Book cover provided by Beacon Press
Honey. For a long time, that’s the only name I had for her, and it fit. Her voice, soothing like honey drizzling over a piece of warm buttered toast, came through the phone every few months. as if she was reading a book or singing a hymn, she chose each word carefully while she asked me how school was going or told me that she thought of me often.
Through these phone calls and a handful of visits to our house, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Honey. I knew that she lived in Daytona Beach in a house that my grandfather built for her a long time ago. I knew that she had a pecan tree in her backyard, and every now and then she would fill a box with the brown nuts and send it to us to crack them open and enjoy the rich, buttery flavor. I knew she used to bake delicious desserts, specifically, sweet potato pie and chocolate cake. I knew that she was my grandmother, and yet, I really didn’t know her at all.
During my first and only visit to Daytona Beach, when I was twelve, I saw her house. It wasn’t on the palm-tree-lined street I envisioned. It wasn’t surrounded by other small well-kept homes with friendly neighbors who sat on porches sipping sweet tea while their children played. Honey’s house, along with the rest of the neighborhood, was literally falling apart. The pastel-colored structures that used to be homes for the city’s Black clergymen, postal workers, carpenters, and teachers were now hubs for drugs. When we stood on her porch and looked out at the street, my father talked about a community that once was, his eyes scanning the homes with a distant gaze.
The pecan tree was gone, and there were no homemade pies cooling in the window. Honey didn’t cook much anymore. Instead, she shuffled through a small path through a sea of boxes that had overtaken her entire house to get to the kitchen, where she microwaved TV dinners or heated something in a pot on the stove. It was hard to believe that she was once a domestic worker—like the majority of Black women in Daytona Beach at midcentury, keeping other people’s homes impeccably clean—as we tried to find places to sit among the clutter.
The details about my grandmother, whose real name was Annie Louise Hannans, are murky for many reasons. They will emerge in disunited and discontinuous stories when I’m much older and long after she has passed away. In 1930, Honey graduated from the high school department of what was then Bethune-Cookman college. In 1938, when she was twenty-six, unmarried, and pregnant with my aunt, she met my grandfather who was almost twenty years older and married to another woman. That meeting resulted in a years-long relationship and the births of my father and uncle. It lasted until my grandfather passed away forty-three years later. Honey was essentially a single mother raising three kids, and I will also learn that her oldest, my aunt, had her first child as a teen. During a rare phone call from her home in Jacksonville, my aunt will tell Anika that “teen pregnancy runs in our family.” After poring over old records, I’ll discover that Honey’s mother, my great grandmother, had the first of nine children with her husband in 1905, when she was either twelve or sixteen years old.
In 2019, The Atlantic published an article entitled “The consequences of Teen Motherhood can Last for Generations” that prompted me to trace my own ancestral connections to single motherhood and teen motherhood. The article describes the conditions that significantly contribute to teen pregnancy—poverty, family instability, limited opportunities—being entrenched in communities and families, not because of individual choices but because of larger systemic barriers, and this is especially true in communities of color. The article cites a study that finds “that having a grandmother who had her first kid as a teen is a strong predictor for whether a child will underperform in school—even for a child whose own mother gave birth as an adult, not a teenager.” My mother and father weren’t teen parents, but on my dad’s side, these conditions were clear, holding back generation after generation from achieving their full potential.
When I discovered my pregnancy in high school, it felt like an isolated, singular experience in my family that was only connected to my individual choices and decisions. I considered myself an oddity because I didn’t grow up hearing about Honey’s life or about the lives of any of the other women in her family.
The family I knew very well, my mother’s side, had a traditional mothering experience. Mémère was twenty when she and my grandfather married. The daughter of a Massachusetts dairy farmer, she hoped that the young man she met on the dance floor wouldn’t notice her two left feet. She gave birth to my mother at twenty-five and stayed home to care for her baby while Pépère worked. His new job teaching chemical engineering at Yale came with a bigger home, a bit more money in their pockets, and two more children. They often entertained intellectuals over dinner, the air heavy with disregard for her input or opinion. She prepared lobster bisque and pound cakes to serve on her best china, hoping it might mask the fact that she didn’t have a college degree or a driver’s license. For the most part, their family embodied picturesque suburban life. While sexism was a way of life, Mémère seemed to relish providing a happy, stable home for her family.
Getting pregnant at seventeen without a ring on my finger was so different from Mémère’s experience and from my mother’s experience. It was, however, analogous to Honey’s and her mother’s. I imagine Honey’s life was a daily task of shielding her children from their unique situation, from the looks and whispers of her neighbors and their community. I will feel connected to her—connected to her dire circumstances as a pregnant Black single woman in the south in the 1930s, connected to her lack of opportunities, her decaying neighborhood, her cluttered home, her constant need to protect her children from the world. And I will feel connected to her mother, Eleanyer, who was born in the aftershocks of slavery and just before Plessy v. Ferguson made racial segregation constitutional, ushering in the Jim Crow laws that further disenfranchised Blacks and reinvigorated White supremacy across the south. She existed in trauma and gave birth in trauma. Neither went to college. Neither had a career. Being both Black and female, neither earned the wages they deserved.
These discoveries about my pregnancy within the larger context of my family coincided with my understanding of the plight of teen parents and people of color within the larger systemic conditions of our country. For me, the connections were no longer academic or uncertain. I had acquired the generational, inescapable ripple effects of poverty and oppression from Honey, Eleanyer, and the mothers before them, who will always be nameless to me, their legacies robbed and silenced by the institution of slavery. This was my inheritance, and it is the inheritance of millions.
Nicole Lynn Lewis is the founder and CEO of Generation Hope, and the author of PREGNANT GIRL: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families (Beacon Press)
Excerpted from Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families by Nicole Lynn Lewis. Copyright 2021. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.