Even with the deaths of our elders today and the 400th anniversary of chattel slavery, we are often reminded that this terrible American past is within the reach of our oral, recorded history. Elijah Cummings, who died Thursday at 68, was the grandson of sharecroppers, the black tenant farmers who rented land from white owners after the Civil War.
Cummings once recounted to 60 Minutes that, when he was sworn into Congress in 1996 following a special election in Maryland’s 7th District, his father teared up. A typical, uplifting American story would be a son talking about his dad’s pride at such a moment, and there was that. But Cummings’ father, Robert, also asked him a series of questions.
Isn’t this the place where they used to call us slaves? “Yes, sir.”
Isn’t this the place where they used to call us three-fifths of a man? “Yes, sir.”
Isn’t this the place where they used to call us chattel? “Yes, sir.”
Then Robert told his son Elijah, according to the story: Now I see what I could have been had I had an opportunity. Forget the Horatio Alger narratives; that is a story of generational ascendance that actually sounds relatable to me as someone who has grown up black in America.
Sixty-eight should be too early for anyone to die in the era of modern medicine, but it somehow didn’t feel premature for Cummings. It wouldn’t feel premature for me, either. Racism kills us black men and women faster, that much has been documented. Cummings had seen the consequences of racism in the mirror every day since he was 11, bearing a scar from an attack by a white mob when he and a group of black boys integrated the public (and ostensibly desegregated) pool in South Baltimore. Perhaps a shorter life was simply an American reality to which he had consigned himself. Or, he had just read the science.
When speculation rumbled about whether he would run for the Senate in 2015, Cummings spoke openly about his own life expectancy.
“When you reach 64 years old and you look at the life expectancy of an African-American man, which is 71.8 years, I ask myself, if I don’t say it now, when am I going to say it?” Cummings said, referring at the time to combative rants and snips at Republicans whom he perceived to be wasting the public’s time and money with nonsense like the Benghazi hearings.
He continued to speak up for what he considered was just, not just when president did wrong but also when it involved the police. The bullhorn seemed to never leave his hand and his voice never seemed to die out in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore cops in 2015. His willingness to speak up not just in defense of America but of us black Americans is why the passing of Cummings was a puncturing wound for anyone hoping for this nation to be true to what it promises on paper to all of its people.
Worse, Cummings’ death leaves a void. Only a few members of his own party have been as willing to speak as frankly as Cummings, or take as immediate action against the grift and madness that Republicans pass off as governance. “We are better than this!” was one of his frequent exhortations, and I am not sure that we were.
It is tempting, and lazy, to encapsulate the Cummings legacy within the last few years. Pointing to his deft handling of his Republican “friend” Mark Meadows’ racist call-out of Rashida Tlaib in February or his grace in dealing with President Trump’s petulant insults about his beloved Baltimore even as he used his House Oversight powers to help begin perhaps the most significant impeachment inquiry yet launched into an American head of state. But there was more to the man and his patriotism than his pursuit of a corrupt president.
Cummings was, as his widow, Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, put it in her statement, working “until his last breath.” In a memo just last week, as he was ailing, Cummings stated he planned to subpoena both acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli and acting ICE Director Matthew Albence to testify on October 17, the day he would later pass away. (Both men agreed to testify, voluntarily, but the hearing has been postponed until the 24th.)
Cummings also signed two subpoenas driven to him in Baltimore hours before his death, both dealing with the Trump administration’s coldhearted policy change to temporarily end the ability for severely ill immigrants to seek care in the United States.
One of the young immigrant patients who had testified to a House Oversight subcommittee about this draconian Trump measure, a Honduran teenager named Jonathan Sanchez, told the assembled lawmakers, simply, “I don’t want to die.”
Cummings knew all too well that this is a country that kills people with its racism, and saw this president trying to do it. He went to his deathbed trying to change that America. His untimely death left that work undone, but that task is ours now.
Correction: Elijah Cummings’ father’s name was misstated in an earlier version of this article. It’s Robert.