Chadwick Boseman’s Death Brought Our Collective Grief to a Breaking Point
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images 

Chadwick Boseman’s Death Brought Our Collective Grief to a Breaking Point

Any one tragedy we’ve endured in 2020 would be enough for a year. Instead, we’re being crushed by an endless deluge.

When I visited my dad last summer, he spent most of the time talking about the ending to Avengers: Infinity War. And he was pissed.

“See how they do our Black heroes, man?” he asked. “They gave all these Black kids hope when the Black Panther movie came out, and they just killed him already! You see the symbolism? See what they do to our heroes?”

We thought it was funny he’d gotten so worked up.

“Dad, you know he’s coming back, right?” I said between snickers. “They didn’t actually get rid of Black Panther.”

“It doesn’t matter! You think all the kids know that? I saw a Black boy leaving the theater in shock, asking his mom about Black Panther. It was like he was traumatized.”

“And I’m sure she explained to him that it’s just temporary.”

“That’s not the point,” he said, getting more frustrated with the conversation. “No parent should have to explain to a Black kid why Black Panther is gone.”

My household shuts down early on Friday nights. Everyone is exhausted from a week of school, work, and the new hellscape of virtual learning. By 9 p.m., my son and wife are curled up on the couch for the night, and the teenager is binge-watching something on Netflix until she taps out — all of which leaves me by myself to decompress and have a few drinks. That’s where I was when I got the message.

“Fam, Chadwick Boseman died. What the fuck is 2020?”

My shock turned into heartbreak. A panicked need to keep everyone in my house unaware. Let my wife and son stay asleep and the teenager enraptured by the TV. I just couldn’t bear explaining to them that Black Panther was gone.

I’m not going to eulogize Chadwick Boseman, the towering actor who loved Black people so much that he dedicated his career to giving us living testimonies to our heroes, both real and imagined. I can’t properly eulogize him because I still don’t believe it’s real.

Friday night felt like something in all of us breaking at the same time. A final, irreparable snap that let us know that we’d never be the same.

Twitter had a collective viewing of Black Panther on Saturday, and ABC aired a tribute Sunday; I couldn’t bring myself to watch either because I couldn’t watch images of Boseman with the knowledge that he’s no longer here. I can’t grasp the loss of someone whose kindness created his work and whose reverence for Blackness created his legend, a man whose laugh was as infectious as his generosity was overwhelming. Instead, I’ve spent the last few days absorbing the grief shared by Black people.

We are not okay.

The night Boseman died felt like the end of the world. It felt like synchronized soul shattering. After all Black people have been through this year, losing Boseman — and by extension the superhero we’d dreamed of and all those celebratory nights at screenings and viewing parties across the world — felt like the last straw. Losing Kobe Bryant and seeing the George Floyd video would have been a rough 12 months by themselves. So would the passing of John Lewis or the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. So would losing Boseman and witnessing the Jacob Blake video. But 2020 unleashed all of these tragedies on top of nationwide protests and a pandemic of racism and incompetence that has killed our uncles, aunts, parents, and friends. Friday night felt like something in all of us breaking at the same time. A final, irreparable snap that let us know we’d never be the same.

There has been, and will continue to be, much said about the way Boseman defied the hand he was dealt four years ago. How he pushed through his cancer diagnosis to get in shape for Black Panther and all the Avengers sequences, make all of those trips to St. Jude’s, continue to portray our Black icons, and make sure he gave to us with each fading breath. What he did was certainly mythological heroism and unimpeachably a gift to all of us.

But I worry about the fetishization of his sacrifice. I worry about people seeing what he did for us as some sort of standard. I’ve already seen the “what is your excuse” or “I gotta pull it together” sentiments across social media. We can’t apply his otherworldly giving to our own standards of living. Black people are in pain right now — collective, communal pain — and we need to allow ourselves the grace to feel that pain. To find the ways to heal as best we can. To love ourselves as hard as Chadwick Boseman loved us. We have to hold onto the energy he gave us and use it for the restorative purposes intended. That’s how we honor ourselves and the man who dedicated his life’s work to honoring us.

After the news broke about Boseman’s death, I couldn’t protect my family from the agony of the night for long. Eventually, the phones started ringing, getting my wife off the couch and the teenager away from the TV. I watched them scramble around the house, absorbing the news I’d spent the past hour hiding tears over. I didn’t have any words to comfort them. Instead, I slowly walked to the bedroom to go to sleep. I wasn’t strong enough to do anything else.

I had no heroics to save my family from suffering.

On the way, I grabbed my son off the couch, still groggy and unaware, and tucked him into his bed. He let out a tiny yawn, whispering “thank you” just as I was leaving the room. He seemed to be thanking me for tucking him in, but it felt like something more. Like he was thanking me for being alive. Like he was thanking me for the fact I’d be there in the morning, when the cloud of collective grief arrived to cast its shadow over him.