As the twentieth century came to a close, matters of death and dying
were the subject of vital public discussion, invading radio and newspaper
stories, launching best-selling books about the funeral industry, produc-
ing documentaries about the ethics of death and dying, and sustaining
debates about how to die well, whether to die at all, and who should as-
sist. Readers and discussants came from all walks of life—from the pro-
fessions (physicians, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians), as well
as from our families (a parent’s dying wish, a brother or sister passed on
and painfully remembered, our own fears of dying, and our own memo-
ries of the first funerals we attended).
Passed On engages the energy and spirit of those interests, experi-
ences, and perhaps most important, of our persistent curiosities about
this subject, focusing them into a study of death and dying in twentieth-
century African America. Although the text of this book spans the twen-
tieth century, it certainly could not ‘‘cover’’ the century, since there were,
of course, more stories of death and dying in African America during
that era than could be recovered here. For that reason, the critical pro-
cess of this book has been to make certain that the stories I do tell suf-
ficiently echo others already familiar to the reader or shadow those that
might not get fully recalled to voice or text but that nevertheless con-
tinue to haunt our cultural imaginary. This book gives a particular con-
text to these stories, a perspective that my computer program does not
like at all. Whenever I write the phrase that identifies my argument—
‘‘black death’’—a squiggly green line underscores it on my computer
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