12 Real Life Photos of Black Mothers Breastfeeding, Regardless of What Statistics Say

12 Real Life Photos of Black Mothers Breastfeeding, Regardless of What Statistics Say

You Can no longer deny why We Need Black Breastfeeding Week

It is understood around the world that women of color, specifically black women, face the most complex challenges in maternal, birth, and breastfeeding support. Maternal death, black infant mortality, and black breastfeeding rates at their peak, are still considerably low regarding initiation and continuation, although these rates have improved in comparison to numbers from the past. Black women in the United States are plagued with obstacles every day that help them to decide to quit breastfeeding and prevent them from continuing to nourish and nurture their children – our children. The obstacles are plenty, however the ones that stick out like a sore thumb are breastfeeding in slavery and the ignorance about it among the privileged, the way these horrific images of human bondage still affect the community of black breastfeeding mothers, and the evidence that the black breastfeeding mother has yet to be incorporated into modern breastfeeding literature in the form of positive breastfeeding media and imagery, which in turn alienates black women at the time of birth discouraging them from pursuing breastfeeding because they may be the only one in their family to ever do so.

When I decided to write this article in solidarity of Black History Month and black breastfeeding awareness week, I used Google to research the available imagery online of “black history breastfeeding”; and guess what I found? Among a few professional stock images, I not only found images, but Breastfeeding Portraits, of black women who were enslaved, sitting uncomfortably with the white babies whom they were forced to feed. “Saddened” didn’t begin to describe my emotions. How about agitated? Confused? Shocked? I was incredibly provoked to think that hardly any real life images existed of black women or of black FAMILIES who were consciously choosing to nourish their young with breast milk. My mother recently shared a photograph that my father captured of her breastfeeding me. I was very emotional about it since it was 7 years after I had my first child, and I had previously only witnessed one other black woman breastfeeding in my lifetime. She was the first mom I photographed for this campaign (above).

 

Black Breastfeeding History 101 – Americans Have an Ugly Truth to Face

More than 150 years ago, enslaved black women were forced to feed and raise the children of their masters. Under strict guidelines black slaves were required, unwillingly, to wet-nurse these [white] children giving them priority over their own. The alternative, of course, was to be beaten or whipped. The black and white babies were not allowed to share the same breast as it was compared to whites not being able to drink from the same water faucet. The infant mortality rate during this time was 28-50% and some records show that mothers may have smothered their own babies to spare them from a life of slavery.

If all of this is not horrifying enough, shortly after slavery was abolished many black women suffered from infant loss due to impoverished living that led to the lack of the necessary maternity care. Some of these women sought employment as a paid wet nurse and were often asked to sit for a professional portrait with the white child who they were nursing.

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This woman was a paid wet nurse, after the time when slavery was abolished. As many black women suffered loss of their infants, lactation would give them the ability to work in this way.

 

I honestly did not recall anything about this aspect of black history from my high school history classes. LAST WEEK, I came across an image of this enslaved woman breastfeeding (above). When I shared it on our public Facebook page it hardly received engagement in comparison to many other posts, so I re-posted it in our closed group and opened up the topic for discussion. Almost every response was clear, this topic was not being discussed or even mentioned in history many followers were completely unaware of this horrific truth.

 

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Posted to Facebook on 2/18/15

 

Here are some of the comments from that public post and the closed group re-post:

“Thank you for the honesty in this post. I was on another page with a similar picture and the commentary was so ugly. Sometimes the truth is terrible.” M.B.

“My feminism class just a had a discussion on the roles of women in the 1800’s leading up to the civil war. I was grossly disappointed in the complete lack of mention of this issue. I’m actually going to touch on it in my research paper for the class and hopefully get to present it. If you had any good scholarly sources please share.” F.L.

“Thank you for shedding light on this ugly aspect of slavery and breastfeeding. We have come so far, yet there is still much work to be done.” K.N.

“I don’t get a lot of hits when I share posts with proof of racial issues past & present. Only when I post opinions that ppl don’t like but those same ppl going in on opinions are no where to be found when you post things with undeniable evidence such as pics. We can’t move on pretending things like this never happened. White denial = white consent. White privilege at it’s finest.” C.P.

“People are quick to bring up the decreases rates of breastfeeding in the black community but they fail to acknowledge WHY. The negative associations that were produced from the torture these women experienced were passed down from generation to generation.” L.J.

I didn’t “like” this post on either page because it makes me so sad. That was such a terrible time in our history where we treated other human beings so horribly. Sure, plenty of other races have been enslaved similarity, as the Egyptians did to their own people, but this happened in OUR very country. I am so glad that the Civil Rights Movement occurred. I only hope that this Normalize Breastfeeding project helps push another civil rights-ish movement for breastfeeding in EVERY community.” B.G.

It’s something to be proud of, our ancestors were strong women and though the slavery wasn’t the best they did what they had to in order to ensure that we could stand tall today. Take a look back and really think about it then understand our problems are nowhere near the caliber of theirs.” N.G.

“Thank god you can produce enough milk for a baby with one breast. I didn’t know this either.” T.S.

In college, I learned about these types of situations in slavery, but they did not have any direct effect on my life until I became a “black breastfeeding mother.” Then, and only then was I able to look at these depictions of human cruelty and realize the overwhelming depth of disparities and inequities that African American women face in modern culture. I am a a first generation Ghanaian-American woman and breastfeeding is praised in our culture. My great great grandfather was actually a Swiss-German missionary who married my great great Ghanaian grandmother. My mother, grandmother, great grandmother and great, great, grandmother were never enslaved, and each were free to breastfeed their babies in their own right. Unfortunately, far too often today, African American families are being raised with the mentality that breastfeeding is “that slavery stuff.”

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These images speak a truth about our people, beyond bondage, the ability of our ancestors dig down deep and into a pit of humility by caring for the children of the masters who once enslaved them.

 

Sherry Payne, a leading educator in maternal and infant mortality, and breastfeeding disparities and inequities shared her thoughts with me about these topics:

“African-American women and men are reclaiming breastfeeding as a cultural and human right. When I see young African American women mothering their babies through breastfeeding, I remind them that they are the vanguard of a new generation, and a new hope for our community. Child rearing without violence and indifference begins with breastfeeding. It is so much more than nutrition. It will restore vitality and positivity to the parenting role.” – Sherry Payne, MSN, RN, CNE, IBCLC
Normalizing Black Breastfeeding Today

There is purpose behind this article. It is to shed light on the ugliest part of normalizing breastfeeding in America, the history of breastfeeding for African American families. It is to open the eyes of the privileged to accept the evident truth that the STRUGGLE IS REAL for black breastfeeding moms and “breast is best” does’t fit into every family dynamic. Yet it is also to share with my readers, some of my own beautifully captured modern moments and inspirational photographs of black breastfeeding women in real life, today. These women were photographed throughout my journey as the only black birth photographer in San Diego County, over the past 4 years. Some were photographed specifically for this Breastfeeding Awareness Media Campaign. (Images of myself were taken under my instruction, by my wonderful 1st Assistant, Marhait Santillan.)

NEW! 11 Candid Photos Ode to Normalizing Black Breastfeeding Week 

Black Breastfeeding | BlackBreastfeeding.org
Black Breastfeeding | BlackBreastfeeding.org

Black Breastfeeding | BlackBreastfeeding.org

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Black Breastfeeding | BlackBreastfeeding.org

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Black Breastfeeding | BlackBreastfeeding.org

Black Breastfeeding | BlackBreastfeeding.org

My hope is that my Breastfeeding Portrait Photography, through this campaign, will one day be what is seen when you research “black breastfeeding” on Google. Only time will tell, yet once our people are surrounded by the inescapable beauty of our roots throughout breastfeeding literature, through community solidarity by exemplifying African culture, we will undoubtedly see a spike in black breastfeeding rates across the country for years to come.

34 thoughts on “12 Real Life Photos of Black Mothers Breastfeeding, Regardless of What Statistics Say

  1. It brings into question the value of breastfeeding in these white slave owners. If the black woman was so lowly and that everything about her was impure, why did they entrust the nourishment of their ‘superior’ white offspring from the bodies of these black women? Could it be because

    1. The black woman was no more than a milk-producing cattle,
    or
    2. Breastfeeding was considered a dirty job that the white mother shouldn’t be burdened with. (Nobody says breastfeeding is easy even now.)
    or
    3. They didn’t value their own babies’ need for maternal security because their wealth ensured that other needs were met.

    I still don’t have the answer re black wet-nurses and white babies.

    (I am from a culture where breastfeeding is celebrated and wet-nurses have near sainthood status. I cannot imagine not breastfeeding my own child and she is now three years old)

  2. Ann Russell, IBCLC, RLC

    There is a book, a work of fiction, Yellow Crocus, by Laila Ibrahim, that tells the story of a slave, nursing her own LO, who leaves her quarters and her infant to nurse the infant of the master and mistress of the plantation. It is layered and complicated emotionally, heart wrenching and heart breaking. It traces the relationship of this slave and the girl into adulthood.

    http://www.amazon.com/Yellow-Crocus-Laila-Ibrahim/dp/1477824758

  3. Beautiful pictures. The one of the two babies hding hands is so sweet. Thank you for writing this article. I had no idea and it breaks my heart. Continue your good work!

  4. This article has been mind blowing. It’s so sad to see that even the most delicate rights were taken away from people. Am Faith, a 20 year old University Nigerian student. Nigeria is located in Africa, and we celebrate breastfeeding. Infact, there are very rare cases of mothers who don’t breast feed in Nigeria.

  5. Thank you for this. When I had my eldest (she’s six now), I immediately decided I wanted to breastfeed. Not that I had any idea what it really meant. I’d never been around any breastfeeding family or friends, or anyone breastfeeding, period. And at twenty-two, I didn’t have many, or any, friends that were interested in trying. It never occurred to me that I’d never seen a black woman breastfeeding until I was nursing my daughter, and my SIL asked me where I learned to do it. Sad, I know. Here we were, two young, healthy black women with babies, and neither of us had had any exposure to breastfeeding. I’m lucky that I had my family who supported me, and my mother had a friend who turned out to be my best unofficial coach. Not everyone is that fortunate. It’s sad that I still see so many young mothers refusing to breastfeed for whatever reason (vanity, public shaming, ignorance), but I’m glad that it’s changing.

  6. Wow i love this article, i never knew this happen in black history. It just make me more proud that i breastfeed. im 25 years old and i never seen black moms breastfeed until recently.

  7. I think breastfeeding is one of the most beautiful and important moments a mother and child can share. I have personally breast fed both of my children each for about 5 years. I also have fed multiple nieces and nephews. I have in the past also donated my milk for the preemies in a children’s hospital.

  8. I have to disagree with this article. Those pictures of black women breastfeeding white babies came about years ago. Most black wet nurses were actually compensated to take care of the white babies. Their babies were also well fed and taken care of. They were not forced to choose which they fed and their babies were not starved in order to feed the white babies. And the picture shown of the woman feeding the white baby with both of her breasts out was not a slave but a well compensated wet nurse. As for black women not breastfeeding I have no idea why they wouldn’t but when my little one was in the NICU there were plenty of black women in their that breastfed their children.

    • Thanks for your comment these black women were paid AFTER slaver was abolished, however during slavery that was not possible. Also, when the discussion arises about black women have the lowest statistics this is referring to breastfeeding their babies at 6 months and 1 year. In the NICU, everyone knows that breastmilk is best and with the support from the nurses so much is possible. Black women face a huge drop in support when they return home and either family doesn’t want to accommodate their decision, they have to return to work, or they deal with breastfeeding being looked down upon as a class issue.

  9. Mama of two

    Wonderful article. As a strong black woman of two children I think breastfeeding goes beyond slavery. It’s the stigma of today’s world hanging over all nursing mothers. Breastfeeding is seen as something to be kept under the covers behind close doors. It’s viewed as shameful among many in society which intern places more pressure on mothers. I nursed my first born for a year. My second born I am still going strong at 2 1/2 years. I plan to let him self ween himself. Sadly the world around me does or will not agree.

    • You are totally right. It’s sad to read some of the comments surrounding women who breastfeed in public . Anyone would think it is a natural bodily function ! I can’t understand why people get so upset .

  10. Thank you for sharing both your photos and the history. As an adoptive mother of 5. breastfeeding is one of the things I feel I was deprived of as a new Mom. Only 1 of my 5 was young enough but I couldn’t find help in my area to try breastfeeding an adopted baby. For 25 years I worked with low-income families with young children or who were pregnant. Two of the biggest barriers I saw were 1) support of a partner or spouse and immediate family. 2) the new Mom’s previous exposure to breastfeeding. If her own mother, sisters, aunts and cousins did it then her chances of at least attempting to breastfeed were much greater. If she wasn’t exposed to breastfeeding at a young (prepubescent) age as a natural part of pregnacy, childbirth and nurturing her new baby then the chances a Mom would even attempt it are very low, no matter her race or socioeconomic status. I also worked with a large population of native American Mom’s and found the breastfeeding rates among them to be even lower than other woman.

  11. Very interesting information. I was bottle fed because my mother was told that it was the best thing for her baby. My sister was born 18 months later. My mother couldn’t afford formula, so she was breast fed. She always had a closer relationship with out mother than I did. I believe that breast feeding played a part in that relationship.

  12. I love the expression of the woman in the last photo of the black woman holding the white baby. She may have been a slave, but this photo has the last word more than 100 years later. Her expression is so deep and carries so much weight.

    Thank you for writing about this. I had no idea all that happened. It’s truly sickening to take something as sacred and beloved as nursing and force it on a person. I can’t imagine what these women must have felt. My heart mourns for these women.

    The photos at the end are all beautiful. The woman tandem nursing with her babies holding hands – wow – what a special moment to capture.

  13. antrinekwa robinson

    Thanks for sharing this!!! I thought the same way years ago when I had my baby at 14 years old.I was never educated at the hospital about breastfeeding. Now after having eight children 7 girls and one boy lol.. I wish I could had breasted all of my children. I only breasted my last to my son and my baby girl who is 9 months now.I really enjoy the bond that we share it is awesome.When I’m out in public people just stair at me I Dont care because I’m taking care of my baby’s health needs.The way she look at me is priceless. Oh and one of my daughters had a baby which is my grandson she breastfeed him as well.

  14. I enjoyed this article and I had recently started researching the same topic. The author Vanessa Simmons and I have a few things in common and I’d like to connect with her. I am also Ghanian American, my dad was from Accra and I grew up there. I am a model and a new mom and my brother is a photographer, ohene photography is his company. Is there a way I can reach Vanessa?

  15. I disagree with this article. I know the truth of slavery and breast feeding but this is NOT why we don’t breast feed. The uncomfortable truth is the rate at which black women are having children , single, fatherless abs many in poverty. Most women in America with the boom of the workforce stopped breastfeeding and started bottle feeding. Black women still were breastfeeding. The family dynamic and socioeconomic factors of the black family have SO changed that most black women have to bottle feed. We need to address fatherlessness in our community affecting these statistics, not slavery.

    • Slavery may not be the only reason, but it plays a part in the attitudes and generalizations about breastfeeding that are negative in connotation. Black women breastfed other children against their will up until the duration of the Civil Rights Movement. The feminist movement came shortly thereafter, and nursing fell out of fashion, usually seen as something impoverished women do. That hasn’t been long ago. So those attitudes that were shared by our great grandmother and grandmothers about breastfeeding influence us as well. It is a mixed bag…but to say slavery hasn’t left an impression is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    • I totally agree with you and that’s why I believe it doesn’t matter what race you are women do not breastfeed like they used to. I’m currently pregnant and plan to breastfeed. I have four friends ahead of me that had their babies with the same intent none of them breastfeed. Their all white. I believe it’s very difficult to do and its just too convenient to give up in our day and age. But it used to be their only option to provide proper nourishment.

  16. I admit I have been ignorant in the past, I’ve always noticed a lack of black breastfeeding mothers but never thought as to why… Being fresh out of high school; I wish they had included this into our black history month or just in general in any humanitarian studies! It’s sad to think that something so awful still has a hold over so many mothers. My heart aches for these women.

  17. As an African American woman, I breastfed all 3 of my children. I had my first at 21. I’m glad I was able to bond with them and the lazy side of me did not have to get up in the night to make a bottle…lol. I loved it and would do it again.

  18. Cecelia Secor

    Thank you for sharing…even the horrific historic photos. It helps to understand why more African American woman have not been breast feeding.

  19. Beautiful photographs of beautiful women. I especially love the photo where the twins are holding each other’s hands while they feed. So precious. Thank you for shining a light on the impact of slavery on current breastfeeding practices.

  20. Cassandra Lockshaw

    This made me so emotional! I’ll admit that I had no idea this happened to enslaved black women. No wonder s many women of the African American community have such negative feelings towards breastfeeding. I really hope your pictures can help to heal these wounds for African American mothers and can instead fill them with feeling of love and admiration at what their bodies can do for their babies. These pictures are beautiful and this history lesson is heartbreaking but thank you for sharing it with us!

    • Thank you Cassandra! Healing the wounds is of the older generation may be the way to better support and influence this young generation. If my photographs can accomplish that then my job here is done! Blessings!

  21. Aimee Camello

    This is emotional in so many ways. It’s disgusting to think this type of slavery occurred. I can’t believe this was never talked about!?!??! I can only imagine how subjectified these poor women felt feeding the mouths of other infants and not being able to give to their own first. It’s heartbreaking and angers me.

    On a side note, your pictures are stunning. I love BF photography. I wish I was courageous enough to BF in public, let alone have photos taken. Luckily I have a few on my phone so I may never forget the love shared through breastfeeding. Too often do we forget to just bask in the glory that is breastfeeding. ❤️ With all my love, I give to thee. That which flows from my body❤️

    Aimee (mother of 4 delightful children)

  22. I loved this article. All the pictures bring tears to my eyes but for different reasons. Our country’s past and the suffering black women had to endure makes me sad as a woman and as a mother. However, the pictures of the mothers breastfeeding today are so beautiful! I love seeing pictures of babies feeding (breast or bottle) just as much as I love seeing my own babies breastfeeding. They just always look so content and happy in their parents arms. Their faces are so calm and the parent’s face is also so serene. Just beautiful.


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