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Losing too many Black men too soon

An acclaimed actor’s unexpected death is a harsh reminder of the fragility of Black men’s lives.

Michael K. Williams in 2017, outside a Brooklyn apartment complex where he once lived.

Michael K. Williams in 2017, outside a Brooklyn apartment complex where he once lived.DEMETRIUS FREEMAN/NYT

Not long after the shocking news of Michael K. Williams’s death went viral Monday, Roy Wood Jr. of “The Daily Show” tweeted, “All I want for black entertainers is for them to be able to grow old.”

I felt Wood’s words in my bones. This year alone we’ve lost rappers Biz Markie, DMX, Shock G, and Black Rob; authors Lawrence Otis Graham and Eric Jerome Dickey; Chucky Thompson, who produced classics for Mary J. Blige and Notorious B.I.G.; and famed hip-hop photographer Chi Modu, to name a few.

Their causes of death included cancer, heart attack, accidental overdose, and COVID-19. Yet they shared this dire truth — none of them had reached the age of 60. Neither had Chadwick Boseman, Prince, John Singleton, Nipsey Hussle, Craig Mack, Charlie Murphy, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Gregory Hines, or Barry White.

When someone like Williams dies, Black people aren’t only mourning the loss of a great actor who created indelible performances in such HBO dramas as “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Lovecraft Country.” We aren’t only haunted by the now-unanswerable questions about the next role Williams, who was 54, could have made his own, or the emotional depths he was still discovering in his artistry.

More than a headline or a hashtag, it’s also a reminder of the fragility of Black men’s lives. Black men have the highest rates of hypertension and diabetes in America. They suffer the worst outcomes from prostate cancer and heart disease. They are more likely than any other group to die by homicide. Nationwide, they have the lowest life expectancy.

And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first six months of 2020, the nation’s life expectancy dropped from 78 to 77. Statistics were even more dismal for Black people, who lost nearly three years. Black people between the ages of 35 and 44 died at nine times the rate of their white counterparts.

No demographic has a higher COVID-19 mortality rate than Black men.

In its 2020 investigation into disproportionate pandemic death rates among young Black men, ProPublica cited the theory known as “John Henryism.” Coined by Sherman James, a social epidemiologist and Duke University professor emeritus of public policy, it takes its name from the folk legend of a steel-driving Black man who wins a race against a steam-powered engine but literally works himself to death.

In modern times, John Henryism is the toll taken on Black men trying to strive in a world built to fail them. James believes Black men pay a physical price for the hardships inflicted on them by white supremacy, police violence, living under constant suspicion, and entrenched racism. The body keeps score, leaving them more susceptible to sickness and early death.

Days after celebrating his 56th birthday, Tony, a longtime friend of my partner and as ebullient a person as I have ever met, went to sleep and never woke up. Certainly, he had his share of those nagging ailments that seem to appear after age 50 as quickly as that first AARP card. But there was nothing to indicate that he had anything less than a lot of living left to do.

A week later as we drove to Tony’s funeral, I said to my partner, “I guess we’ve reached that age when people we know just suddenly up and die.” That seems to happen disproportionately to Black men.

In his two-decade acting career, Williams often played men who used their wits, fists, or other means to survive under an ever-present shadow of racism. It wears them out. I’ve witnessed Black men raise their families and work multiple jobs, or one job that consumes too much of them. They don’t always have easy access to health care and, like John Henry, see themselves as all-powerful instead of human. They die trying.

I’ve watched them self-medicate to ease pains they won’t discuss. They’re so wary of slipping even further behind in the system never designed for them to catch up, they ignore that twinge in their chests or the burning in their stomachs until all their families can do is pick out a burial suit and plan a homegoing service.

When men like Williams, Prince, and Boseman die, we lose emblems of Black excellence. Yet we also mourn the Black men whose premature deaths will never trend on social media or garner front-page obituaries. It is the relentless sorrow from an epidemic in a community that only wants its Black fathers, sons, uncles, nephews, and friends to be able to grow old.



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