Chadwick Boseman played the starring role of T'challa in the Marvel Studios movie, Black Panther. He died in 2020 after a years-long battle with colon cancer. Photo credit: Marvel Studios

Why Chadwick Boseman’s death matters | The Light Series

For many, the movie Black Panther was more than a fictional tale. It spoke truths to images and narratives that provided a positive portrayal of Africa, and Africans . . . even for little Black girls.

I am the child of immigrants from Ghana. Growing up in the United States was not an easy prospect for a Black girl who had really dark skin and a “weird” name. 

It didn’t help that I grew up during the era of the 80’s where the only representations of Africans consisted of the mini series Shaka Zulu; news coverage of extreme famine and poverty; and movies that told true stories rooted in centuries-long oppression. Added to the constant rotation of these images were continual references to caricatured, racist stereotypes.  

As a girl finding her feet on the West Side of Chicago, it was inevitable that someone would ask me about my name. When I responded that my parents were from Ghana, West Africa, I would always mention West Africa because people never knew the geographical location of Ghana. But after I revealed my background, I would get ignorant questions like, “Do you live in houses or trees? Do you keep tigers as pets? Do you like to wear clothing and so on.”

With the exception of Coming to America, whose story about an African prince holds much satirical bite, I had yet to encounter a representation of African-ness that would come close in speaking about the dignity of African life beyond stereotypes or used as a set up for the great white savior. 

Conversely, spending part of my childhood in Ghana, I knew only of living under roofs that kept my head dry and protected from heat. While there, I saw African adults who spoke intelligently about world topics and who held fast to their faith and traditions. 

In Ghana, I knew only of having a full belly and living in community.  I watched as dinner was prepared and learned what it meant to eat with proper utensils, be it cutlery or my fingers. I had-child based responsibilities and chores to complete as a daily complication. 

Unlike my rearing in the United States, I knew only of being teased because I spoke Twi with an American accent.  Thus, it was a nice change from being bullied because of my skin, race, or nationality. 

. . . .

Fashion show at Ghana International Trade Fair Centre in Accra, shows contemporary look with traditional Akan hairstyle. Photo credit: Ato Aikins on Unsplash

It really wasn’t until I watched Black Panther in 2018, that I saw a synthesis of what I craved: a representation of African culture and life that was meaningfully positive and centered in a normalized African-ness. It was the first time that this middle-aged adult saw Africa represented through multiple cultures, through multiple mediums, and in a complex way. 

The characters in the movie evidence emotional intricacy, intelligence, compassion, faith, humor, love, loyalty, dissension, distrust, anger, and sadness.  Black Panther gave a holistic portrayal of peoples who have long been viewed through a one dimensional lens. Moreover, the movie provided the world with a new media narrative.  

Black Panther tells viewers that the identity of Africans is a human one. That human identity is also centered and focused in African bodies, accents, and social relationships.  As well, it tells viewers that God can be sleek, beautiful, and black.

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Of other importance, the movie brought together some of the best and brightest professionals within the cinematic universe.  While everyone who worked on it was a large part of the film’s success, Chadwick Boseman and his character, T’challa, was the center of a nexus that made the story more cohesive. Together, the cast created a vehicle for people within the Africana diaspora, to see themselves concretely, holistically, divinely.

In a world where fictional, and sometimes actual, African leadership means demagogue dictators or warlords who make their people suffer, Mr. Boseman showed that being a king can mean real leadership enacted with passion, friendship, empathy and that a leader could also be humble, fallible. 

Many of T’challa’s qualities, antithetical to a Eurocentric understanding of what it means to lead, are signs of viable leadership.  That kind of leadership is viewed even more as a myth when it comes in Black skin. Chadwick Boseman, through his role and acting prowess, made it real.  

While every death is hard, Mr. Boseman’s passing is particularly difficult because he opened a door that can no longer be shut.  His portrayals of Black heroes, real and imaginary, were so powerful that it transcended race while fully immersing viewers in the Black diasporic experience.

Akua Kankam is a literary scholar and university administrator focusing on ministry.

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