Sometimes I wonder if I’m just ‘too Black’ to promote Black breastfeeding

This is what an Unapologetic Radical Black Feminist Anthropologist Black Breastfeeding Activist Who Won’t Stop Talking looks like

Want to hear something funny? Growing up, I felt so much heat from a number of people because I was never ‘black enough’. Most of the Black girls and Black people at school (as well as some other folks) gave me crazy flack because I was too ‘white’ — with, according to them, the way I talked, acted, and the music I listened to. I grew up in Orange County, CA, as opposed to Los Angeles, or another place where I could have ‘honed’ my Black persona, I guess. Another example is that since I also was raised in a very strict religious household, dancing was expressly prohibited (unless it was a holy dance at church or during prayer, of course), and so I never learned and that made me quite less Black than I should have been, too, maybe. Trust me I could go on with examples from then. It’s kind of funny how things have changed. Now, it seems that I’m just a bit ‘too’ Black and so now I’m dealing with the other end of the spectrum.

I think I have been accused of being ‘too radical’ or ‘too political’ on so many occasions I lost count. But to be honest with you I never really thought of myself as a radical until more recently — or, I never wanted to truly admit that I was one. In fact, it wasn’t until the last person I was seeing is the one who really encouraged me to ‘accept the radical’ — of course that was coming from someone who was also a radical Black feminist. I’ve also had to defend myself for ‘always talking about Black people’. But when that happens I generally tend to think there’s just an underlying message of racism, internalized racism, or how my friend says ‘colonization is powerful’ — especially after BLACK people have argued with me about my attention to Black people. But when I fuse my radical Black feminist thoughts and ideas with my work in anthropology I can clearly see how it all makes sense but others seem to not think so,  I guess. Even my oldest nephew, when he knows that I’m going to give talks, always tells me (as a joke, but I know there is a level of seriousness in there) to ‘don’t get too radical on those people’ implying that I’ll scare them off. Folks just don’t want to hear it. Folks want ‘feel good’ and ‘fluff’.

But I guess that’s a problem for me — because I’m just not a ‘feel good’ and ‘fluffy’ type of person. I’m not about glossing over things. I want to get to the bottom of them. 

I’m been sitting here disappointed over the past day because I recently got invited to participate in thee most incredible speaking engagement (an engagement that, in this venue, has often taken people years to get to). These folks who wanted me to present information at a conference that was right up my alley. In what I believed was the ‘preliminary’ selection — when I told them I was interested. I told them that I would be discussing Black and African American women’s breastfeeding tradition and that since Black women statistically have the lowest rates of any group in the country and that to my knowledge a Black anthropologist focusing on Black breastfeeding has never happened. And I thought this was an incredible opportunity to start a new conversation and even hopefully inspire others to jump on board.

The folks knew that I am a first-year PhD student, and they acknowledged that they understood I was early in my ‘formal’ research and even offered to help me construct my abstract and support me in any way they could. And my experience as an anthropologist and how I can help move the conversation in breastfeeding forward, I told them, stemmed first and foremost from the fact that I have lived as a Black woman inside of my black body in America for nearly 38 years. I also explained that my ideas about  breastfeeding have been shaped by Black feminist theory (I’ve told you all before that I can’t even understand some things without looking through this framework), anthropological theory (which is what I have concentrated on throughout my entire education), and African American history. And with the practical work I have been doing for the past years — fusing all of these in the way I promote Black breastfeeding I thought I had a pretty decent record down. There was a back and forth conversation between us and they really wanted to hear more and told me how they thought that concentrating on breastfeeding among Black women was super important and then invited me to participate — until I told them exactly how I would be speaking about it all.

I sent in my information and the abstract talking about Black history and how Black people have lived and died and resisted in American society, and that the breastfeeding rates are just a product of a highly racist and politicized past. I also discussed how I would talk about the climate of resistance and how throughout this history Black people have voluntarily and involuntarily given their lives in the ‘struggle for freedom’, and that there have been various ways — tacit and explicit, of course, on how this struggle has been waged — think Nat Turner, think Harriet Tubman, think Malcolm X, think Civil Rights, think feigned illness, think public marches, think sit-ins, think Angela Davis  and imagine all of the other people and names who are just too numerous who have lived and died and who have participated in radical resistance and that breastfeeding, through my lens as a radical Black feminist anthropologist needs to be a part of this conversation to save our lives. I told them that I would discuss how anthropologists — who have concentrated on race relations and exploring the history of people that have been racialized and how Black people, who, as anthropologist Faye Harrison says, ‘has been depicted as the most radical form of racial otherness’ have looked past this biological site, in order to see a larger picture on how the critical tools (especially Black) anthropologists possess can offer new insight on how to increase their knowledge in order to work towards more collective and transgenerational justice.

And then they told me that I was ‘not selected’ — because they received an overwhelming response from their call for proposals, and wanted someone who was ‘further along in their research’. Interesting.

I was already in ‘disappointed’ mode because just one day prior to them telling me this I found out that I didn’t get a funding opportunity for school that I really wanted (it totally happens, I know, but for the past months it was just a beautiful daydream about me not having to worry about how I’m going to pay for school for the next three years + receive a hefty stipend to live off of for just as long). And then yesterday I opened my email and saw theirs telling me that I was a goner.

I know I have heard of folks talk about how people have ‘uninvited’ them or didn’t want them to speak, after all, because they would be speaking about racism and about other political issues and not just some warm and fuzzy ideas that make folk smile. But I want to know what you think. Do you think that my radical views is what subsequently determined this outcome? Or, do you think I am being overly sensitive? Now, to be fair I wasn’t there and so I do not know what the conversation was exactly between these two people who were selecting and why they subsequently decided to not choose me to speak — or, to ‘revoke’ their offer. But I’m quite in tune with my intuition, probably more discerning than I really give myself credit for, and just going off of what I  have seen and heard of before like I said knowing of others who are ‘silenced’ — and the tone of the email, I thought, said a lot. Also, I’m not going to make any assumptions but I can only imagine how many other anthropologists who concentrate on breastfeeding submitted  to their request… I have to tell you that I am not serious when I say this.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes I wonder if I’m just ‘too Black’ to promote Black breastfeeding

  1. Acquanda,

    I love your honest dialogue about your process and passions. I almost laughed out loud when I realized that I, as a White female, also talk about Black people all of the time! I know it is because the longest place I lived as child/teen was in an all Black neighborhood and my only U.S. History growing up was 3 years of Black History (early 70’s), but recently it seems this practice is more pronounced. Those experiences formed who I am today, but looking at me does not reflect this. Fast forward 45 years where today I am seeing health disparities from a public health lens, where anthropology also plays a fundamental role. My research on breastfeeding disparities revealed historically racist policies continually linking infant feeding practices to status in the Black community. These are facts that cannot be ignored and facts that the Black community can use to reclaim their rights to parent with methods that do not reflect the harshness of slave owners and/or racist policymakers. Putting these pieces together was like permission to revisit the social justice issues from my childhood with this upstream approach to improving breastfeeding outcomes.

    Yet for me, I have pushback from people because I am not Black, which somehow makes me less qualified to speak to the issue. Although part of this argument is valid and cultural humility is a continual process for me, isn’t it about revealing where policies are failing to improve health outcomes; regardless of what ethnic background any of us are?

    On the other hand, my passionate nature has cut out many an opportunity (and perhaps some scholarship money too) and because I aspire to have the articulate abilities of Cornel West and the deep insight and courage of Angela Davis, I am working hard on this balancing act of remaining true to the core beliefs that drive me with a delivery that makes me accessible without being off putting. It is difficult. Policies connected to health disparities are the result of the dominant culture yet they continue to drive the beliefs at all levels of American culture. They need exposing or health outcomes will not improve. Please do not be silent Acquanda! Though nuance does help, silence never leads to change! (Maybe we should team up for a speaking engagement. That would be interesting!)

    Thank you once again! I always enjoy your blogposts.

    1. Hi Christina,

      When I was an undergrad, one of my most favorite and inspiring professors — an Asian American woman told me straight out (after I complained to her and then asked her about the undesirable grade she gave me on a paper I had written about the ‘new racism’ that Patricia Hill Collins tells us about in ‘Black Sexual Politics,’ when I so passionately described how I viewed what Hill Collins was saying), is that being a Woman of Color, passion will not get me anywhere. I have to ‘bring it’. I assume that often times radical and passion get mixed up — or maybe not. What really bothers me is that yes, I do admit that I am passionate about things, but this does not mean that there is not a critical conversation to be had or that one does not exist within it. In this case, the fact that a concentration on Black and African American breastfeeding from a Black feminist anthropological perspective as I said in this post and many other times, just does not exist that I have ever seen outside my own work IS ITSELF a critical perspective. And it one that can function as a new avenue that can get us talking from this important angle, with the hopes of using this biological site to explore the countless areas that are connected to it, and talk about how breastfeeding can save our lives and give us a better quality of life as we continue to challenge inequality on the various fronts that we have been already.

      I do not know of any anthropologist who has focused on race relations dealing with people of the African diaspora (which many of us have), who have not discussed the past and how they merge this ‘radical’ history with their current work in order to do what they do — debunking contemporary racist ideologies that stem from this. I’m super sighing over here.

      I know there is a definite reality that Black folk experience when it comes to relating to someone with similar phenotypic characteristics and those who have been immersed in Black culture. I am definitely interested in knowing if your pushback is from community members or the law/policy makers that you work with as a public health official. Or both? And learn more about how each side receives/does not receive what you have to say.

      My focus on the Black breastfeeding experience has meant that I place my attention on ways to encourage community organization and activism at a grassroots level, and don’t really involve myself with policy. I’m sure there are probably many who would say that I’m going about it the wrong way, but for me Black breastfeeding is a critical tool used to challenge a historical legacy of injustice — this same legacy that has shown us over and over that even when ‘policies’ have been implemented, it still is constructed with the idea of the dominant culture (as you have said). AND there have been many of these policies, laws and others that have proven that they do nothing except allow practices that have a backdrop of racism and sexism to simply mutate and take new form while they appear to be ‘progressive’ and ‘transformative’.

      Yes, you are right!! It s all of our jobs to work towards change wherever necessary! And I would be so interested in hearing more about your work and what you do. If we did a speaking engagement together, could you imagine that? Wow!

  2. I want to thank you for your honesty and always keeping it real! Never stop sharing your perspective. Continue to challenge our way of thinking and how we see things.

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