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An unlikely anthropologist doing unlikely work in an unlikely place: critical black breastfeeding in the Mississippi Delta

This essay highlights the nascent conversation on the anthropology of Black breastfeeding. It underscores practices of applying decolonial anthropological methods in order to practice political activism in the Mississippi region of the United States.

By Acquanda Stanford

My participation in a field such as anthropology seems unlikely. Many People of Color, Blacks specifically, have had a justifiable ambivalence, at least, if not an outright disdain for this branch of social science. Gender exclusion coupled with anti-Black racism, in which anthropology help promote have been primary components throughout the life of this discipline. Black women have challenged what many have termed --- the overwhelmingly Eurocentric and male-dominated foundation that remains visible, even present today. What also is unlikely, depending on one’s vantage point, is that working in my own community is an action that is also filled with complications. Historically, Black people who studied anthropology conducted research in their own communities because of de jure and de facto racist segregation, and to refute the dominant discourse on the so-called inferiority of Blackness – though this type of vindication anthropology was still deemed less than, inferior. The notion of ‘objectivity’ – or – being ‘impartial’ was said to be the only way of capturing a community’s true essence, and the only way to truly understand. These days People of Color practice mostly in our own communities because we understand there is a great opportunity for empowerment that comes from within.

I just returned from my first trip to the field. In August 2015 I went to Mississippi USA, in order to survey the area and to gain a greater understanding of Black breastfeeding, an interest that, for me, is just as personal as it is political. My stops were in the Delta, Natchez, and finally the state’s capital, Jackson. Since I was born in the state and have a lengthy history of kin who are from the area, this form of academic activism holds a particular significance. My interest lies in understanding how people of Mississippi experience this biological characteristic in a social setting, and to trace this understanding to the history of African and African Americans in Mississippi, and in the United States as a nation. In other words, I want to know what people think about it, and how these thoughts influence actions – and the origins of the attitudes and behaviors about this biological tradition, and how it can change the conversation among Black people in America.

The benefits of human milk are vast and span the life of an individual. On a practical level some of these include a decrease in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), decreased cases of asthma, decrease in childhood obesity, decreased chances of certain cancers, including breast, ovarian and uterine for nursing women, and decreased cases of gastrointestinal infections (Barber, 2005). Others benefits are a decrease in a child’s chances of developing allergies, better jaw functioning and many others for mom, baby and society as a whole. For Back people, additional layers on both the benefits as well as the complexities are superimposed. Black women’s history with breastfeeding is fraught with dominance and stigma. From forced wet nursing, a legacy of imagery that has castigated Black women, to determining who is and who is not inside of our homes, it all plays a part in the determination of a baby receiving access to the breast. These numbers are felt heavily within the African American community. Black women rank lowest of any group in breastfeeding initiation and duration.

According to a recent report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mississippi ranks the lowest in the country across all categories of breastfeeding. It ranks lowest in initiation = 47.2%, lowest at 6 months = 26%, lowest at 12 months = 13%. Exclusive breastfeeding at just three months is 20%, and at six months it is 7.6%. Interestingly, the state also has some of the highest populations of Black people than other places in the US — about 40%. Without knowing the racial make-up that informs these figures, there is a history that cannot be denied. Mississippi has a history of human enslavement, state-sanctioned violence, overt and covert racist segregation that, to many, continue to manifest itself in various way. I also believe that more than any state in the union Mississippi harbors what I believe is the richest for Black people in terms of radical oppression by the state and radical resistance by the people – many residents and non-residents voluntarily and involuntarily gave their lives to resist dehumanization.

The state, up to this point, has remained unchartered territory when looking to understand breastfeeding from the perspective of critical Black feminist anthropology. Black exclusion from anthropology, Black women’s exclusion – combined with history and low rates of breastfeeding for Black women, means this narrative can make sense. What also remains a strong component is that in the US, this facet of reproduction is most often viewed along a very linear trajectory. Most people view breastfeeding in terms of an act that is only highlighted between a mother and a baby. When I begin to discuss breastfeeding, the question I’m asked most is about my own history of reproduction: how many children I’ve had, what is my breastfeeding history like? Most often when people think about the importance of breastfeeding the first image that seems to be conjured up in their minds is one of a mother and her infant. This is the normative picture in our imagination, since this is how we are expected to think about breastfeeding. But expanding that scope and looking via a more holistic and encompassing lens requires those interested in health and wellness to view this area through a larger framework, and from a different vantage point, with the potential of exploring a brand new set of questions. How do we all contribute to the Black breastfeeding narrative? And, most importantly, how can we change it?

Since my goal is to understand how breastfeeding is experienced among Black people, this is the only group I focused on. Choosing this method is counter to the notion that too often, as I was told in this case, People of Color are suggested we speak to white people in order to get a ‘clear’ and ‘bigger’ picture of a certain aspect: we are told to do this in order to ‘strengthen’ our work. This is nonsense for more than one reason: for starters, it assumes that Blackness can only be validated within the context of whiteness. Now and in the past, whiteness has been the marker by which all others are measured and it continues to place white people as the highest point of society. Second, Black people have a different, more complex history. Like all aspects of our lives, we have a unique set of characteristics that shape and define our realities. Black women in America are the only group of women with a distinct injustice at the breast: it is this group and no others who have ever been forced to use their breasts to feed someone else’s baby. To understand these complexities required interacting with African Americans distinctly to learn what has shaped and what continues to frame the culture of Black breastfeeding.

The research methods I used are below:

1. Employing ‘Random Selection Techniques’. The method of ‘random selection’ was instituted by the pioneering physical anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston. Random Selection involves approaching individuals at random in order to gain participation from an unstructured pool of participants. This method is an integral method for practicing to get a more varied and in-depth response.

2. ‘Felt Theory’. This Indigenous feminist method requires examining our feelings towards a particular history, and bringing those feeling to the surface in order to connect to a history, learn from it and to address those emotions by understanding the historical trauma behind it. For research in Mississippi I worked to conjure up feelings of deep emotional sentiment that would connect me to the location. While on the shore of the Mississippi River in Natchez, for example, peering out on the water I worked to envision the countless people forced on this undeniably beautiful tragic body of water. I made it a point to bring my emotions to the surface, doing an internal examination, envisioning Native and African, and African Americans who had been both forcefully displaced, and forcefully put in place by the grasp of colonial domination. This worked at strengthening not only my academic work, but my activism which fuels any other aspect of advocacy inside and outside of academia.

In addition to providing an opportunity to nourish the next generation, Black breastfeeding holds a special significance in the lives of all Black people, regardless of their past, current or future child status. It can tell us a lot about society as a whole, and allow us the opportunity to understand, in more nuanced ways, the culture and engage with the deep meanings embedded in this biological characteristic. For Black people it speaks to a particular legacy, one where we can tract that history to understand how to change the current conversation on human lactation. Doing so requires changing the narrative, zooming out and examining the greater structure surrounding this tradition.





Bronislaw #01

Acquanda Stanford

Acquanda is a critical Black feminist anthropologist, activist, doula, librarian, Certified Lactation Educator, and PhD Student of Sociocultural Anthropology. Acquanda’s work looks to understand breastfeeding among Black and African Americans in the U.S. Her crucial work focuses on the Mississippi Delta region, where she looks to understand, via a holistic perspective, the greater complexities of breastfeeding.

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BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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