I cried — sporadically and uncontrollably — all Saturday. But unlike other moments of shocking grief, I understood what was happening. My reaction to Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing wasn’t about what he meant to me, it was how he always did it for us.
For my 31st birthday, my mother mailed me a card, a parcheesi set, and T’Challa.
This was March 2018, six weeks after Black Panther hit theaters. Mid-Universal Phenomenon.
I grabbed T’Challa three days later, as I headed to Bed Stuy for “Black Panther in Brooklyn” — 2018’s title of my friend Jamilah’s annual, legendary birthday stageplay for her daughter.
Previously I’d been a spectator. This time, I was in the cast.
I had to come correct, and I did. But my friend Grant — he got to play T’Challa. And what a sight it was.
As Black people in America, we had just survived Trump’s first year and were swerving through his second — stupefied both that his reign had been this long and that there was so much time left.
And right then, this beacon appeared in our lives. Black Panther. And much like our heroes in the film, the phenomenon was our daily Vibranium. It protected us. It kept us going. It absorbed blows. It charged us up, for what would predictably be the next fight, just around the corner. And, above all, it reminded Black people of that way we’re all uniquely connected.
The movie wasn’t perfect, just like all the other great films. But with Chadwick perfectly out in front, the film’s murderer’s row marched Black pride throughout the world, and turned Wakanda from a fictional place to a real life ideal. And he handled the moment like he did in so many of his larger-than-life portrayals (James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson) — like he’d been preparing for “it” — whatever “it” may be — since the day he started having sense.
By May of 2018, I was heading to another Wakanda-centric event: a middle school’s career day. I’d lost my Foot Tall T’Challa, but had a new companion in tow.
In April of 2017, 10 months before the movie premiered, a Black Panther comic I’d scripted came out. It was exciting, for — let’s say — 672 reasons. One of those reasons: for a few pages, I got to write as T’Challa. The voice of the Black Panther — some real “my ancestors wildest dreams” shit.
My Black Panther journey started on Christmas Eve-Eve 2015, in Los Angeles. I flew there, to tandem-profile Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. It was my first print assignment for New York, a story I’d pitched in my interview. I’d pushed hard that Creed would become a thing. And it did.
I think often about the first line of that piece.
There’s a moment you rarely catch famous people in — right after they blow up, but before they’re too big to remember what it’s like to be normal.”
While true, I had no idea what was around the corner. Black Panther was barely a footnote in the story. Coogler was months away from even meeting his T’Challa in Boseman (read Coogler’s letter on “Chad,” now).
But on the day the magazine hit newsstands, Coogler revealed the news — Black Panther, the film, was coming — with him as director.
There was excitement. But we still didn’t know who the Black Panther was (or needed to be) in the present day.
And then Ta-Nehisi Coates released his first Black Panther comic in April. The excitement increased.
And then Captain America: Civil War came out in May. Our first time seeing Chadwick as T’Challa.
Four months later, an email from Marvel. An opportunity to jump into a world that was publicly being defined by two great minds of Howard University — Coates with his script and Boseman on screen. This was Black history happening, in real time. And for once in my life, I felt no shame is simply saying “I’m just happy to be here.”
World of Wakanda #6 sat atop a stack of magazines and newspaper clippings that I’d written words in, as I walked into Forte Prep — both a middle school in Queens and the best middle school in a contest comparing middle schools — for their inaugural Career Day. Black Panther had been out for 3 months, and the school’s founder — my friend Graham Browne — told me after seeing my stack, “lean into the comic book thing.”
When I walked into my first classroom of the day, half the room crossed their arms across their chest. I was floored.
I’d seen videos of the joy that came over kids when Black Panther was the topic. But to be in a class that’s majority Black and Brown, and watch them look at you in wonder, because you’re the closest they’ve ever gotten to their singular hero — it’s beautiful and overwhelming.
The questions were fun. Some of the most frequent:
Are you the Black Panther?
Did you write the movie?
When’s the next movie?
Next year, if you’re not the Black Panther, will you bring him, since you clearly know him?
The most common, however: Do you know T’Challa?
“I wish,” I’d respond. “One day,” I’d add on, sometimes. In 2018, that was my honest answer. I truly hoped my life would take me into Chadwick’s orbit. I had to see for myself, the man who could carry the weight of this cultural responsibility on his shoulders.
When I returned to Forte Prep in 2019 for Career Day, my feelings on Chadwick changed. It was a necessary shift, one that will far outlive his time on this Earth.
At the beginning of Career Day #2, Graham told me about a student, let’s all him Shea. And Shea really wanted to meet me. As Graham was telling me this, a crew of students that I remembered from the previous year gave me the Wakanda salute in the hallway and kept it moving.
At the end of Career Day, after a day of watching him nervously throw me looks, I tracked him down. And gave him the copy of my comic that I’d been carrying around for 14 months.
When I gave it to him, and saw his face, it caused my face, to make that face.
It’s a face, and a feeling, I’d never experienced. For the first time in my life, I felt like someone’s hero.
The tears that followed this snapshot were from that feeling. But my tears after learning about Chadwick’s passing: for all the kids who were found, and now may be lost.
What I was for this one sweet black boy, Chadwick was for a people. He was our King.
He showed us all how to be the right type of hero — one where it’s never about you, always about the people. And even though he’s gone, he hasn’t left us. Chadwick’s still calmly, confidently steering our ship, so that the future can be informed by our past, and brighter than our present.