Writers are always supposed to have the words. From screenwriters to authors to historians, society entrusts writers to find vocabulary for the elusive. We as writers seek to breathe life into the inanimate, make tangible the intangible. And yet as we endure trauma after trauma this year, I like many writers find myself at a loss to describe the weight of the countless emotions we’ve felt as this year drags on.
The latest tragedy to hit our disease-stricken nation was once again in the Black community, only this time the death was not the result of police violence, but rather a cancer diagnosis that was elusive to the public. Chadwick Boseman, the beloved actor who portrayed the comic hero Black Panther amongst other prominent roles, died late Friday at the age of 43. His death was the result of stage 4 colon cancer, a condition not known to the public until the announcement of his death. He battled the cancer for four years, meaning that many of his iconic film roles, including all appearances in the Avengers films, were filmed while Chadwick was essentially terminally ill. To describe him posthumously as a superhero is an understatement.
His death comes in a year where we’ve seen an unpalatable amount of Black people die, on camera or by hearsay. Black people are most likely to die of COVID as well as police violence. If trans, the danger doubles from police and civilians alike, most often to fatal outcomes. Black women have also been the targets of violent crimes this year, leading to more deaths that have made news. I won’t link to any examples here because I am sick of seeing all of it myself. If you know, you know.
And if all of that wasn’t suffocating enough, we’ve also lost celebrities that we held dear, at shockingly young ages. Former WWE star Shad Gaspard died saving his son from a rip current in May. Naya Rivera died in eerily similar fashion two months later, drowning while saving her son. Of course, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi died in a plane crash along with other parents and children in January. And John Lewis, long-serving Congressman and a figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s died in July. These are just the most notable ones, but trust me, there are more.
Because it is an unfortunate reality that many Black celebrities represent firsts in their fields regardless of era, we hold onto our celebrity icons tightly. They become parts of our lives, representation to cling to when it is scarce elsewhere. Particularly in the case of Chadwick, our Black superhero, the titular star of the first true blockbuster film featuring a Black male lead, his death hit like a destructive meteor. It cannot be overstated how important of a film Black Panther was to the Black community. No matter how old you were, from grannies all the way down to babies, you knew his name. Chances are, you’d seen the film. The premiere of Black Panther was a cultural event to us, a unifying piece of media that all of Us — no matter class, coolness, or otherwise — could enjoy. Think of how rare of a moment that is for us, that we could all stop bickering for two hours and love on that movie.
And the love didn’t stop there. Chadwick was known for his biopic portrayals of other Black legends, namely James Brown (Get On Up), Thurgood Marshall (Marshall), and Jackie Robinson (24). Covering sports, music, and sociopolitical icons in less than ten years? Impressive, to say the least.
That Chadwick was immensely talented has been well-discussed since and even before his death. What makes his death so painful, outside of the fact that he had to hide his illness in order to be given the opportunities he was, is that his career had such promise. It was a reminder to us all that our time on earth may well be shorter than we’d hoped — despite our many gifts.
Personally, death nowadays is triggering because it reminds me of the death of my own kin: my father, who died mere months after Black Panther debuted in theaters. My dad lived through segregation in the South and North, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. A usually stoic and crass man, he cried when Barack Obama was elected President. And he loved all things sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero-related. He knew of Black Panther, but was in no condition to see it in the months before his passing. Still, he recognized its importance proudly.
The death of my dad was hard, I won’t sugarcoat. It is very, very hard losing a parent, especially when you yourself are so young. You feel loss at the prospect of having to live so much life without them. But what helped me heal from his death was accepting that it only represented a physical loss. I consoled myself by remembering that he’ll never stop being my dad; his role in my life has just changed. I know, always, that he is watching over me, and the proof is in the pudding. Within a month of his death, my mom and I got some serious life upgrades. I immediately got a new job that paid more money, and so did my mom. My husband and I found a new, bigger apartment with a second bedroom I could use as my home office (where I’m writing from right now). And I was able to buy my very first car with my husband. All of these things were stressors for me in the months before my dad’s death, and I’d expressed them to him. The fact that all of these things worked out seamlessly in a matter of weeks, after years of personal strife beforehand, was to me a sign of divine work from my father. He helped to make these miracles happen from wherever he is watching over me and my mom.
And that, I believe, is the silver lining of Chadwick’s death among all the others. He, like my father, has entered the ancestral plane. Chadwick made a career of depicting our Black ancestors. In his most recent film release Da 5 Bloods, he plays a fallen veteran that spiritually helps his war comrades make peace with their unresolved traumas. As an ancestor, he helped to guide the living to healing.
Our heroes will always be. Their work will live on in our hearts. And as Ryan Coogler said about Chadwick, he along with others we’ve lost are ancestors now. I believe that these figures have transcended physical form to give us a divine final push in the marathon of progress. They will continue working for us and through us for the months and years to come. They will illuminate our darkness into light. And in return we will cherish them, hold them, speak to them. They have done all they were destined to do on this plane. And they will avenge us from the other side.