Barbara D. Robertson interviews Anayah R. Sangodele-Ayoka and Jeanine Valrie Logan, authors of Free to Breastfeed:Voices of Black Mothers about their work, experiences as breastfeeding mothers, and what they hope to accomplish.
A book, a website, a movement
Barbara: How did the two of you meet?
Jeanine: Anayah and I met on Facebook. We are both from Chicago, have a couple of mutual friends, and share a common interest in becoming midwives. We both had our first child in 2010 and began to communicate about parenting. It’s really funny because the first time we met in person was over a year after our campaign to promote the visibility of African-American women who breastfeed, Brown Mamas Breastfeed (BMB). Technology is amazing.
Barbara: Why did you feel the calling to create? Free to Breastfeed:Voices of Black Mothers?
Jeanine: The idea was actually the result of the BMB project. We are both bloggers. Anayah reached out to me about a post I wrote and suggested we do a project with both of our blogs, highlighting Black breastfeeding mamas and why they love breastfeeding. This was launched on Mother’s Day. We wanted to inundate the internet with beautiful photos of Black breastfeeding. Needless to say, we got a great response.
Anayah: We had become parents for the first time and breastfeeding added a whole other layer. The bonding and personal empowerment and the health benefits, of course, for mother and baby.
We were both dismayed that we didn’t see much diversity in images of women breastfeeding. We would get calls from people looking for diverse images and we could say, “Hey, here are some!” We made them freely available. We just ask them to credit us.
Almost every one who responded included a lengthy narrative with her photo. We were struck by what was an obvious desire to be heard as well as seen. It got us thinking about how the attention to disparities in breastfeeding rates can be disempowering to African-American women. Free to Breastfeed makes the case for the consideration of Black women as complex human individuals, rather than a population with a problem needing to be fixed by others.
We soon found ourselves becoming advocates on a larger scale. We had a greater impact by continuing to produce materials that told the Black breastfeeding woman’s story. The book was born from that. Launching it brought fun opportunities to offer information and for people to connect. Watch Our Breastfeeding Journey.
Barbara: So, you started out wanting to diversify the images, but then it turned into a book.
Anayah: When people sent us their images we asked people to answer three questions:
- How long have you breastfeed?
- Why did you breastfeed?
- Why is it important for you, as a Black mother, to breastfeed?
The responses were really poignant and eloquent. So we expanded the project to call for narratives, poetry, and stories, as well as photos. The response was great.
Jeanine: The images and the videos that we put on YouTube went viral. So many people wanted to connect with us, and have us present at workshops or anything like that. It really touched people. I realized there really wasn’t anything like this on the market. There are some technical books, which is great, but that information isn’t really going to change much.
Sh*t People Say to Breastfeeding Women
Barbara: What surprised you the most when gathering Black mothers’ breastfeeding stories?
Anayah: I’ve been most surprised by the latent breastfeeding advocate that seems to be hiding out in so many breastfeeding mothers. It’s not difficult to find women who breastfeed and want to spread the word to both celebrate their accomplishment and encourage other mothers. I think that’s really phenomenal. These women are saying, “We do breastfeed!” and see Free to Breastfeed as an opportunity to help support moms they may never meet to do the same. A lot of the women were really compassionate about not shaming women who didn’t or couldn’t breastfeed. That awareness was also really touching to me.
Barbara: Why stories, not statistics?
Jeanine: Stories, that’s a different level of connection and impact. The narrative is that Black women don’t breastfeed, but rarely is the narrative actually from Black women. Rarely do we hear our stories of why we did or didn’t try. So we wanted to create a space where we could talk about breastfeeding from a place of empowerment, and not from a space where we are waiting for somebody else to initiate it. It’s really surprising that, even in the short time we have been doing this, there is more visibility. Sisters are making the way for Black women and breastfeeding to be on the frontline, lots of initiatives and programming. This is the only breastfeeding book talking about our culture, our legacy, history, and families, things that are empowering our communities. However these women came to breastfeed—or love breastfeeding—they are doing something revolutionary both as mothers and community members.
You can read about statistics anywhere, and how Black women in America are the least likely to initiate breastfeeding, and for those that do, the duration is shorter. What you don’t see or hear is any acknowledgement on the shift in the current trend with more Black women initiating breastfeeding. You don’t hear about these mamas that are creating a cultural shift. You don’t hear about the activism and advocacy that Black women are doing to change the highly visible, predominantly White breastfeeding culture. You won’t easily read about our legacies and cultural wisdom as it pertains to breastfeeding. The world never hears our narratives and our stories, since many of them are being written for us. All of these things are why I see this book as more about agency, resilience, commitment, and empowerment. Whatever moved these women to come to breastfeeding, these are acts of revolution and resilience that will radically change their families and their communities in the most fundamental way.
Barbara: You have each used the word “justice.” Anayah, your bio. says “reproductive justice,” and Jeanine, you use the words “birth justice.” What do you mean by those words?
Jeanine: Birth justice is a newer term that has evolved from the tenets of the “Reproductive Justice” movement. [A Black women’s caucus first coined the term, naming themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice at the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance Conference in Cairo, Egypt in November 1994, to begin to address the specific needs of Black women.] Birth Justice is part of this larger movement and acts to resist reproductive oppressions. It looks at the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality etc., and how our place in these social domains is directly and intentionally related to our poor experiences surrounding birth. Birth justice continues to address racism within the medical industrial complex, the prison complex, and other institutional systems that influence and fuel inequities in the birth outcomes of women of color, especially for Black women. Lastly, birth justice also works to increase access to culturally specific birth care, breastfeeding support, and the right to choose if, when, and how many babies we want. When I speak of birth justice, I speak of Reproductive Justice as well.
Barbara: Were you two breastfed yourselves? How did you become breastfeeding women?
Anayah: I was. I come from a breastfeeding family.
Jeanine: I was not breastfed myself. I tell my story in the preface to the book. It is actually my mother’s story. She had very dense breast tissue and began having surgeries to remove cysts when she was 13 years old. So by the time she had me 10 years later, in the ‘70s, physicians were saying she should not breastfeed because it might increase her risk for breast cancer. Now, obviously, that’s not true. So she didn’t breastfeed me, and hearing her tell that story throughout my childhood, she was always saying that “this information I got was wrong. When you have your children, you really should think about doing this.” My mom died when she was 43 years old from breast cancer. Now I am 36 and I can’t imagine being dead in a few years, and not having had the opportunity to do something as simple as nurse my children, or have someone discourage me from doing that. One of my biggest commitments has been encouraging Black women to breastfeed.
Barbara: Breast cancer rates are very high in Black women, yet we don’t really hear people talking about prevention. They talk about cures.
Jeanine: Oh my gosh, this really gets under my skin because we know that up until recently we were talking about Black women dying of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer because we weren’t getting screened regularly, but we know now that that even screening is not as preventative as it was thought to be. It really bothers me: I don’t want to call it the breast-cancer industry, that whole market around “curing” breast cancer, and we do need a cure. I think there’s a really powerful opportunity, especially in the African-American community, to talk about one of the few things that is within our control to prevent breast cancer, which is breastfeeding. We are missing a powerful opportunity to help. When breastfeeding is discussed in the media, we are allowing the conversation to be dominated by discussions of breastfeeding as a lifestyle choice when, for us, our work is really centered on saving Black women’s lives, saving babies’ lives. There is an opportunity to take a stand, have a powerful voice to move breastfeeding forward in African-American communities that’s not being taken and I wish it was. It all motivates our work!
Barbara: A lot of people who are not Black have a lot of ideas about how to help Black mothers be more successful with breastfeeding. Where are they going wrong?
Jeanine: Anytime a person sets out to help someone without inviting that someone to speak about their own perception of their needs, it becomes a recipe for disaster. I believe the best intentions don’t make up for non inclusivity and the continued disregard of the voices of women of color. Not only does this happen with breastfeeding, but also within the entire birth culture. Some organizations are getting hip, and reaching out to Black people to understand their role in advocating for Black women. But there is still a long way to go. Realistically, there need to be more women of color—and especially Black IBCLCs and birth workers—trained to support Black women in meeting their goals. This may mean that allies offer to mentor Black women and support their training by offering more scholarships. Whatever the help is, it cannot exclude the Black mother’s voice, what she feels she needs to better herself as a mother and community member.
Barbara: How can IBCLCs best support Black women?
Anayah: Again, I don’t think this work is done in isolation. There are many gatekeepers along the road to breastfeeding success, often starting with the IBCLC. Until there are more IBCLCs of color, there has to be an increase in the number of those that work within Black communities, ones who will make home visits, ones that offer sliding-scale or free services. The peer counselor is an amazing role, usually someone that lives within the community. We also have to utilize these women as they are supporting mothers on the margins, modeling breastfeeding success, as well as offering tangible, professional skills within their communities.
Jeanine: An IBCLC can mentor. She can provide shadowing, so that women of color can get those 1,000 (clinical) hours, and educational opportunities or training for peer counselors. There need to be more people in communities who know how to support breastfeeding. Doing small things can be really important.
Anayah: Providing continuity of care, having care be seamless, more internships in community settings, being involved in the community, community groups, Baby Cafés, taking opportunities to develop cultural competencies. There are some excellent programs. Kiddada Green, with the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, has great training. In a clinical setting, you have to be able to think about that woman’s life, her economic situation, her family situation, and how those things relate to you as a clinical provider. You need to understand someone on a human level, not just as a demographic, not just the statistics.
Anayah: Most women are going to face social and cultural barriers. They may be in her own family, the doubts over a mother’s milk supply, not seeing others mothers breastfeeding, or bad information about a need to toughen up her nipples with a brush.
Jeanine: When I took my breastfeeding training, we had about 500 people in the room, there were three IBCLCs. They had wonderful Power Points and were very professional. But for the whole five days, when anything came up about culture they would say, ‘Well you know, Black women don’t particularly breastfeed so you might struggle with that’. And there I was in the third row, my baby four months old, pumping all day long for my Black baby, with my Black woman self. And I was like, wow! That was the first time I had heard Black women don’t breastfeed, because here I was doing it. I guess I don’t count. I felt like those statements were racist, culturally insensitive. How irresponsible to tell a room of full of lactation professionals that as you grow in your career, don’t worry so much about the Black women because they aren’t going to breastfeed anyway. They were uncultured around the perceived needs for what women that look like me need. Professions without much diversity provide a framework which can be very biased. When you have people who have nothing to do with the people they are serving, even the best intentions are void. You can go in there wanting to do good work, but operating from this predisposed ideology, bred in America, then you are going to be culturally insensitive.
Barbara: So perhaps the profession is perpetuating the myth and making it stronger that Black women don’t breastfeed?
Anayah: When our health care providers have low expectations, those expectations matter. As a student nurse, my role is to educate and empower my patients to make the best decisions possible. We can’t believe that while saying it’s not going to work anyway, so you just do what you can. It has to be our mission to give mothers the confidence and support to breastfeed. We need to remove barriers.
It’s not easy for anyone to become comfortable with the dynamics of power shifting, but I think it can be done. Whether your organization is racist is the last question to be asked because it shuts the door. The key is to think critically about how the population deserves to be served.
Jeanine: To be proactive we need concrete goals. For example, by this year, we will have X number more woman of color certified as IBCLCs.
Anayah: We need to approach community colleges and ask them about how we can help low-income women become IBCLCs. We have to go outside of what we have always done.
Barbara: What is your vision for Black mothers and breastfeeding in the United States?
Jeanine: I envisage more social support. Research has shown that by the time a woman is 12 weeks pregnant she has already made the decision whether or not she will breastfeed. More Black IBCLCs and peer counselors finding and accessing the support they need to reach their goals. I hope that Free to Breastfeed finds its way into the hands of a woman who hadn’t thought about breastfeeding and that it encourages her to do so. I envision more visibility for Black women. It’s really that simple.
Anayah: My vision is that every Black woman has witnessed positive breastfeeding experiences prior to becoming a mother, has competent and compassionate support, people she knows she can count on, economic stability, and paid family leave to spend time transitioning into parenthood, with a real opportunity to grow into the new parent-child relationship through breastfeeding.
Teach Me How to Breastfeed