An icon has passed. That was the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news that Chadwick Boseman passed away. And my brain never got much further than that word: Icon. It seems I am in good company. The resounding refrain of the internet is “we lost a king.” Losing Boseman feels like so much more than losing a celebrity.
It does not always feel this way. Celebrity brings strange faces into our homes and makes them familiar. To some extent through the para-social relationships of film social media, and spectatorship, we come to think we may even know them just a little.
But the mourning we fans, especially black fans, are voicing for Boseman focuses less on the personal, the closeness. I couldn’t claim to feel I knew Boseman through his work. The loss I feel for Chadwick Boseman is more on the level of the divine, like some sacred light is gone.
Boseman took on the mantle of some of the greatest Americans in our country’s history. He gave life and voice to the very few Black Americans that Hollywood deemed worthy of the silver screen. And in the age of social media celebrity when so many claim fame through para-social relationships and creating the sense that audiences really know the celebrity, Boseman floated above the fray, above both social media intimacy or controversy.
He kept us outside, whether due to his A-list celebrity or personal choice, and as a result became a vessel for our greatest heroes. An icon is some mortal thing that we, its devotees, elevate to the divine.
With Boseman’s passing, I have come to think of his taking on of that mantle as an incredibly selfless act. He never let us see his mortality so we could pour into him all our pride and history and hope and ambition. So we could know through him Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall.
And as if bringing to life the black heroes of history wasn’t enough, he gave breath and poise—in a way that comics never could—to the Black Panther.
When Black Panther came out, I was studying in Cuba. I watched—on my limited internet—as black people all over the world showed up and showed out, arriving at theaters in their prints and kente cloths. I felt left out. The American film would not open in Havana’s theaters.
But one day my roommate, who was in Cuba researching Havana’s growing hip-hop movement, came home brimming with excitement. She had been out to a local rap organizer’s house, helping him lock and style his hair, and while there she caught a glimpse of a file on his computer. La Pantera Negra. He had the file on his paquete, a weekly hard-drive of pirated films from all over the world smuggled into and circulated around the streets of Havana.
I could think of no better way to honor the opening of Black Panther than to watch a bootleg copy of it given to us by a Cuban rapero in exchange for natural hair styling services.
T’Challa became another face of the Boseman pantheon, elevated to reality by the man who brought us so many of our other real life heroes. And now we can recognize the sacrifice that went into bringing T’Challa to life. Boseman created for black audiences an immortal hero even as he stared down his own mortality.
While fans won’t be able to see Boseman create ever more complex heroes, we can take comfort in the fact that death cannot kill an icon and it cannot take away the gifts that Boseman left behind.
What did Chadwick Boseman mean to you?