What Chadwick Boseman Taught Us About Black History

The actor was as regal as the stories he shared with the world.

It felt as if the world stopped spinning when Chadwick Boseman died.

I had just spent my Friday evening watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, in which Boseman plays Stormin’ Norman, the courageous leader of a team of Black soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division who was killed during the Vietnam War, when I heard the news.

My friend, with whom I had discussed the film earlier that day, called and told me she didn’t know Boseman had really died. I tried to correct her, telling her it was only in the film, until she told me I was mistaken and that he had really died at age 43 from colorectal cancer. It felt like I had been punched in the gut. From the looks of my timeline, I wasn’t alone.

For 20 minutes, the only image I saw as I scrolled was a black-and-white photo of Boseman flashing his infectious smile as people began reacting to the news.

Everyone was experiencing the same level of shock. For months, we’ve been fighting against COVID-19 and systemic racism and less than a week after Jacob Blake was shot in his back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, leaving him paralysed from the waist down, it felt like we didn’t have much else to lose. That, plus the heroes we’ve already had to bury this year, meant Boseman’s death felt personal for us all.

Boseman was so much more than an actor. He gave Black stories, both real and fictional, the dignity and wholeness that they deserve but too often don’t receive in Hollywood. His dedication to telling the stories of Black American icons was consistent — so much so that the running joke was that if filmmakers were making a biopic of a Black person, Boseman already had the role.

But his portrayals of Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall show just how much reverence the Anderson, South Carolina, native had for the icons he played.

That’s because to Boseman our history was one of regality. He believed that and he carried himself in a similar manner. It made him the perfect choice to play King T’Challa in Black Panther, making history as the first Black actor to star in a major comic book movie, which broke records, barriers and limitations for so many.

While accepting the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards for Black Panther, Boseman spoke about the burden of being “young, gifted and Black.”

“We know what it’s like to be told to say there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on,” he said. “We know what it’s like to be a tail and not the head. We know what it’s like to be beneath and not above. And that is what we went to work with every day. Because we knew — not that we would be around during awards season and that it would make a billion dollars — but we knew that we had something special that we wanted to give the world; that we could be full human beings in the roles that we were playing; that we could create a world that exemplified a world that we wanted to see.”

Boseman was well aware of the doors his role would open for others to help build a Hollywood reflective of the diverse world we live in today. He knew the power of depicting the continent of Africa as gloriously as possible, even through fictional Wakanda. He knew the imaginations he would help expand as he gave little Black kids a superhero who looked like them whom they could look up to.

The news of his death was shockingly painful, but myself and so many others found comfort in the communal digital mourning that unfolded in our socially distant present.

Videos of Boseman’s commencement speech on the importance of finding purpose over a job at our shared alma mater, Howard University, made my heart warm. Boseman’s Black Jeopardy skit condemning Karen’s raisin-tainted potato salad made me laugh. And even the general sentiment of people understanding the importance of kindness on social media apps that often breed the opposite made me hopeful, even if only for a day.

Parents also posted photos and videos of their children commemorating their hero with their own homegoing services. Thousands signed a petition calling for a statue of Boseman to replace a Confederate memorial in his hometown.

Boseman stood on the shoulders of giants and he didn’t miss a beat to place others on his shoulders until the very end. While privately fighting his own battle, he spent time supporting and inspiring kids with cancer.

At the 2018 MTV Movie and TV Awards, he gave his award to James Shaw Jr., who disarmed a gunman and saved lives at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee. If that wasn’t enough, there were the scores of memories and testimonies to his greatness from the likes of Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, author Ta-Nehisi Coates and so many others.

He wore a heavy crown that required so much of him, yet he never bowed his head or disappointed. He always delivered. Boseman lived up to the gold standard of a king while working to make sure that Black people recognise that we are regal; he made sure we know we wear crowns, too. And that’s what it felt like watching 42, Black Panther and anything else in which he graced our screens.

Boseman’s life was undoubtedly short, but he made the most of it and lived courageously in his purpose. As we collectively grieve, I think about all that we’ve gained because of his commitment to making sure that we’re seen, heard and humanised. I think about a now ancestor that paved the way for starry-eyed Black kids who stared at the big screen in Black Panther costumes. And I think about the history he put on a pedestal while paving a way for those to come.

Boseman was, is and will always be Black history.


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