Let's Talk: Wet Nursing

Let's Talk: Wet Nursing

This month is National Breastfeeding Week. Did you know that slaves were often used as wet nurses? Once a slave mother had a child, she was quickly assigned to a white mistress and forced to breastfeed her white baby instead of her own. Because they were consumed with feeding white babies, they often gave cow milk and dirty water as substitutes to their babies which resulted in high death rates of babies of slaves. Reluctant slaves were beaten and often milked like cows to feed white babies. 


It was mandated by the slave owner that only one breast could be used to feed the white child; if she switched and let both black and white babies suckle from the same breast, she could be whipped because it was seen as the same as letting them share from the same water fountain. 


While much attention is paid to the masculinized enslaved, white women’s reliance on and exploitation of Black women is often overlooked.


"The extent to which white women had commodified black wet nurses’ labor can be seen in how they reacted to this emotional distress. Instead of trying to improve conditions for enslaved wet nurses, white women typically used their wet nurses’ despair as an excuse to sell them, noting in advertisements to other prospective buyers that this particular wet nurse was prone to “the sulks” or “madness,” lessening her value.


Homework: Please read “Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South” by Emily West. Found HERE

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