It is not an exaggeration to declare that Chadwick Boseman returned Black America to Africanness.
It is a statement filled to the brim with controversy because to say it out loud is like admitting to the world that Black folk had been damaged for so long in the U.S. The last fifty years alone, Blackness has played tug-of-war with heritage and definition: as Jewish people, as Egyptians, as long-lost royalty sequestered from its throne. And in each of these incarnations, I’ve sensed a lie, or at least a half-truth, because I’ve owned books and I’ve owned eyes. I know what African is, and I know where White men pillaged, and in only those places do I see faces like mine: broad, inquisitive, earth tone, and indignant.
After watching hours worth of Black men and women reacting live to the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death, I’m reminded of how Chadwick embodied all of these aforementioned traits from the first moment I saw him in 42, where he pioneered his place as a Black biopic mainstay. He was sensitive, and strong: the foundation of the voiceless who wouldn’t yet cross the boundary into the stage of the public view. He captured the symbolic leadership that was Jackie Robinson. In a separate vein, Chadwick flipped his range on the head when portraying James Brown’s turbulent fluctuations between sound genius and manic frenzy. He was never dishonest in his actions, but even when carrying the evils of flaw, sympathetic to the uneven ground which leads a man to his wrongdoings and, hopefully, his redemptions.
I’ve loved Chadwick as an actor since the first moment I spied him on 42. But, it was in the trouble of his role in Get on Up, telling the story of a music pioneer undistracted by the rose-colored lens of Black celebrity and idol worship that convinced me he could be a King. Though I hadn’t anticipated what Chadwick would bring to the role and the gifts he would lay at the feet of not only Black Hollywood but across Black art for the foreseeable future.
I hope in his rest, Chadwick knows what he did was not in vain.
Black Panther’s success was unanticipated by anyone who wasn’t themselves Black. Media’s shock at the ways the film smashed box-office records in itself was only a concrete example of the ways Media institutionally downplays and undermines the capabilities of Black voices. However, what was not anticipated was the fact Black Panther shifted the culture surrounding blockbuster movies and the particular genre of art Black and Brown viewers were prepared to support. In the case of literature, Children of Blood and Blood (despite claims by its author, Tomi Adeyemi during the 2019 Book Con) benefited from the residual successes of Black Panther to secure its place among bestseller lists and many other publishers raced to announce their own spin on Black Panther and West African high fantasy to capitalize on successes.
But I don’t think I only care about that when I think of Chadwick’s legend and mythology. Or what he gave me. I don’t think we loved him just because of the successes he gave us because I do not think what we lost in Chadwick was anything so selfish and one-dimensional.
Yes, when children go to bed tonight and tomorrow and every night in the future, they will know Chadwick Boseman existed, and he was Black Panther and it was important, but as with so many firsts in Blackness, it is limited. A child born in 2020 knows nothing of the absences felt because of the Jim Crow south other than the legend of its evil and the frothy taint it left behind in the war against it. Yet, I think a child born in 2021 will know the echo of Chadwick Boseman because he did not represent the Black Panther; the Black Panther represented him.
When we look at the love we hold for Black men of a particular quality, we look at the patience we can only hope for in all things in life. Chadwick was a man of unquestionable dignity before us and it’s a quality we seldom see in our stars today. We turn on the TV and watch the foolishness unfurl before us. We see ourselves sold out and trafficked for a hot meal.
But, there was always Chadwick, his laugh like rain. His anger was like ice. He held his head up tall and in every interview, he held a question like it was precious porcelain and dared not drop it. I can’t help but ask how much he was worth and if there was anything else we could’ve traded for just another day, another role, another prolific moment relishing in his craft.
To see people suggest Black America is cultureless is to ignore the work Chadwick put into his craft to bring reality to Blackness and perspectives. No two roles were the same for him; no two roles captured Black men’s complexity so sordidly. He seemed a polymorph throughout our culture, but universal in a way that could only be a reflection of that consideration he sat at those interviews — listening, laughing, and explaining.
Chadwick Boseman was glory.
Following Chadwick’s portrayal of the Black Panther in Black Panther, something shifted in his aura. He moved with a shining vigor. Chadwick changed his hair, shaving the sides and defining his natural curls. In this, Chadwick wore a crown of curls. He became kingly in everything he was and, quite clearly, he was shining in a freedom that I only dreamed of for myself, for my Blackness, for my masculinity.
Chadwick was building a community around this singular idea and message that echoed the pain of the past, shouldered it, and persevered. Knowing how he left us, I can only feel that in all of this he gave us that he was holding onto fear. Fear about what he might leave behind in case what he burdened in private was to inevitably encroach. A fear that the Black Panther would fail. A fear that in the end, he couldn’t give what he so wanted and desired to bless upon a field he’d been playing in since Denzel Washington invested in his growth and potential.
But in the end, Chadwick had nothing to fear. He did what he had to do. It was Chadwick who made the grand shift of the Wakandan accent from British to Xhosa in order to foreground the Africanness he wanted to embody. It was Chadwick who called the Wakandans to dance rather than stand, as Black Panther’s director, Ryan Coogler, put it because they weren’t Western and we aren’t Western. We may touch the West. We may watch from the West. However, we do not stand still when excited — we dance. We do not stay still and silent, we roar and demand — we are passion throughout.
I did not know Chadwick, but the mark of a legend is to show who they are through example and action.
It was Chadwick who asked if Killmonger would want to be buried at sea in a line criticized by some who neglect what the line stood to mean: that there is no culture lost to a diaspora, that we are just as good to be laid to rest among. Chadwick was someone who in every grain challenged the form and the narrative. He carried himself as one who loved what he was since the days at Howard University. I did not know Chadwick, but the mark of a legend is to show who they are through example and action.
It takes strength to love a Black man. To love a Black man is to be a dreamer — to know full-heartedly what they are capable of. To know that touch is sacred and scarce, but worth the limited ways you can be touched. If you love your brother, you hope for them. If you love your brother, you will dream for them.
Chadwick was a Black Man who loved Black men, and defended Black women, and showed up every day, selflessly, to be this figure that was far from celebrity. Chadwick was an artist and a legend. He was a hero who chose himself and in turn, we chose him. It’s so heavy to lose this love, but in the end I don’t think we’re losing love forever, because that’s what we witnessed, and like all miracles, we will only compare it so many times before we inevitably try to recreate its light. I can only imagine who loved Chadwick in this way that he saw fit to share to so that I can thank them from the bottom of my heart.
With Chadwick gone, we might mourn and be sorrowful at what we will never get back. I am personally saddened because I am concerned solely with the notion that this mighty Black man died and I do not know if he knew just how much we loved him. We loved Chadwick Boseman so much, and everything he did set upon a path for other Chadwicks to blossom.
I hope in his rest, Chadwick knows what he did was not in vain. We see him for who he is and what he left behind and we will celebrate it. From one Black man, woman, and the Blackest spectrum in between and without, we thank you.
We lay you to rest with your ancestors. Your Black brothers love you.