Celebrities die just like the rest of us. When it happens, we commiserate collectively and pour out our hypothetical (and maybe literal) glasses for the deceased in honor of however they connected with us in their profession.
When I heard about Lance Reddick’s death last Friday, there was something else… something I’ve felt before, recently and frequently: a sense of internalized dread.
Reddick, known for his roles in “The Wire,” the John Wick franchise and the popular Destiny video games, died of “natural causes” ― nomenclature that confounds many of us who don’t believe that 60-year-olds die “naturally,” which simply means that no external factors contributed directly to his death.
“Natural causes” doesn’t comfort me considering Reddick joins an exhausting, morbid procession of famous Black men who have died too young and, in many cases, unexpectedly. Just last month, De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove died at age 54 after years of battling congestive heart failure, mere weeks before the group’s classic oeuvre finally reached another generation of listeners by hitting streaming services.
There was Coolio, who died of a heart attack in September at 59. There was Black Rob, who died of cardiac arrest at 51 in 2021. There was Virgil Abloh, who died in 2021 at 41 (my current age) after a private battle with cancer. There was Michael K. Williams (54), DMX (50), Gift of Gab (50), MF Doom (49), John Singleton (51) and Chadwick Boseman (43).
Unfortunately, I could go on.
I don’t believe Death has bias: Anyone can get it after they open their eyes in the morning (and even if they don’t). But it seems that Black icons are leaving a lot younger than their peers of other races. It’s taxing on our psyche: Seeing these celebrity deaths play out with men who are around my age makes me examine my own mortality ― we’re all on the clock, but I think about it more often than is probably healthy.
External physical appearance never tells the full tale in one’s health, but it’s doubly sobering how good some of these men looked at the time of their death. Reddick was chiseled every time he took his shirt off on television and frequently shared his workouts on Instagram. Regardless of how you feel about the dude, Kevin Samuels, the controversial YouTube self-proclaimed relationship guru, didn’t look like he would succumb to death by hypertension at 53 following a career of invidious remarks about the health of Black women.
It underlines why, even with my own obsession with exercise, I need to work harder than my white counterparts in all aspects of my life to stay above ground. The men on my mother’s side of the family are prone to heart attacks ― it claimed my grandfather when he was barely a decade younger than me, and my cousin was a decade younger than me when he passed at 26. Fortunately, I have a mama who stays on my ass about my metrics.
Even more than watching celebrities go, I’m haunted when my peers on social media post about the sudden loss of their parents. My dad, who fortunately has achieved an I-don’t-give-a-shit zen in retirement to which I could only aspire ― has exceeded life expectancy by making it to 73 as a Black man in America; part of me always wonders if the next time I see him will be the last time I’ll ever see him.
The issue with Black men and health in America is categorically more nuanced than I can capture in this piece. As someone with a father who’ll only visit a doctor if something is dangling from sinews, I recognize intimately the complicated relationship Black men have with the health care industry.
Considering our historical and still-existing mistreatment, the unrelenting unaffordability of quality health care and the fact that there simply aren’t nearly enough Black medical doctors to make us feel comfortable, Chris Rock’s “pour some ’Tussin on it” routine was the equivalent of laughing through tears.
Just the same, there are truisms worth acknowledging: Historically, Black people as a whole are on the bottom rung of health benefits in America, which is reflected in our lower life expectancy in comparison with everyone except the Native American population.
In that, Black men still have a shorter life expectancy than Black women. Even when Black men are winning in the game of life, we’re still losing in the game of health, and we’re the only demographic in America for whom homicide cracks the top five in causes of death. Turns out you can’t out-earn or out-educate systemic racism, and we’re more likely than any other demographic in America to leave the mortal coil for simply walking up the wrong street at the wrong time.
But Black men don’t need statistics to know that we need a heightened sense of awareness just to exist; that interminable feeling of stress is the connective tissue to many of our other maladies. I considered this last week when I was sitting on the patio of an outdoor coffee shop, writing for this publication, in a posh Miami neighborhood when a police officer approached to speak to me through my headphones. Turns out he was just being friendly, but I wonder how many ticks he took off my life when my heart jumped during his approach.
On that note, the health of Black men is certainly not just a physical issue: I’ve never witnessed the public so taken aback by a suicide like I did that of 40-year-old Stephen “tWitch” Boss in December ― likely because we’re not programmed to believe anyone constantly smiling, dancing and getting paid to do so would want to leave. But as hesitant as Black men are about therapy, I haven’t encountered a group who could use it more.
I’m not here with easy answers, because everything suggests that they don’t exist. I can only implore you, Black men, to figure out some idea what’s going on inside of you ― upstairs and downstairs ― so you can tackle problems before they happen. Try to find medical doctors who look like you. Keep an eye on organizations working to narrow the health care disparity gap. And please…don’t forget about your mental health (fortunately, it’s easier to find Black therapists).
The war for our health is a silent one we fight every day. Even if there’s so much you can do, do what you can… because the Lance Reddicks, the John Singletons and the Chadwick Bosemans of the world don’t go without taking pieces of us with them.