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Embodied Race and (Re)production

Embodied Race and (Re)production
Brigitte Fielder, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Figure 1: Portrait of unidentified woman breastfeeding a baby, ca. 1848. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University) holds three daguerreotypes and one tintype portrait of women breastfeeding, all from the mid-nineteenth century [see Figure 1]. Jill Lepore describes the first of these images as “like every other daguerreotype you’ve ever seen,” with one difference, “the unexpected: the undone buttons, the sucking mouth, the bared breast” (“Overexposed”). Images of breastfeeding aren’t common in nineteenth-century U.S. portraiture. Lepore compares one daguerreotype to the recent Time magazine cover featuring a breastfeeding woman by noting that “No one put this picture on the cover of a magazine. Instead, someone who adored this woman and this child, kept it close, inside a pocket, secret and beloved” (“Overexposed”).

Lepore and others mark this genre of breastfeeding portraiture as unusual, of course, because of longstanding Western taboos against showing breasts in public. One wonders at the intended audiences for these images and how they might have been received at the time of their creation as we contemplate their significance among other images of women’s bodies. One such significance that remains unremarked in Lepore’s and other discussions of this breastfeeding portraiture is that these women are all white [see Figure 2]. While some white women the mid-nineteenth century United States nursed their own children, some forced the black women they held enslaved to do this mothering work for them.1

Embodied Race and (Re)production
Brigitte Fielder, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Portrait of unidentified woman breastfeeding a baby, ca. 1850. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

The experiences of enslaved mothers figure heavily in antislavery literature and literature by women of the black diaspora. Teaching about slavery therefore necessitates teaching about its “peculiar” condition of motherhood: In the United States, enslaved women’s reproduction increased their enslavers’ wealth; they passed on their enslaved condition to their children, irrespective of the fathers’ race or free status. Because slavery was designed to prioritize the perpetual increase of enslavers’ wealth, enslaved women were denied reproductive freedom alongside the other forms of sexual violence to which they were subjected. The gendered violence of slavery becomes apparent in the most prevalent images of enslaved black women: in narratives of black women’s sexualization in auction-block disrobings and whippings, enslaved mothers forcibly separated from their children, and nursing “mammies” [see Figure 3]. The image of the (re)producing enslaved black woman’s body is a historical site for racist violence, and one that becomes visible in nineteenth-century literature and visual culture. Thinking about enslaved black women’s labor therefore necessitates thinking about their reproducing bodies – bodies that reproduced enslaved people and sometimes also produced milk fed to enslavers’ children.

Embodied Race and (Re)production
Brigitte Fielder, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Woman and child on auction block." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

As a literature professor with specializations in gender and sexuality studies and nineteenth-century African American women writers, I often teach writing by and about enslaved women. It is impossible to teach or write about enslaved black women’s labor without discussing maternal (re)production. I focus here on iconic historical images of African American women’s reproduction: bearing enslaved children who increased their enslavers’ legal property and breastfeeding the children of enslavers.2 Just as race becomes essential for understanding these images of black women’s bodies, race is also essential for understanding the breastfeeding portraits of white women with which I began. In the nineteenth-century United States and in the present, women’s reproduction intersects with our racialization. Attention to racial embodiment is therefore necessary to discourses of motherhood. My academic work on nineteenth-century American studies is informed by and seeks to acknowledge the continued resonance of these historical contexts for black women in the present. Accordingly, I recognize that the physical markers of racialized reproduction and maternity that I embody are not ancillary, but deeply relevant to the subject matter at hand in my courses on black womanhood. As has been shown time and time again by the long history of Black Feminist literature, scholarship, and pedagogy in the U.S., our own academic racial embodiments matter.

This essay takes up the significance of these images of racialized reproduction alongside my own racialized embodiment as a mixed-race black, pregnant and nursing woman professor of nineteenth-century African American literature. My essay will interrogate this juxtaposition of my own experience of reproduction in the academy and the material about enslaved women’s (re)production that I write about and teach.3 As I refer to the embodied work of racialized reproduction, what difference does it make to teach and write about enslaved motherhood while embodying the markers of pregnancy and milk production alongside those of race and gender? Academic parenthood has made my privilege even more apparent: What does it mean for a woman of color to have reproductive and bodily freedom? How does my own embodied race and reproduction come to bear on my teaching and writing about enslaved black women’s reproduction? My own experience reminds me of the continued importance of emphasizing the ways that this history of reproductive unfreedom resonates in the present. Academic parents’ investment in our own – often privileged – parenting conditions must also involve engagement with struggles for reproductive justice, past and present.4

Enslaved Reproduction

During a semester in which I grew increasingly pregnant, I stood on a small lecture hall stage, talking about Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Among other things, Jacobs shows how she negotiated the inevitability of her own motherhood, recognizing what she could not control and attempting to bear children whose paternity would give them a higher chance at freedom. Jacobs explains, “under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect” (46). The relative privilege and luck of my own pregnancy made the inevitability of enslaved women’s reproduction even more pronounced. I was fortuitously able to plan my pregnancy around an academic schedule. My child was not born during one of my teaching semesters, but the visible marker of my own reproduction nevertheless influenced my thinking about the pedagogical influences of my own embodiment.

What does it mean for me to talk about the choices Jacobs made from my own position of privileged reproductive planning? In Incidents, Jacobs attests “I knew what I did, and I did it with deliberate calculation. But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of tour affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desperate slave girl too severely!” (46). Teaching Jacobs while pregnant, I considered how my racialized, pregnant presence affected the pedagogical workings of my courses’ content on enslaved reproduction. Jacobs recognizes the privilege of her (assumedly northern, white nineteenth-century) readers. How do we factor free, twenty-first century readerly privilege into our treatment of Jacobs’ narrative? How am I implicated in Jacobs’ calling-out of privilege, even as she may not have anticipated readers like me?

As a black woman professor at a predominantly white institution, I am well aware that my embodiment is relevant to my pedagogy. This is particularly true when I teach courses dealing with race and racism, which, as a scholar of nineteenth-century American literature (and especially early African American literature), is to say: every course I teach.5 At my predominantly-white institution in a state notorious for its history of racial segregation, I am often the first (and perhaps the only) black instructor many of my students will have had.  Most classes I teach are predominantly white, usually including only a few students of color in any semester. The specificities of my racialized embodiment matter, as well. I am a mixed-race black woman and “light-skinned” among African Americans; I wear my (kinky/curly) hair in a natural (i.e., big) black hairstyle; I am short in stature and therefore often taken to be younger than I am. I speak loudly when I teach; I move about and gesture largely, asking questions and requiring students to engage with me even in a lecture setting. Once I became visibly and unmistakably pregnant, I added this to the list of factors contributing to my embodied presence in the classroom.

The “slave narrative” genre is important within American literature and I have taught Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in a variety of contexts. Harriet Jacobs was born enslaved and bore two children whose freedom she ultimately worked to secure. Enslaved women did not have any legal rights to their own bodies, which were the literal property of their enslavers. It goes without saying that women under these conditions were subjected to sexual abuse of various kinds. Because birth control methods were limited in the nineteenth century, some such abuse resulted in the birth of mixed-race, black children. Moreover, following the legal close of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, the U.S. slaveholding economy depended upon black women’s reproduction for its perpetuation. Because children born to enslaved mothers were automatically the legal property of their mothers’ enslavers, enslaved black women’s biological reproduction also reproduced white wealth. This confluence of factors made the rape of enslaved women even more desirable for enslavers who would benefit economically from these women’s pregnancies. 

My visibly mixed-race body also serves as a reminder of this fraught history of racial mixture in the United States. While some black and white people did engage in consensual sexual relationships even before the nation’s founding (a fact to which early laws favoring enslavers’ rights to human property responded), enslaved women were unprotected from sexual violence.6 In the U.S. nineteenth century, mixed-race black people (the vast majority of whom were legally saleable) were overwhelmingly produced by sexual violence. In a country founded on a race-based system of slavery, the enslavement of mixed-race people was a popular theme for antislavery discourse. Antislavery writers and lecturers often used the example of enslaved, mixed-race people as they sought to gain sympathy from white people who might be persuaded to oppose slavery but nevertheless subscribed to anti-black racism. The fact that some white people cared more for light-skinned enslaved people than dark-skinned enslaved people is unsurprising. But this history of slavery, reproduction, and race is unfamiliar to the majority of my students. They are often shocked to learn not only that I would be enslavable (at risk of enslavement even if I were born free) but (as I have noted in later semesters) that so would my light-skinned, white-fathered child.7

In this landscape, Jacobs had very few choices available to her regarding her own reproduction and for the protection of her family. Choosing at least to determine the father of her (probably inevitable) children and hoping also to fend off her enslaver’s unwanted advances, she bears two children to another man, who she calls “Mr. Sands” in her pseudonymous narrative. Jacobs hopes that this white property owner will help to purchase and free his own offspring. But being biologically related to black, enslaved people has never been a definite predictor of white antiracism.8 Ultimately, Jacobs manages to secure her children’s freedom despite not only Sands’ lack of assistance in, but also his deterrence to, their emancipation. Jacobs’ story is amazing not only because of her and her children’s ultimate freedom but because this narrative documents Jacobs’ careful negotiation of her reproduction even as few choices are available for her to do so.

Jacobs is often lauded as an example of sentimental, sacrificial motherhood. But understanding her narrative in terms of a quest for reproductive freedom paints Jacobs’ motherhood in a different light. A reluctant mother, Jacobs loves her children nevertheless, sacrificing her own comfort and risking her own freedom in order to secure theirs. Jacobs frames motherhood in important physical, racialized, and historically contextual ways. Her narration of motherhood is not simply ideological, but poignantly physical. Jacobs’ embodiment is essential to her narrative, as we read about her inability to prevent her own pregnancy, episodes hiding in the swamp and fighting off snakes, and the period she spent hiding in the crawl space of her free grandmother’s home as a fugitive without contact with but within close physical proximity to her children. Thinking about Jacobs’ body – legally owned, sexually violated, reproductive, confined, fugitive – is a significant part of thinking about her text.

I teach Jacobs’ Incidents almost every semester, but this was my first time teaching Jacobs while visibly pregnant. I am well aware of my embodiment in the classroom when teaching texts involving antiblack racism – an awareness not uncommon to black teachers. Indigenous and people of color academics generally understand that our bodies are not simply neutral, but function with the weight of our identities’ significance in the historically white supremacist institutions in which we are not only underrepresented but from which people like us have been deliberately excluded.9 The relevance of racial embodiment becomes even more pronounced for academics of color who teach explicitly about race and racism.

Various factors of my own embodiment – physical and sartorial markers of cisgender womanhood, my racial mixture and “lighter” skin, and natural (i.e. unstraightened) black hair style – are not insignificant as we read both fictional and historical descriptions of enslaved women’s bodies.10 Discussions of gendered and racialized embodiment are prevalent in nineteenth-century literatures, for obvious reasons, and such discussions often involve issues of sexuality and reproduction. Additionally, any course in which Jacobs’ Incidents is taught must involve a discussion of the rape of enslaved women. My class discussions often shift this conversation to discussions of reproductive freedom, more generally, in which students often want to discuss Jacobs’ available choices (or lack thereof) alongside related, contemporary issues. When discussing pregnancy, I find that I often focus more on general facts than details. But for enslaved women, who were forced to perform various kinds of physical labor while pregnant, these details are significant. They affected infant mortality rates and contributed to enslaved women’s physical suffering. Yet popular representations of pregnancy skew our understanding of this contributing factor. Popular representations of pregnant women – like representations of women more generally – are overwhelmingly white.

The Schlesinger Library’s mid-nineteenth century images of breastfeeding women are just one example of the hypervisibility of white motherhood in U.S. culture. This hypervisibility is related, of course, to the same racism influencing how black women have been represented. Depictions of black women as either bad mothers or oppressed mothers have dominated U.S. cultural representations of black motherhood. This has roots, of course, in the history of representing enslaved black women. My own embodied, racialized motherhood is juxtaposed against the most hypervisible image of black maternity in U.S. culture: the “mammy” – a childbearing and caregiving figure of maternity about which I have written and must necessarily lecture on in any course dealing with black womanhood in the nineteenth century.

Black Women Breastfeeding

Abolitionists and slavery scholars have long noted the inherent devaluing of humans implied by their economic valuation. This was compounded, of course, by the valuation of women for their (re)productive potential. This potential lay not only in the capacity for enslaved black women to produce enslaved black children, but also in their capacity for milk production, as some black women served as wet-nurses for the children of their white enslavers. Apart from recounting her own trials, Jacobs also tells a bit of her family’s history in Incidents. In one scene we learn that one of Jacobs’ enslavers, “Mrs. Flint” was nursed by Jacobs’ grandmother, called “Aunt Martha” in her narrative. Martha was forced to wean her own daughter – Jacobs’ mother – in order to feed the child of her enslavers – the very people who would also keep her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren captive. This work of nursing was one form of forced, enslaved labor – work that seems to be under-discussed in popular discussions of breastfeeding, given the prominence of such laboring women in the continued resonance of the figure of the black “mammy” in U.S. popular culture.


Perhaps oddly, perhaps predictably, the “mammy” is a figure celebrated by white supremacists. Writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and Sarah Piatt have lauded these women’s caregiving work, while simultaneously denying that this was, in fact, forced labor. This figure is complicated as well, by the illogical workings of racism that would allow black women to be regarded as proper caregivers for their enslavers’ children but inexplicably deemed unfit to care for their own. As a result, the figure of the mammy often supplants that of the black mother, rendering the latter invisible when she is not demonized.

Embodied Race and (Re)production
Brigitte Fielder, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Portrait of an African American woman with a white baby, ca. 1850s.
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

The Schlesinger collection of daguerreotypes incudes a portrait of a black woman holding a white baby, also from the mid-nineteenth century [see Figure 4]. This portrait is of a genre much more familiar than the breastfeeding portraits: black “mammy”/white child portraiture.11 Images of black women holding white children have been preserved from mid-century daguerreotypes and into twentieth-century photography [see Figure 5]. Black Studies scholars have long noted the influence of the “mammy” image has had on other images of black womanhood. Jasmine Cobb, for example, notes that early nineteenth-century black portraiture worked against such stereotypical images of black women.12 The genre we might call the “mammy portrait” reminds us of real women behind such racialized caregiving work, however. These portraits of black women caregivers to white children generally do not show these breastfeeding the white children of their enslavers. The women in these images sit with white children on their laps, indicating their position as primary caregivers to white families. They mimicked other family portraiture, perpetuating myths of black women’s inclusion and happy submission in the white enslaving families who oppressed them. But while the bodily labor that some of these women performed is masked in these images, black women themselves wrote and spoke explicitly about breastfeeding as forced, enslaved labor. 

Embodied Race and (Re)production
Brigitte Fielder, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Portrait of an African American woman holding a white child, ca. 1855
Photograph: ruby ambrotype, sixth-plate, hand-colored. Library of Congress, Ambrotype/Tintype filing series

An account of one of Sojourner Truth’s antislavery speeches illustrates the significance of black women’s breastfeeding bodies on display. During an 1858 speech in Indiana, Truth was harassed by a proslavery hecklers; the event was recounted by William Hayward in a letter to the editor of The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison. The hecklers had demanded that Truth show her breasts “to some of the ladies present” in order to prove that she was, indeed, a woman. Truth responded to this misgendering by baring her breasts to the entire “promiscuous” crowd and referring explicitly to her own gendered, enslaved labor. Hayward recounts the scene:

Sojourner told them that her breasts had suckled many a white babe, to the exclusion of her own offspring; that some of those white babies had grown to man’s estate; that, although they had sucked her colored breasts, they were, in her estimation, far more manly than they (her persecutors) appeared to be; and she quietly asked them, as she disrobed her bosom, if they, too, wished to suck! In vindication of her truthfulness, she told them that she would show her breast to the whole congregation; that it was not to her shame that she uncovered her breast before them, but to their shame. (Hayward, “Pro-Slavery in Indiana”)

This account of Truth is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing to teach. The image of the formerly-enslaved woman taking control of the situation by demonstrating her freedom via this control over her own body, unashamed of her breasts or their past labor, is inspirational in its defiance of her detractors. Truth connects her embodied labor to that of white children who were raised and fed by the black women wet-nurses they would later inherit.

In this account, Truth’s body on display is repurposed from the exploitative images of disrobing at auction blocks and whippings with which readers of early African American literature have become so familiar. While many accounts of Truth’s speeches describe her body (tall, strong, deep-voiced) this account refers to her body’s history of reproductive and breastfeeding labor, points that are perhaps discussed less often with Truth than with other formerly-enslaved black women public figures [see Figure 6]. We seldom think of Truth as a “mammy” figure. Known primarily for her activist work and public speaking, Truth both played with and worked against models of black women’s “respectability” as she crafted her public persona.  This event illustrates a clear moment of resistance to racist and sexist norms that demanded covering white women’s bodies while denying black women similar markers of propriety as an explicit act of gendered, racist violence. Truth’s self-disrobing is a bodily act of self-determination in which she takes control of her own reproductive body, making it visible on her own terms and to support her own argument.

Embodied Race and (Re)production
Brigitte Fielder, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Sojourner Truth seated with photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell of Co. H, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, on her lap, 1863. Photograph: albumen print on card mount; mount 7 x 11 cm (carte de visite format). Library of Congress, Liljenquist Family collection.

This attention to Truth’s breasts also illustrates something important about maternal labor as labor. Enslaved women like Jacobs and Truth noted how breastfeeding labor, in particular, affected black motherhood. The iconic “mammy” of American racist culture was not only a caregiver to the children who would one day inherit her very body as property; she also fed these children from her own breasts, often weaning or otherwise displacing her own biological children in order to do so. Moreover, despite the supposed affection of white children for their “mammies,” black women’s breastfeeding labor was forced, enslaved labor, labor that was closely tied to other forms of violence, such as black women’s sexual exploitation.14 While on parental leave from teaching, as I nursed my newborn son, I revised an essay on animals, gender, and chattel slavery.15 This included descriptions of women’s bodily labor breastfeeding children and a discussion of this account of Sojourner Truth. As I breastfeed my child during a meeting or lunch with graduate students, what is the significance of this merging of academic and bodily labor? In a culture in which public breastfeeding is contested, in which black motherhood is denigrated, and in which breastfeeding was one popular form of enslaved, gendered labor, these contexts converge for professional black women’s public breastfeeding practices. Breastfeeding is a racially-embodied act.

While some public writers have acknowledged the relevance of slavery’s legacies for black breastfeeding women, much popular and academic writing on breastfeeding in the United States has neglected to treat breastfeeding from this racialized, historical perspective.16 Additionally, discussing breastfeeding as a complex part of some people’s reproduction, breastfeeding is seldom treated as labor. Moreover, even when writers do regard breastfeeding as a form of domestic labor, they seldom address the racialized history of breastfeeding as forced labor. In her book, Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy, Courtney Jung discusses a prominent topic of breastfeeding discourse: racial disparities in breastfeeding practices. Jung recounts talking with a woman while pregnant, who told her “how disappointing it was that so many African American women were still not breastfeeding” (18). In the U.S., breastfeeding advocacy campaigns often target poor women, and African American and other nonwhite women (Jung 115-121). Jung acknowledges the problems with this targeting, given the convergence of the more general shaming of non-breastfeeding women and racist characterizations of African American women as bad mothers. But at no point does Jung consider the history of black women’s breastfeeding labor in the United States and other slaveholding colonies.

When reading this history, I wondered: how is it that some studies of breastfeeding fail to take into account the history of black breastfeeding in the United States, particularly its history as forced labor? In a discussion of what one study calls “Breastfeeding Ambivalence,” authors discuss various societal factors that might deter women of color from breastfeeding but fail to acknowledge this history of forced labor as relevant (Kaufman et. al.). Media messages that might deter black women from breastfeeding, such as the idea that “black mothers make bad milk” as Martha Joy Rose puts it, are contradicted by the history of white families forcing or employing black women to nurse their children (152). Regardless of whether the history of enslaved women’s breastfeeding contributes to lower rates of breastfeeding among African American women, this history must matter.17

Despite these examples, we do find acknowledgement of enslaved black women’s labor in some discussions of breastfeeding. Jeanine Valrie Logan, and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka’s collection, Free to Breastfeed, notes the importance of wet-nursing for African American history (152). Although this collection discusses the history of enslaved women less thoroughly than other work on black women’s history has, their title “Free to Breastfeed” importantly alludes to the connection between black women’s histories of breastfeeding and their unfreedom in the United States. In a similar vein, Jennifer Rothschild, Haley Van Cleve, Karen Mumford, and Matthew A. Johnson discuss what they refer to as women’s “ownership” of their breasts among less-privileged women, asking “Are a woman’s breasts her own?” (168). Arguing that rural women are often neglected in discussions of “women” more generally and under-studied with regard to the issues of representation that have been taken up largely by feminist-of-color scholarship, their study’s focus on white, Midwestern women employs language that might be understood as problematic when we take the legal meaning of “ownership” into account. The fact that some women’s bodies were legally owned by other people means that we should take this question of “ownership” quite literally. When this history of bodily ownership is taken into account, the dichotomy of understanding breastfeeding as “baby-friendly” or “mother-hostile” must expand to pose more complex questions about which parents and whose children benefit from breastfeeding labor.

As Rose and others have noted, breastfeeding advocacy campaigns have historically failed to acknowledge not only economic factors that affect breastfeeding practices, but how the racialized media depictions of breastfeeding may affect women’s willingness to breastfeed (151-159). It is unsurprising that images of white women’s breastfeeding predominate in U.S. media, but given the circulation of the mammy in U.S. popular culture, we might re-think black women’s breastfeeding as not simply absented from popular culture. Rather, the mammy’s history of milk-producing labor indicates breastfeeding as underlying one of the most prominent – and problematically stereotypical – images of black women.

*                      *                     *

In Harriet Jacobs’ centering of women’s reproduction under enslavement and in Sojourner Truth’s reference of her own breastfeeding labor, we can see how black women, historically, have worked to craft images of their own embodied experiences of reproduction.    In the 1863 image of Sojourner Truth, there is no white child on her lap. Instead she holds a small, framed portrait of her grandson, James Caldwell of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first black regiments of Civil War soldiers. Viewing this portrait of Truth alongside those of white women breastfeeding and black mammies helps us to make the connections between enslaved black women’s forced reproduction and their own prioritizations of their own familial relationships – biological and otherwise. 

Women of color feminist engagements with breastfeeding are more likely to contextualize breastfeeding within the historical framework of racism’s intersections with sexism. Black women’s breastfeeding advocates, in particular, have regarded the choice to breastfeed as wresting this act of maternal love away from the historical contexts of the mammy’s forced or coerced prioritization of other people’s children. Apart from government-led pro-breastfeeding initiatives, African Americans have created community groups and various types of media promoting breastfeeding.18 Acquanda Stanford, for example, refers to black breastfeeding as “radical care” (Dying, Living and Resisting in American Society). From the nineteenth century to the present, black feminist critics have similarly characterized black motherhood as an inherently radical act as caring for black children is a direct resistance of white supremacist oppression.19 Attending to this history may help us to better understand the framework in which parents might make decisions about their own reproductive practices.

My experience of academic parenting is tempered by the juxtaposition of my impetus to promote conditions that better support working parents (parental leave, accommodations for nursing, tenure-clock pauses for life events, etc.) and to acknowledging the position of privilege in which I find myself. A first-generation, working class college student, I now have a chosen and enjoyable career that not only allows me more flexible labor conditions than many workers but which also puts me on par with my academic spouse as we actively co-parent. My embodied, racialized resemblance to many of the black women about whom I teach contrasts directly with my socioeconomic privilege. And yet, I recognize the cultural work that racial representation does in the world. The juxtaposition of my own black, female, pregnant or nursing body with the literature I teach about black women offers a complex and important context for considering these texts, not an invisible or politically neutral framing mechanism. 

As I negotiate my own parenthood as an academic mother, I cannot help but read myself – and my particular positions of privilege – alongside Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth and the other enslaved women about whom I teach and write. The conditions of reproducing enslaved women – real and fictional – resonate with me as I dwell on issues of race and maternity. Reading the words of formerly-enslaved women such as Jacobs and Truth often reveals connections between old and new avenues of black women’s resistance. Nineteenth-century African American women’s intersectional activism reminds us that black women’s experiences of parenthood are both gendered and racialized. These women’s attention to embodied experiences of motherhood reveals the relevance of the variously embodied positions from which we read, discuss, and teach their texts. Parenthood – even privileged, academic parenthood – must therefore be regarded in terms of intersectionality and particularly with regard to the effects of racialization on reproductive bodies.


1  Given the location of this archive, the women in these mid-nineteenth-century breastfeeding portraits may well be northern women, perhaps living in states where slavery had previously been abolished and where wet-nursing was less common than in the South during this period.

2  For more on enslaved black women’s reproductive labor and resistance, see Jennifer L. Morgan’s, Laboring Women.

3  I speak to this, of course, from my own personal experience and teaching about particular texts. I recognize the importance of also recognizing the experiences of non-woman-identified childbearing and nursing parents, who I hope will be represented elsewhere in this series.

4  On the essential elements of Reproductive Justice and the roots of this theory, see Loretta J. Ross’s Preface to Revolutionary Mothering.

5  For a collection of narratives and studies on women of color’s experiences of racism, classism, and sexism in the academy, see Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent.

6  On the seventeenth-century Virginia slave codes on which U.S. laws regarding slavery and reproduction would be founded, see Jennifer L. Morgan, “Partus sequitur ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery.”

7  On the danger of enslavement even for legally free people of color, see, for example, Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative, Twelve Years a Slave.

8  E.g., Thomas Jefferson, who held his own mixed-race black children and their mother, Sally Hemings, enslaved until his death. See Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. 

9  See, for example, Sylvia R. Lazos, “Are Student Teaching Evaluations Holding Back Women and Minorities? The Perils of ‘Doing’ Gender and Race in the Classroom,”and Grace Chang “Where’s the Violence? The Promise and Perils of Teaching Women-of-Color Studies.”

10 On the complex history of mixed-race heroines in U.S. literature, see Eve Allegra Raimon, The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited, Teresa C. Zackodnik, The Mulatta and the Politics of Race, and Lisa Ze Winters, The Mulatta Concubine.

11 On the evolving imagery of the “mammy” in U.S. culture, see Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Mammy, 13-31.

12 See Jasmine Cobb, Picture Freedom, 209.

13 On respectability politics and black women, see Brittney Cooper, Beyond Respectability.

14 On how the phenomenon of enslaved black wet nurses was complicated in its merging of racism and the consumption of milk produced by black bodies, see Vincent Woodard and Dwight McBride, The Delectable Negro, 127-170. On the mammy figure’s other domestic labor, particularly as cook, see Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion, 107-108.

15 See Brigitte Fielder, “Chattel Slavery.”

16 Acknowledging this history, see, for example, Sam P.K. Collins, “Why Breastfeeding Rates Among Black Mothers Lag Far Behind and The People Trying to Change It.”

17 That is, this history of forced breastfeeding labor must matter specifically, in addition to the larger fact that the continued economic and social oppression of black women – factors that may make it more difficult for them to breastfeed if they choose to do so – has its causal roots in slavery.

18 On black breastfeeding activism and media in the United States and Canada, see Martha Joy Rose, “Breastfeeding in the Public Arena,” 159-164.

19 See, for example, Gumbs, “m/othering ourselves.”

Works Cited

Chang, Grace. “Where’s the Violence? The Promise and Perils of Teaching Women-of-Color Studies.” Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs,Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris, UP of Colorado, 2012, 198-218.

Cobb, Jasmine Nicole. Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century. New York UP, 2015.

Collins, Sam P.K., “Why Breastfeeding Rates Among Black Mothers Lag Far Behind And The People Trying To Change It.” ThinkProgress. August 28, 2015, Accessed May 30, 2017. https://thinkprogress.org/why-breastfeeding-rates-among-black-mothers-lag-far-behind-and-the-people-trying-to-change-it-7441adec9b88

Cooper, Brittney. Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. U of Illinois P, 2017.

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