If I Die Before I Wake – A Reflection on the Regal Nature of Chadwick Boseman

I can’t stop thinking about Chadwick Boseman. He’s been on my mind so much that I caught myself shaking my head in the gym on the edge of tears. Now if you know me, you know that this isn’t characteristic of me. So, I had to examine why I was taking this so hard. Even before he died, I would find myself googling about his health. Like many people, I saw him getting thinner and would find myself concerned about him. I too hoped that the weight loss was due to him thinning up for a movie role. It had been announced, around the time that he started coming into public noticeably thinner, that he was going to play the first and only Black Samurai, Yasuke, who served under Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in 16th century Japan. Once again, he was going to take on the role of one of the “First Blacks to…” just as he had with James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson. So I hoped that his gaunt appearance was going to reveal itself to be indicative of his passion for his craft and the calling on his life to bring powerful characters into the consciousness of people who for so long had very few symbols to hold on to.

Thank you for being a King in this life—for challenging our imaginations and giving us an aspirational symbol. I know many people will think that you were “just an actor”. But for those of us who never grew up with superheroes who looked like us and saw ourselves portrayed in a negative light, you made an indelible mark and shined eternally bright. #restinwakandaforever

My Instagram post August 30, 2020

I don’t say this much out loud. But I often feel lonely. Part of this loneliness comes from the fact that I don’t have many living role models before me who can relate to my background or life’s experiences. Everyday, I try, in my small way, to live up to an ideal that I have never actually witnessed being displayed up close. And I do it knowing that I live in a world that, whether people will admit it or not, is always waiting for me to fail. And not just me. If I extrapolate from the conversations I’ve had over my lifetime, almost everyone who is veiled in Black skin in this country carries this burden either consciously or unconsciously. Though many people are in denial about it, if you’re paying attention as a Black person, you know. And others know it too. If we fail, we take so many other people down with us. Because to be Black here is to be a symbol. And as a symbol, you always represent much more than yourself. Whereas, if some other people fail, they are simply seen as an individual–often deserving of second, third, fourth, and fifth chances.

When you are a symbol, society tries to make you an exception when you achieve in any capacity simply because the underlying belief is that most of us are incapable of meeting the illusory standards of this country. That’s why I think our ascendance, however small, is watched very closely. I believe that this is because, every step that any of us climbs, undoes the structure of the painfully comfortable false narrative that was built upon the foundation of our supposed inferiority. In other words, when Black people do well, especially in arenas where we are not always lauded, it tears at the fabric of this nation’s institutional myth about the capacities of American Blackness that almost everyone has bought into–even many Black folks. What if we were always this talented; this intelligent; this powerful? What does that say about how our ancestors were treated? What does it say about those of us who succumbed to the lies told about us? Does the past become even more tragic if we consider that we all had Wakandan like potential that was virtually strangled out of us for centuries? The questions are almost too much to contemplate.

By simply being who he was and living into his moment, Chadwick embodied that potential. His nature was regal. And in his person he carried the spirits of many of our ancestors. Perhaps that is why he was called here to embody them for us in the enduring form of film. He showed us our past and our future. He changed our world. And then he left.

In my work, I have seen many people die. I have watched as the light leaves their bodies and often wondered if they illumined every place they came here to shine in. I suspect that most haven’t. And that’s why there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about when my day will come. But I am not afraid of death. Ever since I became aware of the expectation that, as a Black Man in America, I would either die or spend some time in the criminal justice system by 18, I have contemplated my death. So no, I am not afraid of death at all. What gets to me is the idea that I will not do all that I can with this life because I will have allowed myself to be overly weighed down by the loneliness of being the first or the only. As they say, I don’t want to die with my music still in me. I want to truly live while I am here. And the truth is that I can’t say that I’ve done that yet. So perhaps that is part of why I can’t stop thinking about Chadwick Boseman.

Consider what he accomplished in the 4 years that he was diagnosed and being treated for colon cancer. Can you imagine? And consider that he did all of this while keeping his diagnosis to himself. Talk about lonely. But I don’t think he kept it to himself for himself. I think he did it for all us who know what it’s like to be the first or the only. In a consumer driven world where illness is seen as just another failure, he commanded his body and the world it inhabited to conform to his ideal. And in so doing, he tore that mythical fabric of Black inferiority that much more.

Of course, it is sad that he was not able to share his struggles with the world and receive the wellspring of compassion that he would have likely received and perhaps lived longer. But he was Black before he was The Black Panther. So I can imagine that he didn’t think he would get a second chance. So he did everything he could with the chance he got knowing that just like when one of us goes down we inadvertently take others with us, when we ascend, we take others with us as well. And that’s why I can say unequivocally that though this man had no earthly crown, he was and always will be a king. And at least for me, his being brings about a sense of conviction that before I die, I must make contact with my own regality and do everything I can to encourage it in others.

A Poem Fit for a King (In Memory of Chadwick Boseman)
I’ll see you on the Other Side
But I still can see you now
In the ways you changed the atmosphere
And by your essence you showed us how

We can’t believe that you are gone
And yet you’re here now more than ever
Giving form to a future and a past
We salute you now and forever

Now that your form is no longer with us
We see the burden that was in your eyes
You held the Space just long enough
To show that One who is Living never dies

Someday we all will meet you
In the azure canopied ancestral plains
Where everyone is a queen and king
In the Place where Spirit reigns.

© Copyright 2020 Pedro S. Silva II

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