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Upward Mortality

Nothing could hold my father back. Nothing except for the curse that is felling a generation of successful black men.

THE WHITE POSTER BOARD that always hung in my parents’ bathroom, with its numbers neatly printed in colored marker, looked like something from one of my overachieving brother’s science-fair projects—a chronicle of his boxcar’s velocity, perhaps. It was supposed to be charting my dad’s weight loss, but it just marked his steady fattening. Its very presence pissed him off. This was exactly the sort of nagging my schoolteacher mom was good for.

That was back when we were upwardly mobile black folks. We had a modest house with a big yard and a pool, the only African Americans in our neighborhood. For that matter, my brother and I were the only black kids not bused to our grade school. It was the mid-1980s, but integration remained a novel concept in Indiana.

Race politics in Indianapolis have always been typified by what Notre Dame historian Richard Pierce has dubbed “polite protest.” At its founding, Indy was the nation’s only state capital situated on a non-navigable river; it was chosen for its central location rather than the existence of any real economy. It’s never been a place for frenetic movement—people in Indy get hold of something and keep it. Blacks were here from the city’s humble inception, so we appreciate stasis as much as everyone else. Black and white worlds have learned to tolerate each other, largely by whites ceding certain parts of the city’s life and by blacks staying content with their allotment. As late as the 1980s, blacks lived in a handful of clearly demarcated neighborhoods and sent their kids to unambiguously black schools.

The old man’s robust medical practice broke our family out of this mold. He sent us to a Jesuit high school and pushed around Indianapolis in his early-model sports car, the backseat piled with discarded McDonald’s bags. He worked a lot of hours to get that house and car, and it meant lunch and dinner on the run, gobbling fries from salty sacks snatched up at drive-through windows. My mom’s poster board never accounted for that fact.

When he did sit down to a dinner, Dad was partial to the salt-laden, fatty soul food that he grew up with—recipes passed down over generations, from a time when black folks had to tease flavor out of meals cobbled together from scraps. Psychologically and emotionally, Dad never strayed far from that hardscrabble history. He never really got along with other middle-class people—including both my mom and his second wife. Both marriages ended in divorce, at least in part because of fights about his unwillingness to take care of himself. I’ve always wondered how many of those disputes, and how much of his inaction in the face of growing health problems, were proxies for his reluctance to embrace the status he’d worked so hard to reach. He had a pool he never used, a suburban house where he rarely entertained. Even his choice of sports car, the ultimate marker of male success, lacked some of the requisite flash—a light blue Datsun 280Z. We all knew not to bother him with anything that smacked of showing off. Come the holidays, you might as well give him a dead fish as an alma-mater sweatshirt. As my mom always succinctly reminded us, “You know your daddy don’t like all that stuff.”

DAD CAME FROM A LONG LINE of class climbers. The furthest back his family’s collective memory goes is to Dan Gurly, who took his last name from the Alabama town that his slave owners lorded over at the end of the Civil War. Dan lived past 100, and right up to his death he farmed cotton on the land he had slowly bought through sharecropping. “My momma and them had his age as 103,” remembers my grandmother, “but some of the whites there say he was the same age as they granddaddy, and say he was older than 103.” My grandmother spent her childhood summers with Dan. She recalls not only his relative prosperity but also his sense of an earned status to go with it. “He was very proper. You know how we take fish and pick it with our fingers? His fingers never touched food. But just to talk about slavery—he didn’t ever talk about it to me.”

He and his wife had eight kids, all of whom rose to their era’s equivalent of white-collar jobs—preachers, mailmen, morticians. Leveraging income from Dan’s farm, his kids and their families got plots of their own in Gurley, and the homes lined up one next to the other. Dan’s youngest, Isabella, went north with her husband, Harrison; they ultimately joined a massive black migration to western Kentucky’s coal mines. Coal mining was a lot like the sharecropping Dan Gurly had climbed out of: The company held all the cards. Rent, groceries, doctors’ bills—they took it all out of your paycheck. But Harrison and Isabella made it to what felt like middle class. They had money in their pockets, kept some savings, and Harrison stayed dressed to the nines when he wasn’t in the mine.

He also began a tradition of heart disease that has continued with every male, and most females, on my dad’s side of the family. His work was physical enough that, despite a soul-food diet, he never got obese as later generations of his family would. But he smoked Lucky Strikes until the day he died, and that combined with “black lung,” earned while working in the coal mines, finally brought heart trouble in his 60s. Isabella died at 62 of diabetes, and Harrison’s heart gave out at 72. That’s 25 years longer than his son-in-law’s heart lasted, and 15 years longer than the grandson he barely met—my father.

Dad’s class ascendance was arguably the most impressive in our family since Dan Gurly’s. He was the first to go to college, let alone graduate school. And his annual income reached $100,000 at its peak. He was typical of the slice of black baby boomers who reaped the early benefits of the civil rights movement. In 1960, fewer than a million African Americans had what sociologists define as middle-class occupations. By 1995, nearly 7 million blacks held such jobs.

But Brandeis’ Shapiro, author of the book The Hidden Cost of Being African American, says these numbers don’t tell the whole story of black bourgeois life. According to one study Shapiro cites, middle-income black families worked the equivalent of 12 more weeks in 2000 than did whites with matching incomes. “That puts more stress on the family—less leisure time, less downtime,” says Shapiro. “There’s a reason why people go to fast food: Wifey can’t stay home and cook anymore.”

Moreover, Shapiro argues, income, job title, and even education are all misleading: The true middle-class measuring stick is wealth, or total assets and debts, and that’s where the black-white gap explodes. At the century’s close, the typical black family possessed 10 cents of wealth for every dollar held by its white counterpart. Even more telling, as both black and white families gained net worth during the booming 1990s, the gap between them grew as well.

“One of the ways that the wealth gap manifests is that most families just starting out have a rainy-day fund, or a crisis fund—a couple of months’ worth of money for that health care crisis, that bad brother who keeps getting arrested,” explains Shapiro, whose research team interviewed a couple of hundred primarily middle-class families. “There’s a lot less likelihood that the African American middle class has that money set aside. And even when they do, there are a lot more demands put on them.” They help extended family members, support parents who are both more likely to be wealth-poor and more likely to have faced early retirement due to disabling conditions like heart disease. “It looks the opposite for the white middle class,” Shapiro continues. “They have very few financial demands placed on them. In fact, it’s pretty clear that they are still receiving.” Parents and grandparents help with the first down payment on a home, pay a greater share of college tuition to avoid loans, or have a comfortable retirement that allows them to help with the grandkids while mom and dad pursue career opportunities.

So, for white America, Shapiro concludes, class ascendance is a progressive, generation-by-generation process. The men in my family each had to start from near the beginning—and in some cases, as with my grandfather Troy, had their climb slowed and complicated each step of the way by their parents’ illnesses.

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