The news had not been posted for two hours before the brouhaha began on Facebook. Yesterday, myself and two of my comrades in the movement to shift breastfeeding culture in the black community, officially announced August 25-31st—the last week of National Breastfeeding Awareness Month—as Black Breastfeeding Week.
About two weeks ago, I wrote a piece suggesting the need for a Black Breastfeeding Week as a way to highlight awareness to a community that desperately needs more breastfed babies. Days later, while attending the ROSE summit in Atlanta, I sat with Kiddada Green, founder of Detroit’s Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, co-founder of the Brown Mamas Breastfeed Project and Free to Breastfeed and in our excitement and passion for saving black babies, we agreed to launch it this year. The week will be marked with celebratory “fist bump” images to be shared on Facebook, a live interactive webcast via You Tube and a groundbreaking twitter chat, under the inaugural theme: #BlackLivesMatter (get all the info & shareable images here).
But before we could finish uploading the images, there was already a ruckus brewing over at The Leaky Boob Facebook page with over 500 (and counting) divisive comments–many of which were removed by the page administrator because of their racist connotations.
Let me say this. In general, it is tragic to see white people try to tell black people what we do and don’t need. To be clear, this is not about YOU—this effort does not exclude or preclude anyone else from joining in. Please hear me, every time black people get together in solidarity to address problems in their own community, it is not a statement or action toward YOU. In fact, your energy would be better spent thinking about how you can support such a life-saving effort.
Now, to the specifics of breastfeeding. It is not a secret that for over 40 years there has been a gaping racial disparity in breastfeeding rates. The most recent CDC data show that 75% of white women have ever breastfed versus 58.9% of black women. The fact that racial disparity in initiation and even bigger one for duration has lingered for so long is reason enough to take 7 days to focus on the issue, but for those who may be confused by their view from suburbia, blinded by their white privilege or otherwise need more convincing, I’ve put together (Letterman style) the Top 5 Reasons Why We Need a Black Breastfeeding Week.
5. Black babies are dying at twice the rate (in some place, nearly triple) the rate of white babies. This is a fact. 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%. So when I say breastfeeding is a life or death matter, this is what I mean. And it is not up for debate or commenting. This is the only reason I have ever needed to do this work, but I will continue with the list anyway.
4. When you look at all the health conditions that breast milk—as the most complete “first food,” has been proven to reduce the risks of—African American children have them the most. From upper respiratory infections and Type II diabetes to asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and childhood obesity—these issues are rampant in our communities. And breast milk is the best preventative medicine nature provides. This is a public health issue in our community not a lifestyle choice. FYI, Black women don’t always have those.
3. Not only are there blatant racial disparities in breastfeeding rates, there is a blatant disparity in breastfeeding leadership as well. It is not debatable that breastfeeding advocacy is white female-led. This is a problem. For one, it unfortunately perpetuates the common misconception that black women don’t breastfeed. It also 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. This is a week to discuss the lack of diversity among lactation consultants and to change our narrative. A time to highlight, celebrate and showcase the breastfeeding champions in our community who are often invisible. And to make sure that breastfeeding leadership also reflects the same parity we seek among women who breastfeed.
2. While many of the “booby traps”™ to breastfeeding are universal, Black women also have unique cultural barriers and a complex history connected to breastfeeding. From our role as wet nurses in slavery being forced to breastfeed and nurture our slave owners children often to the detriment of our children, to the lack of mainstream role models and multi-generational support , to our own stereotyping within our community—we have a different dialogue around breastfeeding and it needs special attention.
1. Many African American communities are “first food deserts”—it’s a term I coined to describe the desert like conditions in many urban areas I visited where women cannot access support for the best first food-breast milk. It is not fair to ask women, any woman, to breastfeed when she lives in a community that is devoid of support. It is a set up for failure. Please watch this video and educate yourself on the conditions in many vulnerable communities about what you can do (beyond leaving comments on blogs) to help transform these areas from “first food deserts” into First Food Friendly neighborhoods.
And the bonus #1 reason why we need a Black Breastfeeding Week is: Because. We. Said. So. We, the people who are from and of the black community. Those of us who are respected for leading the charge in increasing breastfeeding rates among black women. Those of us who are on the ground, doing the work and working for change. Those of us who have faced the cultural struggles while breastfeeding our own children and want something better for future mothers and babies. I’m confident that the majority of people who are complaining about Black Breastfeeding Week haven’t seen what I’ve seen. They haven’t driven some 30 miles outside Birmingham, AL just to find a breastfeeding support group–or other urban areas where La Leche League doesn’t exist. They haven’t held a premature baby who desperately needs breast milk but keeps spitting up formula. They haven’t stood on street corners and in front of WIC offices surveying new mothers and fathers, who said that their doctors never even gave them information about breastfeeding. They have likely never stepped into a black community or a black home or a black church to understand the lack of resources available or the negative sentiment and myths that linger about breastfeeding. So until you have walked where I have walked, seen what I have seen and stood where I have stood, please do not have the audacity to tell me and my community what we do and do not need.
Yes, we are all in this together. But some of us need more attention to get us there.
Kimberly Seals Allers