Tributes have been pouring in for Chadwick Boseman, a gifted actor and humble humanitarian who brilliantly played so many iconic Black figures: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and, of course, the fictional King T’Challa/ Black Panther. When my wife shared with me the news on Friday, I felt almost numb. His loss felt incomprehensible. Perhaps my reaction was in part because I knew that Boseman and I are the same age, but I also felt my own defense mechanisms kick in. This season of inescapable Black death has been on a traumatizing repeat cycle — from the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on our community to the senseless and brutal deaths at the hands of police violence — so in that moment my mind and spirit couldn’t process or take another loss, particularly of a Black man who embodied such regal strength and aspirational hope.
It wasn’t until three days later as I watched a powerful tribute to Boseman that the dam of emotion finally broke and my tears began to flow. When we broke the tragic news to our 7- and 9-year-old sons, who both idolize Black Panther, my older son Joshua responded, “I hate colon cancer.” This poignant response was his way of processing a life cut tragically short, recognizing that even our most beloved superheroes can be lost. I hate colon cancer too, as it proved to be the super villain that ended a life and career of a man who, as Oprah so aptly described, “felt like a shooting star.”
Boseman’s life was a profile in humility, service, and quiet activism. While playing such iconic Black figures, Boseman brought to life their humanity and resilient courage in breaking down racial barriers and injustice. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a friend of Boseman's from their time at Howard University, gave tribute to his brother, describing how he communicated “Black humanity through Black heroism.” I’m amazed that he was able to keep his battle with colon cancer private for so long and filmed the majority of these roles amid this fight. This attests to his personal character, his grit, and his grace.
Boseman was also a man of principle and deep faith. In a 2018 commencement address at Howard, Boseman recounted the story of how he lost his first major acting role because he challenged many of the negative stereotypes that were attached to the role he was cast to play. He gave poignant advice to that graduating class, saying:
Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny … When God has something for you, it doesn't matter who stands against it. God will move someone that's holding you back away from the door and put someone there who will open it for you if it's meant for you. I don't know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory, then you will not regret it.
Thank God that Boseman followed and lived out his purpose. He will likely be most remembered for the role he called the honor of his career, that of King T’Challa and the Black Panther, which made him an international superstar and now an icon in his own right. I will forever be grateful that he gave my two Black sons the gift of seeing themselves in one of the most regal and inspirational superheroes of all time.
Black Panther was far more than a movie; it was cultural moment that provided hope and fuel for a burgeoning movement for racial justice and pushing back against anti-Blackness. Wakanda felt like an antidote to the pernicious and long-entrenched lie of white supremacy, which Donald Trump was working to stoke and appeal to during the 2018 midterm elections. Even though Wakanda was a place of fiction, it became real in the psyche and aspirations of so many, serving as a symbol and catalyst for a new generation of struggle.
Since the movie came out I have been preaching about what I call “spiritual vibranium.” The reality is that being Black in America requires something akin to vibranium. In the face of both historic and ongoing systemic barriers and injustices, it takes some inner vibranium for young Black people to succeed and thrive in this country. Fortunately, vibranium has been in our DNA since our arrival in 1619 — it’s a source of strength and will that has enabled Black Americans to engage in a continual struggle to force our nation to live up to its creed and highest ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”
Boseman was a real-life superhero to play all of these roles at the height of his career while battling cancer. I believe that this was made possible because of his own spiritual vibranium. Truth talk, all of Boseman’s most iconic characters on screen possessed a heavy dose of spiritual vibranium evidenced by the sheer will and grit of Jackie Robinson to desegregate Major League Baseball; the boldness and legal brilliance of Thurgood Marshall; and the bravado and raw musical talent of James Brown. Boseman’s battle against cancer and his humility serve as reminders that we all have some vibranium within us.
In memory of Boseman’s life and legacy, my whole family watched Black Panther on Sunday night. Watching the film while processing his loss was an emotional rollercoaster. Despite having seen the film dozens of times, a new nuance or detail stands out each time. This time it was the post-credits scene, in which King T’Challa delivers a speech to the United Nations proclaiming to the world:
For the first time in our history, we will be sharing our knowledge and resources with the outside world. We cannot, we will not, hide in the shadows. We will be an example to this world of how we will treat one another. Now more than ever the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth. More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
I was struck with just how relevant and important this message is for our country right now as we enter the final stretch before the most consequential election of our lifetimes. As I watched this final scene, it felt as though it wasn’t just King T’Challa, a fictional character, who was casting this vision. Instead these words felt as though they were coming from the mind and heart of Boseman himself as he pointed to the future of a truly multi-racial democracy and radically more just nation that together we must fight to realize.
As we mourn his loss and celebrate his remarkable life, with our sanctified imagination we can see Boseman leaning over the balcony of heaven with his arms folded, forming the now iconic Wakanda Forever sign. Rest in power and peace, Chadwick Boseman. And as we continue to confront and overcome the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice I hope and pray that we can tap into some spiritual vibranium that you so clearly and humbly possessed.
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