This year’s Black breastfeeding week is over 25-31 August, with the theme this year being ‘Revive, Restore, Reclaim’.
All about Black Breastfeeding Week
It was only a few weeks ago that we were celebrating World Breastfeeding Week. So you might be wondering, why do we need a black breastfeeding week? What’s the difference? How is it important to make the future a better, more equal place for black mothers?
Here are some things you may want to know about Black Breastfeeding Week and why it exists.
While associations and healthcare organisations have placed an emphasis on celebrating breastfeeding, raising awareness and offering support and encouragement for 20 years, there was nothing specific to address the difficulties in the rather unique experience of black mothers.
Bri, mother-of-two, photographer and breastfeeding advocate at @moonandcheeze puts it perfectly, “This week is not supposed to celebrate all breastfeeding mothers. This week was specifically created to celebrate black mothers breastfeeding and centering their voices.”
As a black breastfeeding mother she recognises that “this week was created because of the stigma, which surrounds black breastfeeding mothers, the mortality rate for black mothers giving birth and the high rate of black infant mortality.”
Bri urges that, “you sit down and listen this week because black women deserve representation and a chance to be heard.”
When and why did it start?
Founded in 2012 by three nationally recognised breastfeeding advocates, Black Breastfeeding Week was created to highlight just what black mothers experienced. It was first introduced in the USA by author Kimberly Seals Allers, the founding executive director of Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association Kiddada Green, and nurse-midwife Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, with the event running from August 25-31 to raise awareness of the health benefits and personal empowerment of breastfeeding in the Black community.
Black Breastfeeding Week was brought over to the UK, to coincide with the US black breastfeeding week by Doula and maternal health educator, Ruth Dennison in 2017.
Not only does this week serve to celebrate and amplify the successes black breastfeeding mothers deserve to be recognised for, but it also serves to highlight and revolutionise the hardships black women have faced year on year in regards to birthing and nourishing their babies at the breast.
Ruth explains, “Evidence shows that Black families suffer the highest infant mortality in the UK and it is strongly believed breastfeeding could help reduce the numbers.” It is widely noted that breastfeeding/breastmilk have countless health benefits for mother and child; it can help prevent many illnesses, infections, diseases and reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome).
A brief history
There is a history of breastfeeding trauma for black women. This trauma has travelled down through generations into the experience of black women and their birthing and breastfeeding journeys today. Ruth explains, “This may still be hindering breastfeeding in the black community today, many black women tend to not seek breastfeeding education, they tend to listen to their family elders, especially grandparents, as they are placed as the veterans in parenting.” But when for generations breastfeeding has not been viewed through or experienced in a positive way, it is difficult for the advice that is given to be beneficial or empowering.
Emily West, Researcher and author, writes in Mother’s Milk, an academic journal which examines the history of wet-nursing and slavery, about enslaved black women who, in the 1700s, were exploited and forced to breastfeed the children of their slaveholders. She records that, Phillip Vickers Fithian, who served as a tutor in 1773 wrote in his diary, “I find it is common here for people of Fortune to have their young children suckled by the Negroes!” This exploitation of black mothers as “wet-nurses” often led to the enslaved black mother’s own child being torn from them and ultimately left to die.
Using black women as wet-nurses was not only an abusive act towards black mothers. Young and healthy slave women were also forced to breastfeed white babies after doctors discovered that the continuous sucking of a sexually active female breast could result in lactation. So women and girls who had not yet had a baby were used to nurse their white slaveholders’ babies.
Then the practice of using a black “wet-nurse” was an excuse for many white mothers to avoid breastfeeding with hopes of maintaining their stature and avoiding the “messy” part of motherhood. Race, ethnicity and class determined if a woman’s child would be fed breastmilk; if that child was black it determined if that child would even be fed at all.
How does this affect black women today?
Well, the act of breastfeeding was seen as a self-demeaning one and women who were seen breastfeeding were often thought of as uncultured, poor and often shunned. This is why white mothers exploited black mother’s milk. Black women who were made to breastfeed white children were separated from their own friends, families and babies. Once enslaved people were ‘freed’, black women were still used as wet-nurses and they were paid higher wages for this service. However, these women were likened to prostitutes and shunned by their own community.
Emily continues to explain that it is these patterns of exploitative wet-nursing that has shaped the modern day distaste of nursing today.
It is noted that breastfeeding is still a taboo topic, breastfeeding in public makes some mothers nervous and passersby ‘uncomfortable’. We can see evidence of these historical experiences today on a wider scale. But how much more intrinsically traumatic is this to black women?
Revive. Restore. Reclaim.
Black Breastfeeding Week takes into account this history that generations of black women have lived through. It highlights their strength, celebrates their forward movement to revive breastfeeding in the black community, restore wellbeing for black mothers and reclaim their human right as mothers to feed their babies and feel empowered by it.