When someone thinks of a black wet nurse, they don’t think of the ideal of a nurturing maternal figure. Rather, the modern black woman thinks of the idea of being a nurse or even of the notion of breastfeeding in general as evoking a visceral reaction akin to swallowing spoiled milk. Yet, the white ideal of breastfeeding evokes nostalgia, especially when it concerns black nursemaids—so much so that a “mammy” figure is used to sell syrup bottles in the twenty-first century. For the black woman, being subjected to the cruel, inhumane job of being a nursemaid still causes posttraumatic stress disorder so much so that it affects their quality of life.
Black nursemaids weren’t the first nursemaids. It was not a new phenomenon. As far back as biblical times, breastfeeding by another woman was common. Moses was breastfed. Wealthy ancient Greek women saw nursemaids as a status symbol. Bottle-feeding was theoretically possible in the 18th century, but these bottles were hard to clean, food preservation hadn’t advanced enough to prevent bacterial infection, and formula wasn’t seen as universally safe. Some women used animal’s milk, but it was agreed upon that human milk was ideal.
According the the NIHL, a wet maid is a “woman who breastfeeds another’s child.” What that simplistic definition fails to mention is the kinds of conditions these nurse maids in the American south were subjected to even after slavery had officially ended.
In “Documenting the American South” a negro nurse told her story. She was free, technically, and paid a wage of about 10 dollars a month. However, she was basically enslaved. She saw her own children once every 2 weeks, meaning she couldn’t use her own body to provide nourishment for her own children. To feed white children when you are racially oppressed by the white race was traumatizing to say the least. This negro nurse worked 14-16 hour days. She had to be at the child’s beck and call to feed and bathe this baby and take care of the three older children in the household. It was dehumanizing and robbed her of her dignity. To make matters worse, these young children did not even call her “Miss.” In those days, a negro working for a white person was called “Tom,” Betty Sue,” “Mammy,” “Cook” or “Boy,”—even if the man being referred to as “boy” was older than the white speaker.
This nurse, unlike a mother, was not permitted to rest when the child slept. Rather, she was forced to do other household chores like mopping the porch outside, sweeping sidewalks and hallways, watering the lawn and mending clothes. Her problem wasn’t just that she got paid a meager wage but that she had no rights. The white man could do whatever he wanted with a nursemaid, even one he did not employ. She was forced to kiss her madam’s husband, and when she refused and her own husband spoke to the white man about it, he was thrown in jail and forced to pay a fine while the white man was free.
Such stories strike a nerve with the modern black person. In this day in age, for example, a policeman or “well-intentioned” neighborhood watch man can do whatever he wants including kill a black man and will usually get away with it unless it’s on video. Sometimes, even if it is video taped, the chance of justice is limited.
Many black women don’t want to nurse their own children today. Perhaps, it’s because some women’s grandmothers still feel traumatized remembering the treatment of wet nurses. Perhaps, it’s because the black woman wants to finally feel she owns her own body and isn’t prostituting herself out to be food for someone else. Maybe it’s because traditionally, over the past few centuries, black women haven’t gotten to have that role for their own children and they don’t consider it normal.
This is a conversation we need to have, however. Because modern research almost universally supports the benefits of breastfeeding for healthy brain development. Our children need that nourishment to compete in today’s world—a world in which a child isn’t just competing with his neighbor or even people in America for the best jobs but a world in which a child halfway across the world is gunning for his or her job.