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Chadwick Boseman Didn’t Just Play Heroes: For the Black Community, He Was One

Despite making his name playing icons — from Jackie Robinson to King T’Challa — Boseman’s legacy isn’t just his roles, but the strength of the man behind them

Whenever I think of Black Panther, even before the TV spots, before the giant billboards lining New York’s highways, I think of the first night I saw the film. As a student at a majority white Christian college, I didn’t just know the minority experience, I lived it. Our Black student union worked hard to find tickets in the mad push for seats, finally securing a row of them for a midnight showing. There is no way to describe the energy in that theater: It was bigger than anything I had ever felt. The drums from the soundtrack shook the room, and from our seats in the front row, Chadwick Boseman loomed over us as T’Challa. The viewers screamed, chanted, stomped their feet — I could feel the vibrations getting bigger, reverberating through my chest. It was joy like nothing I had ever experienced. For the next six months, any Black student I saw in the halls was greeted with the Wakanda Forever sign. We felt unstoppable. 

What Black Panther did, beyond breaking records and writing headlines, was bigger than just a superhero movie. It was a large, chaotic, unbreakable, unstoppable wave of Black joy. It was empowerment, pride, the release of finally seeing a film, an experience made entirely to celebrate us. And that palpable joy didn’t just end with the film: It followed us through the year, through the award shows, through the music, through the Halloween costumes and through the heart and soul of one Chadwick Boseman. 

Although he’ll likely always be remembered as a man whose biggest roles were playing larger-than-life heroes, Boseman’s parts didn’t imbue him with anything that he didn’t already possess. It’s easy to see in his performances the parts of himself that he gave to the roles, the investment that played on and off screen: The righteous anger of Jackie Robinson; the endless determination of James Brown; the commitment and power of Thurgood Marshall; and everything that went into his most iconic role, T’Challa.

For those with such enormous cultural expectations placed on them, beyond the cameras and the parties, beyond the screaming fans and the children in costumes, there is an unmistakable weight — a weight that is both an honor and something too precious to be allowed to fail. Boseman’s Black Panther wasn’t just a moment in time — for Black people in the U.S. and beyond, it felt like a revolution. And for a man fighting his own battles outside of the spotlight, Boseman handled the burden of that status with a beautiful, unwavering grace. 

When public figures pass, especially in such a shocking manner, it’s our cultural tendency to look back on what we missed. The nature of being such a prominent icon means that the line between character and person is always irrevocably blurred — even if Boseman had lived an extremely long life, he would forever be King T’Challa in our minds. It’s easy to try and parse a lesson from this, whether it’s “being kind to others” or “he shouldn’t have had to hide his diagnosis,” but it’s a much harder battle to simply grieve for grief’s sake. 

Our identity as Black Americans in this country has always been a tenuous one, full of contradictions and dualities. Our existence constantly threatened and degraded, Black joy was and can still be hard to come by in the midst of what feels like a never-ending battle for our lives. This year has been many things: For me, it has been a slowly rising fury, an ever-increasing tidal wave of anger and hurt and pain that feels like it has nowhere left to go. To lose such an icon as T’Challa at this, one of our lowest moments, feels like a betrayal, but we must remember that Chadwick Boseman’s legacy isn’t just the characters he played: It’s the life of a talented, kind, joyful man, who gave more to the people he inspired and left behind than anyone will ever know.

In 2018, Boseman stood in front of the graduating class of Howard University, his alma mater. Full of nerves and excitement, he challenged the group to find their passions, their purpose, regardless of failure or the pain of defeat. In front of a crowd filled with Black and brown faces, he said this: “Purpose is the essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill.” 

Boseman’s own existence was full of supernatural joy. And we will never forget, that while fighting for his own life, he stopped and gave that joy to us.