One state’s ad for World Breastfeeding Week harks back to Brazil’s slavery era



Note from BW of Brazil: In yesterday’s post, we mentioned how, because of the legacy of slavery, “something as simple as changing the skin color of the people presented in a given photo can present an entirely different meaning.” An ad for World Breastfeeding Week in the state of Roraima provides an excellent example of this. A photo featuring a white woman breastfeeding a white baby wouldn’t necessarily garner any attention. Nor would a photo of a black woman breastfeeding a black child. But a photo featuring a black woman breastfeeding a white child would be difficult to disassociate from one of black women’s roles during that infamous period of human bondage. Which presents an excellent opportunity for a re-reading of this legacy brought to you by Emanuelle Goes. 

The black mother has already filled up his bottle, go suck somewhere else!

By Emanuelle Goes

“This business of a black mother being a leiteira (milkmaid) already filled up his bottle, go suck somewhere else (line from the song “Cada Macaco no seu galho” (each monkey on its branch), by Riachão)

"Black mother" (1912) by Lucilio de Albuquerque. Salvador, Museu-Artes da Bahia
“Black mother” (1912) by Lucilio de Albuquerque. Salvador, Museu-Artes da Bahia

With no intention of writing about this topic, I was forced to do this. Faced with the shown at the side where a large-breasted black woman holds a white child in her arms, alluding to the  Semana Mundial da Amamentação (World Breastfeeding Week) (August 1-7).

The amas-de-leite (wet nurses) were enslaved black women who were forced to nurse white children of the casa grande (big house), while being wet nurses these women had to follow certain requirements. According Lélia Gonzalez (1983), the figure of the mãe preta (black mother), is the moment that we are seen with a positive image of kindness and tenderness and even become people, but then it begins to discuss the difference between slave (thing ) and black (people) and then, again, they reach a pessimistic conclusion about both.

And for many by being part of the big house these women lived in a situation of “privileges”, when compared to black men and women who lived in the senzalas (slave quarters), though such a “privilege” had a counterpart, after all they were in a relationship of oppression as a slave suffering all the consequences of this place of a young black woman, and being in this place her function exceeded breastfeeding, she being, also called mãe preta, in the wide function by raising the children of farmers, and its object for sexual initiation and consequently they were raped by men of the house (parents and sons), and that also became pregnant, alas she needed to be pregnant to produce milk, and often had to abort because the milk produced by them was exclusively for white children. According to bell hooks (1995) sexism and racism, working together, perpetuate an iconography representation of black women that imprints in the collective cultural consciousness the idea that she’s on this planet mainly to serve others, essentially whites.

However, after slavery black women in the field of survival, redeploys the practice of obligation/donation of breastfeeding turning it into gain to support her family during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Seen as a necessary evil, the utilization of the wet nurse for rental was much discussed among doctors at the end of the 19th century until the first two decades of the 20th century, and with this the wet nurse, based on some requirements such as: good health, being between 20 and 30 years of age and being unmarried because of the bond and exclusivity. In all, there were consequences to being a wet nurse for rental because their children often were placed in the roda dos expostos (a type of orphanage) and they left their kids there to pick them up later after five months or so however when returning to pick up their children they had died (Ferreira Filho, 2003).

Old newspaper ads promoting the sale of wet nurses
Old newspaper ads promoting the sale of wet nurses

And in other areas, within the black sorority (of the peripheries and the Candomblé), the practice of milk donation among black women, especially for mothers who had to work and that exclusive breastfeeding was never a reality or didn’t produced milk, children were breastfed neighbors who were their equals in race/color and way of life, I personally experienced this situation, I have an irmã de leite (milk sister), my mother was, what we call a mãe de leite (milk mother), being that she was on a par with her godmother or even her mother, without hierarchies and submissions.


FERREIRA FILHO, Quem pariu, que balance! Mundos femininos, maternidade e pobreza Salvador, 1890 – 1940. Salvador, CEB, 2003

GONZALEZ, Lelia. Racismo e sexismo na cultura brasileira. Ciências Sociais Hoje, n. 2, Brasília, p. 223-244, 1983.

HOOKS, Bell. Intelectuais negras. Revista Estudos Feministas, Florianópolis, v. 3, n. 2, p. 464-479, 1995.

Source: População Negra e Saúde

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. What a tragic part of slavery that I’ve read very little about! Lucilio’s painting sums up the black woman’s role under slavery in a powerful image.

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