These timely and thought-provoking intersections of teen pregnancy in urban marginalized communities lead me to make connections between the scripted dialogue and my own family history, seeing my mother and I in snippets from both.
I thought about the worlds of Jemma in “The Chi,” played by Judae’a Brown, and Terricka in “P-Valley,” played by A’zaria Carter, whose characters both found themselves dealing with unplanned pregnancies in their adolescence.
While I didn’t become a teen mom myself, I’m reporting as the proud and eldest daughter of one — Jemma and Terricka’s stories could have easily been mine.
When it came to a time-sensitive need for reproductive care, each request for my mom to take me was always accompanied by butterflies in the pit of my stomach.
I didn’t want to disappoint her, and admittedly my projections of how things would go were always far worse than how the moments actually transpired.
Sitting in the passenger seat alongside my Ma, not yet able to drive myself, was the start of my initiating difficult conversations about sex and sexuality.
Select scenes from “P-Valley” made me reminisce on those very rides. The show takes place in the Mississippi Delta — not too far from my hometown in Metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia — also mirroring my upbringing with mostly characters from lower and working class socioeconomic backgrounds.
Fear of repeating cycles
Previous teen mom, Mercedes, played by Brandee Evans, grapples with her now pregnant teen daughter, Terricka.
I vividly remember a morning or two where I’d be late to school in order to make check-up appointments at the local Planned Parenthood. On the way to check for STIs and renew my birth control, my mom would lovingly (and routinely) inquire about who I was seeing.
My mother knew firsthand how fleeting high school flings could be and didn’t want me to blow my future with some knucklehead boy who didn’t have my best interests in mind.
Her handling of me at that time was revolutionary — we’ve broken unwanted generational cycles together that include teen pregnancy, and I’d like to think it all began with raw and honest discussions.
In “P-Valley,” Terricka is on the fence about her final choice regarding her pregnancy, butMercedes is very vocal about her negative feelings.
This discontentment for sexuality during youth is shown vividly when Mercedes takes action by bringing Terricka to a care facility in the nearby city of Jackson.
The intergenerational push-pull tension of their mirroring situations and their potential outcomes is jarring for Mercedes.
Not only is she shocked by Terricka’s choice to engage in sex — showing a continuum of dismissing teens and their natural interest in sex — but she’s upset about her daughter choosing not to be safe.
While in the car, Mercedes issues a scrunched face at Terricka’s enthusiasm for the sex-focused Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song, WAP, when it blares through the radio.
Mercedes cuts her eyes at her daughter, reminding me how I got those same faces and one of my mixed CDs chucked straight out of the window as a teen.
Mercedes is aware that the “puppy-love” that got Terricka pregnant is likely to come undone, and she knows there’s an immediate threat to Terricka’s future, independence, and freedom to navigate adulthood with ease.
The mother-daughter relationship dynamic is complicated, as Mercedes gave up guardianship of Terricka. Throughout P-Valley’s season, viewers witness Mercedes struggle to build rapport with her daughter.
Although Mercedes desires to nurture Terricka, she’s not certain how to, and maintains limiting beliefs that she’s an unfit mother because of her profession as a stripper.
We see in the most recent season that Mercedes is further overwhelmed after learning that Terricka is pregnant, now in the same situation she once was.
In a heartfelt discussion, Mercedes addresses her absence and the impact it had on Terricka when she says, “You may not have been planned, but you were wanted.”
Because Terricka was raised by another woman in the same city, she follows up with the inquiry, “Then why didn’t you keep me?”
Mercedes’ mother believed that due to her age, there was a lack of competency to care for Terricka at the time, and she shared her gut-wrenching truth, “I was 15, I had to do what my mama said.”
Mercedes’ remark reminds me of one of my family photographs, showing how someone was able to capture a glimpse of what our day-to-day was really like.
In the photo, I casually coo in my maternal grandmother’s lap. She sits tight-lipped and over it, and beside us is my mother, who does her homework.
While Mercedes’ mother forcing her to let someone else raise Terricka is different than my own story — family members offered to take care of me, but my mama wasn’t having it — the photo showed that she was still expected to fulfill her childhood expectation.
Even with Terricka’s good intentions, she fears how ill-equipped Terricka could be.
Watching this scene between mother and daughter made me think about other women, real women, in the states who would encounter the same barriers independent of age — preliminary challenges to accessing an abortion and the adverse long-term effects of unwanted childrearing.
If we take a closer look at trends in Mississippi’s abortion offerings: from 2017 to 2022, the facilities in the entire state that provided abortion went from 3 to 1.
As of July of 2022, that last one closed its doors.
With abortion now banned in Mississippi and many surrounding states as a result of the Roe v. Wade overturn, the remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi has relocated to New Mexico, over 1,000 miles away, according to The Texas Tribune.
This places an undue (and unconstitutional) burden nightmare to pregnant people who want to terminate their pregnancies, but who do not have the adequate resources to do so safely.
As the ride to Jackson continues, the symbolism in “P-Valley” is profound, with the bold yellow parallel lines mimicking Mercedes’ and Terricka’s shared circumstances.
Hard pavement leads up to a literal and figurative fork in the road, and the highway beautifully illustrates the split decision between the choices around Terricka’s pregnancy.
Mercedes cautions Terricka saying, “…pregnancy’s life and death for us.”
This harrowing truth isn’t isolated to television, as Black women are
Evidence argues that these deaths and the increased risk of pregnancy complication are directly connected to systemic racism.
In addition to ongoing socioeconomic disparities throughout a pregnant person’s lifespan that can cause added stressors, these disparities include:
- Being 3 times more likely to have fibroids, which can lead to postpartum hemorrhaging
- Being exposed to preeclampsia earlier, often leading to high blood pressure and death
Higher ratesof stillbirths connected gestational diabetes
And, there are macro systematic disparities and challenges that present themselves for Black women that are amplified when a Black child rears another Black child.
Finances Don’t Alter Racial Disparities
While “The Chi” character Jemma comes from an upper middle class family, data shows that while the rates of unintended pregnancy are higher for lower income families, rates of birth complications are comparable across income and education levels.
For example, imagine being a teen mom ready for delivery and explicitly being told that you would not receive any pain medication in order to be taught a “lesson.”
My mother shared this detail surrounding my birth with me in my early twenties. Compare this with several Black woman celebrities such as Serena Williams and Beyonce, who shared how they were forced to advocate for themselves during childbirth.
Jemma in “The Chi” is shown to have concerns more aligned with Mercedes’ from “P-Valley,” as she weighs her decisions in relation to her goal of entrepreneurship.
With an involved single father and an active boyfriend who’s interested in keeping the unborn child, Jemma’s struggle is less connected to her financial need, and viewers watch her wrestle with the importance of college and its facade as a direct pathway to success.
Jemma was initially conflicted but she ultimately decides to keep her baby to raise alongside her boyfriend while she invests and grooms rising musical talent and friend, Maisha — played by Genesis Denise Hale — as her manager.
Both of the young fathers in the teens’ lives offer to step up and be active, but the differences in the shows serve as examples of how resources can offer an individual additional options when it comes to pregnancy.
According to The National Partnership for Women and Families, this is partially due to disparities in access to adequate care and counseling when it comes to reproductive health and contraception, further amplified by missed opportunities on a personal level.
But, data suggests that because of the existing risk associated with Black pregnancies combination with the state legislature limiting safe abortion, an increase in maternal-based fatalities in Black women could make either choice as frightening as the other.
At 31, I’m still infuriated that Black children are forced to have similar conversations about how systems designed to protect us often put our lives in danger.
Black boys get taught what to do and not do in the presence of police and Black girls have to face the fear regarding the likelihood of unempathetic medical treatment and healthcare malpractice.
Changes at the institutional level have to change, but data shows that how marginalized communities approach sexual activity with teens — alongside the content and depth of the conversations — can have significant impacts on their long-term wellbeing.
Some things to remember when approaching conversations about sex with your teens can include:
Don’t be afraid to initiate and be direct
In “P-Valley,” Terricka and Mercedes debate over if Mercedes adequately gave her enough details about sex.
Research shows that teens want to hear from their parents, and that the benefits continue into adulthood. Throw out “the talk,” and opt for ongoing, two way conversations.
Mom would wait for me in the lot during my Planned Parenthood appointments, and followed up with a hearty and restorative breakfast at Waffle House.
I felt she’d overshared stories of her own at times, but I was always happy that she kept it real with me. She shared her fears and the joys associated with being sexually active, and I never really worried about pregnancy because I tried my best to be safe.
Creators of P-Valley are lauded for their representation, showing a slew of them of Queer-focused relationships and sexual engagements, Merecedes included.
They don’t show the same fluidity with the teens, but it’s important not to assume anything about where your teen may fall in terms of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
With my mom, getting affirmation as a teen that sex is human nature from someone I trusted and valued at home proved to be early beginnings of my liberation today, making big life occasions — like coming out as Queer — less tricky.
Another area of improvement for both shows is folks with disabilities. Whether hidden or visible, representation for folks of varying ability can aid in open conversations about safe and enjoyable sex for all bodies.
Use your experiences
Think about what you were (or weren’t) taught about sex when you were younger. Did you know all of the options available to you or your partners when it came to pregnancy? Were you aware of any barriers to exercising those options?
If you had caring adults in your life, did they talk with you about STI prevention? Did they ever broach the subject of pleasure or bodily autonomy?
What about identity? Did you feel safe and supported in terms of exploring your sexuality or gender?
My mother made a choice to do things differently with me, as she didn’t quite get the comprehensive care she needed when she was my age, and we talked about the messages she did and didn’t receive.
In our talks, even if I didn’t share every little detail, I knew I could (and still can) talk to my mama about anything, and I know that I’ll have her support.
Acknowledge any hesitation or discomfort you may have before talking with your kid, but don’t let that stop you from having the conversation. Look into resources available to you, and lovingly support them in the ways you’d been at that age, even if the circumstances are different.
Unfortunately in “The Chi,” Jemma’s choice is taken away when she suffers a misscarriage at a party, and there may not be an update on what happens to Terricka for another two years, as “P-Valley” is on hiatus.
Even without seeing a decision made for either of the two young women, as a Black, Queer, millennial woman, I value the impact of authentic Black narratives in television.
This is especially true for the foundations of reproductive education, empowerment, and proactive support are often overlooked at home.
Gainful reproductive information and actionable support for Black girls and women is critical, not only for pregnancy but for our livelihoods.
Narratives like those shown on “P-Valley” and “The Chi” inspire intergenerational visibility and responsibility, and influence larger discussions for the collective community by recognizing that while we share a struggle, we are not a monolithic culture.