In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Andrea Freeman. Freeman is Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law. Her book is Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race, and Injustice.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Andrea Freeman: Skimmed helps readers understand how partnerships between the government and food, agricultural, and pharmaceutical corporations create and perpetuate racial health disparities – what I call ‘food oppression’ or, in this case, ‘first food’ oppression. It draws a line from enslavement to the present and seeks to explain why disparities in breastfeeding and infant mortality between Black and white communities have remained roughly the same over time. The book focuses on the experiences of the Famous Fultz Quads and their exploitation by the Pet Milk company in the 1940s and 50s but it also tells a larger story about how marketing, racist stereotypes and myths about personal choice and responsibility can mask the role of law, policy, and corporate power in health disparities. Annie Mae Fultz, a Black and Cherokee woman who lost the ability to speak and hear in childhood, gave birth to the first recorded identical Black quadruplets in Reidsville, North Carolina, in 1946. Annie Mae was married to a tenant farmer, Pete, and the couple had six children already. Her white doctor, Fred Klenner, an unapologetically racist gun enthusiast, seized the opportunity to use the Fultz sisters to try to prove his controversial theories about vitamin C. He began experimenting on them the day they were born, named them after his family members, then auctioned off the rights to become their corporate godfather to a formula company, Pet Milk. Pet Milk’s crossover ad campaign featuring the light-skinned, lovely girls was the first to target Black families for anything but alcohol, cigarettes, or beauty products. Klenner’s ability to persuade a court to take the girls away from their family and grant custody to the nurse that Klenner chose for them gave him access to the girls throughout their childhood. And Pet Milk’s comprehensive marketing scheme – which included magazine spreads, celebrity appearances, song and dance performances, and a calendar - opened the door to decades of race targeted formula marketing. This barrage of propaganda touting formula’s superiority to breast milk contributed to the low rates of breastfeeding in Black families that persists today.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Broadly, I hope that Skimmed illuminates how the struggles for racial and food justice are irrevocably intertwined. On the more specific topic of infant feeding, I hope that it dispels common notions about the role of choice in infant feeding. Too often, people buy into the myth that how a person feeds a child depends on a personal or cultural preference. This belief leads to the idea that better education for parents/caregivers will lead to better choices. This approach ignores the structural factors that actually determine choice. The structure of work in our society is probably the biggest barrier to choice in infant feeding. Parents who lack the luxury to take time off work after giving birth or to negotiate the possibility of pumping privately at work during paid breaks have no choice about how to feed their infants. It is employers and legislators that need to be educated about how to make work and family life compatible, for people at every income level, not parents. Since chattel slavery, society has made it difficult if not impossible for Black women to choose how to feed their infants. The misogynoir used during that period to justify separating Black women from their children persists in modern stereotyping of Black mothers in media and popular culture, in racist medical treatment, in formula marketing, in the WIC program, and in every other aspect of our political and social lives. The point of breastfeeding promotion is not to criticize people who choose to use formula but to ensure that every person has a choice.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will un-learn the belief that intimate issues like parenting, breastfeeding, and childbirth belong to the personal sphere and instead will see them as subject to the racist structures that we must all work to dismantle. Misogyny plays a large part in these issues’ exclusion from public discourse. It is also important to remember that not all breastfeeders are mothers or women. The Fultz sisters’ story touches on so many aspects of racism that are very much alive today. For example, Klenner’s experiments on them are part of the legacy of white exploitation of Black research subjects that leads to reasonable distrust of medical interventions like vaccines. In the Fultz sisters’ case, Klenner’s partnership with Pet Milk harmed countless future generations of Black families, carried out through partnerships between formula/pharmaceutical corporations and law and policy makers. I also hope that, by providing a history of infant feeding in the U.S. focused on Black women, Skimmed contributes to a healthy skepticism of traditional historical narratives that center white people.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
James Baldwin is the author who first inspired me to dream about writing in a way that could radically transform the way that people think and feel about themselves and the world around them. His ability to write about racism, queerness, love, and life never fails to astound me. I am inspired by the brilliant writing of so many critical race theorists – my mentors from law school, Angela P. Harris and Ian Haney Lopez, Kim Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Devon Carbado at the UCLA Critical Race Studies, the brilliant writing of reproductive rights scholars Dorothy Roberts, Priscilla Ocen, and Khiara Bridges, and the foundational contributions to CRT of my colleagues Charles Lawrence III and Mari Matsuda. Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid is a phenomenal must read. Fiction is my first love but in the process of writing Skimmed I explored nonfiction books that weave together story and analysis. I’m grateful for the authors whose work provided excellent examples - Isabel Wilkerson, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Zadie Smith, Jesmyn Ward, Roxane Gay, Kiese Laymon, Patricia Willams, Toni Morrison, and so many more.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Skimmed helps us imagine a world where corporations do not control our opportunities and diets. Where we can work less but still live well. Where social and political systems center care, love, and health. Where feminism does not prioritize white women’s concerns. Where the struggle for racial justice incorporates food justice. Skimmed dreams of a departure from our racist past and present. Art and culture are gateways to this imagined future. Law and policy will always need social movements to pave the way to change.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.