To say that this was a rough week would be an understatement of the paramount issues facing our collective. It would also discount the adversity that has followed the African in America for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, the burden of the week and the societal framing became significantly heavier with the announcement of Chadwick Boseman’s transition to an ancestor on the last Friday in August.
I purposely omitted the word “death,” because an artist can never die. Though their physical presence is transient, their body of work keeps the flame of their souls burning brightly.
I first encountered Boseman as an actor in the film 42 which chronicled Jackie Robinson’s rise from the minor leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was living in California at the time working on my graduate degree at a predominately white female school. Boseman’s performance proves transcendent because it presented an opportunity to engage with a presence virtually non-existent in my life at the time. Interestingly, my entire family and I watched the film at the exact same time on opposite sides of the country. We held hands across Boseman’s performance which brilliantly captured the strength of passive-resistance and the perseverance that upward mobility as a black person in America requires.
He was a once in a lifetime actor, partly because though he attained celebrity status, he never pursued a celebrity lifestyle. He didn’t solicit scandals to sell movie tickets, and he didn’t date his way into relevance. His work and talent spoke for itself.
Perhaps audiences do artists an injustice when limiting them to, or referring to them as, the characters they play rather than reflecting on the impact of the performance. Though Boseman did not write Black Panther, he wrote the role of T’Challa in a way that archives him into the minds and hearts of viewers for many lifetimes to come. He is not T’Challa, but Boseman’s talent is what made this role a touchstone in contemporary black culture.
Boseman made the black viewer feel. Though he mastered physical performance, his talent extended far beyond optics. Some act with their words, others with their delivery, many with their eyes or countenance in general, but Boseman acted with his soul, and luckily, that’s the part of him that’ll never leave us.
His physical departure leaves a hole in a collective because it delineates a dying breed, literally. He who becomes an ancestor too soon breaks hearts for leaving the living with what could have been—what might have been if we only had a bit more time.
Time, as this year has shown us, is often afforded a certainty it never promised. The clock ticks loudest in its final seconds as the heart of an African beats with the ancestral rhythm of black dynasties before European disruption. I would like to think the drums of the ancestors welcomed Boseman home last night with the cadence of an ancestral literacy.
May his life teach us what Dr. King told us decades ago: “longevity has its place.” We may all want long lives for ourselves and those we love, but life is as long as the legacy it leaves. Chadwick Boseman leaves us with a legacy long enough for several lifetimes.
Thanks for sharing your gifts with us and giving so many something and someone to believe in. But perhaps most resonantly, thanks for being a vessel for many black youths to believe in themselves.
Mr. Boseman, if there’s a mountaintop on the other side, I know you’re standing at its peak.
For your integrity, mastery, and cultural contribution.
My bison brother, rest easy.