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Picking Up Where the Media has Failed: A New Look Into The Black Breastfeeding Experience

Over the past decade, as I’ve worked as a journalist, commentator and consultant on the African American motherhood experience, I became deeply frustrated by the lack of credible information as to why African American women have had significantly lower breastfeeding initiation rates for over 40 years.

And 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% compared to 40% among whites.

The impact of fewer breastfed babies in the black community cannot be ignored—the rates of asthma, respiratory infections 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 CDC says could be reduced by at least 50% simply by more breastfeeding among black women.

Yet the news coverage and analysis of this public health crisis has been mostly superficial, 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 multi-generational support, for example.

I recently came under a lot of fire, and I do mean more than my usual, for saying that the media hype over  Beyonce’s breastfeeding moment ignored connecting the dots to black women—and the particular significance of having a black woman of Beyonce’s star power breastfeeding in public.   And given that Beyonce 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 blatantly obvious connection.

I took a virtual beating.

But the fact is, the media has a history of failing to accurately include black women in the collective breastfeeding “story.”  And when the media does report on black women and breastfeeding it is usually to report on the low statistics on our breastfeeding duration or the marginal improvements in our breastfeeding initiation rates. But rarely do they dig deeper. Look further. 

Like, into 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. 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," writes historian Wilma A. Dunaway, in the book The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, published by Cambridge University Press. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the health detriment of their infants, Dunaway writes.

Do some of vestiges of slavery still exist in the mindset of the black community? Is there possibly a lingering idea that breastfeeding is something we did for others and not for ourselves?  

Then there's 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.  

That is why I created Black Breastfeeding 360, to offer a never-seen-before comprehensive view into the black breastfeeding experience, to shed light on the shadings and gradations that frame this critical issue, to offer a forum for developing workable strategies, add the human element to the statistics and to 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 U.S. and abroad sharing their breastfeeding perspectives. 

BB360 will serve as a resource to the media to help them better understand the black breastfeeding experience as they research and report on this matter.  But 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.

This is our breastfeeding experience. And it is our story to tell.