I woke up that Monday morning with a mindset to just push through today. It was the second morning after my mom broke the news to me, and I figured this day would be another day of practice, of learning a different way to stay peaceful in the racial, pandemic storm of America. I had after all become accustomed to rearranging and remounting my plans and dreams on the wall of my life around 2020. This was another day to put in some practice.
I walked into the house after finishing my morning jog. The news that broke 2 days ago was still fresh on me, but a little less raw and the fog of it not as deep. It seems like every Monday since March of 2020 has been a “back to the starting line” moment. We’ve been plagued with the weight of viewing death this year without the opportunity to process and grieve it thoroughly. Death because of Covid, death because of dreams deferred, death of innocence in our children, death after death after death of Black lives, souls, humans caught on camera, posted over and over and over again on social media, in news stories, in news conferences. Black lives snuffed out due to racism, due to hate, due to Covid, due to shootings, due to helicopter crashes, due to cancer. Almost as if it’s not reality, as if it doesn’t really matter. Like a story that has had the same antagonist and protagonist for centuries, expected, yet still feels like a blow to the gut every time. A blow that you want to process quickly so that you can brace for the next one coming because it’s...expected. 2020 hasn’t given us a moment to process them this time though. Then again, maybe this is how we will learn to grieve.
So, here I was positioned to start off another Monday again pacing at the starting line. I was pacing myself to suppress that familiar weight in order to form articulate words, answer emails, hear insufficient, but well-meaning comments about another life lost, while maintaining a professional demeanor, again. Trying to fully process or grasp the reality of the passing of someone else I had never met, again. I had not met any of them, yet I knew them. Felt like I did anyways. I see myself and my family in them. This one though, broke something in me that I had forgotten was there. In a year filled with anger, disgust and visceral defiance, I had forgotten sad. I was just sad.
I grabbed my water bottle and walked over to my nephew and kissed him on the forehead. Even though he’s 10 years-old, he still smells like a baby there. I asked him if he was ready to logon for school and he mumbled a pleasant but obligatory “yeah.”
Chocolate skinned with an organic, optimistic personality and a soft heart. The oldest of my nephews, he’s not shy at all. Very present, always listening to the grown folks. He is always butting into our conversations and offering us his opinion. “I’m not nosey, I’m curious.” he rationalizes. Everyone is his friend in his mind, and he’s very perceptive, likes to debate things especially the necessity of bathing. He respects the voices of others, yet he has a hard time balancing his respect for others with commanding the same from them. So, I have had to prod him a few times, “use your voice, speak up, ask your question, say excuse me and keep talking, don’t let them talk over you, your voice is important, make sure you are heard”.
He found out the news 1 day after I did. That day we were all gathered in the living room talking about some of the recent events and protests. Like most 10-year old boys, he had his face figuratively glued to a hand held screen. His parents had not yet figured out how to break the news to him. He’s adjusting a lot already. Spending all summer at home, wearing masks to the store, not seeing his friends for months and then finally seeing them through a crowded zoom screen. One of two handfuls of Black students in his entire school and one handful in his entire grade. His “senior” year of elementary school has been well... weird. It has been weird for all of the kids.
While we were chatting away that day about another incident during a protest, we suddenly heard his little voice ask no one in particular, ” Wait Chadwick Boseman? This is really sad.” He looked up at us confused, disbelieving and deflated. The same look I had when my mother told me the news by phone. The news came through a banner he saw while playing a Marvel game. He put his head down and I watched almost as if in slow motion as my sister sat down next to him and tried to explain to him something she had not yet processed herself. Something she had anxiety over the night before. Most of which was wrapped up in how she would tell her son that someone who he looked up to, someone who he could see himself in had passed away.
He started that next Monday with some sadness and unanswered questions, I observed him his little face framed by his black glasses and twists in his hair as he typed away on his macbook to log on. His Black Panther comforter and sheet set still pooled together on his bed, I walked past his costume T’Challa mask and claws heading out of his room. He has dressed as T’Challa two Halloweens in a row. I even use T’Challa to relate activism, prejudice, heroism and cultural conversations about Jesus to my nephew.
See, our family is a fan of the Marvel Universe and we have watched Black Panther several times as well as Avengers Civil War. We have also watched 42, Marshall, Get on Up, and more recently 21 bridges and Da 5 Bloods. My nephew has has heard us talk about how important it is for Black people to have a voice, representation and place in this world, how God sees us this way, gives us an identity of value, but how we have to do our part in this world to make sure that identity is seen and passed on. Because of these conversations, Chadwick Boseman represented something more for him, something I don’t think he can fully articulate in his 10 year old mind yet.
He did not idolize him, he could simply see the possibility of a world that respected someone like him and he enjoyed Chadwick Boseman’s art on display in the role of T’Challa.
Just before I left the room, he called me back over to him. He was having trouble logging onto the class and so I helped him find the alternate zoom link to get in. As soon as he chimed on, we heard the teachers in the middle of a conversation about how they would break out the class into what they described as Harry Potter houses. Then they asked the kids what they wanted the names of these houses to be. He sat there trying to understand what was happening.
I told him to raise his hand, let the teacher know her zoom link didn’t work and ask her to please update him.
He looked at me as if I had asked him to swallow a bottle of spiders.
I pressed him “ Use your voice”. He relented, “Excuse me Miss, I accidentally logged into the wrong zoom call”. He scratched his head, “Ummm can you catch me up please?”
At that moment, another kid talked over him and blurted out “Wakanda!...um Miss, don’t forget we want to name the other house Wakanda”.
I froze and became immediately...disturbed? Yes disturbed. Not by the lack of zoom etiquette from the other student, but by hearing the word Wakanda.
I went into a mental spiral of seeing the tragedy in Chadwick Boseman being solely memorialized as a Marvel character by majority American culture, knowing that in Black America we connected to him as a brother who conquered educational and social barriers, attended an HBCU, who challenged the systems in theater, television and film. Who used his voice.
I have never been as excited to see a movie more than I wanted to see Black Panther. All Black cast, futuristic connections to the continent of my ancestors, intelligence, bravery and heroism in Black skin, fierceness combined with regal deference in Black female skin. I saw it in theaters two times. The first was about the experience, the second time about the movie.I have lost count of the number of times since it started streaming. I cannot verbalize the pride in connecting to a Black heritage ( whether romanticized or fantasized) that was not tied to oppression through film. Black Panther was a monarchy with a Black hegemony, Black villains, Black contrived technology, Black trauma and Black superheroes. It encompassed Coming to America, Roots and Meteor Man, and did it in the Marvel Universe.
My heritage as an African American does not give me a secondary ethnic veil to filter my culture through. I can’t make a pit stop at Jamaican, Latino or Nigerian to filter my Blackness through. It’s filtered through a country founded on racism and prejudice against me and my ancestors. One that stripped ancestral culture and ethnicity away from me, but at the same time discriminated against my ancestors for it. It is filtered through a distant connection to the African continent. The continent I had the privilege of visiting a few years ago. During my visit there, I was called mixed-breed by my Ugandan Christian brothers and sisters, not because of my skin tone, but because of the amalgamation of my height, my forehead, nose, cheekbones and small percentage of slavemaster DNA. They could tell I was a descendent of slaves based on my physical features and my accent, my American accent. I was called Mzunga which means foreigner in Swahili and refers to the reaction of Whites aimlessly wondering when they arrived on the continent of Africa. They loved on me, fed me and stared at me as if I had on the wrong body. I absolutely loved my time there and nothing has lived up to that experience. Yet still, I experienced some complex emotions during my time there. I felt oddly at home, and still so far away from it.
Being African- American is complex. The African-American is daily reminded of that unjust complex heritage when we sign our last names. Our personal triumphs are underpinned by injustice even when they are not aimed at it. It’s a very interesting space to navigate. Although I was slightly offended at the association with the original meaning, honestly I think Mzunga is quite fitting for me. There are some very real-lived elements of Mzunga as a Black African-American. I often call us the lost tribe, no true national home in the sense of founderism, additionally we possess a mixture of ancestry from different African countries and tribes. I see why my ancestors looked to God for identity. Too American to be African, too African to be American, too Black to have citizenry, so God was home. Black is the fluid ethnic filter through which we identify. It is more than diasporic for the African American. It is an amalgamation of our culture, food, ethnicity, experiences in America, heritage and faith. We are mixed breed. We are Black.
That is why Black Panther resonated with me so deeply. Wakanda shattered all our imaginations of what Blackness in the Marvel Universe could become. What a place! African Americans have yet to experience a world where teachers, government system, police force and doctors are predominately Black. We saw an imagined futuristic version of that in 2017, one not triaged through anti-Black racist oppression. Chadwick’s role in Black Panther will be perpetually far reaching beyond this generation. The film stood on his shoulders as the character who connected everything. He wanted the authentic uncolonized Xhosa accent for T’Challa. He shaped the character as a poised, gracious, Caretaker King, and through the character we saw the man.Ever present here and elsewhere simultaneously in his fight with colon cancer. Ever present here and elsewhere simultaneously in his ethnicity. Still possessing the audacity to thrive and achieve through it all with purpose and elegance. He meant a lot to a lot of people as evidenced in the philanthropic work he did and in the many heartwarming tributes we’ve seen by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, and castmates Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira.
We all knew he had bigger things on his mind, and now we know what they were.
I believe that’s why I became immediately territorial about the way this would be handled by my nephew’s teacher. I just did. I didn’t want him to be talked about as just a character, without talking about the importance of the global ceilings he shattered as a Black actor, as an educated Black man from the South, as an African-American man, a man of faith, as a creation of God. The students deserved to know more.
I know that to a 5th grade class, Black Panther is the one who left us, but I know too that my Black nephew felt a different type of sadness at his death. He softened, looked up at me and muttered,” I guess the rest of the class heard about Chadwick Boseman”. Chadwick Boseman, not Black Panther, not T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman. Yes, I said, I guess they did. I tussled some of his twists, “ How do you feel”? I asked him. “I’m ok,” he answered with an obligatory half-smile. The teacher ignored the Wakanda comment and went on to name other elements of the Harry Potter film. I still don’t know if it was a relief or not.
I didn’t know him. I never met him. I won’t pretend to grieve on the same level that his family and close friends are. That would be wrong, irreverent. I do think though, we all met a part of him through his craft. In the characters he embodied, you could see him.
Chadwick’s death is sad. Even as I write this, I don't think I have really grasped the reality of it. It’s just sad. In this echo chamber of Black death, the loss of his life in this year of chaos is just sad. The loss of life to cancer is just sad. No words are adequate. You want people like him to see the other side of this year. You want to see his megawatt smile on the other side of this thing, but that’s a shortsighted view of existence for someone. He lives on through so much more.
Chadwick said in a 2019 appreciation speech last year to Denzel Washington, “So, the daily battles won, the thousands of territories gained, the many sacrifices you made for the culture on film sets through your career, the things you refused to compromise along the way laid the blue print for us to follow. So, now let he who has watered be watered, let he has given be given to ".
In tribute, I feel his words reflected back on him, on his refusal to play roles as a victim, because he was driven by purpose, more expansive than any role he played on film.
Mr. Boseman. Thank You.
The colon & rectum is one of the top cancer sites among Black men in America and the third top cancer death rate behind prostate and lung cancer. There is a smaller pool of Black males in America which is where disproportionality comes into play. The good news is that with screening it is also one of the most preventable. Black people, please get your screenings, think through your diet, steward your mental health and normalize physical activity if you are not.
If you would like to donate to causes Chadwick supported:
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