A Hero's Journey - Honoring Chadwick Boseman

A real life superhero died on Friday. You may know him because of his talent and fame, but you will remember him because of his choices. His journey is one great juxtaposition of inspiration and sorrow.

A Hero's Journey Begins with Choices

On Friday morning, Chadwick was a brilliant actor, in total Hollywood demand. He brought the first lead black superhero to life on the silver screen, the Black Panther. His portrayal of a strong, brave, passionate and compassionate king, helped us feel our own power within. Most people don't give it a second thought: the hope, pride and even - belief in the "what could be" - that comes from seeing someone who looks like them powerful and victorious on the silver screen, as opposed to being cast as the drug addict or the thief.

By Friday evening, we were startled and deeply saddened to learn that Chadwick died at the age of 43. The official release said that Chadwick had been diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer in 2016. Astonishing to learn that it was less than a year later, while undergoing treatments and surgeries, that Chadwick filmed Black Panther. By 2018, still undergoing treatments, Chadwick walked the red carpet and promoted the film on the full talk show circuit. He visited St. Judes hospital to encourage children with cancer, all the while fighting his own. Chadwick knew that his character, T'Challa, was beloved by fans, and he wanted to be T'Challa for them. Chadwick beamed with pride, always responded with love, knowing that T'Challa gave fuel to their individual dreams.

"Chadwick Boseman represented something much bigger than his work, that is, a sense of pride that reverberated through a marginalized community, inspiring its denizens to consider the viability of their potential greatness. That he managed to cement this artistic immortality is a bittersweet comfort that only slightly eases the sadness of his passing." Roger Ebert

I grew up without ever seeing a black hero in a cartoon or on the movie screen. Back in the 80s, retail stores didn't even stock black dolls. My first store-bought doll with brownish skin was the Hawaiian Barbie. I remember waiting in the long line at Children's Palace so that my mom could special order the hottest girl toy in town: the Cabbage Patch Doll. The store was filled with white dolls only. I had white dolls, but I couldn't only have white dolls. My mom placed a special order for black ones for me and my sister for Christmas. It may sound silly, but it was one of the most exciting days of my young life. I can picture myself standing in that line still to this today. Prior to then, my grandma - an accomplished textile artist and clothes maker, made our dolls. I was so happy to have dolls that looked like me. Many little girls didn't. It thrills me now to see that children today can walk into any store and buy all colors of dolls or a superhero character, like Black Panther.

Click here to see the incredible video where Jimmy Fallon invited Black Panther fans to express their appreciation to Chadwick.

The Importance of the Choices We Make

Early in his career, Chadwick was on the set of a TV show where he played the role of a criminal. He questioned that choice (and was released from the show because of it) and decided not to portray stereotypical, negative images of black men. Chadwick forged ahead in his career. His breakout role was the powerful film, 42, where Chadwick chose to memorialize one of the most important figures, and times in American history, black baseball great Jackie Robinson and the American civil rights movement. He also chose to play the first black justice on the United State's Supreme Court, and fellow Howard University alum, Thurgood Marshall. Chadwick also played the unforgettable, complicated soul singer, James Brown. Chadwick made the choice to seek and accept roles that delivered powerful, uplifting stories - the frequently omitted stories - to an international audience who came to recognize that there was value in the narratives and history they'd never been shown before. Chadwick made a choice to help change the narrative.

Chadwick continued to work and film his best work after his cancer diagnosis. He could've chosen sadness and despair. He could've chosen to quit. Instead he chose his mission of enlightening, expanding and elevating others. He chose to let his work speak instead of the disease that was taking his life.

“Heroes are made by the path they choose, not the powers they are graced with.” Iron Man

There's A Little Hero In All of Us

I sum this up best with a few of my favorite superhero quotes:

"A superhero is a man (or woman) who in times of crisis draws forth some extraordinary quality or faith from within, refusing to give up and leading us to become the person we want to be." Shai Littlejohn    

“You’re going to make a difference. A lot of times it won’t be huge, it won’t be visible even. But it will matter just the same.” James Gordon

"I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people." Maya Angelou     

“No man can win every battle, but no man should fall without a struggle.” Peter Parker

Just like Chadwick, our choices show the people around us what's important. Our choices can light the path for others and show them a better way. Our choices can impact the people in our home or have far reaching consequences, potentially impacting the entire world. Chadwick was a Howard University student walking the same college halls just a few years after me. He didn't know he would be a star or become a hero to others. He just knew that he had a decisive mission. How do we rise up from pain and adversity? What might we fight for that has yet to be fought? What would happen if we begin to question our choices to make sure we're standing for something real, making a difference, fulfilling a mission? Many of us live life without something to wake up for and get excited about each day. Large or small, we need a mission.

Rest In Power Chadwick

By only the age of 43, Chadwick Boseman demonstrated what it means to be a real life superhero. We just didn't appreciate that we were watching one this entire time. He showed us strength, poise, dignity, talent, commitment, dedication, kindness, respect, hope & power all while battling cancer and encouraging others to fight their own battles. Rest In Power my fellow Bison, and Howard University brother, you showed every one of us what it means to make choices that bring forth the superhero within.

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© 2021 by Shai Littlejohn