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Not Our Kind of Girl: Unravelling the Myths of Black Teenage Motherhood

Not Our Kind of Girl: Unravelling the Myths of Black Teenage Motherhood

by Elaine Bell Kaplan, Arlie Russell Hochschild (Foreword by)

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One of the most worrisome images in America today is that of the teenage mother. For the African-American community, that image is especially troubling: All the problems of the welfare system seem to spotlight the black teenage mom. Elaine Bell Kaplan's affecting and insightful book dispels common perceptions of these young women. Her interviews with the women


One of the most worrisome images in America today is that of the teenage mother. For the African-American community, that image is especially troubling: All the problems of the welfare system seem to spotlight the black teenage mom. Elaine Bell Kaplan's affecting and insightful book dispels common perceptions of these young women. Her interviews with the women themselves, and with their mothers and grandmothers, provide a vivid picture of lives caught in the intersection of race, class, and gender.

Kaplan challenges the assumption conveyed in the popular media that the African-American community condones teen pregnancy, single parenting, and reliance on welfare. Especially telling are the feelings of frustration, anger, and disappointment expressed by the mothers and grandmothers Kaplan interviewed. And in listening to teenage mothers discuss their problems, Kaplan hears first-hand of their misunderstandings regarding sex, their fraught relationships with men, and their difficulties with the educational system—all factors that bear heavily on their status as young parents.

Kaplan's own experience as an African-American teenage mother adds a personal dimension to this book, and she offers substantial proposals for rethinking and reassessing the class factors, gender relations, and racism that influence black teenagers to become mothers.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Sociologist Kaplan (Univ. of Southern California) spent over three years interviewing black teenage mothers (and their mothers) in East Oakland, California. Using an ethnographic approach, she considers the teens' choice of motherhood in the light of gender, race, class relations, and socioeconomic conditions, within the context of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's culture of poverty, W.J. Wilson's economic determinism, and C. Stark's cultural strategies theories. She finds female black teenagers insecure, seeking an idealized relationship through motherhood, longing in vain for a male-headed, Brady Bunch-like model family. A reversal in the rising numbers of these welfare-dependent single mothers depends, says Kaplan, upon a different environment than now exists. She urges proactive support for young back women from feminist and community-oriented groups and financial, educational, and political sources. Well argued and readable, this is highly recommended for academics, professionals, and educated lay readers.Suzanne W. Wood, SUNY Coll. of Technology, Alfred

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Not Our Kind of Girl

Unraveling the Myths of Black Teenage
By Elaine Bell Kaplan

University of California Press

Copyright © 1997 Elaine Bell Kaplan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520208582

Chapter One
Black Teenage Mothers
Becoming a Social Problem

My God, that should be a Cabbage Patch baby in that bassinet. I said, "Can you believe that's yours?" I told her, "You need to stop having sex."
Ann Getty, teen parent counselor

In Black America many teenage girls become mothers before they complete their education, even before they reach maturity. The rising number of girls with babies is evidence of the changing structure and dynamics of Black family life.1

A.V. Richel, Teen Pregnancy and Parenting (New York: Hemisphere Publishing, 1989); Trussell, "Teenage Pregnancy," p. 66; Elaine Bell Kaplan, "Where Does a Fifteen-Year-Old Mother Turn?" Feminist Issues 8, no. 1 (spring 1988): 51-83. Also see Pittman and Adams, Teenage Pregnancy, p. 20. For discussion of the increasing numbers of Black teenage mothers, see Jaynes and Williams, A Common Destiny; Andrew M. Sum and W. Neal Fogg, "The Adolescent Poor and the Transition to Early Adulthood," in Adolescence and Poverty: Challenges of the 1990s, ed. Peter Edelman and Joyce Ladner (Washington, D.C.: Center for National Policy Press, 1991), 37-109.

The number of Blackhouseholds headed by single Black women with children climbed from a low of 25 percent in the 1950s to 61 percent by the early 1990s. Of these families, more than half have daughters who were or will become mothers during their teenage years.2

See Moore, Romano, and Oakes, Child Trends, Inc. Also see Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1994, 114th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census), table 71, p. 62; Nicholas Zill and Christine Winquist Nord, Running in Place: How American Families Are Faring in a Changing Economy and an Individualistic Society (Washington, D.C.: Child Trends, Inc., 1994).

The birth rates among Black teenage girls aged seventeen and younger have climbed during the past forty years, making the Black birth rate for this age group two to three times that among White teenagers. In 1991 alone, over 150,000 of these teenagers under the age of twenty had given birth to children. Although the birth rate among Black teenage girls has declined somewhat in the past few years, it is still double that among White teenage girls. The majority of Black teenage mothers are poor, surviving on a low income or on welfare.3

Jaynes and Williams, A Common Destiny, p. 412; Moore, Romano, and Oakes, Child Trends, Inc. A high percentage of Black teenage mothers are giving birth to babies, but it is also true that Black teenage girls represent only 14 percent of all adolescent girls in the United States; therefore, the majority of teenage births are to White adolescent girls. Also see John Reid, "Blacks in America in the 1980s," Population Bulletin 37 (December 1982): 27; Children's Defense Fund, The Problems of Teenage Pregnancy, National Overview (Washington, D.C.: Children's Defense Fund, 1988); S.L. Hofferth, J.R. Kahn, and W. Baldwin, "Premarital Sexual Activity among Teenage Women over the Past Three Decades," Family Planning Perspectives 19 (1988): 46.

The Culture-of-Poverty Perspective

Alarmed by the rising numbers of babies born to unmarried and poor teenage girls, scholars began to take note of what they saw as a serious social problem in the Black community. Oscar Lewis was the first social scientist to use the term culture of poverty, which later became synonymous with the social problems researchers saw in Black culture. According to Lewis, poor people who live in a capitalist industrial society have developed certain cultural characteristics, such as an absence of childhood and a high percentage of mother-centered homes. These characteristics have produced survival strategies enabling the poor to adapt to conditions of poverty but making it difficult for them to escape their situation. That is, poverty creates even more problems for poor communities and consequently causes poverty to be passed from one generation to the next.4

Mead, Beyond Entitlement; Murray, "Conversation"; Gilder, Wealth and Poverty; Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965); Oscar Lewis, "The Culture of Poverty," Scientific American 215 (October 1966): 19-25.

In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan advanced the culture-of-poverty thesis in a report that had tremendous implications for Black teenage mothers. According to Moynihan's perspective, poor and segregated populations such as the Black community develop a distinctive set of beliefs, values, and behavior patterns perpetuating their condition. For instance, Moynihan notes that more Black than White families are headed by poor women. He interprets the increasing rates of mother-only Black families as a sign that the structure of the Black family is deteriorating. Black mother-only families appear unstable, producing uncontrollable children, the boys joining gangs and the girls becoming sexually active at an early age. Moynihan's perspective suggests that Black teenage girls' morals are different from those of mainstream society because they do not have strong moral values prohibiting sexual activity at an early age and before marriage.5

Moynihan, Negro Family.

Missing from Moynihan's culture-of-poverty argument is any suggestion of the extent to which institutional factors and prevailing ideological views about Black women contribute to early motherhood and welfare dependency. Patricia Hill Collins suggests that Moynihan's theory uses Black women's performance as mothers to explain Black economic subordination.6

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (New York: Routledge, 1991).

As I see it, Moynihan's theory works in the reverse: Black economic subordination contributes significantly to Black mothers' performance.

With regard to Black teenage mothers, Moynihan's culture-of-poverty argument has effectively created racial divisions among teenagers by separating poor Black teenagers from middle-class White teenagers and so-called morally corrupt Black teenage mothers from all other adolescents. Equally important, the culture-of-poverty perspective reinforces gender inequality by focusing on the sexual life of teenage mothers, not on that of teenage fathers.

In a sense, the attempts of the culture-of-poverty theory to link teenage sexual behavior with Black cultural values puts a twist on social reproduction theory. In brief, this theory holds that societal institutions reproduce the social relationships and attitudes needed to sustain the existing relations of production in a capitalist society.7

See R. W. Connell, Gender and Power: The Person and Sexual Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

In the culture-of-poverty rendition, the institution of single-mother families reproduces attitudes, behaviors, and values permitting teenage sexual promiscuity and sustaining the nonrelationship with capitalism, that is, the reliance on welfare. Seen as a social deviant, the Black teenage girl reproduces more of her kind—a slap in the face of America's "family values." Ironically, the idea that these girls reproduce other "deviants" works to the advantage of a capitalist system, upholding the notion that society need not take any responsibility for those perceived to be unproductive and affirming that those who, for whatever reason, do not stand up for the status quo value system will find few seats reserved for them in the economic market-place.

Moynihan's culture-of-poverty thesis, written more than thirty years ago, remains a powerful political theme today as politicians use the image of Black teenage mothers to provoke voters. In 1993 Governor Tommie Thompson of Wisconsin proposed a bill that would guarantee teenage welfare mothers eighty dollars a month in benefits if they married the fathers of their babies. After all, the proponents of the bill claimed, children of two-parent families do better than children of single-parent welfare families—"that's the American way." When that bill did not engender much support, Thompson urged voters in his state to vote against welfare supplements for unmarried teenage mothers. In 1996 a New York Times article focusing on the current economic trends reported that "teenage childbearing cost the taxpayer $8.9 billion a year." Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar atthe politically conservative American Enterprise Institute, observed about the report, "A married teen-age mother is less likely to go on welfare." The culture-of-poverty thesis was also used by Tipton, Indiana, when the town's people discovered that "unwed teenagers accounted for 11.8 percent of births in Tipton county—a rate slightly higher than both Indiana's and the nation's." After much soul-searching, in a town where "football moms throw spaghetti dinners for the high school team," the mayor decided that the solution to teenage pregnancy was to challenge the values of these teenagers and to "bring back the stigma to teen sex and teen pregnancy," making the point that it is easy to inflame the minds of American voters with images of sexually free teenage girls copulating indiscriminately, dropping babies at every turn, and spending their days watching television, and thus destroying the texture of their community.8

Peter Passell, "Economic Trends," New York Times, 20 June 1996, 2. Sheryl Stolberg, "Teen Pregnancies Force Town to Grow Up," Los Angeles Times, 29 November 1996, A56-A57.

The Economic Determinist Perspective

In recent years many theorists have moved away from the culture-of-poverty thesis to one that links the plight of Black teenage mothers to changes in America's economy during the 1970s and 1980s. They attempt to move from the culture-of-poverty focus on deviant Black families headed by women to families besieged by economic problems. Economic determinists take as their jumping-off point the structural requirements of the capitalist economic system and attempt to show that people reproduce their class situation. This thesis maintains that the economic changes brought about by the shift from an industrial to an information and service economy created enormous problems for Black families. William J. Wilson's ground-breaking study The Truly Disadvantaged shows that although economic advances during the 1960s enabled some Black families to leave the ghetto and its poverty as they became middle class, they left behind a community racked by poverty, unemployment, and poor Black families, mostly headed by women who were too impoverished to make it out of the ghetto. Many children in those poor families still see no way out of the despair that surround them. As economic determinists observe, people's sense of their lives is mitigated by their structural circumstances.9

Jaynes and Williams, A Common Destiny, p. 6; Sum and Fogg, "The Adolescent Poor"; Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, p. 3. For a perspective on Black teenage mothers different from Wilson's, see Airline Geronimus quoted in "Teenage Birth's New Conceptions," Insight, 30 April 1990, 12. Geronimus argues that for poor teenage girls with few opportunities, motherhood may be rewarding. The teen mothers in her study talk about motherhood in "positive terms." Geronimus claims that girls who have babies benefit in the long run because their children grow up while the mothers are still young, giving these mothers a better chance of getting on with their lives than those women who have children at a more traditional age. Geronimus's conclusions raise a number of questions: Did she read the literature on the consequences of early motherhood? Did she observe the teen mothers in their homes, or as they went about their daily lives? Did she ask questions that would penetrate the teen mothers' clever facades? If Geronimus had inquired further, we perhaps might have learned that the teenage girl who has her baby finds her life turned around, her social support system shaken, the baby's father vanished, and her character maligned.

In 1986 Leon Dash used the theme of limited options in his study of Black teenage mothers who lived in a poor section of Washington, D.C. The teenage mothers Dash studied knew about birth control and the consequences of sex without contraceptives but refused to use birth control. They wanted to become pregnant because they saw no future for themselves; they were neither scheming sexual monsters nor helpless leaves in a windstorm. Still, while Dash's study shows teenage mothers actively making decisions about their lives, it does not fully explain the experiences of Black teenage mothers.10

Leon Dash, "Black Teenage Pregnancy in Washington D.C.," International Social Science Review 61 (autumn 1986): 4.

De Vonya Smalls's comments provided in the Introduction certainly support Dash's finding that teen mothers think motherhood gives meaning to the lives of girls who have few options. All the same, Dash's conclusions trouble me, with their underlying double standard, which holds girls, not boys, responsible for knowing about and using birth control while ignoring numerous studies that show most poor Black teenage girls do not receive sufficient sex education or birth control information.11

On the double standard, see Edwin Schur, Labeling Women Deviant (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 83. Schur writes that a double standard exists regarding men's and women's sexual behavior. Women are much more likely than men to be seen as "fallen" when they fail to adhere to the social norms about out-of-wedlock pregnancy. A presumption is made about the character of the unwed mother but not about the unwed father. Schur states that there is "no popular imagery of the unwed father." On the lack of information on sex and birth control, see W.J. Lindermann and L. Scott, "Wanted and Unwanted Pregnancy in Early Adolescence: Evidence from a Clinic Population," Journal of Early Adolescence 1 (1983); E.A. Smith and J.R. Udry, "Coital and Non-Coital Sexual Behaviors of White and Black Adolescents," American Journal of Public Health 32 (1986): 234-256; C. Chilman, Adolescent Sexuality in a Changing Society, 2d ed. (New York: Wiley, 1983); Christine Galavotti, "Predictors of Risk-Taking, Preventive Behavior and Contraceptive Use among Inner-City Adolescents" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1987).

The Cultural Strategies Perspective

Carol Stack's ethnographic study All Our Kin has become a classic thesis about poor Black families. Stack's intention was to explore in depth the complex social world in which Black families survive. When Stack made her visits to the Black community in the 1970s, she saw Black families using an extensive network of kin and non-kin to help them through hard times. Her perspective is similar to Moynihan's in focusing on the cultural aspect of Black family life, but it differs by seeing these family networks as creative strategies for coping with oppressive economic conditions.12

Carol Stack, All Our Kin (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 62-89.

Stack concludes her study with the observation that "the harsh economic conditions of poverty force people to return to proven strategies for survival." Much of what Stack saw in the 1970s had changed by the 1980s, when I heard these teen mothers talk about their lives. Stack asserts that the "child getting and child keeping" strategies she saw were all part of a unique Black culture.13

Stack, All Our Kin, p. 30.

I also saw "child getting and child keeping" as strategies, but they are not part of a culturalmandate; rather, they are an outcome of gender, racial, and economic inequalities.

Gender, Race, and Class Perspective

Why are so many Black girls barely past preadolescence having babies? This book intends to delve beneath the stereotypes of teenage motherhood and reveal the motivations, concerns, and strategies that make the lives of these young girls comprehensible. Let us take another look at two primary theories accounting for Black teenage pregnancies. Wilson's analysis of America's economic climate has made us understand the relationship between the collapse of the industrial economic structure and the plight of Black men and the Black community. To sociologists, Wilson's economic theory explains the conditions suffered by the Black community: they are the result of "the problem of male joblessness." Wilson argues that male joblessness is the single most important factor underlying the rise in unwed mothers among poor Black women.14

Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, p. 176.

However, because Wilson does not use a gender analysis, he takes into account neither women's employment problems nor how economic changes affect men's and women's relationships with each other.

Further, we must ask ourselves, How do children feel about their mothers and fathers if these adults are supposed to protect them from hunger and pain and fail to do so? How do women feel when they have to provide emotional support to their families but are so overworked that they cannot summon enough energy to do all they are supposed to do as mothers? How do teenage girls feel when their fathers leave them, for whatever reason, or when their mothers are overextended, or when teenage boys impregnate them and then abandon them? These questions are not considered in Wilson's analysis of Black lives.

Like Wilson's economic determinist theory, Stack's cultural strategies theory also looks at these problems of Black teenage mothers through a single lens. In acknowledging that the problems are basically economic, Stack is agreeing with Wilson, but she contends that Black families overcome these problems by using extensive family networks.

In addition to viewing the difficulties confronting the Black community only economically, Wilson and Stack assume that pregnant Black teenage girls have to contend only with being mothers. Black teenage mothers' experiences beg for a more complex analysis, one that encompasses the dimensions of gender, race, and class. For example, both Wilson's and Stack's theories ignore how Black teenage girls struggle with the adolescent process at the same time they are becoming mothers, and how these girls attempt to make sense of their lives on the basis of mostly erroneous information about themselves. Because they have faulty information, especially concerning sexual matters, and because they attempt to live according to family value models, these girls act on distorted views, creating even more difficulties for themselves, which they take into their adult lives.

In considering the causes of Black adolescent girls' problems, we cannot ignore the work of Carol Gilligan. As she describes in Making Connections , adolescence is a time of suppression as well as connection for girls. Girls of ages eleven and twelve can become unable to express themselves and can thus lose connection with others. During preadolescence girls exhibit self-confidence and assertiveness. Once they reach adolescence, their self-confidence diminishes. For example, they regularly preface their observations with the comment "I don't know," which Gilligan takes as a sign of repression. Other studies suggest that girls who lose their confidence also have lower test scores and school grades. These girls tend to focus on sexual relationships.15

Carol Gilligan, Nona P. Lyons, and Trudy J. Hanmer, eds., Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1990); Robert Simmons and Frances Rosenberg, "Disturbance in the Self-Image at Adolescence," American Sociological Review 38 (1973): 553-568.

During adolescence girls become concerned with reaching out to others and finding ways to develop trust in others. As Gilligan puts it, "The issue of holding together self and other—what has been called here the caring for the self as well as caring for others—may be a special issue of development during adolescence for some girls. The special vulnerability may be in finding a way of caring for the self while maintaining connections with others."16

Gilligan, Lyons, and Hanmer, Making Connections, p. 25.

While Gilligan promotes the need to develop trust, she does not explain how race and economic factors influence girls' adolescent experiences. Therefore we do not learn how problems associated with race, such as living in a racially segregated community where many adolescents find being part of a gang the only satisfying activity they have at their age, can conditiongirls' adolescent experiences. Nor do we learn from Gilligan what it means for poor or working-class girls to lose their "voice."

Wilson's economic determinist theory, Stack's cultural strategies theory, and Gilligan's theory of girls' repressed adolescence contribute to our understanding of Black adolescent girls. However, such understanding is limited because each of these theories is from a single point of view. What is begging for our attention is the fact that adolescence is a time when Black girls, striving for maturity, lose the support of others in three significant ways. First, they are abandoned by the educational system; second, they become mere sexual accompanists for boys and men; third, these problems create a split between the girls and their families and significant others. What is needed to understand the losses, the stresses, and the large and small violences that render such teenage girls incapable of successfully completing their adolescent tasks is a gender, race, and class analysis, which is at the heart of this book. When early motherhood is added to these challenges, they become insurmountable. The adolescent mothers I saw were deprived of every resource needed for any human being to function well in our society: education, jobs, food, medical care, a secure place to live, love and respect, the ability to securely connect with others. In addition, these girls were silenced by the insidious and insistent stereotyping of them as promiscuous and aberrant teenage girls.

We must move away from these stereotypes and consider the ramifications of so much loss on the lives of Black adolescent girls. Patricia Hill Collins has called for an articulation of emerging "patterns of institutional oppression that differentially" affect Black women.17

See Althea Smith and Abigail J. Stewart, "Approaches to Studying Racism and Sexism in Black Women's Lives," Journal Of Social Issues 39, no. 3 (1983): 1-15; A. Brittany and Mary Maynard, Sexism, Racism and Oppression (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 22. Collins, Black Feminist Thought, p. 66. Collins makes the point that community structures resist racial and class oppression. But gender crosses race and class structures and provides fewer means of resistance.

Following Collins's lead, I want to explore, further than Wilson and Stack have, those patterns of institutional oppression by asking some pivotal questions. What happens to interpersonal relationships when adolescent girls and their families have to deal with teenage pregnancy and motherhood? How do adolescent girls and their families feel about the indignity of having to call on others for the economic, emotional, and spiritual resources they require and having to look to the very people who will judge them stereotypically? What kinds of strategies do they develop to compensate for the loss of basic resources?

What I propose here is a theory of the poverty of relationships, a theory I have arrived at from a deepening knowledge of teenage mothers. Institutional oppressions do occur, and they are played out in a relational framework in which girls develop intentional strategies to form and sustain relationships with their significant others. These teenage mothers describe being disconnected from primary family relations, abandoned by their schools and by the men in their lives, and isolated from relations with other teenagers at the time of adolescence, when it is most important that they experience positive relationships. These teen mothers developed their strategies to make up for the poverty of their relationships.

The Destruction of Community Life

The lives of these Black teen girls are conditioned by the economic and relational changes that have occurred in the Black community in the last several decades. It is therefore necessary to highlight those changes so that we can truly understand their lives before and after they became teenage mothers.

During the 1950s and 1960s most Black families lived in fairly stable neighborhoods where families stayed for years. They lived ordinary lives, as ordinary as poor people's lives can be. Wilson describes these communities of the 1950s as places where Blacks did not hesitate to sleep in parks during the summer and Whites visited their taverns and nightclubs. There was a sense of strong family tradition in Black communities.18

Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged; John Hope Franklin, "A Historical Note on Black Families," in Black Families, 2d ed., ed. H. B. McAdoo (Newbury Park, Cal.: Sage Publications, 1988), 25-26. Also see Andrew Billingsley, Climbing Jacob's Ladder (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). Billingsley traces Black family structure from slavery to present.

In those days, fathers and mothers worked, loved, and had babies. Children played and slept in cold and cramped apartments. They played stoopball, double Dutch, red rover, ring-a-lievo, and hide-and-seek, singing in innocent voices, "One, two, button my shoe." Some kids were poorer than others, but they thought they were pretty much the same as the other kids on the block.

The streets of the Black community were very much like those of a small town. Everyone knew everyone else, or at least knew about them. This kind of knowledge was passed on by "old women" who spent much of their time gossiping about neighbors. Elijah Andersonwrites about "old women" like these. He calls them an "important source of social control and organization for the community." These women operated through bonds of kinship and friendship. They were the ones others could "talk to" or "lean on," and they would dispense advice, discipline, and corporal punishment, often filling an important fictive kinship role of extra parent or surrogate mother.19

Elijah Anderson, Streetwise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 73.

These old women had an enormous influence on the community: they were its conscience and its moral voice. Sitting on their front steps, they would discuss the moral character of all the local girls—who had it, and who did not. These old women knew all the news: who was getting married, who was working or unemployed, who was on welfare and why. If a teenage girl became pregnant, they called her a whore, a girl who had loose morals, a daughter who had had no proper upbringing. They would not hesitate to confront and dress down girls who did not live up to their moral code: "What a shame!" "A disgrace to the family!"

To the old women's way of thinking, girls were either good or bad. If the girl did not steal, was not truant from school, and did not have a baby before marriage, she was a good girl. Bad girls were deviants—people who, in the eyes of society, have "engaged in some kind of collective denial of the social order," as Erving Goffman puts it. Such people are viewed by society as failing to take advantage of "available opportunities" and lacking respect for traditional values.20

Erving Goffman, Stigma (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963), 23.

I often think about those old women when people accuse the Black community of condoning teenage pregnancy. It is just not true. Pregnant teenage girls were considered deviants in the past and are still considered so today by many in the Black community.

Perhaps someone could have looked at the issue of Black teenage pregnancies then to make predictions about the soaring birth rate among Black teenage girls, which was two to three times higher than that among White teenage girls during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Back then, no one noticed the beginning of the trend.

Gangs, Drugs, and Family Disruption

During the 1960s the American economy underwent shifts that had a drastic impact on poor Black ghettos. In most cities depression inmanufacturing sent people looking for work. These "old labor" industries, until then a mainstay for Black males (of whom over half were blue-collar workers in the 1960s), were being replaced by industries geared toward a service economy. Small businesses and plants that formerly hired low-skilled or semiskilled Black workers went out of business, left the cities to find cheap labor abroad, or hired White women and recently arrived immigrants.21

Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, p. 49. See Terry Williams and William Kornblum, Growing Up Poor (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1985), 3, for a description of the effect of economic changes on Black neighborhoods. Also see Jayne and Williams, A Common Destiny, p. 6; Raymond S. Franklin, Shadows of Race and Class (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, The Industrialization of America (New York: Harper & Row, 1982); Lawrence E. Gary, "A Social Profile," in Black Men, ed. Lawrence E. Gary (Newbury Park, Cal.: Harper & Row, 1982), 29-45.

By the mid 1970s the workforce changes had slammed Black neighborhoods hard. Men who did construction work were laid off. Mom-and-pop stores, mostly owned by Italian or Jewish immigrant families, folded or moved away. These stores had employed many people in the neighborhood and let families run up daily bills for essentials like bread and milk, so their departure left a devastating void. Most Blacks who remained in the community had no capital with which to buy them.

During the 1960s and early 1970s apartment buildings were rapidly being replaced by large, densely populated housing projects. The extreme crowding brought changes in space and material conditions—what Terry Williams and William Kornblum in Growing Up Poor call our "community ecology." Williams and Kornblum make clear the importance of community ecology on a person's life: "The ecological features of the neighborhood establish the boundaries of daily life. Jobs and small work assignments in the neighborhood may offer young people their first earnings. The places to hang out, to compete in athletics, to mark off as turt to be defended against outsiders—these are features of the local ecology that play a significant role in the paths young people take to maturity."22

Williams and Kornblum, Growing Up Poor, pp. 3, 5. For other vivid portrayals of problems faced by inner-city children, see Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (New York: Anchor Books, 1991); Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (New York: Crown, 1991).

What is the community ecology of the poor inner city like? Richard B. Freeman and Harry J. Holzer's analysis of data from the National Bureau of Economic Research survey of Black youth ages sixteen to twenty-four revealed that "Black youth living in the poorest areas of inner cities were much more likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed than White youths or all black youths…. One-third of them live in public housing; almost one-half of them have a family member on welfare."23

Richard B. Freeman and Harry J. Holzer, quoted in Jaynes and Williams, A Common Destiny, p. 320. Also see Ronald L. Taylor, "Black Youth in Crisis," in The Black Family, 5th ed., ed. Robert Staples (Belmont, Cal.: Wadworth, 1994), 214-229. Taylor argues that Black youth have become a "permanently entrapped population of poor persons largely isolated from the mainstream of American life" (214). Also see Williams and Kornblum, Growing Up Poor, p. 5. Williams and Kornblum write that changes in income may have a different psychological and cultural impact on Black adolescents than on White adolescents in industrial neighborhoods close to factories and other workplaces or on young people in "rural areas where work is plentiful even if jobs are scarce."

Only 28 percent of them have an adult man in their household. The economic and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s brought havoc to the communities' ecology: gangs began to appearon the streets, bringing with them violence and drugs. Places to hang out, find jobs, or play safely slowly disappeared.

By the end of the 1970s, Black women and their families were also falling victim to these structural changes.24

Williams and Kornblum, Growing Up Poor; Johnetta B. Cole, "Commonalities and Differences," in All American Women: Lines That Divide, Ties That Bind, ed. Johnetta B. Cole (New York: Free Press, 1986), 11.

During the 1970s and 1980s the number of Black single-parent households steadily climbed upward from a low of 25 percent to reach 33 percent.25

Zill and Nord, Running in Place, p. 23.

These single mothers were working a low-income domestic jobs, trying to support their families on five dollars an hour. By 1985 over half of all Black families were headed by women, mostly poor (the number of households headed by White women had climbed also, but not quite as quickly or as high: from 9 percent in the early 1970s to 18 percent by 1985). The majority of these Black women were forced to raise their children on poverty-level wages, earning little more than ten thousand dollars a year for a family of four.26

Jaynes and Williams, A Common Destiny, p. 401. Also see "Percentage Comparison of African American and White Families Affected by Unemployment, 1988," The State of Black America, 1990, January 1990, p. 218.

Two Communities: Oakland and Richmond

By 1986, the year I made my way into the heavily populated Black communities of East Oakland and Richmond, California, neighborhood life had nearly lost its vitality. These two communities had had a more promising beginning.27

Lawrence P. Crouchett, Lonnie G. Bunch III, and Martin Kendall Winnacker, The History of the East Bay Afro-American Community, 1852-1977 (Oakland: Northern California Center for Afro-American History and Life, 1989), 21, 22.

In 1860 thirty-one free Black adults and ten children arrived in the East Bay. They found work as laborers and farmhands in Oakland, the East Bay's first large frontier town. The new arrivals were allowed some freedom from the strict employment and housing segregation that Blacks generally experienced in more established cities in the United States, since Oaklanders were more concerned with developing the area than with applying racist policies. To avoid White-controlled institutions, Blacks established a private school for Black children and the first all-Black church in the United States, an African Methodist Episcopal mission. Several Blacks managed to buy choice real estate lots and prospered from their real estate holdings. By the end of the 1860s, Oakland had a stable community of fifty-five Black families, who were becoming increasingly prosperous.28

Ibid. pp. 5, 9.

In 1869 the East Bay was transformed from a "chance stopping place" for Blacks seeking a better future into a compelling destination for migration when the Central Pacific (later Southern Pacific) Railroad chose Oakland as the western terminus of its transcontinentalroute. When the Pullman Company introduced sleeping cars for long-distance travel, it hired Black porters to provide personal services for passengers. By the end of the 1800s, Oakland and the smaller community of Richmond, the last stops on the railroad line, had become home base for the growing number of Pullman porters and their families. Later the railroad hired other Blacks to work as cooks, baggage handlers, waiters, and laborers in the passenger and freight depots. Eventually railroad workers required to live west of Adeline Street in order to be on call for unscheduled duty bought their own homes. In 1894 the first Black professional, a graduate of Howard University, arrived in the East Bay. He was soon followed by others who wanted the opportunity to work in an area that was quickly becoming an important Black community.

By the early 1900s Oakland and Richmond were vibrant Black middle-class communities of professionals and government workers. Black children from the Lake Merritt area of West Oakland attended private schools. Their parents bought property in new neighborhoods that stressed a "city beautiful" community and established a Black high society that attended formal balls and dinners and other elaborate social events. By the 1920s the success of these cities began to attract large numbers of southern Blacks, who came in search of jobs in construction and ship building. According to one resident, "Some didn't even have luggage; they could come with boxes, with three or four children with no place to stay." People who did not find housing crowded into any available space. Some old houses became occupied by as many as fifty people.29

Ibid. pp. 10, 21, 22.

The Great Depression brought Oakland's economic expansion to an end. Many in these two communities lost their jobs and were forced to seek public assistance for the first time, and at a rate four times that of Whites. Despite these economic hardships, Oakland's Black community tried to sustain a culture of art and music by launching art exhibits at the Oakland Art Gallery.30

Ibid pp. 35, 41.

By the 1940s, when other Americans were pulling out of the depression, the percentage of un-employed Blacks in the Oakland community was six times their percentage of the population.

Between 1942 and 1945 war industries brought over fifty thousand Blacks to the East Bay. Most moved into Oakland to find jobs atshipyards in Richmond. By 1949, overwhelmed by the large number of Blacks seeking shelter, West Oakland had been declared a "blighted area." Oakland's population grew from 8,462 in 1940 to 37,327 in 1945 and 47,563 in 1950. Richmond's grew from a mere 270 in 1940 to 14,000 in 1950. By the 1950s these communities had grown by ten thousand people, causing one Oaklander to remark, "We'd go down to Sixteenth Street station after school to watch people get off the train and it was like a parade."31

Ibid, p. 45.

In 1954 the Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal endorsed the two-acre Acorn renewal project. In this effort to upgrade a district close to the downtown center (convenient for shopping at large department stores), more than three hundred buildings were demolished and nine thousand people were forced to move. Because of housing discrimination, Blacks were not free to move into the greater Oakland and Richmond communities; instead, they had to move to newly available housing in East Oakland and parts of Richmond. But in doing so they left behind churches, political and entertainment clubs, and health care facilities, the very community organizations that had given them support.

In Richmond, Black families living in small apartments or bungalows tried to accommodate some of these displaced families by taking them in as boarders. Families who did not receive such help had to make do with trailers, shanties, and tents, seeming to fill every open space. Despite these housing problems, Blacks were still moving into these areas, hoping to take part in the employment opportunities offered by Ford Motor Company, the Mare Island naval base, the construction industry, and the significant Black culture. The Black population in Richmond, a smaller community, increased from 13,000 in 1950 to slightly more than 14,000 in 1960. The Black population in Oakland, however, surged upward from 48,000 in 1950 to almost 84,000 in the 1960s. By the end of the 1960s, the tradition of Oakland's and Richmond's middle-class gentility had all but disappeared.32

Crouchett, Bunch, and Winnacker, History, p. 45; David Dante Troutt, The Thin Red Line (San Francisco: West Coast Regional Office, Consumers Union of the U.S., 1993).

By the 1970s the Black communities of Oakland and Richmond had experienced tremendous changes.33

Troutt, Thin Red Line.

The destruction of the established Black community in West Oakland had forced Blacks to move into East Oakland, where the structure of support and community organizations was lacking. These communities became plagued with a number of problems: high unemployment, inadequate schools, crime-anddrug-related violence, and a growing number of teenage pregnancies. During the 1970s and 1980s, while Black families in Oakland and Richmond were experiencing these tremendous problems and the poverty of many Black families was becoming a focus of national concern, the Reagan and Bush administrations cut government funding for housing, welfare, and educational programs. The government funding cuts called for deep reductions in education, child nutrition, housing assistance, and urban development grants.34

See, for example, James Robbins, "Black Families: Identifying the Special Strengths—and Needs—of the Black Family," Christian Science Monitor, 16 May 1986, 2. See also Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged.

In 1986 I walked through East Oakland's and downtown Richmond's streets on my way to interview teenage mothers. It was hard to believe these two communities were once thriving and middleclass. Oakland and Richmond were a long way from the potential they had held as a strong economic and social base for the Black settlers. Now all I saw around me was the effects of poverty: deteriorating housing, dilapidated public school buildings, and large numbers of unemployed people. West Oakland now had more city housing projects (Acorn, Apollo, Morh) than any other neighborhood. In East Oakland, Fourteenth Street and Fruitvale divided up flatland neighborhoods into small grids of single-family homes in various states of disrepair and forbidding apartment complexes. These developments included winding streets along their eastern edge and pockets of greenery, but there was an unmistakable absence of community centers (except for churches) and stores and other local businesses offering job opportunities.35

See Troutt, Thin Red Line.

The absence of jobs in Oakland and Richmond contributed to the lowest median household income of any area, a little over ten thousand dollars in 1986.36


The residents, many of them elderly, were without cars. They had to walk across the freeway to services and local government offices in the downtown area. Their situation was in stark contrast to the prosperity once enjoyed when shipbuilding jobs brought so many blacks to Oakland from Texas and Louisiana. Like that of many rust-belt cities of the Midwest and the East, Oakland's working population was left without local employment possibilities when manufacturing plants went out of business. Oakland's high unemployment created a climate ripe for a host of criminal activities. As author Claude Brown put it when he revisited his old neighborhood, "The streets had grown meaner," because of theincreased drug trafficking and violence.37

Claude Brown, "Return to Mean Streets," Los Angeles Times, 30 June 1986, 1B-2B.

Seldom did I see children playing on the streets with the air of abandon we had in New York two decades earlier. Instead, large groups of teenagers and older men lounged in front of the brick tower projects, some openly selling drugs.

Economic displacement and high numbers of single-parent households often appear together in the same community. So it was not surprising to find that in the same year I walked through those streets to interview the teen mothers, the city of Oakland reported that "close to 90 percent" of the families headed by women in Oakland were "living in poverty and receiving AFDC assistance."38

Pearl Stewart, "Bleak Report on Oakland's Single Mothers," San Francisco Chronicle, 13 May 1986, 2.

The living conditions of the teen mothers I interviewed support William J. Wilson's findings about socially isolated people in the Chicago city projects. Some teen mothers I saw were living in segregated communities of women-headed households. Oakland's city council acknowledged that 40 percent of these families were living in "neighborhoods where virtually all single mothers receive welfare aid."39

Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged. See report of Oakland City Council, "Women and Children of Oakland" (September 1986).

The buildings, lacking care, had poorly lit hallways running maze-like around the apartment doors; graffiti proclaimed ownership of the walls; and weeds ran up the garden paths. Many of the teen mothers had poor educational skills and few prospects for stable employment. Others were educated and employed but still felt left out of the mainstream American community. This group of socially isolated families was growing fast.

In 1988, when the Crips and Bloods, two notorious gangs, were killing each other on Oakland streets, almost 73 percent of that city's Black teenage girls had babies, giving Oakland the dubious distinction of being ranked number 30 out of 108 large cities in the United States with a high percentage of births to women younger than twenty years old. The people of Richmond, a smaller community, could not make that claim, but they were watching the numbers with trepidation. Most of their teenage girls had never left their neighborhoods, attended a school dance, or gone unescorted to a movie.40

Oakland statistics from Oakland City Council, "Women and Children." Also see Pittman and Adams, Teenage Pregnancy, p. 20. On Richmond, see report released by Contra Costa County, "Contra Costa County Teen Pregnancy Statistics, 1986," pp. 1-3.

Few people, let alone old women, sat on the steps in front of their homes watching community life as they had done in my childhood. They were sitting indoors behind drawn window shades, deep frownson their faces, lips pressed tightly together. They worried about drug dealers and crack-house landlords. When I talked about those earlier neighborhoods to seventy-year-old Annie Mae Jackson, she informed me that her community now was different: "Honey, now I gon' keep my butt inside." She was proud of being an active member of the Take Your Block Back from Drug Dealers Committee.

A few houses down the street, Carrie Evans, a stern-faced forty-year-old grandmother, addressed other concerns. She was in despair over raising the children of her teenage daughter, who had died from smoking crack cocaine: "I didn't think I would be doing this at this time of my life." Recently, a single mother had called me from New York City to tell me that her sixteen-year-old daughter was pregnant. A few months later a friend living in Oakland called to tell me that her fifteen-year-old daughter was pregnant. Another woman I knew told me that her seventeen-year-old daughter had died of a drug overdose. She had taken on the responsibility of raising her grandchild, something she was not prepared to do and deeply resented. These women were upset. How could their "little girls" do "such an awful thing?"

Others I talked to were equally perplexed about the number of Black teenage mothers who did "such an awful thing." Alma Sweets, a teacher in Oakland high schools for close to twenty years, expressed her increasing frustration with the large number of teenage girls showing up in class pregnant: "How can you explain this? Surely, today's teenagers are more enlightened than twenty years ago. Don't they know more about sexuality issues and birth control today?"

All these social ills—unemployment, poor housing, gangs, drugs, disrupted families—contribute to the environmental conditions I saw when I visited the teen mothers. Driving down the street, I saw the signs of despair—the graffiti taking over every available space, the drug dealers moving in murky shadows toward their next customer—and as the teen mothers let me in their homes, I saw the same narrowing of choices, the threat of hopelessness. These communities, along with increasing numbers of Black people in Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and New York, present a picture of radical gender, class, and racial exclusion.

Talking to Teen Mothers

I began my search to understand the rise in Black motherhood by interviewing two teen mothers referred to me by friends. They came to my house early one Saturday morning and stayed for three hours. Although I had prepared a series of general questions, the young women had so much more to say that I was compelled to create a more extensive set. Next, the director of a local family planning center let me attend a teen parent meeting, where I left a letter of introduction inviting those who were interested in my project to contact me. These teen mothers referred me to others. Eventually, I created a list of fifteen teen mothers.

The director of the family planning center also introduced me to Mary Higgins, the director of the Alternative Center in East Oakland. The Center operated with a grant from a large charity organization that allowed it to develop outreach programs geared to the needs of the local teenage population. These programs included an alternative school, day care, self-esteem development, parenting skills training, and personal counseling. Mary in turn introduced me to Ann Getty, a counselor at the center. Through Ann I met Claudia Wilson, a counselor for the Richmond Youth Counseling program. A short time after that meeting, I began to work as a volunteer consultant for the Alternative Center and to attend meetings with counselors and others who visited the center.

Through my contacts at the center, in the autumn of 1985 I met De Vonya Smalls and twenty of the sample of thirty-two teen mothers (see Table 1) who participated in this study. The rest of my sample was drawn from other contacts I made in a network of community workers at the Richmond Youth Service Agency and through my work as a volunteer consultant there. The youth agency's counselors introduced me to teenage mothers who lived in the downtown Richmond area. As a consultant, I was able to talk extensively with the adolescents who took part in teen mother programs.

After several months of making contacts, losing some, and making new ones, I was able to pull together the sample of thirty-two teenage mothers. Of this sample, I "hung out" with a core group of seven teen mothers for a period of seven months, including sixteen-year-oldDe Vonya Smalls. The other six teen mothers who participated were sixteen-year-old Susan Carter, a mother of a two-month-old baby, who was living with her mother and sister in East Oakland; seventeen-year-old Shana Leeds, a mother with a nine-month-old baby, who was living with a family friend in downtown Richmond; and eighteen-year-old Terry Parks, a mother of a two-year-old, who was sharing her East Oakland apartment with twenty-year-old Dana Little and her five-year-old son. The group also included twenty-year-old Diane Harris, who had become pregnant at seventeen and within months had exchanged a middle-class lifestyle for that of a welfare mother and was now living in a run-down apartment in East Oakland; Lois Patterson, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two and long-term welfare recipient, who was living with her extended family in a small, crowded house in East Oakland; and Evie Jenkins, a forty-three-year-old mother of two, who was living on monthly disability insurance in a housing project near downtown Richmond. Like Diane Harris, Evie lost her middle-class status when she became a teenage welfare mother at age seventeen.

I accompanied these women to the Alternative Center, to the welfare office, and to visits with their mothers. Some of the teen mothers could not find private places to talk, so we talked in the back seat of my car, over lunch or dinner in coffee shops, in a shopping mall, at teenage program meetings, or while moving boxes to a new apartment—in other words, anywhere they would let me join them.

Interviewing the teen mothers on a regular basis was difficult: they frequently moved, appointments were missed, telephones were disconnected. One day I tried to call five mothers about planned participant observation sessions only to find all their telephones disconnected. A few mothers were willing to be interviewed because they thought they would benefit in some way. One mother let me interview her because she thought I had access to housing and could get her an apartment. Another thought I would be able to get her into a teen parent program. A few mothers did not bother returning my telephone calls once they discovered I could not pay them.

I did not pay the teen mothers or the others for taking part in these interviews. In exchange for their information, I told the teen mothers about my own family, gave out information about welfare assistanceand teen parent programs, and drove them to various stores. I helped De Vonya Smalls move into her first apartment. I went out with the teen mothers to eat Chinese food, shared takeout dinners, and bought potato chips and sodas for, so it seemed, everyone's sisters, brothers, and cousins. I was in some homes so often that the families began to treat me like a friend.

I found myself caught up in the teen mothers' lives more than I had planned. I was able to capture changes in their lives. I watched a teen mother break up with her baby's father. I witnessed De Vonya Smalls and Shana Leeds move in and out of three different homes. I saw Shana Leeds go through the process of applying for AFDC. I sat through long afternoons with Diane Harris discussing her baby's "womanizing" father, only to attend their wedding a few months later.

I also talked to everyone else I could, including the teen mothers' mothers, Black and White teenage girls who were not mothers, teachers, counselors, directors of teen programs, social workers, and Planned Parenthood counselors. Many have definite views about teenage mothers, some representing a more conservative voice than we usually hear in the Black community.

Sadly, most of the teen mothers' fathers and their babies' fathers were not involved in their lives in any significant way. The teen mothers' lack of knowledge about the babies' fathers' whereabouts made it impossible for me to interview the men. The few men who were still involved with the teen mothers refused to be interviewed. The best I could do was to observe some of the dynamics between two teen fathers and mothers.41

Twenty-three teen mothers said that they had little or no contact with their fathers; the remaining nine said that their fathers were "very supportive" or "somewhat" supportive. Twenty said they did not have much contact with the fathers of their babies. Other studies also report difficulties in interviewing teen mothers. For discussion, see Frank Furstenberg Jr., "Burdens and Benefits: Impact of Early Childbearing on the Family," Journal of Social Issues 36, no. 1 (1980): 123-135. Also see Karen Pittman and Gina Adams, What about the Boys? Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Strategies (Washington D.C.: Children's Defense Fund, 1988), p. 4. In reviewing strategies to increase babies' fathers' responsibilities to their children, Pittman and Adams note, "We need to start to talk to [fathers]." The Fund finds that teenage boys were primarily interested in discussing employment issues but not fatherhood issues.

Personal Histories

The teen mothers' ages ranged from fourteen to forty-three. Seventeen of them were currently teen mothers (aged fourteen to nineteen), and fifteen were older women who had previously been teen mothers (aged twenty to forty-three). The presence of the two age groups enabled me to appreciate the dynamic quality and long-term effects of teenage pregnancy on the mothers. The current teen mothers brought to the study a "here and now" aspect: I witnessed some of the family drama as it unfolded. The older women brought a sense ofhistory and their reflective skills; the problems of being a teenage mother did not disappear when the teenage mothers became adults. The older women's stories served two goals for this book: to show that the black community has a history of not condoning teenage motherhood, and to locate emerging problems within the structural changes of our society that have affected everyone in recent years. The stories revealed in Chapters 2 and 3 show that these teen mothers' lives are more complex, and sadder, than we previously thought.

As a group, the teen mothers' personal histories reveal both common and not so common patterns among teenage mothers. The youngest teen mother was fourteen and the oldest was eighteen at the time of their first pregnancies. Seventeen teen mothers were currently receiving welfare aid. But contrary to the commonly held assumption that welfare mothers beget welfare mothers, only five teen mothers reported that their families had been on welfare for longer than five years. Twenty-four of the teen mothers had grown up in families headed by a single mother—a common pattern among teenage mothers. Thirteen reported that their mothers had been teenage mothers. Unlike other studies that focus on poor teenage mothers, this study also included five middle-class and three working-class teenage mothers whose parents were teachers, civil service managers, or nursing assistants. Nine of the teen mothers were attending high school (of whom six were attending alternative high school). Several had taken college courses, and two had managed to obtain a college degree.42

For an overview of data on teenage pregnancies by age, see Trussell, "Teenage Pregnancy," pp. 65-75. Also see Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged; Gerald D. Jaynes and Robin M. Williams, eds., A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989), 401; Greg J. Duncan and Willard Rodgers, "Single-Parent Families: Are Their Economic Problems Transitory or Persistent?" Family Planning Perspectives, 19, no. 4 (July-August 1987): 171. Duncan and Rodgers examine the growth in the proportion of female-headed families from 1940 to the 1980s. My study is consistent with these studies on the sizable number of Black families in which both mother and daughter are teenage mothers.

Along with capturing an ethnographic snapshot of the seven teen mothers, I conducted semistructured interviews in which I asked all the teen mothers specific questions about their experiences before, during, and after their pregnancies. I asked questions about various common perceptions: the idea of passive and promiscuous teenage girls, the role of men in their lives, the notion of strong cultural support for their pregnancies, the concept of extended family support networks, and the idea that teenage mothers have babies in order to receive welfare aid. Each teenage mother was interviewed for two to two and one-half hours. I audiotaped and transcribed all of the interviews.

I transcribed the material verbatim except for names and other identifying markers, which were changed during the transcription. I coded each teen mother on background variables and patterns. I read and reread my fieldnotes, supporting documents, and relevant literature. For this book I chose those quotations that would best represent typical responses, overall categories, and major themes. I used quotations from the core sample of seven as well as from the larger sample of thirty-two to include a wide range of responses.

Whenever possible I have tried to capture the teen mothers' emotional responses to the questions or issues. Often a teen mother would express through a sigh or a laugh feelings about some issue that contradicted her verbal response. For instance, when Terry Parks laughed as she described her feelings about being on welfare, I added a note about her laughter because it indicated to me that she was embarrassed about the subject. Without that notation, I would not have been able to communicate the emotional intensity with which she said the word "welfare" as she talked about her welfare experiences.

Through the Ethnographic Lens

I use an ethnographic approach to provide an intricate picture of how gender and poverty dictate the lives of these young teenage mothers and how societal gender, race, and class struggles are played out at the personal level. An ethnographic approach can bridge the gap between the sociological discussion of field research and the actual field experience. Studying these women through the lens of ethnography helped me move the teen mothers' personal stories to an objective level of analysis. The ethnographic method allowed the teen mothers to express to me personal information that was close to the heart. The method also allowed me to bring these Black teenage mothers into sociology's purview, to better understand them as persons, to make their voices heard, and to make their lives important to the larger society. The interviews and observations show that Black teenage girls' experiences are structural and troublesome. At all times I have attempted to make these teen mothers' stories real and visible by presenting the teen mothers' own words with as little editing as possibleand by revealing their own insights into the interlocking structures of gender, race, and class.43

See R. W. Connell's discussion of the social reproduction theory, Gender and Power. For an ethnographic treatment of Black women, see Joyce Ladner, Tomorrow's Tomorrow: The Black Woman (New York: Doubleday, 1970).

The Insider Interviewer

I could not walk easily into some teen mothers' lives. Being close to the people being interviewed made me both pleased and tense. Being an insider—someone sharing the culture, community, ethnicity, or gender background of the study participants—has its advantages and disadvantages. When the interviewer can identify with the class and ethnic background of the person being interviewed, there is a greater chance of establishing rapport. The person will express a greater range of attitudes and opinions, especially when the opinions to be expressed are somewhat opposed to general public opinion. The situation is more complex when interviewees are asked to reveal information that may serve the researcher's interest but not that of the group involved. "Don't wash dirty linen in public," they remind the researcher.44

Ann Oakley first raised this issue in "Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms," in Doing Feminist Research, ed. Helen Roberts (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981). Other sociologists have discussed the advantages or disadvantages of being inside or outside the culture being researched. See Alvin Gouldner, "Personal Reality and the Tragic Dimension in Science," in The Sociology of Research, ed. G. Boalth (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 169-185; Ethel Sawyer, "Methodological Problems in Studying So-Called 'Deviant' Communities," in The Death of White Sociology, ed. Joyce Ladner (New York: Random House, 1973), 69; Oakley, "Interviewing Women." On rapport between an insider researcher and interviewees, see Gouldner, "Personal Reality."

The most difficult questions I faced, as do most insider interviewers, had to do with the politics of doing interviews in my own community. As an insider I had to decide whether making certain issues public would benefit the group at the same time that it served my research goals. I imagine that these interviews will raise questions. How will the White community perceive Black families if I discuss the conflicts between teen mothers and their mothers, or fathers who refuse to support their children, or the heavy negative sanctioning of these teen mothers by some in the Black community? My work would be taken out of context, several people warned me.

Every Black researcher who works on issues pertaining to her or his community grapples with these questions. We think about the possibility that our findings may contradict what the Black community wants outsiders to know. Some researchers select nonthreatening topics. Others romanticize Black life despite the evidence that life is hard for those on the bottom. And others simply adopt a code of silence, taking a position similar to that of the Black college teacher who in another context made the point to me, "I'm socialized to bear my pain in silence and not go blabbing about my problems to White folks, let alone strangers."45

On these issues faced by Black researchers studying the Black community, see Sawyer, "Methodological Problems," p. 69.

Being an insider did not help me gain the confidence of the teen mothers and others immediately. Most were suspicious of researchers. I lost a chance to interview one group of teen mothers involved in a special school project because the counselors who worked with them did not like the way a White male researcher had treated the teen mothers previously. Indeed, these teen mothers had the right to be suspicious. What these girls and women say about their lives can be used against them by public policy makers, since the Black community is often blamed for its own social and economic situations.

But overall, being a Black woman was helpful, because eventually the teen mothers, realizing we had much in common, stopped being suspicious of me and began to talk candidly of their lives. Occasionally I could not find a babysitter and had to bring my little boy along. I found my son's presence helped reduce the aloofness of my role as researcher and the powerlessness of the teens' position as interview subjects. I was surprised at how helpful my son was in breaking through the first awkward moments. We made him the topic of discussion—mothers can always compare child-care problems. His presence also helped me counter some of the teenagers' tendencies to deny problems. When I talked to De Vonya Smalls about my son's effects on my own schedule, like having to get up at five in the morning instead of at seven, she relaxed and told me about her efforts to study for a test while her baby cried for attention. She also admitted to doing poorly in school.

I decided to study these teenage mothers because Black teenage mothers are not going away, no matter how much we ignore, romanticize, or remain silent about their lives. I strongly disagree with approaches that let the group's code of silence supersede the need to understand the problems and issues of Black teenage mothers. That kind of false ideology only perpetuates the myths about Black teenage motherhood and causes researchers to neglect larger sociological issues or fail to ask pertinent questions about the lives of these mothers. In the name of racial pride, then, we essentially overlook how the larger society shares a great deal of responsibility for these problems. The only way to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies or to improve the lives of teenage mothers is to understand the societal causes by examining the realities of these girls' lives. The time had arrived, as Nate Hare put it, for an end to the unrealistic view of Black lives.46

Nathan Hare and Julia Hare, The Endangered Black Family (San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1984).


Excerpted from Not Our Kind of Girl by Elaine Bell Kaplan Copyright © 1997 by Elaine Bell Kaplan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Elaine Bell Kaplan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California.

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