Quincy Tharps vividly recalls the time when one of her nine sisters was banished from the family’s North Side Milwaukee home to New Jersey after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. “The family was in chaos,” says Tharps, then a young girl. “I remember eavesdropping on my parents talking to her one night, and my dad said to her, ‘You’ve disgraced us…you come in here with a youngun stuck up in you!’ My mother somehow felt it would contaminate the rest of us. That’s how serious it was.”
Tharps, a nurse researcher and assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s College of Nursing, says remembering that stigma was what prompted her current research of young, single, and poor African-American mothers and why many of them get pregnant outside of conventional standards. “I’m fascinated by the systemic structure of single parenthood,” says Tharps, whose middle-class background in an African-American, two-parent home shared with her nine sisters and one brother was like “a different culture” from the women she studied.
The 56-year-old assistant professor started her research in 1996 while working at Aurora Sinai Medical Center. She hoped to debunk the stereotypes surrounding poor, unwed mothers, particularly the idea that they are lazy, promiscuous, or without morals. After meeting some of the women during teen pregnancy studies she did at Sinai, she followed a group around Milwaukee’s inner city for a year as a “participating observer,” babysitting their children, going to their churches and listening to their problems and concerns.
“I have three kids,” she says. “I married; my husband and I both had educations. Why wouldn’t I have children? And here are these women who had nothing like what I had to support childrearing, and that became a burning question in my mind. What’s driving this particular group of women to have children in light of that social scrutiny?” What Tharps found was that many of these women grew up in poverty and do not see it as a reason to not have children. Most of the women don’t see marriage as a reality for them; Tharps cites a scarcity of marriageable men (due to their high poverty, incarceration, and rising rates of AIDS in the community) as a main factor for single parenthood among this group of women.
They have their children by fathers they hope can support the child financially. As long as there is someone to claim and support the children, the women feel that they’ve done the best they could do. According to her findings, many men don’t end up supporting the children. But many women are often reluctant to file for child support because they don’t want to contribute to putting more African-American men into the criminal justice system. Many of them felt that would be a betrayal of sorts.
Because of the controversial nature of her research (she’s already received criticism from African-American men), she’s quick to point out that this not a system exclusive to African Americans, but is one born out of urban poverty.
Tharps’ life experience was poles apart from those of the women she studied. Over the last 23 years, she’s received a nursing degree from Sinai’s now defunct Hospital School; and a bachelor’s in psychology, two masters degrees (psychology and anthropology) and a doctorate in medical anthropology from Marquette University. She’s been an intensive care unit nurse, a nurse psychotherapist, an assistant professor lecturing on cultural psychology, and, at one time, this grandmother and Shorewood resident even had a scholarship to study oboe at an acclaimed Boston conservatory.
She has always been interested in cultural and ethnic differences, particularly in healthcare. As a nurse practitioner, she observed people who believed in treating the human “spirit” before physically treating an ailing body. She learned to look for that first before immediately offering conventional medicine. She started taking one anthropology course after another until they snowballed into her doctorate and ultimately to her current position teaching the course “Cultural Diversity in Health Care” at UWM.
“Some of these kids come from small towns where they’ve never seen black people before,” she says. “How will they relate if their first patient is Hmong or Somali Bantu?” Tharps recently submitted excerpts of her dissertation and research on single, poor, African-American mothers for publication to various anthropological journals. She hopes her work may be useful in analyzing some aspects of Milwaukee’s socioeconomic structure.
“I hadn’t published it yet because a lot of people get enraged by this kind of research. Also, because I’m a black woman,” she says. “Some of my own family members are in this situation.
“I know it’s a little risky. But it needs to be out there.”