A few years ago I wrote an article on here asking the question about the impact of slavery on the current breastfeeding rates for Black women. There were very different responses to it from each end of the spectrum. My thoughts stemmed from another article I read back then wondering the same thing and, at that time, I was on my quest to find the answer to this question. It all seemed that given the history of Black women in this country along with our current breastfeeding rates it is merit– and even likely — that forced wet nursing (which is one of the biggest stories surrounding why Black women aren’t always breastfeeding) was such a degrading experience that it landed at the top of the list of its negative impact on us.
On that original post one person said that the idea of slavery being responsible for the overall lack of Black breastfeeding in today’s culture was the ‘dumbest thing they’d read all week.’ Another mentioned the fact that there was a generation of Black women who breastfed after the Civil War which served as another signal that it didn’t have the sort impact many believe that would keep the baby and the breast from connecting right now. Yet there are others who say that from their vantage point being enslaved and also forced wet nursing absolutely caused ramifications and when Black women view breastfeeding with disdain today it can be traced to that legacy.
I am still on my quest to find more insight on this aspect, and have been thinking a lot about this lately. Even though I haven’t found anything definitive — and that likely that won’t happen anytime soon, I have found information on certain aspects. For example: I know that Black women were allowed to nurse their children in some instances if for no other reason than the fact that a slaver wanted to protect his ‘investment.’ In order to secure and increase his profits meant that his ‘property’ must have a certain level of health — so to speak. I also know that after the importation of African people was outlawed, for slavery to thrive meant that Black women were at the center of ‘reproducing’ the institution, and according to author Marie Jenkins Schwartz in Birthing A Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, meant their biology in terms of birthing a child was even further scrutinized and controlled.
When I attended a symposium in Jackson, Mississippi a couple of weeks ago on the history of African American Midwives, the panel were talking about the importance of these women throughout history. At the end of it I asked the question about what exactly was happening with breastfeeding during slavery, and received an answer that set me on an even further quest to know more.
Today my focus is different. I absolutely believe there are consequences of slavery’s legacy. But now, instead of asking if it is responsible for causing Black women to lose either breastfeeding knowledge or desire, I am wanting to know just how it impacted us. The difference is that I am not looking for conclusive answers at this point, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I know it happened — wet nursing, degradation, separation and more. I am looking for the ways it transformed or transitioned the ways we think about breastfeeding. Did we love it before but hate it afterward and still did it after the Civil War only begrudgingly? Or, is the opposite true? Was it something else? I hope this all makes sense. I don’t think the answer is black and white, but that there are various shades of grey that’ll probably keep me busy for a while, unless someone out there can weigh in. If you know something I don’t, leave a comment. And tell me what you know.
P.S. I am hosting a webinar in October on Decolonizing Breastfeeding in Communities of Color. It will be dynamic and powerful and I’ll add my contribution on ways we work to transform this important tradition and return power to the people. There’s still space available, and I’d like to get it filled, so if you haven’t done so already, sign up, and also help me spread the word. Click on the image to be taken to the registration page.