by Kari Swanson
On August 25, 2013, the first day of the first nationally recognized Black Breastfeeding Week, I was excited to learn that one of the founding committee members, fellow breastfeeding advocate Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, recently moved to the area where I live. Anayah is a mother of two, a graduate student, co-founder of Free to Breastfeed: Voices from Black Mothers and Brown Mamas Breastfeed and a MomsRising fellow. After a virtual introduction we made arrangements to meet for lunch and Anayah graciously agreed to let me interview her for The Leaky B@@b blog.
Kari: Tell us about yourself and your personal breastfeeding experience.
Anayah: “I’m a mom. I have 2 kiddos. I’m a breastfeeding advocate.”
Kari: How did you become involved in breastfeeding advocacy?
Anayah: “I was nursing my oldest, now 3 years old, up all night in the early months and was intrigued by [breastfeeding]—it was so beautiful to me—and I wanted to know more about it, but outside of friends and family I didn’t see black women breastfeeding. I wanted to talk to women who understand my life.”
In her search for like-minded women she was introduced to Jeanine Valrie. Together Anayah and Jeanine created Free to Breastfeed: Voices from Black Mothers and the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project . Initially the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project was created as a way to gather photos of black mothers breastfeeding, but Anayah and Jeanine discovered that the women who shared their photos were also interested in sharing their stories as well. In part based on the research-supported assertion that narrative can be used to increase the number of women who breastfeed, they are currently expanding the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project into a book, which is forthcoming.
“This book could be good for moms in areas where they are actually in the minority.… [especially if] they do not have online social networks.”
Working with MomsRising also gives Anayah a platform around issues pertaining to race and class, especially as they relate to breastfeeding and families’ economic security.
Kari: What do you see as some of the challenges black women in particular face when it comes to breastfeeding?
Anayah: “When we deal with a larger culture that positions breastfeeding as something white women do—or at least something specifically not black [that is a challenge]. The larger narrative is about white women, so even physicians don’t address it. [For an African American woman], she hasn’t seen it growing up. It’s not something she is exposed to… She either had people who said nothing or were openly hostile about it.”
Anayah related that in her own experience she was threatened with being thrown out of a pediatrician’s office, because she was breastfeeding her baby there. Most of the women in her community did not breastfeed, so even the pediatrician’s office was not accustomed to seeing a woman breastfeed.
“African American women are at increased risk of diabetes and breast cancer and breastfeeding can address it. Breastfeeding is one of the only things a woman can choose to do to decrease the risk of breast cancer, especially the type that overwhelmingly kills black women.”
“I don’t even think it’s important whether or not black women’s challenges are unique. That we face serious and life threatening health conditions of which breastfeeding offers some support at such high numbers is enough to warrant attention. In mainstream media, breastfeeding is still discussed as a lifestyle choice and for African-American families, it’s much more serious than that.”
Kari: Tell us about Black Breastfeeding Week. Why do you care so much about this topic that you helped to create a nationally recognized awareness week for the subject?
Anayah: “Kimberly [Seals Allers] had written articles about World Breastfeeding Week, but there was no traction in the community—not much ethnic diversity. So, she wrote this piece about greater diversity. I read the piece and decided I had to ask her about it.”
Fast forward to the ROSE Summit in Atlanta where Kimberly Seals Allers (of Kimberly Seals Allers’ Mocha Manual), Kiddada Green (of Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association), and Anayah met and decided to coordinate and launch Black Breastfeeding Week to bring attention to breastfeeding to their community. Anayah pointed out that where “large campaigns can’t go deep enough” a more focused effort can.
“It’s not about physiology; it’s about social context,” she said.
Anayah described some of the historical social context related to breastfeeding among African American women, including the fact that black women have always worked outside of the home, quite often as domestic help for white families—caring for white children—and that formula was supposed to make it easier for them to be separated from their own babies. In addition, a lack of support “across the board” contributes to low rates of breastfeeding among African American women.
Increasing the rate of breastfeeding among African American women will require “more than seeing some black faces sometimes.” And it is vitally important to the lives of black women and their babies that the rate of breastfeeding be increased.
“Creating Black Breastfeeding Week was primarily about us raising greater awareness and pulling together forces among African-Americans for breastfeeding. We want to make breastfeeding part of other conversations we’re having on parenting and life in general, so we’re using this week to do it. The tweetchat on Thursday is a special effort that will help; when we have a major publication like Ebony.com and the top black bloggers supporting the conversation, we can reach more families than those who are already thinking and talking about breastfeeding.”
The first annual Black Breastfeeding Week is taking place this week, August 25-31. For more information please visit:
Kari Swanson is a daughter, sister, wife, mother of two, librarian, member of Generation X and an admin for The Leaky B@@b Facebook page. Kari blogs occasionally over at Thoughts from BookishMama.