Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice (Book Summary)

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Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice by Andrea Freeman (Hardcover; 284 pg) 

Brief Overview

The Fultz quadruplets, born to poor black farmers in 1940s North Carolina, were a medical marvel. The first recorded identical quads who survived.  The advertising potential of four cute babies also is not surprising, including to a still relatively new black market.  

There was also a dark side, and not just the problems with raising so many children all at once. The family was exploited, the parents losing custody early, and the daughters’ celebrity a mixed blessing, past their prime at eighteen.  The Fultz family was soon largely forgotten, including when the author went back to their hometown after writing the book.

The Fultz story fits into a wider one involving the problems of food oppression.  Food oppression arises from the combined actions of the government and powerful private parties, which further discrimination and bad health results along racial, sex, and class lines.  

As shown by such books as Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, food involves a range of stories that help us understand the troubled history of our society.  Skimmed fits into this group, mixing a fascinating personal story with the many aspects of breastfeeding in America. 

Favorite Quote

We cannot allow the history of the Fultz sisters and Tabitha Walrond to repeat.  It is time to tell a new story about Black motherhood.

The Fultz family were poor black North Carolina sharecroppers, exploited after the birth of quadruplets in the 1940s.  Tabitha Walrond’s child died because a young mother was not given the proper care and respect.  She is a black woman from the Bronx and this happened in the late 1990s.  This book is about people like them and a call to arms for change.  

Should I Read It?

Skimmed is two books: a story of the Fultz family and a more academic work that puts their life into a wider context.  This is done in a basically crisp fashion at under two hundred pages (the rest being endnotes and such).  It also has over ten pages of black and white photographs.  

As is usually the case, the appropriate audience will be a matter of what the reader is looking for in the book. The biographical material should be enjoyed by the average reader and is written for the well-read high school student or adult.  

The rest is not done in an overly academic fashion and is approachable for the general reader. Nonetheless, it is more likely to be enjoyed for those specifically interested in the subject matter.  The book also would be useful as a class resource for those studying race, gender, advertising, and other such subjects.  Or, for those who wish to self-educate in those areas.

I would recommend this book.  The Fultz family story itself is worth learning about and the overall book is but one of many interesting stories related to food and its place in our lives.  

Comprehensive Summary

Prologue  [Accessible here.]       

Andrea Freeman tells her own story of having triplets, including her difficulties while clearly still having advantages (including more power to make her own choices) than many other mothers.  For instance, her freedom to breastfeed as compared to the Fultz quads’ mom.  

The author notes her goal to share the story of the Fultz family and connect it to racism that continues to shape food law and policy.  The connections between racism and food are complex and often hidden.  She notes her wariness of “White people telling Black people’s stories,” which is both ironic given the nature of this book and somewhat belied by her academic research.  

Introduction: A Formula for Discrimination

Separated by fifty years, two black mothers are mistreated by hospitals and the justice system.  The first with the help of a formula company, the second involving a tragic death in which the mother was blamed for being a stereotypical bad black mother.

The introduction raises various themes that will be discussed in more detail in the book.  

[1] An Unhealthy Alliance: Federal government more concerned with benefiting certain special interests than the health of needy families.

[2]  Breastfeeding Facts: Breastfeeding is clearly more healthy than formula, but for various reasons including racism, stereotypes, and lack of resources, black women significantly use formula more than others.  This is an urgent public health crisis.

(Note: The author at times makes it clear she is not trying to shame those who do not breastfeed, but the book to me clearly has various pro-breastfeeding aspects.  

Many women argue formula is the appropriate path for them.  In a follow-up article, the author notes one problem is the type of formula used in the United States.)  

[3]  The racial disparities is a form of “first food” [first food of babies] oppression, involving cooperation between the government and various industries.  

[4]  Breastfeeding Ideals: The ideal breastfeeding schedule is to do so exclusively for six months and then to do so mixed with other foods.  But, this requires various resources, including the time and space to breastfeed, which are not available to many people.  

[5]  Critical Race Theory:  Black women, particularly low income, are significantly less likely to breastfeed.  This touches upon issues of critical race theory and intersectionality.  The book shows that we cannot simply look at one aspect (such as women) of the people involved.  

1: The Famous Fultz Quads

This chapter begins the story of the Fultz quads, born to a half-Black, half-Cherokee woman (Annie Mae Fultz) in 1946 North Carolina.  

Annie Mae lost the ability to speak and hear as a child, but already had six children with her older tobacco farmer husband.  Twins ran in their families, both parents were twins themselves.  But, identical quads?  First on record in the U.S.

The birth took place in the hospital basement.  Dr. Fred Klenner, from Pennsylvania, was racist even by the norms of the day.  He was a fan of Adolf Hitler.  The babies were subject to unnecessary heavy doses of Vitamin C., unaware test subjects of his belief it was a miracle drug.  

Dr. Klenner, without involvement of the parents, also negotiated an endorsement deal with Pet Milk baby food company. His sister-in-law, Susie Sharp, negotiated the contract; she later became the first woman elected chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court.  

(Note: Susie Sharp is quite an interesting person in her own light and her at best mixed role in this affair is not offbrand in respect to some dubious aspects of her life story.)

The terms might have seemed generous to poor black farmers with a lot of mouths to feed.  But, including a house on poor land, it was a clear mixed bag. 

The girls soon became celebrities, later meeting President Truman.  At six years old, their parents signed over guardianship to one of the children’s nurses.  The large Fultz family would have a generally unhappy life after the four left.  

2: Black Breastfeeding in America

This chapter provides a summary of black breastfeeding from the days of slavery until the present day.  Some effort is also used to contrast it with women and breastfeeding generally.

One thing suggested was that the forced use of blacks as wet nurses and the exposure of black bodies generally led black women in particular to be wary about breastfeeding.  

In time, motherhood became one more thing for medical experts to handle.  The 20th Century also brought a major formula industry, which soon worked with the government to advance its interests.  This included efforts to suppress the benefits of breastfeeding.  

Welfare policies also led to government/formula company joint cooperation.  

3: Race-Targeted Formula Marketing

The Pet Milk usage of the Fultz girls was the first time a formula company directly targeted the black audience.  Black income rose in the 1940s, leading to new targeted marketing, largely focused on Black beauty products, cigarettes, and alcohol.  One expert provided a list of rules, listing various instructions on how not to disrespect black customers.  

Carnation Milk tried to use another set of black quads (Tigner family), which went badly for the family and company.   Pet Milk had more success and more complete control over the Fultz girls, whose contract lasted into their teens.  One of the girls got pregnant and her child was taken away from her; the mother never saw her child again.  

4: The Bad Black Mother

Four basic stereotypes arose about black women: (1) mammies were happy go lucky types that took care of white children (2) jezebels were young, evil sex crazed types (3) sapphires were sharp tongued harpies (4) welfare queens were a combination, a failed black mother who took advantage of the system.  None of the stereotypes represented a truly positive black woman.

5: When Formula Rules

Marketing to black women encouraged formula usage, but the disparate formula usage by blacks was also a product of laws and policies. These laws and policies were not “facially discriminatory,” targeting blacks specifically, but that was the net result.  

Various laws and policies both encouraged formula usage and failed to do things that would help breastfeeding.  A major example of the first is government welfare programs that supplied free formula to low income families.  Subsidies benefited formula companies, who also encouraged formula usage by free distribution at hospitals.    

Meanwhile, means to make it easier to and encourage breastfeed took a long time to develop, and were limited in scope.  This includes workplace accommodation, parental leave, means to breastfeed in public places, and limits on formula advertising (used in other countries).  

Black women have barriers even as compared to other poor people of color.  For instance, Latinx women for various reasons, including support by family members, breastfeed more.  The chapter ends with a section that discusses various possible reasons for this.  

6: Legalizing Breast Milk

This chapter discusses possible constitutional arguments that can be used to promote breastfeeding and address discriminatory practices. They have not been that successful.  

For instance, the right to privacy arguably includes the right to breastfeed as part of overall liberty over reproductive matters.  But, there seems to be only one (mostly stillborn) federal case that somewhat supported that.  

Equal protection must deal with high standards necessary to prove purpose based discrimination.  Use of the Thirteenth Amendment is a creative approach but claims that “vestiges of slavery” warrant more action here is largely an academic argument.  

There are more promising developments in other countries, local and state laws (including the right to breastfeed in public), and community/market-based solutions.  

7: The Fultz Quads after Pet Milk

The original plan was for Pet Milk to provide the girls money to go to college. But, their travels while being spokespersons (with some entertainment acts) made them ill-prepared.  After hopes for a career in entertainment tapered off, they broke apart and had various factory and nursing jobs.  Three of them died young (40s and 50s) of breast cancer; the last died at 72.  

Conclusion: “First Food” Freedom

The goal is to promote the ability to have full ability to choose whether or not to breastfeed, including for black women whose lower rates are the result of various problematic practices. 

The situation (in 2020) does not look too promising.  But, it is a matter of law and policy, social and cultural beliefs changing.  This requires legal reforms and “extensive counterprogramming.”  

Points to Ponder

The author is a well off white woman who is the mother of triplets.  

How does her personal situation influence the writing of this book?  The book is largely about black women, particularly those with less advantages she has.  Do some readers have a reason to ask “what do you know about our lives?”  Or, is that an unfair question?  

The author is clear that she recognizes that breastfeeding is a choice.  One person who discussed the book spoke about her own problems with breastfeeding and the guilt trip of some women against use of formula.  The issue ultimately is truly having the ability to choose.  

About the Author

Andrea Freeman is a law professor.  She (quoting her webpage) “writes and researches at the intersection of critical race theory and food policy, health, and consumer credit.”  

Her work has been featured in mainstream sources such as NPR, Huffington Post, Salon, and the Washington Post.  An update, a response to an academic symposium on the book of Skimmed can be found here.  This also allows you to access several of her academic articles.  

Skimmed is Andrea Freeman’s first book.  

Is Skimmed a Reliable Source?

This book is a carefully researched effort that grows out of the author’s academic specialty.  

Prof. Freeman is an expert at the legal and social scholarship side, but not a professional historian.  Nonetheless, the book is overall well-sourced (over eighty pages of endnotes).  

The author notes in the prologue that the family themselves are private about their history and that the four quads are deceased.  So, she has to use secondhand accounts, which might in some fashion not be 100% accurate about certain details.  Overall, however, the book is reliable.