On August 29th was a frigid winter day in my corner of South Africa. The sky was overcast and the electric heater in my bedroom was on full blast. Drizzling rain misted the windowpanes and the hadedas (South Africa’s unofficial bird) had finished their dawn screeching. This was my favorite weather and time of day, when everything was still and the day had yet to unfold and the world held possibilities yet to be unconverted. I decided I would make the best of the day; perhaps watch cartoons…maybe The Gummy Bears or Voltron on YouTube.
My plans were pleasantly interrupted by my daughter’s confident knock on the door. She has recently rekindled the custom of greeting us first thing in the morning: something she had abandoned during the dark days of her late tween and early teen years. She hugged my husband and I around our necks, remarked on the mustiness of our room and asked a question that felt like a slap.
“Did you hear that Chadwick Boseman died?”
Surely she had to be mistaken. I was confident that she didn’t know who, or what, she was talking about, because Chadwick Boseman was a young man whom we’d just seen in a Spike Lee film and there was no reason for him to be dead. She must’ve been thinking of another famous figure. Still…there is no mistaking a name like Chadwick Boseman, one marked by distinction in its peculiarity. Twitter confirmed the news. The man who played T’Challa, who buoyed the spirits of Black people globally and brought joy to millions of people around the world, had indeed passed away. My family was thunderstruck and we each grieved in our own way: some of us crying silent tears, others busying themselves with cleaning and some sitting in dumbfounded quiet. Saturday’s plans for frivolity had unexpectedly turned into a period of mourning. I still mourn.
In a world as cynical as ours is today, it is often perceived as disingenuous and performative to mourn a celebrity death. After all, the detractors say, you did not know this person intimately. Why should your heart break if they die? These are usually people lacking empathy or compassion, and I advocate ignoring them as much as possible. Anytime anyone dies, it is a sad occasion. Even if the conclusion of one’s life is marked by a period of suffering, it is still heartrending to watch the light go out of someone’s eyes. The moments after that light is gone means acknowledging and accepting that we will never feel their warmth again, witness their smile or labor to erase their grimace. Death is a breaking of communion…and that is the difficulty of tolerating its sting. Though life will go on, death alters everything. It leaves a hole; a litany of unanswered questions; a void.
Chadwick Boseman’s departure from this life has most certainly left a void. He was an exemplary man.
It is rare that the passing of one person elicits grief from so many different types of people, and judging from the outpouring of tributes it is clear that Chadwick Boseman touched lives across race, age, nationalities and cultures. The world didn’t just lose a great talent. We lost a great human. I think each of us saw a little of ourselves in him, which is why it feels like a little bit of ourselves has been lost as well. That is an extraordinary quality to embody in such a short life – a mere 43 years. His life and light reflected something special and personal to each of us, whether it was on screen or at a press junket or in a hospital ward. Chadwick Boseman provoked the hero in everyone he interacted with.
Have you ever found yourself thinking about the minds of the people who have impacted this spinning rock we live on with their creativity and ingenuity? The minds behind the Seven Wonders of the World still inspire awe today. Shakespeare and Toni Morrison changed literature forever. Mohammed Ali changed boxing not just through his technique, but provided the blueprint for the athlete as the activist as well. For those of us who are mere mortals, bearing witness to the talent and feats of such individuals affords us a strange sense of accomplishment too. Though we can lay no claim to contributing to their success, it is a privilege to live in the time of its fruition. I consider myself lucky to have lived in the age of Chadwick Boseman, who lit up screens and rooms with his presence.
He told our stories.
Storytelling is an art, but through Chadwick it became alchemy. He had an uncanny ability to embody every role and convince the audience that they were experiencing events in real time. The first time I remember seeing him on screen in 42, when I snatched an opportunity to catch a matinee before carpool. I was awestruck by his performance. He portrayed Jackie Robinson with such dignity that it made you want to leap through the screen and protect him from the onslaught of the segregationist society’s continual attempts to thwart his progress. In that portrayal, I saw the struggles of my grandfather and thousands of Black men who were drafted into the military to fight under a flag that would reward them with second class citizenship back on American soil. Soon after that, Boseman would play James Brown in Get on Up (which I have yet to see); Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (which garnered its own debate at the time because a dark skinned man was playing the very light skinned Supreme Court Justice) and then go on to play the role that my kids will forever associate with him: the King of Wakanda.
Whether he portrayed a fictional/fantasy character or cultural icon – Chadwick Boseman humanized and made real every role he tackled. He could morph and bend and become. That is the goal of every artist: To create work that strikes at and touches the heart of humanity. To build worlds out of thin air through words, voice, dance, paint or whatever the medium chosen is. In this way, Chadwick Boseman wasn’t just an actor – he was a vessel. To say that his ability is enviable is a gross understatement.
In the coming days there will be much written about Chadwick Boseman, his impact and his life. He embodied what it means to be a star, not just as a celebrity, but as one who brings light in the darkness. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson’s quote is not just fitting, but comforting in this moment:
“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”
There was so much more Chadwick Boseman had to offer, nevertheless, he gave us enough. He gave the world his best. He showered us with stardust.
Until we meet again among the firmament of the heavens, rest in power, King.