding. I was a bit nerve-wracked at first since I really had no notice but I didn’t want to pass up the chance to talk about this, especially since I’m right here in my research site, and since I’m leaving Greenville soon to go on to the next segment of this trip, Natchez and then Jackson.

Acquanda and Rev Rufus Williams @ WDSV 91.9 studio.

Acquanda and Rev Rufus Williams @ WDSV 91.9 studio.

Being able to do this segment sort of lifted me out of a funk I’ve been in since I’ve been here — from talking to as well as hearing about so many who have really no exposure to breastfeeding or who don’t really understand its importance AT ALL, having no transportation (there is no public transportation or cabs here and the requirements for renting a car seem as if they’re in place to allow only certain people to do so — I’m in the process of uploading a video about my thoughts on all of this). I also, like I mentioned in this segment, with the exception of today, have eaten fast food every single day since I’ve been here because grocery stores are scarce — there’s not really one within walking distance from where I’m staying — plus a few other reasons — some about researching and safety and such which anthropologists never really talk about, so having a conversation about something so important that anyone in the city or on the web who tunes in would hear pepped me up. 

I’ve noticed that since the conversation of breastfeeding is an elusive one I can’t really get too radical up in here, or really discuss my radical politics about it — its history and the other connections that I see and so I had to make sure I kept this in mind while on the air, not to mention Greenville is a very conservative place. Also, WDSV is a gospel radio station and so it was interesting hearing how the Rev discussed purpose of breasts in the context of religious perspectives, which I agree with but I never really go to church and so I never really think of it in this particular framework. Anyway, there’s more to this conversation, and the link to listen to the episode is below. It’s 30 minutes.

In what capacity EXACTLY do Black breastfeeding advocates support Black breastfeeding?: Ruminations during #BBW15

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Image taken in Greenville, MS in 1937.

Image of Black woman breastfeeding taken in Greenville, MS in 1937.

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Selfie of Black feminist anthropologist researching Black breastfeeding rates taken in Greenville, MS in August 2015.

The other day I received a direct message from a follower on Twitter. This person mentioned to me that they had an incident with a breastfeeding promotion group who they were attempting to get some info or help from, and in this message, this follower was very frustrated and said that sometimes ‘they be on some bullshit’ because ‘they support the poster child but not the human being’. They were referring to the fact that while in the spotlight some tend to be about ‘the cause’ but when it comes to being ‘on the ground’ things are different. When I received this message I thought it was interesting. The reason is because only a few days before this something else happened that made think about Black breastfeeding support and wonder exactly what does it mean to Black breastfeeding advocates when they say they want to see more Black breastfeeding — and support of Black women. I hadn’t mentioned this to this follower, but I thought that it was eerily consistent with something else that happened just a couple of days before receiving this message.

Here’s what it was.

As you may or may not know my research site is in the Mississippi Delta. A couple of months ago I created a gofundme page in order to help pay for lodging during my pilot research trip to the cities I’m visiting because the funding I received from my department at school only paid for the bare minimum — plane ticket, food, and getting around while in town. I’m not personally on Facebook or it may be easier, but plenty of others are and I’ve been tweeting as well as asking people to share the link. Someone did just that and shared it on a closed Facebook group page that is specific to Black women’s breastfeeding, but within minutes the administrator deleted it. When asked why this happened the admin mentioned that it was ‘advertising’ and that advertising is not allowed in that group. The follower mentioned that she didn’t really think it was advertising and questioned if it really was thought of as such since it is quite specific to the topic of the page — supporting more Black women breastfeeding. The administrator mentioned that it was and then she and the follower apparently had a few back and forth comments with each other about the validity of the post — the follower mentioning that it seems hypocritical to delete something that is extremely congruent with the page and the importance of Black breastfeeding, then mentioning to her that she noticed that when she shares the link on Black pages these are the ones who never mention anything about it — they ignore it, don’t share it and finally in there it was deleted. I don’t know what else happened exactly between the two (I don’t really remember) but what I do know is that the administrator deleted this person from the page entirely! Yes, stemming from sharing a link about understanding more about Black breastfeeding. I was dumbfounded — and to be honest I almost didn’t believe it. But the reality is that it reflects what I’ve even seen about this important project. What I’ve noticed, to my incredible surprise, is that most of the people who have supported this endeavor have been NON-Black. In fact, the bulk of what I can say about Black breastfeeding advocates is that while I have felt some support, I’ve felt more pushback than anything else.

These instances make me questions in what capacity EXACTLY do Black breastfeeding advocates support Black breastfeeding? I’m nervous that the narratives above are what Black breastfeeding promotion is about or what it is becoming. I’m not saying ‘things’ are all about the person on Twitter or the woman who was deleted from Facebook, but I have a strange hunch that these aren’t the only stories like this.

I’m disappointed about both of these circumstances, but at the same time I think it provides the perfect opportunity to address it. I think real support for those of us interested means we cater to each other, learning how we can encourage each other and then going out of our way to do it! For all of us who celebrate, with this year’s Black Breastfeeding Week theme I hope that we start working to #lifteachother just as much as we say we work to #lifteverybaby. And that we try to save ourselves as much as we’re trying to save the lives of our future generations, making sure we don’t leave them a legacy of our b.s.

Southern Bound: ROSE Summit, Reminiscing, & Understanding Black Breastfeeding in the most Racist State in America (Video)

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There are only a few more days left before I head to the South. In case you haven’t heard I’m conducting pilot research — otherwise known as ‘poking an prying with a purpose’ — in this case it’s before the extensive ethnographic research I’ll be doing in about 1.5 years — for about 2 years.

My first stop is Atlanta. I’m excited that I’m attending the ROSE Black Breastfeeding Summit! I’m also presenting a poster there. Right after that I’m heading to the Mississippi Delta: Greenville, Natchez, Jackson! I have the craziest range of emotions about this endeavor and I’ve found myself doing everything from stressing out to crying to reminiscing to… just wondering.

The last time I was in Mississippi was in 2000. It was on the cusp of my 24th birthday and my newly-married self and my then other half, who reenlisted in the ARMY and was stationed on the East Coast, decided he and I couldn’t live without each other for the few months he’d be there. With minimal planning, I drove coast to coast from Southern California to Southern Virginia and ‘dropped down’ into Mississippi on my way. My mom, grandma and entire family rooted me on as they tracked me on the map after I called them at each stop so I could check in and let them know how I was. I met, for the first time in over 21 years, my biological father and some other family members as well as folks who were old neighbors — my family moved west when I was about 3. It was such an intense reunion with all of these people — none I even remembered, who all treated me like we’d been close all that time and like I never went anywhere. My family on the West Coast was so excited and filled with joy about seeing the zillion and one pictures I took of everyone, hearing about how they were coming along. I got to understand what ‘southern hospitality’ really meant — I felt it.

My mom was alive back then, and so were both of her parents and the world felt so much safer. All three of them are gone now. And as the tears are flowing down my face as I sit here and type and think about them, both because I miss them and because they are no longer here and won’t’ see what I’m doing I wonder what they would think of me going there this time and about this critical work that is happening. What would they say?

I am kind of tripped out that I am doing this work. I still have never found another Black anthropologist who concentrates on Black breastfeeding and I think it is strange that I was called to do this — especially since not all that long before I was on the cusp of quitting this field of social science because of its imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. But something kept me here and now I’m using it to explore Black breastfeeding — something that hasn’t been done before in this capacity. I’ve also never breastfed and even though my strong emphasis has always been on decentering the mother-infant dyad in order to get more people involved I am feeling a bit insecure about my place in it right now because of my lack of breastfeeding status.

Mississippi has a sordid history. Time and time again it is referred to as the most racist state in the country. The other day a friend said it was the ‘hearth of slavery,’ and I’ve had a few Black women tell me they’re concerned about me going there alone and I can’t say that I blame them. I know it’s dangerous — mores than the first time I went on that excursion by myself since I’m chartering new territory — my family members won’t be in all the places I go. And I have to admit that if I knew a Black woman traveling to this state by herself I would be concerned, too. There are increased racial tensions happening around the country with the confederate flag, which Mississippi still has as theirs, btw — and with the BlackLivesMatter movement. I noticed that when I was writing in my journal about this endeavor the other day in my attempt to use strategy, I was contemplating renting a car and being by myself and what that image would look like if I got lost in an extremely racist part of town — or taking the greyhound and being around other people and which one would allow me to face racism in the least ostensibly destructive way — if that makes any sense. In my opinion, Mississippi harbors the richest history for Black people — of oppression and resistance, and this just isn’t with breastfeeding. There’s something to be said when artists have composed music and have written songs about its anti-Black racial violence.

Video: Nina Simone ‘Mississippi Goddam’

I see the oppression Black women faced by forced wet nursing and the continued legacy that keeps our babies from our breasts as part of that. There’s a reason for the regional lowest initiation and duration rates. But I expand this conversation to include the entire history — inclusive of all Black people. I believe that the overall climate from Mississippi’s history has answers — and equally as important — via anthropology it will ask an entirely new set of questions. I will be gone for a total of about six weeks, and below is my itinerary:

Atlanta, GA: ROSE Black Breastfeeding Summit: Building Bridges Across the Chasm of Breastfeeding Inequity

Greenville, MS: Returning to my Roots and Random Selection Techniques

Natchez, MS: Mapping Oppression and Resistance

Jackson, MS: Mississippi Department of Archives and History

I still have not collected enough money to help cover the various expenses for this part of my research. My department awarded me with a small amount of funding for travel to, from and within Mississippi and for food but that’s it — it doesn’t cover lodging. I launched a crowd funding campaign about two months ago, and although I have had some awesome folks donate towards this — which I appreciate — it still isn’t enough and I’ve only raised about half of what I need. At this point I need to help offset my cost of lodging. I would be very appreciative if you would click the gofundme icon below and donate whatever you can towards this extremely important work and also share it on Facebook and on your other networks. Black breastfeeding matters! And this work specifically is important no only because it’s about breastfeeding, but it is groundbreaking. Not only is it going to start to change the conversation among those who actually are the ones providing milk to infants, it’s going to start to change how we view it in terms of race, geography, gender and in many other ways and how each of us participates. I totally believe it.

 

Black Men DO Breastfeed!: Why Black Transgendered Breastfeeding Narratives Matter #BlkBfing

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Bear and his 15-month-old daughter. Image taken and posted with permission.

I found out about Bear when I facilitated a workshop on challenging racism in birth and breastfeeding for a non-profit anti racism organization I volunteer for just over a week ago. The connection came from a white trans* man who was in the audience, and as soon as I mentioned somewhere in my facilitation that for a while I had been interested in hearing the stories of Black LGBTQ breastfeeders, in order to understand breastfeeding through this particular lens but had come up completely empty-handed, he chimed in — and told me about Bear, who he mentioned was biologically female, but is a transgendered male, even binding his breasts at times and breastfeeds his daughter.

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Image taken and posted with permission.

I have to be honest that I was just as excited as I was curious about meeting Bear and his 15-month-old daughter who he calls his ‘Mini Me’. Without objectifying or placing either one of them under an ‘objective’ microscope, I had questions. There were things I wanted to know and my inconceivable excitement came from the fact that I had been looking forward to a moment like this for at least a year and a half, searching high and low for Black breastfeeders anywhere along the LGBTQ spectrum (aside from the few Black lesbian mothers in my own social circle I know). When my initial attempts didn’t produce any fruit, I searched some more and when I came up empty- handed there I searched again — more formally but without avail. There was even no breastfeeding in published scholarship about Black lesbian motherhood (Bear himself mentioned he didn’t even know of any other trans* breastfeeders aside from the ones from a group on facebook). I wanted to see how Black breastfeeding is experienced among those considered ‘non-gender conforming,’ those involved in same-sex and same gender loving relationships: the activist in me wants to see more practical breastfeeding among — all Black people. The social scientist and anthropologist in me wants to understand the form and function in Black breastfeeding — nuances. As I’ve mentioned before around here I don’t mean to imply that ‘you’re nobody unless somebody studies you’ — far from it. But I do believe that to be most effective in reaching a goal that combats the inequity among Black breastfeeding and gaining a better understanding of others’ outlook, it requires being multifaceted and holistic — covering all aspects and viewing this tradition through as many lenses as possible in order to acknowledge, as best as we can, how each is experienced, to most effectively work on supporting these different angels. In addition to challenging systematic oppression — racism, class elitism, white supremacy, and seeing how other areas such as mental illness may have an effect, understanding different angels helps us confront our own biases and the significant role they play in inequity. What part do Black breastfeeding advocates play in hindering Black breastfeeding?

When he and I met at Starbucks and decided to walk around downtown for a few minutes while we tried to determine where to go sit down and chit chat, my first inclination was not necessarily to conduct an interview. Of course there were things I wanted to know — there was a lot I wanted to know — but it wan’t actually until all three of us were seated is when I asked if I could ask some specific questions, record the responses and post them on this blog.

The first thing I asked if it weirded him out when he found out I wanted to meet him so badly — a Black breastfeeding trans* man that he had heard about through his friend that belongs to a weekly transgendered meetup group he started. He responded that he wasn’t weirded out. That he was actually excited about it and thought it was ‘cool’ because of educational purposes — he said because it provided the opportunity to educate people. People don’t understand him, he said, and people are scared to ask questions. On that note I asked Bear (whose name comes from his friends) that myself, as a staunch breastfeeding activist and someone whose work inside and outside of my graduate program concentrates on Black breastfeeding, that although I have searched extensively I had yet to come across one single instance highlighting a Black trans* breastfeeding narrative, and that quite possibly upon publishing this post it may be the internet’s inaugural such write-up, what he would like anyone who came across it to know? His first response was to ‘not let anyone fuck with you!’

I believe that was a discussion on other trans* people. This, we know, comes from sentiments that surround transgendered people these days with outright prejudices that come from not conforming to what we may have been ascribed by society. Anthropologists will tell you that even though there seems to be a ‘quest’ these days to transform gender — some attempting to eradicate it altogether, that gender has always been around. And that even though there is a large critique of the binary, categorizing people as simply male or female, it has always existed. This is perhaps a response to colonial impact which castigated anything outside of the binary and the so-called normative model. But this isn’t to say that there weren’t additional genders in precolonial times because there was. But changing one’s causes contention. And it adds to the layers that Black people already contend with — so this is the case for someone who was born and is still biologically female, who lives as a male.

Bear said that he’s a ‘free spirit’ and a ‘gender bender’ which he says means he makes his own pronouns, but mostly identifies as him or they.

So, this was exciting. Even though he openly breastfed ‘Mini Me’ in public, at times having his breasts fully exposed in the food court, he said that he usually covers, but that he forgot it that day but doesn’t pay anybody any attention — meaning he doesn’t care about the opinions of others when it comes to public nursing. He said he really didn’t care what people thought. Bear didn’t seem comfortable talking about his past at all — his childhood, which I was inclined to ask about as far as how he viewed himself, what life was like as a child — on when he came to understand his gender, and also where his breastfeeding influences came from but it was clear that that was not the most comfortable topic so I didn’t. When I asked him where he got his inspiration to breastfeed, he did mention that he didn’t receive any ‘inspiration’ or ‘encouragement’ from outside sources, but it was just something he knew he wanted to do. He did have a doula at his birth and also took breastfeeding classes. When I asked more about his breastfeeding experience he said that they had some issues in the beginning — sore nipple made breastfeeding hurt at first and then ‘Mini Me’ had trouble latching on but they got through it.

Bear and I didn’t have the chance (I really wanted) to discuss what additional layers are superimposed on his identity — what makes Black trans* breastfeeding Black trans* breastfeeding and the complexities of challenging racism in addition to all other facets — there was a little one who thought it would be better to play and romp around rather than have us talk identity. But we’ll get to that conversation soon enough, I know it.

Bear did said that he is slowly transitioning from female to male, intending to fully transition but said he wants to take his time and that maybe one day he will have another child. He said that he’s on a small amount of ‘T’ (testosterone), and that  ‘T’ is safe to take in low doses while breastfeeding since it doesn’t interfere with milk production. For now I asked him if he had any advice for other Black trans* breastfeeders. His was to ‘don’t let them get to you. It’s natural. Tell them to leave you the fuck alone.’ I think that says a lot.

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P.S. at the end of next month I am going to Mississippi, USA to research Black breastfeeding and to connect it to a larger picture on the history of Black people as a whole, in order to find answers and to continue working on eradicating inequity and disparities. I received a small amount of funding from my department for this pilot research but it does not cover all aspects. I created a gofundme account to help with costs not covered by my department. Please consider visiting the link below and helping to support this important work by pitching in what you can.