On Saturday August 29, 2020, I awoke and checked my phone. The notification from one of the news services told me that Chadwick Boseman had passes away of cancer at the age of 43. In 2016, he was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. He did not speak publicly about the diagnosis, and over the course of the next four years he filmed various films including Marshall, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Along with these, he completed some of the biggest action films of the past few years with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: End Game. On top of all of this, he starred in 2018’s Black Panther, a cinematic and cultural touchstone.
Boseman passed away on August 28, 2020. That date holds a lot of significance. On that day in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered. On that day in 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occurred and Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. On that day in 1917, Jack Kirby, co-creator of Black Panther, was born. On that same day in 2020, author Randall Keenan passed away. Four days later, on September 1, 2020, the Google Doodle of the day was Jackie Ormes, the first African American woman to be a syndicated cartoonist and the creator of Torchy Brown and Patty-Jo ‘N’ Ginger.
As the days passed, I thought about all of these things. The ways that white men mutilated and murdered a 14-year-old Emmett Till because a white woman said he wolf-whistled at her. I thought about Ormes’ Patty-Jo flipping that narrative and having the young, pint sized character tell Ginger, who precariously attempts to hide the newspaper with the news of Till’s murder from the youngster, that she didn’t want to be rude, but the white tea-kettle whistled at her, highlighting the sexual violence enacted upon Black women.
I thought about the ways that the violence of Till’s murder and Mamie Till’s insistence that the world see her son and what the murders did to him did not stop people from painting the 1963 March on Washington and protests as nothing more than “jungle law.”
I thought about the fact that Kirby, along with Stan Lee, created T’Challa in 1966 and that they did so consciously to comment on the current political moment. I thought about how Don McGregor, in the 1970s after Black Panther had been relegated to the background for almost a decade, brought T’Challa to the forefront and fought adamantly for an all-Black book in Jungle Action.
I thought about Horace in Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits as he describes the impact of superheroes on his life and on the formation of his identity. How he remembered his “first Avengers comic book and that the Black Panther was in it and that he was the first black superhero [he] had ever see and how he was angry because they were making him be nice to a white man from a country called Rhodesia.”
I thought about Chadwick Boseman’s cultural impact, specifically with Black Panther. Ruha Benjamin posted a clip of Boseman from the March 8, 2020, episode of The Shop: Uninterrupted where he talked about the roles he decided to take. He said, “So, for me, it’s always been, like first, who are you? Who am I first? I have to know who I am first to know how to navigate this thing, because if I’m navigating and I’m becoming something, if I become something that I’m not supposed to become, then I’m in the wrong place, whether I made it in other people’s eyes or not.”
I thought about the countless individuals who posted about the importance of 2018’s Black Panther.
I thought about the importance of representation. I thought about how even though Boseman portrayed a fictional character, that character, and Ryan Coogler’s vision of that film, impacted countless individuals, individuals who could care less about superhero movies. It impacted them because it showed a tapestry of Black representation on film, on the big screen, and showed that people want and need to see themselves portrayed accurately in media, without stereotypes. This is what Boseman was talking about in the quote above. He passed over roles that would stereotype him. He took up roles that highlighted African American historical figures and Black superheroes. He understood the importance and the power of representation.
I thought about the children who, when hen heard of Boseman’s passing cried heavily and conducted funerals for T’Challa with their action figures. I thought about one young boy who when he found out asked him mom, “Why do they keep killing us?” Even though he knew that Boseman died of cancer and that he only portrayed T’Challa, the connection between the officer involved deaths of George Floyd, Trayford Pellerin, Jonathan Jefferson, . . . caused him to draw the linkage, to fuse Boseman’s passing with the murders of Black men at the hands of officers.
My son did not have that reaction. He loves Black Panther and all of the Marvel characters, but T’Challa did not have the same representational impact with him as it did with other children. He sees himself mirrored on screen constantly in characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant Man, and more. He does not have to worry about not being represented in media.
I’ve written about the importance of representation a lot on my blog, and I do not want to dive into all of that. I want to conclude with a passage I thought about from Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling’s “Today’s Children and Their Tomorrow” from 1944. They write about training children to respect and care for others, and they point out,
White and Negro parents can insist that Negro characters in movies be made human and intelligent and attractive; that old stereotypes be minimized–such as the lazy houseboy, the curtsying mammy, the ignorant and superstitious farmhand . . . They can urge producers to include Negroes and whites in the same cast on equal basis, as the theater has done for so long. A step in this direction would be a serious play with an all Negro cast, where fresh types are used (the college Negro, the self-respecting worker, the professional man, etc.). While such a movie would still be “segregated” it would help in the weaning process from the usual servant stereotypes. There in no influence more potent for racial democracy than movies. As one child recently said, ‘movies are practically human’ and children associate frequently with them.
Boseman knew the importance of representation, and he worked in the time he had on this earth to do what he could to increase the representation of Blacks and African Americans on screen, Kenan knew the importance of representation, and he worked in the time he had on this earth to do what he could to increase the representation of African American gay men on the page. Ormes knew the importance of representation, and she worked in the time she had on this earth to do what she could to increase the representation of African American women and girls in newspapers and dollhouses.
We must not forget August 28, 2020. The loss. The history. The heartbreak. The coalescing of the past, the present, and the future into a day of remembrance.