The History of Breastfeeding Among Black Women – What White Nurses Need to Know

If you are a nurse, particularly a white nurse, working in postpartum or NICU and teaching new parents how to breastfeed, it is vital that you understand the history of breastfeeding among Black women. Up until late in the last century, Black women were still employed as wet nurses for White families. This robs a Black woman’s own child of nutrition. It also explains why many Black women have a negative connotation with breastfeeding. Rather than blindly push forward with lactation education, nurses need to work to further develop cultural competence and understand why Black women may choose not to breastfeed, and why their relatives may encourage them NOT to breastfeed.

Ultimately, breastfeeding should be the choice of the individual involved, not the choice of a nurse or family members surrounding the new parent.

@FeministaJones made a series of tweets regarding the history of breastfeeding and black women, as well as the history of how Black nurses were treated in homes. It is hard to read, but necessary to learn. I storified the tweets yesterday, but am also placing them here so that I can quickly point to them.

ago

On Black Women and Breastfeeding

In her #WomensHistoryMonth discussion, @FeministaJones discusses the history of Black women and forced breastfeeding of White children in the United States, up to modern times, pinpointing reasons for low levels of support among Black men for breastfeeding among Black women today.

  1. If were going to talk about #WomensHistoryMonth, can we tell all of the stories, please?
  2. Check out the link in that last tweet. Jarring images of the history of Black women as caretakers of White children
  3. “Recent study, 54% of black mothers breast-fed their infants from birth, compared with 74% of white mothers and 80% of Hispanic mothers”
  4. One has to wonder where the suffrage movement would have gone without Black nannies at home raising their children while they marched…
  5. @FeministaJones breast feeding my son was a trigger 4 my grandmother. I couldn’t figure out why she was so upset but now.. that pic #tears
  6. The only acceptable feeling when shown images like those, IMO, is rage.
  7. Maybe I can spark enough rage to incite a revolution…
  8. When I discussed the idea that Black women, esp in the 60s and 70s were largely anti-breastfeeding bc of being forced to nurse White babies
  9. People suggested I was too militant and talking crazy but… I’m right.
  10. There was, on the part of many Black women, an outright rejection of breastfeeding bc of what it meant to them historically.
  11. Racism kept many of us from giving our children the nourishment they needed from us. Let that wash over you.
  12. We were forced to give milk produced for our own children to the children of our owners, forced to neglect the needs of our babies
  13. Then we were blamed when our babies got sick or died and called “bad mothers”.
  14. The connection btwn Black American women and breastfeeding has not always been positive and BF advocates have to know this.
  15. So when I see WW, esp, coming down on BW for not breastfeeding, I cringe… it’s clear they’re not employing culture competence
  16. I say barely half of Black women breastfeed, after several tweets talking about why (including historical violence) and then…
  17. When BW were working and out of the home 16+ hours a day or barely allowed to go home to their children at all, how were they to nurse?
  18. BW had few choices but to NOT breastfeed and supplement their babies’ diets with whatever was available.
  19. And yet… BW have been perpetually vilified as being “bad mothers” when they’ve been forced into these conditions
  20. @FeministaJones So would their relationships with their children, esp. from having to nurse & nurture White children at expense of their own
  21. Re: #LRT, but BW were called “bad mothers”! Without acknowledging how much mother-child connection was sacrificed for work
  22. Only in the last 20 years or so have we seen a significant cultural shift among Black women to nurse their own children, thankfully.
  23. Because, real talk…? Sistas in the 50s, 60s, and 70s weren’t nursing, in large part bc they worked so hard and so long away from home.
  24. And the stigma of BFing was “thats for them White babies”, which we can see how it came from resentment of forced nursing of White babies
  25. @FeministaJones I see that as yet another form of economic violence. Formula isn’t free but we couldnt nurse cuz we had to work so much.
  26. Let your mind wrap around one woman demanding that another woman take the milk she is producing for HER own baby and give it to hers
  27. Breastfeeding, in the mid-late 20th century, was somewhat of a privilege for those who could afford to be around their babies
  28. How can we demonize economically disadvantaged women for NOT breastfeeding at a time before pumping, packaging, etc?
  29. That was passed down through generations and only in the last one, w/advances in BF support tools, are we seeing more BW embrace BFing
  30. My mother and all of her sisters formula fed. No one breastfed. My mom asked “What formula you plan on using?”
  31. Cultural competence means not assuming a new Black mom is automatically taking the “Duh of course I’m breastfeeding” approach
  32. It means understanding that our historical connection to breastfeeding is one of oppression, violence, and denial of “womanhood”
  33. “From 2000–2008, the percentage of women who initiated breastfeeding went up from 47.4% to 58.9% for blacks”  http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/resources/breastfeeding-trends.htm …
  34. Like I said, this is a relatively new cultural shift and it’s important to unpack and respect the negative connections to BFing
  35. @FeministaJones My aunt was a “wet nurse” in the 80s in the south. When people act like this stuff is archaic…it’s not.
  36. @FeministaJones That’s why I am always so wary of white women organizing and educating BW on BFing. They gotta do the knowledge!
  37. Not just for Black women, for Black men as well. So yeah… we gotta unpack this stuff.
  38. #WomensHistoryMonth The story of the Negro Nurse (an oft-overlooked figure in American history)  http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/negnurse/negnurse.html …
  39. “It’s a small indignity [..] no white person at the South ever thinks of addressing any negro man or woman as Mr., or Mrs., or Miss”
  40. ” It is a favorite practice of young white sports about town–and they are not always young, either–to stop some colored nurse +
  41. ” inquire the name of the “sweet little baby,” talk baby talk to the child, fondle it, kiss it, make love to it, etc., etc.+
  42. “and in nine of ten cases every such white man will wind up by making love to the colored nurse and seeking an appointment with her.”
  43. So remember when I said that not standing up to defend Black women is a behavior learned and socialized into BM?
  44. And how, historically, when Blk men stood up to defend Blk women, they faced violence, imprisonment, or death?
  45. If every time you tried to defend a Black women, you were on the receiving end of violence, what might you do, eventually? Stop.
  46. “If their fathers, brothers, or husbands seek to redress their wrongs the guiltless negroes will be severely punished, if not killed” Oh
  47. When I hear “Black women ain’t worth it…” talk, at the end, I hear the unspoken laments abt the repercussion for making us “worth it”
  48. It gets passed on… it’s self-preservation…it has to be unlearned
  49. If we loop Black men into the BF discussion, we have to ask how many are supportive of BFing and the economic implications for them
  50. We have to think about how maternity leave affects Blk families where the men are struggling to find work. That’s loss of wages…
  51. And if women feel they have to hurry and get back to work, they might not opt for BFing if formula feeding is easier.
  52. Reading the nurse narrative, I wouldn’t be surprised if BFing was a trigger for Blk men back then too, in light of the WM “advances”
  53. I wonder if any BM discouraged BW from BFing bc it reminded them of maybe what their own moms went thru as wet nurses for WW
  54. Hard to think of breastfeeding as violence against women, but for Black women in America, the history shows it has been.
  55. !! RT @Alivada: @FeministaJones keeps periods at bay too …in an era pre bc …so if partner was wet nurse, couldn’t parent themselves
  56. If BW were forced to keep lactating for wet nurse purposes, the impact on their own fertility/reproduction would likely be great.
  57. So that’s my #WomensHistoryMonth chat for the weekend.

About Grimalkin, RN

Trying really hard to be a decent person. Registered Nurse. Intersectional Feminism. Poet. Cat. Political. Original recipes. Original Stories. Occasionally Questionable Judgement. Creator of #cookingwithjoanne and #stopcock. Soulless Unwashed Carrot. This blog is dedicated to my grandmother, my beloved cat Grimalkin, and my patients.

Posted on March 10, 2014, in Nursing, racism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The History of Breastfeeding Among Black Women – What White Nurses Need to Know.

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