Black Men Deserve To Live Long

I have started and stopped this essay several times, actually did not want to write it at first. Who really wants to record a piece about yourself, and your racial and gender group being scared of dying at any given moment? At the hands of some racist police officer like George Floyd. At the hands of despicable White supremacists like Emmett Till. At the mercy of some avoidable ailment, exacerbated, and possibly generated, due to immeasurable stress and anxiety of being Black and male in America; and that pervasive sense that you are unloved, unwanted, hated and feared too, from very instant, likely, when your voice started to crack as a kid, and you began to walk in a certain kind of way, and looked at people as they looked at you in a certain kind of way, to the point this unintentional attention affects your very essence, your mental, physical, and spiritual wellness, from endless angles. Or, sadly, catastrophically, in that Shakespearean kind of way, at the hands of another Black male, killed simply because racism taught him well: he hated himself and he hated you, the mirror he could not stand the sight of, so he smashed the mirror—and you.

For sure, when I was young, I prayed I would make it to 18, to 21 and 25 and 30, and, with God’s grace, and luck, to 40. I cannot recall exactly when I began thinking about death a lot, but indeed it was in my early teenage years, because of how my single Black mother guarded me, her son, her only child, how she forbade me to say and do specific things, monitored how late I could be outside, anywhere, absolutely terrified of what could happen to me beyond her reach. And sure enough, when I was 15, a Puerto Rican boy and I got into a fight, as boys do, after school, on a public bus in my hometown of Jersey City; cops showed up, the White-complexed Puerto Rican boy was treated gently, not arrested, yet within seconds I was cuffed with hands painfully behind me and in the backseat of a police car when one officer, a burly White man with bushy red hair and a bushier red mustache, twice the size of my skinny frame, punched me, with the full force of his beefy right fist, square in my nose, completely bloodying half my face and the front of the beige ski jacket I was wearing. My mother showed up at the police precinct, screamed in shock and horror at what had been done to me, and subsequently would say, loudly and often, “I don’t know if you are going to make it…” because I could not seem to stay out of trouble—bad trouble—during my teenage years, in spite of being an A-student.

Because if the police did not get me, again, someone else would—

But I survived, even as I have known and witnessed numerous parades of Black boys to men, from the crack era of the 1980s and 1990s to this 21st century craze with fentanyl, tragically lose their lives. And as hip-hop culture turns 50 this year it is difficult to ignore that since Tupac and Biggie, two of hip-hop’s biggest stars, were murdered, six months apart, at ages 25 and 24 in 1996 and 1997 respectively, we’ve lost, easily, nearly 100 other rappers to similar fates, including Nipsey Hustle, Young Dolph, and XXXTentacion. Hip-hop was born in poverty and despair, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, with Black males largely the faces of this art form, to give a voice to the voiceless, but we cannot seem to escape the very things we rap about to escape.

As a writer whose professional journey began very young, and who has written about the same things as many Black male rappers, I feel it is a cruel irony that I did make it to my 40s, and now 50s, believing at times, rather naively, that the worse was behind me. No. Just a few years back, while getting a new life insurance policy, the agent, an older Black man, said my policy would be different than most. When I asked why he declared, bluntly, “Because you are a Black male and a Black male is not expected to live long.” My heart hammered furiously inside of my chest when the agent said this. But in the past few years I know many everyday Black males, and famous ones too, who have died of mostly preventable things barely into their 40s and 50s—meaning “middle age” for us were ages when Tupac and Biggie died. The famous ones have names like Oscar-nominated filmmaker John Singleton and multi-platinum music artist DMX. Even if they were celebrity Black males who’ve died by horrible accident (Kobe Bryant), drug overdose (Michael K. Williams), gut-wrenching suicide (Stephen “tWitch” Boss), or incurable disease (Chadwick Boseman), it has hit me, hard, the debilitating sense of my own mortality, like who will be next and, dear God, please do not let it be me, I want to see old age. Please, God—

I do what I can every day to live. I am a vegan, I exercise constantly, I go to therapy, I have my spiritual practices, I am in a life-affirming second marriage, and I try, more than ever, to move with love, peace, and grace. I make mistakes often, but I own my shortcomings, apologize wherever necessary; I meditate, pray, truly, that I get to live as long as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, Black men I admired greatly. I still would like to be a father, and a grandfather, I would like to be an elder people seek out for counsel. I would like to live a long life because, as Dr. King said in his very last speech, at only 39, longevity has its place. I want to live long, because every human being deserves that possibility, no matter who they are.

Kevin Powell is a poet, human and civil rights activist, filmmaker, hip-hop historian, and author of 16 books, including The Kevin Powell Reader, his collected writings. His 17th book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur. And his new spoken word poetry album, Grocery Shopping With My Mother, is available on all music streaming platforms.

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