Young Love In Harlem

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Young love in Harlem
Harlem has more than twice the city average of unmarried mothers.
And within the black ghetto 23 per cent of the births are to teenagers,
again twice the city average. Cheryl, a mother at 14, looks at her decisions.

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Ken Beckles / Camera Press

Hey, take it easy, take it easy, Aint nothin bad gonna happen, nothin bad. Lay back. Relax.’

I didn’t know nothin about sex til Mr Tom came into my room. We used to talk about it, about what you did. We used to mess around, But it was Mr Tommy who really taught me about sex, An I didnt wanna learn.

Tom sneak outa Ma’s bed and into my room. I’d say ‘What you doin? Why you here?’. He had my mind all confused. I was half sleepin, half awoke, said ‘Go away, leave me alone.’ But he just went right on comm.

‘Okay, okay. It gonna be alright. Shush, now. Everythin gonna be alright.’

I started sleepin - at school. An throwin up. Either I was sleepin or throwin up. Ma took me to the doctor. An he told her to have a seat - cause I was pregnant. Pregnant. I didn even know what the word mean. I thought I was sick. But pregnant. I was shocked. An Ma just went off. She went off,

‘You just fulla shit, fulla shit. My Tommy’s a nice guy. Your Iyin, girl. Don’t bring your dirty lies and your dirty baby round here.’

She call me all these names. Said I gotta get rid of the baby. But the doctor said it was too late. It was like lightnin hit and was punishin me for somethin.

It started movin inside and I was scared. Nasty, it felt nasty. I wanted it out. I was fourteen when I had that little boy. All alone I had to have that little brat.

Then I remember he Tommy’s baby. An I took a hate for that little boy. He belong to my mother and her boyfriend. He came outa hospital an I was stuck in my little bedroom with him. And he wouldn’t eat and he wouldn’t sleep and it was summer, like a hundred degrees.

‘Hey, Cheryl. We goin dancing. Picking with some cute guys. See you later.’

Jeeze, it drove me crazy. I hear the music outside. See my sister steamin, burning up the tracks and I gotta get outa that room. So I took off. Just said ‘bye’ to ma and close the door on that little baby. Let tier look after him.

I went to Lizbeth, My big sister Lizzie, She’s bad news. All she care about is her dope. Don’t care for nothin else and nobody else. But she could sell you Brooklyn Bridge, I give my heart to Lizzie an she let me stay with her. She introduce me to dope. And she introduce me to John.

‘He real cute. He a real man. Gotta job, Got money. And he know how to please a woman. He a real fine dude, He get you on the bed and lie blow your mind,’

I got so I couldn’t think of nothin else. So I went down the street an picked with John. Said ‘I’m gonna get you, I’m gonna get you’. And he says ‘Go away little girl. Go grow up.

Come back when you grown up.’ So that made me real mad, I said ‘I’ll show you who’s grown up, you afraid?’. It was talk, talk, Then it was reality.

I was so in love. John’s a cab driver. Used to take me everywhere in the cab, fed me real good. Took me to the movies. He done me good, Make me reel grown up. Like a real woman, like somebody care for me. When I got pregnant again I was fifteen. An John got mad.

‘Why aint you on the pill? Listen, you gotta get rid of that baby. You still a baby yourself. An irresponsible baby. An I don’t want no irrresponsible baby. An I don’t want no irresponsible nitwit raising my kid. I’ll pay for it, but you going to the doctor, see?’

He went mad, crazy. Then he calm down a bit. An I tell him I want the kid. I want my very ‘own kid. I splained it to him. So he quieted down and went out for a beer. Then he come back and sit me down.

‘If you gonna do ii’, you gonna do it right, You gotta stick with mean stick with the kid. No dope and no partying till this little biddy’ on its feet.’

We call him Spunk cause he was a big spunky baby. Nine pounds: just about the biggest baby I ever had. And the doctor give me some pills to stop babies. But I remember Lizzie and ‘I just put them in a drawer.

‘If you don’t like pills, we’ll give you a coil. It’s a bit of plastic and copper that we insert in your uterus that stops the fertilized egg from developing.’

That thing! John couldn’t get along with it He go in, then he jump nearly clean off the bed: ‘Hey, there’s something in there’. He could feel this thing, this bit of plastic; it was sharp, So I just had it took out, What good is it trying to stop a baby if your lover don’t wanna make love? John aint gonna stick with me if I’m pregnant, And he aint gonna stick with me if I got something sharp in the place where he wanna be.

John mad enough at me as it is. He think I should stay in the apartment all the time: you promised, he say; you make sure you take good care of the kid. Which he right, I guess. Cause I locked Spunk in the closet one day, when he wouldn’t stop crying and it was hot and I was sweaty and aggrivated.

‘Do you want your kid growing up the way you did? You hate your mom, right? You right to hate her, But do you want Spunk to grow up hating you?’

I guess John was right, He always right and sometimes it makes me mad: him lecturing me, I was a crazy kid and they thought I was mad, Couldn’t get along at school, Ma said it was cause I was born too early. Seven months, Had to stay in hospital like my first baby, Had to go to a special class, too, just like he did. And they had me on these little green pills to stop me hollering. But I had to holler. No-one was taking no notice of me. So I had to make some attention to get some attention. No-one really loved me. My father loved me. But he got killed. And my mother. she hates my guts.

Matter fact I don’t even know if John love me. I know he love Spunk. But I don’t know about me. he always kinda aggravated with me, lecturing me, pouring it on. Tellin me I should do this and I don’t know that. So there I am all alone in the apartment, John out I don’t know where, Spunkie hollering. And Lizzie call me up.

‘Listen little sister. If John dont preciate you, you gotta find some dude who do. He too old for you, little sister. Come stay with me. I got someone to look after the kids. Leave that old preacher man of yourn to preach his lessons to hisself’

Next thing I know I had packed up and left. I was bad to leave John - after he done so good and all. But I’m young. I still only eighteen. An he don’t understand that. He think I be happy just with him an the kids and the apartment an stayin in while he work an drink his beer an shoot his pool. He say my sister aint good for me. Maybe she not good for him. But she got life, man. An I want some of that life afore I die. I never had no life. I grew up from fourteen, right? That Tom took my life. Now I gonna get me some more.

by Debbie Taylor, New Internationalist Co-editor.

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The Facts

. In in dustrialised countries teenage sex is increasing, their use of contraception is low and their pregnancies tend to be unplanned and unwelcome.

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[image, unknown] Despite the desperate social background of Cheryl, surely she must bear some responsibility for her choices, her dissolute behaviour and circumstances?

Do you think Cheryl is to blame? Not for being poor, or illiterate, or an incest victim. But for being irresponsible, for making things worse than they need be. However responsibility can only be exercised through choice: when there are decisions to be made. So what were Cheryl’s choices? You think she ignored her chances to improve things with better schooling, or more effective contraception: or deliberately made things worse by persuading John to let her have another baby then leaving him. But look again from her point of view. A mother at 14, a broken home, unable to read or write, living in a burnt-out slum, What could Cheryl do to improve things to achieve happiness, success freedom? Find a man who might lover her and have a baby: his baby, her baby. Stop the story here and maybe we have a happy ending that you’ll find acceptable: poor but dignified, with family intact. But sorry, poverty doesn’t stand by and share your approving smile It bites hard - again and again. Cheryl is left alone with the baby:

John is working nights: no day-care centres: no time for herself: no fun. Eighteen years old. Just the age when more ‘responsible’ girls are leaving home, going to college, getting lobs. So what did Cheryl do? Leave home.

[image, unknown] Is there no contraceptive method that he can use? Have all the possibilities been considered?

There are only two failsafe methods of birth control: abstinence and abortion. And even these have side effects’. Maybe ‘responsible’ women don’t have unwanted pregnancies. But with no career to safeguard, no family budget to plan, why not have a baby? You can love a baby. and it loves you (and looks after you when you’re old),

[image, unknown] She really seems to lack self-respect, Surely a strong spiritual or moral code is what’s needed?

Distinguishing between cause and effect, Is Cheryl poor because she lacks self-respect? Or does she lack self-respect because she is poor? And black, and terribly abused As for faith, it is not a miraculous gift. It is either received wisdom - often empty piety. Or it is hard-won conviction - that believing things can be different helps so make them different. And Cheryl has yet to find that faith.

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New Internationalist issue 143 magazine cover This article is from the January 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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