How Black people mourn the loss of a Superhero
In global Black tradition, our collective mourning has elevated Chadwick as a most honored ancestor. His legacy will continue.
The day I thought that Chadwick Boseman was James Brown, he lit up the screen with his rosewood colored skin and small gap. He was not the real James Brown except that he was, for over two hours he was James Brown. “Get On Up” was the first time I’d seen Chadwick’s acting skills, but he would continue to blow me away film after film, breathing life into great Black men in history.
Throughout all of his stellar performances, it is unanimously agreed that his role as T’Challa, in The Black Panther, has had the most cultural impact. Black people across the world brought their biggest, Blackest dreams to the theater to watch Chadwick become the superhero we subconsciously knew that we needed.
A Black man from South Carolina played an African king, and brought to life what liberation looks like across the African diaspora. For Black people, liberation looks like having a community that simultaneously honors tradition and moves forward with technology. A land where ancestral reverence is not demonized or seen as Hollywood fodder.
In most movies and television shows, African/Diaspora based ancestral reverence is portrayed with alarm and demonization. Caricatures of Black ancestral reverence systems, which are often blanketed with the term “voodoo,” take over the screen and further social attitudes of these traditions as “devil worship” or “scary”. Black Panther delicately portrayed ancestral reference as an everyday action, where the thought of our deceased loved ones, and the ability to meet them through ritual or dream plays a majority of the experience in ancestral traditions.
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In Wakanda, it is so common to see people that look like you in positions of power, compassion, and responsibility, that no one thinks to make anything spectacular out of the importance of “representation”. Wakanda for Black folks is the land of milk and honey, the freedom land sung about in the Negro spiritual, where the streets are made of vibranium and everyone has all that they need to thrive. Not just survive, but to thrive.
Both in and out of his role as the Black Panther, Chadwick embodied our highest aspirations of what Black manhood looks like. He modeled kindness, compassion, hard work, honesty, perseverance, leadership during conflict, and trustworthiness.
Chadwick was a hero to all Black children, including the child in all of us. But his impact on Black boys especially, before their dreams are challenged, deferred, or squashed is unique. Many Black boys dream of changing the world for the better, saving the day from the bad guys, and being marveled at for their exploratory values and morals as community workers. A hero not in spite of systemic challenges who embodied the greatness that is naturally present in all of us.
In global Black tradition, our collective mourning has elevated Chadwick as a most honored ancestor. He is someone whose life’s work and legacy has, and will continue to uplift us as a collective.
As we are all ancestors in training, we have the comfort of knowing that Mr. Boseman is as present as he was before. Holding the collective memory of those that died before us ensures that they have life for as long as someone remembers. Across the world, Chadwick Boseman will live in the imagination of Black children for centuries to come.
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When The Black Panther was released in theaters, I saw it three times the opening week. Chadwick’s death moved me to watch the movie again but revisiting the scenes in the ancestral realm was bittersweet. I found myself looking into Chadwick’s eyes and wondering how he felt during those scenes. I’ve always believed that living beings, at times, have the ability to foreshadow their death and seek familiar comforts.
How much did he know that his reunion with the ancestors of the Black Panther was a dress rehearsal for this transition to the ancestral realm as Chadwick Boseman? I wondered if he questioned what would happen immediately after his transition, where would his spirit travel to and who would he meet? Those scenes represented the connection to where we are and where we would like to be.
The ancestral scene also turned the notion of “the pearly gates” on its head. What if there is no light but our spirits returning back to the darkness of creation and hot energy? As a practitioner of ancestral traditions, the question of what happens after death, and recognizing death as a part of life and not the end of it, has been one of the primary “mysteries” of life that continues to be challenged and evolved in my understanding of it. Are dreams closer or further away on the other side of life?
Our dream of Wakanda feels a little further away, Chadwick’s death feels like when the central piece to your dream is no longer in your tangible presence and it becomes hard to see through the woods of grief. Whether or not any of us will live to see Wakanda become a real thing on this side of the realm, we know that it is waiting for us on the other side. Chadwick Boseman’s transition to the ancestral realm has reminded us to not wait for heaven in the afterlife, but to continue to build it in this life.
“He cared so deeply about humanity, about Black people, and his people. He activated our pride. By pushing through and working with such high purpose in the folks he chose to commit to, Chadwick has made the infinite his home. We are all charged by his work as a result, by his presence in our lives. His power lives on and will reverberate for generations to come. He used his lifeforce to tell meaningful stories, and now we tell his…” Lupita Nyong’o
So, what happens when a Black super hero dies? They become a great ancestor.
“In my culture, death is not the end.” — Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War.