I watched Black Panther last night and the tribute to Chadwick Boseman that followed, the young man from Anderson, South Carolina who died much too young from colon cancer. A movie star some have called heroic.
The news of his death at forty-three struck a discordant note and triggered my own memories of young men gone to soon. Over the last decade I have lost two former players to colon cancer, one in his early thirties, the other in his early forties.
I watched their deterioration and the devastation the disease wreaked upon their families. I witnessed firsthand the bravery they displayed as the sands ran too quickly from their hourglass. It seems Chadwick fought his battle silently and worked nearly up to the end. Like my players I’m sure he fought heroically and at his age could have easily been one of my students or players.
Because he was from South Carolina, I had heard a great deal about Chadwick. I followed his career but Black Panther was the first movie I saw despite having been impressed with excerpts from 42 and with the interviews I had watched. I had been too self-absorbed and lazy to actually go to a movie theater.
2020 has been tough on role models. Kobe Bryant and John Lewis passed before Boseman, all prominent African Americans in their respective fields, athletics, Civil Rights, and film. Joining them today, as I write this, was legendary Georgetown coach, John Thompson.
There are others who have passed, of all races and many different fields. People who were important to other people whether they knew them or not. Many who were role models and heroes in their own right. Still, I could not help myself, I wondered, “Why had Chadwick Boseman been elevated to ‘Superhero Role Model’?”
I knew the answer but as I read reactions to his death, responses to media presentations, and the final straw for fragile, triggered, white folks from his home state, the lowering of the flags to half-mast that fly over our state capital. Small fire fights raged over social media to the point I shut my computer down to put them out.
I was surprised at the negative comments. “He is an actor, not a hero. He is playing a part”, “It’s just because he’s black”, “It’s the liberal media’s agenda”, “It’s all about politics.” Those were not the worst of the comments.
I decided to do a bit of introspection. After my self-study, the answer swimming around in my mind had not changed. I had stayed silent when certain people enumerated the failings of Kobe Bryant and John Lewis, trying to make them seem less heroic and more human. I’m not going to be silent today.
People need heroes. We always have needed them, whether they were actors playing a part or athletes playing a game or living heroic figures. I had mine, from John Wayne’s ‘Whistling’ Dan Roman in the movie The High and the Mighty to Mickey Mantle and Bobby Richardson to JFK. All were important to me.
They were heroic figures for a young white boy named Donnie. They were also flawed humans…discovered to be flawed by the adult named Don. When I was the child we did not seem to have the need to tear our heroes down as we do now. Heroes were heroes, villains were villains. You could tell the good guys by their white hats unless your hero was Hopalong Cassidy.
Today, we elevate normal humans to godly status just before doing our best to explode our idols by exposing the failings that make them human. Hero worship to hero bashing. Why?
I do not have an answer to why…except that it is 2020 and for the previous decade our capacity for hatred has steadily expanded. I guess we have always mined for veins of corrosion in someone else’s hero’s armor. As far as the comments about Chadwick Boseman, it seems much darker.
I restate, “People need heroes.” For Black Americans and other hyphenated Americans, heroes have been few and far between. Not because they were not any, there were plenty, but because heroes of color were whitewashed by the “White European” history we taught…I taught into the present century.
The Thurgood Marshalls and Jackie Robinsons were relegated to “footnotes” during the Civil Rights Era while others were crammed into the shortest month of the year, “Black History Month.”
Chadwick Boseman helped bring those historical figures to life for a new generation of Black kids. Chadwick Boseman gave little black youngsters a hero…even if he was playing James Brown or The Black Panther. Chadwick Boseman gave an entire race a sense of pride that had been rendered almost invisible in many history books.
Before you question me, I know I am correct because I taught United States History off and on for forty-one years and I only realized the errors of my ways late in my career. I am sorely sorry for that. In God I trust but I now know I should not have trusted my “Lost Cause” education or the textbooks I taught from. It appears I did a good job of teaching as the propaganda I taught is often regurgitated back into my face.
Please understand, my failings went far past presenting Black Americans in the shadows. My shortcomings included Native Americans, Spanish speaking Americans, Asian Americans, and women of all races.
I taught a sanitized version of history, as most of us did. I taught the good instead of adding the bad and the ugly. I now believe if we do not confront our history, we truly are doomed to repeat it. We needed Chadwick Boseman along with actors and actresses like him to bring that history to life…and provide a bit of escapism too.
Is Chadwick Boseman a hero? I think we throw the term around too easily and too often. He is a positive role model, not just for black kids but for all kids in general. From a small Southern town, to college, to Oxford, to a pinnacle of stages and red carpets. More than an actor in a role, a good man, an intelligent man, a humanitarian, and philanthropist. Maybe not a hero in the heroic sense but a culture hero for sure and the best of role models.
I thought for two hours and fifteen minutes Sunday night Chadwick Boseman was heroic, the same way John Wayne was heroic in the movie In Harms Way or The Horse Soldiers. There were certainly creases, maybe huge dents and rends in John’s armor and yet I still tune in everytime those movies are on.
We need heroes even if they are playing a part or a sport. We need heroes even if they are human with human failings. Boseman’s heroism went much further than just the screen of my TV.
Don Miller’s author page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1eQLwKCHwi-dJ92ECz70HcFU6lwIeP6pKv8-4vBA_gJEqpQiGtI3Ic1H8
The image of Chadwick Boseman was mined from the New York Times.