Losing Our Black Heroes When We Need Them the Most

By Nikki Brueggeman

The world is still reeling from the unexpected news that Chadwick Boseman, best known for his starring role in Marvel Studios’ blockbuster movie Black Panther (2018), had died from colon cancer at the age of 43. Boseman is one of many Black heroes that we lost this year. He joins NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, professional basketball player Kobe Bryant, WWE wrestler James “Kamala” Harris, singer Betty Wright, drag queen and reality TV personality Chi Chi DeVanye, and civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis as a new ancestor.

It is natural to mourn a death with nuance. Grief is not a simple experience. You mourn the person, but also what was taken away, what was lost with their death. Part of mourning someone is to also mourn the dreams they represented, the potential, the future. For Black people, the deaths of our heroes hit with even greater impact in 2020. In dealing with a pandemic, white violence, and other traumas, the loss of our heroes means a loss of hope that carries a pain without words.

The Importance of Black Heroes

“A lot of children’s… especially Black children’s hearts are going to break,” wrote Twitter user Benjamin Dixon, “I’m not even sure I’m going to tell my kids. They literally watched Black Panther for the 20th time yesterday.” Dixon echoed many parents around the world who desperately tried to comprehend how they would tell their children the Black Panther was gone.

We connect to heroes because they show us what is possible, they give us something we need: hope. As Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals noted in the blog post, 10 Reasons Why We Need Heroes, “…We cannot help but recognize that the world is generally a troubled place rife with warfare, poverty, famine, and unrest. Heroes are beacons of light amidst this vast darkness.”

If anyone needs hope right now, it is Black people. For Black people, our heroes’ stories hit harder because they have been systematically denied recognition for their contributions. When one of us “makes it” it is a moment for the Black community to celebrate because we had a part in that success. Our resources and our love were a foundation to our Black heroes.

Heroes are more than people. They are a representation of a dream. They reflect the communities they are from and the power within them. Chi Chi DeVayne was an icon whose love for drag showed us the diversity of Blackness and sexuality within our community. Heroines like Katherine Johnson showed Black children the power of their minds, that they could be scientists and engineers, inventors and mathematicians. These figures are celebrated nationally, but their connection to the Black community is sacred. Black heroes demonstrate our power, our intellect, and abilities.

It is within this connection to our heroes that makes 2020 even more tragic. In a time when we need dreams and hopes, we are saying goodbye to trailblazers. Each death this year has been a loss to different dreams: fashion, sexuality, sports, civil rights, and STEM. Boseman’s death has been received with devastation and pain because his death was, like other deaths this year, the loss of a dream.

Chadwick Boseman and the Dream of Black Fantasy

“Chadwick Boseman is a big reason why our kids don’t have to wonder about what a Black superhero is,” tweeted Brian Josephs.It was a sentiment shared by many. Boseman had changed the world. He gave us something to believe in.

People of color have not been welcomed into the world of fantasy. We were absent in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, given only one character in the original Star Wars trilogy, and are often regulated to roles that do not center us. When these issues are brought up, gatekeepers and white fans are quick to create racist theories about why we are not allowed to participate.

As stand-up comedian Wyatt Cenac joked, “Somebody told a real-life woman that her skin was too brown to play an imaginary creature. That basically in the whole fictional world of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, where you have dragons, and trolls, and talking trees, where you draw the line, where imagination is capped out [for] a brown hobbit.” It was under these conditions, the lack of representation and stories about people of color, that Black Panther took the world by storm, and as the leading man of that franchise, Boseman stepped into history.

Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa was unapologetically Black. He fought for T’Challa to have an Afrocentric accent instead of a westernized one. His desire to strongly connect T’Challa to Africa cemented the character, and film, as one that was made to empower Blackness. Boseman’s pride in the character’s connection to Africa and Black identity along with his beautiful portrayal of T’Challa created a space in fantasy for Blackness. We no longer were regulated to the sidelines or comedy relief. We were the stars. As writer Jamil Smith noted, “This is not just a movie about a Black superhero. It’s very much a Black movie. It carries a weight that neither Thor nor Captain America could lift — serving a Black audience that has long gone underrepresented.” The movie became a Black classic overnight, and at the helm was Boseman, showing us what Black fantasy could be.

In the months following the film’s release, the lines blurred between T’Challa and Boseman. People began calling him the king of Wakanda. This is a normal occurrence within fandoms. The same has happened with Robert Downey Jr. who played Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. However, in the case of Boseman and T’Challa, it was deeper. No longer in the shadows, Black people had someone who broke barriers in the comic and fantasy world.

Boseman had gone from actor to hero and finally had been labeled with the title of king. He had become an icon for Black people. He was our gateway to Black fantasy and became a hero not only because of his inner beauty and grace, but because he was leading us into a genre we had long been excluded from. With Boseman came a dream: a Black Panther series, a world and a legacy with us in the spotlight.

It would be unfair to say that with Boseman the dream of Black fantasy is gone forever. There are still more stories to tell in the Black Panther franchise. The rest of the cast is still here, and there could be a way to carry on the Black Panther with a new character, such as Shuri taking up the mantle. However, that does not undermine that we had a dream and Boseman was part of it.

We had planned for Boseman to be our panther for a long time. We imagined stories with him at the helm, not only at Marvel, but in other projects as well. Now, he is someone we speak of in a different tense, as an ancestor.

When They Become Ancestors

“We gained another Great Ancestor. Chadwick Boseman really did an incredible job on Earth,” wrote Twitter user ehimeora.

In the hours following the announcement of Boseman’s death, Nigerian artist and spiritualist Ehime Ora’s titling of him as an ancestor was repeated by many others on Twitter. He had left us and now was watching over us beyond the world of the living.

There is difficulty in letting someone become an ancestor. You want them to stay, to teach you more things, to make you laugh and spend time with you. There are plans, goals and dreams that go unrealized with the death of a loved one.

When someone becomes an ancestor, we know they watch over us and guide us through life. This year, Black people have gained too many ancestors. With the loss of our heroes and loss of those in our local communities, the afterlife must be filled with melanin.

The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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