When Virgil Abloh died last week at the age of 41, I thought of my father. Many in the Black community did. We thought of all the other Black men we’ve loved and lost too early: our friends, our fathers, our brothers. And we thought about ourselves.
To know Blackness is to know death, as close to us as breath is to being. For two years, Mr. Abloh, a fashion designer and icon, hid his diagnosis of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare type of cancer, from the public. It’s a story reminiscent of Chadwick Boseman’s, who died from colon cancer in 2020 following his diagnosis in 2016. Their privacy about their struggles is a shattering kind of silence.
What was it like to be Mr. Abloh in those two years that he knew he was ill? Was he watching the clock, the minute hands meeting glorious, terrifying hours, like my father did, like I do?
It is a silence familiar to those who share air, space and lifetimes with Black men who have gone too soon — the actor Michael K. Williams, the rappers Nipsey Hussle and Young Dolph, and George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner among them. It is a silence most familiar if you are born a Black man in America.
No one knows when they are going to die. There is no crystal ball, no psychic hotline, no palm reading that can predict the moment of our death, nor tell us what awaits on the other side. But as Black men in the United States, we do know we are likely to die sooner than most. And when we are confronted with constant peril and trauma, in every hospital visit, every encounter with law enforcement, every too-long stare, every grainy bystander video capturing our last breaths, we are not only prone to be scared of death, but are prone to be scared to death.
Black men are not alone in this — the health care outcomes for Black women show similar inequity. Black women are 60 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white women to have high blood pressure, and three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than are white women.
I lost my father last year, but I had been expecting my father’s death for years. Trauma and suffering are relative, but my father suffered more than most. Drafted into the Army in 1968, he left Vietnam in 1970 with a Bronze Medal. Afterward, he would often tell my mother that he wasn’t sure if he had murdered any children while on active duty. Loving and brave, boisterous and dangerous, my father was a bomb waiting to explode.
Later, my father suffered from dementia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These were consequences not only of Vietnam, but of Pensacola, Fla., still segregated when my father grew up there in the 1950s and ’60s. At the age of 72, my father died of natural causes. But I think my father died because he was tired of living. Because he was tired of a country that neglected him from the moment he was born. Charles Lorenzo Daniels Jr. died because as a Black man in America, he was taught to prepare for his death long before it happened.
In the wake of my father’s and Mr. Boseman’s deaths, I thought about my own. So this past summer, at the age of 38, I finally went to see a doctor. It was the first time I’d been to see a primary care physician in over two decades. Cancer and heart disease are among the leading causes of death for Black men, and African Americans are more likely to get, and more likely than other groups to die from, colorectal cancer, which killed Mr. Boseman. Preventive care is the best defense from this and many other illnesses and ailments. My visit to the doctor was a belated but necessary act of self-preservation.
Like too many Black men, I’ve struggled with suicidal ideations, with an undying fear of not being enough or being too much, and with the gap between Black life and the death I feel constantly looming. This is all a heavy burden to carry, and racism and internalized masculinity norms can reduce Black men’s willingness to seek help. Depressed African American men are less likely to seek mental health treatment, compared with depressed white men. Our masculinity, and the fragility surrounding the ego it upholds, can keep us from asking for and receiving the help we need.
We must break our silence and begin the process of opening ourselves up to one another and the ones we love. If we continue to hide our pain, our grief, our heartache in the shadows, we will continue to mourn prematurely our brothers, our fathers, our friends.
As I watched a video of the rapper DMX comforting his daughter on an amusement ride, which went viral after his death, I wondered: Did he feel death biting at his neck that sunny day?
I wonder whether every Black man who dies in the public eye will make me think of my father. Probably. My hope is that those thoughts will not linger in silence, but will instead be as loud, as bright and as burning as all the names of all the Black men gone too soon — including my father, Charles Lorenzo Daniels Jr.
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