For African-Americans, always braced for news about our own being taken from us early, the unexpected impact of Chadwick Boseman’s death, from colon cancer – and the shoulder-to-the-grindstone dignity of his decision to work through his illness and keep it quiet – encapsulated the grim reality of black life in America. We didn’t lose Boseman to the ongoing calamity of street violence that extinguishes so much black life – and gets so much media coverage that we have been conditioned to expect it. That’s what many of my friends said as we emailed and texted about the actor’s sudden passing.
But what made Boseman’s death hard to take was that he’d made his breakthrough as a black actor playing adults, grown men who had to wrestle with their own expectations, as well as the diminished expectations others had for them. There was something in Boseman that understood the power of pride: his performances doubled as meditations on the allure and dangers of self-regard. That is what we responded to in him, especially as African Americans – whose pride can be maligned, treated as effrontery, and turned into a felony because it reflects the ownership of self that white America still has a hard time embracing. It’s the reason that race riots have peppered America’s history from the late 1800s to the present. (Our nation likes to pretend such upheavals are a new thing, or at least, part of the modern civil rights movement, but they precede that.)