Why Black Breastfeeding Week Is Important To Me

by Carmen Castillo-Barrett

Carmen Black Breastfeeding Week

I am an immigrant Dominican mother, with African American roots on my father’s side. My husband is of Caribbean decent. We got pregnant with our daughter in 2006. The almost 42-week pregnancy allowed my husband and I time to explore and talk to each other about parenting. We decided we were going to do things differently than how the rest of our family did them simply because it’s what works for our family. We expected to be met with lots of questions and lack of understanding as to why we were doing things differently, but I was certainly not prepared for the ongoing negativity that was associated with our decision for me to breastfeed. I am not the only one who shares this experience. Below are just some of the reactions I got and reasons why Black Breastfeeding Week  is important.

1- “You’re going to kill your baby”
At four weeks postpartum, my mother-in-law began to express concern over the fact that all my newborn had to eat was breast milk. I’d done enough research while pregnant to know that breast milk is all an infant needs, but the research never heeded any warning about being confronted with the accusation that I was going to kill my baby by exclusively breastfeeding. My mother-in-law’s concern was real to her because she didn’t know any better. She called relentlessly, offering bad advice that wasn’t solicited, all while expressing concern that there was no way my daughter has getting the nourishment she needed. This was the most significant obstacle I’ve faced as a nursing mother and it ultimately undermined my confidence and affected my decision to discontinue nursing my daughter.

2- “You’re still breastfeeding?!?”
This question started popping up around the time both kids turned 6 weeks old. Both sides of our family saw no need to continue nursing past six weeks of age and thought that the natural progression of things was to introduce formula. My mother had no experience nursing a baby past trying it out for a couple of weeks with me, so her contribution to my growth as a breastfeeding mother was to state that the baby was now “old enough for formula” and I was now “finally free” to stop breastfeeding. There was no real reason why everyone thought I should wean, it was simply a matter of never having seen a non-white mother nursing past the immediate infancy phase.

3- “What? You can’t afford formula?”
When my daughter was two months old, we went out to lunch with my husband’s cousin and his wife, whom had two children of their own. While at the restaurant, my daughter needed to eat, so I discreetly breastfed her at the table. No one at the table batted an eye, but just as I was feeling confident that my nursing in public wasn’t a big deal, I was met with the question of “Why are you still breastfeeding? You guys can’t afford formula?”. I was so mad! Worse still is that when I called my mom about it, she felt the comment was perfectly justified and offered to send me money for formula. Somehow, my breastfeeding was seen as a reflection of our economic status rather than a conscious decision on how to feed our baby.

4- “You’re just trying to be white.”
A common way to dismiss a non-white mother’s parenting choices is to wave them off as her “trying to be white”. This comment is applied to much more than breastfeeding. If you are a non-white mom who co-sleeps, uses cloth diapers, has a home birth, employs a doula, teaches your baby to sign, or does anything outside of the “normal” things a non-white mom is “supposed” to do, then your parenting choices aren’t seen as something that simply works for your family, but a desire to leave behind your true roots to pursue one’s desire to emulate a white mother. This label is applied to non-white women of all shades as a means to shame, ignore, undermine, second guess, disrespect, and pigeonhole our choices to parent as best as we can.

5- “Your baby has teeth, that means it’s time to wean.”
By the time my daughter got her first tooth at 9 months, I was no longer nursing. My son, on the other hand, started getting teeth really early at barely four months old. I made the unfortunate mistake of posting a picture of him grinning with his new itty bitty baby teeth on Facebook. The immediate and overwhelming response from both sides of the family (and some friends) was that it was time to wean because “obviously” his incoming teeth meant it was time for “real food”. Up to this day I’m still unsure what “real food” I was supposed to feed a baby that young.

6- “You’re going to turn him gay.”
While it’s a scandalous thing to say to anyone, this last comment is particularly held as true among Caribbean families. Due to bigotry embraced by both older and younger generations and stubborn cultural superstitions, many Caribbean families believe that one can be “turned” gay and that nursing one’s son past a certain acceptable age will contribute to their sexual orientation. The lack of support and obstacles I faced when nursing my daughter were nothing compared to the outright hatred that the possibility of me nursing my son into a batty boy brought out in members of our family. This is why, after 7 months of exclusively nursing my son, I started pretending that I had weaned him. Only my husband and close friends knew that I was still breastfeeding.

Imagine if your entire breastfeeding experience was framed by the comments I listed above. How successful do you think you could be? This is why Black Breastfeeding Week is so important.

Carmen Castillo-Barrett is a wife and mom who resides in Brooklyn, NY. She is the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Kiddie Science.

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Iola Kostrzewski on Black Breastfeeding Week

by  Iola Kostrzewski

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Black Breastfeeding Week is not, I repeat, is not a week to have more of the white versus black argument. It’s not a week to get white women to notice black women breastfeeding, or even to get white women to acknowledge the fact that black women do breastfeed. It’s a week for us black women to bring awareness to other black women that, yes, we are in control of our bodies, that we need to no longer let historical trauma hold us back, that we need to have more free breastfeeding education classes and access to those classes.

Black Breastfeeding Week is bittersweet. It says, “Hey, there is enough of an issue that World Breastfeeding Week is no longer cutting it.” If anything it’s a black versus black week; it’s about trying to change the outlook on the breastfeeding from within the black community.  We need to do whatever we need to do to raise the rate of black women breastfeeding.

From the time Black Breastfeeding Week was announced, I have seen women who call themselves breastfeeding advocates make some of the most racist comments I have ever seen written by anyone who claims to promote breastfeeding. I have seen women who have had nurse-ins, who stand up for the rights of nursing mothers, argue that there is no need for this week. They argue that the week, even though black women created it, is racist.

Let’s stop, gather our thoughts, and breathe.

Let’s also take the time to remember that this week is not about whites versus blacks.

Yes, I understand that there was a World Breastfeeding Week a few weeks ago that is supposed to promote equality for women of all races who breastfeed. Yet how can we have equality when the statistics show that black women are lagging behind when it comes to breastfeeding? We cannot be equal until all women are on the same playing field.

No matter how hard I try to understand, I don’t understand how this week is offensive.

What’s offensive is making the comment “Black women are just lazy” or “Black women just don’t use their mind” after reading explanations about why this week is needed.  What’s offensive is refusing to acknowledge your white privilege while continuing to ramble on about how, yes, you have had hard times when it comes to breastfeeding, but you got over it. What’s offensive is going on to question why there isn’t a “White Breastfeeding Week”.  Though, I sit here and wonder to myself how can you have a “white” week? Wouldn’t you mean a German, Norwegian, or Polish week?

What is mind-boggling is how a person can say she is color blind to race, yet follows that by saying, “I have a black friend who has mixed kids and she breastfed them.” How in anyway is that being color blind?

Yet this week is not about me versus you.

This week, in all reality, is Black vs. Black.  It’s about battling the misconceptions about breastfeeding in the black community, particularly in the United States.  It’s about being able to breastfeed in front of my mother without her cringing and saying, “That’s what slaves used to do.”  It’s about not being told by a black parenting group that the project I have been working on is too “explicit” and offensive to Jesus. Jesus was breastfed.

This week is about letting certain black celebrities know that milk sharing and wet nurses are not just things that slaves did, and that a 150 years later it’s done by free will. This week is about letting black women know that if we work together we can make a change.

So, instead of saying this week isn’t necessary, tell me “I support you.”  Tell me that what I am doing is beautiful.

Many people I know don’t support breastfeeding at all. It isn’t celebrated in my culture.  Black Breastfeeding Week is helping to make it part of my culture. My friends and family, my neighbors and community leaders need to see breastfeeding as a normal part of life.  Help me make that a reality.

This week targets the population with the lowest breastfeeding rates overall.  Let’s work to bring those numbers up so we can all celebrate together.

It is my dream that in a couple years Black Breastfeeding Week will no longer be necessary.  My hope is that we can make enough of an impact together to close the statistical gap. This is something we need to do together.  Black women need to come together and show our community that breastfeeding is normal. And, we need the support of our friends of all colors and walks of life.

The author wishes to thank Amanda Jenson, who provided moral and editorial support for this piece.

Iola Kostrzewski is a wife, mother of two boys, babywearing educator, lactation educator in training, and an aspiring midwife.  Iola blogs at What the b**p and I doing?! .

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Black Breastfeeding Week: Interview with Cofounder Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka

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 [email protected]@b blog.

 

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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:

Black Breastfeeding Week on Facebook

First Annual Black Breastfeeding Week announcement

Moms Rising Black Breastfeeding Week announcement

 

 

 

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Kari Swanson is a daughter, sister, wife, mother of two, librarian, member of Generation X and an admin for The Leaky [email protected]@b Facebook page.   Kari blogs occasionally over at Thoughts from BookishMama.

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