By Nichelle Clark, Certified Breastfeeding Specialist
Originally published January 31, 2020 on SonShine & Rainbows Lactation
Black History Month in the breastfeeding community is normally littered with posts and articles about the dark history of African American Breastfeeding in this country. I firmly believe that in order to understand where you are going, you must first understand where you have been. However, Black Mothers in today’s society face a very different dilemma: actually being Black History.
We’ll start with the sordid history of Black breastfeeding women in America. Beaten and broken, then used as wet nurses for the children of slave owners. The children of these wet nurses were fed condensed or cows milk, that was prepared in filthy conditions. This history has cultivated a stigma and bias against what infant feeding should look like in African American families.
However, this has not deterred the rise of Millennial and Gen X parents in the Black Community. The Center for Disease Control Report Card, published in 2019, showed that only 74 percent of African American mothers had initiated any breastfeeding. By 6 months, the percentage of mothers exclusively breastfeeding drops to 27.1 percent. These numbers are up from previous years, at 69.4 and 17.2 percent respectively. According to the the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding protects against type 1 and 2 diabetes, as well as the likelihood of childhood obesity. The CDC lists diabetes as the number 6 killer of Black Men and the number 4 of Black Women (over all ages). Of African Americans aged 20 and over, 28.4 percent of men and 17.6 percent of women have been found to be obese. In our community, breastfeeding can truly be life or death. While it doesn’t preclude African Americans from these diseases, the advantage against them is something we most desperately need.
So, how is breastfeeding an act of resistance for the Black Mother? We must first define resistance. While not the most commonly used definition, resistance, in this case, is defined as “the ability not to be affected by something, especially adversely”. And for Black Mothers in America, this is most certainly an act of resistance. Because of the traumas our ancestors faced, the majority of us simply did not grow up seeing mothers breastfeed. There weren’t many breastfeeding classes or clinics (this is still an issue in our community) and there was little familial support. I meet Black Mothers daily who still don’t know there’s an entire profession dedicated to assisting parents in mapping and meeting their breastfeeding goals. Even if we remove all these obstacles, a study by Chapman University found that African American mothers are more likely to be offered formula in the hospital than any other demographic. The “whys” are still being researched, but those of us belonging to the African American community know exactly why: There’s this social construct that Black Women just don’t breastfeed. But….. why? Because after years of being forced to nurse children against our wills while ours were fed dirty formula concoctions and died, African American mothers did not pass the practice down to their children. Couple that with diminished resources in our communities and lactation care providers that don’t understand our cultural history and social makeup, you can see why becoming Black History is a dilemma.
Black Breastfeeding Mothers are making history. We are educating ourselves and slowly changing what a Black breastfeeding mom looks like. Sometimes, we are outright defying our support systems and significant others. Make no mistake; all the reasons for NOT breastfeeding and the trauma in our communities still exist. Lack of Black IBCLCs still exist. Lack of resources and evidence based support still exists. Defiant child care providers still exist. Many mothers find solace in online support groups, where like minded parents understand the difficulties of healing these traumas in our own families. Again, therein lies the dilemma. We’re in this unique position of changing our history, while navigating the uncharted waters of not only breastfeeding, but motherhood and womanhood ourselves. While it is not fair to ask this of Black Women, it is something we gladly take on. Because our history is only part of the story. We are writing the next chapter.
We ARE Black History.
A special thanks to fellow Black Breastfeeding Mama, Yolanda Williams of the Parenting Decolonized Podcast.
Want to hear our conversation on the topic? Listen here!