How the Story of a Black Mom in the 1940s Fuels BIOMILQ’s Mission
By Charlotte Fron
As part of BIOMILQ’s early-stage research, our team explores breastfeeding’s social context, alongside studying mammary epithelial cells in our lab headquartered in Durham, NC. We’re working to strengthen our understanding of the early motherhood journey and what roles we can play to support women and infants during such a critical life-stage. We’re on a mission to make feeding fearless by giving parents more options to fit the realities of their daily lives; however, we are in no way trying to replace breastfeeding, as mother’s milk remains the best way to feed a child if you can swing it. We hope that the opportunity to supplement breastfeeding with cultured human milk from your cells will support infant health and create greater peace of mind.
For our first book club, our team read Andrea Freeman’s “Skimmed” (2020). We were fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss Freeman’s investigation into the disparities in breastfeeding rates among black and white women with Freeman herself, via Zoom, of course. Through a historical approach, Freeman reveals how the legacies of slavery, ‘bad black mother’ stereotypes, and the hyper-sexualization of black women create a weak social environment for breastfeeding.
“Skimmed” explores the systemic failures that lead to low breastfeeding rates among black women and policy changes that could build a more supportive ecosystem. Through a powerful investigation of the Fultz Quads (born in 1946), Freeman reveals how a self-interested pediatrician (Dr. Fred Klenner) enlists Pet Milk; an infant formula company masked as the quadruplets’ official sponsor. All the girls had to do was pose for a few photos a few times a year for Pet Milk to use their story in a marketing campaign targeting black women. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Not so. Dr. Klenner and Pet Milk were given near-total control over the girl’s lifestyles, which resulted in isolation from their six siblings, disruptions to their education, a prescribed upscale wardrobe that consumed most of their monthly allowance, and separation from their parents as young girls.
As a team, we were angry, horrified, and in disbelief by the loss of agency that the Fultz Quads and their mother, Annie Mae, experienced. Through their story, Freeman highlights the many moments when their marginality, whether it be due to their skin color, due to their mother’s status as a deaf and mute woman, or their unique family makeup as sharecroppers. These moments point to where black women, then and now, need the most support.
Black women in this dark era of American history, and today, have every right to empowerment through knowledge and encouraged self-agency to make informed decisions about their family’s well being. Annie Mae deserved a clear understanding of Pet Milk’s and Dr. Klenner’s agendas. Annie Mae’s voice needed not only to be heard but to be respected. Had Annie Mae not been robbed of an active role in her babies’ health by individuals and social structures, the life outcomes of five black women would have been radically different.
The injustices that Freeman exposes are heartbreaking, yet our team emerged with a sense of hope. While institutions and cultural beliefs are hard to reform as individuals, we spotted multiple leverage points that could have prevented Fultz quads’ story from becoming a tragedy. Those leverage points are the individuals who were granted salience in the Fultz’s lives. We noticed so many moments that could have altered the quad’s trajectory had individuals inserting themselves in their upbringing made different choices. Victoria, our assay development specialist, “found it striking to see how much damage is and was done by ignorance, even among people with good intentions.” While the individuals in Annie Mae’s story chose self-interest, we’re choosing to recognize opportunities for healthier babies, empowered parents, and a healthier environment.
More than anything, the Fultz story has motivated our team to be more authentic and creative in our work and in our fight for expanding infant nutrition’s outdated framework. As individuals, we are excited to support new moms by offering another option for feeding their babies through cultured breastmilk. We don’t want to take over the ‘industry.’ We’d love it if no one needed our product. But, breastfeeding can be hard…like really hard. So, we’re working to give women a better choice to choose what works best for their family. Annie Mae needed it, and women still do, seven decades later.
But, we can’t empower new mamas alone. Michelle, our bad-ass CEO, knows that BIOMILQ cannot be the cure-all: “It will take BIOMILQ and other companies, grassroots organizations, institutional change, policy, and regulatory updates to help create the supportive infrastructure needed by so many parents to thrive in their individual feeding journey’s.”
Note: While our team is diverse in experience, religion, socioeconomic background, learning ability, gender, and size, we are white liberals from mostly urban areas. We recognize the privilege we have in our lives and commit to being transparent in our work and passion. Our goal is to support parents and babies, regardless of skin color, socioeconomic status, or beliefs. We cannot wait for when cultured breastmilk can be universally accessed around the world!