The festivities, which began after church, was the kind of celebration that Elders said she prefers – with golden-fried fish, barbecue ribs and fellow senior citizens and their children – many of whom she has known for most of her life.
“This has always been my home and we’re a close-knit community with a population of 99 people – 98 when I’m away in Little Rock,” she said with a laugh.
Elders, appointed by former President Bill Clinton as the 15th Surgeon General of the United States, took office on September 8, 1993, as the nation struggled to make sense of a deadly AIDS epidemic, surging numbers of teen pregnancies, and debates over the potential benefits of allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Elder stepped in, guided by both her medical background, love of science, and her faith in God. Her stance on many of the hot topics of the day would soon result in leading Republicans calling for her dismissal – a view which even some members of her own Democratic Party eventually supported.
Elders said she remembers it well. “It was an era when no one wanted to talk about sex, but we’re sexual beings – from birth to death,” she said. “We were amid the deadly AIDS epidemic with numbers higher than in sub-Sahara Africa, so we had to talk about sex to control the spread of the virus. Teen pregnancy numbers were also surging and we needed to get that under control. And the disproportionate escalation in unplanned children within the black community was a major cause for African Americans being stuck, sometimes generationally, near the bottom in education and at the top in terms of poverty.”
Elder would face further objections to her appointment after a reporter asked her a pointed question about her views on masturbation and she responded that she believed it was something natural and healthy and not something that was perverse.
“We couldn’t talk about sex back then in America – we could and did have sex, but we couldn’t talk about it,” she said. “I was among the minority of Americans who understood that masturbation is part of human sexuality. Further, I believed then and now, that it’s something that we should allow children to feel comfortable with and learn about, especially if you want to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs.”
Clinton removed her from her position on December 31, 1994, with some political pundits suggesting that he had yielded to the pressure so that he would not lose his base of supporters.
Clinton, in announcing his decision, said, “she is a person of great energy and conviction, and has devoted her life to children’s health, reducing teen pregnancy, and fighting AIDS, but there are a number of things on which we have different positions.”
Now at the age of 90, happily married for 69 years and the mother of two sons, Elders said America needs to focus on issues that really matter.
“We aren’t thinking and we really need to – we need to spend time discussing problems and issues that impact society which we can change to make the world better for all of us: human reproduction, climate control, education, and finances. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing Donald Trump and his problems but we can’t resolve the issues that he’s facing. So, we’re wasting time and failing to communicate with one another more effectively.”
Elders said, without missing a beat, that she has no regrets.
“You can’t be offended when people criticize you or disagree with you when you get old like me,” she said, adding that she attributes her longevity to “thinking positively and being grateful to God for keeping me here.” “I don’t know why I’ve been so blessed but I’m going to keep doing good so I can stay around. God has more work for me to do so I can continue to make a difference.
Even when I was working as the surgeon general, I was always concerned with doing what was good and right. I thought about the issues and those I felt strongly about I adopted into my beliefs.
“If I were asked about my life, I think I would like most to be remembered as one who did the very best I knew how,” she said. “I gave the world the best I had – and that’s good enough for me.”
Nicholas Tana, an award-winning writer/director producer, is currently chronicling the life of Dr. Jocelyn Elders. A native of Weehawken, New Jersey, Tana featured Elders in a documentary released in 2016, “Sticky: A (Self) Love Story,” which garnered awards from its Amazon platform and which has become a staple for many college instructors teaching courses in human sexuality, sociology, and psychology.
He said he sees Elders as “a unique woman” – someone he has long admired whose story is timely especially considering the complex issues facing Americans today.