How Chadwick Boseman’s Untimely Death Brought Me Clarity
Sure we would have his work for all of human time — works we can revisit and continue to see his excellent craft — but was he at the height of his career?
September 08, 2020 at 6:45 pm
“Are you sleep?” It was the voice of my boyfriend in the dark. I lay in our bed after just having dozed off and woken back up again, the kind of micro nap I never am able to take when I want to; the kind that tells me I'm not going back to sleep for a while.
“OK, I have something to tell you,” he said. He got on his knees and leaned over to me in bed, as if in prayer. I sat up slightly, shaking out the last traces of grogginess that had been brought on by the micro-nap induced by a particularly strong margarita we had with dinner.
“Chadwick Boseman passed away.”
I heard him say it, but then immediately began to shake my head thinking the grogginess was not all out. I then I relaxed slightly, knowing that I obviously was thinking of the wrong person when he said “Chadwick Boseman.” Certainly not the man I had just seen in ‘Da 5 Bloods’, a month or so earlier
But even as I relaxed, a familiar sinking feeling began to turn in my chest. “What?” Was all I managed to stumble out as I slowly began to sit up. My chest started to feel like it was imploding as the reality of what my brain didn't want to believe but was processing to be true, came to blows.
“I know, it's crazy. Colon cancer.”
“What? What are you saying?”
“Baby, Chadwick Boseman, is dead.”
His voice caught on the back of his throat when he said that last word. As two huge Marvel nerds, ‘Black Panther’ has been such a huge deal to us, even today. (It is a top Marvel film I am prone to rewatch to this day.) But to my husband, seeing a Black man claim both love and honor in his country was everything.
We spent the next two hours of our night trying to process the departure of such a light and such an artist. Initially unraveling our shared shock, and then grief, and shock again. I quickly began to sift through social media channels to find we were not alone in feeling this assault on our spirits. In the past four to six months that have stretched out across our screens like years, each loss of Black life felt like a whole lifetime of grief lived, a bombardment of news alerts seemingly never allowing us to catch our breaths. This felt so disbelievingly upsetting. I found that even the tears in my eyes seemed to be in a state of uncertainty and exhaustion. Welling until I blinked them away.
I tapped through my phone replying to texts and reaching out to a community in which too much of us felt tied together by grief in the context of 2020. But each thread of grief is unique, and the death of Chadwick Boseman is no different. This is so different from the type of grief I have been carrying along with the long list of names that include Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and so it took a moment for me to lean into the unfamiliarity. I first had to realize this first stage of grief was not a fury tied to a senseless act of violence, but pure sadness for an unavoidable loss. As the wave of grief continued I began grappling with the realizations I was swinging to and fro, back and forth.
It is September of 2020, in which, as a Black woman in America, it feels like the ugly truths about my beloved country that have always been looming just below the surface of my day-to-day have come jetting up to the surface in sharp relief, like a blinding light so bright you find yourself transfixed on it, even though staring at it causes your eyes to constantly tear.
Chadwick Boseman’s death took me out of the incomprehensibly sized list of names murdered unjustly at the hands of police or hostile white gang members to remind me, we die of natural causes too. There was something so eerie about that revelation that hung in the air between my boyfriend and me, like a ghost taunting us with the sheer lack of control of it all. The heartbreak of realizing there is now just such a familiarity in death at the hands of a police officer that it took our minds a moment to remember there are natural causes out there killing us too — one of the most tragic sentences I hope to ever have to write.
And once the news briefings of his death slowly began to evolve into articles, I found myself scrolling through his social media accounts. Trying to find signs in hashtags and old posts, trying to place myself in his head as I read each blurb on his Twitter feed. Not a sign of suffering.
Then I read his family’s official statement mentioning that he brought us exceptional work, performances, art — all while going through rounds of chemo and surgeries, and my heart quaked. Was that not the perfect metaphor for a Black life? Exceptional, though suffering in silence.
Exceptional work, because to make it anywhere, especially in Hollywood where there are so few roles that are considered for us, you have to be. But Black people are never allowed to suffer openly. I can’t explain to my manager that for a week after the news and video broke out about Ahmaud Arbery’s death or the story of Elijah McClain broke that I cried every day. That I woke up angry and I went to bed anxious, and that is why I simply cannot hit my numbers this month. I still show up to deliver every day.
And strangely, it is in that last thought that I began to feel something else: relief and peace. The last realization I came to, after whirling around in what seemed like stormy waters, I floated to somewhere calm: Chadwick Boseman suffered in silence in order to do something that he not only obviously loved, but to do something he absolutely believed in — to live his truth. It takes real integrity and perseverance to know that is worth living for, but also worth dying for.
I did not know Chadwick Boseman personally; I only knew him as an artist. I watched him grace the screens of Marvel blockbusters, channel my father’s favorite music legend, James Brown, and watched him embody forgiveness in ‘Da 5 Bloods’. I laughed at his SNL skits and admired the way he spoke of his craft and approach to life in his interviews. I loved the support and admiration he showed for his fellow castmates every time. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they look at another person — there was always respect when sharing the stage with his fellow co-stars. Chadwick once said, “I would rather have an action figure than a Golden Globe,” which speaks volumes as to who he was, the value system he believed in and the code he lived by.
One last bit of sadness that I needed to reconcile was that he was only 43. Sure we would have his work for all of human time — works we can revisit and continue to see his excellent craft — but was he at the height of his career? Would there have been more to come? He had just gotten married and was so very young. 43. A fact that sat like a weight in the middle of my gut.
But the more I lamented and said it, the more I realized Chadwick inspired millions. Touched the hearts of millions. So much that Black people got to watch Black excellence and strength on screens around the world. We shouted “Wakanda forever” for months. Black children could see themselves in someone who shone so powerfully, fearlessly and brilliantly. Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown (he got to play not one, but three legends) were brought to life and further immortalized amongst new generations. He reached out to, and created communities of solidarity, hope and love with those also struggling with cancer. All around the world, from old to young, history buff to comic book nerd, so many were moved by him, all the way down to my boyfriend and I, who stayed up all night eating beef patties and reminiscing about his impact on the world — and he was only 43. One can only hope to be so fortunate and extraordinary.
I know that many of you out there were shaken by the news of Chadwick Boseman’s passing, particularly those in the Black community given that not only was this the loss of such an extraordinary soul, but the loss of such a light was compounded by the seemingly constant loss we have been enduring over these past months, years really. But, if there is something that I can say that I have taken to heart from Chadwick Boseman is: we do not know how long we have on this earth, so it is important to lead with light, to lead with heart and to live your truth.
Lastly, I know we are up against a barrage of challenges ahead, so in addition to the above, whomever and whatever you believe in, in his own words, Chadwick Boseman also reminds us to live in our moments and appreciate them. An excerpt taken from the text message sent to Josh Gad, “Inhale and exhale this moment, and thank God for the unique beauties and wonders of this day. We should take advantage of every moment we can to enjoy the simplicity of God’s creation, whether it be clear skies and sun, or clouded over with gloom.”
Rest in power, and thank you for your spirit and encouragement for us to live our best.