Silver Sparrow and the Pill
Written by
Tayari Jones
February 2012
Written by
Tayari Jones
February 2012

I was recently attending the meeting of a book club that had chosen Silver Sparrow as their monthly selection.  One of the questions raised in the meeting was whether or not the daughters (Dana and Chaurisse) had broken the cycle of problematic relationships modeled by their mothers.    Earlier this year, when I was interviewed by The Root, I was asked how a character such as James Witherspoon managed to nab not one, but TWO wives.  The answer to both these questions has to do with contraception.

Silver Sparrow is the story the two families of James Witherspoon.  One is his “public” family and the other family lives in the shadows.  Both the women become bound to James when they become pregnant in the years before the invention of the pill. When Laverne finds herself expecting, she is a 15 year old kid in 1960 who is kicked out of school because of her condition.  When Gwen becomes pregnant with Dana she’s 19 working in a department store, but she will lose both her job and her apartment when her pregnancy starts to show.  What choice does she have but to hold onto James with all her might?

But in the next generation in Silver Sparrow, Dana and Chaurisse make some of the same bad decisions as their mothers.  They hook up with the wrong guys and engage in exploitative romantic relationships.  The key difference is that Dana and Chaurisse are on the pill.  Yes, their feelings get hurt by these bad boyfriends, but they are able to walk away for the simple reason that they did not get pregnant.  I am not suggesting that there are not other factors involved, but this is what keeps the girls from repeating their mother’s lives.

Women are not the only ones trapped by a lack of access to safe, effective birth control. Look at James Witherspoon.  At one point in Silver Sparrow, he complains, “I just want, one time, to marry a woman who isn’t already pregnant.”  Even though he is castigated as a bigamist and is blamed for causing both women and daughters so much pain, he thinks:  Every time a woman has told me she is having my baby, I have married her.  I have left no woman to have a child alone. (In this, he is not lying, though I imagine his wife, Laverne, does not find this logic compelling.) Of course, he has the option of walking away, but his mother, Miss Bunny, taught him to take responsibility for his actions, so he doesn’t consider cutting these binding ties.

Although Gwen and Laverne would disagree about many things, they both know that an intended pregnancy could derail their daughters’ lives.  Both women insist that their teen daughters start taking birth control.  “Do you know how lucky you are that these pills exist?” Laverne says to her daughter, who has no idea of what life was life in the bad old days. “Better safe than sorry,” she urges her daughter  Of course, Chaurisse understands that without a nurturing relationship with a partner, you can be “safe and sorry at the same time.”  Still, the pill provides her with a much-needed lie of defense against the life-long consequences of teenage folly.

I am writing this post today because I am alarmed at the way birth control is being attacked in recent political discourse.  Up until now, I never questioned that most Americans consider birth control to be a one of the major advantages of living in a modern society.  But despite what I hear in the political debates, I still believe that most people understand people must be able to control their fertility if we are ever going to be to take charge of our own lives. This is an issue that isn’t just about teen girls.  Think about married women who don’t want to have ten children like our grandmothers.  Any sexually active person should have the right to protect herself against unplanned pregnancy.  I stand with Barack Obama in his decision to include prescription birth control as part of women’s healthcare plans.  American women deserve this access.

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  • Linda Chavis

    Amen !

  • I appreciate and agree with what you have written. I cannot believe that prescription birth control is even a debate in the U.S. in 2012. I am an American citizen, living between Canada and The Netherlands. This issue, for most women, is a non issue because of the quality of the health care systems in each country. And, although the systems are not 100% flawless, people are not debating basic health care needs. Regarding the U.S., I would rather hear about improving the education system, people having more access to technology, providing jobs etc. For some, it is easier to attack birth control, than talk about the real issues.