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An inevitable consequence of a long lifespan is the aging process, and in America, roughly 10,000 people cross the threshold of senior citizenship every day. According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average 65-year-old can live an additional 19 years if they are able to maintain a decent quality of life.
For many Black seniors, health issues such as stroke, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers can often make their golden years insufferable and often contribute to a painful end to a life stifled by inequality and dehumanization.
But all is not gloom and doom with America’s population of Black elders. There are currently more than 4 million Black Americans over the age of 65, and that number is projected to increase to 12 million by the year 2060. The general population in America is living longer than previous generations, and in spite of the toll of inequality that many Black Americans endure, Black seniors are a key demographic in the surge of America’s older citizens.
Black elders and the modern-day fight for racial equality
For 21st-century Black elders, the present-day social unrest that prompted the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is reminiscent of their teenage/young adult years. A 65-year-old in 2020 would have been born in 1955, the same year Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. They would have turned 13 in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
On the younger end of Black senior citizenship are elders who were born on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. On the older end are those who endured the remnants of Jim Crow, the Great Depression and the earliest World Wars. For many elder Black Americans, the cumulative impact of race-related stressors over an extended life can have an adverse effect on the aging process, exacerbating certain health issues and discouraging them from engaging in the fight against current systemic inequities.
But for others, the rallying cry for justice in 2020 has invigorated their desire to share wisdom with a younger generation of change agents, as well as being on the frontline in the name of progress.
The highs and lows for Black elders in 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has compromised the health of the entire planet and has wreaked a special degree of havoc on Black seniors in America. Older Black Americans are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than any other demographic due to a myriad of factors, including but not limited to underlying health conditions and living amid multi-generational homes where the virus can spread much easier. The damaging impact of the pandemic, however, is only one part of the elder Black American narrative in 2020.
The other major headline coming from Black seniors: their direct impact on the 2020 presidential election.
Black voters over the age of 60 overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, according to exit polling data. Ninety-two percent of Black seniors played a hand in shattering early voting records that denied Trump a second term in the White House. Their show-of-force at the polls is a sign that even in their later years, they were not looking to leave the fate of the democracy to chance.
Aging with advocacy: A conversation with Influencer in Aging, Raymond Jetson
One of Black America’s leading voices on aging with impact is 64-year-old Baton Rouge native, Raymond Jetson. Jetson was recently named a 2020 Influencer in Aging by NextAvenue.org, a digital platform of PBS that offers original and aggregated journalism aimed at baby boomers.
Jetson currently serves as Chief Executive Catalyst at MetroMorphosis, a Baton Rouge-based nonprofit with a mission of transforming urban communities from within. He began his post at MetroMorphosis after a 23-year career as the pastor of Star Hill Baptist Church in Baton Rouge and on the heels of a 15-year stint in the Louisiana House of Representatives and Deputy Secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
I sat down recently with Jetson, a Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow, and an Encore Public Voices and Forward Promise Fellow. We talked about aging with advocacy, the benefits and detriments of the generational divide in the current era of social justice, and the legacy he hopes to leave with the next generation of leaders and influencers.
Donney Rose: You were recently named a 2020 Influencer in Aging by NextAvenue.org. Can you talk about what it means to receive that prestigious honor and what type of responsibility do you feel beholden to by this platform?
Raymond Jetson: This award was a surprise to me because I was nominated without being keenly aware that I was being nominated, to the degree that I was. To be on a shortlist of 20 people from across the country who were selected was a tremendous honor. And after I got to connect with some of the people, you know, it was another one of those moments of “Man, how did I get in this room?” When you consider that also on that list of the other 19 people was Michael J. Fox, for example, and people who have just done some amazing things in the aging space.
It was [the] validation of some intentional efforts that I have made. I am 64; if I am here, by God’s grace on February 14th of 2021, I will celebrate my 65th birthday. And on that day, I will join 9,999 other Americans in turning 65. There are 10,000 people in America who turn 65 every day and that will be the case until 2030. This reservoir of gray that’s happening in America and as I am a part of that, I am really interested in how we begin to rethink longevity.
DR: Your career has been incredibly diverse and expansive — from Louisiana state legislator to pastor of the Star Hill Baptist Church in Baton Rouge for 23 years, to Chief Executive Catalyst at MetroMorphosis, the non-profit you founded. What does being an entrepreneur and innovator mean for you at this stage in life, and what experiences are important for you to pass down to younger entrepreneurs?
RJ: I often say that I honestly believe that this is the best season in life for me because I have been around long enough to have actually got a bit of knowledge and hopefully wisdom with all of this gray that I got that I actually added something else to my toolbox along the way. And so I’m old enough to have been through some things, to see those things, to try some things, to fail at some things, tried to have a bit of wisdom, but still young enough and active enough to do something with it.
DR: In the video of you featured on NextAvenue.org, you talk about social movements being powered by youthful energy but grounded in the wisdom of elders. What is your take on the synergy between the elder Black community and young Black people amid this 21st-century timeline of social unrest?
RJ: It is, in far too many instances, Donney, painfully dysfunctional. And I think that it’s rooted in my opinion, in a couple of things. One, folks of my generation and beyond, I don’t think have come to grips with just how different] the younger generation is in so many ways. And so too often, we adopt this “come sit at my feet, let me teach you what you need to do” attitude without recognizing the different mindsets, the different experiences that the younger generation brings to the table.
In some instances, we appear to be a little less willing to make space to create real partnerships. At the same time, I think for far too many of the well-intentioned, extremely passionate and committed young folks that I see, there appears to be sometimes this mistaken impression that they are starting something [that already exists].
DR: What would you say to your contemporaries/peers who feel like an attempt at mentoring younger Black folks is a waste of time and energy?
RJ: What I believe is important is to invite people into mutually beneficial relationships that recognize that because I’ve been around a minute, there may be some things that I can share that will be helpful for you, but because you’ve lived in a world that has always had computers, smartphones and all kinds of other stuff that, that there may be some perspectives you can bring to mine.
I do think intergenerational relationships are absolutely critical, just as a practice, but it’s especially [important] in African-American communities because we lost the valuing of the elders. And in some instances, the elders have not presented themselves in the most valuing way. That’s not to point fingers at either one, but to simply say that I believe that our communities are better off when the wisdom of the elders informs the energy of the younger.
DR: In your opinion, what is the most valuable thing young Black America can gain from the counsel of elder Black people? What is the most urgent reminder elder Black people can take from the present-day experiences of young Black America?
RJ: So, one of the things that I believe the elders can contribute to this movement for equity and justice that I see across the world, but especially in a country, is the importance of strategy and the importance of establishing intended impacts. You know, why am I out here? What am I actually seeking to cause to happen, and how do I deploy myself strategically to make that happen?
I think that if there is a critique of the elder generation, it is that we compromised at some points, [and] that was not in the long-term best interest of the movement. So I think that the boldness of the younger advocates and activists that I see can really mesh with that strategic insight that the elders can potentially bring to create something that is really powerful.
DR: So what I glean from what you’re saying is that young people can benefit from the experience of strategy that many older folks have had to deploy. And, older folks can benefit from the reminder that we haven’t reached the end goal of liberation.
RJ: Yes, sir. Not only have we not reached it, but the next generation is critical to us moving closer to it. We have an obligation to make certain that we show up as our best selves to support them in their leg of this journey, rather than saying, “You need to come be part of my journey.”
DR: What is important to your legacy? What do you want the history books to say about Raymond Jetson’s purpose and intent?
RJ: [Every] Monday through Friday, I put out a tweet that asks, “What will you do today that will matter 20 years from now?” I put that out in hopes that it may be thought-provoking to somebody else, but to also remind myself that that’s the question I need to answer during that day. For me, legacy is much less about anybody remembering my name or attaching my name to anything. Legacy for me is it that I have put my hand in that 20 years from now will be a benefit to the people that I care about.
About the Author
Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.