Originally published in the Amsterdam News
Over the past decade, as I’ve worked as a journalist and commentator on the African-American motherhood experience, I have become deeply frustrated by the lack of credible information and in-depth analysis as to why African-American women have had significantly lower breastfeeding initiation rates for over 40 years.
When it comes to the gold standard of infant nutrition—six months of exclusive breastfeeding—among Black women in America, the rate is only 20 percent, compared to 40 percent among whites.
The impact of fewer breastfed babies in the Black community cannot be ignored—the rates of asthma, respiratory infection and childhood obesity are skyrocketing among our infants and children—and studies prove that exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of these diseases. Even worse, Black babies are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white infants—a sobering disparity that the Centers for Disease Control say could be reduced by at least 50 percent simply by increasing breastfeeding among Black women.
Yet, the news coverage and analysis of this public health crisis has been mostly superficial, reporting merely on the sobering statistics but not delving into the complexities and nuances of the problem—never exploring the impact of media stereotypes, the residual effects of our nursing experiences during slavery, the role of infant formula marketing in Black communities or the lack of multigenerational support, for example.
I recently came under a lot of fire for saying that the media hype over Beyoncé’s breastfeeding moment blatantly failed to connect the dots to Black women—and the particular significance of having a Black woman of Beyoncé’s star power breastfeeding in public. Regardless, given that Beyoncé was actually feeding an African-American child, who is disproportionately less likely to be breastfed, I thought it was a huge failure on the media and the movement’s part not to mention the seemingly obvious connection.
I took a virtual beating.
The fact is, the media has a history of failing to accurately include Black women in the collective breastfeeding “story.” Moreover, when the media does report on Black women and breastfeeding, it is usually to report on the low statistics on our breastfeeding rates, but rarely do they dig deeper.
Look further, for example, into the possible impact of our breastfeeding experience during slavery. Slave owners used and purchased Black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others.
“On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants,” wrote Wilma A. Dunaway in the book “The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation,” published by Cambridge University Press. “On the other hand, wet nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children.”
Since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced Black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the detriment of their infants, Dunaway writes.
Are there still repercussions today to a stunted and painful breastfeeding experience during slavery? Is there possibly a subconscious idea that breastfeeding is something we did for others and not for ourselves?
There’s also something I call the “National Geographic factor,” that is, most of the images we see of Black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women with elongated earrings in Africa whose lives seem so far away from the African-American lifestyle and experience. Exploring and revealing these powerful subtleties has been my focus for the past five years.
Last week, I launched a new online resource called Black Breastfeeding 360° to offer a never-before-seen, comprehensive view into the Black breastfeeding experience to shed light on the shadings and gradations that frame this critical issue, offer a forum for developing workable strategies, add the human element to the statistics and amplify the authentic voices of Black mothers and fathers.
I’ve spent months interviewing experts, advocates, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers on their thoughts and experiences with and about breastfeeding in our community. The result is an international collection of articles, interviews and research, along with audio and video diaries of Black mothers and fathers in the United States and abroad sharing their breastfeeding perspectives.
BB360° will serve as a global resource to the media to help them better understand the Black breastfeeding experience as they research and report on this matter. Most importantly, it is a place for Black men and women to get helpful resources and hear the voices and see the faces of other breastfeeding women all over the world. It is a place to show the world who Black mothers are and for the media to take notice.
This is our breastfeeding experience. And it is our story to tell.