Elder Wisdom for the Future

Good relationships between villages and their elders is one sure sign of a healthy community. Elders, hold wisdom and memory that help individuals define themselves as part of a wide network – as one New Testament passage says, “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” This essay highlights two Black elders nearing 100 years old, an achievement that is all too rare in their communities.

The two oldest men I know are my Dad, who turned 96 last week, and Harold G. Logan, 98, a retired hospital administrator who is the father of a close friend. I’ve had conversations with each of these African American village elders about the upcoming presidential election.

It’s an opportunity that too few can enjoy. It’s hard to find a Black man in his 90s. And when it comes to that centennial year, the situation is appalling. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, there were only 1,900 African American men aged 100 and over in the entire country, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Now, eight months into the pandemic, no one knows yet how much the ranks have declined. But a 2019 Kaiser Health Network analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paints a dismal picture of the deaths from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

African Americans ages 65 to 74 died of covid-19 five times as often as White people. In the 75-to-84 group, the death rate for Black people was 3½ times greater. Among those 85 and older, Black people died twice as often.

Generational wisdom, culture and grass-roots safety nets are being wiped out en masse, sometimes within days of a diagnosis. It’s awful — and partly the result of a bungled governmental response to the pandemic.

I feel fortunate knowing two men with such a long and rich personal history. Longevity may have slowed their bodies, but it had not dampened their enthusiasm about casting their votes.

Dad, who lives in Shreveport, La., had mailed in his ballot more than a week ago.

“I’m not one of those undecided voters trying to figure it out,” he said. “I had made up my mind months and months ago.” He even put two stamps on the envelope, he said, “because that ballot was kind of heavy.”

Ballots don’t require stamps, but Dad just wanted to make sure his arrived on time.

Logan, who lives in Broward County, Fla., said he put his ballot in a drop box as soon as early voting began in that state last week.

“While filling out the material, I wondered, ‘Is this going to be worthwhile?’ ’’ Logan recalled. “By the time I completed it, my answer was ‘Yes.’ Because if I don’t vote and this country folds because not enough people made the right choice, then I would feel like a failure.”

The men expressed unabashed civic pride in what they had done. It was a quality made all the more remarkable given the obstacles they have overcome and the challenges they still face.

Both grew up in the era of Jim Crow racial segregation, the violent and often deadly White backlash to civil rights gains being made in the courts. They lived through the Great Depression, redlining in real estate, and discriminatory practices in banking and employment.

Neither man seemed bitter, however. They retained a strong belief that hard work, education, self-discipline, delayed gratification and sacrifice will eventually pay off. They believe in the primacy of family, the importance of church and community.

Both put a premium on dignity and self-respect.

“It does annoy me to see that some people can aspire to the highest office in the country without adhering to even the most basic rules of decorum,” Logan said. He was referring to “Trump and his little group” — as he called members of the administration — who lie, use racist appeals to White voters and treat women with contempt.

Part of the reason for voting, he said, was to “distance myself from that kind of behavior.”

Dad was born in 1924 in a small Arkansas town near the Mississippi River, a time when sheriffs could arrest a Black person on trumped up charges and then hire them out for their own financial gain. He had to leave the state to find a school that educated Black students beyond the ninth grade.

During World War II, he worked at a McDonnell Douglas plant in Chicago, helping assemble bombers.

Logan was born in 1922. He served in Burma — now Myanmar — during World War II. “All I can say about that is I made it back,” he said. “There is more to it, obviously. But that’s the most important part.”

Made it back to America where he attended Howard University and went on to become a founding chief administrative officer for Morehouse Medical College and the acting dean of the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry,

The two men have never met. Each have firstborn sons who worked together at The Washington Post. But the key thing they share is a hope that the gains they have seen in their long lives will continue to not only grow but expand.

Dad pointed to the increase in the number of Black elected officials, including one who could become the first woman and first Black woman to serve as vice president.

But as we’ve seen, that is not enough.

Financial equity needs to be the next frontier, he said. We have to find a way to close the wealth and income gap that has left so many Black people struggling in poorly funded schools, inadequate housing and low-paying jobs.

As for President Trump’s claim that he had done more for Black people than any other president — except perhaps Abraham Lincoln — both men laughed at that.

“What he has done is brought to the attention of our White friends that there is a real race problem in this country,” Logan said.

In a July Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of White people — a record high — said Black people and other minorities do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system. Fifty-two percent of White and Hispanic Americans said there is general discrimination against Black people.

And as for the claims that this election is “the most consequential” in modern history, Dad said, “I think the previous one was pretty consequential.”

“Even if Trump loses, we’ll be dealing with the divisiveness that he has fostered for quite a while,” he said.

Hopefully both men will still be around to see the healing begin. And with any luck, the lives of Black people will improve, and the number of Black men living long, healthy lives will be immeasurable.

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