Taraji P. Henson Highlights the Lasting Impact of Racism & Slavery on Black Mothers on Instagram

Katherine Speller

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For Black mothers, even the history of practices like breastfeeding have been marked with violence that can make it more difficult to access resources and overcome systemic barriers to care. In an instagram post shared on Tuesday, actor, mother and mental health advocate in her own right Taraji P. Henson unpacked how the trauma of historic racism, slavery and reproductive abuse has had a longtime effect on Black mothers and their relationship to breastfeeding — and what that means for their mental and physical health.

“The history of the controlled reproductive capacities of Black and afro descended women is the foundation on which this country is built. The legacies of terror, oppression and gendered dehumanization still impact the ancestors of those who survived the vast grief of enslavement,” Henson wrote. “The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities reported in 2017 that 64.3 [percent] of Black American parents breastfed, in comparison to 81.9 [percent] of Latino and 81.5 [percent] of White parents breastfeeding. Now, those statistics can look very different when breaking down the racial variations within the Latino statistic (as people can be both Black and Latino as well as any race and Latino.) The enduring legacies of slavery are part of this equation.”

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Henson went on to quote Certified Nurse Midwife Stephanie Devane-Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina who has researched the phenomenon of decreased instances of breastfeeding and noted the racist history of Black women being forced to give up their breast milk and serve as wet nurses has fundamentally been part of the problem: “The echoes of slave women being forced to give up their milk still resounded. And black women didn’t talk to their sisters, daughters and granddaughters about how to feed their babies; the bottle was just assumed. And for some women, breast-feeding was a ‘white thing.’”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the lasting effects of this racist and misogynist trauma work in tandem with other institutional barriers in ways that can make breastfeeding less accessible for Black mothers. Per their research, Black mothers are more likely to give birth in maternity wards that are less likely to help them initiate breastfeeding or provide them with lactation support post-delivery and they are more likely to need to return to work sooner and deal with “inflexible work hours” in environments that aren’t breastfeeding-friendly.

In a blog post for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Director of Clinical Health and Services Research Regina Smith James, M.D. also noted the following as barriers that contribute to the lower breastfeeding numbers: “African American women tend to return to work earlier after childbirth and are more likely to work in environments that do not support breastfeeding; healthcare settings that provide supplemental feeding to healthy full-term breastfed babies during the postpartum stay decrease the likelihood of exclusive breastfeeding; healthcare settings that separate mothers from babies during their hospital stay; lack of knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding and the risks of not breastfeeding; perceived inconvenience—a breastfeeding mother may have to give up too many habits of her lifestyle; the mistaken belief that ‘big is healthy,’ leading moms to introduce formula early; the cultural belief that the use of cereal in a bottle will prolong the infant’s sleep; and embarrassment—fearful of being stigmatized when they breastfeed in public.”

Given the documented benefits of breastfeeding for mom and baby, the inequality in terms of breastfeeding is a matter of reproductive justice — and it’s the responsibility of advocates for paid maternity leave and reproductive healthcare access to center these experiences and fight to give more mothers a chance to choose how they want to feed their babies.

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