February Note From Chief Marketing and Program Officer Tom Quash

February 18, 2022

Considering Legacy Planning as Black History

Editor’s Note: Chief Marketing and Program Officer Tom Quash is this month’s guest writer. 

When I went to school during the early 1970s, Black History Month was then relegated to a week in February, not the full month that we observe today. And each February it was easy to predict which of history’s trailblazers we’d likely discuss for those five school days that week — most likely Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman and for the fifth day, maybe Langston Hughes. Or Jesse Owens.

I remember thinking that surely there were more pioneers, more stories to be shared. And I knew that there were. At home, and not just in February, my father taught my brother and me about the notable Black Americans we did not learn about in school back then. He would play us his cassette tape recordings of speeches given by Malcolm X. I learned of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress. I marveled over my father’s autographed photo of boxing legend Muhammad Ali (which I have in my possession today). I discovered that we could trace our family lineage back to Ghana.

As detailed as my father was about familiarizing me with the breadth of Black American history over the many years beyond my childhood, as he approached his final days of life back in the summer of 2017, I was stunned to find that he was far less prepared with documenting his wishes before he died. My father did, after all, co-own an accounting firm in Brooklyn, so I naturally (and foolishly?) assumed that as an accountant, he would have been meticulous about detail, even the details about what to do if he faced a terminal illness or his own death. Throughout my life, my father was known for saying, “You always need another plan to fall back on.” But in death, my father had no plan.

He died three weeks before he planned to retire. He never wanted to talk about what would happen after he was no longer with us, even when I tried to approach this discussion, ever so gently, after his second major heart surgery. Thankfully, he did not end his final days suffering. Though he was in and out of the hospital, he did die peacefully at home and in his sleep. I imagine that is what he wanted, but it was only my own speculation. He never wanted to talk about such things.

My experience with my father during his final days, sadly, is not all that unique, particularly among the Black American community. There is a phrase we often use in our Community Engagement work here at Compassion & Choices: “Talking about death won’t kill you.” I think it succinctly captures the common thread within the Black community: that there is still this belief that the topic of death is taboo. But that is starting to change.

Perhaps it was COVID, and the related untimely deaths driven by the pandemic, that served as a catalyst. Or maybe it was the host of baby boomers now involved in elder care. Whatever the reason, we are chipping away at the barriers that kept the Black American community from engaging in a dialogue about death. And personally, I hope to see the self-constructed wall that blocks us from the death conversation finally crumble.

Last year, we launched a successful digital ad campaign designed to connect with the Black American community. The ads all touched upon the themes of legacy planning. This cultured approach proved successful, allowing us to complement the campaign with videos, op-eds, webinars and a new Twitter handle: @Blacklegacypla1.

We’ll continue these efforts into 2022, further bridging more connections and hosting more conversations. As we close out this Black History Month, for me it is not just to celebrate those whose names are familiar to us, but also in recognition of people like my father — the accountant, the lawyer, the mayor, the teacher — those who lived through and cherish Black history, and those who continue to build upon it. But one’s history or individual impact should also include how we honor their wishes in death. Indeed, Black legacy planning keeps Black history alive.

Compassion & Choices
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