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Before Their Time
In three decades as a news reporter, I’ve seen hundreds of bullet-riddled bodies in Haiti and in the Middle East, and I’ve had friends and colleagues killed in both of those places. I lost my father to cancer.
But no death transformed me like the death last August of Clyde E. Murphy, my buddy from the Class of '70, my brother in Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the best man at my wedding as I was at his. Clyde was the confidant with whom I shared deeply held feelings about life and death and—perhaps most of all—about being a black man in America.
Then, six months later, as I was making peace with the sudden loss of Clyde to a pulmonary embolism, word came that yet another brother who'd pledged Alpha with us, Ron Norwood '70, had succumbed to cancer. A few weeks after that we learned that Jeff Palmer '70, another black classmate, had passed, also from cancer.
Truth be told, over the years I have from time to time floated the idea that some racist scientist had slipped poison into our milk, after our births or while we were at Yale. Others, not easily inclined to conspiracy theories, have also puzzled at what seemed to be a disproportionately high death rate for black Yalies.
“For ten years or more, I have been commenting on the excessively high mortality in that cohort of male black students at Yale who matriculated there between '64 and '70,” wrote Charles S. Finch III '70, an Atlanta-based emergency room physician who was a close friend and Alpha brother to Clyde and me, in an e-mail to a list of black alums. “I think there may be 24 (or more) such men, none of whom got past age 62, most not even seeing their 60th year. It is astonishing and disturbing.”
I began pondering this issue of black mortality with increased energy and fervor last summer, after my wife Marilyn and I drove up from Brooklyn to New Haven for the last day of my class’s 40th reunion. I had a wonderful time, reminiscing and sharing with guys I had not seen in decades and others I did not know at all.
But there was a sobering side. The computer sitting outside the registration room was open to a necrology for our class. It was haunting. I scrolled up and down it, stopping at one remembered Afro-headed Yalie and another. There was a total of about 80 names on the list, more than half a dozen the names of black men, as I recall. We African Americans back then numbered only 32, out of a class of just over a thousand. (This number doesn’t include the five black men from Africa and the Caribbean, who faced different kinds of challenges.) There surged in me again, momentarily, a sense of death clouds hovering above our heads.
But the moment passed. We went outside, Marilyn and I, and sat under the convivial tent offering protection from elements and petty worries, happy with life. We ate and danced to the music of Plastic Visitation, whose singer Ralph Dawson '71 revived in us the Motown energies that once made us so cool.
We headed back to Brooklyn, and over the next couple of days I exchanged e-mails—happy, reflective e-mails—about my reconnections to the past.
Weeks later, on the afternoon of August 17, I was finishing a jog around Prospect Park and stopped to watch as medical technicians carried off a man who had been struck by a bicyclist. It was at that moment that my son Damani called to tell me that Clyde had just passed away, suddenly, in Chicago.
My mind and mouth fell stupidly silent. A cold nothingness overcame me, an emptiness that was the converse of my feelings about Clyde. I admired him so. For three decades I had watched as Clyde, a Columbia Law grad, battled racial discrimination in the American workplace. He was for 19 years a top counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984. In 1995, he became executive director of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Last year, three months before his death, he savored the sweet victory of a Supreme Court decision in his favor, upholding a complaint he had brought alleging discrimination against blacks who had taken the Chicago firefighter entrance exam.
Perhaps most importantly, in my eyes, Clyde was a model of black fatherhood, an institution that has been a social battlefield over the past two generations. There have been horrific defeats for black Americans on that battlefield due to an absence of valor and commitment, but Clyde was among the outstanding generals. Several years ago, with a sense of urgency that he conveyed to me in a telephone conversation, he traveled from Chicago to North Carolina to spend time reasoning and arguing with his son Jamal, who Clyde felt was not stepping up the ladder of achievement with enough energy. Call it being pushy on Clyde’s part, or meddling, if you will, but Jamal soon afterward decided to go to law school. He is a lawyer now. Just before Clyde’s death, Jamal had picked his dad to be best man at his approaching wedding.
I spoke at Clyde’s funeral, recalling his undergraduate time as the Platter Playin' Poppa of WYBC. I vowed to better understand and embrace the past that Clyde and I shared.
Weeks after the funeral, I did some counting and came up with 84 members of the Class of '70 who were deceased, nine of them blacks who entered with us in 1966. Thus, while we African Americans were 3 percent of the Class of '70, we were more than 10 percent of the deaths. Put another way, we have been more than three times more likely to die than the average class member.
Demographers tell me not to extrapolate too far with these numbers, which are by no means a valid sampling. But for those of us who have been thinking about this for years, the numbers have profound meaning. Denis E. Kellman '70, an attorney, lost his two best friends, Carl Palmer '70 and Ron Norwood, in 2005 and this past February, respectively. “I feel like the last man standing,” Kellman says.
That black males overall die before others in America is well established. According to the latest National Vital Statistics report, life expectancy is 80.6 years for women in America overall and 75.7 for men. For white women, it’s 80.9; for black women, 77.4. For white men, 76.2. For black men, 70.9.
Much of that difference can be ascribed to poverty, violent crime, and inequitable access to health care, and might be expected to narrow for black men of higher socioeconomic status. So the question is this: are the black men who went to Yale and similar institutions in the throes of the blooming civil rights era of the '60s—and who represented the first significant presence of African Americans on Ivy League campuses—now experiencing inequality in death, as their forebears did in life?
Many scientists, it pains me to report, believe the answer is yes.
Sociologist David R. Williams has done research showing that racial disparities in death rates pertain at “every level of income.” In a 2002 paper, Williams went on to say something as surprising as it is ominous: “This pattern has been observed across multiple health outcomes, and for some indicators of health … the racial gap becomes larger as [the socioeconomic status] increases.”
Counterintuitive as that may sound, it makes a certain grim sense to Craig Foster '69. Foster postulates that for many blacks, an Ivy education opened doors of aspiration and ambition, but not necessarily corresponding doors of opportunity. For many, he says, the effort to win the success they desired caused strain, fatigue, and dejection.
“Sometimes I wonder whether some of the brothers see death as the honorable way out,” says Foster, now a broadcast agent living in his native New York. “In dying of stress, you leave open the perception that you fought the good fight, that you took your sword and resisted the onslaught of your enemy before you finally went down yourself.”
A number of experts would agree with Foster, it seems. Some of them back up sociologist Williams’s findings, saying that not only do higher-income black males fare worse than their white counterparts, but they also fare worse—in terms of morbidity and certain illnesses—than lower-income, less highly educated blacks.
One reason for this, researchers believe, is a phenomenon known as “John Henryism,” a determination among these men to succeed even at the cost of their health. Duke psychiatrist Christopher L. Edwards explained the idea in reporting on a 2006 study:
John Henryism was first identified by a public health researcher in a 1983 study on hypertension in black men. It takes its name from the black folk hero who, big in size and grand in strength, banged steel spikes into place during the nineteenth-century railroad boom. To save his job and those of other black “steel drivers,” John Henry offered to show that he drive spikes better than the steam-powered hammers the bosses were introducing to save money. Henry labored valiantly, but he died in the effort. “Before I let this steam drill beat me down,” goes the song, “I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.”
Keith C. Ferdinand MD, chief science officer for the Association of Black Cardiologists, attended Cornell in the late 1960s. He says he is very aware of the experiences that have led African American men, including very educated ones, to relatively high mortality rates. He says hypertension in black men may be related to “intensive stress when it comes to achieving in an environment where they’re underappreciated or working against barriers.”
Charles Finch, the doctor among our group of black Yale men, has been saying this for a long time—that the prime suspect in the early deaths we have been experiencing is stress. The problem, however, is that there is no sure way to identify and measure stress the way doctors measure, say, hypertension, and no medications or even behaviors to combat it.
“Stress may play a part, but we don’t list it as a risk factor because it’s so hard to put your finger on what stress is,” Ferdinand told me.
So what to do? The first thing, I think, is to make it clear that stress is not in itself a bad thing. I mean, I don’t believe Charles was harming himself when—in addition to raising seven children, and practicing medicine and being on the faculty of Morehouse Medical School—he wrote books about ancient religions and conducted regular tours of Egypt.
This is what doctors refer to as eustress, or good stress. And that kind of stress can help people live long lives, says Howard S. Friedman, a professor of psychology at University of California–Riverside and coauthor of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study.
But here’s the thing I’m coming to believe: that racial experiences of blacks from a generation ago were significantly more fraught with pain and anxiety than is the case now, especially for those higher up the socioeconomic ladder; and that racial slights had unique debilitating effects on blacks, especially on black males, who were programmed to sense potential infliction of pain even in minor acts of disrespect, or even in the mere approach of, for example, a police officer. This leads to bad, deadly stress.
It struck me recently that we of the Class of '70 were barely a century out of America’s slavery era when we entered Yale, and the civil rights era was barely beginning to bloom. I am a writer, not a doctor. But I believe that racially based stress, of the kind many black men suffered and still suffer, is akin to a hypertension that becomes fixed in one’s system over time, leading to death if it isn’t treated.
I can only hope that the incredible changes we have witnessed in our society over the past 40 years—and the hopeful signs of our nation’s racial advancement, most notably the election of Barack Obama as president—will mean that current and future generations of Yale graduates do not see mortality differentials of the kind we appear to be experiencing now.
There is a faith in me that this change will come, and that it is maybe arriving even as I write. Of course, as with anything else, such social improvements require vigilant attention and the hard work of correcting imbalances. For this hard work, I will always honor our brother Clyde Murphy, who set about doing it some 40 years ago, and continued up until the very end.
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