I remember standing next to my mother and my aunt in a drab hospital waiting room in Summit, New Jersey, when the nurse delivered a diagnosis. They’d found a mass in my grandmother’s brain. It was cancerous and aggressive—a glioblastoma, they called it—so they’d have to operate. It was the same type of cancer that John McCain had. My grandmother, however, is not a white man, so her journey would inevitably be a little different.
My grandmother, Louise Kennedy Evans Elder, grew up in the 40s and 50s during Jim Crow in the heat of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She remembers playing with chickens in her backyard as a child. “It was what we used to do for fun,” she tells me. “We were poor, but my parents never let us know we were poor. My mother would make our clothes and my father made sure we never wanted for anything. I wish they pushed education, but my folks weren’t educated people, so they did the best they could with what they had.”
There were 13 children altogether—she was number 10. When she was a small child, their home caught fire and she lost her younger siblings. From that moment on, she was referred to as the baby. When she was 13, the family moved to New Jersey, and at 15 she was pregnant with my mother, which forced her to hit adulthood before she got to high school. By 16 she was a married housewife, and at 19 she began her career in nursing.
Before the glioblastoma, she’d already beaten cancer in both her lungs and in her breasts—she had her first mastectomy 34 years ago. That day, after the diagnosis, she decided to fight for her life again.
Some would call the cancer streak bad luck, but those of us who understand what it means to be black in America can easily identify it as something more complex. New research and a more conscious exploration of health disparities in this country show us that black Americans have worse health outcomes than white Americans across the board. What’s more—they’ve found that even if you’re black in America with a sound bank account, you can’t buy whiteness.
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