Forced wet nursing during slavery and then wet nursing for survival post-Civil War caused untold pain in the black community that still resides with us today. In my opinion, wet nursing is the primary contributor to the low breastfeeding rate among black women in America. When breastfeeding rates are as low as is currently evidenced among black women, babies and families alike suffer. Because breastfeeding produces so many health benefits to children and mothers, when breastfeeding is noticeably absent in such high numbers, black babies aren’t as healthy as they could be. Today, this may not have been the case had black mothers been able to nurse their own children throughout American history instead of being forced to work the fields or be house slaves.
On the farther end of the spectrum, wet nursing was yet another factor that kept black women from bonding with their children both during slavery and afterward. Black women so often were nursing white children that their own children were not able to benefit from the healing properties of breast milk and the natural bond between mother and child. These reasons alone make wet nursing one of the worst institutions imposed upon black women. That’s why I don’t think it’s funny or hip for black women to become or even think about becoming wet nurses today.
TIME magazine ran a piece on April 19 called Outsourcing Breast Milk. In it, Jeninne Lee-St.John, the writer, spoke to a black woman who gleefully (it seems) is a wet nurse.
Brenda (whose last name is withheld to protect her clients’ privacy), 42, has wet-nursed 10 babies in the past seven years partly to help send her own two kids to college. She has mulled over the social implications of her work–because she’s black and eight of the families she has worked for are white. “A friend asked me, Don’t you feel like you’re the mammy?” she recalls. But she finds her job fulfilling, and sometimes amusing. “If you’re someplace with the family and the baby starts to pull at your blouse or put his hand in your bra, that can be embarrassing,” she says, laughing.
How can any black woman in good conscience become a modern-day mammy? I know the money is good, but somewhere the line has to be drawn. There are simply too many historical implications around the wet nursing travesty that has led to devastating breastfeeding rates among black women today. In truth, I didn’t know black women were still being wet nurses and I certainly don’t want to see it happen in large numbers