Qiana Mestrich | Visual Artist and Writer |
The enduring legacy of slavery on Black women’s bodies in the Americas has notably resulted in some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding and even worse, a crisis of infant and maternal death. Persistent racial disparities today (particularly in healthcare) are the ripple effects of untold physical, psychological and sexual violence suffered by Black women for centuries as they performed domestic and agricultural roles as chattel slaves.
In the United States, a North Carolina midwife recently uncovered one reason why breastfeeding has been and still is shunned by Black American mothers: a desire to disassociate themselves from the past, from slavery and the wet-nursing or the “Mammy” stereotype. This widely held but “fixed” and oversimplified image of a Black female slave feeding white babies their precious breastmilk is a revolting representation that was propagated by American visual art mediums.
Early representations of the forced role of wet nurse were crafted into etchings and prints that functioned as political cartoons in newspapers and propaganda flyers. As the U.S. Civil War raged and the slave economy was threatened, the wet-nurse image was used for a variety of overlapping political views both against and in support of abolition.
White America’s future was being nourished by these Southern earth mothers who were forced to abandon (the needs of) their own children but who despite their bondage, led nuanced and complex lives as sources of wisdom, comfort, discipline, advice and mediation. Despite the central (and powerful) role of the Black enslaved woman both inside and outside the plantation home, it’s this psychological, social, commercial and racist caricature that loomed large in the American consciousness and was later upheld by early photographic representations.
In the middle of the 19th century, the camera is introduced to the world as an extension of dominance and white male patriarchy. Daguerreotypes, cartes de visites and photographs of Black American enslaved women mimicked the poses and gaze of the lithographic prints that came before. These images emphasized the importance of Black women’s bodies, specifically their wombs and breasts, for (the future of) slavery.
A common photograph within the colonial family album was the “faithful” wet nurse posing with her (white) charge. Ironically, these family photographs made Black bondswomen technically visible yet socially invisible. Even with the material and visual evidence of these photographs, historically little attention has been paid to non-masculinized enslaved labor. Very little is known about the reproductive and maternal violence white women perpetrated against their slaves. What is visible and still (digitally) collectible today via such platforms as Pinterest, online auctions and flea markets, are these posed images that were once a part of the slave holder’s family album.
The wet nurse studio portrait is styled to be sentimental, as seen below in the “Portrait of Eliza Benson known as ‘Mammy’ with Child” (Undated). Viewing these portraits is a painful experience, especially if you look at the Black woman’s or girl’s eyes. They are rarely smiling and more often than not their eyes are glassy as if from perpetually crying. These eyes represent a life without choices. They are dejected and downcast, afraid and obedient, bored and anxious, ashamed, weary or sometimes, downright defiant.
As in the case of Eliza “Mammy” Benson (1836-1921), wet nurse to pioneer American female photographer Emily Spencer Hayden (1869-1949) and her family. Born into slavery and given to a white baby girl at age 4 in 1840, at the time of this photograph, Benson was a considered freed slave. She worked for Hayden’s parents (for free) with the understanding that she was a member of the family. Benson would eventually become the legal guardian of the Hayden children after both parents died in 1883. It is unclear if Benson ever bore children of her own.
Within the Emily Spencer Hayden Photograph Collection, housed at the Maryland Historical Society, there are at least 10 photographs of Eliza “Mammy” Benson. She is pictured holding her charges and performing household duties. In at least two photographs she is holding children (legally left to her care), posed in the same manner as if to suggest there is no relationship between her and the child, that she is just there to perform a service.
Not visible in the “wet nurse with her charge” portraits are the harsh reality and daily horrors in the life of these Black women: fourteen to sixteen hour work days, single motherhood, not being allowed to see their own children everyday, having to act as playmate to the white child or children with no actual authority, washing/dressing/feeding the child(ren) during the day and attending them at all hours of the night, other physical labor and household duties when required.
One of the most unspeakable horrors was being subjected to rape and repeated sexual abuse by slave owners. For the the wet nurse studio portrait, Black women were commonly posed with their breasts out or breastfeeding a child, theirs or their master’s. Photographs functioned as colonial objects that not only caricatured the Black mother but also reinforced white (male) fantasies of these women as the “Jezebel”, governed by her libido and thus subsequently bearing the master’s children.
Early photography rarely visualized a respect for Black motherhood. Instead it dehumanized and commodified women who ultimately engaged in the most human of acts, childbearing and rearing. In the case of Eliza “Mammy” Benson, the Emily Spencer Hayden Photograph Collection reveals other candid shots which pose Benson as a photographic subject rather than a still life object. There is one image in particular in which she holds what looks like a Folding Pocket Kodak camera, introduced by the company in 1898.
Benson holds the travel camera with care in her lap, as if it too is a child. She’s looking down at the camera, her back hunched in a protective position. The camera holds her attention or perhaps she is staring into the lens, looking at her own reflection. We can only imagine what she is thinking. Perhaps she is just waiting quietly, posing as she has been told. Regardless of the circumstances, in this image, the children that Benson is so used to carrying have been replaced with a camera. There is some allusion here to Benson caring for photography and valuing this creative medium.
By placing the all-powerful (and expensive) camera in Benson’s hands, the photographer (whom we assume is Emily Spencer Hayden) creates a contradictory moment within the history of photography. “Mammy” Benson is now in a position of power, although still bound to the photographer’s (Hayden) command. We know from Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s1 book, Viewfinders (Writers & Readers Publishing, 1993), that Black female photographers existed as early as the mid-1800s, but it is this particular image of Benson that may illustrate a break away from the “Mammy” stereotype and a move towards Black women picturing themselves.
Black Mothers Behind the Camera
Moving into 20th century America, post-Civil Rights era, there’s a new group of Black women photographers reclaiming the medium. A vast number of Black mothers and daughters raised in both the Western imperial powers and their colonies claim their place behind the camera. Women like Carrie Mae Weems (USA), Lorna Simpson (USA), Renee Cox (USA), Maria Magdalena Campos Pons (Cuba), Adrian Piper (USA), Clarissa Sligh (USA), Joy Gregory (UK), Maud Sulter (UK), Ingrid Pollard (UK) and others who wield the camera to reframing their historically oppressive representation.
Photographic series of note include Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series (1990) which depicts Weems as a modern matriarch who holds center court with the camera. Although this photographic series is situated within the domestic space, the subject is not bonded. Weems’ self portraits (re)define a Black woman who easily moves between various identities of power and compassion. Renee Cox’s Yo Mama series of the late 1990s documents the photographer in all her pregnant glory while postpartum studio portraits within the same series show Cox nude with a slim, athletic physique, holding her children in a stance mimicking that of a fearless female warrior. Cox’s 1994 “Pietá” image of the Black Madonna and Christ positions her as the ultimate maternal figure (the Virgin Mary). It’s worth noting that with its posing of two subjects, the “Madonna and Child” or “The Virgin and Child” representation so central to the Catholic and Orthodox churches, strangely mimics the subject positioning of the “Black wet nurse and her white charge” in the colonial family portraits mentioned earlier.
In the 21st century, two photographers from both sides of the Atlantic are creating new maternal visions that willfully consider the history and visual codes of racist imagery while paying particular attention to the mother/daughter relationship. Nona Faustine’s (USA) Mitochondria series is a collection of images of “three generations of women living together in one family.” In it she depicts her mother, daughter and herself, and the series’ title refers to the mitochondrial DNA encoded in human genes which is inherited solely from the mother.
There are two Mitochondria images in particular that show Faustine with her daughter, seemingly at play (or rest) at the beach. In one image Faustine’s body is draped on the jagged rocks of Brooklyn’s Coney Island beach while her daughter sits up, looking up to the clear blue sky. In the other, Faustine carries her daughter on her back as they traverse the rough waves together. Although there is no visual documentation of the Middle Passage (the journey through the Atlantic’s waters where an estimated 12-14 million Africans were lost at sea), Faustine’s images can be interpreted as a tribute to these Black lives. Using her body and that of her female family members, Faustine’s images breathe life to those unlived or cut short and acknowledges the untold stories of Black American bondswomen that preceded her.
A Gaze Between Mother and Daughter
Marcia Michael’s (UK) The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) series is a “dialogue of matrilineage” expressed through the lens. This series is a documentation and culmination of a unique collaborative performance between Michael and her Jamaican-born mother. It is worth noting that both women have been daughters and mothers to their own children. Never in the history of photography have we seen this (flesh-to-flesh) exchange of a Black daughter photographing and subsequently becoming her mother.
This mother/daughter metamorphosis has been addressed in popular culture and literature, but Michael’s work takes reign of a privileged photographic authorship previously denied to women like her. Familial domestic spaces, intricate textiles, and shared wardrobes become the foundation for images that foretell the passing on of generational wisdom, hidden narratives and lived experience across their matrilineal line. In “Partus Sequitur Ventrem” Michael’s body and that of her mother fills the frame. Michael employs both B&W and color imagery as a marker for time. She arranges images on top of others, creating a complex, layered narrative that allows space for interaction, sharing, collaboration and contribution between them.
As photographic author Michael responds to previous visual cultures that designated the Black maternal body as a device unworthy of admiration and preservation. Instead of using the camera to see, Michael uses hers to listen. It is in this process and proof of listening that we witness an act of consent historically denied to women of color. Michael’s and her mother’s bodies are gracefully compared and contrasted, her gaze concentrates on the thighs, breasts, the back, the folds and marks of the skin. This is an unspoken dialogue and as the viewer we are allowed to witness an intimate moment, a familial observation as a process of bonding that often occurs between mothers/daughters/grandmothers.
The image of the dark-skinned Black woman as caregiver of white children still resonates today and is a common sight in large, affluent American cities like Brooklyn, New York where I live – although nowadays the “nannies” are Caribbean immigrants. Raising the children of others is still an unfairly held societal expectation for Black mothers.
It’s only recently with the advent of photo-sharing platforms like Instagram that have launched initiatives like @blackmomsbreastfeed, @blackmomsblog and the #blackmothers hashtag that we’ve seen a mass movement towards an owned representation of Black motherhood. These digital counter-archives allows and encourages open participation, by way of free access to content and admission to its structure and organization. These new digital tools operate and reach others in a way that analog photographic objects cannot.
We must grant a maternal authority to those long silenced by valuing the expression of Black motherhood in photography. Let’s continue to mine institutional archives to uncover dormant images of Black mothering that have existed as disembodied narratives within a dominant visual culture. Through artistic research, let’s create a living archive of Black motherhood that addresses past issues of content and inclusion. Let’s move forward in championing and exhibiting contemporary Black women artists and photographers worldwide who dare to (re)envision the details of their lives.
Qiana Mestrich is an American (by way of Panama and Croatia) visual artist, writer, educator, digital marketer and mother of two from New York City, USA. Mestrich makes conceptual photographs, books, and installations by working primarily within autobiography while also employing archival and found photography, texts, and ephemera. Her critical writing on photography has been published in art journals like Light Work’s Contact Sheet, En Foco’s Nueva Luz, ARC Magazine and the Society for Photographic Education’s exposure journal. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History (est. 2007), an arts initiative that aims to diversify the medium’s history by supporting photographers of color. In January 2017, Mestrich published an interview with the artists about Mãe Preta in the Dodge&Burn: Decolonizing Photography History website.
1 Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers. Nova York: Writers & Readers Publishing, 1993.