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. Youll see kids picking the crops early no school for them. Why try the books? Theyre on the move from June to October, and they dont see another future for themselves. Sex comes when theyre 13 or so, and thats part of living. A lot will come see me and want to be married. Some dont get married, but theyll be together. Some shift partners. Everything goes faster for them. They die younger, you know. They dont live healthy. Theres no doctors to see them. Theyre as poor as you can get. You say theyre marrying young. I say theyre well along in life. Theyve been working in those fields since they were seven or eight maybe, and by 16 or 17 theyve got plenty of callouses to show theyre 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. Theyve 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 didnt 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 couldnt vote, and every once in a while one of them was strung up on a tree, lynched and even that wasnt treated as a crime 30 or 40 years ago! Now, theyve 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, hed 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 well chew the fat together, laugh and cry together; were 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 weve never had you around before, and we sure dont need you now or want you. You can vote, you can do as you please just dont be bothering us.
Well, were up here, and theres lots of confusion, you see. People arent the members of communities they used to be. Newcomers, immigrants, theyre all dazed for a while. Were newcomers from our foreign country, the rural South. Weve 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 its getting better down there every year now that the civil rights struggle is being won, and its getting worse and worse up here, more hate per square mile than anywhere down South.
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