Yale Grad: My Classmates Are Dying

Graduating from an Ivy League university has not protected us from the higher mortality rate among black men.

Clyde Murphy and Ron Howell (Courtesy of Murphy family)

For some time now, below the surface of my conscious mind, I've been lamenting the plight of us black men who attended Yale in the 1960s. Too many of us seem to be dying way before our time. My concern has been germinating for some 15 years, and my buddy Charles S. Finch -- physician, fellow member of the class of '70 and author of books on ancient Egypt -- shared my feelings and added a sane professional legitimacy to them. Could it be that we, the civil rights incarnation of W.E.B. Du Bois' Talented Tenth, were being taken down before our time, like outnumbered soldiers on a battlefield?

Last year the answer came to us with undeniable certainty: Yes. Barely a month after the 40th-anniversary celebration of our 1970 graduation, there came word that our close friend Clyde E. Murphy -- the Platter Playin' Poppa of Yale's radio station, WYBC, in the late '60s -- died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in Chicago, where he had been a hard-charging civil-rights attorney.

Then, in the succeeding months, we lost frat brother Ron Norwood, a lawyer, to cancer, and then Jeff Palmer, also to cancer, like successive awakening slaps to our stunned faces.

Toward the end of last year, I did some calculating. By my count, there were 32 African Americans in the original class of 1970, almost exactly 3 percent of the total class. But nine of us had died, more than 10 percent of the total, which meant we were dying at more than three times the rate of our white alumni.

This defies -- makes a mockery of, really -- the expectations that our parents held for us 40 years ago. Back in our college days, eager to associate with other blacks confronting similar challenges, I pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at Yale. There were eight of us on the pledge line that season, our sophomore year, and we called ourselves the Omnipotent Octet. With three of us now deceased, we survivors know that omnipotence is a construction of the mind.

A black man living in a high-crime American city can expect to live 21 fewer years than a woman of Asian descent in the United States. The man's life expectancy, in fact, is closer to that of people living in West Africa than it is to the average white American.

But wait a minute. What about black male graduates of Yale and Harvard? Shouldn't they be expected to live as long as the most privileged of American males? Psychiatrists and health researchers have found, unfortunately, that highly educated African Americans are not shielded from the disparities leading to higher mortality rates.

In fact, there is evidence that black men high up the socioeconomic ladder face special pressures that can result in "myriad chronic medical conditions, including hypertension and cardiovascular disease," according to a June 2004 study published in Psychology and Health.

Among the authors of the study was psychiatrist Christopher L. Edwards of Duke University, who is among a coterie of black health scholars studying the effects of a phenomenon called John Henryism, so named after a 19th-century black folk hero.

According to legend, John Henry was one of the "steel drivers" who hammered down spikes used in the railroad expansion that made America big and rich. With the coming of the steam-powered drill, the livelihoods of steel drivers like Henry were threatened. Henry, full of bluster, challenged the owner of the railroad to a contest pitting Henry against the new drill. Henry won the contest, but he died from the mental and physical strain.