Gone Too Soon: America’s Missing Black Men
A journalist travels back to Alton, Illinois, the birthplace she shares with Miles Davis, to examine the long-term economic, social and emotional impact of black men missing due to early death.
Disturbed by black men’s lower-than-average life expectancy, five fewer years than white men, Shawn Taylor returns home to talk to survivors of black men she knew as leaders, mentors and promising youth who died early from a car accident, heart failure, untreated infection and gun violence to show how those deaths impacted them over time.
Alton sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, 17 miles north of Ferguson, MO. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a seat of abolitionists’ influence, and once a formidable industrial hub. You could get a job right out of high school and join the middle class. But that economic pipeline burst with deindustrialization, made worse for Alton’s black community by the persistent losses of essential male contributors.
No family is immune. Through painful stories of loss and remembrance, Gone Too Soon shows the essential roles black men play in the emotional, social and economic well-being of those around them – a fact that’s woefully discounted.
These losses are cast against the metaphorical legend of the Piasa bird of Native American folklore. A giant creature said to have preyed on the men and youth of the cliff dwelling tribes that occupied Alton’s bluffs. The Children, Alton’s future kings lost to violence or accidents. The Braves, the business and civic leaders who locals came to rely on for jobs and direction who fell dead or gravely ill.
Civil leader Essic Robinson’s widow was left with five children after her athletic husband succumbed to a stealthy affliction – diabetes-related constriction of his arteries that caused a 100 percent blockage. Minnie Robinson says her church has diminished due to the early deaths of men like her husband. “We’re a church of older women now.” In the film, she talks about the economic hardships she faced as a widow.
“In most cases, people are ill prepared . . . for the absence of that income. And so many people do not have insurance . . . And sometime, losing that spouse, you’ve lost everything. . . and depending on what age you are when you lose your husband, there’s nothing for you.”
In 2014, more than 20 years after Essic’s death, Minnie attends her first Widow’s Brunch, an annual affair hosted at a black church. The women are pinned with corsages and honored one-by-one in an elaborate ceremony. During the brunch, the widows, who range from 36 to 92 years old, pass the microphone and talk about their husbands. One woman’s husband had been dead for over 50 years.
Billy Carman, the last black construction contractor in Alton, fell dead on the job at 64. He was one of four Masonic lodge brothers to die over a three-month span, and the last black construction contractor in the city. Another contractor, Kenny Carter, one of the four, preceded him in death. Their death stories are so similar people get them confused.
“Kenny had a heart attack and fell off a roof. Billy was laying concrete and had a heart attack,” says Billy’s brother, Richard. Billy’s business shut down and his children never saw a dime of the money.
“He was monumental in my life,” says Billy’s son, Travis. “Everybody expects me to fill those shoes.”
Travis is handsome with piercing light-brown eyes. He says not a week goes by someone doesn’t ask, “When are you going to start your daddy’s business back up?” Travis is a barber and owner of Kingdom Kutz in Alton. He’s a family man and a role model. His sister, Krissy, fell into poverty after their father died and her husband, Mason El, went to prison on cocaine charges for 13 years under zero tolerance sentencing. After his release in 2016, the two must learn to live as a couple and a family again. Mason El finds his calling in spoken word, delivering inspirational messages of self-love and empowerment to black men and women.
In the black community, gun violence is no respecter of economic or educational status. The Caffey brothers, Rodney, Brandon and Greg, were raised middle class by a steel plant supervisor and an English teacher. All three college-educated professionals lost their best friend to gunfire.
Rodney and Duwonne Martin were born on the same day. Duwonne, who studied in Barcelona and was fluid in Spanish, took a job in Mexico. He was gunned down by two 15-year-olds there after being seen talking to a jailed criminal’s pregnant girlfriend. He was just trying to help her find a job. He was 28 years old.
“Duwonne was my only child. It’s so devastating for me for him to be gone,” said his mother Beverly, a social worker who raised her son to be of service to others.
Plant worker Nancy Clark’s only son, Jarvis, (Greg Caffey’s best friend) a high school senior who wanted to study engineering, was robbed and murdered by his own cousin. More than 20 years later, Nancy still sleeps in her son’s room, surrounded by his boyhood treasures and several stuffed Tweetie Birds he won for her at amusement parks.
“Jarvis used to tell me, ‘Ma, mens come and go. But it’s going to always be you and me,” Nancy said.
Marcus Webb (Brandon Caffey’s dear friend) shot himself with his grandfather’s rifle, and his parents and brother still don’t understand why. Marcus had just finished a year at the local community college to get his grades back up. He looked forward to returning to SIU Edwardsville in the fall. Years later, a teen named Greg Collins is discovered to be homeless by three female teachers at Alton High School. They find him a home with Marcus’ father, Pastor James Webb, who becomes like a father and Greg a son to him. Greg graduates from SIUE and in the film both men are honored for their leadership at the 2015 100 Black Men ball.
Alton is the birthplace of jazz great Miles Davis, but a life-sized statue of the Tallest Man in the World, Robert Wadlow, has stood as one of Alton’s biggest tourist attractions. An Alton transplant, a white woman who is a widow and mother to two musician sons, spearheaded the creation of a multicultural committee to build support and raise money to erect a statue honoring Davis downtown. The film culminates with the community coming together for the unveiling of a Miles Davis tribute statue. It is a long overdue recognition of Alton’s most famous citizen and symbolizes recognition of black men’s contributions to society. Nearly all of the friends and loved ones interviewed for the film happened to be present at the dedication. The families of Jarvis Clark, Billy Carman and Essic Robinson view the bricks engraved with their loved ones names surrounding the statue for the first time. The filmmaker had the engraving done honoring four of the deceased men featured in the film as a crowdfunding campaign perk.