T’Challa, in his Black Panther suit sans mask, studies his claws pensively. (Photo credit: Marvel Studios)
When I first read the headline that Chadwick Boseman had died, I thought for sure I was reading it wrong.
The headline was the lead to a Hollywood Reporter breaking news article I’d received in my inbox. I thought Gmail had to be cutting off the rest of the headline; clearly, Boseman hadn’t died…he must have fake-died in an upcoming movie or something. The Hollywood Reporter was surely trolling me by acting like Boseman’s new role was his real life.
But after clicking the email, I realized I wasn’t reading the headline wrong. Boseman had died from a four-year battle with colon cancer. While he was sick, he was churning out role after spectacular role, including James Brown, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and of course, the Black Panther.
Of course, these four roles aren’t the only ones he’s played in his career. But regardless of how big or small the part was–such as his turn as New York City police detective Andre Davis in 21 Bridges or playing Stormin’ Norman in Da 5 Bloods–he always gave his all. His work ethic and personal goodness still shined through. I appreciated his work before. But now that I knew he was dying the entire time, his staggering talent and commitment are even more impossible to believe.
Like everyone last weekend, I was sick. I cried. I sat by myself. I communed with nature to feel some relief. I sat some more, carelessly window shopping online for clothes I’d wouldn’t buy, toying with the idea of spending even more money on my credit card just to feel a fleeting sense of happiness. I did nothing until I felt compelled to write some words on Boseman’s death, and how his legacy inspired me to think differently about myself.
However, that wasn’t the end of my gestation period with the news of Boseman’s departure. As I wrote up one of the Boseman-themed articles for Shadow And Act this Monday, I encountered Danai Gurira’s words: “How do you honor a king?”
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How do you honor a king? Reeling from the loss of my colleague, my friend, my brother. Struggling for words. Nothing feels adequate. I always marveled at how special Chadwick was. Such a pure hearted, profoundly generous, regal, fun guy. My entire job as Okoye was to respect and protect a king. Honor his leadership. Chadwick made that job profoundly easy. He was the epitome of kindness, elegance, diligence and grace. On many an occasion I would think how thankful I was that he was the leading man I was working closely with. A true class act. And so perfectly equipped to take on the responsibility of leading the franchise that changed everything for Black representation. He made everyone feel loved, heard and seen. He played great, iconic roles because he possessed inside of himself that connection to greatness to be able to so richly bring them to life. He had a heroic spirit, and marched to the beat of his own drum; hence his excellence as an artist and the incredible courage and determination as he faced life’s challenges; while still guiding us all. He was zen and sweet and funny (with the very best laugh), attentive, and truly, truly, good. I can’t even wrap my mind around this loss. A loss resonating in my own heart as well as around the globe. The children he inspired, my heart aches for them, to lose their hero just as they finally found him. I am so thankful to have taken the Black Panther journey with him. To have known him, spent time in his light and leadership and to call him forever a friend. Lala Ngoxolo Kumkani.
That question made me contemplate what had been churning in my mind the whole weekend. How do you write about the totality of Boseman’s life in a way the feels complete? How do you make sense of something so tragic? How do you find the courage to live as noble a life as his?
The loss of Boseman on this planet is immeasurable, and not just to the movie-making industry. Black Americans, and the Black Diaspora as a whole, lost a King, an icon, a leader, a beacon. He was a touchstone to many of us, even if we weren’t Marvel fans; his reach and power communicated his commitment to uplifting Blackness and proving that it does matter. He celebrated us and made us feel powerful, especially at times when the world seemed against us. His films seemed to come at times when we needed the reminder that we mattered.
Like the superhero he is, the words he said in life are now coming back to us, as if he’s communing with us from the Ancestral Plane. Once again, the messages he lived by are here right when we need them most.
Two pieces of Boseman’s wisdom have been floating around the internet ever since Friday. The first is something Boseman quoted from American humorist Erma Bombeck: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything You gave me.’”
The second is from his 2018 Howard University commencement speech. “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.”
In his speech, Boseman talks about how his first on-screen role lead him to a fork in the road, at which he’d have to choose to play a stereotypical role or challenge the writers and executives about the character, risking his job. He chose the latter and, indeed, lost his job. But that failure, he said, opened up a new door for him, which allowed him to step further into his purpose and destiny.
During his commencement speech at our beloved Howard, my friend Chadwick Boseman said, "press on with pride and press on with purpose.”— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 29, 2020
In his name, let’s keep fighting. pic.twitter.com/HU8Q6yQaJ4
Being the smart man he was, Boseman didn’t limit his speech to just talking about his career highlights. He used his life to show the graduates that life has tons of challenges and obstacles that will define who you are. It is up to us to be aware of when we come to those forks in the road. It’s up to us to know how to navigate. The way to navigate, Boseman was saying, is to live in your purpose. We must use everything you have in your arsenal for that purpose so we can feel proud of a life well-lived.
Boseman lived by these two statements as a personal philosophy, evident in his body of work and everyone’s recounts of his personal life. To live honorably is already hard–there’s a reason the line in the Black Panther trailer, about a good man finding it hard to be king, rings so true. But to live honorably while facing immense struggle is even more difficult. That’s why Boseman’s character has impacted us so heavily in the wake of his death. We knew he was a good person. But we didn’t realize just how much he exemplified the morals he spoke of.
He could have easily thrown in the towel, believed he wasn’t worthy and believed God persecuted him by inflicting illness upon him. And, since we don’t know how he was in his darker moments, he might have gone through those spiritual bouts in his head. But no matter what, he seemed always to find a way to regain his center, his sense of purpose, and keep going.
There’s been a lot of talk about whether people’s admiration of Boseman’s commitment to work is glorifying ableism or negating other people’s struggles with disability somehow. Speaking for myself, that is not what I am doing. Not everyone’s path to purpose will look like Boseman’s. And I’m sure there were days Boseman couldn’t work or times he could have been “running late” or canceling events when, in reality, he was actually in pain. We don’t know the full extent of his story.
However, while everyone’s path to their purpose will look differently, your commitment to your purpose is always in reach. To me, this exemplifies why Boseman never let us see him slip. He might have had rough days, but his mind stayed connected to his life’s mission. For him, what gave him strength and courage was his will to finish his mission. He found ways to complete his life’s task. It’s up to us to find out what ways suit each of us best.
It’s also up to us to celebrate each other too. To me, it’s evident in Boseman’s roles that he valued uplifting others and celebrating others’ achievements. We must hone that spirit of celebration for ourselves and support each other in our life missions. Boseman realized his roles had the power to affect change in society, which meant he also knew that humanity could grow when everyone pitches in.
Each of our gifts can help society become better than it was before. To create fertile soil for that new society to thrive, we must be willing to celebrate and support each other. That means giving kind words to someone after they’ve accomplished an enormous task. It means being compassionate when someone’s faced a huge hurdle. It means having empathy for others and a willingness to help them by using your unique gifts. It means fostering community.
If you want to honor Boseman, then follow his words and live in your gift. Don’t give in to the notion that you aren’t worthy that you can’t make a change. Don’t think you have to be famous to be needed by the world. Boseman wanted us to know that each of us has a mission to complete. He wanted us to know that we matter. So to honor Boseman, live like you matter.