Another Soldier Gone…
I have a funeral Saturday. His name is Nathan D. Strickland, Jr. He was 28-years-old. After a lengthy battle, one I truly believed he’d survive, he “suddenly” succumbed to cancer. His marks the first death I’ve had in 2019 of a Black man, a fellow brother. He will not be my last. Last year, I experienced the deaths of 20 Black men. Last year I experienced the deaths of 20 Black men. Last year I experienced the death of 20 Black men. This stuttered trifecta of trauma was not a typo. It’s a weight that needs to be restated to be felt, to be heard, to be understood.
I am not a soldier in war. I do not belong to a gang in the middle of a turf battle. I am not confined to a poorly operated prison (though Trump’s America can feel like that sometimes). I’m not in the midst of a sudden global contagion. Yet, I know 20 Black men across the U.S. who died within 365 days and only a handful were reported to have died of AIDS-related complications. Cancer led among the contenders, enough to warrant pressing questions about the true quality of the food, air, and water in Black environments; followed by heart disease, then kidney ailments (so many lifetime muscle heads I knew in their prime only to later wither away on dialysis machines), at least two were suicides, and the rest informed by too-often late stage determined HIV. There is and has been an epidemic of Black male deaths, but its causes are more varied than the far more spectacled reports of HIV and homicide, often unspoken, and has reached epic proportions without any mass efforts or organized campaigns to stop it.
These men, largely between the ages of 35 to 60, some slightly younger, like Nathan, some slightly older, but all of them transitioned a decade to decades upon decades before the concluding life expectancy of men in America, even Black men in America. That age for all men is 76, a number that declined from a high of nearly 80 not that long ago, and for Black men an alarming age 71 (the lowest of any sex, race, or ethnic group). While Black men never saw the highs of other groups, they have joined all Americans in declining life expectancy for two years in a row. All of these Black men that I knew didn’t come close to 71 and were gay, bisexual, pansexual or same gender loving, whether out or not. Many were out to friends and family, but not the world; a decision I will respect by not naming them all for fear of misstepping. All of these Black men were public-facing “contributors,” “professionals,” the “backbones” of families and communities, the “good guys.” Some, like author and cultural critic Rashod Ollison, were creatives and truth-tellers. Among them is a well-respected pastor, a gaggle of academics, cultural workers, a politician, community advocates, corporate executives, fraternity leaders, men of distinction and prominence. The Black men other Black men look up to and young Black boys need to see walking through the streets of their lives. Their loss isn’t one felt exclusively by those who loved them or shared blood with them, but by entire communities. Maybe the compounding intersectional stress of bearing the burdens of such mantles in this racist, hegemonic, patriarchal, homoprejudice state contributed to those premature deaths. It’s not hard to suspect. There’s a reason why Black men are losing ground in both life and life expectancy, even those who check all the “right” respectability boxes, who live life in gyms, and espouse the benefits of vegan and vegetarian lives. Several were fit in their caskets. The cost of being the first, the best, the good one, the dependable one may be our lives. But, what’s the alternative? To be the bum? The fuccboi? The stereotype?
Clearly, there are alternative models. Hispanic men are outliving all men in America, including white men. Maybe there are lessons to be learned there. I don’t know. I just know I’m tired of burying brothers who never get to go gray and fat. At 44, I shouldn’t know this may dead. They count upwards of a 100 over the six cities I’ve lived in throughout those years and have grown exponentially with the advent of social media “friends” with whom I’m starting to celebrate decade long Friendiversaries with according to Facebook. These friends extend my circles and add life to my days, but they also increase the number I will know who leave us. In my real or virtual life, I’ve been witnessing the early deaths of Black men and boys since childhood. And, I’m exhausted. And, angry. And, crushed. And, I want something equal to the task to be done to reverse the tide, one that feels like a tsunami. Someone to care about the deaths of Black men the way they care about dogs in winter and coral reefs in summer, en masse and with fervor.
Today I bear witness to my 21st obituary in one year and one month. I review the survivors of the deceased young man I only somewhat knew and am suddenly bereft that there will not be a Nathan D. Strickland, III, even though I am not sure if that was ever even a life goal of young Strickland. Or a goal he may have later come to realize for himself had he just been afforded more time, the time granted those who achieve those declining life expectancies in the 70s. But, it’s a legacy now one denied both us and him. I don’t know if I can attend another funeral, pay into another group sending another wreath, write another memory, share another offering of platitude-rich condolence. I am numb. The 20 are already beginning to fade from the rearview of a fast-paced American life; the florets of dandelion seeds floating from my mind.
Will he be one more?
Nathan was more of an associate than a friend, but he always smiled widely when I saw him and hugged me with firm, yet thin arms and was as generous with his kindness as he was his hugs. A musician, an advocate, an emerging leader, a son, a friend, so many titles without a body to bear them now. And, now the world will be lesser and dimmer without the light of his shine. I am lucky. For however brief the moments, I got to experience its sweetness and warming brilliance. I want to experience the warming brilliance of all of those men, all 21 of them now. Right, right now. We needed them when they bore breath. We need them now. We cannot stand to lose any more Black men in the tissue-thin vulnerability of our all-too-fragile communities, not gay, bi, pan, same gender loving, not any of them.
Not one soldier more.
Not another soldier gone.
L. Michael Gipson is a writer, educator, and 24-year advocate for a host of social justice causes, L. Michael Gipson, MS is the co-founder of the Beyond Identities Community Center for LGBTQ youth in Cleveland, the Black Alphabet Film Festival in Chicago, and the Black Bear Brotherhood in Detroit. Currently, Gipson is the Founder and Principal of Faithwalk, LLC and the Urban [W]rites project. A Red Dirt Press author, Gipson serves as Editor-at-Large at SoulTracks.com and Lead Writer and Co-Producer of the PBS docuseries Indie Soul Journeys.