The Effect of Suffering on Generativity: Accounts of Elderly African American Men

Jefferson Center for Applied Research on Aging and Health, Thomas Jefferson University, 130 South 9th Street, Suite 515, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
The Journals of Gerontology Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences (Impact Factor: 3.21). 02/2009; 64(2):296-303. DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gbn012
Source: PubMed
This article focuses on attitudes to and behaviors of generativity in 6 older African American (AA) men.
Data on generativity emerged from in-depth qualitative research that explored experiences of suffering in community-dwelling persons aged 80 years and over.
For these AA men, experiences of racism were salient in stories of suffering, and suffering was intricately related to attitudes and behaviors of generativity. We placed men's narratives, showing the link between suffering and generativity, in 3 categories: Generativity is rooted in (a) suffering and in empathy for suffering others, (b) experiences of redemption from suffering, and (c) religious belief that assuages suffering.
These AA men's generative behaviors were shaped by unique life experiences, including experiences of suffering. Bequeathing a legacy to succeeding generations was tied to suffering experiences, to the personal and communal identities that emerged from suffering, to the importance of inter- and intragenerational community, and to what men believed others needed from them.


Available from: Helen K Black, Aug 27, 2014
Black, H.K. , & Rubinstein, R.L. (2009). The effect of suffering on generativity: Accounts of elderly African American men. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 64B(2), 296–303,
doi:10.1093/geronb/gbn012, Advance Access publication on January 30, 2009
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LTHOUGH generativity was originally explored as a
psychological and developmental construct ( Erikson,
1963 ), further research explored generativity as a cultural phe-
nomenon ( Alexander, Rubinstein, Goodman, & Luborsky,
1991 ). Culturally, generative actions are context dependent
and cannot be separated from personal identity factors, such
as ethnicity and gender, and from social circumstances. The
perceived needs of future generations also infl uence what
an individual views as important to bequeath.
This article is based on in-depth interviews of six African
American (AA) men who were part of a larger study that in-
vestigated events of suffering in community-dwelling adults
age 80 years and over. Our contribution to the literature on
generativity in elderly AA men, a group that has been under-
studied regarding a variety of lived experiences, shows that
experiences of racism were prominent in their stories of suf-
fering. We also explore the signifi cance of macro and micro
cultures in experiences of and redemption from suffering that
brought about a particular type of generativity in AA men.
Generativity and Suffering
The modern study of generativity derives from Erikson’s
(1963) theory of lifespan development, which contrasts gen-
erativity with stagnation as one of eight dichotomous stages
that adults must psychodynamically address. Erikson ini-
tially defi ned generativity as an interest in guiding the next
generation which was typically achieved through parent-
hood. More recent work by Kotre (1984) enlarged the scope
of generativity by defi ning it as a desire to invest one’s
substance in forms of life and work that outlive the self.
Our focus is on generativity shaped by cultural context
and manifested in individuals. Peterson and Stewart (1996)
suggest that generative attitudes have antecedents in per-
sons lives and are rooted in family and community ideals.
For example, Wickremasinghe (2006) reported that Sri
Lankan elders manifest generativity by disallowing their adult
children to care for them, encouraging them to achieve their
goals without encumbrance. The work of Rubinstein (1987) ,
Goodman (1996) , and Goodman, Black, and Rubinstein
(1991) on North American childless elderly showed how
some social customs marginalized older adults who
never bore children, yet idealized childless elderly whose
child(ren) predeceased them. In American culture, genera-
tivity is shaped through its embeddedness within individu-
alism, which promotes a sense that one must make his or her
mark on the world before death ( Alexander et al., 1991 ).
Historical events infl uenced the individual and cohort de-
velopment of elderly AA men. Born in the southern United
States between World War I and the Depression, some AA
men migrated to northeastern cities beginning prior to World
War II to fi nd employment ( Davis, Grant, & Rowland,
1992 ). A localized and nationalized racism that was consid-
ered normative in most of the 20th century delineated AA
men’s choices about jobs, education, and careers. In this co-
hort, color ensured particular outcomes in life and lay at the
core of individuals negative experiences ( Black, 2006 ).
Generativity in AA men is linked to how they internal-
ized cultural standards of their day. Although the cumula-
tive disadvantages of minority populations prevented
achievements in many domains ( Hannon, 2003 ; O’Nell,
The Effect of Suffering on Generativity:
Accounts of Elderly African American Men
Helen K. Black
and Robert L. Rubinstein
Jefferson Center for Applied Research on Aging and Health (CARAH), Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Doctoral Program in Gerontology, University of Maryland, College Park.
Background. This article focuses on attitudes to and behaviors of generativity in 6 older African American (AA) men.
Methods. Data on generativity emerged from in-depth qualitative research that explored experiences of suffering in
community-dwelling persons aged 80 years and over.
Results. For these AA men, experiences of racism were salient in stories of suffering, and suffering was intricately
related to attitudes and behaviors of generativity. We placed men’s narratives, showing the link between suffering and
generativity, in 3 categories: Generativity is rooted in (a) suffering and in empathy for suffering others, (b) experiences of
redemption from suffering, and (c) religious belief that assuages suffering.
Conclusions. These AA men’s generative behaviors were shaped by unique life experiences, including experiences of
suffering. Bequeathing a legacy to succeeding generations was tied to suffering experiences, to the personal and com-
munal identities that emerged from suffering, to the importance of inter- and intragenerational community, and to what
men believed others needed from them .
Key Words: African American men — Generativity — Suffering .
Page 1
1987 ; O’Rand, 1996 ), the mandate of individualism, which
emphasized self-determination, appears to have held sway.
For AA men, the cultural ideals of the larger society clashed
with the inferior position into which society placed them.
Masculinities, or attitudes and behaviors that are viewed as
gender appropriate ( Sabo & Gordon, 1995 ), compounded the
stress of living in a segregated society. Suffering that resulted
from cultural demands and social oppression produced
a unique generativity in AA men of this cohort ( Black &
Rubinstein, 2000 ; Lawrence, 2006 ); the impetus toward
generative expression occurred because of and despite suf-
fering ( Peterson & Stewart, 1996 ).
For these elderly AA men, coming to terms with a past in
which racism was normative and masculinities were re-
quired but often thwarted produced several phenomena: (a)
a singular perception of human nature and life situations
( Paris, 1995 ), (b) a communal identity shared with other AA
men ( Hart, McAdams, Hirsch, & Bauer, 2001 ), (c) a relative
defi nition of success that took opportunities and restrictions
on opportunities into account ( Roy & Lucas, 2006 ), and (d)
a unique generativity that emerged in relation to experi-
ences of suffering.
Generativity, Suffering, and Narrative
One way to fi nd meaning in suffering is by constructing a
personal biography. Included in a respondent’s story is a rea-
son for why suffering occurred, what was gained from the ex-
perience, and how suffering fi t into the life as a whole ( Frank,
1995 ; Rentsch, 1997 ). The wisdom gained from surviving de-
spite suffering is shared through venues such as family stories,
practical knowledge, and cultural and religious beliefs. Thus,
the suffering narrative itself is considered generative and ther-
apeutic ( Blackwell, 2005 ; Schroots & Birren, 2002 ).
In suffering narratives, the self is placed in a broad con-
text which acknowledges the link of multiple generations.
Personal experiences are offered in a triptych, with ances-
tors and offspring on either side of the center self. The
triptych shows the power of unity, the dangerous memory
of oppressed peoples ( Gutierrez, 1987 ), and the necessity of
never forgetting the past. Providing care to living elders tar-
gets past and future generations with generative action
( Crossley, 2000 ). Ancestors are acknowledged as the front
line of the legacy, and younger generations witness parents’
compassion and respect for elders.
Generativity, Suffering, and African American
An important aspect of African spirituality is survival
theology ( Berryman, 1987 ; Paris, 1995 ). The subject matter
of survival theology concerns fi nding meaning in life in the
midst of suffering; one of its tasks is to preserve life-affi rm-
ing traditions in the community ( Lehman, 1980 ). Survival
theology reveals how humans participate in God’s work in
history by calling into question the economic, social, and
political order that oppresses and marginalizes certain peo-
ples ( Gutierrez, 1987 ; Paris ). Practical consequences (re-
demption occurs in this world and the next) transform
survival theology into a theology of hope ( Chapman, 1980 ).
Redemption is manifest through acts of worldly genera-
tivity ( James, 1902 ; McAdams, 2006 ), such as working for
justice in this life, and encouraging the passing on of Afri-
can rituals, such as libations ( Wilmore, 1980 ).
Witnessing and testifying to suffering and redemption
perpetuate the oral tradition of AA spirituality ( Pinn, 1995 ;
Raboteau, 1980 ). Narrative accounts of suffering, redemp-
tion, and hope have historical and spiritual signifi cance. Re-
counting events of suffering dates back to at least the time
of slavery ( Cone, 1989 ; Karenga, 1989 ). Events of degrada-
tion became stories of deliverance by God ( Pinn ; Stewart,
1835, 1988 ). Accounts of suffering related to racism are
resonant of an historical past and a redeemed future. They
are oral documents in which God, the community, suffer-
ing, and redemption come together in human history. These
multivocal narratives themselves are generative; they extend
the self and AA tradition through time ( Brandtstadter & Greve,
1994 ). Through narratives, elders honor ancestors and be-
queath roles of repository and narrator of AA history to fol-
lowing generations.
Theoretical Framework
Our research is situated on social constructionist theory
( Berger & Luckmann, 1966 ), which recognizes experiences
such as suffering and generativity as culturally constructed
concepts based on cultural meaning and an individual’s
context. Our research employs three frameworks that refl ect
social constructionist theory: The fi rst is phenomenology
and the sociology of knowledge, which focuses on how
people understand and interpret everyday life ( Rubinstein,
1992 ). The second is AA religious studies, which forges
links among suffering, survival theology, and the signifi -
cance of oral narratives in AA history ( Pinn, 1995 ), and
reveals how collective memories of oppression and hope
inform survival theology and the identity of the AA
community ( Wilmore, 1989 ). The third is narrative theory,
which demonstrates how individuals identities emerge
from the narrative construction of their lives ( Fisher,
1984 ).
Data Collection
The six men whose data form the basis for this article
were included in the research study The Meaning of Suf-
fering in Later Life. In the parent study, data were col-
lected from 120 elders in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
area, including 12 AA men, through ethnographic inter-
views and informal conversation ( Reissman, 1997 ) and
were processed through audiotaping, transcription, coding,
Page 2
and in-depth analysis. Because of space constraints, we used
data from the fi rst six AA men interviewed. All AA men
showed the commonalities refl ected in our themes. Our use
of six cases to illustrate fi ndings supports the case study
method as a necessary and suffi cient means of showing a
phenomenon, such as generativity, in its depth ( Flyvbjerg,
2006 ). To paraphrase Eysenck (1976) , individual cases dem-
onstrate our intent to learn intensely about a phenomenon.
We note that respondents are identifi ed by pseudonyms.
The research team consisted of the Principal Investigator
of the project (second author), an anthropologist and geron-
tologist, and the Coinvestigator (fi rst author and interviewer),
a gerontologist and religionist. The team also included a
full-time interviewer and transcriptionist who had experi-
ence using methods of qualitative research and a part-time
interviewer and transcriptionist who was trained in qualita-
tive research methods when hired.
When potential respondents called to request participa-
tion in the study, they were told the subject matter, goals,
and format of the interview. They were informed that
several topics including age, ethnicity, gender, and health
(among others) would be explored in relation to suffering
and that they could refuse to participate or cease participat-
ing at any time before or during the interview.
As a white woman, the fi rst author approached each re-
spondent anxious to learn from his life and narrative, recog-
nizing each man as the expert on the truth of his life. Each
respondent approached me as though he were educating me
about the story of his life and issues discussed. All respon-
dents had private interviews in their homes that lasted ap-
proximately 2 hr each in three sessions for a total of
approximately 6 hr. The main tool of the study was the in-
terview guide, which included open-ended questions that
spanned three sessions. At the beginning of the fi rst inter-
view, respondents reviewed and signed Thomas Jefferson
University’s Institutional Review Board letter of informed
consent. The fi rst interview session began with a request to
hear the life story. The second interview asked specifi c
questions about suffering. The third session discussed men’s
Data Analysis
After interviews were transcribed, they were analysed us-
ing standard methods of qualitative research. This method
includes data review, which asks the broad question, What
is in the data? The next step is large level sorting of each
transcript, which codes for themes and topics intraindividu-
ally ( Mischler, 1986 ; Silverman, 2001 ). Appropriateness of
large-level codes was discussed in weekly meetings among
the team. A fi ne-grained analysis was also accomplished,
which included coding for patterns within respondents en-
tire transcript. To attain satisfactory agreement, successive
phases of grouping and refi ning codes were performed. The
goal was to understand participants meaning in interview
responses. Data used in this article emerged from gross
level and fi ne-grained analysis. As new data were tran-
scribed and themes emerged, they were back-checked selec-
tively or universally with data from completed interviews.
Experiences of suffering related to racism occurred
throughout men’s lives and throughout their interviews.
These experiences infl uenced men’s generative attitudes
and behaviors to include a need to keep up the struggle
that forefathers endured and to protect future generations
from similar experiences. Our fi ndings showed that AA
men’s generativity was rooted in (a) suffering and empathy
for suffering others, (b) redemption from suffering, and (c)
religious belief that assuages suffering. All men related one
of these themes in their narratives; some related all three.
We continue with case examples.
Generativity Rooted in Suffering and Empathy
for Suffering Others
Mr. Jenkins is 80 years old and lives in a subsidized se-
nior apartment. He reported that experiences of discrimina-
tion were just normal when growing up in the south:
Before the start of school, Dad would take us fi ve boys down-
town to buy shoes. They wouldn’t let us try them on. You took
a string and measured your foot. They said, If you try them
on, nobody else will want them. Things haven’t changed.
Some stores, they act like you might steal something. It’s
one of those things I don’t see changing. He’s Black and you
have to watch him.
Despite a scarcity of jobs, Mr. Jenkins reasoned that ev-
erybody has to eat and everybody dies. He worked as a
cook before marriage, then attended mortuary college
(where he met his wife) to learn embalming. The couple
came to Philadelphia with their infant son. When asked if he
had ever suffered, Mr. Jenkins recalled his son’s death from
pneumonia at age 2, over 50 years previously:
My wife accused me of bringing the germ home from the
morgue. She went to Indiana with her family after the fu-
neral. That was a very low point. I closed myself up in the
house and drank. The funeral director wanted me to embalm
bodies. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get myself together. I took
a laborer’s job.
Mr. Jenkins present loneliness mirrors the past. Because
his middle son passed away two years previously, he has
endured a signifi cant depression:
We weren’t on the best of terms. I had to put him out, and we
never had a reunion. He liked the fast track. When his mother
was sick, I had to tell him to visit her. I always got him a job.
I carried him along with me.
Mr. Jenkins surviving son is childless, divorced, and
successful. Although he believes he could ask for help at
any time, his son must check his schedule just for a visit.
Page 3
Mr. Jenkins physical decline worries him. I’m 80 years
old and I see the difference from last year to this year. He
believes [he] will not make it through another year. Like-
wise [he] cannot escape these four walls because [he] fears
hitting the streets. There were numerous neighborhood
shootings in the past year:
I would say I suffer now. I got everything I need, but nobody
to talk to. Walls don’t answer. Your mind goes way back. And
you turn your TV on, this one’s killed today. So many were
killed yesterday. I get despondent.
Mr. Jenkins reported that suffering is watching others
suffer, including elderly neighbors who don’t have enough
to get by. When asked to defi ne suffering, he said: Suffer-
ing is not being able to get medical things you need to stay
alive. Not being able to buy food. Or have to choose buying
medicine or food.
Despite appearing frail, Mr. Jenkins implements his gen-
erativity by volunteering for an organization that works out
payment plans for elders overdue utility bills. As a judge of
elections, he knocks on neighbors doors, encouraging them
to vote. As an usher at his Baptist church, he attends Sunday
services to hand out the bulletins, walk them in, help out.
Last Christmas, Mr. Jenkins hoped to begin a romantic
relationship with a woman friend and wrote on a greeting
card: You may not be my fi rst love, but you’ll be my last.
This lady has since avoided him; he thinks his seriousness
frightened her. He called this unrequited love suffering :
It’ll never be as it was. Thing is I know her better than I know
anybody else. It’s better than walking out and meeting a
stranger. She wouldn’t steal from me; I would trust her in this
house anywhere.
Mr. Jenkins suffering consists of isolation, issues of trust
and mistrust, and nearness to death. Two of his sons are
deceased and his remaining son needs nothing from him.
He places his generative outlet on diminishing hopes for
romantic love and in empathy for the old folks.
Like Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Gossage, at age 81 years, has mul-
tiple health problems. He named the worst time in life as
being in the army. Returning home on leave also caused
I traveled back and forth to Maryland. In Delaware they
stopped the bus, said, you have to go in back. I thought, when
I get out the army, I’m sitting in the fi rst seat. I don’t care
what happens. That was a terrible thing.
Mr. Gossage’s living room is fi lled with appliances that
he repairs for neighbors. Throughout the past 40 years, fam-
ily members down on their luck have lived with him. Sev-
eral years ago, he took in three grandchildren after realizing
that their mother, his daughter, was addicted to drugs:
When I had my grandchildren, my health suffered. I wor-
ried about them, not myself. When they come, the curtain
came down. I went to court to get custody of them. Then I
brought my daughter here so she’d get off drugs. She did,
but after that she took me to court to get back custody. It was
rough her living here, no money, just welfare. I’d tell them
one thing, she’d say another. Two people talking to children
is horrible.
One of Mr. Gossage’s grandchildren, now a grown man,
is staying with him until he fi nds his own place. I asked
Mr. Gossage about this arrangement:
He don’t work, number one. The TV stays on all night. The
washing machine he wash all day. He is one reason I don’t
have no money today. When he left school he worked in the
prison. He made money on the side doing wrong. So he went
to prison and I used my money to get him out. He didn’t pay
me back what I put in. I did it for his mother; I didn’t want
her to go back on drugs.
Mr. Gossage’s generativity is created by the context of
his children’s lives and his neighborhood environment.
Homes on his block are boarded, some are drug houses, and
others are used by the homeless. Several years ago, he
rented a veterans post to open a soup kitchen that weekly
served almost 200 neighborhood needy. He relied on dona-
tions, and the rest he contributed
from my own pocket. A lot of old people do nothing. I feel
good helping somebody. It makes me forget my own prob-
lems. And I can go to very few for help. What keeps me go-
ing is the scale, you know, help, not help, help, not help.
Everybody have a job and I worry if I did my job cause it’s
gonna help in the end. Like a scale people do good, people
don’t do good, but we all have a chance to make ourselves
better by the deeds we do.
Mr. Gossage recently closed the soup kitchen due to
dwindling funds. Yet, his goals remain shaped by others
needs. He plans to travel to California to lay hands on the
seriously ill son of a good friend for healing. He is saving
to make this trip next spring. Mr. Gossage said he doesn’t
worry about estrangement from one of his daughters and
several grandchildren. He is concerned with generative be-
haviors for which he feels responsible, such as overweight-
ing the good side of his scale in order to balance out
others misdeeds and omissions.
Mr. Jenkins surviving child does not look to his father
for help, and Mr. Gossage feels he has already given too
much to children and grandchildren. Both men fi nd their
primary outlet for generativity in neighborhood elders who
need and are grateful for their assistance.
Generativity Rooted in Redemption From
Mr. Akers is 82 years old and the primary caregiver for
his demented wife. When asked to tell his life story, Mr.
Akers recalled that his parents modeled loving behaviors
despite living in a hateful world:
We sat down at our table and love was taught. Not the ruling
society. They were taught hate. I think of myself as an Amer-
ican, but I’m not classifi ed on equal ground as an American.
Because there were so many roadblocks. And when it’s put
forward it’s all justifi ed.
Page 4
As a young man, Mr. Akers had dreams of becoming a
doctor but delayed studying medicine in order to serve in
World War II:
That was the worst time of my life. They said we could fi nish
college and go in as commissioned offi cers. How our govern-
ment lies! They placed the Black fellows into one company;
we got basic training together. When orders came down, they
shot us in different directions. Most of the fellows, I never
saw them again.
Mr. Akers reported “ immobilizing arthritis ” was caused
by sleeping outside when he was in the army, and wak-
ing up drenched and drying off in the cold. And the same
thing every night.
After the war, Mr. Akers changed his career focus to busi-
ness. He soon realized that opportunities such as acquiring
loans or renting an offi ce were impossible for a Black man.
Doors that were open to others, to fi nd when you got to
them, they’re closed. He experienced discrimination in ev-
ery area of life:
I worked for a small company. I mentioned I wanted my own
business. My boss said, You’ll never be able to own a busi-
ness like this. I shrugged, smiled, made no comment. I knew
what he meant. In 1960 I left there, purchased a building, and
we (Mr. and Mrs. Akers) started our business. We worked 40
years. We survived. Actually we thrived.
Mr. Akers said his most salient characteristic determi-
nation was honed by his family of origin and by those
who tried to stop [him] :
America’s culture denies certain people their rights and
passes laws to justify it. And having parents that can’t do
anything or explain why it’s happening. Segregation forced it
on you, and if you fought against it, they’d kill you. It’s more
subtle now, but it’s the same. Don’t try to break the system.
Some slaves coming over said, I’ll go with you, others took a
dive overboard. People take a stand in different ways. Some
do nothing. Others get revenge. I take a stand with determi-
nation. I will survive and not pass on this hate.
Mr. Akers’ generativity has at least two outlets: One is his
devotion to his wife. When asked what gives life meaning, he
answered: To keep myself physically able to care for her. She’s
the only one I have to satisfy. The other is his spiritual legacy:
This country s hould fear terrorism; they’ve instilled so much
hate in the good old USA. You cannot keep torturing people
then say, my hands are clean. In my family, hate was never
taught. My daughter was taught love, not selfi shness, never
be out to hurt, belittle, or hate anyone.
Mr. Akers feels redeemed from suffering by his ability to
rise above hate. Despite injustices endured, his generativ-
ity bequeaths love, tolerance, and determination to his
daughter and grandchildren.
Like Mr. Akers, Mr. Thorne, an 88-year old man, revealed
generativity by his faith in life itself ( Kotre, 2000 ). When
asked to tell the story of his life, he began:
I was the only Black kid on the street. We played til they called
me names, then we’d fi ght. I couldn’t stand being belittled and
called out of my name by nobody. The name they used was
n-----. I lost jobs because of this. I fi gured the boss tried to kick
my butt because of my color. But I always got another (job).
Mr. Thorne continued: I had problems in life because
I’m Black so I had to be strong. I’m tough because being
Black is tougher, and I’ve learned to deal with it. He re-
ported that he was ambitious, impulsive, and worked hard
to be rich. As a teenager, he became a tailor’s apprentice.
Because of this skill and a gift of gab, he was never out
of a job. Like most AA men interviewed, he named being
in the service as the worst time in life:
Time I spent there was worse than jail. They tell you when
to eat, sleep, everything. Shut you down, don’t let you talk.
Tell you you’re nothing, a puppet. Worst thing in my life,
especially for my race. I was wasted in there.
Mr. Thorne shared how it was to be a Black man living in
Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s:
To be kicked down is a hurting thing. Discrimination was
my worst part of life. That’s the way the US was. I had mean
things happen over the years and it’s because of this (points to
skin on arm). People look at you like you’re dirt. That bores
a hole in you. If I was crazy like I once was, you wouldn’t be
here. Because I got to the point where you don’t want me, I
don’t want you. My daughter’s fi rst husband was White. A
musician. Didn’t like him; wouldn’t talk to him.
Although Mr. Thorne said it was his son-in-law’s per-
sonality, not his color that he disliked, he also stated, It’s
all coming out better now. Like I said, if you weren’t right,
you wouldn’t be here now.
Interviewer : How did you know I was right ?
Mr. Thorne : I know the fi rst second I see you. I fi gured this
is an education for you, too. I was always a teaching person.
It’s a great thing for me, helping people.
By mentioning his former son-in-law, Mr. Thorne seemed
to say personality is more important than race. Yet, past
negative experiences with White folks remain the template
for interpreting encounters with them. The quick scanning
of situations and the persons involved is necessary in a
world where racism has existed for as long as [he] can re-
member. And although he told the interviewer that she was
okay, he revealed that she had been scanned; it was his
decision whether or not she entered his home.
Because Mr. Thorne described himself as religious, the
interviewer asked, Where does God fi t into your experi-
ences of suffering? He answered, Oh, God in it all the
way. He sent her [points to kitchen, where wife watches
television] here to help me, get me through hard times, set-
tle me down. When asked what contributed to his longev-
ity, he again pointed to the kitchen:
I promised her mother on her deathbed. She said, Will you
take care of Pop? When she died, I brought him here. I
bathed him like a baby. I took care of him til he couldn’t do
nothing. I’m doing good now cause I’m getting blessed for
things I’ve done.
Page 5
The blessings Mr. Thorne accrued from reciprocal ser-
vice to his in-laws and helping people redeemed him from
suffering despite the hole [those experiences] bore in
[him]. When asked what advice he would give to younger
generations, he replied:
I don’t care how much you get kicked in the butt, you’ve got
to overcome it. You gotta take advantage with whatever you
can to stay on top. One thing is you got to believe in some-
thing and have a goal in life. My goal was I wanted to be rich.
I might not make it, but I still want it. You can’t sit back. I’ve
been told, you’re never satisfi ed, are you? I said, when I’m
satisfi ed I’m gonna die.
Mr. Akers and Mr. Thorne experienced redemption from
suffering by belief in the karmic justice of life. Both prod-
ded future generations to have long-term goals and short-
range plans to succeed materially and spiritually. Both saw
themselves as educators, teaching others the power of love,
toughness, and success as a response to suffering.
Generativity Rooted in Religious Belief That
Assuages Suffering
Mr. Hill is a 93-year-old married man who bought a plot
of land on which he built an apartment house, a garage, and
an empty building. He began his story by reporting that he
was blessed from the beginning. I was an honor student
at C High, graduated in 1932. I applied for a scholarship and
got accepted. A patron saw my transcripts and paid all my
expenses for college.
Mr. Hill’s past roles as teacher, marriage counselor, and
poet remain. His major role is Witness for Jehovah. When
asked to talk about experiences of suffering, he said, The
time I really suffered was when I graduated college with
honors and no one would hire me. That was a hard time.
Our interview schedule asks respondents about experi-
ences related to suffering depression and sadness. Mr. Hill
explained how all three constructs came together through
experiences of discrimination:
I’ve seen a lot that made me sad. I’ve been depressed by be-
ing discriminated against. I didn’t have opportunities cause
I was a minority. I couldn’t get jobs I was qualifi ed for. I
couldn’t live some places cause they wouldn’t have me.
Mr. Hill showed no bitterness with this revelation. In fact,
fellow Witnesses nicknamed him “ the Smiling Man. ” “ Peo-
ple know my biggest problem is discrimination. They say,
How come you’re like you are? I say, I drank the Colored
water ’ [laughter]. ”
The primary tool Mr. Hill used to counter injustice was
religion. As a Jehovah’s Witness, he gives meaning to a
painful past by focusing on the new earth to come:
Most bad things that happened I don’t want to recall. I’m
waiting for the new system. This thing (points to Bible) can’t
lie. You’re gonna build your home, plant your food, the ox and
lion gonna lie down together. (Offers a booklet) See, all Black
and White are going to come together. We all one people.
Mr. Hill suggested that empty buildings on his property
will be used as a safe house where family and other Wit-
nesses will be protected against the tribulation :
Jehovah sent me as a model for others. Our best life is
ahead and I do all I can to show people Jehovah has a plan
for man to live in paradise on earth.
Mr. Hill spends 40 hr a week knocking on doors and of-
fering religious tracts that describe the new system. At
age 93 years, his generativity includes proselytizing for the
new world and taking part in constructing it.
Mr. Wallace is an 82-year-old widower. Although he
walks with diffi culty because of arthritis, he said he feels
like he’s in [his] fi fties. ”
Mr. Wallace was born in the “ backwaters of Florida ” and
started full time work on the pogie boats after completing
fth grade. When asked about the best time in life, he re-
plied: Christmas and Thanksgiving because we had enough
to eat those days. When asked what it was like coming up,
he answered:
Nobody had cars. You got on buses and your seat was in
back. Don’t care no people was in front, you get back there.
I know it was the times. You have to live in the time you live.
If I was coming up now, I would have a different chance.
See, if you don’t know any different, you don’t suffer behind
it because you think it’s the way it should be. If something
happened now like then, I’d get my gun and shoot em. So
they be the one that suffers.
When asked about the worst time in life, Mr. Wallace
named serving in World War II:
I was on Iwo Jima. I would sleep with my rifl e, my bayonet
ready and was still scared to death. We had these tents; you
could hear the shooting whiz, whiz. You can’t sleep. But
in combat, the White people was going in front of us be-
cause they said they had more sense than us (laughs). They
in front? Who had more sense?
Although Mr. Wallace still jumped in [his] sleep from
nightmares 40 years after combat experience, he knew that
the war changed things:
When I came home I got on the trolley. I had two, three drinks.
People were standing in back and there was seats empty up
front. I sat down rst seat. Somebody said, You can’t sit
there. I said, Shit, why not? I went to sleep. But I was ready.
I put my switchblade under my coat. If anybody bothered me,
I’m gonna cut their throat. Look, I know how to be scared and
I know how to be brave, now I’m both. You be brave and you
be afraid and you know how to kill and you’re gonna do it.
When asked about the best time in life, Mr. Wallace
Time with my wife. When she got sick, I said I’d never put
her in a home. She died leaning on my shoulder. Once I said
I’m gonna get up at fi ve a.m. Out of the clear somebody
shook me. She still with me, and I’m praying I see her again.
When asked about future goals, he smiled:
Now is a good time. My house is paid off. I have grandchil-
dren I love and daughters that love me. Couldn’t be much
Page 6
better. The only thing I do now is go to church and go to
the nursing homes to give communion. I look to the Lord. I
say, You promised me this and taught me that, why would I
think You’d lie? He never promised me wealth. He said I’m
rich because He’s rich. I’m not worried about what’s on this
earth. I’m worried about making it into the Kingdom.
Mr. Hill and Mr. Wallace lived in two worlds during their
lifetime: one in which discrimination was just normal,
and the world that was beginning to change after the war.
For both men, their religious belief, and the new world it
promised, revealed their generativity. This next world would
produce the radical transformation of individuals for which
they hoped and promoted to others.
Experiences of suffering are integrally related to the so-
cial context in which our respondents were raised, devel-
oped, and are growing old. Their narratives revealed that
manifestations of racism that led to suffering shaped a fun-
damental response ( Brandtstadter & Greve, 1994 ), which
was to regenerate, in various ways, the community in which
they lived, into a place of safety and belonging. Our themes
revealed three ways respondents accomplished this.
Our rst theme—generativity rooted in suffering and in
empathy with suffering others—demonstrated respondents
identifi cation with others needs. Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Gossage
lived in tough neighborhoods where notions of commu-
nity seemed fractured. In encouraging others to vote and
starting a soup kitchen with personal funds, Mr. Jenkins and
Mr. Gossage attempted to create unity in their respective
neighborhoods by promoting compassion and empower-
ment. Participating in the research interview to educate oth-
ers about what it was like to be an AA man growing up in
the 1930s and 1940s was another act of generativity.
Theme two—generativity rooted in redemption from suf-
fering—revealed that an important aspect of redemption is
self-examination. AA men’s self-insight, intensifi ed through
a sense of marginality, generated a continuing appraisal of
themselves ( McAdams, 2006 ). The men also showed an
acute perception about others intentions as they offered a
portrait of discrimination, prejudice, and racism in the fi rst
half of the 20th century that, in some cases, persist. Despite
the persistence of discrimination, this theme also depicted
how men chose love and tolerance rather than bitterness or,
worse yet, apathy. Both Mr. Akers and Mr. Thorne clarifi ed
that redemption from suffering did not mean they should
reject anger anger was necessary for maintaining vigi-
lance against future oppression but to reject hatred that
precluded self-growth and prevented mentoring a world that
remains racially divided ( Rivers, 1998 ). Both men believed
that just as suffering is endured communally, it is redeemed
through bearing witness and testifying to ancestors strug-
gle, nourishing youth with realistic goals, and suggesting
“ power from the periphery ” ( Jett, 2002 ; Mathews, 1997 ).
Theme three—generativity rooted in religious belief—
showed that just as men bore witness to a segregated world,
they testifi ed to their hope that in the next world all would
be one. Their hope did not permit passivity, but a social
and religious consciousness that prompted Mr. Hill, at age
93 years, to actively proselytize, and Mr. Wallace to shape
earthly work around making it into the Kingdom. Both
men showed how religious consciousness is integrally re-
lated to generativity. Suffering and the lamenting of suffer-
ing are joined to biblical promises of an end to oppression
in this world and the next ( Wilmore, 1989 ).
Our research shows that suffering neither transcends its
context in history nor transcends the identity factors that
come together in our respondents, such as age, color, race/
ethnicity, geography, and gender. Yet, what has been carved
out by suffering can be fi lled only by hope. These men’s
response to suffering, on the whole, was to become educa-
tors, combatants, and believers in activism and hope. Tell-
ing their story in the research interview was one way to
achieve this.
Our discussions of race and suffering emerged from in-
terracial dialogues between elderly AA men and a younger,
female intimate stranger on the shared stage of the inter-
view ( Gubrium & Holstein, 1997 ). The characteristics of
age, race, and role made for complex interactions between
interviewer and respondent. Because the interviewer took
the role of student, and identifi ed the respondent as instruc-
tor, some of the power issues seemed displaced. We believe
the fi t of in-depth qualitative interviewing to the men inter-
viewed and to issues investigated was central to our fi nd-
ings. We suggest that our presentation an analytic and
descriptive article in which men were not compared with
other groups, and whose strong voices determined the path
our fi ndings took was also signifi cant.
We are very grateful to the National Institute on Aging for supporting
the research on which this paper is based.
We are grateful to Messrs. Jenkins, Gossage, Akers, Thorne, Hill, and
Wallace, who, with warmth and good humor, welcomed us into their
homes and shared their life stories. We also thank Jennifer Rhoades and
Abby Schwartz for their research skills. H.K.B. undertook all the inter-
viewing, development of the paper concept, cases, fi ndings, and discus-
sion. R.L.R. contributed material to the theoretical portion and methodology.
The paper also developed in the context of long-term discussions by the
authors about the topics of the paper.
Address correspondence to Helen K. Black, PhD, Jefferson Center for
Applied Research on Aging and Health (CARAH), Thomas Jefferson Uni-
versity, 130 South 9th Street, Suite 515, Philadelphia, PA. Email: helen.
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Received May 2, 2008
Accepted September 10, 2008
Decision Editor: Kenneth F. Ferraro, PhD
Page 8
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