Lessons in breast feeding and a lack of racism go together in my memory. It might seem an odd pairing in an era where wet nurses are rare. But it was once a common sight in the South to see white babies at black breasts. My experience was the opposite actually as I am not quite old enough to have seen mammies with my own eyes.
A church meeting room, I got bored and wandered. Searched room to room looking for something to do. Empty rooms until the door of the tiny personal prayer chapel opened on to an unexpected sight, a topless, beautiful slender slyph-like, extremely pale white woman, with the iconic straight hair of the 1970s, almost to her ankles, with breasts so plump that they seemed out of place on her slight form, was holding an ebony skinned infant to her right breast. I was mesmerized by the scene.
Looking back, it was so Age of Aquarius, Madonna and Child with the faintest hint of rainbow filtering through the circular stained glass window. I knew several things in that moment, the most concrete of them being that I wanted a camera for my next birthday. Some moments just needed to be forever. They revealed Secrets of The Universe that everyone needed to Witness. This was somehow one of those Moments and me without an Instamatic.
I stared wide eyed as only a child can. I had started school already. But I can’t recall if I was in first or second grade at the time. It was somewhere between 1972-73. She smiled at me to let me know I was not intruding, motioned for me to come all the way into the walk in closet sized room with the hand that was not holding the baby and then began stroking the baby’s tight tiny curls.
It was well known to the congregation that I was an only child. So she asked if she needed to explain. Had I seen someone breastfeeding before? Did I maybe have aunts that had babies who breastfed? I answered no. But I understood the basics, even without my aunties. Everyone in my immediate family did the bottle thing. But even that far back, National Geographic was an informative thing that sat on Granny’s coffee table.
The breastfeeding, while a bit of a surprise in church, was not the bit that had me wonder struck. It was that they did not match. That was how I phrased it once more than mono syllables began to tumble out. Like everyone else, I had watched her belly swell across the gestation and knew that a baby would join us soon, no strokes involved. But I had never seen her husband.
He did not attend services with her. It was, as it turned out, safer for them to attend separate services at separate places of worship.There were and still are many complications involved in mixed marriages of any kind, be it race, religion or culture that bridges the long held divide. Hers was the first mixed marriage Very Young Me had encountered.
After the feeding and burping were done, she showed me a picture of her husband, explained that darker skin tones were usually the way of things when people mixed and my only outward comment was that the baby had his daddy’s eyes. They were dark at the edges but with lighter golden flecks inside the brown, reminded me of the log slices taken directly from forest trees that still had the rim of dark bark attached.
That brief encounter inoculated me against several forms of prejudice. I was a nerd from the beginning and raised on a college campus. So even though my formal education had in a sense just begun, I already knew a few things. Humans can breed across racial lines because we are the same species. That was already in my head and the baby she let me hold was just that, a baby. No half breed demon. Neither was I for that matter, no matter what was said about my Native American “tainted” blood.
We all came into the world the same way and sucked at the breasts or the bottles whether or not the person feeding us matched our skin tones or not. It was all pretty much the same. With the simple faith of a child, I could not help but notice that it happened in a church with no smiting on the Almighty’s part. So He was obviously cool with it. While I still regret not having had my own camera to catch the breath taking image of Love unrestrained in God’s House, I will always have the Understanding that Little Miracle gave me. Maybe I will paint it. It makes a better Christmas card than images of torch bearing contemporary white supremacists.
Thank you for sharing this memory, Laeaurra.
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling in Exeter since 1994