Chadwick Boseman’s Power Was Not Just Black

Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall from the 2017 movie Marshall with the fictitious capital of Wakanda from the 2018 movie Black Panther in the background. Original illustration by Amalesh Das. © 2020 Svevak LLC. All rights reserved.

I learned of Chadwick Boseman’s death on August 28, 2020, just a few days after Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot in the back seven times by police as his three young children watched from inside their car in a small town in Wisconsin. I am not black. I do not have the experience of having ancestors that were enslaved and brutalized by white people and so cannot coopt ‘black lives matter.’ But I am a brown woman, whose country was invaded and pillaged by white men not too long ago. And so I too grieve. I grieve for Jacob Blake, yet another person treated as less than because of his non-European ancestral origins. I grieve for Chadwick Boseman, a man who defied and fought racist stereotypes with grace and quiet strength through — paradoxically — the loudest medium of all: globally released blockbuster movies.

I knew I admired Chadwick Boseman’s thespian prowess when I watched his powerful depictions of iconic black men. In Marshall he became the intellectual, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to become a United States Supreme Court Justice. In Get on Up he personified the musician, James Brown, the ‘Godfather of Soul.’ And in 42 he transformed into the athlete, Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in major league baseball. I knew I felt unadulterated wonder when in Black Panther he brought to vivid life a fictional superhero that wasn’t white. But I didn’t know until after his death that he himself embodied the virtues and greatness of the characters he played. I didn’t understand how necessary he was to American and global society in reshaping our attitudes toward people of color, not merely through moving speeches and writings, but through exemplifying onscreen and off-screen the prodigious intelligence, elegance, and perseverance of which a human being is capable.

Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall from the 2017 movie Marshall. Original illustration by Amalesh Das. © 2020 Svevak LLC. All rights reserved.

A prominent European-American writer, William Gilmore Simms, wrote in 1838: “free negroes… without restraints of any kind… decline to a worse brutality, with every increase of privilege… [t]hey have not that moral courage — the true source of independence… [t]hey feel their inferiority to the whites… and sink into the condition of serviles, in fact, if not in name, in compliance with their natural dependence, and unquestionable moral deficiencies… [it] ought to be conclusive… not only that they have no capacity for an individual independent existence, but that they were always designed for a subordinate one.”[1]

Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa in Black Panther certainly defied this disparaging characterization of the African. And if his private battle with colon cancer for four years, as he took on one physically exhausting, prejudice-busting challenge after the other, is not a testament to moral courage and capacity for individual independent existence, then I don’t know what is.

I find it demeaning to refer to people as colors, as though we are nothing more than our pigmentation. Geographic origins are a much more informative descriptor of humans, for they speak of our cultures, our families, and the lands in which our foremothers and forefathers thrived. So I use the term ‘Euro people’ to refer to Europeans and people of European descent, whose ancestors settled the lands of indigenous communities in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Even though William Gilmore Simms was born two centuries ago, his bigotry and that of others continue to influence the perception that many Euro people have, whether consciously or sub-consciously, of 78% of the world’s human beings who are not of European origin. This perception is partly due to the fact that several centuries ago, Euro people assigned humans to different castes based on their skin color, appearance, and worldview. This classification was a necessary conceptual construct to justify the pilfering of the world’s peoples and resources during the violent era of European imperialism, an era that enabled Euro people to enrich themselves at the expense of humanity and the earth.

In fact, several years ago, when I organized a few of my colleagues to confront the exploitative practices of my Euro supervisor at the time, he told me privately, “Do you know why I like my Chinese employees? Because they know their place.” His words weren’t too far off from those of William Gilmore Simms, who centuries earlier wrote:

“Why should there not be as many races of men, differing in degree, in strength, capacity, art, endowment, as we find them differing in shape, stature, color, organization? Why, indeed, should there not be differing organizations among men, which shall distinctly shadow forth the several duties, and the assigned stations, which they are to fulfil and occupy in life. This would seem to be a necessity, analogous to what is apparent every where in all the other works of God’s creation. Nay, is it not absolutely consistent with all that we learn from history of the uses of men and nations? As we note their progress, we detect their mission; and, this done, they themselves disappear. The African seems to have his mission. He does not disappear, but he still remains a slave or a savage! I do not believe that he ever will be other than a slave, or that he was made to be otherwise; but that he is designed as an implement in the hands of civilization always.”[2]

Know your place. These are words I have heard my entire life. Know your place as a person of color. That place that almost four-fifths of the world’s population is supposed to know and confine itself to has been determined by the Euro man for centuries. What makes Chadwick Boseman special is not that he fought against this tyranny that persists even today, but that he did so with unimaginable fearlessness and conviction. He quietly suffered the painful agony of his body being increasingly debilitated by a pernicious cancer, while outwardly continuing to project immense strength and dignified power. He didn’t complain or show self-pity. Instead, he courageously fulfilled his potential because he knew the impact that would have on the world. The more I contemplate his work and his life, the more I stand in awe.

Since Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death I have been asking myself why Black Panther had such a huge impact on me, even though no one in the movie looked like me, a woman of Indian origin. I have been asking myself why a movie that was celebrated by African-Americans as a victory of their representation and black power moved me so deeply. This is the conclusion at which I have arrived: I refuse to be manipulated by the binary worldview espoused by the mainstream, especially in the United States.

What do I mean? Much of the rhetoric that is forced on us through globally propagated movies, radio, television, and literature is binary. White versus black. Good versus bad. Right versus left. Man versus woman. West versus east. Capitalist versus socialist. Conservative versus liberal. Rich versus poor. Civilized versus primitive. And so on. But the truth is that this kind of binary worldview is opportunist, divisive, and not at all reflective of the real diversity underlying our existence. Take color for instance. No human is truly black and no human is truly white, because our skin color is a result of the amount of melanin, a dark brown chemical, each of us produces. Human skin color simply falls on a continuous spectrum of brown. If we need to categorize ourselves into colors, they should be an array of hues of brown, not a binary of opposites.

The fictitious capital of Wakanda from the 2018 movie Black Panther. Original illustration by Amalesh Das. © 2020 Svevak LLC. All rights reserved.

Black Panther galvanized me because at long last a positive depiction of non-Euro people and their own indigenous worldviews and practices made its way into mainstream culture. The depiction of fiercely intelligent, powerful, and technologically advanced men and women who were dark-skinned awakened a hope within me that perhaps finally the tide was turning. After watching Black Panther I dared to dream that the time had come when the globally influential peddlers of Euro ideology, consumerism, and culture could be persuaded to infuse their homogeneous wares with color and diverse points of view. It was not just the characters that excited me though, but the portrayal of Wakanda, a land in which the rural and the urban, the village huts and the city skyscrapers were all equally majestic. For me Wakanda hearkened back to an actual time in human history before the European invasions, when diverse indigenous peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Australasia were more prosperous than and technologically superior to Europeans. Black Panther was at once cinematographically breathtaking and cleverly entertaining, while simultaneously taking a stand for social justice. Even the villain was not a true villain, but a misguided activist, who in his desperation couldn’t see a way to equity other than through violence.

Chadwick Boseman inspired me because he helped paint a vibrant and dynamic world in which people like me are not denigrated, discriminated against, and disenfranchised. And he did so with a regal poise and tenacious fortitude to which I strive.

[1] William Gilmore Simms, Slavery in America (Richmond, VA: Thomas W. White, 1838); reprinted as “The Morals of Slavery” in The Pro-Slavery Argument (Charleston, SC: Walker, Richards & Co., 1852), p. 269.

[2] William Gilmore Simms, Slavery in America (Richmond, VA: Thomas W. White, 1838); reprinted as “The Morals of Slavery” in The Pro-Slavery Argument (Charleston, SC: Walker, Richards & Co., 1852), pp. 269–270.

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Maya hopes to reshape mindsets on pressing issues: climate change, injustice, racism, misogyny, violence, economic inequality & oppression. She often writes from perspectives of the marginalized: indigenous, dark-skinned, disabled, exploited & abused. mayasvevak.com/mayas-musings

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Maya Svevak

Maya Svevak

Maya Svevak is an activist, artist, and author. She writes both non-fiction and fiction and is the creator of the universe of Svevi Avatar. www.mayasvevak.com

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