John Singleton. Dead at 51. Stroke/Hypertension.
Nipsey Hussle. Dead at 33. Murdered.
Phife Dawg. Dead at 45. Diabetes.
Paul Bromley. Alive at 35. Overweight and spiritually confused.
Is my clock ticking?
Sounds morbid right? Anxious? Yeah, I know …
As a black man living in America, thinking about my mortality has become a new daily obsession. It seems like there are a million different ways to kill a black man before his time and each form of death appears to be violent, painful and destructive.
Statistics show that black men have the worst health among all other races in America. We suffer from the lowest life expectancy and the highest death rate. We live 7.1 fewer years than other races. Forty percent of black men die prematurely from cardiovascular diseases. Forty-four percent of black men are considered overweight and 24 percent of us are considered obese. Suicide and homicide are also leading causes of death for black men between the ages of 15-34.
While it is true that institutionalized racism, the impacts of mass incarceration and lack of access to health services, care, insurance and education all play a role in contributing to the sad state of black men’s health, there is another major contributor that many people in our community would rather not talk about or even acknowledge. And that’s the problem—our silence. When it comes to matters of mental and physical health among black men, many of us fail to engage in meaningful or preventative conversations until the problem has already occurred.
Growing up, there were two constants in my life: being fat and being saved. In our house, you could never have enough food or enough Jesus. Both represented love. On Sundays, you ate. On Sundays, you worshiped. When you mourned, you ate. When you mourned, you prayed. When you were happy, you ate. When you were happy, you gave God the glory. You ate what you were given, you wore what you were told and you worshiped the one and only true living God that you were told was the one and only true living God. You didn’t question God. You didn’t question your food. You didn’t question your elders. To do so was considered disrespectful.
Yet, I questioned everything but was forced to do so in silence. I never felt like I had control over my body, my mind or my spirituality. Even though we watched family member after family member become diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure and suffer from obesity, we didn’t talk about it or do anything to change the way we ate or took care of ourselves. I was silenced until I ballooned to 280 pounds as a 17-year-old.
Coming of age, I dealt with issues of depression, the definition of masculinity and bullying. When I tried to talk to those closest to me about my issues, the only solution I was given was to “pray about it.” So, I did. I prayed to God and nothing happened. Because nothing happened, I became even more depressed. Because I was depressed, I overate. Because I overate, I gained more weight. Because I gained more weight, I was bullied and became more depressed. Because my prayers didn’t end the bullying, I became resentful of God. Becoming resentful of God killed me spiritually, and the food I was consuming to mask that bitterness and resentment was slowly killing me. It was a vicious cycle of food and silence from me and my family about my health, obtaining therapy or how we ate.
The unhealthy spiritual, mental and dietary habits that I learned as a child followed me into adulthood. I continued to yo-yo in weight until I reached 310 pounds, the heaviest I have ever been. I struggled through depression and spiritual spite until I almost lost my life, my family and my mind. Everyone around me saw this happening, yet everyone was silent. Not wanting to talk about or acknowledge what my learned actions and habits were doing to my body and my promise, people offered me only thoughts, prayers and chicken wings. My life was out of control.
As an adult, I realize that the only thing promised in life is death. I look at my wife and our beautiful children and the thought of my early demise literally brings me to tears. Who is going to hold my wife at night and make her feel protected when she is afraid? Who is going to lift her up, tell her she is intelligent, make her feel beautiful when the parasites that feed on the self-esteem of black women attack? Who is going to prepare my son to embark upon this world as a black man? Who is going to teach him emotional intelligence? Who is going to show him how to respect and love black women? Kodak Black? And my daughter—can she be a daddy’s girl if her daddy is no longer here? Whose girl will she be? Will I be here to tell her she is smart and beautiful every day so that the first time she hears that from a man it won’t be from somebody’s musty nephew who is only out to use her for her body? Will she know that in ALL matters, it is her body and her choice ALWAYS?
Will I allow my family to go through life mourning my early demise because I couldn’t say no to a pork chop sandwich? Will I go through life bitter, depressed and spiritually depleted, making way for the stresses of the world to consume me because I never took the time to figure out my own personal relationship with God or to obtain therapy to supplement my prayers?
No. I don’t receive that. I don’t receive that for myself, I don’t receive that for my family and I don’t receive that for any other black man in America.
Black men in this country live in a space that was literally created to violently suck the life from us and discard our black bodies like trash. We don’t have the time or the room for self-sabotage. Nobody is coming to save us. We must begin the uncomfortable work of dealing with issues of obesity, breaking generational cycles, questioning and seeking practices of spirituality and religion, unlearning the demonization of mental health maintenance and challenging the silent yet loud unwillingness of those closest to us to acknowledge how problematic and detrimental sweeping matters of health under the rug can be.
We have to start looking beyond the instant gratification a meal can bring to see how certain diets can affect our future or even make it so that we don’t have one. We have to teach our young men how to deal with stress and mental illness outside of tithing and prayer because sometimes, prayer alone isn’t enough. The same God who created the heavens and earth also created therapy, exercise and medication. Love is an action word. You can’t just say you love someone and expect them to believe you without actions. We have to start loving one other enough to be full, complete people mentally, physically and spiritually as if our lives depend on it.
Because they do.