HARVARD DIARY
The Underclass, Part II: Widespread Teenage Pregnancy

July-August 1989By Robert Coles



In the 1960s when my wife and I were living in the South, and later when we worked in Appalachia, we noticed that many of the white and black youths we knew got married while teenagers, or took up living together at that time in their lives. Often migrant farm workers became parents before they were 20, and up the hollows of West Virginia we noticed a similar inclination of young people there to start family life, including child-bearing, considerably earlier than many who live in middle-class suburban neighborhoods think to do. A black minister who worked with migrant farm workers in Florida during the middle 1960s explained things this way to us one May day, after we returned from helping a public health nurse give shots to a substantial number of babies born to mothers we still regarded as, unfortunately, “drop-outs” from high school: “Hereabouts life goes faster than in other places. You’ll see kids picking the crops early — no school for them. Why try the books? They’re on the move from June to October, and they don’t see another future for themselves. Sex comes when they’re 13 or so, and that’s part of living. A lot will come see me and want to be married. Some don’t get married, but they’ll be together. Some shift partners. Everything goes faster for them. They die younger, you know. They don’t live healthy. There’s no doctors to see them. They’re as poor as you can get. You say they’re marrying young. I say they’re well along in life. They’ve been working in those fields since they were seven or eight maybe, and by 16 or 17 they’ve got plenty of callouses to show they’re all grown up!”

When we came back North and I began work­ing in a ghetto neighborhood of Boston in the late 1960s and early 1970s I soon enough realized that the sexuality of the teenagers I met there was not the same as that of the migrant youth I had met in, say, Belle Glade, Florida. Of course, the 1960s had come and just about gone — giving shape to a more open sexuality all over America. Moreover, I had been working in the rural South at a time when strong social controls as well as racially connected strictures prevailed. The minister I quoted had enor­mous influence on his flock — not the least because he was an important intermediary between them and the white growers who controlled so much of the life of the Lake Okeechobee region. But in the Boston neighborhood where I talked with children, something else, too, was at work, I began to realize — something that went beyond the influence of the cultural changes of a decade, or the exhilarating consequences of shaking off segregation through a trek northward.

I will turn to another minister, a black Baptist who lives in Roxbury, where a lot of my research took place, and who in 1971 gave me the lecture of my life about the people I was trying to understand: “You have to realize that these folks are in trouble, real bad trouble. They’ve come up here, a lot of them, from small towns down South — where, un­til recently, they were watched over like animals. They had their own part of town. The police didn’t care what happened there, so long as they behaved themselves in the white side of town. (What would happen in a white community if the police just shrugged their shoulders when someone did some­thing wrong?) They went to lousy schools, and they couldn’t vote, and every once in a while one of them was strung up on a tree, lynched — and ev­en that wasn’t treated as a crime 30 or 40 years ago! Now, they’ve come up here. They came here to get away from all that second- and third- and fourth-class living: North to Freedom! Well, some freedom! They ended up in poor, poor neighborhoods — [they] used to be called slums, and now [they] get called ghettos. Down South, for all the troubles, there was a world they knew, and they had to con­trol themselves, or the white man, he’d get them fast. Rotten controls, racist controls, outrageous controls, murderous controls, but controls. Up here, [the] white man says: you can have your freedom, but stay away from us. Down South [the] white man said: work for us, be close to us, sometimes we’ll chew the fat together, laugh and cry together; we’re not scared of your company, so long as you keep your place and mind your manners. Up here, [the] white man says go live where you can find a place to live, and stay away from us, because we’ve never had you around before, and we sure don’t need you now or want you. You can vote, you can do as you please — just don’t be bothering us.

“Well, we’re up here, and there’s lots of con­fusion, you see. People aren’t the members of com­munities they used to be. Newcomers, immigrants, they’re all dazed for a while. We’re newcomers from our foreign country, the rural South. We’ve got to figure out a whole new life — and pretty soon, no, right away, we discover that it may be worse up here, in certain ways, than it was down there, yes, because it’s getting better down there every year now that the civil rights struggle is being won, and it’s getting worse and worse up here, more hate per square mile than anywhere down South.


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