A deep dive into the dark history exposes how Black mothers were systemically deprived of breastfeeding their own children to nourish their white counterparts.
The History of Wet Nursing:
History has it that the practice of having black lactating mothers breastfeed white kids originated in the 1600s when Malaria claimed numerous lives of many white settlers.
The slave owners believed that feeding their babies with milk from their native slaves would provide them with natural immunity against Malaria. This had a trickle-down impact on not only racial but also the psychological, financial, and political fabric of the society throughout the Black community.
Eventually, the white mothers considered it below their social status to breastfeed since it was unfashionable, in the sense that it forced them to wear maternity clothes. Therefore, having a wet nurse was seen as a status symbol, one of wealth.
Oral history has it that wives of slave owners timed their pregnancies with that of their slaves and then forcefully separated enslaved new mothers from their infants to serve as wet nurses for their children.
The black mothers were often beaten and forced to express milk to feed white babies.
How the practice of forceful wet nursing dehumanised black women:
Many slave owners practiced wet nursing as a form of birth control among black slaves. Relegating the nursing duties to a black mother, freed up the white mothers for giving birth to the next progeny.
With slavery and wet nursing, the invaluable breast milk often referred to as “liquid gold”, benefited the white children while cow or goat milk was fed as a substitute to black children. This often resulted in high mortality and susceptibility to diseases in the early childhood of black children.
This portrayed the image of a cruel black mother which was explained by the fact that she often lived separated from her newborns and family.
It propagated the idea of a mythical Mammy (what the white children call the wet nurses) who loved the white children and took them under her care while she cold-heartedly disregarded her own.
The Mammy was also portrayed as a cruel mother who deserted her own children and family for the service of her owners to enjoy the comfort of house labour which was often not available for slaves.
In popular culture, a stereotypical Mammy is marked by extreme feature exaggerations. She is black, tall, and buxom.
She has a loud laugh and tells stories to white children in plantation dialect, all while being faithful to the white family. Besides ‘mammy’ she usually did not have a name.
For those who think life as a wetnurse was all sweet and wonderful, you’re about to have a change of mind.
Life as a Wet Nurse:
While nursing and raising white children did not protect Black women from cruelty, some nurses did benefit by escaping the field labour to live in the houses.
The cruelty was however perpetuated psychologically. In 1912, as seen on historian, Kamna Kirti’s medium page, a Black nurse living in Georgia described her duties thus;
I live a treadmill life; and I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets when I am out with the children, or when my children come to the ‘yard’ to see me, which isn’t often because my white folks don’t like to see their servants’ children hanging around their premises.
Although wet nursing existed for many centuries, most times due to medical-related issues, in history, only slave mothers who were black were forced into the act.
Little is known of whether the deprivation of black children from their mothers’ milk at birth affected them negatively or otherwise.
However, one of the descendants of these mothers was heard saying the babies of enslaved wet nurses were bottle-fed a concoction of dry milk and dirty water that was not a healthy alternative to breastfeeding. As a result, many Black babies died during slavery which led to the disruption of the mother-child relationship, creating anguish and guilt for Black mothers and distress for their babies.
After slavery ended, some Black women continued to serve as wet nurses for White families, exposing them to further exploitation. Black families also faced major economic barriers from centuries of exploitation and discriminatory laws, which forced Black women back to work after giving birth — often making breastfeeding impossible.
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