Elijah Cummings ~ one of our truest lights

Dear President Trump,

One of our steadiest, truest little lights, one that never, ever hid under a bushel, went out last night when Elijah Cummings passed away.

I wanted to yell “NO” when I saw the headline this morning, and I definitely did in my head. And if my heart could talk, it would have protested too.

Elijah Cummings was a true beacon, a light shiner who seemed to believe that his place was down on the ground with everyone, showing us the way forward and helping us light our lights. He unrelentingly spoke truth-to-power while staying focused on knitting us together when we were unraveling. The more gifted among us can sometimes manage to shine on one or the other side of that equation, but Representative Cummings consistently infused his messages with the challenge to look hard at reality, to name it and its consequences in ways most mere mortals would sooner turn to salt than say out loud, and at the same time reminding us that we really are in this together and that we need one another.

I was shocked to see that he was only 68 – I’d always thought of him as being much older, at least into his mid-70’s. It wasn’t that he wasn’t vigorous and sharp, it was more that there seemed to be a world-weariness and an “I’ve seen way too much for one lifetime” feeling about him that, for me, doesn’t square with his chronological age.

I tried to find US life expectancy information by gender, race, and state all together to see how much too young, relative to the actuarial figures, he died since he clearly was way, way too young to go. I found a couple of sites that give those bits of information separately, but so far haven’t found them all rolled up together. I am 99% certain those more specific data exist because surely someone has thought to wonder what the life expectancy is for a white woman in Minnesota (where the overall life expectancy is 78.7) versus that of an African American man in Mississippi (where the overall life expectancy is 71.8). My bet is that the difference there is going to be around 12 years given white women’s overall especially long life expectancy and African American men’s especially low life expectancy.

And I recognize that in trying to contextualize Representative Cummings’ death by looking up life expectancy numbers, I’m avoiding really sitting with the loss of him and what that means for all of us. He was Chair of the House Oversight Committee, for one colossal thing, and while there will no doubt be a perfectly capable replacement appointed, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to be able to fill his shoes.

You (or whoever you assigned to make the statement) were actually pretty respectful and thoughtful in commenting on Mr. Cummings’ passing, but it’s his wife Maya’s beautiful statement that I want to leave you with:

“Congressman Cummings was an honorable man who proudly served his district and the nation with dignity, integrity, compassion and humility. He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation’s diversity was our promise, not our problem. It’s been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible journey. I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly.”

May we all be safe to shine our little lights together.
May we all be willing to pick up and carry on with Representative Cummings’ life’s work.
May we see, as he did, that we need to care now for the health and well-being of generations unborn.
May we see, as he did, that we can only do this by honoring and respecting each and all.

Tracy Simpson

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