“It’s hard for a good man to be king” and it’s harder for a busy man to get sleep. Finishing my fifth 7-hour commute this month was the least of the physical toll on my body. This pandemic has been throwing me into unexpected loops, and my final bus ride was an overnight trip, where the next challenge was finding a comfortable sleeping position. Usually a noise or a potent fart could wake me up, but I was far too exhausted to be easily awakened. I slept until 6:10 in the morning, just fifteen minutes prior to my arrival in Berlin.
Surprised at the hours of sleep I had just gotten, I checked my phone to see a message from my sister. The King of Wakanda, Chadwick Boseman had passed. The disorienting state of being half asleep quickly dissipated and was replaced with a set of emotions: disbelief, anger, gratitude, and sadness. My mind shifted from one role to the next in Boseman’s body of work. I was fixated on how he showcased black figures I needed to know as a Black youth living in America.
When I was younger, I clung to fictional characters by the likes of Sir Percy Blakeney, James Bond, Bruce Wayne, and Edmond Dantes. Even though the extraordinary drive behind these men influenced my own strive for greatness, there was always a strong disconnect. In school, my classes ringed with the names of men who were revered as Forefathers, graced our currency with their faces, but were never outed as slave owners.
My teachers never mentioned the brilliance of James Baldwin or expounded upon the heroics of Harriet Tubman. Regardless of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy as a hero, they failed to mention that the FBI had categorized him as an enemy of the state. My academic institutions not only failed many Black Americans, but also failed this country by whitewashing history. How could I praise figures who would’ve otherwise enslaved me or turned a blind eye at my persecution?
Eventually one has to wonder. What is the lasting effect of exalting people you cannot relate to? Feeling this conflict pulled me towards knowing heroes who looked like me. So I educated myself, especially in the arts. Actors like Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman have had a profound effect on me. Though I confess that when Black Panther was first released, my dislike for large crowds kept me from seeing it.
My friend and Houston recording artist, Candle Joseph, didn’t know that I hadn’t seen it and greeted me with the warm Wakandan salute. I thought our friendship was reaching new levels with a special handshake, until he asked with reproach, “You haven’t seen the movie yet. Have you?” Just a day later, another Nigerian friend of mine insisted that I watch the movie, as if he knew that I wouldn’t just enjoy it. He spoke as if I would benefit from it. I knew then that I’d have to brave the large crowds.
This film was undeniably empowering as Africans and African Americans don’t get the chance to see themselves as brilliant scientific prodigies like Shuri, as strong, dutiful, and empathetic queens to be like Nakia, or as antagonists who are too relatable to be seen as villains like Eric Kilmonger. Arguably, it’s the most rare to see the most advanced nation in the world ruled by a beloved and altruistic Black man. The layers of allegory residing within multiple characters made me feel both acknowledged and empowered.
After watching the film, I noticed a change within me. I walked and talked differently. My wardrobe gradually became darker in tones. And I began to acknowledge those of the African diaspora with a new found warmth. Until I read that text message, I never stopped to contemplate these changes. Is it because African cultures are rarely championed in American films, or that it’s rare to see a Black king in a major blockbuster, let alone three Black kings? Is it because I got to witness an actor, who was committed to telling our stories, become an international symbol of identity? Maybe it’s all these things, as well as those I haven’t yet contemplated.
From the moment I read this text through the moment I got in bed that same morning, Boseman’s stoicism astonished me. My mind was blown that he was filming as a superhero while battling cancer. I fell asleep realizing that this man was a hero in real life. That, perhaps, the role of Black Panther would not have been so impactful if it were portrayed by anyone else.
After getting a few more hours of sleep in a proper bed, my partner was leaving for work. She’s always pretty informed, and I figured she would discuss Boseman’s passing with me. Just before she walks out the door, she says “by the way”. Thinking that she was going to inform me of the tragic news, she tells me in a half jokingly manner, “Don’t leave the apartment.” The rest of what she said was much more serious.
She informed me that the leftists were protesting Coronavirus and have exhibited violent intent in their group chats, especially towards people of color. These group chats involved police officers, which further supports the vulnerability of the policing and the potential need to defund the police. She then asked me to be careful if I planned to leave the house.
Within hours of hearing that a hero of mine died, I was reminded of my blackness and how I don’t have time to be sad, to mourn, or to grieve. Even Boseman, while giving us his best and reinstating our pride, was criticized for his weight loss. Society didn’t give him permission to be anything less than what we wanted him to be. The same way that racism doesn’t give me permission to be human.
The previous king of Wakanda says, “…it’s hard for a good man to be king.” Maybe in the next Black Panther they’ll say “…it’s hard for a Black people to be human…in the eyes of those who fear and hate them.”