My cousin recently died at the age of 45. He passed just shy of his 46th birthday and nearly lived long enough to have scheduled heart surgery that could have likely saved his life. I was stunned, depressed and confused after he went back to the essence.
How did this happen? Why wasn’t I able to help? Where did we go wrong?
After his passing, I continue to battle with something that I wrestle with in life. Frankly, black men and fathers die younger than everybody else in the United States. (Native American men are the single exception.)
My father died in his 40s and before he died, several of his friends died in their 30s and 40s. They left a trail of tears, widows, children and lifelong mourning. I’d later realize that this was a tragic norm for people of color, specifically African Americans. Our men die young. Period.
So, I did some research to back up my views on this.
Ravages of racism. It’s a proven fact that racism, or even perceived racism, gradually and viciously wears down its victims. Men are not exclusively succumbing to racism, but we now know that it is a quiet killer. Lisa Wade, Ph.D., wrote a story on the dire effects of racism and proclaimed: “Directly and indirectly, racism kills.” A study by PLOS One backs this up stating that a, “unique constellation of environmental stressors and psychosocial challenges experienced by blacks” accelerates “declines in health and generates racial disparities.”
Most people don’t know the “mere” feeling of of red and blue lights in the rearview as a black man. I have to tell you it is terror. However, that’s the tail end of it all. From a very young age, I realized that we were in a constant, never-ending war of attrition with racism. And it wears you down until it kills you overtly or through one of its agents. In fact, areas which more readily use the n-word account for an “8.2 percent increase in mortality among blacks,” said Wade, citing the severity of racism in those areas.
Almighty stress. One of racism’s mightiest agents is stress. Stress is something people generally deal with, but for black fathers, I feel it’s exacerbated. It leads to other things. Studies say too much stress results in emotional strain, heart disease, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, insomnia, fatigue, and depression Let me speak from the heart, I have experienced every one of these symptoms, but fortunately have made overt steps to reduce the stress of fatherhood, running a company and other factors like negative relationships. Don’t even get me started on the trauma of seeing murdered black men shared on social media—over and over and over and over again. Pure stress.
Health and cash rule everything around me. Health and money are absolutely linked in how long you live. Somehow, wage disparities along racial lines still exists even though the practice was made illegal when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Fact is, socioeconomics are a major factor in differences between the death rates between black and white fathers. So, when you have all of the issues created by the stress and the racism, we typically deal with it differently than others. They go to a therapist. We go to the liquor store. We have a fundamental mistrust of doctors, rooted in history. They don’t mind the flu shot. Clearly these are not absolutes, but you know much of this to be true. Obamacare was helpful to some, but it still costs money to have.
Then there are other factors. Men, especially black men, are less inclined to seek medical attention when they are sick or unwell. This was the case for my father. He simply waited too late and dismissed my mother’s words for him to go to the doctor. Typically men engage in jobs or other activities that can result in early death. Men do some stupid things, but a lot of us also work very hard. We tend to drink too much, smoke more, fight more, have accidents more, eat poorly and go to jail more. For black men, jail is a big one, because we know that we are disproportionately targeted, jailed and consumed by the injustice systems here in America. The movie “The 13th” is perfectly timed to articulate this travesty of justice.
Bigger bodies. There are some things we cannot avoid. Dad bods are all the rage, but they also ensure that we typically die before others. A few of my dad’s friends died from obesity. Others, suffered from heart attacks. The bigger the body, the more it takes to keep it alive. When I was working 18-to-20-hour days, I ballooned in weight and literally hated myself. However, after I smartened up, I focused on my health—for myself and my daughter. My father, who also wrestled with his weight, was a bigger man than I am. I always kept his issues and challenges in the frontal lobe of my brain so that I don’t repeat his mistakes. In that way, he continues to guide me. My cousin—I found later—faced many issues: diabetes, heart issues and obesity. If I’m honest, I figured some of this would be an issue later down the line, but I assumed things would work out. I assumed wrong.
We are weaker than we think. In Sunday’s sermon, a female pastor at my church said, “Warriors are weak.” I found the statement profound, but it made me think. We black fathers often wear titles like “Superman,” “King” or whatever cloak of invincibility we choose to adopt. Our black men have been under siege here in America and continue to be. It’s not a competition so we recognize thoroughly that our women have been, too. Men just die sooner. In my opinion, it is largely because women recognize their weaknesses whereas men believe the myth they are not weak at all. So women address their body’s health readily, read wellness magazines and they gather to talk about them, even if it’s to vent. Men don’t talk to each other about anything but hip-hop, sports, women, racism, some politics and a bunch of there stuff that generally amounts to very little. We always stress over money. Honestly, I have some close friends and I would call it a “Black Male Support Group” of sorts. If we could only scale it to the rest of black America.
A lot of men are strong, but often ignore other forms of strength like endurance. They often lack mental might to weather the storms that the body struggles with. There is some good news on this front. National suicide trends are on the rise, but with black men it is on the decline. While the suicide rate may be shrinking, we may be killing ourselves in other ways. All the aforementioned reasons, which include environmental factors, disease, and violence, are additional causes for early death in black fathers.
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