Why Our Grief is Loud When Black Heroes Die
NOTE: This story was originally posted on Medium.com. The Black Panther image was commissioned for this article from local artist Marcus Kiser.
No one’s saying Chadwick Boseman was a (panther) god.
He wasn’t the Second Coming of Christ. He wasn’t the preeminent civil rights leader of our era. He wasn’t the be-all and end-all of Black excellence.
But, he was a symbol. He was an icon. He was a hero.
That’s why his death has rippled across the Black community with punctuated pangs of grief, frustration and despair.
To their credit, Chadwick’s network of family, friends and supporters kept his colon cancer diagnosis under wraps for four years, even this past May, when Internet trolls hounded him for his gaunt appearance in a social media post. We didn’t realize at the time that he was in the final stages of battling the illness that would take his life on Aug. 28, the same day Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day after moving it from April because of the coronavirus. In 2013, Boseman portrayed the trailblazing baseball player in “42.”
Chadwick’s death shocked a lot of us, but I argue, aside from his family, friends and colleagues, his loss is particularly devastating for Black people.
That’s because our heroes always seem to die.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, existing while Black has never been easy. From the collectively shared trauma born out of slavery to the ills of white supremacy and systemic racism that still afflict us today, it’s hard being Black in America. There hasn’t been a single moment of our history in this nation that Blackness has not come under assault with a cornucopia of terror, toil and anguish.
Still, hope has remained part and parcel of the Black experience. Despite the indignities leveled against our people for centuries, we’ve always been blessed with glimmers of promise amid the pain.
That promise comes in the form of civil rights leaders and political activists who roil the institutions that perpetuate discrimination. It shows up in athletes, actors and industrialists who subvert the narratives of failure prescribed for them to achieve widespread fame and notoriety in a white man’s world. It’s alive in authors, filmmakers and creators who ensure the Black experience is understood, represented and reflected in mediums where, historically, our stories have been misused, unheard and undervalued.
We cheer when Black people get the promotion, open the business or spit in the face of stereotypes. We bask when we see positive and complex portrayals of Blackness on television or in cinema. We breathe a sigh of relief when our Black heroes get the respect they deserve. Not everyone feels this way, but I do: When one Black person wins, we all win.
Under the direction of the brilliant Ryan Coogler, Chadwick helped enrich the story of Blackness. This Anderson, S.C., native brought to life a character who gave Black children and adults a superhero that looked like them, one they could really admire.
That’s rare. Yes, we’ve seen Black heroes — fictional and nonfictional — depicted on screen for decades now. But few headline an entire movie. Even fewer hail from a visually-stunning portrayal of Africa that doesn’t include slavery, poverty and genocide.
(SN: Wakanda may be fictional, but the culture, beauty and ingenuity that underpinned its creation in the 1960s is not. Africa is a beautifully-diverse continent filled with industry, innovation and wealth; it’s not just poor, malnourished children or militants with machetes.)
There are very few leading Black male superheroes on screen. Most of the ones we see play second fiddle or sidekick to the leading white man, a la The Falcon in “Captain America” and War Machine in “Iron Man.” At the moment, I can’t think of a single leading Black woman superhero on screen.
“Black Panther” was important because, no matter how you feel about the plot, its Blackness was beautiful. It was inspirational, smart, nuanced and fun. It made Black people feel good.
Some of that feeling has gone with Chadwick at a time we need it most.
We lost the man who embodied the MCU’s foremost Black superhero the same year we lost Rep. John Lewis, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, Kobe Bryant and John Thompson Jr.
We lost Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown — for a second time — the same year we got new headlines about Black people dying at the hands of police. (Breonna Taylor’s killers still have not been charged nearly six months after her death. Sign this petition demanding justice.)
We lost NYPD Detective Andre Davis, Levee and Stormin’ Norm the same year we’ve lost loved ones to a virus that kills Black people in overwhelming number and ravages our communities as people still debate if our lives matter.
Black people aren’t monolithic, yet there are common threads that bind us together. We identify each other with familial terms like “bruh,” “sis” and “fam” because we’re knitted by a bond forged in beauty and pain. We don’t all get along. We don’t all think alike. We hurt and criticize each other just like anyone else. But, we do understand each other. We share trauma on a profoundly deep level.
Millions of us never met him, but losing Chadwick felt like losing a member of the family. It felt like another nail in the coffin during a year that’s been marred by Black death. Chadwick didn’t have to die at the hands of a bigot or in the wake of a pandemic for his loss to feel familiar. This year, the specter of Black death has become a bedfellow.
As a people, we are mourning — a lot. As a Christian, I don’t believe death is the end. Because Chadwick was a believer, I hold onto hope that he’s resting in eternal glory, in heaven, with no more pain. His struggle is over, so I take to heart the words the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
That doesn’t mean death doesn’t hurt, or that seeing so many Black people die over and over again doesn’t make us weary. It doesn’t mean that losing Chadwick’s gifts and talents doesn’t feel like a blow to the gut or like the war against Black bodies has leveled up for a new generation.
This year has been difficult for everyone, but for Black people, it feels like a relentless onslaught of grief and loss. It seems like just when we think we can breathe again, another Black person gets shot, another family member gets Covid, another human being becomes a hashtag.
Another Black hero dies.