- Bla(n)ckness and the Illogics of Black Teenage Motherhood
In 1987 and 1988, Peoria, Illinois, a city of approximately 115,000 that is located about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis on the Illinois River, led the nation in the percentage of births to unmarried black girls and women in large U.S. cities (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services 1989; 1990). Growing up in Peoria, I heard some version of this statistic repeated numerous times, but it was not until much later that I learned that it was, in fact, a fact. Not only did I learn of this fact, but I learned that the publication of it as fact caused no small amount of hysteria in my hometown because it had, as one local journalist somewhat hyperbolically summed up the community sentiment, “put Peoria County on the map as the teen birth capital of the nation” (Parker 2007).
Though I was not particularly attuned to the statistical or sociological bases of it at the time, I first started becoming aware of my city’s “pregnancy problem” when I was in sixth grade. That was the first time one of my school-mates, [End Page 97] another sixth-grader, showed up to school pregnant. I didn’t know her well; I don’t know that I ever had so much as a single conversation with her, but I do remember that she became quite the scandal among us 11- and 12-year-olds. She was very quiet and usually by herself; no one I knew seemed to know much about her personal life, and it was not uncommon to see one student or another stopping her in the hallway before or after our classes to ask her some, I’m sure, very inappropriate and thoroughly invasive question about her burgeoning belly or the circumstances leading up to it. I personally never tried to engage her in conversation, but she did remain for me, who at the time was still very much fearful about the processes of reproduction, something of an enigma. It’s not clear to me what happened to her after she had the baby. One day she was there, the next she wasn’t, and to my knowledge she never returned to that particular school again. By the time I graduated from high school six years later, pregnant schoolmates had become part of the routine. It was no longer a surprise to see this or that girl waddling from class to class, her rounded belly leading the way. The pregnant girls became part of our day-to-day lives; more often than not they would leave to have their babies and return weeks later, their bodies reconfigured, pictures of new baby in hand. Every now and then one of the boys would show up to school proudly displaying his hospital wristband, proof that he had recently become a father. Even I had become a godmother after one of my good friends gave birth to “our” daughter during our freshman year of high school.
Between 1990 and 1998, the years I was in middle school and high school, the percentage of pregnancies to unmarried black women in Peoria ranged anywhere from second in the nation (1991 and 1998) at the high point, to 15th in the country (1997) at the low point.1 Indeed, during this same time period the areas of the country that routinely had the highest pregnancy rates among unmarried black women were largely concentrated in the factory towns and postindustrial centers of the upper Midwest and Northeast. These included St. Louis, Missouri (which ranked first most often and is located about 170 miles south of Peoria); Gary, Indiana; Erie, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Rockford, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; and Cleveland, Ohio, among others. This geographic trend of high percentages of unmarried black mothers, specifically black teenage mothers, being concentrated [End Page 98] in Rust Belt cities continues today in spite of the fact that these same areas have some of the lowest rates of pregnancy for white teenagers and state-specific teenage birthrates are generally highest across the southern United States.2
Hindsight (and aging) being...