“Hero” is a word that we usually take for granted. It is a word that we grossly overuse. It is a word that we tend to apply carelessly and without thinking. With that backdrop in mind, I offer that — as a writer — I strive to be deliberative and thoughtful. Thus, when I apply the word “hero” to Chadwick Boseman, I do so with conscious intentionality and with linguistic integrity.
Boseman, whose recent death sent shockwaves throughout the world, was a hero. Is a hero. (Using the phrase “Chadwick Boseman was…” is, quite literally, painful to me.) The reaction to his death, especially for Black people, is not merely due to his iconic, and now immortal, role as Black Panther. Of course, the critical and commercial heights to which Boseman’s best-known role elevated him are enough to solidify his place in cinematic history. Yet, Boseman’s heroic status goes well beyond such material success. It is the juxtaposition of that transcendent role in relationship to his grounded, selfless humanity that merits such an exalted perch.
Some may question the propriety of so highly honoring a man who spent his all-too-brief life pretending to be other people. Yet, I urge those people to consider — among other things — the list of real-life heroes who Boseman portrayed. Jackie Robinson. James Brown. Thurgood Marshall. On the surface, the first of these men was a mere baseball player. The second was a mere entertainer. The third was a mere attorney. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those professions, there is nothing inherently laudatory about them.
But each of these men played roles that forever altered the American story. Robinson will forever remain the man who integrated Major League Baseball (in the modern era). His signing with the then-Brooklyn Dodgers swatted back segregation, just as his civil rights activism did once he laid down his glove for the final time. Brown was a man who stopped a riot on April 5, 1968 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He was a man who edified his people by unapologetically declaring, “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud.” Marshall was the quintessential civil rights attorney who once held the record for the most appearances before the Supreme Court. Later, he became the first African American to be elevated to that very court — the pinnacle of jurisprudence. Thus, even Boseman’s choices as an actor spoke to his values and his character.
Boseman was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. As the years passed, he must have known that his death was not far off. Boseman’s mother, who raised him to be a devout Christian, had admonished him not to have people “make a fuss over him.” Thus, his illness remained unknown to all but a few family members and close friends. Despite his physical deterioration, he kept up a pace that would have been dizzying even for a healthy man. The fact that he kept making movies, kept visiting children in cancer wards, kept making media appearances and kept encouraging friends — all while battling colon cancer — is a set of facts about which one can only marvel.
Further, at this crucial historical moment, Boseman’s example represents the strength, the resilience, the brilliance and the aspirations of Africans in America. In the play “Life of Galileo,” legendary author Bertolt Brecht has a character lament, “Unhappy (is) the land that has no heroes.” Galileo responds, “No. Unhappy (is) the land that needs heroes.” Black America needs heroes. Chadwick Boseman is a hero.
Legendary director Spike Lee cast Boseman in his recent war movie, “Da Five Bloods.” Lee, who is not known for being generous with praise, said the following about selecting Boseman for the film: “This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall. And we cast T’Challa.”
Do you believe in heroes? I do. Cancer claimed Chadwick Boseman’s life, but it cannot damage his legacy.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.