Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Who Should Have the Children? Discussions of Birth Control among African-American Intellectuals, 1920-1939

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Who Should Have the Children? Discussions of Birth Control among African-American Intellectuals, 1920-1939

Article excerpt

In her 1928 novel Quicksand, Nella Larsen addressed the topic of birth control in a fictional setting. After migrating from the rural South, Helga Crane had become a member of the African-American community in Harlem during what is often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Arguing with an old friend from the South about marriage, she stated:

Marriage - that means children, to me. And why add more suffering to the world? Why add any more unwanted, tortured Negroes to America? Why do Negroes have children?

James Vayle was shocked by her comments. He answered,

Don't you see that if we - I mean people like us - don't have children, the others will still have. That's one of the things that's the matter with us. The race is sterile at the top. Few, very few Negroes of the better class have children, and each generation has to wrestle again with the obstacles of the preceding one, lack of money, education, and background. I feel very strongly about this. We're the ones who must have the children if the race is to get anywhere.(1)

Larsen's fictional discussion is reflective of the discourse created by middle- and upper-class African Americans concerning birth control during the 1920s and 1930s.

During this time period, as millions of African Americans migrated both within the South and to the North, many began to express reasons for limiting fertility. In particular, members of the black middle and upper class were extremely outspoken. When a sample of contemporary periodicals, newspapers, and the writings of public figures are examined, issues of demography, eugenics, public health, and theology appear within the discourse, both in support of and in opposition to contraception. In an era of de-emphasized sexuality among the black middle and upper classes, it is significant that the resulting discourse on sexuality and childbirth tends to be male-dominated. This essay seeks to understand how conceptions of race, class, and gender shaped the discourse of a number of African-American intellectuals.

The post-World War I years exhibited a dramatic drop in black fertility rates, with fears of low birth rates among whites inspiring demographers to examine black fertility trends. Suggesting that the decrease in fertility rates resulted from poor health conditions, demographers also made assumptions about the "bestial" sexuality of African Americans and their lack of control. As Jessie Rodrique argues, "population experts' ideological bias and research design have tended to foreclose the possibility of Afro-American agency, and thus conscious use of contraception."(2)

During the 1970s, attention was not as focused on demographics. An examination showed that the use of birth control by Afro Americans during slavery, some important steps were made in recognizing the desire of some blacks to use contraception. By the 1980s, a number of historians were addressing issues of birth control and black women's agency in its utilization. Jacqueline Jones and Deborah Gray White discussed the historical use of birth control during and after slavery, stressing the conscious choice that black women made to use contraception for both resistance and for survival. In 1981 Angela Davis looked at how the larger birth control movement, comprised mainly of white, middle class women, neglected to address the needs of African-American women. Davis also condemned the racist and "classist" slant of the American birth control movement for its stress on eugenics. Darlene Clark Hine addressed the sexuality of black women and use of birth control during the Great Migration from 1915 to 1945, suggesting that not marrying or choosing not to have children may have been a deliberate choice made by African-American women. Finally, in the work of Jessie Rodrique the efforts of African-American women and men, both within the larger birth control movement and within their own communities, are recognized.(3) Although important and innovative, none of these works fully analyze the intersection and influence of race, class, and gender on the thought of black intellectuals between 1920 and 1939, or how this discourse reflected the larger birth control movement and yet remained unique in a number of ways. …

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