When I turned 50, Mr. Mack, the owner of Community Barbershop where I have my hair cut, said to me in his inimitably understated manner, Fifty, huh? Well, I guess by now the plan should be working, huh! I thought of those words again as I reflected on the death of Lambert Marksman in June. Lambert was premiums assistant at WBAI Radio in New York City when he died. But for more than three decades I had known him as a warrior for social justice in the United States, the Caribbean and Africa. His was one of three deaths in the last five years that have truly given me pause. Samori, Lambert's younger brother of WBAI fame, died in 1999. He died in his sleep - heart attack, brought on by hypertension. He was 51. In May of this year, Shaka Robinson died. Cancer. Then Lambert went - heart attack, in his sleep, just like Samori.
At a time when the United States was roiling with the impact of the Black Power and anti-Vietnam war movements, these three men were standard bearers of political and economic liberation for African people worldwide. Shaka was the "mzee," a Kiswahili word meaning "old man" - figuratively, one endowed with the wisdom of an old man. Today they should have been watching their respective plans at work. Instead, they are victims of the usual suspects in the deaths of relatively young Black men and women. The prevalence of hypertension in African-Americans is among the highest in the world. Compared with Caucasians, African-Americans develop high blood pressure at an earlier age and their average blood pressure is much higher. As a result, African-Americans have a 1.5 times greater rate of heart disease deaths and a 1.8 times greater rate of fatal stroke. In 2001 alone, heart disease killed about 41,000 African-American women and 37,000 men. That same year, about 6,000 African-American women and 10,000 African-American men died of lung cancer.
I found some solace in my own words as I pondered the deaths of Samori, Lambert and Shaka. Oh yes, I wrote poetry as an undergrad - even did a few sessions at The Loft in Harlem with The Last Poets. I thought of my Ode to Miss Mary when Lambert died:
Oh, I've heard her sing of all sorts of agonies
As she planted her corn in straight, straight rows.
And how many nights she spent prostrated
On her apology for a bed
Because she was those agonies personified.
And as if it were not enough to be born to all that,
She bore sons to face tomorrows that were no longer innocent.
So when she died,
It wasn't as if she had gone to rest.
In their own way, Samori, Shaka and Lambert were still fighting the good fight when they died. When warriors die too soon, it isn't as if they have gone to rest.
By Samori, Shaka and Lambert