On Friday August 28, 2020 while I was out celebrating my cousin’s 29th birthday and her last year in her 20s, 3 news notifications hit my phone within minutes of each other, all from reputable news sources. Chadwick Boseman had passed away from colon cancer at the age of 43. I remember immediately glancing up and calling out to our tables what had happened. A few people responded that they had just heard the news. I sat there in utter disbelief because, like everyone, I hadn’t known he was sick; furthermore that he had been battling stage IV cancer. As I started doing the math, I thought about all the movies that had come out since Black Panther and quickly surmised that he had been sick while filming all of them. To say I and others were stunned at his death is an understatement. But what I didn’t expect was the utter grief that would cripple me for the next few days emotionally. I didn’t know Chadwick Boseman from a hole in the wall, and yet hearing about his passing felt like hearing about a family member’s death-one you loved and cherished but maybe didn’t speak to or see all the time. But whenever you did see them, it was like no time had passed and you picked up right where you left off. So when you hear they’ve died, it’s absolutely devastating.
When Black Panther hit the screens in late January 2018, it was a cultural phenomenon unlike anything I had ever experienced in my entire life. I had never seen my community internationally come out to support a body of work like this movie. I remember seeing the memes and videos of Black people celebrating the film with traditional African garb and headdresses; movie theatres were bought out for whole entire communities of Black children to see it for free. The “Wakanda Forever” salute was seen being done by almost every Black celebrity in tribute and honour to the movie. It seemed like we were truly entering the Black Renaissance. Little did anyone know that Chadwick, who played the lead role of King T’Challa, had been diagnosed and was actively fighting cancer. There was never a whisper, never a rumour about anything being wrong with him. His director, Ryan Coogler, said beautifully in a tribute he wrote that he had no idea that the entire time he knew Chadwick that he was sick. As he so eloquently put it, “Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art.” There was that one time he completely broke down on a Sirius XM radio interview he was doing with Sway when he started talking about these two terminally ill patients who were holding on to life to see the movie, that had passed away before it released. No one knew at the time that part of his emotional distress was because he too knew that this was a real possibility of being how his story and time here on this Earth would come to an end. That just like those young souls, cancer could (and would) take him from us way too soon. Every time I watch that video now, I lose it. It had already made me tear up initially watching it when it first aired because I’m one of those people who gets very emotional seeing men cry. Now, realizing what he was truly dealing with, it humbles me in ways I never could have imagined to watch his pain spill over uncontrollably in that interview.
In the days since Chadwick’s passing, there has been great grief in the Black community. Pictures of little boys holding funeral ceremonies with their Avengers toys, doing the Wakanda salute in honour of Chadwick with their tears falling have made their rounds on the internet. People sharing the video of the Sirius XM interview have now been viewed millions of times. Black community social and business groups I’m a part of show people openly grieving his death and admitting that this is affecting them more than they ever could have imagined it would. I think part of it is the timing of this, especially in the middle of a global pandemic that is already taking way too many Black lives as it is. But the other part, the part I think is more poignant, is overall the Black community is tired of losing our heros and community members in general. I’m sure there will be some entitled, privileged white person who may think or say that “people die every day,” “he was just an actor” or some other insensitive, tone deaf thing as some white people are want to say to my community at times like these. They feel the need to assert their perspective on the deaths of our community family members, as if any Black person asked or cares what their opinion is about us. I remember when Black Panther came out, there were several white people who felt the need to comment on their friends pictures who were excited about the movie, “You know Wakanda isn’t a real place, right?” As if our celebration of Black culture impeded their ability to mind their own business in any way. Many non-Black people are genuinely confused why we as a community are grieving this death so hard. Let me attempt to briefly explain why this is so significant.
Most Black children never grew up seeing themselves reflected or represented in media as anything other than gangbangers, troubled kids, drop outs or hoodlums. The media has done a very good job of subliminally typecasting us in roles that do not show Black people in a positive light. Black people had been conditioned to a different form of slavery, one in which you as a Black person get paid to portray Black people in the worst light possible. If Black men were portrayed on television or in movies, they were typically shown as “thugs” or drug dealers. On the opposite end of that spectrum, they were portrayed as nerds who were as far from what “Blackness” is to white people as possible. For Black women, it’s just as bad. Black women were portrayed as attitude having, eye-rolling, angry, teeth-kissing, head rolling, multiple baby-daddy having, unwed drug using single mothers. Either way, we were always portrayed for white and non-Black POC in ways that made them comfortable and reaffirmed the stereotypes they already had of us. So to see Chadwick play the iconic role of King T’Challa, ruler of Wakanda, an uncolonized land teeming with Black ingenuity, engineering and rich culture was everything. Seeing a portrayal of what we might have been as a people if some of us hadn’t been sold into slavery literally changed our lives. It was the idea of what was possible for a whole and healed Black people and Black society. It gave us a glimpse into what our normal could and should be. Chadwick playing that role was the epitome of Black excellence in art. He brought everything to that role, as he did with all his parts. He carried an entire people on his shoulders when he represented us on screen to the entire world. Countries who typically did not screen American movies or certain types of them, made exceptions. Even they recognized the cultural phenomenon that was Black Panther. And Chadwick was our face. He was our hero. He was our King, artistically. He embodied excellence and a mastering of his craft in every movie he did. He brought a depth of emotions to each of his characters. He illuminated the screen with his smile and left an indelible impression.
This is why we grieve. This is why we mourn. A piece of our history and culture is gone and will never be again. There will never be another to replace him and what he has meant to our community. Like Kobe, he represents a part of Black history that is written in the stars and in stone. People will always forevermore know his name. Black children will now have a real superhero who played a superhero. They will have an ancestor to look up to and model. Someone who faced the greatest adversity in his life with such humility and grace. And that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hurting. Anyone who has either had cancer or who has supported someone who has had cancer knows the challenges of that journey are unreal. But he chose to serve in his weakest moments. He served others who were struggling with the very same thing he was. He sowed words of wisdom into college grads at his alma mater. He gave himself to his art so we could be entertained and educated at the same time. That is why he is heroic. That is why he is our King. And that is why we grieve.
Thank you for everything that you were on this earth, Chadwick Boseman. Your name and legacy will live on and in the hearts of your children and every one of us in the community. We will never forget you. You and Kobe, look out for us. We need all the help we can get down here. You’ve done your part. Help guide us as we do ours. Salute King. Stay busy in Heaven.