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Whose Body Is This: A Statement on “Out of Wedlock Births” in the Black Community

Last Monday, I watched a rerun episode of the Tyra show which drove home the entire significance of this “No Wedding, No Womb” campaign. Tyra was giving the results of her show’s annual teen sex survey and sitting on the stage next to her were 6 or 7 teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 18 years of age. As Tyra read the percentages of teens who admit they don’t use condoms before intercourse, drink prior to sexual activity, and who admit to having numerous sexual partners, the audience gasped in major disbelief.

As each of these young women took a turn answering Tyra’s questions about their sexual lives, I noticed several dominant discourses emerging in these girls narratives of “sex talk”. Most of the girls described sex as merely an afterthought—it was something that “just happened one night.” There was no planning—no foresight—thus no contraception. They hadn’t intended to have sex with that boy but they started fooling around and one thing lead to another….. Some girls asserted that sex made them popular—translation, “If I give it up, boys will want me.” Many girls were “looking for love” in all the wrong  places, saying things like“ I don’t feel good about myself, “I don’t like myself,” or “I don’t feel pretty and that’s why I do it.”  They claimed when they had sex they felt loved but once it was over the feelings of inferiority and “ugliness” returned with a vengeance. For other girls it was simply about the pleasure principal—having sex felt good to them. After the show was over I sat on my couch in deep thought or reflection wondering what I could say about all this. I guess what concerned me was not so much that some girls believed that having sex makes you popular with boys (it doesn’t) or that some girls just wanted to have sex because it feels good. Rather, what troubled me was that these girls seemed to lacked ownership of their bodies and by extension sexual reproductive organs. Implicit was the notion that sex is something you do for someone else—in particular for someone of the male persuasion—you are an object of male desire, nothing more or less. 

However, for colored girls the ramifications of discourses of sexual pleasure and popularity are not without impunity—there are social consequences, one of the most prevalent being out of wedlock births. Statistics reveal that teen pregnancy rates among black adolescent girls are more than 2x that of white adolescents and that one in every four black children born are to teen mothers.[1]  Had one of those young women of color on the Tyra show got pregnant she would not fair as well nor be as lucky as her white female counterparts. In the black community “out of wedlock” births has become a normalized feature of female adolescence. Young brothers run around siring children for whom they take no economic or emotional responsibility for. Inevitably, child-rearing gets left to the women who bear the brunt of the social stigma and scrutiny levied at single mothers of color in our society. We have entirely too many “aunties, grandmas, mommies”, etc… watching each others babies while she goes to work not because there are no fathers but we don’t know where they are. The social costs of “out of wedlock” births are tremendous, ever-increasing, and have far-reaching implications for our overall life, health, and longevity as a community.

It doesn’t come as news to any of us that teenage mothers of color struggle tremendously to stay in school, juggling the responsibilities of being a parent with that of being a student. Often, they have to drop out to get a job or end-up enrolling in some kind of alternative education program; and if they do not earn their high school diploma or GED equivalent that does not portend well for their current economic situation or future prospects either. Moreover, the social disadvantages accrued to children born “out of wedlock” are vast and numerous, extending to every area including healthcare, education, profession, etc… It has been said that a child’s zip code is the number one predictor of quality of education they will receive and when poverty is intertwined with teenage pregnancy as it so often is, the “out of wedlock” birth epidemic in the Black community virtually guarantees a sub-par, substandard, inferior education for countless numbers of African-American children. An impoverished education also denies African-American children access to the cultural capital— that is social networks, material resources, opportunities, rigorous academic courses, and the knowledge needed to navigate higher education and the professional job market. To condemn a child to a second-rate education in this day and age is a severe limitation. Frequently, children who come from poverty stricken communities of color usually have health problems that translate to a transient school record and low academic performance.

In the case of poor urban populations access to healthcare is mediated by the government which means our bodies become owned and controlled by the state apparatus.[2] Privacy is erased.[3] One has to divulge their sexual history just to receive earmarked social services.[4] Being dependent on the “good will” of the state forces us to surrender our bodies as well as our reproductive rights which opens us up to public censure and widespread criticism.[5]

Indeed, the trope of the “welfare queen” is still alive and well today in popular discourse. As a community I believe we can longer ignore or deny the deleterious effects of non-marital child-bearing on the life chances, outcomes, and trajectories of Black kids’ lives. There is no cure, no salve, no substitution, or replacement big enough to fill the hole left by a father’s physical, emotional, and spiritual absence and/or abandonment in the home. TRUST. I have mad love for the single mothers who are holding it down and raising their kids. As rapper/artist Fredo Starr said “single mothers y’all my heroes, y’all my queens.” However, it is high time that kings—FATHERS, step up to their fatherly responsibilities.

I believe Judge Glenda Hattchet put it best when she said “If we want our children to do right, we have to do right by our children”. Now is the time to take back our community. “No Wedding, No Womb!”


[1] Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York, NY: Random House, 1998.

[2] Davis, Angela. Women, Culture, and Politics. New York: Vintage Books, 1990

[3] Bhattacharjee, Mala & Silliman, Jael (Eds.) Policing the National Body: Sex, Race, and Criminalization. Massachusetts: South End Press, 2002.

[4] Davis, Angela. Women, Culture, and Politics.  New York: Vintage Books, 1990

[5] Bhattacharjee, Mala & Silliman, Jael (Eds.) Policing the National Body: Sex, Race, and Criminalization. Massachusetts: South End Press, 2002.

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Posted by on September 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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