I was born in the year of the Spanish Flu — and I’m not ready to leave in the year of COVID-19

I am infuriated by the dismissive attitude of certain politicians towards older Americans. We have as much right to be here, living our lives, as anyone else.

SHARE I was born in the year of the Spanish Flu — and I’m not ready to leave in the year of COVID-19
“My mother and father were children of former slaves, my great-grandparents, products of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Timuel Black said. He turned 100 on Friday. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a heavy toll on black people, especially the oldest among us. But quite a few intelligent young people are not taking the virus seriously. They continue to go out and gather in large groups. It’s a serious threat to their well-being and that of their families and friends.

I’m not here to scold, but I hope my experience can help you young people consider why we need to take serious precautions to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

I was born during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. My sister died in the epidemic. I doubt my mother ever recovered from that loss. Yet, my mother went on, living another half-century despite health problems, the Great Depression and World War II.

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Mother was just one generation removed from slavery. In 1919, she and my father moved the family from Alabama to Chicago to escape Jim Crow and racist terror. All three of her surviving children became well-educated. My brother and I fought in the U.S. Army in World War II and became decorated veterans.

Battles are not won in weeks

Now we’re going to have to fight this pandemic as hard as we fought back then. The president has claimed the virus will magically disappear any day now. In reality, no historic battle is won in a few days or weeks. It’s a good thing he wasn’t president during World War II or you’d all be speaking German right now, and I wouldn’t be speaking at all.

They call my age group the Greatest Generation because we fought in World War II. But now, in my old age, I believe you young people will have to be the new Greatest Generation.

I am infuriated by the dismissive attitude of certain politicians towards older Americans. Especially now, as we seniors are threatened by this virus, they act like we are expendable. But we have as much right to be here, living our lives, as anyone else.

My contemporaries and I have a vast reserve of talent, ideas and positive experiences. We have been change-makers, and we are not done yet. Talk to your own grandparents if you are fortunate enough to have them with you. Ask them what they’ve been through.

It’s not enough to respect your elders. You’ve also got to protect them. Make sure they have what they need, but keep your distance for the time being. Follow the advice of scientists and doctors: Stay home, wash your hands, cover your face, and so on, to prevent spreading the virus. To practice these rules is a form of resistance to historic injustice.

Back in World War II, we made a united effort to defeat our enemies. The future of democracy was at stake. Every family sacrificed. We saved cans to be turned into ammunition. We grew vegetables in every yard. Butter, meat, sugar, coffee and other necessities were rationed to send to the troops overseas. We looked out for each other.

We united even though we were still segregated inside the Army. We said among ourselves, “We’ll solve that problem once we get back home.”

Protecting everyone — and our election

I’m proud of the young people who are now organizing on the South Side, delivering food and supplies to those in need. They are acting with purpose and leadership.

Besides our elders, we must protect those who have been locked up. We on the outside should be demanding protection for them. We’ve got to treat them fairly, and with all due haste, release as many as possible, get them access to healthcare and make sure they are housed.

I worry, too, that the president may seize this opportunity to delay or even prevent the national elections next fall. We need a national system of alternative methods for voting, such as mail-in ballots. I remain optimistic that we can mobilize the electorate and defeat the incumbent.

Our great cause in the days of my youth was the defeat of tyranny worldwide. It took an international effort. Every young person came forward. We did it then and we can defeat this enemy today.

At 101, I’ve been lucky to live beyond the typical lifespan. I hope we can inspire each other, and stay politically alert and active.

In the words of my favorite old spiritual hymn: “I’m so glad/Trouble don’t last always.”

Timuel D. Black is the author of three volumes of Chicago history, including his personal memoir, “Sacred Ground: The Chicago Streets of Timuel Black.” This op-ed is from a conversation with Susan Klonsky.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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