My friend Junious and I were in a barn on top of a mountain in West Virginia. The barn was filled with Black people dancing to traditional Black music being played by Black musicians. It was a beautiful and wonderful moment. We weren’t dancing, though. I could tell he wanted to, but I hadn’t made my point yet.
He stood there patiently listening to me shout over the music as I ranted about the cyclical nature of The Struggle. Like some kind of verbal Double Dutch, Junious waited until the exactly right moment between my words and said, “We just gotta keep telling the same story until it’s not true anymore.”
That conversation happened three or four years ago and not a week has gone by that I don’t think about it.
I think a lot about those of us who successfully navigate the systems. I think a lot about those of us who leave the world better than they found it. And I think a lot about our firsts. Our Obamas, our Madam C. J. Walkers, our Jackie Robinsons. Jackie was the first Black Major League baseball player of the modern era. Larry Doby was the second. Then came Hank Thompson. They were Black baseball players, and many, many more followed. But eventually there were enough of us that skin color stopped being in the description altogether. Eventually we were just baseball players. The story of single exceptions was repeated so many times that it just wasn’t true anymore.
Our firsts expand our potential. They bring all of us with them. They lead in the most thorough and painful and dangerous way possible: by example. Our firsts prove our greatness, our undeniability, our inevitability as well as the absurdity that any of that could have even been in doubt in the first place.
Back in 2014 movie industry email leaks revealed that big budget movies are often cast with the underlying belief that “in general pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas.” This obvious absurdity not only effects who gets hired, but also what scripts get written, whose stories get told and who exactly we celebrate in this country. It’s a cyclical white supremacist fallacy, proven to be such when Black Panther not only became the top-grossing superhero movie of all time, but broke more box office records than you even knew existed in its first two weeks.
Chadwick Boseman did that. He wasn’t alone, of course, but he did it. And he did that and a whole lot more while battling the cancer that eventually took him on August 28.
The feeling of loss is real. And understandable. In a country tearing itself apart during a time of Black liberation, Boseman not only portrayed iconoclastic icons that helped us get as far as we have, but also the Afro-futurist hero we wish we had. He represented who we were, are and aspire to be. He was a living embodiment of Black joy, struggle and hope. And because his own fight for his life was private, his death was sudden for us. When a Black man’s sudden death hits the news, it usually means the one thing and so there is an automatic visceral mourning to begin with. It’s all amplified so much more by us all being trapped inside. But this time that mourning is free of the usual transition to anger at assassins and systems. No one and nothing can tarnish the gratefulness in our grief. We can grieve fully for his family and friends and for ourselves. At the same time, we can be grateful for his Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa, but we shouldn’t stop there.
As an actor, Chadwick Boseman portrayed some of our firsts and in so doing he became one himself. The gratefulness should not be limited to his incredible performances, but should also include the actions of the man, himself. Chadwick the man appeared as graceful, dignified and uncompromising in the real world as the characters he played on film. Chadwick the man led by example. Chadwick the man was great, undeniable and inevitable. And because he was those things, he proved it of us all. He proved our stories—Black stories can be told as successfully, universally and loudly as anyone’s.
Chadwick Boseman moved beyond absurd systemic doubt and he brought us all with him. He repeated the story until it wasn’t true anymore and he left the world far, far better than he found it — never forgetting to honor those who left it better for him.
Rest in peace, brother.
Rest in power, King.
Chadwick Boseman forever.
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