I keenly remember that, as a child, I wondered why all superheroes were White. Since those in the comics didn’t represent me, I found one in my father, an Indian immigrant.
He was born in 1946, the last year of British rule, in rural India. Life expectancy around that time in India was about 31 years. The youngest of nine children, he seemed fated to continue the family line as a sugar cane and soybean farmer. Yet he became the first child in the family to attend school beyond primary education, and against staggering odds, he found his way to medical school — and then to the United States, landing in Brooklyn in 1974. My father’s superpower for more than four decades has been treating cancer, including cancer of the colon. I like to think that his life is the type of role Boseman might have played in the movies.
While Boseman portrayed a comic book superhero, his true powers lay in the real world, where he inspired countless people he never met and was an embodiment of the unrelenting human spirit and of pioneering courage. In “Black Panther,” he ingests a heart-shaped herb with the essence of a fictional metal called vibranium that imbued him with indestructible properties. In real life, Boseman died at age 43.
Reckoning with the mortality of superheroes, I naturally think of my father: elderly, with preexisting conditions in the midst of the pandemic. Every superhero has a kryptonite, whether it’s a metastatic cell, a virus or structural racism, and sometimes they go together. The tragedy of Boseman’s being taken too soon is compounded by this sobering fact: As with so many diseases, there are stark racial disparities in colon-cancer outcomes.
“African Americans have the highest incidence and mortality rates of colorectal cancer (CRC) of any ethnic group in the United States,” Gaius J. Augustus and Nathan A. Ellis reported in the American Journal of Pathology in 2018. “Although some of these disparities can be explained by differences in access to care, cancer screening, and other socioeconomic factors, disparities remain after adjustment for these factors.” The supposition that systemic racism bears much of the blame is almost inescapable.
Consider East Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in New York that is within walking distance of where I practice and teach at Weill Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Life expectancy in East Harlem is 76 years, according to research in 2015 by Virginia Commonwealth University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. On the largely White and prosperous Upper East Side, life expectancy is 85 years — the city’s highest. The lowest: 74 years, in the mainly African American Brownsville section of Brooklyn, which also has the highest concentration of public housing.
The racial disparities in the United States begin at birth: Black infants are more than twice as likely to die as White infants, a wider gap than is estimated to have existed in 1850 during slavery, although there has been a steep decline in infant mortality for both races since then. If Black America were its own country, its maternal mortality rate would be comparable to that of developing countries such as Belize and Thailand.
African Americans also have the highest age-adjusted death rate of any ethnic group in the United States. That translates to a pre-pandemic total of 83,000 excess Black lives lost per year and will surely be higher when the ravages of covid-19 are calculated. But those 83,000 annual excess deaths alone would essentially make being Black one of the leading causes of death in America, comparable to diabetes.
The toll of these lives lost — on top of those lost to covid-19, which disproportionately affects African Americans — is staggering. Racism itself needs to be examined as a public health crisis. I wonder if the “Black Panther” writers invented vibranium because the belief in being unbreakable numbs the pain and the reality of being a person of color in America. Bitter pills buried in applesauce.
As the deadly pandemic continues to unfold, life feels ever more fragile and fleeting. The world seems as though it has never been more in need of saving. As I come to terms with the mortality of my own superheroes, I also think about how too many lives in this country are being claimed by disease — and by racism. Those lives are more than statistics; and in their own way, they also represent other fallen superheroes.
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