Mississippi: Why breastfeeding? Why Me?

This image was taken at the More Sharing African American Midwife Stories at the Smith-Robertson Museum in Jackson, MS on Saturday, December 17. The group of people in this picture formed after the question from the audience ‘How many of us in here were caught by a midwife?’ I can’t think of another location where this many people in the same room would respond to such a question. This picture is on a public webpage, so I did not feel I needed each individual’s permission to post. Source: https://www.facebook.com/SmithRobertsonMuseum/photos/a.1537857356511696.1073741830.1537542159876549/1660300970934000/?type=3&theater

I published this original post just the other day. Since then I’ve had quite a few more thoughts to add, which is why I just decided to update with a brand new (re)post.

I have various things to consider when I share information on this blog. I have to consider what I share and when, some of it starts with my own history and of the people in the state. If I talk about something on a public platform regardless of what it is how will I make the people look? I also have got take into consideration the legacy of anthropology that exploited people by going to places to gather information, only use residents and participants as ‘material’ to gather data and afterward publishing the work while completely destroying communities in the process. At the same time I have to be explicit about what I’m doing, for some of the same reasons — to highlight these legacies and to end them. And even beyond this it’s just as important to me to share challenges I face as much as it is to share things that are hopeful. One of these is that more and more I have found myself wondering why I’m researching breastfeeding and doing so in Mississippi.

Just the same as I didn’t ‘pick’ Black breastfeeding as a site of inquiry, I didn’t pick Mississippi as a research location. It never would have dawned on me that one day I’d be so outspoken about this facet of reproduction, then enrolled in graduate work researching in these areas of study. The lactation call happened one day while I was alone at a friend’s house. After this I began thinking about breastfeeding day and night over a period of time, wondering why it was always on my mind. At that time I had no idea about the complicated history when it came to Black women and the subject. Mississippi came to me a few years ago after I started graduate school and was steeped deep in work and finding information when I was completing a proposal while applying for funding, is when this seed was planted and began to germinate. It was not anything I planned or explicitly sought out. It just so happened to jibe with my interests because it just so happened that Mississippi has the lowest breastfeeding rates of any other state. It just so happens that it has a large Black population, and that it is considered the most racist state in the union. It also just so happened that Black breastfeeding fits perfectly in the space of oppression and resistance that many who are from the state worked within. And, it just so happened that I would be working in my own community where I have a connection the the people, the land and the history which, by an exponential number of accounts, is a huge freaking deal! I was born in Mississippi. And all of my siblings, as I’ve mentioned before with the exception of my little sister who came after my family relocated to Southern California, were born in the Delta.

Despite not ever having imagined myself in this work I have grown to appreciate and really love concentrating on Black breastfeeding. I have a lengthy list of politics and things that are critically important to me and I’ve always thought that this facet of reproduction allows me to encompasses all of them — many things I care about are centered at this site. But when I was in the south just this past summer, after thinking about all of the issues that Black people face — hearing about the trauma, being concerned for my own safety at certain times while there, the state-sanctioned violence and murder of Black people in this country, health issues of many, and a long list of others that we face daily I have been wondering why exactly breastfeeding has made it to the top. I know that there is a history that is involved with breastfeeding among Black people. It’s not simply about biology or a step-by-step process of mechanics — i.e. put baby on breast, but there is over 400 years of history when it comes to Black women and Black people that must be taken into consideration. It is not possible to truly understand Black breastfeeding without understanding this history.

I’ll also admit that lately I’ve felt really insecure about the fact that I have never birthed a child or breastfed — I’ve never even been pregnant. At the start of this ‘journey’ I felt these insecurities, but they faded and I was pretty confident. Part of my mantra and even the foundation of my work is that we as advocates and activists, need to look past ‘protagonists’ and everyone needs to help out, but I’ve been feeling like maybe I needed those practical life experiences in order to understand more about the culture of breastfeeding.

When I spoke at the Mississippi Black midwives event about a week and a half ago in Jackson, I seemed to be the only one in the room who knew or who agreed that Black midwives were systematically dismantled by the state. My presentation talked about ‘The Influence of African American Midwives on Breastfeeding,’ and during it I mentioned that the midwife played a significant role in honoring and supporting all aspects of birth, including making sure a woman had provisions for herself and her baby and that her body produced proper milk. I talked about the history of Black midwives being torn apart by the state and talked about how this impeded breastfeeding for Black folks. Immediately after I left the podium, one of the facilitators reiterated something I said in my presentation but posed it in a question: ‘Dismantled?’ Essentially she was asking — can we really use the word dismantled? She also said that many women want to birth at home these days, and what I inferred from the way she said it is that she meant that that is not a good option since medical officials are vital to a healthy outcome for a mother and her baby. A couple of people from the audience spoke up — including an older certified nurse midwife — and said they did not think midwives were dismantled but that it was just a time in history for them to learn more modern and contemporary healthcare practices (if you were to read African American Midwives in the South by Gertrude Fraser, she also shares midwives’ sentiments that some of them believed it was ‘just time’ to catch up with modern medicine). During this discussion I mentioned about the rise of the current healthcare system as we know it and where Black midwives were positioned within it. I also mentioned that if we were to go to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History it will allow us to see how the state intervened and midwives were castigated — called superstitious, illiterate, a ‘necessary evil’ until more, ‘appropriate’ — aka — white male physicians can be trained. What I liked about that moment it that with all of our input it really started a conversation among all of the attendees and we all really honored Black midwives throughout history as well as got us talking about the modern healthcare system and the roots. We talked more on Black midwives and how they worked in various ways for us and about their significance in caring for all Black people. What I find a little unusual is that I’m still not sure what it means to hold the perspective that midwives were dismantled – and that it happened right beneath our feet, and seemed to be the only one in the room with this point of view. If there was anyone else in attendance who shared these same ideas they did not come forward with their thoughts.

With the recent election of Donald Trump, I find myself very concerned for the residents. I find I am often thinking about social security, healthcare, an increasing amount of violence — against women — as it always goes — that women face the brunt of it when there is trauma to the economy, especially in Mississippi because of its notable and distinct history. How will this impact efforts to transform breastfeeding narratives and reproduction overall?

Ah well. I feel like I’ve just been rambling, going in so many different directions.

In the video below, hopefully I come across more clearly. If I had to select a point I’m trying to make that I don’t state explicitly it’s that I’m looking for an answer — or — for answers — to what I’m searching for or trying to accomplish when it comes to the intersections of Blackness, womanhood, the deep south, the Spirit and many others. While I was in the Delta this past summer, I realized this work is so much deeper, spiritual, critical than I have thought. At this point, this is all I know. Many people and organizations have clearly defined goals: to change or institute a particular law or policy, to get a certain number of women to learn about breastfeeding, to organize ‘so and so’ community members who will talk to particular groups of people about the benefits of lactation, birth, or any other topic. They know more immediately what their resolutions are. I have no such structure. I do not have a map with an ‘X’ nor a key that will unlock my queries. This is part of the reason I recognized why I find myself wondering why I was drawn here.

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