Why Don't More Black Mothers Breast-Feed?

Conversations with participants at a recent "nurse-in" protest in D.C. show that myths and historical baggage often come between black babies and mother's milk.

At the Hirshhorn: Sade Gray with Mia in the sling, and Shannon McGhee holding Sage.

The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., could have taken a note from James Brown. When it comes to doing what's best for baby, Mama don't take no mess!

In January a Rockville, Md., woman was nursing her baby on a bench when a Hirshhorn security guard instructed her to move into the restroom. When the woman saw no chairs in the bathroom, she found a more private bench and resumed feeding her child. The first guard and another guard came back and demanded that she not breast-feed on a bench; she should sit on a toilet instead.

Ignorant of the law, the mother simply left the museum. But once her story hit various D.C.-based online websites aimed at mothers, area moms screamed a collective, "Oh no, they didn't!" and got to planning something to support breast-feeding families.

The Hirshhorn did offer an apology to the woman and admitted that the guards were wrong and in violation of U.S. Public Law 106-58 Sec. 647, which states, "A woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location."

But an apology wasn't the point. Organizers decried the fact that a mother feeding her baby in an art museum raised any sensitivity at all. The nurse-in was planned as a supportive measure so that every nursing woman would know that the collective motherhood of Washington, D.C., stands (or sits on a bench) with her.

Dozens of families and friends descended on the museum Saturday to hold a peaceful nurse-in. And I grabbed my own nursling and headed down.

There were babies everywhere, and not a bottle in sight! And for me, another sadly familiar scene: The rough count of nursing brown mommies I saw wasn't even one in 10.

But the actions of those African-American mothers who were present served to make a larger statement: Black women can and do nurse their babies, and even though nursing in public still bears a stigma, it's a natural and loving activity. And it's one that more black people need to see.

African Americans have the lowest rates of breast-feeding of any segment of U.S. mothers. In fact, the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a decline in breast feeding initiation rates from 60 percent to about 54 percent between 2004 and 2008.

Capitol Hill mother Sade Gray lamented that she is usually the only nursing mother of color in her daily activities. She says that when her daughter Mia gets hungry in a public setting, such as on a bus, people frequently offer the opinion that her 18-month-old is too old to need her mother's milk anymore, or that the tot's slender frame is proof that she's hungry for formula.