August is National Breastfeeding Month, and it’s almost inevitable that the racial disparity that exists when it comes to moms who breastfeed will be discussed. While there are a variety of different factors that contribute to Black moms breastfeeding less than their white counterparts — including economic variables and access to resources — one that is not addressed enough is the racial trauma that dates back to American slavery.
“Historically speaking, I think people need to understand where we’re coming from in this framing,” maternity wellness expert and Mama Glow author Latham Thomas told MadameNoire. “Black bodies were highly valuable during cattle slavery. And in that time, not only were we considered powerful breeders, but also, we fed the nation. We were providing sustenance of breastmilk via wetnursing,” . “It was looked down upon for white women to nurse their own children. They didn’t hire wet nurses. They forced enslaved women to nurse their babies.”
Worse, enslaved women were often prohibited from nursing their own babies, which resulted in negative health outcomes.
“Black women who had given birth were not allowed to birth their own babies, many of whom starved or were malnourished and died from the lack of nursing and nourishment,” Thomas went on.”They were really there to feed the babies of their masters and enslavers.”
Black milk would eventually become a huge driver of slave trading — a market created and run solely by white women.
“If you think of the horrifying state-sanctioned and government-funded violence and abuse that became the institution of slavery, white women actually developed an entire market for Black milk,” Thomas added. “This market was one that was highly functioning as part of the slave market. They would drive up the value of enslaved women based on their reproductivity and their milk. They had a whole other economically-driven marketplace that was fully sustained by white women and their need for wetnursing. Men weren’t even involved in this. This was white women doing this. This was their foot in the door because the men were owners and they were selling enslaved people. The women didn’t get to sell in that way. They inherited the people. This way, they were able to involve themselves in the trading and the actual selling of Black bodies.”
As we celebrate National Breastfeeding Week, it’s important to remember that the effects of this abuse did not dissipate when slavery was abolished.
“In this, we have a historical trauma. As you can imagine, the disconnect from that experience and the horror from that experience is carried down for generations. For some people, the first thing that they wanted to do was get some formula into their baby instead of nursing because of the trauma,” shared Thomas. “It was marketed so fiercely that formula was the better way and that formula was for people who were of stature. Of course, we wanted to show that we were people of stature and that we didn’t have to breastfeed. There have been many different marketing strategies that have sucked us in and forced us into sort of believing that formula was the preferred way of feeding our children.”
If we’re going to address racial disparities regarding breastfeeding, then we must also discuss our painful history.