At risk. Unfit. Angry. These are words mainstream media often associate with Black mothers. Chocolate Milk: The Documentary counters this habitually negative narrative as award-winning director and producer Elizabeth Bayne, MPH, MFA explores the racial inequities of breastfeeding in her first feature-length film.
NAPPLSC President Felisha Floyd, BS, CLC, IBCLC, RLC screened a 30 minute clip of Chocolate Milk at Healthy Children Project’s latest International Breastfeeding and MAINN Conference followed by an eye-opening, interactive discussion.
Bayne says she has the ambitious goal to host 200 community screenings of Chocolate Milk in celebration of National Breastfeeding Month this year. She hopes to examine racial disparities in breastfeeding by humanizing the experience of Black mothers.
“When the narrative about the Black community is that they’re under threat, at risk, there’s so much violence and dysfunction, and then you come to someone’s home and you meet this mom getting [her kids] dressed, feeding them, interacting with her husband…” Bayne begins. “You see this side of Black America that you don’t get a glimpse of in the media.”
Documenting a movement
Chocolate Milk: The Documentary started as a web series featuring interviews with mothers and health care providers.
One day Bayne, also a public health professional, skimmed The Nation’s Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association (APHA), and came across an article about racial disparities in breastfeeding. A few years into her career, this was the first time she had encountered the idea that women struggle to breastfeed in the United States, and that women of color suffer from especially low breastfeeding rates.
“That really resonated with me,” she says.
Bayne started talking to people about breastfeeding, eventually convening a focus group of about ten health care professionals and Black mothers. It was during these conversations that the academic papers Bayne had been consulting came to life.
“I wish I had a camera. Why am I not recording this?” Bayne remembers thinking as she digested the women’s stories.
Ultimately, Bayne did begin recording, editing scores of roughly one hour interviews into two to three minute episodes and posting them online. The response was positive and soon women were contacting Bayne directly to share their stories on camera.
Bayne developed the web series as a way to contribute to the conversation about breastfeeding happening on social media and to gain trust within the community.
Quickly realizing the depth of the challenges mothers face, Bayne committed to a feature length documentary in order to document the Black breastfeeding movement.
Bayne says she intends to dismantle stereotypes about Black mothers by presenting a different view of the community. Chocolate Milk is intended not just for women, but for the people whom they rely on for support, including their families, healthcare providers, communities and even mainstream America.
The selection screened at the International Breastfeeding and MAINN Conference features Tami, a mother who intended to breastfeed but ultimately ends up supplementing with formula.
Floyd facilitated a discussion centered around two questions: Was Tami successful in her breastfeeding experience? and Did race play a role in Tami’s breastfeeding experience? Stand on this side of the room if you strongly agree, stand on the other side of the room if you strongly disagree and stand in the middle of the room if you are unsure or undecided, Floyd instructed us.
To the far left (or right) of the room, I was struck by one participant’s comment that perhaps Tami’s experience was not influenced by race, but by her socioeconomic status, and that perhaps Tami simply needed to do more research.
At one point, I wondered if we viewed the same clip; in it we learn that Tami is college educated, and we watch her extensively Google information about breastfeeding.
A few Black women on the other side of the room spoke up: “Race is always a factor in the lived experiences of Black women.”
Confused by the participant’s presumed unwillingness to acknowledge racism, I wondered about Bayne’s interpretation. She says that racism today is not always as overt as in the Jim Crow South, and she hopes to “tap into that.”
To illustrate, Bayne tells the story of a Black woman who had just given birth and wanted to breastfeed, but the hospital nurse told her, “No, no, Black women don’t breastfeed.”
“[The nurse] had this perception [of Black mothers]. She couldn’t hear this woman telling her she wanted to breastfeed,” Bayne explains.
By presenting a breadth of Black experiences, Bayne hopes Chocolate Milk will remind viewers that “people are people”.
People of Color experience “fatigue in terms of trying to defend and educate” those who are not ready to understand.
“I don’t know if it’s a community’s responsibility, but as a communicator it’s my responsibility to try,” she says.
The women helping women
Chocolate Milk delves into the work of Black maternal child health professionals too.
“We can’t talk about breastfeeding without talking about including more Black health professionals and valuing Black health professionals as much as we value those who are White,” Bayne says.
She goes on to say that overall, lactation professionals’ work is undervalued because it is not always funded by health plans. As a result, Bayne has found that lactation specialists often provide guidance for free.
“Women go to the home even if they’re not paid; they can’t stand the thought of [a] woman going without assistance,” she says.
It’s a scenario that can contribute to a lot of burn out.
Bayne includes a midwife– the first Black midwife in her area in fact– in Chocolate Milk, to help depict the intricacies of helping others, self-care, and “just juggling so much.”
Representing a community
Bayne continues to share Chocolate Milk at conferences, and says she’s received valuable feedback.
Not a mother herself, Bayne was “nervous” about how well she was representing mothers’ challenges and if she was capturing their voices accurately.
“Getting their story right,” Bayne reports. “That’s been the most reassuring and rewarding part.”
She laughs remembering filming one mother-child couplet as the little boy continually reached into his mother’s blouse. During filming, Bayne was unsure what to think of the interaction. When she screened this scene at a conference, the women laughed because they knew exactly what that meant. Chocolate Milk offers a comforting relatability.
Bayne has connected with many experts for the documentary including Kimberly Seals Allers, Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Jacqueline H. Wolf, Kimarie Bugg, Kiddada Green, Elizabeth Woods, Arissa Palmer, and Brandi Gates. She’s also hoping to feature Dr. Regina Benjamin, Regina King, Erykah Badu, and Kerry Washington.
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