There is a Dunkin Donuts shop near my home that since its opening has become a gathering place for older Black men. Whenever I happen to drop-in the scene of these men sitting, laughing and enjoying each other’s company provides me a psychological boost. It is a reminder, and one that I sorely need, that Black men can survive their hellish existence in this society and reach their twilight years.
These men represent something that is routinely missing from our cultural landscape. Not even knowing the personal stories of the Dunkin Donuts crew, their mere presence, existence is counterintuitive in a society in which the mortality of Black men is such that the genus “old Black man” is increasingly a historical artifact. I am mesmerized by these men because I want to know their secret of survival. How did they avoid becoming a statistic or are they a statistic in hiding? Now, certainly there are some Black men who have avoided becoming a statistic by the grace of God or because they submitted to their marginalization. We certainly have our fair share of Black men, seemingly successful, who are hollowed out; empty vessels absent of a sense of self and willing to be culturally neutered for the sake of personal “success.” Then there are Black men who have lived defiantly and who have refused to sacrifice their culture for the sake of social acceptance. These men might not be “successful” by society’s standards but in my world view represent the epitome of success in a nation that seemingly seeks nothing less than our annihilation. It seems to me that most Black men past age 65 fit that category and each has a story worth telling and a lesson to be learned by all of us who are hoping and praying for similar longevity.
Black males and length of life is a subject that has long held my fascination. I lost a good friend, Mickey, in second grade in a house fire and my dad was gone at age 48. His brothers did not live long lives and several of my uncles and male cousins on my mother’s side of the family also passed away at an early age. A male cousin with whom I shared a birthday passed away when we were in our thirties. I had a classmate who was gunned down in a robbery when we were in college and another killed in an automobile accident. Several of my fraternity brothers died before age 35 and four of them from diseases. I have attended the funerals of young Black men killed by violence and observed the life of a childhood friend and Sunday School classmate take a bad turn that led to prison. For Black men to reach the magic age of 65 appears to be an act of divine intervention. It is truly the miracle of old Black men.
When I see older Black men in their late 70s and 80s my mind kicks into overdrive. How did they survive the insults, the disrespect? What was it like for them in school? What went through their minds when it was clear their teachers expected little from them and their schools made it clear they were not a priority? How did they come to terms with being cast as suspicious, perceived as a criminal when there was never any criminal intent on their part? What was their experience with police? How did they cope being subjected to discrimination in the labor market? What allowed them to survive the slights on the job, being passed over for pay increases and promotions, and hostility and paternalistic attitudes of co-workers? How did they manage the stress of being talented and opportunity-less? How did they not turn that anger inward, on themselves, their families and their community? How are they still standing?
What I see in the Black men gathered in Dunkin Donuts is hope. Perhaps in their life stories are the keys to how more of us can make it to our twilight years. It is welcome relief from my daily read of the obituary pages of our state’s most widely read daily newspaper and I see the roll call of Black men who experience an early departure. Within the stories traded over coffee and donuts by the group of gray haired and aging Black men could be the secret to our survival. At a minimum they might hold the keys to a regimen that will increase the likelihood of survival.
While the calendar suggests we should celebrate Black history this month, my focus is on Black survival, here and now. If Black men don’t survive, we will truly be history.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.