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I was sitting in my home office late last night, trying to fulfill a recent promise I made to myself to respond to all my emails before the end of the day, when I got the call from my friend Kobina. Like most of my close friends, I’ve known Kobina for over 25 years, since our days as undergrads at Howard University. A few hours earlier, we’d had one of our long catch-up conversations that covered a wide range of topics: work, politics, our amazing college days, the wide-ranging spectrum of Blackness that we came to know up close and personal as Howard students, and of course, what it means for Kamala Harris to be on the presidential ticket. We agreed that since Homecoming was cancelled due to COVID, it will be held in January during the inauguration.
When Kobina’s name appeared on my phone at 10:13 pm I assumed there was some interesting tidbit he’d forgotten to share. I did not expect for him to say, somberly, “Danette. Did you hear the news? Chadwick Boseman died.” It took me a moment to process what he said. “What?” I couldn’t have heard him correctly. I immediately Googled “Chadwick Boseman” and a litany of stories, all of which had been posted within the last three minutes, confirmed the terrible news. I hung up the phone and tried to gather my thoughts. I couldn’t. I went upstairs to share the news with my husband and then we knew we’d have to tell our son.
Chadwick Boseman was not just an actor. He was the star and lead actor of Black Panther, the superhero movie with an all-Black cast that broke all sorts of box office records in 2018. With that film, Chadwick catapulted into a new stratosphere. He was no longer simply an actor, or a celebrity, he was a phenom. His name was known the world over, people who’d never seen a Marvel movie before (present company included) waited in long lines to see Black Panther, and Black people throughout the world, and especially here in the United States, watched in awe as we saw reflections of ourselves portrayed on the screen. Strong, powerful, smart, beautiful, loving reflections of us.
Since getting that call less than 24 hours ago I’ve been sad. No, not the type of sadness you typically feel when you receive news that a celebrity you like has passed away. This has been a deeper, more visceral kind of mourning. The type that’s usually reserved for family members and close friends.
In some ways, Chadwick and I actually did share a meaningful connection because we were both part of the Howard University family. Anyone who knows a Howard graduate well, or has only spent five minutes with a Howard graduate, likely knows exactly what I mean. We are a proud bunch. Proud of our alma mater and its legacy of greatness; proud of each other (our alumni and classmates—the famous and not famous); proud of our history—having been established as an institution to educate the formerly enslaved, not for the trades, but for professions rooted in the liberal arts. I imagine that for those outside of the Howard circle it can be nauseating to be around us. But for us, it just is what it is.
So, Chadwick Boseman was one of us. He was us. He claimed Howard University, and we claimed him. Loudly and proudly. I did not know him well. We were not friends. As students, he was in the College of Fine Arts while I was way down the hill in the School of Communications. Our paths didn’t cross during our time on The Yard, but less than one degree of friendship separated us, then and now.
In May 2018, at the height of the “Black Panther” frenzy, Chadwick returned to campus as the commencement speaker. He also received an honorary degree. As a member of the university’s board of trustees, I had the opportunity to meet him and to talk to him at the dinner the night before commencement, again during the morning of the ceremony, and later that night at the after party. He was kind and gracious, and his love and appreciation for Howard was obvious.
Before the ceremony, he took lots of pictures with the university president and trustees. Just as they were about to whisk him away to prepare for the processional, he noticed my son William standing to the side, looking at him in awe. He told his handlers to wait a moment because he needed to take one more photo. Then he put his arm around William’s shoulder and we snapped a few quick pictures. With that simple gesture, Chadwick helped to create a memory that my now 10 year old will never, ever forget. His actions that day showed me all I needed to know about Chadwick Boseman the man. I left that experience thinking that he wasn’t only immensely talented, he was also immensely kind and gracious. My William still reflects upon his interaction with Chadwick with glee, and fondly refers to him as Dr. Chadwick Boseman.
I’m sharing all of this more for me than for any of you, in hope that it will help me work through my own grief, and to better understand why his sudden death has hit me and so many of my friends so hard. We had shared experiences, shared journeys, shared treks up those Howard Hills (as he noted in his commencement speech). He was greatness personified, he showed us the best of ourselves. He showed the world the very best of Howard University. He was one of us. He was us. And we all were, and remain, so unapologetically, and perhaps even nauseatingly, proud. It is what it is. Rest in Peace Brother Chadwick. #HowardForeverBack to News