A generation ago, when crack cocaine was the scourge of black communities and hip-hop still wavered between decrying its impact and singing hosannas to the underground economy it enabled, one of the common narratives about black life regarded the mortality rates of young black men. Given the seeming randomness of crime and the level of violence in many of our communities, many of us who came of age in the post-Civil Rights era lived with the expectation that we might not make it to the age of 25. At the time, black male mortality was treated as a national crisis, deserving of national conferences, prayer vigils and the creation of “boys only” charter schools.
Some of us did, indeed, survive, and a term like “40 is the new 30” has become an anthem for a generation that faces middle age with vigor. But the highly publicized death of Michael Jackson at age 50, as well as the deaths in recent years of prominent 50-somethings like comedian Bernie Mac, singer Luther Vandross, actress Lynne Thigpen and dancer Gregory Hines suggest that, despite optimism about the quality of life in middle age, the age of 50 might signal an invisible health crisis in the black community.
Though Jackson, Mac (lung disease), Vandross (effects of a stroke), Thigpin (cerebral hemorrhage), and Hines (lung cancer) all succumbed to different ailments, they all shared an overachieving spirit that has defined many of the success stories of the post-Civil Rights era. One of the common denominators in the drive to succeed and the equally important drive to “represent” has been stress. And while professional stress is to be expected among so-called high achievers, the reality is that stress is also present in the lives of everyday black Americans, many of whom are struggling to pay bills, feed their families, keep or find a job, keeping themselves safe and providing care for both children and elderly parents.
All this stress might be indexed as the cost of being black in American society, which is what Morehouse College researcher Sharon Davis suggested nearly a decade ago in a study linking racism – and its myriad of manifestations – to stress and high rates of hypertension among black Americans.
With wage labor at a premium for the black unemployed and underemployed, and productivity in a competitive workplace as a major concern for black professionals, the little tics and annoying aches and pains that could signal more dramatic health concerns often get ignored in favor of staying on the grind. This is particularly the case for black men whose masculinity is tied to “working through the pain” and black women, who more often than not are more concerned about the welfare of others as opposed to their own health issues.
Of course there is also the issue of those who don’t have access to quality healthcare and when they do venture to the local clinic, find that they are underserved and misdiagnosed. In a society that is overmedicated – often for depression and various anxiety disorders – many black Americans go untreated for ailments that would be addressed with better preventative healthcare. The bottom line is that black Americans suffer disproportionately from heart disease, hypertension, prostate cancer, diabetes and a range of other treatable afflictions.
With President Obama pushing forward an ambitious plan for healthcare, black communities need to focus our health issues with the same passion and sense of urgency that we have long treated the crisis of black men. Affordable healthcare doesn’t matter if no one is going to the doctor.