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The Tragic Plight of Enslaved Wet Nurses

by Kamna Kirti 2 months ago in history

How Black mothers were systemically deprived of breastfeeding their own children

Enslaved black woman wet-nursing White infant. Source - Public Domain

Since slavery, the dehumanization of black people has been entrenched deeply in the social pyramid. One such is the tragic case of black mothers who were forced to breastfeed their owner's children at the expense on their own.

The History of Wet Nursing

Some historians believe that the practice originated in the 1600's 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 natural immunity towards 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 kept them away from wearing the trendy clothes of yesteryear. Having a wet nurse was seen as a status symbol and symbol of wealth.

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 milked like cows to feed white babies.

How Wet Nursing Dehumanized the Black Mothers

Many slave owners practiced wet nursing as a form of birth control among black slaves.

In that era, having an 'heir and a spare' was a common practice among the wealthy and affluent. Relegating the nursing duties to a black mother, freed-up the white mothers for giving birth to the next progeny.

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.

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.

The Stereotype of Bad Black Mothers

A Mammy at work.Source - Public Domain

The widespread stereotype of a 'Bad Black Mother' justified this practice. It propagated the idea of a mythical Mammy 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 labor which was often not available for slaves.

In popular culture, a setreotypical 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.

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 labor to live in the houses.

The cruelty was however perpetuated psychologically. In 1912, a Black nurse living in Georgia described her duties:

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.

Even in the best of circumstances, wet nursing, like all slave labor, was difficult and dehumanizing. Wet nursing existed for many centuries dating as far back as the biblical days.

However, in history, only slave mothers were forced into the act.


Kamna Kirti

Writer and Youtuber. IG: @kamnakirti. YT: Frame of Reference

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