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.
In a conversation on an electronic mailing list, Finch told us last year:
What is it, the effects of the stressors of unrelenting 'micro-racism'? In [the late 1980s], a gifted black physician named Daniel Savage — well-known because he was the only black investigator in the famous Framingham Study on hypertension — detailed the physiologic effects of constant low-level stress, especially that brought on by micro-racism (his term), on black men. Six months later he committed suicide.
A Jan. 24, 1990, Washington Post article reported Savage was 45 at the time of his death. The article said he "jumped from a second-floor window of his Bethesda home" and that the death was officially ruled a suicide.
I know that this concern about early deaths of black Yalies goes back at least to 1996. That was when I was attending a special graduation ceremony convened by black graduates of Vassar, including my goddaughter. The speaker was a black minister named Frank M. Reid III, who — to my shock — proceeded to talk about black Yale graduates who had died before the age of 40, among them Glenn deChabert, who was in my class of '70 and was the first president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.
I was stunned. I had been thinking about this but had absolutely no idea that I'd be hearing a speaker at Vassar say the same thing. It turned out that Rev. Reid was a Yale alum himself, from the class of '74, and he was also a half-brother of Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, now dean of Howard Law School and a member of the Yale Class of '71.
A couple of weeks ago, having just published a Yale Alumni Magazine article headlined "Before Their Time," I reached out to Rev. Reid and asked him to recall for me his 1996 talk to the Vassar grads.
"My personal concern in that message was to say how young, intelligent Black males who had great futures before them were making life choices that led to all too early and tragic deaths — from disease, violence and even suicide," Reid wrote in an email to me. "My purpose was to encourage the students to be politically vigilant and engaged, and to be equally vigilant with their physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health."
Ironically, I am more optimistic now than ever about myself and my brothers, trusting that from our losses we become stronger and wiser. But we are continually tested. Two weeks ago, I received a cruel and jolting reminder about the plight of the black male — whether from the streets of Brooklyn or from Yale's neo-Gothic campus. I opened an email containing a note from the master (administrator) of Yale's Pierson (residential) College, Harvey Goldblatt, who is also a professor of medieval Slavic literature. "My dearest Piersonites from the Class of 2002," Goldblatt wrote in late May. "Unfortunately, I have some tragic news to report. I have been informed … that your classmate Robert Peace was shot and killed in a robbery late last week in Newark."
Peace was a biochemistry major who, after his graduation from Yale in 2002, traveled the hemisphere and also taught biology at his alma mater, St. Benedict's Prep, in Newark, N.J.
Police sources told the Newark Star-Ledger that Peace was growing marijuana in a house he was renting. The paper quoted law-enforcement sources as saying the 30-year-old Peace, so ironically named, was "using his knowledge of biochemistry to bring in $1,000 a day selling marijuana grown in the basement of the Smith Street home where he was killed."
Over the past couple of weeks, I've spoken to black members of '02 (Oh-Deuce, they call themselves), who are crushed at the loss of their brother, described by each as one of the sweetest guys they'd ever known. Among the members of that class of Oh-Deuce is Akua Murphy, film producer and daughter of my dear departed friend and Alpha brother Clyde.
How do we make peace with a reality this harsh? Clearly we have to acknowledge that hope and faith are not enough. Those virtues must be accompanied by an active love that is conscientious and determined, that commits itself to self-knowledge and personal growth — and to changing the world for the better, as my friend Clyde did when he stayed up nights researching cases representing black men and women charging race discrimination in the workplace.
That is a first step, and the true key is given to us when we understand that the journey is about stepping through life with feeling and attention, much as we did on our Alpha pledging line more than four decades ago, as we vowed to help one another and to reach out and care also for those others whom we loved.
Ron Howell, Yale class of '70, teaches journalism at Brooklyn College.