In a time of racial reckoning, a new film looks at a very personal attempt to address racial injustices in this country.
“Ashes to Ashes” are the final words in typical African American funeral services. Many of those who were murdered by the Klan to maintain the reign of white supremacy never received their “Ashes to Ashes”.
Ashes to Ashes, the film, is an endearing portrait of Winfred Rembert, an avid Star Wars fan and master leather-work artist who survived an attempted lynching in 1967. This moving short documentary showcases the incredible friendship he has forged with Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, as she creates and establishes an interactive art exhibit to memorialize the more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched during the Jim Crow era. Taking all of her experiences from her love of medicine, art and people, Dr. Shirley J. Whitaker, MD, created the Ashes to Ashes program that will provide for a real memorial (funeral) service for the over 2 million lost during the Middle Passages.
FROM 1882-1968, 4,743 LYNCHINGS OCCURRED IN THE UNITED STATES. OF THESE PEOPLE THAT WERE LYNCHED 3,446 WERE BLACK (72%). THE MAJORITY OCCURING IN THE SOUTH (79%). This too is Black History.
The goal of the project by Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker is to acknowledge and mourn the African Americans who were racially terrorized during the Jim Crow era after the Civil War and until this very day. Some endured lynching and other forms of brutalization and therefore, they never received a proper burial. The ceremony was a celebration of thousands of African Americans. As we must. #BlackHistoryMonth2021
Dr. Whitaker will join us this week. Mr. Rembert is unable to join us tonight. We will host him soon.
Dr. Whitaker is the seventh child of Eddie and Charlie Mae Jackson from Waycross, Georgia. Dr. Whitaker attended Clark Atlanta University completing a BS degree with honors in Biology. She attended Yale University School of Medicine-Department of Public Health and obtained her medical degree form Emory University School of Medicine, the only female African American in her class. A kidney specialist by trade, an artist trained under Leonard Baskin, and a healer by passion, her Ashes to Ashes project was developed to provide hope for a better American future, one in which races of varying color and heritage can understand the importance of each other’s American history, empathize with each other’s sacrifices and tragedies, realize the legacy of impacts from suffered injustices and accept that healing is a process as much a cure, and recognize and lay to rest the 4,000 victims of vigilante justice perpetrated against a predominantly black population for simply desiring the most basic of American rights of obtaining an education, ownership of land, fair competition in commerce, the uniquely American right of voting for our governing institutions and for an equal stake in the American experience. She is currently working on the second phase of A2A: The Noose: Tread of Hate and Resilience. This will center on American history through the lens of lynching and will include an International Speak My Name Day to speak the names of the lynched.
Mr. Rembert grew up in rural Georgia, in a farm laborer’s house and later in the small town of Cuthbert. Raised by his great-aunt, Rembert worked with her in the cotton fields during much of his childhood, and received little formal education. As a teenager he got involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jailed for fleeing for his life in a stolen car, nearly lynched and then cut down to serve as an example to others, Rembert was sentenced to 27 years in the Georgia Penal System. Despite the cruel prison circumstances, Rembert learned to read and write and managed to meet and write letters to his would-be wife Patsy as well as to congressmen, with the hope of gaining early release. He also learned the craft of hand-tooling leather from a fellow-prisoner. After seven years, most of which was spent on chain gangs, Rembert was released from prison, but it wasn’t until 1997, at the age of 51, that he began to work more seriously with leather as his artistic medium, creating tooled and dyed canvases that tell the stories of his life. His paintings have been exhibited at galleries across the country—including the Yale University Art Gallery, the Adelson Galleries New York, and the Hudson River Museum—and have been profiled in The New York Times and elsewhere. Rembert is the recipient of a 2017 USA Fellowship, and in 2015 was an honoree of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. Rembert’s full-color memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021.
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Sometimes the artist Winfred Rembert can’t sleep at night. His wife, Patsy, says that it has to do with his work. “Whenever he do one of those pictures, he gets sick,” she explains. “He has to double up on that medicine in order to get some rest.” Rembert first draws his scenes, full of faces and patterns, on paper, then carves the images onto a sheet of tanned leather by hand, texturing the surface with tools that look almost surgical, before filling in the etchings with vivid dyes. His paintings depict scenes of Black life in the Jim Crow South, and making them means dredging up painful memories from his youth, when he worked in cotton fields and on a prison-labor chain gang. Some artworks are healing or serve as sources of hope, Rembert says, in the documentary “Ashes to Ashes”—but not his.
When he was nineteen years old, living in Georgia and participating in the civil-rights movement, Rembert, now seventy-five, was lynched by a mob of white men. They shoved him into the trunk of a car, stripped him, hung him upside down, stabbed him, and made it clear that they intended to castrate him. The attack was brutal and dehumanizing—“There I am, bleeding like a pig, hanging up in a tree, ready to be slaughtered,” Rembert recalls. The attackers were moments from hanging him. They stopped, Rembert says, only because one man said they had “better things” to do. Rembert survived, but the scars have stayed with him.
Whitaker has a physician’s reverence for history. She says that, when patients come to see her, they may need to have difficult conversations about what has happened in that patient’s life. Those conversations can’t be ignored or elided, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. “Sometimes, patients come and they tell you horror stories. But I can’t discard it, because I need it in order to help that patient live,” she says. Without that information, she says, the patient will never get toward a cure. It’s a striking parallel to the words she delivered at the homegoing ceremony: “Some bad things happened in this country, where Americans tortured other Americans. . . . So we’re looking back in history,” she says, to a church full of mourners. “This patient”—and, here, the patient is something more collective than an individual in her exam room—“can only live and get stronger if we’re willing to look back.”
Taylor Rees, who directed the film, told me that working with Rembert and Whitaker has expanded her thinking about what it means to heal from racial and political violence. “That healing process might never look like a complete recovery from an injury, but it’s the courage to face an injury,” she told me. “Looking at that thing that has caused harm is sometimes the hardest part.” The attack that Rembert describes is so vicious, his attackers so lacking in human decency, that the temptation is, if not to look away, then to dissociate, to ascribe the actions to a distant place and time. But neither Rembert nor the brutality he lived through are relics of history. “The person who endured this is alive. This isn’t generations ago,” Rees said. The truth of that statement could hardly be clearer. We spoke just days after a mob had breached the Capitol building, many of its members wearing white-supremacist insignias and at least one waving a Confederate flag. On the National Mall, some of the group erected a scaffold and noose.
The decision not to charge the officer who shot him stems in part from weak legislation.
Jacob Blake Sr., father of Jacob Blake, holds a candle at a rally Monday in Kenosha.Morry Gash/AP
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Jacob Blake, paralyzed and still suffering from injuries, got a phone call on Tuesday afternoon from Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley with some news: There would be no charges filed against the police officer who shot Blake seven times in August, sparking massive protests in the city.
“Based on the facts and the law, I have decided not to issue criminal charges against Officer Sheskey, Officer Meronek, or Officer Arenas. This decision was by no means easy,” Graveley wrote in a report published later that day. In a press conference, he described the shooting as a “tragedy.”
The video of the shooting has been viewed by millions of people, and is difficult to watch: Blake, who is Black, walks toward the driver’s side of a parked car in a residential Kenosha neighborhood, with his children in the back seat. A white officer, Rusten Sheskey, follows behind him with a gun drawn. As Blake approaches the door, Sheskey grabs him by the shirt and then fires his weapon.
It can be hard to imagine how Sheskey’s actions wouldn’t warrant criminal charges, even considering the blatant racism of our criminal justice system. But District Attorney Graveley, in a roughly two-hour press conference, argued that pressing charges would be unethical because, given the state’s law about when officers can use force, there was no way he could win at court
Even after atrocious policing, even after a man is paralyzed, use-of-force laws around the country often make it very, very difficult to punish cops. In Wisconsin and most states, police can legally fire their weapons against someone if they have “reasonable” fear the person will otherwise gravely harm them or someone in the vicinity. And here’s the kicker: The law usually says police officers get to define what’s reasonable.
At the press conference, Graveley explained why police could successfully argue that Sheskey’s decision to shoot was reasonable under the circumstances, using evidence not visible in the viral video most of the country watched.
According to Graveley, the police had reason to be nervous off the bat: Three officers were called to the scene by Laquisha Booker, the mother of Blake’s children, who told a 911 dispatcher that Blake had grabbed the keys to her rental car and was trying to take their kids away from her, according to a recording of the call played at the press conference. The officers knew that Blake had a felony warrant for alleged domestic abuse and sexual assault. When they arrived at the scene and tried to arrest him, a physical confrontation ensued—Blake says the officers punched him and dragged him to the ground, and the officers say he resisted their orders. At one point during the struggle, Blake was on top of Sheskey on the ground, according to a second video. Officers tried to stun him with a taser, but he tore the prongs out.
Blake admitted to investigators later that he was holding a knife in his hand after he stood up and began walking to the car. Sheskey says he followed Blake and then grabbed his tank top because he feared Blake would take the car with the children inside. (Booker had yelled that the children were hers.) According to a statement Sheskey gave later, he worried that if Blake drove away, it could result in a high-speed chase that could harm the kids, or they might be taken hostage. An independent police expert, former Madison Police Chief Noble Ray, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to grab Blake, according to the district attorney.
In the video footage, it looks like Sheskey then shot Blake seven times in the back. But according to the district attorney, two police officers and citizen witnesses told investigators that before the shooting began, Blake started turning toward Sheskey and made a motion with his knife hand; this allegation couldn’t be confirmed in the video because the camera view was obstructed by the car door and another officer. A medical examiner later concluded that Blake was shot four times in the back but also three times on his left side, adding some corroboration to the allegation that he turned.
Ray, the independent police expert, concluded it was reasonable for Sheskey to fear that Blake was trying to stab him at that time. Blake denies this allegation and says he was simply trying to put the knife back into the car. “They didn’t have to shoot me like that,” he said in a statement later, published in the district attorney’s report. “I was just trying to leave and he had options to shoot my tires and even punch me, tase me again, hit me with the night stick.”
If you asked many people on the street, they’d probably say it’s unreasonable for a cop to follow behind a man who is walking away, grab him by the shirt, and proceed to fire multiple shots into him at close range while his children watch from the back seat. But our laws are set up so that it doesn’t really matter what most people think: It matters what a police officer decides is a reasonable fear. And in a racist society where Black people are too often viewed as threats, police will almost always be able to come up with some justification for why they were afraid and believed they had to shoot.
Prosecuting cases like this will require states to change their use-of-force laws, so that officers don’t have so much power to define what’s reasonable. Until that happens, law enforcement will regularly get away with shooting people, including those sleeping in a car or at home on a couch, when it might have been possible to deescalate the situation instead. Officers continue to get away with violence because it’s not very hard to come up with a reason why they thought someone would harm them, especially when the law doesn’t require them to prove that they were correct or that the person was actually a threat. “Without any new rules from the legislature, we’re going to have this problem again and again,” says Farhang Heydari executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law. “We saw it in Breonna Taylor’s case, Eric Garner’s case, with Tamir Rice. It will happen over and over again until legislators step up and enact clear rules around force.”
It’s possible to change these use-of-force laws, which often differ from state to state and even city to city. California recently amended its statute so that an officer can only legally shoot if it’s “necessary,” rather than “reasonable,” to protect against an imminent threat of death or serious injury. But even there, it’s hard to predict whether the statute will bring justice after future police shootings, because California lawmakers didn’t define what “necessary” means in the law, again potentially leaving some room for discretion among police officers.
More than half of states considered legislation last year dealing at least in some way with police use of force, and at least several focused on deadly force. But many of the bills didn’t go as far as some criminal justice reform activists would hope. Delaware’s attorney general has pushed to reform her state’s law, but her proposed changes wouldn’t even go as far as California’s did: Delaware’s statute currently allows deadly force if an officer believes he or she is in danger. The attorney general wants to reform the law merely to specify that it must be a “reasonable” belief—which brings us back to the problem in Wisconsin and many other states.
The Policing Project’s Heydari recommends that new laws require officers to take deescalative steps, and to only use force as a last resort, limiting the types of response depending on the situation. Fair and Just Prosecution, an advocacy group that works with district attorneys, recommends a ban on deadly force against suspects who are fleeing.
Under the Biden administration, the federal government could step in to encourage these changes. The Justice Department, which may soon be led by US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could set a national guidance on when it’s acceptable for officers to use lethal force. The agency or Congress could also require states to follow this guidance in order to receive federal funding for training or other programs. Biden’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, formerly prosecuted police brutality at the department. She supports efforts to scale back law enforcement and invest more in social services, and has encouraged the federal government to stop funding agencies with a long history of violence and racism.
In terms of Blake’s case, federal prosecutors at the Justice Department and a US attorney’s office are now conducting a civil rights investigation and could later decide to bring federal charges. The Justice Department could also launch an investigation into the Kenosha Police Department and push for a consent decree that would require reforms.
“Now our battle must go in front of the Congress, it must go in front of the Senate,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told reporters Tuesday after the district attorney’s decision not to file charges locally. One of Blake’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, said they would press forward with a civil rights lawsuit. “It is now our duty to broaden the fight for justice on behalf of Jacob and the countless other Black men and women who are victims of racial injustice and police brutality in this country,” he said in a statement.
“We’re going to talk with the Speaker of the House, Speaker of the Senate,” Blake Sr. added. “We’re going to change some laws. Some laws have to be reckoned.”
The Rev. Dr. Kejuane Artez Bates was a big man with big responsibilities. The arrival of the novel coronavirus in Vidalia, Louisiana, was another burden on a body already breaking under the load. Bates was in his 10th year with the Vidalia Police Department, assigned as a resource officer to the upper elementary school. But with classrooms indefinitely closed, he was back on patrol duty and, like most people in those early days of the pandemic, unprotected by a mask. On Friday, March 20, he was coughing and his nose was bleeding. The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed.
Bates was only 36, too young to be at risk for COVID-19, or so the conventional wisdom went. He attributed his malaise to allergies and pushed forward with his second full-time job, as head pastor of Forest Aid Baptist Church, working on his Sunday sermon between naps. Online church was a new concept to his parishioners, and during the next morning’s service, he had to keep reminding them to mute their phones. As he preached about Daniel in the lion’s den — we will be tested, but if we continue to have faith, we will come through — he grimaced from the effort. That night he was burning up with fever. Five days later he was on a ventilator; five days after that, he died.
While COVID-19 has killed 1 out of every 800 African Americans, a toll that overwhelms the imagination, even more stunning is the deadly efficiency with which it has targeted young Black men like Bates. One study using data through July found that Black people ages 35 to 44 were dying at nine times the rate of white people the same age, though the gap slightly narrowed later in the year. And in an analysis for ProPublica this summer using the only reliable data at the time accounting for age, race and gender, from Michigan and Georgia, Harvard researcher Tamara Rushovich found that the disparity was greatest in Black men. It was a phenomenon Enrique Neblett Jr. noticed when he kept seeing online memorials for men his age. “I’ll be 45 this year,” said the University of Michigan professor, who studies racism and health. “I wasn’t seeing 60- and 70-year-old men. We absolutely need to be asking what is going on here?”
To help illuminate this gap in knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of why America has lost so many young Black men to COVID-19, ProPublica spent months gathering their stories, starting with hundreds of news articles, obituaries and medical examiners’ reports, then interviewing the relatives and friends of nearly two dozen men, along with researchers who specialize in Black men’s health. Our efforts led us to a little-known body of research that takes its name from one of the most enduring symbols of Black American resilience.
In interviews about the young men who died from the virus, a portrait emerged of a modern John Henry: hard-working, ambitious, optimistic and persistent, trying to lift others along with themselves. They were the very people communities would have turned to first to help recover from the pandemic: entrepreneurs who were also employers; confidants like coaches, pastors and barbers; family men forced into a sandwich generation younger than their white counterparts, because their parents got sick earlier and they had to care for them while raising kids of their own.
They were ordinary men. Time and again, it was their fight that was remarkable.
Bates, the only child of a single mother who supported him as a teacher’s aide, made it to Alcorn State University on football and choir scholarships. When his mother got sick with breast cancer, he had to drop out; after she died, he was almost destitute. Over the years, he built himself into multiple men at once, each a pillar to many others: the pastor whose flock depended on his counsel; the mentor known to school kids as Uncle Officer Bates; the assistant football coach and band director; the adoring father to 5-year-old Madison — his “heartbeat,” he called her. Recently he and his wife, Chelsea, a second grade teacher, had launched One Love Travel, organizing excursion packages and cruises as part of their long-term plan to build generational wealth.
He carried the stress of his efforts in his blood vessels, in his kidneys, in the extra pounds that accumulated with each passing year; he had diabetes and hypertension and at 6-foot-6, he was more than 100 pounds overweight. His official cause of death, on April 1, was COVID-19-related pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
But Chelsea knows that the virus, no matter how powerful, didn’t kill her husband on its own. It was the years of working nonstop, taking care of other people more than himself, that wore his body down. And when the virus attacked, he couldn’t fight back.
In the summer of 1978, the social epidemiologist Sherman James, then a 34-year-old researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met the man who would shape his life’s work. At 70, John Martin was a retired farmer who suffered from debilitating osteoarthritis and hypertension. He had peptic ulcers so severe that doctors had to remove 40% of his stomach. Recounting his story in his backyard rocking chair, his cane resting on his lap, the old man had no doubt why his health was so bad: “I worked too hard.”
Born in 1907, Martin grew up in a family of sharecroppers who were only paid half of what their labor in the tobacco fields earned. Throughout the South at the time, most Black farmers lived at the economic mercy of landowners who were employers, landlords and vendors all at once. Martin watched as the system ruthlessly exploited his father; after one particularly harsh winter spent hungry, Martin vowed he would be different. Borrowing $3,725 in 1941, he purchased 75 acres. He had 40 years to settle the mortgage but accomplished the near-impossible: He paid it off in five. “That’s the reason my legs [are] all out of whack today,” he told James.
James listened, spellbound, until Martin’s wife called out, “John Henry, it’s time for lunch.” At that moment, something clicked. Holy cow, James remembers thinking. “It was just like the ancestors were speaking to me.” The power of Martin’s story wasn’t simply that it echoed the legend of John Henry; it also echoed the life experiences of most of the working-class African American men James knew.
Five years out of graduate school, James was among a small group of researchers focusing on one of the most enduring public health problems in the United States: why health outcomes for Black men are so poor. Black men live shorter lives than all other Americans — 71.5 years versus 76.1 years for white men — and have for generations. Black men’s life expectancy didn’t reach 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, until 1995, 30 years after the federal health program for the elderly became law; white men were living into their mid-60s by 1950. The shorter lifespans reflect a broader disparity: Black people have much higher rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes and strokes than white people do, and they develop those chronic conditions up to 10 years earlier. The gap persisted this year when the Brookings Institution examined COVID-19 deaths by race; in each age category, Black people were dying at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.
For generations, public health experts mostly ignored the disparities. When they did pay attention, they invariably blamed the victims — their “unhealthy” behaviors and diets, their genes, the under-resourced neighborhoods they “chose” to live in and the low-paying jobs they “chose” to work. Their chronic illnesses were seen as failures of personal responsibility. Their shorter life expectancy was written off to addiction and the myth of “black-on-black” violence. Many of those arguments were legacies of the slave and Jim Crow eras, when the white medical and science establishment promoted the idea of innate Black inferiority and criminality to rationalize systems built on servitude and segregation.
Pondering the lessons of John Henry Martin, James began to see what many of his colleagues had been missing. It wasn’t just living in poverty that wore down Black men’s bodies, he hypothesized, but the struggle to break out of poverty. It wasn’t just inequality that made them sick, but the effort to be equal in a system that was fundamentally unjust. “It’s this striving to make something of themselves … to live their lives with dignity and purpose and to be successful against extraordinary circumstances,” James said. “They’re trying to make a way out of no way. It’s the Black American story.”
America has changed profoundly since Martin’s day. Yet the machinery of racial inequality continues to be omnipresent. It’s in the hospitals where Black newborns have significantly lower mortality if they’re cared for by Black doctors rather than white ones. In the redlined neighborhoods where poverty and pollution are concentrated — but not affordable housing or grocery stores or reliable internet. It’s in the crumbling, exploitative economies that force parents to risk their lives working long hours for low pay without sick leave. In mass incarceration and voter suppression. In the innumerable hurdles, one piled upon another, that make Black Americans’ climb up the socioeconomic ladder more daunting than ever, their successes more fragile and their setbacks more consequential.
“Everyone thinks about racism as something that is personally mediated, like someone insulting me,” said Linda Sprague Martinez, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work who conducts community health research with adolescents and young adults. “But the way in which it’s really pervasive is how it disrupts life chances and opportunity. … These are systems that are designed for you to fail, essentially, and for you to be erased and to be maintained in a certain position in our society.”
Challenging such a relentless machine, through “high-effort coping,” James concluded, requires three categories of personal traits that are major themes of the John Henry legend: tenacity, mental and physical vigor and a commitment to hard work. To measure them, he developed the John Henryism scale, with scores determined by how strongly people identify with 12 statements, including: “Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done,” and, “It’s not always easy, but I usually find a way to do what really needs to be done.”
To score high in John Henryism, you don’t have to be Black or male or economically disadvantaged. But over the years, James and other researchers have found that Black people, especially those who are poor and working-class, do score high and tend to suffer greater cardiovascular risks, perhaps because the innumerable hurdles in their paths require greater effort to overcome. “The stress,” James said, “is going to be far more overwhelming than it has a human right to be.”
Stress is a physiological reaction, hard-wired in the body, that helps protect it against external threats. At the first sign of danger, the brain sounds an alarm, setting off a torrent of neurological and hormonal signals that whoosh into the blood, stimulating the body to fight or give flight. The heart beats faster and breathing quickens; blood vessels dilate, so more oxygen reaches the brain and muscles. The immune system’s inflammatory response is activated to promote quick healing. When the threat passes, hormone levels return to normal, blood glucose ebbs and heart rate and blood pressure go back to baseline. At least, that’s how the human body is designed to work.
But overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can cause the gears to malfunction. “Your body’s over-producing, always working hard to bring itself back down to the normal level,” said Roland J. Thorpe Jr., a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founding director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. The constant strain “resets the normal,” he said. As blood pressure remains high and inflammation becomes chronic, the inner linings of blood vessels start to thicken and stiffen, which forces the heart to work harder, which dysregulates other organs until they, too, begin to fail. “Your body starts to wear down,” Thorpe said — a phenomenon known as weathering.
The cumulative effects of stress begin in the womb, when cortisol released into a pregnant woman’s bloodstream crosses the placenta; it is one of the reasons a disproportionate number of Black babies are born too early and too small. Then, exposure to adverse childhood experiences — anything from abuse and neglect to poverty and hunger — continues the toxic stream; too much exposure to cortisol at a critical stage in development can rewire the neurological system’s fight-or-flight response, essentially causing the brain’s stress switch to break. The more stress a youngster endures, the more likely he or she is to have academic, behavioral and health problems from depression to obesity.
Weathering isn’t specific to race, but it is believed to take a particular toll on Black people because of the unique, unrelenting stress caused by racism that wears away the body and the spirit, “just like you have siding on the house, and the rain or the sun beats on it, and eventually it starts to fade,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general under the Trump administration. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a social epidemiologist at Ohio State University, says the human body isn’t designed to withstand such biological and emotional assaults: “It’s the same thing as if you revved the engine of your car all day, every day. Sooner or later, the car is going to break down.”
The effects of stress can be seen at the cellular level. Researchers have found that in Black people, telomeres — repeated sequences of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes by forming a cap, much like the plastic tip on a shoelace — become shortened at a faster rate, a sign of premature aging. In a 2018 study examining changes in seven biomarkers in cardiac patients over a 30-year period, researchers found that Black patients weathered at an average of about six years faster than whites. And it was the extraordinarily high rates of hypertension in the Black community that prompted scientists to look at the impact of stress in the first place. By age 55, about 76% of Black men and women develop high blood pressure, versus 54% of white men and 40% of white women, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Sustained stress has strong links to obesity, which Black children and adults have at much higher rates than whites. Some of this is physiological: The interplay between cortisol and glucose is complex and insidious, triggering metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Some of it is psychological and behavioral: Stress is strongly associated with depression and other mental health disorders. “The way that people deal with stress is by strategies that make us feel better,” such as comfort eating, said Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Stress and anxiety cause sleeplessness, which itself is correlated with weight gain. The result is often a cascade of health problems — hypertension, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome — that strike early and feed off of each other.
Because Black Americans experience many forms of stress, often at once, researchers have more questions than answers about the specific role John Henryism plays in these outcomes. The study of Black men’s health remains an under-examined frontier, with little in the way of funding or will because “Black men are not viewed as sympathetic,” said LaVeist, and because so few go into the health research professions. He and Thorpe, the Johns Hopkins professor, co-founded the Black Men’s Health Project, the first large-scale national study focused solely on Black men’s needs, with a goal sample size of 5,000. They hope to learn how stressors like segregation and adverse early life experiences impact health outcomes.
If this segregated body of emerging knowledge were to grow and infiltrate the mainstream medical and research communities, James can only imagine how beneficial that would be. Health professionals could build deeper relationships with their patients by better understanding the sources of stress that wreak havoc on their cardiovascular systems. They could test for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels more frequently and at younger ages. “Until we can have a society that is more just racially,” James said, “we do need to find these intermediate steps.”
As ProPublica examined the lives lost to COVID-19, themes emerged in the pressure points faced by many young Black men. The wearing down typically begins when they are boys and must become little John Henrys to navigate white spaces or push through the adverse experiences endemic to Black communities. It continues when they grow into men, as most need to navigate the public’s projections of danger with unwavering vigilance. The more they succeed, the more responsibility they feel to lift their families and communities with them, and with that, comes more stress.
As James listened to the stories ProPublica was gathering, he instantly recognized the cycle of striving and succumbing that he has been writing about for 40 years. “They could have done so much more had the struggle not been so intense,” James said. “They were cut down too soon.”
Thomas Fields Jr. was barely a year old when his father first went to prison. The loss altered the trajectory of his life in ways that many children wouldn’t have been able to overcome. His mother, just 17 when he was born, moved with him from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Detroit, where her own mother had recently relocated. The city was in freefall: manufacturing jobs were disappearing; crime was surging; middle-class and white flight was stripping away the city’s tax base, eroding vital services and causing schools to fail. Just waiting at the wrong bus stop could get you robbed or shot.
“When you’re a young male living in Detroit, if you live past 18, it’s like you’re 50 years old,” Fields, then 31, said on a Facebook Live chat last year. “I swear that’s how it feels.”
Mitigating childhood adversity requires deep wells of resilience; researchers say one of the best ways to build those reserves is having a nurturing caregiver. In this, young Thomas was exceptionally lucky. His mother worked two jobs and still managed to watch him like a hawk; she told him constantly that she loved him. His grandmothers looked after him after school and during summer breaks. His father, Thomas Sr., did his best to be involved from behind bars, urging him to not make the same mistakes. “I wanted this Thomas Fields to break the mold,” he said.
To do that, Thomas became a little John Henry. He got decent grades, stayed out of trouble and taught himself to cook — healthy food, not the junk so many of his peers ate. After high school, he attended Grambling State University in Louisiana for a couple of years, then joined the U.S. Navy, where he went from being a talented amateur chef to a trained professional. He also became a father. When there were setbacks, he was already planning his next move. It’s a strategy that Black adolescents absorb like the air they breathe and the water they drink, Sprague Martinez said. “The mentality is: ‘Even if this system is not designed to work for me … I’m going to win this game. I haven’t gotten the prize yet? I must not be working hard enough.’”
High-effort coping can confer mental health benefits even for children raised in the direst of circumstances. Dosha DJay Joi endured the kind of trauma that dooms many children — beatings, neglect, sexual abuse. Born in Chicago, he spent much of his adolescence in group homes in the Wisconsin system. For years he was afraid to talk about the abuse and scared to tell his birth mother he was queer. He learned to channel himself into education and advocacy, helping other LGBTQ and foster kids; he especially wanted to make sure children remained connected with their siblings. He was inspired to study social work because of what he’d been through, said his mother, Kecha Kitchens. “Then a family member got sick, and he didn’t like how the nurses were treating the other patients in the nursing home, so he wanted to become a nurse.”
By the age of 28, Joi had a bachelor’s degree in human services, he had trained as a substance abuse counselor and he was working toward his nursing degree. He served as a court-appointed special advocate for kids aging out of foster care and lobbied lawmakers in the Wisconsin capitol and Washington D.C., forming a special bond with Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents Milwaukee in Congress. But the years of hardship took an enormous physical toll; Joi suffered from hypertension, heart and lung problems and at his heaviest, he weighed more than 500 pounds. When COVID-19 arrived in the Midwest, he was particularly vulnerable. He died on May 14.
For young John Henrys, the psychological benefits of high-effort coping seem to be complicated by what’s happening inside the body. “Typically when you study resilience in any group, and [subjects are] doing well by our typical metrics” — going to college, getting a good job, not taking drugs — “we say, ‘Woo-hoo,’” University of Georgia researcher Gene Brody said. “Logically, we thought this would transfer to have health benefits.” But for Black young adults trying to climb the economic ladder, they found just the opposite. “When you look under the skin, doing blood draws and using other kinds of measures, they look like their health is starting to suffer.”
In more than 25 years spent tracking the health of Black families in rural Georgia, Brody and his colleagues found that adolescents identified by their teachers as being success-oriented already had higher “allostatic loads” — science jargon for wear-and-tear on the body — at age 19 than their peers. By age 25, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds who scored high on the John Henryism scale were more likely to have metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that are precursors to diabetes and heart disease, than people from less disadvantaged backgrounds. Brody and his colleagues have dubbed this phenomenon“skin-deep resilience.” The same effects are not found for young white strivers.
In his late 20s, Fields was diagnosed with such a severe case of diabetes that his military career came to a screeching halt. When he returned to Detroit last year, he was a little brawnier, with more tattoos. “Diabetes was something that he was going to beat, because he wasn’t going to lose to anything,” said the Rev. Torion Bridges, one of his best friends for 20 years. He became a personal chef and motivational speaker, started a podcast and wrote a cookbook. He helped out his mom, who had multiple sclerosis. And he took a job as a “school culture facilitator,” working with kids who had discipline problems, at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, the pioneering Afrocentric public school he had attended. He was especially good with troubled boys who didn’t have a father at home, said principal Jeffrey Robinson, his onetime homeroom teacher, later his boss. “He could identify with the feeling of the loss.”
In March, Fields and his mother caught the coronavirus at the same time.
She recovered. He did not.
To navigate life as a Black man is to be constantly vigilant. The ubiquity of racism means that everyday interactions, while driving or shopping or birdwatching, can have potentially dangerous outcomes. So John Henrys live in a heightened state of awareness, continually adjusting. It might mean placing family photos near the front door to quickly prove your son belongs should police ever respond. It often means being able to “strategically assimilate” — to assume a public identity aimed at neutralizing stereotypes of blackness and defusing irrational white fears. This, W.E.B. DuBois explained more than a century ago, is “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
New York Times columnist Brent Staples would whistle Vivaldi in graduate school to signal that he was too cultured to be threatening. Darrell Hudson, who researches health disparities at Washington University in St. Louis, scans the closet each day before teaching class to select what he calls his “Non- Threatening Black Guy Uniform.”
“What’s not appreciated fully, I think, is how much energy it takes,” said Derek M. Griffith, professor and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University. “All of these different things that you have to do to modulate your body and so forth, all that additional attention that you have to pay to that, is a burden that most people don’t have to bear. It is a cause of weathering that we don’t fully appreciate.”
A 2014 study found that vigilance was positively associated with the prevalence of hypertension for Blacks but not whites. The more vigilant Black people were, the more the disparity grew. And researchers have found that Black people who are on guard against anticipated discrimination have higher blood pressures while they sleep. “When you experience racism or discrimination and it could cost your life, it’s good to be vigilant; but a prolonged and heightened state of vigilance is not good,” the University of Michigan’s Neblett said. “It can kill you in the end.”
Leslie Lamar Parker grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs, in a state that was 84% white. Like many John Henrys in this story, he was large — tall and wide — in a way that made him stand out to cruel classmates and clueless teachers. Bigness can be perilous for Black boys, who are often seen as older, stronger and less innocent than their white counterparts, stereotypes that underlie higher rates of school discipline and police violence. Parker learned to play the class clown and questioned authority. “School couldn’t hold his attention, not because he wasn’t smart. He wouldn’t go,” his mother, Tyuon Brazell, said. Because he wasn’t on track to graduate, she did what other parents might not and suggested he drop out his junior year. That’s when he started to thrive, earning his GED, graduating from college and becoming an IT specialist in his old school district, where he mentored students of color, ordering them lunch from DoorDash and supervising the tech club. “That was really important to him,” said his wife, Whitney, “making sure they didn’t fail any other brown kids like they failed him.”
One key to his coping was overcorrecting for how he might be perceived. Strangers would approach him to say how lovely it was to see him with his son and daughter, a microaggression masquerading as a compliment. He was so sensitive to stereotypes about absent Black fathers, his wife said, he was “a present parent on steroids.” To walk through the world as a Black man is to be simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, under surveillance yet never really seen. So he turned his wardrobe into a “conversation starter,” an expression of his irreverent personality but also armor against snap judgments about his imposingness. He carried a Spongebob SquarePants backpack to work and often wore a pro-wrestling or superhero T-shirt during off hours.
Parker was constantly scanning the horizon for threats against his family and his kids at school, wondering whether there was something more that he could do for them. He projected a cool demeanor, his argumentative wit camouflaging worries that his mother knew kept his head in overdrive. “I kept telling him: ‘Son, you need to rest. You don’t have to do everything in a day.’” He was diagnosed with high blood pressure at just 27 and worried it, and the extra pounds, would keep him from seeing his two children grow up. He died in May from COVID-19 at the age of 31.
Joshua Bush, who died in April of COVID-19, slammed up against racial stereotypes in his work as a nurse in South Carolina. There were funny looks from people who didn’t expect to see a Black man when he arrived at job interviews and white patients who refused to let him touch them. He told them, “That is your choice, but you’re missing out on great help,” his mother, Linda, recalled. He and his wife, LaKita, saw the health care industry as their route to upward mobility. She worked in hospital administration; at 30, he was studying to become a registered nurse, working as an LPN.
Bush also suffered from a rare enzyme abnormality that caused severe muscle cramps from overexertion, and because of it, trips to the emergency room weren’t uncommon. He’d come to accept that the first image doctors and nurses saw — someone Black and overweight — influenced their bedside manner. They treated him like he had no medical knowledge and lectured him about diabetes, though it had nothing to do with why he was seeking care. His experience informed the way he cared for his own patients, part of his “fight against the system,” his wife said. At the same time, she could see her husband’s stress “all over his body.”
Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go. Words that started as a call-to-action at the rise of the Jim Crow South have become an enduring part of the African American experience — and can serve as a unique form of stress. The proverb was born of Black suffragist Mary Eliza Church Terrell’s belief that it was incumbent upon the growing Black middle and upper class to use their position to fight racial discrimination and help others rise through education, work and community activism. It is why Thomas Fields was told as a boy that he was “duty-bound” to give back to the community once he got an education. Why Dosha Joi advocated for young people in the system “because someone helped bring out the sunshine in me.”
“You’re socialized to say it’s not just about you. It’s really about what you’re going to do for your broader community and for your family,” Washington University’s Hudson explained. “People take it very seriously, trying to light a path for those behind them — even when they’re not necessarily in the most stable situation themselves. … But they’re lifting as they climb. That’s taxing. That’s a visceral stress.”
In the Brookhaven, Mississippi, of Eugene Thompson’s youth, Black business owners understood that Brookway Boulevard — at least the stretch that ran through downtown — was for white businesses. The election of Barack Obama was a turning point; Thompson figured if a Black man could become president of the United States, surely he could rent a modest space on “the Boulevard.” Publicly, his goal was to grow his client base by cutting white people’s hair, too. His family knew his aspirations were grander. “He wanted to do something in Brookhaven to help Black people to get off their knees,” his mother, Odell Edwards, said. “We are on our knees.”
It’s not easy earning a living in Mississippi, where the single most common job is working as a cashier and the $7.25 minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade. Cutting hair came naturally for Thompson, who started on himself at 12. He attended a local beauty academy before he could afford to go to barber school and over the years took the same methodical approach to growing his business — buying secondhand equipment, doing the construction himself, all without bank loans, mentoring or government support.
But Thompson’s real ambition was to start his own school. “He always tried to encourage the boys in the community, or people who had been in prison and couldn’t find a job — ’I can teach you how to cut hair and you can have your own business,’” his younger sister, Dedra Edwards, said. After three years spent earning his teaching credential, Thompson opened his TaperNation Barber Academy for students last fall. Then he realized graduates needed places to work, so he launched his next project: renovating a second shop nearby where other barbers and hair stylists could rent chairs.
“It was running him ragged,” Odell said.
At 46, Thompson was severely overweight and suffered from lifelong respiratory problems as well as anxiety and sleeplessness. High blood pressure and diabetes ran in his family, but Thompson’s true health status was unclear — like more than 15% of Black people in Mississippi, he wasn’t insured and avoided going to the doctor except in an emergency. When he started feeling symptoms of COVID-19 in late March, he shrugged them off at first; he’d been having heart palpitations and panic attacks, which his family attributed to stress from work.
After he died in early April, leaving behind six children, TaperNation had to shut down. “You have to have a barber’s instructor license to keep it going, and no one else in the family has one,” his sister said. “We had to sell almost everything.”
Recent disasters — Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession — have shown that Black communities aren’t just more vulnerable than white populations to economic and social dislocations; they recover more slowly. The impacts of the pandemic are likely to be magnified because so many deaths have occurred among Black people under age 60, the peak earning years when people raise families, start businesses, amass social capital and create lasting legacies. In addition to the lives it took, COVID-19 has robbed wealth that John Henrys were only beginning to accrue and toppled what they had begun to build for themselves and those around them.
In many cases, they were the structural beams, holding everything up. “These are people who help pay bills for people who aren’t their biological family members,” said Sealy-Jefferson, the Ohio State social epidemiologist. “They bring food when somebody dies. They watch kids when a single mother has to work.” Some of the biggest losses are intangible, she said: “social support, emotional support, resource sharing, encouragement, storytelling, role modeling— all of these things that are vital for African Americans in particular, given our history in this country.”
Fields couldn’t comfort students reeling from a crisis that has killed more than 1,600 of their loved ones and neighbors. “It’s a tremendous loss,” said Robinson, his principal. Bates’ wife, Chelsea, was too bereaved to go back to work when school resumed, which meant living off of her husband’s death benefits and savings; she focused on trying to help Madison process a grief she’s too young to understand. “Sometimes she lays on the floor and kicks and screams that she wants her daddy, that she misses daddy and why did he have to leave?” she said. “I tell her, I’m sorry, I wish that mama could do something to bring him back. I really do.”
Weekday mornings have been quiet without Kendall Pierre Sr. puttering around the house before sunrise so he could open his barbershop by 5 a.m. That’s when workers from nearby chemical plants would stop in for a cut or shave after their graveyard shifts. Sundays are different without his sermons at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in the little town of Ama, Louisiana, followed by a family breakfast his son always looked forward to. “My grandmother would come. Some of my aunties and cousins. He would put Aunt Jemima batter in the waffle iron and say: ‘See? This is better than Waffle House!’”
Since his dad died in May of COVID-19, Kendall Pierre Jr., a 20-year-old student at Louisiana State University, has felt an overwhelming absence and, at the same time, his father’s equally consuming presence. “I can still hear him,” he said.
Don’t drive with your hoodie on.
Work twice as hard.
Real men don’t wear slippers in public; put on some shoes.
The only child of a single mother, 45-year-old Pierre Sr. took his role as father figure seriously. To nieces and nephews, he was Uncle Dad. To his sons’ basketball teams, he was Coach Kendall with the pep talks.
If a task has begun, never leave it until it’s done.
Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.
When players couldn’t afford uniforms or travel for tournaments, he would pay. “Their parents would send them with all they could, which was sometimes only $5,” Pierre Jr. said. They could count on him for food, deodorant, even a haircut. “He would bring his clippers to make sure all the players looked nice.”
When the killing of George Floyd roiled the country, Pierre Jr. had no doubt about how his father would have reacted. He would have talked to officials at the sheriff’s office, school board administrators, government leaders. He would have organized community meetings at the church.
We’re living in troubled times.
His son thought about that when his friend texted him about organizing a Black Lives Matter protest. “Since my dad passed, I’ve had this newfound courage, and this urge to act on things … to just do things outside of my comfort zone,” he said.
On a Saturday morning in June, 400 people joined in the 2.6-mile march from Westbank Bridge Park to St. Charles Parish Courthouse. A local reporter covered it and interviewed Pierre Jr. for a story. “If we don’t speak about systemic racism and police brutality, no change will ever happen,” he said. “I feel like it’s something that I have to do and be a part of something bigger than just me.”
He knows his father would have been proud. His mother was. But she worries, too. Her husband didn’t make enough time for doctor’s appointments to monitor his Type 2 diabetes, nor did he get much sleep. “I would tell him, ‘Kendall, you need to rest,’” recalled Sabrina, his wife of 24 years and a registered nurse. “He would say he could rest when he’s dead and gone.”
She knows how much goes into taking care of yourself as a Black man and thinks about that every time her sons walk out the door; her daughter, too. “Lord, I pray for them. … I tell them: ‘Put the seat belt on, drive the speed limit. Make sure you don’t get any tickets.’ I don’t want them to get stopped by a cop.” Her husband’s stature in the community conferred a kind of protection. “Because of my husband and who he was, people would be looking out for my sons. We don’t have that anymore.”
Zipporah Osei and Mollie Simon contributed reporting.
Art Direction by Lisa Larson-Walker.
About the Art
Elliott Jamal Robbins, 32, is an artist who works in a variety of media, including drawing, printmaking, sculpture and video/animation. He has exhibited artworks in group and solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Miami, Berlin and the Netherlands. This is how he described his thinking behind the art in this story:
For me, the story of John Henry presents problems. Namely, its focus on the physical attributes of the man and celebrating the labor that killed him. In the original tale, John Henry is almost Christlike in his willingness, if not gleeful, in sacrificing his own body. In my own work, I’m always more drawn to the mundane scene. Rather than consider the figure of John Henry as a type or didactic prop to expound the ills of systemic racism, I decided to focus a narrative as though from the point of view of the subject, and we witness his day-to-day experiences as he does.
Beginning on the bus, we are reminded of this as the site where African Americans fought for the basic human right to sit where they chose. From one mode of transportation to another, the horseback rider recalls the notion of the American west, which most often represents a connection to the land, and freedom. In contrasting the horse from the rider, we see that while one figure experiences a kind of liberation, another body is at work which propels this motion. This relationship between horse and rider is a corollary for the relationship between John Henry and the train, a mechanical achievement that would bring with it the promises of cross country travel, commerce and economic prosperity.
The story of John Henry is a means of making visible the unseen labor, exploitation and oppression of nation building. In this way I want to consider the real impact of systemic racism on those experiencing it daily, as well as decentralize the notion of racial violence from images of murdered black men and women. Instead, I want to consider how violence is enacted everyday, and its key actors are those who participate in systems which are propped up by the degradation of others.
Clarification, Dec. 24, 2020: This story was updated to clarify a figure on Black infant mortality.
As a Black man, if I claim to love other Black men as I do, I must share in more than anger with my brothers. So when a mentee called me recently, and midway through the conversation began to weep, I gave him room as best I could.
The heaving was a deep bass, both physical and spiritual. He laid his burdens down. He felt, as I have sometimes felt about myself, that his role as familial glue was not holding and he was failing. He could not stitch back what he had let fall apart. He, like me, like so many Black men, has made an incredible and dynamic life for himself. Yet things seem to not be improving in the way and with the speed we want. Freedom feels like an illusion.
All my mentee needed was a good cry and a space to practice a new courage. All I needed was to realize that holding open a quiet space was enough. The silence was not heavy or forlorn, but full of who we were in that moment. That is the kind of support Black men deserve from each other.
It’s hard to find data to say how many Black men suffer stress and depression, because the canon of research on Black mental health is severely lacking. From experience, I know there is a steep cost to being vulnerable enough to admit how hurt cuts bone deep, and that you neither have the answers, nor know how to ask for help. So you bury yourself away. And you keep living with a grief that is quiet to many, but loud to those just like you. The data suggest that this is dangerous, especially for younger people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among Black Americans ages 15 to 24, according to a 2017 analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, research shows anxiety and depression among Black people has only increased since the killing of George Floyd.
So it was powerful when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott spoke out after his eldest brother died by suicide in April. Prescott and his other brother, Tad, talked with ESPN’s Graham Bensinger about what happened with their sibling and about their own experiences with depression and anxiety. To see an NFL leader, a Black quarterback, speak unflinchingly about needing help? It felt like a triumph. Or at least opening a door to the reality. We speak of depression and anxiety as things we conquer, instead of things we have to manage.
I’ve been in conversations with Black male friends where we both know one of us is lying about how he’s doing, because the pain in our voices can’t be masked by the pride we try to auto-tune into our tone. I sometimes feel like we’re playing emotional Call of Duty. We’re together, exploring and achieving in our world, hitting our checkpoints, our milestones. But we don’t talk about anything else. That doesn’t matter in the game — when your character dies, you respawn at the last checkpoint, and go right back to war. Wounds don’t carry over.
But life is not a game. We do not always get the chances we want to respawn from our defeats, and we still carry psychic wounds. We end up waging wars inside ourselves, which we justify because of the things we secure while doing whatever we think we must. Most of us don’t heal, though, because in a Black man’s world, we can’t show compassion or admit our defeats hurt us — it is too often viewed as weakness.
To speak of pain is to acknowledge it, which is the kind of admission we are too often told is not for us. Few lies have been more successfully translated across cultures than the one that tells men we are only allowed specific types of expression.
What I wish, for myself and the other Black men I hold close, is that we would find each other when our shoulders slump, and hold open space for each other long enough to admit that our ability to bear pain is not the way we prove ourselves. We are born worthy. There is much that would harm us, but we can’t continue to conflate ignoring our ailments with strength. Until we admit this to ourselves we subvert our own freedom at a cost we can never afford, and everyone we claim to love will pay for it.
For generations, a norm for Black people has been to treat depression and anxiety as something to shake off. This is for reasons both historical and cultural; when both science and society conspire to craft a narrative of your being anything but human, the consequences echo across families and communities. We tell ourselves we’ll deal with it after we get through it, often because that’s all we’ve seen; to grin and bear it feels like the right thing to do. But not all things are meant to be suffered through.
This was never supposed to be our normal. A new normal will be to feel fully and not be overrun by our emotions. What will we become if we stop carrying emotions that aren’t good for us? Perhaps a culture in which we feel we can be soft and open, warm and strong, because we created it for ourselves.
Jonathan Jackson is an entrepreneur and writer currently living in New Hampshire. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, historian Thomas Foster examines how the conditions of slavery gave rise to sexual violence against enslaved men in the Americas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing from historical studies of sexual violence against enslaved women, Foster uses a range of sources including early American newspapers, enslavers’ journals, court records, visual art, and abolitionist literature to illuminate how various forms of sexual violence, including physical assault and coerced reproduction, affected enslaved men and their communities. Rethinking Rufus also centers the experience of enslaved men by using testimonies, autobiographies, and interviews to shed light on how they responded to and navigated sexual violence in order to maintain autonomy and independence in their intimate lives. Rethinking Rufus analyzes the “history of the peculiar conditions that enslavement established, nurtured, and expanded that enabled those in power to dominate many enslaved men through sexual violence” (10). In this way, Foster’s study interrogates broader systems of power and domination that led to the sexual abuse of enslaved men.
Rethinking Rufus makes an important intervention into the historiography of slavery in the Americas. Foster uses feminist theories of sexual assault to examine how corporeal punishments functioned as displays of power that constituted sexual violence against enslaved men. Foster builds upon historians such as Daina Ramey Berry, Deborah Gray White, and Jennifer Morgan, who have used gender as an analytic to more fully understand how enslaved women experienced and challenged sexual abuse under enslavement. Foster’s combination of historical methods and feminist theories of sexual assault inform one of Rethinking Rufus’s main arguments, that enslaved men could not consent to sexual activity given their legal status as property and vulnerable position in the social order of slavery.
Through five chapters, Foster examines the multiple forms of sexual violence against enslaved men from a variety of perspectives. The book’s title, Rethinking Rufus, is in reference to the story of Rufus, an enslaved man who was forced to bear children with an enslaved woman named Rose in Texas during the mid-nineteenth century. Foster uses Rose’s interview published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), where she negatively recounts her sexual experiences with Rufus and describes him as a “bully,” as an example of how sexual violence affected both enslaved men and women. Foster notes that while Rose’s interview documents the trauma of coerced reproduction, a form of sexual violence in which enslavers forced enslaved men and women to bear children in order increase the population of enslaved people, sources that highlight the sufferings of coerced reproduction from the perspective of Rufus are nonexistent. Foster theorizes the absence of a counternarrative by Rufus and many other enslaved men as another type of sexual violation that stemmed from a broader cultural failure to consider men as victims of sexual violence. The repeated absence of narratives from enslaved men that document their experiences with sexual violence propels Foster’s deeper exploration into the conditions of slavery that gave rise to the sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men.
Foster begins Rethinking Rufus by examining how enslaved men’s bodies were depicted in Western art and sculptures that were widespread in the visual culture of slavery. Foster argues that enslaved men’s bodies were “symbols of enslaved manhood and sites of violation” that were objectified through a number of cultural forms including art and literature (12). The objectification of enslaved men depicted in paintings often resembled everyday acts of terror including the public inspection of Black men’s genitals, whippings and lashings, and bodily exposure due to lack of adequate clothing. Visual depictions of enslaved men that emphasized their genitalia and sexual prowess gave way to the prevailing myths of Black hypersexuality and the Black male rapist, an archetype that ensured the extralegal protection of white women from Black men who purportedly lacked control over their sexual urges. Foster also argues that while visual depictions of enslaved men’s bodies often highlighted their athleticism, strength, and muscularity, this same imagery eroticized enslaved men’s bodies in ways that fueled the physical abuses and sexual exploitation of enslaved men. Foster notes that these stereotypes found in eighteenth-century visual art contributed to the eventual punishment and national disenfranchisement of Black men.
Rethinking Rufus also sheds light on how enslaved men viewed marriage and family as potential avenues for maintaining independence and autonomy. Foster notes that while the possibility of establishing a household and assuming the role as guardian of the family was severely limited for enslaved men, love affairs and the ability to choose one’s own partner served as a key component for developing models of manhood. Using court records and eighteenth-century newspapers, Foster documents how enslaved men understood the importance of choosing their own partners despite the likely possibility of separation and loss. Because enslaved men and women were frequently sold to different plantations across various regions, enslaved men and women who married and attempted to establish families remained vulnerable to the interference of enslavers through sales and punishments. Foster notes that they often negotiated independence by adhering to the will of masters and mistresses in order to be granted partial autonomy in their intimate lives. Foster’s analysis provides a glimpse into how enslaved men navigated the power dynamics of enslavement in hopes of maintaining autonomy while minimizing the possibility of sexual violence as a punishment.
The latter part of Rethinking Rufus examines the role of reproduction in slavery’s sexual economy, and how sexual violations of enslaved men affected interpersonal relationships between enslaved men and women. To this end, Foster argues that coerced reproduction was a type of sexual assault against Black men in addition to Black women. Using interviews and testimonies from formerly enslaved men, Foster highlights how those who were valued for their reproductive capabilities were often singled out from their communities, relocated to different regions, and forced to couple with multiple women. Men who were forced to procreate were also excused from preforming certain types of labor that enslavers feared could negatively affect their reproductive capabilities. Foster also considers how forms of sexual violence against enslaved men were enacted by both white women and men. Foster’s use of WPA interviews and slave narratives that center the perspectives of Black men illuminates how the separation of enslaved men from their communities for the purpose of reproduction often severed intracommunal relationships that resulted in psychological pain and generational trauma.
In sum, Rethinking Rufus illuminates new dimensions of how sexual violence operated during slavery by incorporating the perspectives of Black men. Rethinking Rufus sheds light on how sexual assault, exploitation, objectification, and coerced reproduction affected enslaved men and their communities. Foster’s gendered analysis of sexual violence opens up new avenues for further research on the interrelatedness between masculinity, reproduction, and slave labor. Rethinking Rufus is a great contribution to the fields of Early American History, Gender Studies, and African American Studies. Rethinking Rufus should be of interest to a wide range of scholars of African American history, the history of American slavery, and the history of sexuality.
Letter from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, 1868
Source: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Hopkins Bradford. Rochester, August 29, 1868
Dear Harriet: I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way.
You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.
Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony for your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.Your friend,Frederick Douglass
” . . . One other thing: democracy. Cummings, in his speeches, particularly those he gave in the past few years, insistently invoked it, and not in the inert way that elected officials tend to. He spoke of democracy as something vital and fragile and valuable, an inheritance that had to be safeguarded for future generations. When he spoke of HR-1, the exhaustive election-protection bill that the Democrats introduced in January, as their first piece of legislation of this Congress, he mentioned his ninety-two-year-old mother, who had died a year earlier. She was a former sharecropper, who implored him, “Do not let them take our votes away from us.” He viewed his chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee as part of the battle to protect voting rights. His death unleashes a flurry of speculation about whom the Democrats will choose to next lead the committee—Representative Carolyn Maloney, of New York, will serve as the acting chair—and how that person will oversee its portion of the impeachment inquiry. Those matters will be resolved at a future date. What remains clear is the void that Cummings’s absence leaves in his district and his country. This would have been the case at nearly any point in his quarter century in Congress. But it’s even more acute in this one. In a fiery bit of oratory delivered at the introduction of HR-1, he pledged to “fight to the death” in defense of voting and, thereby, democracy. It was a promise that he made good on.”
Rep. Cummings was a Baltimore native and attended Howard University, where he obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and served as student government president.
“Congressman Cummings has dedicated his life of service to uplifting and empowering the people he is sworn to represent,” his official biography says.
“He began his career of public service in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he served for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named Speaker Pro Tem,” it says. “Since 1996, Congressman Cummings has proudly represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.” At the time of his death, he served as the Chair of the US House Oversight Committee.
This is a mother who has made it by most standards, yet she cannot guarantee the safety of her offspring because of the color of their skin. She stands guard at a crossroads where past is present, the political is personal and the abstract or purely hypothetical is all too real. Like any parent, she wants her children, two boys, to be able to create a decent and happy life for themselves. Yet the “terrifying specter” of the white imagination means they are often not seen as individuals but instead are judged for being black — “subject to the larger white world’s constant evaluation as to whether or not you are worthy.” (She compiles a running list of criticisms and put-downs to which her kids are subjected: “Too mobile, too slow, too fast, inattentive. Why are you still in the bathroom? It takes you too long to pee. It takes you too long to remember this algorithm, this table. You hold the pencil too tight, you do not hold it tightly enough.”)
We hear echoes of Hansberry’s fictional family in “A Raisin in the Sun” debating the merits of moving to a white community versus allowing those would-be white neighbors to buy them off in exchange for staying put. Perry chose the former for her sons, along with its consequences. “You live in some worlds that are more white than black,” she tells them. “And so, you learn, early on, that the aversion to blackness can turn perfectly lovely people grotesque.”
Source: BREATHE A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry NYT Book Review
“The scholarship surrounding male rape in war and genocides is new and perplexing for many scholars. Whereas previous scholarship simply assumed that women were rape victims and men were the perpetrators, the discovery of male victims of rape has forced many researchers to rethink the politicized nature of older paradigms. Misra for example has argued that “most of the contemporary scholarship on sexual violence in armed conflicts is not only biased towards the female gender but is heavily influenced by a feminist monopolization of that space that has sought to describe such violence as binary in nature: it is only perpetrated again the female gender by male members of the society.” This binary division of violence renders male victims of sexual violence and rape conceptually invisible. Researchers and scholars are simply unable to interpret males, even men subjugated within genocide and war, as victims because the encountering of the male rape victim in real-life conflicts with the pre-determined view of men as perpetrators of rape in theory. Misra continues, “Thanks to this biased interpretation where the feminist concern is primarily to highlight the victimization of women by men, male sufferers have simply become ‘absent victims’ in such gender analyses of conflict dynamics. Therefore, it would not be incorrect to suggest that there is a conceptual and definitional confusion over gender-based violence.” Marysia Zalewki’s “Provocations in Debates about Sexual Violence against Men” takes a similar view of how male victims of rape and sexual violence are theorized. She writes:
it can be argued that the putative innocence of feminist scholarship, traditionally presented as an emancipatory justice project, works to conceptually conceal not only women’s proclivities to violence, including sexual violence, but also to conceal the ‘truth’ of male victimhood. The veracity of all of these claims might easily be challenged (or confirmed), yet there is surely something about the gendered focus on women and all her epistemological, ethical, ontological scaffolding that might go some way in explaining why there has been so little attention to sexual violence against men, at least until very recently.
How we come to understand victimization, specifically what kind of violence creates victims, is of the utmost importance in our interpretation of Jewish male victims and their suffering. Jewish male rape cannot be truly understood if it is thought to be exceptional or a lesser form of violence endlessly compared to death. These young men and boys understood themselves—as males—being raped. Said differently, Jewish men are not simply analogous of female sexual experience. Scholars cannot hear the stories and accounts of Jewish males and imagine them to be females to understand how they could suffer rape. Inevitably one is drawn back to their socialized idea of a rape victim who is often a girl or woman. In doing so the researcher asks: “How do women or girls who are raped react?” This is not the proper question to ask in the listening to or reading of Jewish male survivor stories. Jewish men and boys suffered within their male body. They utilized their male bodies to attain food, clothes, and protection. These young accepted the violence of rape and the excruciating pain of anal penetration to escape death themselves or to help spare the lives of their friends.”
About Dr. Tommy J. Curry
Tommy J. Curry is an Black-American author and professor of Philosophy. He currently holds a Personal Chair in Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies at the University of Edinburgh. In 2018, he won an American Book Award for The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood. He has been an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice and OCG Incolocotur since 2013.
He is arguably one of the nation’s most prolific philosophers of race, whose research focuses on the Black male experience— is leaving the United States to become the Chair of Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Curry, 39, who currently holds a full, tenured professorship in the Department of Philosophy at Texas A&M University is an expert on Critical Race Theory, Africana Philosophy, Black Male Studies and Social Political Thought and was recognized by Diverse as a 2018 Emerging Scholar.
“The political climate in the United States has made the study of racism a dangerous option for Black scholars,” said Curry, in an interview with Diverse. “Identifying the violence of White supremacy has now become equated to anti-Whiteness. In Europe, there is an effort to understand the Black experience, particularly the Black male experience.”
In announcing Curry’s appointment, Dr. Holly Branigan, head of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh said that the hiring of Curry amounted to a real game changer for the institution founded in 1582.