A Nuanced Young Black Voice: Novelist Kalisha Buckhanon Complicates the Image of Black Teenagers

By Bair, Madeleine | Colorlines Magazine, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

A Nuanced Young Black Voice: Novelist Kalisha Buckhanon Complicates the Image of Black Teenagers


Bair, Madeleine, Colorlines Magazine


WHEN KALISHA BUCKHANON returned to the downstate Illinois town she had left many years earlier, the interval of time allowed her to observe her family with a fresh perspective. Having immersed herself for years in academic studies in New York and Chicago, she began to realize the degree to which the Black community from which she came did not resemble the nuclear families depicted in the media or experienced by her privileged college acquaintances.

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"When you go back home, you are really forced to look around and deal with a lot of things that are not necessarily a part of your reality anymore," says Buckhanon, who is now 30. In her native Kankakee, one hour south of Chicago, she saw strong matriarchal bonds. She saw women struggling to raise families despite myriad obstacles--women who, despite Hollywood's obsession with unintended pregnancy, will not soon be depicted in films like Juno or Knocked Up, whose protagonists are white women.

So Buckhanon did what she has done since she was a little girl: she wrote. The result of that trip four years ago is Buckhanon's second novel, Conception, released this spring by St. Martin's Press. It tells the story of a teenage girl on the South Side of Chicago and the decisions, and more often limitations, she must confront when she discovers she is carrying a baby.

That storyline alone--a coming-of-age tale about a pregnant teenager--could make for an affecting novel. But as the child of a teenage mother herself, Buckhanon knew that to tell a story of Black teenage pregnancy, she had to dig much deeper than a simple portrayal of a 15-year-old girl who gets knocked up. "To do so," she says, "would be a disservice to my mother. It would be a disservice to my sister and to other people I know."

Instead, in Conception, Buckhanon gives us a poignant double-narrative. One follows Shivana, an ordinary teenager struggling with social acceptance, poverty and adolescent petulance before realizing that she is pregnant by an older, and now imprisoned, married man. The artless young voice of Shivana guides us through the bewildering landscape of a pregnant teenage girl: an overprotective mother; a free-spirit aunt who provides Shivana's only window into a world beyond the South Side; a church lady who spouts God-fearing warnings to anyone who approaches the free health clinic; and the combined hurdles of cost, bureaucracy and mistrust that stand in a poor girl's way to birth control and abortion services.

The other narrator in the novel is Shivana's unborn baby--the spirit of a Black child who desires to enter the world despite the bleak life that awaits it once it does. In an experimental structure reminiscent of Toni Morrison's Beloved, the baby recounts its multiple lifetimes in the wombs of Black women since slavery. Each conception is futile--bondage, lynch mobs and depression claim the lives of the mother and fetus before the possibility of birth.

Shivana is the first mother with the opportunity to bring the baby to life. She is also the first who doesn't want to. As a poor, Black girl living with her mom in an apartment "one small step above public housing," Shivana has reproductive options that are as limited as her ill-fitting wardrobe of knockoff attire. As the baby itself concedes, "to be born in a world like hers was to hit the ground running in a marathon with no thin white finish line to stretch your heart out wide to."

Buckhanon's narrative eloquently delineates the cycle of reproductive oppression that persists today for teenage girls like Shivana on the South Side and throughout the country. "Women like my mother didn't really have a voice," Buckhanon says, "and girls like Shivana don't have any voice." By crafting a tale of Black pregnancy in the United States from slavery times to today, Buckhanon says she hopes to contextualize and appropriately complicate the simplistic image of those women. …

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