By Andrea Plaid
When it comes to motherhood, Black cisgender women are boxed into a variation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy: the sexless Mammy who loves and feeds, literally and figuratively, almost everyone else, and the Welfare Mother, whose “pathologically loose values” leaves her with children by different fathers and on the government dole. Even our nursing bosoms get caught in this public debate: we see images of Black women breastfeeding white infants, National Geographic-style exoticizing of African women breastfeeding their children, the public side-eyeing via questions of why Black women don’t use the milk Nature provides to give their children the best physical and mental advantages from the start.
Thankfully, Black breastfeeding activists–or “lactivists”–like Elita Kalma step in on the regular and disrupt this dichotomy. I’ve been loving her tweets for a while, and I dig her excellent blog, Blacktating. And other folks dig what she says and does: according to the site, “Elita has been featured in the book, Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat?”, works with Dr. Kathleen Arcaro on her groundbreaking breastmilk and breast cancer research, and has been a featured guest blogger on the South Florida Sun-Sentinel parenting blog, “Moms & Dads,” the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog, and My Brown Baby.”
So, being the curiously crushing-out soul that I am, I just had to interview Kalma about her activism, those aforementioned images, racism and solidarity within lactivist communities, and Beyonce.
A bit about you: where you’re from and your profession. Also, when and how did you become a breastfeeding activist?
I’m a librarian who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I lived in NYC for a few years so I really feel like a Queens girl at heart. I became a breastfeeding activist (or lactivist, as we call ourselves) after the birth of my son in 2007. I found myself so fascinated with breastfeeding since I was always doing it. I was thinking about it and talking about so much I decided to start my blog because I was sure my husband, family and friends were sick of listening to me go on about breastfeeding all of the time.
What are the prevailing popular images when it comes to Black women and breastfeeding? Do you seeing the image(s) changing?
Well, even just a few years ago it was really hard to find photos of modern-looking black women breastfeeding. It was all African/tribal women or really dated photos from old WIC campaigns. That’s definitely changing. More and more companies are using black women as models to sell breastfeeding accessories. The United States Breastfeeding Committee received funding to produce images of breastfeeding to be put in the public domain, and one of the recipients of that funding was the Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition. They created this amazing gallery of over 200 photos of black women breastfeeding that is so diverse. There are photos of moms breastfeeding babies and toddlers, many out in public. I love that the photos include partners and grandmas and siblings, because breastfeeding really is a family affair. It’s just a beautiful collection and those images have ended up in several breastfeeding campaigns and blogs.
One image that’s been appearing nowadays that causes a bit of discomfort is seeing a Black woman feeding a white
child or, more disconcerting, a Black breast feeding a white child. It brings up for some the Mammy stereotype and the traumatic history of Black enslaved women who served as wet nurses for children, both the ones fathered by their white slaveholder and those who were fathered by their Black partners. Thoughts on that?
I find those images really to be really gross, and I find the defending of those images as beautiful by some white lactivists to be really problematic. With our legacy of slavery in this country, I just don’t see how anyone can look at those photos and like them. There are just too many issues of race, class, and power wrapped up in the nursing of a white child by a black woman for me to find any beauty there.
I know that you, for the most part, have mostly praised Beyonce for breastfeeding in public and called it a Black breastfeeding moment. Yet, your praise received borderline racist responses. In your post, you said that “I can’t help but think that race is playing a part in the attitudes and responses from moms I’ve seen online.” Would you mind discussing how race and racism plays out among breastfeeding advocates? Do you get support from other lactivists of color?
I get boatloads of support from other lactivists of color. I think we support each other’s endeavors all of the time. They link to my writing, and I post about their events. What happens is that when the topic of breastfeeding rates comes up, everyone wants to shake their heads and tsk-tsk at the low initiation rates amongst black women. But when the world’s biggest superstar, who happens to be black, breastfeeds the response from many white women was, “What does race matter? Shouldn’t she just be celebrated as a nursing mom?” Well, no. It’s a huge deal that the most A-list celebrity mom to breastfeed to date and sing its praises in a major magazine was black. Some people wanted to downplay the significance which I found interesting. If she’d decided to formula feed, I am for sure that the story would have been that was expected, since black women don’t breastfeed as much.
Read the rest of the interview at the R’s Tumblr.