Sunday, February 28, 2010

Teddy Pendergrass and Other African American Men Die Too Young

You may not have heard about this due to the necessary media focus on Haiti at the time, but legend/singer/Grammy winner Teddy Pendergrass passed away at 59 from colon cancer on January 13th. Remember "If You Don't Know Me By Now?" That song, among others,  still unearths sentimental feelings in a hard-shelled friend of mine. I can't stop thinking of Love TKO!

After an accident in 1982, Pendergrass was paralyzed from the waist down. In 1985, he founded the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, whose sole mission is "to create a coordinated outreach organization that encourages and assists individuals with spinal chord injuries (SCI) to achieve their maximum potential in areas of education, employment, housing, productivity and overall independence."

What a mission, what a voice, what a man.

His death got me to thinking about other men that the world has lost way before their time, in recent years, who have one small something in common : Teddy Pendergrass (59) Luther Vandross (54), Bernie Mac (50), Isaac Hayes (65), Edwin Starr (61), Barry White (60), Gregory Hines (57), Michael Jackson (50). This led me to research on the average lifespan of American Black Males. Surprisingly, the lifespan is 8 years shorter than that of their white counterparts. This article explains many reasons why this is the case, and as it turns out, the reasons usually lead back to the cause of racial disparity in America.

It might be a stretch to link Pendergrass' cause of death (colon cancer) to race--or racism, this gives us an opportunity to raise awareness about equality in America. Perhaps his colon cancer was caused by an element of the poverty-prone lifestyle he endured in his childhood with his single mother. Perhaps the cancer could be directly related to the incident that caused the paralysis (it is surprising how many medical problems occur after spinal trauma, and it is likely that link can be made). If the accident was at all drug- or alcohol-related, statistically that can be represented by poverty (which links back to race in America).

A stretch, maybe. But consider this discredited hypothesis trying to explain the disparity between American White and American Black males: In 2007, according to Dr. Oz (yes, the Oprah doctor), African Americans are more prone to heart-related conditions, because Africans that survived the Midlle Passage were able to do so because of their blood's ability to sustain high levels of salt content.

This theory has been repeatedly discredited and found amongst my research. As stated in the article, "Although predisposition to salt retention may have advantaged some individual slaves, other factors -- such as new selective pressures in North America and mating with non-Africans -- would have increased genetic variability, not constricted today's African American population to one common hypertension gene. As studied today, no contemporary West African population suffers from rampant hypertension."

The author in this quoted story, Osagie K. Obasogie, states quite well, "Rather, in a world with finite resources, it's regrettable that we continue to invest millions of research dollars -- and valuable public air time --looking for genes to explain racial disparities in health, when so many causes lie simply in how we treat one another."

A sterling example of an amazing African-American male who's taken care of his body and preached about taking care of one's health is 77 year-old Dick Gregory, as seen in this wonderful talk about taking better care of ourselves. Love his description about the liver - removing the "r" - and live, by taking care of this organ!

Stevie Wonder - aged 59 - if you're reading this - please get your blood pressure screened regularly and take care of that body!

I'll end by sharing a wonderful tribute to many of these and many other crooners.

I'm sure I've missed lots of folk. These are just some of the men that came to mind and have saddened me. Please feel free to share your memories here.


DNLee said...

hmm. interesting ideas, but let me take a stab.
First a question, what is the right time to die. You say that these men have died too young? What's too young and that the mean life span for Black mean is 8 yrs less than that for white men. What are these ages? I need a reference.
In my head the 50s and younger are relatively young ages to die of age related diseases, but I personally think 65 is a fair age to die, and not at all to young - for a man, e.g. Issac Hayes.

Moreover, if your supposition is that poverty, due to historical racial disparity, is the environmental factor that set things in motion for these men to die later (developmental issues) what's the sensitive time period for this poverty. The men you named were all famous and well-off when they died. Was it that they were poor (stress, under-nourished, or whatever) as a child/teen/young adult? And if that is so, what makes them any different the healthier, still with us Black men like Dick Gregory, Stevie Wonder, etc. From a distance, these men and the men that have passed have very similar life histories - poor past, Black Men, entertainment industry (temptations and good living), and wealthier present day lives.

Dawn said...

I know that you put a lot of thought into your post, Clyde, and I thought it was great! Thank you for going outside of your tech box and sharing your thought with us!

Elva Wormley said...

Thank you so much for this article, Clyde. It saddens me too as I see more and more black men dying in their 50's. There are many reasons for the disparity, but awareness and action are the keys to change. So, thanks again for bringing this critical issue to our attention.