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Dahleen Glanton: In a summer of COVID-19 and racial reckoning, Chadwick Boseman's death hits especially hard

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/3/2020 By Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune
Chadwick Boseman wearing a military uniform: Chadwick Boseman attends the premiere of Disney and Marvel's "Black Panther" at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on January 29, 2018. © Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/TNS Chadwick Boseman attends the premiere of Disney and Marvel's "Black Panther" at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on January 29, 2018.

Chadwick Boseman’s death hit African Americans particularly hard. In part, it is because it came so unexpectedly. But he also died as Black people were already grieving.

Over the last six months, so many Black lives have been taken by the pandemic. Our grief has been compounded by the unjustified killings of unarmed Black people by police officers and vigilantes administering their own form of justice.

Chadwick Boseman standing posing for the camera: Chadwick Boseman during arrivals at the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood. © Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS Chadwick Boseman during arrivals at the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.

All of America is consumed by death right now. But for many African Americans, the despair is overwhelming. Nearly every day, there is someone new to mourn.

It seemed particularly cruel that another Black man would be taken away from us at the age of 43 by colon cancer — an illness so rare among younger people that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recommended that only those ages 50 and older undergo regular screenings.

In our minds, Boseman is T’Challa, the African king who transforms into the daring Black Panther and tackles adversity with undefeatable resolve. This isn’t how a superhero is supposed to die. It seemed like another senseless loss. It felt as unfair as the unconscionable killings we have seen this summer.

Chadwick Boseman posing for the camera: Chadwick Boseman during arrivals at the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood. © Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS Chadwick Boseman during arrivals at the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.

What many of us didn’t realize is that the rate of colorectal cancer has risen in people under the age of 50 in recent years. The American Cancer Society now recommends that everyone begin getting screenings at age 45, and those with a family history of colon cancer should start by age 40.

Chadwick Boseman posing for the camera: Chadwick Boseman during arrivals at the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood. © Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS Chadwick Boseman during arrivals at the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood.

In America’s unjust system of medical disparities, colon cancer — like COVID-19 and just about every other life-threatening illness — takes a disproportionate toll on Black people. African Americans are 20% more likely to develop colon cancer than whites and are also more likely to die of it.

Still, it seemed unnatural for it to happen to Boseman. Though we had no idea, he was diagnosed four years ago and was battling the disease even while filming the rigorous role of the Black Panther.

He chose to reveal it only to the people he felt needed to know. Some fans were disappointed that he didn’t let the public know. But what could anyone have done except feel sorry for him? Obviously, that’s exactly what he did not want.

We didn’t know Boseman personally, but it felt as though we did. We’d never met George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks or Ahmaud Arbery either, but Black people mourned their deaths as though they were family.

We knew Boseman only from afar, but he managed to penetrate our lives so deeply over the course of a two-hour film that we walked away feeling better about ourselves than we did going in. That was his greatest strength.

He didn’t have an Oscar or an Emmy to validate him as a Hollywood superstar, yet the roles he chose were among the most significant and memorable of any on the big screen. He memorialized some American icons, and we left the theater feeling as though we knew them too.

Entertainer James Brown, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, broke through some of the toughest racial barriers that Black people have encountered on our journey as Americans.

Boseman said he deliberately chose to play those roles because he wanted to uplift the image of African Americans, particularly Black men.

In some ways, Black Panther, the first African American superhero in “mainstream comics,” symbolizes the Black man’s inherent ability to rescue his own community from internal and external destruction.

In donning that leather cat suit and bravely protecting his make-believe Wakanda nation from evil predators, Boseman — the man — became Black America’s idol. He personified the best of African American men in a country that throughout history has sought to hold them down.

In a time of crisis, all of us tend to try and hold on to the familiar. Boseman was our son, our grandson and our brother. He was smart, talented and ambitious. We loved his charming smile, his twisted hair, his preacher’s voice and his wisdom.

He represented the vision we hold for every young Black man we know — someone who figures out how to overcome incredible odds and pursue their dream, even in an exclusive industry that does not always value their worth.

The most powerful scene in the “Black Panther” film is when the young King T’Challa sees his dead father’s spirit and kneels at his feet. And the old man says to him, “Stand up, you’re a king.”

Every young Black male in America needs to hear those words. It is easy in a country that allows police to recklessly kill African Americans for Black boys and men to forget they are worthy of better treatment.

Boseman can no longer bring characters of brave Black men to life. But hopefully, his work has planted a seed in a new generation of young African American actors to demand roles other than stereotypical drug dealers, criminals or deadbeat dads.

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, Boseman’s death gained the attention it deserved. Still, for many African Americans, it will be recorded as yet another painful casualty of the dreadful summer of 2020.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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©2020 Chicago Tribune

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