Legacy of Chadwick Boseman & Black Panther: Why Representation Matters

This week, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer at the young age of 43.

Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Dan Hallman/Invision/Associated Press

Hearing of his death hurt me deeply. As an avid fan of the Marvel Studios movie franchise, seeing Black Panther for the first time was life changing on many levels as an African American woman. Watching people who looked like me prospering, creating, leading and saving the day on the big screen made my heart burst with pride – because so often Hollywood does not portray us in that manner. We are often relegated to the role of the gangster, the maid, the best friend or a lead character with messy tendencies. In real life we accomplish much of what is portrayed in Black Panther (i.e, girls of color in STEM) – but it is viewed as an outlier not the norm. While undoubtedly the narrative is slowly changing, Chadwick’s portrayal of King T’Challa/Black Panther singlehandedly destroyed stereotypes by the time the opening credits were completed.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Photo credit: Marvel Studios

In these times, we needed his portrayal more than ever. For two hours and fifteen minutes, I, along with so many others, were transported to a place of equality and justice – a Black utopia – albeit fictional. The Dora Milaje were strong African female warriors who reminded me of the fierce women of color in the real world who command respect while holding the world together behind the scenes. Chadwick’s smooth, effortless cool on screen was only exceeded by the good works he did in real life – as well as his superb portrayals of icons Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.

My father taught me basic African history – great empires such Timbuktu which gave us math; how there was trading and commerce – all the good things before the continent was divided, ravaged and pillaged by slavery and colonialism. Real African history began far before slavery, yet that is where US history classes begin.

As an adult you often get too caught up in day to day life to do the research needed to know our history. Between police shootings, fighting to prove Black lives matter and to make sure the system is actually equal, you get sidetracked away from history.

But Black Panther changed everything. Black folks were like “wait, does this place exist?”

And so the hunt began. Think pieces abounded as to where a modern day Wakanda could be. Some say Kenya, others say Ethiopia. Ghana didn’t miss a beat and in honor of the 400 anniversary of slaves landing in the US, Ghana did the “year of return” to encourage African Americans to reconnect with their roots. Our collective intellectual curiosity was peaked by Chadwick’s and his co-stars’ stellar performances.

Black Panther also took on a different meaning when I went to Johannesburg, South Africa for the first time to lecture at a conference. The contrast really hit home – everyone has a tribe or a people they can point to as their own, complete with language, clothing and customs. I and the other African Americans who were present felt so lost when it came to “where are you from?” Oh, born in NY, family from the Caribbean. It pales to the generations of tribal love and closeness they enjoy. Out of that experience, they gave us African names. Mine was Boitumelo (aka Tumi) of the Tswana people, native to Botswana and South Africa. It means “joy”. As a gift, they presented me with a beautiful handmade dress that I wore when I launched my political campaign this past January as well as on election night, as a reminder that whatever happens – my ancestors are supporting me and are proud. The locals in South Africa referred to the ancestors regularly as a sign of respect as well as to remember their history – much like in the movie.

From Johannesburg with love

My experience was enriched by having seen Black Panther – too often Africa is portrayed as a place of endless war and famine. Black Panther expanded our minds and countered that negative narrative. The concept of hiding greatness in plain sight so that it would not be destroyed resonated with me and so many others.

Losing Chadwick was part of the loss of a fantasy. But it is one that can be made into reality in so many ways. In the end of Black Panther, Chadwick’s character was able to address racism and poverty on a global scale by revealing the power of Wakanda.

The reality is, we are all powerful, and can stand up to address these same issues via the ballot box, building economic power in our communities and rejecting the narratives placed upon us. As King T’Chaka said when he saw King T’Challa and he knelt before him on the ancestral plane “Stand. You are a king”

Chadwick Boseman left an amazing legacy. While it really hurts, to quote the movie “in our culture, death is not the end”. While we mourn him, it is not the end for him or us. We must push forward to honor what was begun by our ancestors – who Chadwick joins on the ancestral plane.

Rest in Power, Sleep in Peace King T’Challa. Wakanda Forever 🙅🏾‍♀️

Top 5 Stories of 2018 on RLD!

Whelp, another year is in the books.  2018 brought some interesting highlights — many of us were full on #WakandaForever in honor of the movie Black Panther; we dissected Danny Glover’s masterful video for the song This is America; and millions of activists found their voices as a result of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as well as due to the current presidential administration.  We lost Anthony Bourdain and Aretha Franklin. We joyfully welcomed a new Duchess of Sussex in Meghan Markle during a glorious royal wedding.

In my life, 2018 was a year of growth.  I became President of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, found my stride as Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida,  and was recognized by the American Bar Association for having one of the best Legal twitter accounts and for being one of the eight most inspiring members for 2018.

I didn’t get to write as much as I wanted to — but you, my RLD Family, hung in there with me! For this, I thank you.

Here are the top 5 pieces that you loved:

5. Missing the Little Things on Mother’s Day

Every year, I write as a form of therapy to cope with the untimely passing of my mother from cancer.  It’s a way to honor her, as well as to take my mind off of the pain.  It’s been six years — the grief is better than it was, but I know I will never be the same.  Over time, I’ve come to accept this new normal.  Not everyone is blessed to have had a great relationship with their mother — so I count myself lucky.

4. “You’re So Articulate” Is Not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

This article came out of the #BlackWomenAtWork Twitter hashtag from last year.  Women of color were discussing various microaggressions we face in the workplace, often from folks who seem so “surprised” by our presence, or for defying the stereotypes they have of us.  I shared an experience I had, and a conservative commentator decided to weigh in without completely understanding the context (or frankly, even trying to understand).  So, a tutorial ensued. The fact that it has been so highly read for two years in a row shows that the issue is one that is not going away any time soon.

3. The Flawed Concept of “But You Have Nothing To Be Depressed About!”

anthony bourdain
Anthony Bourdain shooting ‘Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown’ on location in Salvador, Brazil on January 9, 2014.

In June of this year, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain passed away as a result of suicide.  It hit me hard — not only because I was a huge fan of his shows, not because we were in France at the same time — but because many people still struggle to understand mental health.  There are so many misconceptions tied to money, material things, and outward appearances — as to who should or can be depressed.  Money gives you access to better care, but it does not insulate you from the crippling effects of depression.  There is no shame in admitting you need help.  There were dark periods in my life where a good therapist helped me get back on track. Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  May he rest in peace.

2. Toxic Tribalism: Why Diverse Judges Are Needed More Than Ever

Former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years this past January for molesting the athletes in his care over a span of 30 years.  Instead of the focus being on his heinous actions and betrayal of young athletes who were serving our country through sport, the attention shifted to Judge Rosemarie Acquilina for comments she made during sentencing. It was, what has sadly, become a pattern of the “boys need to stick together” mentality, even when one of the boys was dead wrong.  In this piece I analyzed her actions and the context. Little did we know that there was more to come in the form of continued #MeToo revelations, and a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing.  These occurrences are a constant reminder of the need for diversity at all levels of the criminal justice system, to ensure that everyone gets a voice — regardless of gender, money, power or privilege.

And the #1 story of 2018 is…

  1. Betrayed By The Bench?

A judge in Miami Dade County, who many of us knew for many years, lost his seat due to his use of racial slurs at work.  Many folks who are not of color wonder how to be an ally.  I laid out a few — but the key is not to remain silent.  Record everything, and don’t let racist instances slide.  The lives of many hang in the balance.

There you have it! Were there other pieces that you liked from this year? Anything you’d like to see me write about next year? Sound off in the comments!

Wishing you and yours a happy, safe and prosperous New Year.  See you on the flip side!

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