Flying under the radar during the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington was America’s first Black Breastfeeding Week, cofounded by Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, Kimberly Seals Allers and Kiddada Green. These women, as Gandhi told us long ago, “are being the change they want to see in this world.” Instead of waiting for the government to mandate policies, Anayah, Kimberly and Kiddada have begun a movement to combat the most prolonged and underrepresented healthcare crisis for African Americans: infant mortality.
Black babies are dying at twice the rate (in some place, nearly triple) the rate of white babies. The high infant mortality rate among black infants is mostly to their being disproportionately born too small, too sick or too soon. These babies need the immunities and nutritional benefit of breast milk the most. According to the CDC, increased breastfeeding among black women could decrease infant mortality rates by as much as 50 percent. So when I say breastfeeding is a life or death matter, this is what I mean.
What are the goals of Black Breastfeeding Week–celebrated during the last week of August, which itself is National Breastfeeding Month? And why is it an issue all people, not just black women, should care about? With these and other questions, I sat down with Sangodele-Ayoka. She is a breastfeeding culture changer, codeveloping the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project and the website Free to Breastfeed (www.freetobreastfeed.com) to help re-normalize breastfeeding among African Americans. A married mother of two boys, she’s also a blogger, a fellow with MomsRising.org and a nurse-midwifery student at Yale University.
Ms. Blog: How did Black Breastfeeding Week begin?
Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka: When I was a student at Vassar, I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew that I wanted to think. I ended up studying American culture and focusing on the way that race gets communicated and codified in history and literature. But I have always been interested in holistic health. After college, I taught high school English and I began doing youth worth with young girls—working with menstrual health, hygiene and sexual health. I realized that women’s health would be my passion. Then I discovered midwifery and started taking courses and doing breastfeeding work. During that time I became pregnant with my first child. After I gave birth, I stopped teaching and stayed home and studied.
That was how I got connected to Moms Rising, through doing breastfeeding work. I connected with my friend Jeanine and did a project called Brown Women’s Breastfeeding Project. That led to Free to Breastfeed and meeting Kiddada and Kimberly.
Now, here I am, another child later, in school for nursing. And Kimberly, Kiddada and I have decided that it is time to start Black Breastfeeding Week.
What was the Brown Women’s Breastfeeding Project about?
Cultural positivity. For some reason, you spend more time online when you have a child. You’re at home, but you want to connect with other moms. And we were interested in breastfeeding, looking at the sites and resources. But none of the women looked like us. It was very disheartening. We wondered: “How come there are no images of black women breastfeeding?”
To me, breastfeeding felt normal and wonderful. My mother breastfed, my grandmother breastfed. I wanted to talk about it with other women. But instead of being discouraged, we said: “Why don’t we do this, why don’t we talk to African American moms and use actual images of black mothers breastfeeding to raise awareness?” This was in 2011, for Mothers’ Day. People connected and became a virtual tribe—a lot of them writing short reflections, poems and miniessays. And then Jeanine said: “We need to make this a book.”
Tell us more about the book.
The book is called Free to Breastfeed, which is also the new name of our group and website. We are in the editorial stage and finalizing our selection of publisher. The book collects all the things the women in the Free to Breastfeed group told us, in their own words. Some of them are beautiful—stories of mothers breastfeeding and feeling in tune with their own mothers, with joy and happiness. But some of the stories are terrible. A woman told me that her mother didn’t breastfeed because the doctor gave her mama a pill to dry up her milk without even asking her. And not breastfeeding can have serious implications. That is why I do this.
That reminds me of the story of Henrietta Lacks—the African American woman whose cells (called HeLa) were taken without her consent and fueled research which has generated billions of dollars–none of which went to her family after her death. Do you think that black women have been on the receiving end of racism in healthcare as it relates to breastfeeding?
Yes, and that is why Kiddada, for example, began providing training for healthcare providers in cultural competency and sensitivity when dealing with African American families. Kimberly has an excellent article detailing the “racial disparities in breastfeeding rates and breastfeeding leadership” as well as how “the breastfeeding advocacy is white female-led” which “means that many of the lactation professionals, though well-intentioned, are not culturally competent, sensitive or relevant enough to properly deal with African-American moms.”
Why is Black Breastfeeding Week necessary?
Because African Americans have always had the highest infant mortality rate in the United States. According to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, “African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites. They are almost four times as likely to die as infants due to complications related to low birth weight as compared to non-Hispanic white infants. Low birth weight and SIDS are two of the top 4 causes of infant mortality in African-American infants. Both of which are lowered with increased breastfeeding.” This has been going on for hundreds of years.
Why is there resistance to breastfeeding in the black community when it is a common practice in Africa?
The perception of breastfeeding over time in African-American history is complex. At the same time as it is the biological norm for babies to have mother’s milk, enslaved Africans (in the U.S. and in the Caribbean) were also known to have served as wet nurses to slavers’ children, providing them breastmilk in their mothers’ stead. During the 1940s, infant formula companies began to aggressively promote their products, leading to a worldwide decline in breastfeeding. There was a popular long-term marketing campaign by a company called PET that was used to promote infant formula as more convenient and even superior to breastmilk, among African-American families. It was so successful that it is still taught to this day as a model campaign for marketing to African-Americans. When you consider that many African-American mothers were already working outside of the home (especially as domestics for white families), you’ll see that the idea of providing convenient nutrition for one’s children was a real need. Add to this that segregation and Jim Crow were the law of the land and formula was held up as what people of means did (it was expensive!) and you have ripe conditions for breastfeeding and breastmilk to be seen as lowly or uncouth.
There’s also the issue of American culture oversexualizing the breasts. Most people don’t even know that breasts are not sexual organs. We tend to think of breasts created as folly for men, not as the delivery mechanism for food. We literally have generations of people who have never seen or even heard about breastfeeding, so it’s no wonder that the pervasive messaging around breasts confuses them about breastfeeding.
What other special difficulties do African American women face that prevent them from breastfeeding?
There is access, for one. Healthcare provider bias for another. Kimberly is also the author of the Mocha Manual series of books. She is funded by different grant organizations to do research and promote awareness and understanding of breastfeeding as the “first food.” She has coined the term “first food deserts,” places that don’t support breastfeeding. She rates the cities with the best and worst worst breastfeeding polices for black families—and she goes in on the ground floor. She talks to everyone—in church, in the park, in the hospital, to research and discover what it takes for a community to support breastfeeding. She has discovered that most of the cities that have high African-American populations are not breastfeeding-friendly.
Kiddada is the head of the Black Women’s Breastfeeding Association in Detroit, providing breastfeeding support groups. To teach breastfeeding you have to teach the whole family, and in those workshops she brings Moms Rising. She also facilitates racial sensitivity training for healthcare providers dealing with African American families, otherwise known as “cultural competency.”
What is the goal of Black Breastfeeding Week?
To generate activity in the broader African American community, to create more “first food” friendly communities. We know that breastfeeding is more than a lifestyle question. It is a family decision. Kimberly’s term “first-food deserts,” also refers to the fact that most of the hospitals serving the African American community are not breastfeeding hospitals. There are a lot of steps involved for a hospital to be a certified breastfeeding hospital—including hiring trained lactation consultants, deprioritizing formula, etc. It’s a lot.
What are some difficulties women face that can prevent them from being able to breastfeed?
Last year I began work with Moms Rising, which seeks economic security for families, amplifying voices of women and families to change our world. We see that people who work in managerial positions have more freedom than women who work by the hour. The breastfeeding law was passed for women like that. It requires employers to provide a private space and time to pump without being threatening. But we need better paid family leave, better family policies. The importance and idea of family is expanding; we need to honor that. Family is amazing.
We don’t have great support for breastfeeding. In general, breastfeeding has to be supported culturally in order for people’s attitudes to change about it. Families need paid leave in order to have time to establish the breastfeeding relationship and to adjust to their expanded family and new roles. Health insurance and providers have to offer proactive support of breastfeeding even before women are pregnant. It’s going to take efforts in many sectors to see lasting change.
What has Black Breastfeeding Week accomplished?
We stimulated an active, national discussion that has moved breastfeeding from a secretive topic to one that is discussed right along with other discussions on parenting, health, race, and family and community development. We focus on appreciation of mothers and babies and reeducation—bringing solutions away from government action and back to community and family. We approach breastfeeding as a family decision, building communities and support.
You can find more information about Anayah at www.freettobreastfeed.com, and Moms Rising at www.momsrising.org. Information on Kimberly can be found at www.mochamanual.com, and Kiddada can be found at www.blackmothersbreastfeeding.org.You can also find information on Black Mothers Breastfeeding Week at www.facebook.com/BlackBreastfeedingWeek or by searching twitter#BBW13.
Photo taken from the Black Breastfeeding Week Facebook page.