Whether we watched him from afar or were fortunate to have been in his presence, the passing of 43-year-old actor Chadwick Boseman has left a deep hole in the hearts of many.
I didn’t expect myself to be mourning someone I’d only watched on screen, yet my grief cuts deep. I have wept for Boseman as if he was my close friend. At a loss of words, nothing seems sufficient to adequately express my mix of admiration and sorrow.
This speaks to the magnificence that was Chadwick Boseman. As his Black Panther co-star, Danai Gurira shared last week as she too struggled for words, “How do you honour a king?”
While it is difficult to honour such greatness, in our collective mourning Boseman has left us with a lasting gift. In effect, through the life he lived and hearts he touched, he has shown how to honour his legacy.
Boseman was a superhero — not only in the characters he played, but in his true being.
Since his death, the outpouring of tributes describe a man who exuded a spirit of positivity, generosity, compassion and dignity. He showed and commanded respect — all of the qualities of a superhero.
“He was the epitome of kindness, elegance, diligence and grace,” Gurira wrote in an Instagram post. “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.”
Legendary athlete Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: “Looking back, it seems as if his decision not to share his health struggles with the public was an even greater act of courage because it allowed people to maintain their image of the characters he played and be inspired by their heroics.
“Of course, that selfless choice makes him even more admirable and heroic to all of us.”
How do we honour such greatness? We take a page from his playbook and lead with love in the same way that Boseman did for the people in his life.
He also led a life of passion and purpose. For Boseman, that meant using his art to exemplify Black excellence for the Black community.
His longtime agent Micheal Greene wrote about the amount of time the two spent strategizing over whether Boseman should take on a role and whether he could use the role as a platform to better humanity.
“How can I give back? How will this be valuable to the Black community, and the community at large? … What will I be able to tell through this role?” Those were the questions Boseman posed to Greene and the pair would reflect upon almost daily.
And even when the camera stopped rolling, he carried the responsibility of the characters he played. Greene recalled an instance shortly after Black Panther where Boseman was offered a partnership in a liquor company and he turned it down, saying he couldn’t do that while he was also trying to show young Black kids and kids of colour that they could be superheroes.
He took on the weight of his roles with great pride and privilege; he did not view his superhero status as a burden, rather a badge of honour. He knew the magnitude of meaning it held for his community.
While Boseman’s wish was to keep his health battle private, that is not to say there is shame in sharing our struggles.
Many have found their purpose in sharing their cancer stories, giving of themselves in their darkest moments and inspiring others going through the same challenges that they can overcome. Each story, each hero is unique and Boseman has shown us that.
My hope is that while his was a private battle, we are able to more openly share our stories and not feel shamed into silence around illness.
Since his passing, there has been a surge in dialogue around colorectal cancer. We are learning that it disproportionately affects the Black community. According to the American Cancer Society, African Americans are 20 per cent more likely to get colon cancer and 40 per cent more likely to die from it.
In omitting the details, though, Boseman also gifted us a lesson on how to treat others, regardless of their situation.
The final tweet from Boseman’s Twitter account, at once revealing his illness and announcing his passing, has now become the most “liked” in all of Twitter history, with currently 7.6 million likes.
For anyone who cancer has touched, the enormity these words hold cannot be explained.
“It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther,” the post reads.
I have read this tweet over and over again and agonize over these words, knowing some of Boseman’s most famous roles were filmed during and between surgeries and chemotherapy.
Boseman’s strength and conviction to play such physically demanding and challenging roles whilst enduring his own incredibly painful battle is unimaginable.
How do we honour a life dedicated to such great purpose? We strive to live with purpose, no matter how small or big the impact.
The greatest impact Boseman had was on our children. He gave Black boys and girls worldwide their superhero. He gave their parents the glory and joy of Wakanda.
Irrespective of race or colour, Black Panther was beloved by kids across the globe and is just as important, if not more, for kids who aren’t Black, like my children, to see a Black superhero they can idolize as their superhero, too. Boseman did that. For all of us.
Last weekend, many parents shared pictures on social media of how their children were handling the grief over his death. Several kids even held “funerals” with all of their action figures in attendance. My eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter have watched their beloved Black Panther every night since his passing. Our kids will not forget how they felt when King T’Challa first crossed his fists across his chest saluting Wakanda Forever.
How do we honour a King? We continue to tell his stories and remind our children of the greatness and power that resides in us all.
Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.
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