Skip to main content

When doctors discovered I had Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW), a heart condition, I was a two-week-old infant. I’m described as a “Negro” on my birth certificate. A “Negro” born of “Negro” parents in 1953. My father’s occupation is listed as a “laborer.” The details are missing, of course; for he picked cotton in Arkansas before arriving in Chicago where he became a beef boner. I have a black-and-white picture of my mother, seated before a professional photographer, no doubt, in a white nurse’s aide uniform. This, as they say, was before my time.

When it came time for me to attend the Catholic school two blocks away, I carried to my teacher an envelope with five dollars enclosed. My tuition in those days. I don’t recall how the nuns knew I couldn’t attend gym or play in the schoolyard. I also don’t recall failing first grade. I remember finding a box of old documents that contained my report cards. My first grade report card showed boxes filed with numbers. All double-digits! Numbers representing days away from school. Days hospitalized? Unknown. I don’t recall having a conversation with my grandparents or parents about my heart condition. As a child, I didn’t care to know the details of something so annoying, if not at times painful.
What I did know and felt comfortable, if not downright pleased about, was that my first eleven years were spent living with a stay-at-home grandmother and a grandfather who worked as a janitor for our building and four others.


I didn’t notice the orange cones on gray roada, while my mother did.

Years later, after I graduated from college, the first in the family, my mother asked me to take a walk with my aunt, her sister. Just do it. Mind you, my brief trip to New York City proved to me that money mattered. I hadn’t saved enough to move there. But I did my research on Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood. I had located a roughly $200, cheap one-bedroom apartment and notified the manager that I would be arriving by June of that year, 1977. But my mother is asking that I follow my aunt. Somewhere.

After six or seven blocks of walking in silence with a woman who has never had much to say to me, and she lived only two blocks away, I could see where we were headed. Even while I understood the road ahead for me as a Black woman with a heart condition, I believed Disability Benefits would become one more yellow cone that I would be complicit in placing before me. A stigma. I would be frowned upon as someone receiving government aid. And has she ever worked?

For a good part of my employment years, “preexisting conditions” trumped my heart condition. Since my first summer of high school, I have worked. I worked all through college, and immediately after graduating from college, I worked at a prominent newspaper as a copy clerk, for sure, a position requiring a good deal of energy. I sprinted about a huge newsroom, grabbing news copy from reporters and rushing these pages to a receiving bin. Trips down to the printing presses offered me the opportunity to hone my skills at concealing shortness of breath. Something never mentioned on my future curriculum vitae.

However much I feared hospitalization or worse, what terrified me more was disclosing my “preexisting” condition with a co-worker or supervisor who would love nothing more than to run to HR.

By college, I sprinted my way from one building to another. By the second semester and after a heart catheter procedure, I biked from class to class—thanks to Propranolol, a beta blocker. I added to my skill at concealing shortness of breath the ability to pretend all was well with me, despite a heartbeat racing in my chest. I could talk to myself, in silence, of course, keeping that smile on my face. And on good days, my heart would respond by slowing down. Never reaching that WPW speed.

However much I feared hospitalization or worse, what terrified me more was disclosing my “preexisting” condition with a co-worker or supervisor who would love nothing more than to run to HR. And I worried about insurance companies discovering that I described myself as healthy.

Weathering in Silence

After working my day shift, I accepted an offer from the guys in photography (this paper didn’t hire women photographers at the time) to ride along with them on the night shift. On my return to the newsroom, my heart “went off.” Two hundred or so beats per minute.

Ambulance? No. I called my mother! This is a real job, I told myself. Compared to high school and college years of working “under the table” for the priests and nuns, cleaning toilets or answering the phones for survey companies in Chicago, this was real.

In the end, my cardiologist saved me—that is—saved my job! That’s what mattered to a 22-year-old Black woman out the door alone, by myself. The insurance company, on the other hand, frustrated at not being able to get straight answers, backed off but with a warning: don’t knock on our door again!

I researched, saved my income, and reminded my mother that there were cardiologists in California, too. A couple of months later, in Los Angeles, I experienced many episodes of WPW - episodes never recorded in an ambulance or in an emergency room, let alone the usual ICU room because full-time employment at an answering phone service didn't offer health insurance to its workers. And as a junior writer for a community paper focused on social justice, I was on my own when it came to healthcare coverage! And pharmacies never hand out free beta blocker medication! When not putting almost all of my income in an envelope and sending it off to the landlord, I managed to eat, spending as little as possible at the grocery store.

Back to Chicago to get my masters degree. I worked and attended classes in the late afternoon or evenings. It took me five years to complete the two-year degree. One class per semester unless I was able to pay for two classes a term which I did for the first two years since I worked as a 30-hour Student Activities Director at a two-year college. For a time, teaching adult-continuing education courses, also at two-year colleges, freed me from working at calling centers or survey companies - something I had to do almost every summer for a time because collection agents seemed to love to call me, threatening to take away any and everything I owned? The student loan from my college years was in default. Lady! We’re the government! In the meantime, so many of these minimum-wage jobs, including almost 10 years of teaching for the city colleges, barely contributed to Social Security.

I saw the same cardiologist of years before, only when Walgreens refused to renew my prescription for the beta blockers. Sometimes Walgreens would call asking why I hadn’t renewed my prescription, as if the pharmacists had no idea why. To conserve these precious little Propranolol pills, sir. But, off course, I never responded to white men (then) who might know but really didn’t care about me. Their calls were a matter of money.

It was a matter of money for me, too. Taking one or two pills a day rather than three per day, as prescribed, was risky. But the alternative? Collection agents calls and they care even less! I couldn’t pay the demanded amount, or sometimes I paid under the demanded amount. Either way, these guys’ jobs was to get money from me and not ask themselves what would happen if I handed over my rent to them or opted not to eat for a month!

I finally landed a teaching position that actually came with insurance. While I still remained silent about my heart condition, I couldn’t be so mum about the problem of bleeding. I went from one doctor to another, finally lucked out with a woman doctor who conducted a quick exam and verdict: tumors on the womb. Insurance would pay for the surgery, but this was October. I had to complete the term of teaching before the myomectomy could be performed. And once it was performed, I was once again without employment. And of course, without insurance.

By 1990, I was exhausted. The erratic dosages of beta blockers, the part-time teaching at three two-year campuses across the city of Chicago, and the stress of, you name it—being Black, a woman, single, financially insecure—left me feeling older than someone in their mid-30s. My mother, diagnosed with cancer in January of 1986, died that September. There was no home to go back to, and when it was, there were younger siblings. I filed for bankruptcy in order to clear the slate.

As a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Youth Division from 1969 to 1972 as a high-school teenager, I understood American history. I understood the meaning of historical oppression, white supremacy. But now it was necessary to conceal my history as an activist. My non-believer status, my socialist status—made me feel like an activist who rose from the “underground” to find everyone thinks Blacks are free at last! The Black activists still imprisoned today are like me, seniors - many disabled and most didn’t participate in bombing anything.

Weathering with a Smile

So more smiling and pretending among predominantly white faculty was on the agenda for me. I didn’t convince anyone of them that I was a clean slate, weightless, free of thoughts about injustice and a more adequate location of America’s criminality. I didn’t avert anyone’s hostility about a Black invasion of that ivory space of “higher learning,” a space reserved for detaching ones Black self from the weight of every day life in America. The other Black woman was at least a member of the economically mindful middle class.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

After four years, when the fellowship expired, and I began the dissertation process, I had to take out another student loan. Eight thousand dollars for another two years to research and write the dissertation. Mainly on American slavery.
By 1990, Propranolol is no longer for patients with WPW. One beta blocker after another is prescribed; yet, none work as well as Propranolol.

I thought maybe if I didn’t commit to any activism or low-paying positions, if I pursued a doctorate, I would work for change by teaching in the classroom. Not that I hadn’t marched since the early 1970s. Not that I hadn’t attended organizing sessions. But I tried to work then in the 1990s on stress. Stress. Besides, who better to bring to academia an advocacy in social justice at a campus claiming social justice as a pursuit in the real world—starting with the classroom.

It didn’t take long to realize the social justice activism was fine, so long as an emphasis on race was tampered down to charitable work like food collection or serving once or twice a year at a food pantry. No one wanted to actually hear about how money for heart medicine, for example, should be an issue on the tables in our graduate-level courses on a Jesuit campus all about “social justice.” Let’s not bring up Black people unless in “criminal justice” courses where that descriptor accounted for conversations about what to do with “the problem” of Black “pathology.”

It’s the 1990s. Clinton’s 1994 tough-on-crime bill (tough on Black people bill), and his 1996 Republican-led Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (no more money for you, Black and lazy people) bill. Anita Hill, subjected to questions by Sens. Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy and other white men who doubted her charge of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment or the word of a Black woman? Echoes of historical mischief.

In the end, even with PhD in hand and after having taught for three years there, the director of career placement couldn’t bother with someone who was “too far down to help.” I was in my late 40s, and my health was already showing signs that trouble was ahead.

Trouble manifested itself on campuses in an another state. Wisconsin. The only Black in the English Department. The fear of one young chair (who didn’t hire me) that I would come to the campus with that “Black Feminist” thing! You are always talking about slavery, said another woman. Older. No wonder you are always in trouble! Resistance to discussions on slavery and the legacy of white supremacy were concealed behind the image of a Black women, a “militant” from “back in the day,” a “troublemaker.” Confrontational at that!

In America, institutions of “higher education” participate in the exploitation of labor—no different from Bezos of Amazon while serving as corporate gatekeepers, “managing” the “inclusion” of people of color and the “exclusion” of that history of suppression.

Between another collection agency and the stress of always feeling one step from no salary, I was really a mess trying to pretend otherwise. I paid a certain amount on my loan, and I tried to save too. I tried to explain only to receive more threats. Now, what am I paying, if not interest? The loan would have been paid off. But not long after I began receiving Social Security benefits, I discovered over 100 dollars had been garnished from my Social Security check. By then, I was in my fifties, had taught at countless campuses in Chicago, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, Tuscaloosa, and in Ethiopia, at Haramaya and Addis Ababa Universities.

I taught undergraduate as well as graduate courses, and, during those years, I met politically astute students who have gone on to challenge the status quo. A few have become long-time friends now. To academic administrators desperate to keep university campuses white and Western-oriented (that is, free of the history of colonialism, imperialism, conquest, and enslavement) it’s too easy to stamp out troublesome people blocking their flow of capital.

In 2013, I finally searched the Internet to locate an ombudsman from a social service agency. The following year, I underwent another surgery, this time for a Meningioma tumor, the size of two quarters. How long, doctor? Oh, over ten years in the making! The good news was that the surgery was successful. By then, I received Social Security benefits (official Social Security early retirement at age 62 in 2016). In early 2016, I was diagnosed with cancer.

My story isn’t an isolated one. And the outcome for many seniors has been a far more dire one.

Seniors in the richest nation in the world have similar stories. Unnecessary hardship. Unnecessary stress. Billionaires spend billions to fly themselves above Earth’s atmosphere to spend a few seconds to experience weightless “in space” when Americans are weighted down by indifference and greed. Hate. Where does that leave democracy? Is there a democracy when, according to the National Council on Aging (NCA), “15 million older adults aged 65+ are economically insecure, with incomes below 200% of the Federal poverty level.” Is that life in a democratic society?

“Half of Black and Hispanic seniors aged 65+ have incomes below 200% of the Federal poverty level.” And if you are wondering, those households headed by an individual aged 65+ had “debt in 2016.” And that median debt was “$31, 050” (Survey of Consumer Finances, 2019).

Hundreds of dollars each month are garnished from Americans 50 years and older who are receiving Social Security benefits for disability or retirement, according to www.consumerreport.org., resulting in many seniors pushed into poverty. Some, like myself in 2013, are eligible for a “permanent discharge.” Often, like me again, in time to deal with more health problems.

In 2020, hard hit were seniors when COVID came ashore. Seniors were neglected in nursing homes. Seniors died alone in hospitals. Some Americans are witnessing the suppression of voting rights by proponents of white supremacy as if it’s last month’s news. For Black, Latinx, and Indigenous, for seniors and the disabled, it’s as if we are living once again weighted down in shackles.

The political lives of Democrats and Republicans depends on maintaining the value of corporations. Consequently, either party will only offer reform measures, and reform manages to lift a few above others. Reform, however, won’t dismantle inequality and injustice which capitalism sustains. Reform, a little tweaking here and there, can’t correct for an absence of an effective response to a human rights crisis. Student loan debt relief, yes. But what else?

As we used to say “back in the day,” and should say more often, it’s the system: An economic system, called capitalism, that demands enterprises operated by profiteers, enterprises that encircle institutions, that in turn, crank out like-minded cohorts, furthering the services of an inhumane way of existence.

blacks

Toxic, sadistic, and cruel! Only a few of capitalism’s faithful servants—rabid believers in the power granted to them by the system—feel the freedom of weightlessness.

We have to make up our minds. Do we want future generations of Americans to suffer and die from the continuing worship of a system of indifference? Or will we decide this is it! Democracy or nothing else matters!

Lenore Daniels

Weathering: The weathering hypothesis proposes that the accumulation of racial stress over Black women's lives contributes to this observed pattern of racial disparities in health,