Saturday, September 12, 2009

60 million minutes: Gertrude Baines (1894-2009)

When Gertrude Baines was born on April 6, 1894, Grover Cleveland was president, neither penicillin nor aspirin were available to consumers, the Wright Brothers were almost a decade from powered flight, black Americans were just 31 years past the Emancipation Proclamation, and a rocker was a chair and nothing but.

In the 115 years, 5 months and 5 days that followed, this daughter of the South would live through two world wars, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, repeated landings on the moon, the birth and development of the Internet, and the first African American president of her lifetime.

Gertrude Baines died on Friday, probably of a heart attack, at at the Western Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles at 7:25 a.m.. While so many of us live lives on the express route, roaring through fast in the HOV lane, Gertrude Baines took the scenic route through life. The very scenic route.

Baines, whose grandparents were slaves, was born in Shellman, Ga., and lived in Connecticut and in Ohio, working as a maid in Ohio State University dormitories until she retired and ultimately moved to California.

The 42,162 days of her life are a testament to the human spirit and to human tenacity in general, but it’s especially sweett that Baines survived to this age as an African American. As the national cohort with among the lowest life expectancies, the highest infant mortalities and the most dismal prospects for improvement, black Americans can still take real solace in knowing that sometimes, genetic predisposition trumps everything.

Not that she didn’t have her indulgences; she was said to be a fan of ice cream, crispy bacon, friend chicken and Jerry Springer. Her diet may be a cautionary tale, but in other ways she was a doctor’s dream. "She told me that she owes her longevity to the Lord, that she never did drink, never did smoke, and she never did fool around," her doctor, Dr. Charles Witt, said in April, according to CNN.

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You’re tempted to think that if she can live to the very ripe old age of 115 fueled by nitrites and nitrosamines, saturated fat, cholesterol and bad tabloid television, there’s hope for all of us. But if you’re African American, there’s something more. There has to be.

There’s something of her strength, her innate resilience in every black person in America. Granted, we won’t all get to take the loooong way home, like she did. But if longevity is possible, persistence is necessary. Gertrude Baines’ life was an example of persistence against all odds that’s brought us this far as a people. It’s bred in the bone. It’s bred in the marrow of the bone.

It’s often said by people lamenting the dear departed when said dear departed lived to see emeritus years: “She had a good run.”

When she was born 60.7-odd million minutes ago, lynchings of black men had become not just common but rampant in Georgia.

Ten months before she died, she cast her vote for the first black president of the United States.

Gertrude Baines had a great run. Her staying power is our own.
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Image credit: Baines top © 2009 John Rabe, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 3.0. Baines bottom: CNN.

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