The tragic events in Ferguson have exposed an inconvenient truth about which lives matter in the United States. About how stereotypes and unspoken fears lead to unsubstantiated actions with dangerous, life-ending consequences. As we learned that Michael Brown's body laid in the street for over an hour without detectives' attention, we saw firsthand the power of negative stereotypes to influence inhumane behavior. Like many mothers of young black males (mine is only 10 years old), I wept in fear for my own son, his future and for the feeling of powerlessness that many of us experience about the future and safety of our boys, even among those who are being paid by our tax dollars to serve and protect. I wept in disgust over the pervading sentiment that our children's lives are worth less than others and the prevailing narrative that as black people we don't care about ourselves either.
What does this have to do with Black Breastfeeding Week? Everything. While breastfeeding is a critical health imperative in our community as we battle unconscionably high infant mortality rates and poor infant and child health statistics, it is also a gesture of empowerment and self-determination. Black Breastfeeding Week is a declaration that we as black mothers will not settle for a manufactured artificial food substance that is aggressively peddled particularly in our low-income communities via WIC programs. We will not give in to being sold on the message that we can settle for "good enough." We will not quickly give in to the corporate influences and profit-making interests that want us to feed our babies synthetic food from birth and then flood our communities with poor food options, liquor stores and cigarette advertising. We are eyes wide open to the system that from day one of life wants to give our babies less than, give our schools less than, give our communities less than, then treat our young men as less than.
It's about that high-ranking WIC official who said directly to me, when explaining why there were no breastfeeding peer counselors in her office (despite having the funding to do so), that "most of these women don't care about their babies, anyway."
Yeah, that happened.
Breastfeeding is our symbol to the world that I will make my best effort to commit to giving my baby the best first food possible, despite my circumstances. And if for some reason I am unable to, then it was not for lack of trying. It is our statement that our babies matter. Their health matters. My health matters (breastfeeding reduces a mother's risk of heart disease and breast and ovarian cancer). Our lives matter. Even if they don't to you, they matter to me and mine.
Breastfeeding is the beginning of changing our narrative. The narrative that says we don't care about our children, so therefore they don't have to care about our children. The stereotypical Hollywood and media narrative that for years has portrayed us as perfectly capable and desirable for taking care of other people's children, but somehow incapable of taking care of our own. The narrative that says we are powerless against the influences that leave our children gunned down in the street. This is what Black Breastfeeding Week is about. It is our living, breathing, lactating, sucking and nurturing rallying sign against the norm. A personal protest sign (fist up, breast out). It is about our power to change the health course and parenting course for our children by starting with a powerful (but not easy) commitment. Because, let's face it, our people have never shied away from "hard." It is about us reclaiming our bodies from the media world, from the hyper-sexualized images and from the hip-hop culture, and feeling empowered to execute our biological norm for the benefit of our babies. And it's about our men having our backs as we do so. And as we are demanding systemic change in our communities, BBW is about us also insisting on having the same breastfeeding support systems that gladly go into white affluent neighbors but somehow avoid our neighborhoods (yes, La Leche League, I may be talking to you). We will not be marginalized and forced to live in "food deserts" where we can't easily access healthy fruits and vegetables, nor "first food deserts" where we can't easily access the support we need to successfully breastfeed. It is about demanding more from physicians and other healthcare professionals who don't bother to educate us or our husbands and partners about breastfeeding because they've assumed we won't do it anyway. Or they don't trust us to do it right.
This is what Black Breastfeeding Week is about. Please join us in the celebration and declaration for our children. For all of our Mike Browns, past, present and future.
Kimberly Seals Allers