Why Don't More Black Mothers Breast-Feed?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Gray says that instead of getting upset, she chooses to be an example and educate the busybodies. "I have to keep myself armed with information, because people do approach with uninformed intentions: 'That baby is bigger than you! You need to put her down because she's not getting any benefits from nursing.' And I tell them that these are the benefits that she's getting at this age, and this is the emotional and social support. I try to explain the benefits: My child has only been sick for half a day! She's never had an earache or diarrhea or had to go to the emergency room!"

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Shannon McGhee's baby, Sage, is 3 months old, and McGhee says that she's already getting questions about when her daughter will get "real food" or formula. And the Southeast D.C.-based mom admits she's baffled that so many African-American mothers ask her why she won't formula-feed, telling her that she might not make enough milk. She explains, "I just say, 'My body will produce enough milk for her. She will be just fine!' "

Sixteen-month-old nursling Shelton and his older brother, Edward (who nursed until he was a toddler), were in tow with their mother. The Southeast D.C. resident declined to give her name but says she thinks that myths persist because of a lack of education among African Americans, and the rarity of seeing a black mother nursing her child. "You hear that your milk is going to dry up a lot," she says. "And I have to tell people, no. It's a supply-and-demand thing, if you don't nurse that much. But I think when more women see other women nursing and see how it works, we'll see more women in our communities doing it."

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Gray says that the day of the nurse-in was important for all mothers, but particularly for those who may not have an advocate in their mothering lives. "Moms of color need to organize so that we can have the support, especially for young moms. We need to have playgroups and see other young mothers breast-feeding who are of color. Seeing your peers doing it is important. Women need women!"

Jamila Bey is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. She still nurses her child, who turns 3 this summer.

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