On Chadwick Boseman, and Why It’s OK to Grieve the Death of a Celebrity

Photo by Katie Jones/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

It was an almost perfect evening. My wife and I danced, sang and laughed in the parking lot outside our apartment. We were still glowing, even though we’d seen “Black Panther” several times since it opened on February 16, 2018. We’d been following the movie’s star, Chadwick Boseman, since he played Jackie Robinson in the biopic “42” half a decade earlier.

Seeing someone who looked like me, a Black man, do larger than life things on the silver screen, was one of the more empowering moments from my own life’s reel. Chadwick was more than a great actor. He seemed principled to me. Like the older — more poised and regal — brother I never had. In many ways, I felt like I knew him.

I wish I could travel back in time to that night. While life still came with its challenges, the ground beneath my toes felt much stabler. It didn’t erupt the way it has this past year: one devastation after another. Thankfully, I was sitting on our living room couch when my wife told me Chadwick had passed away on Friday. He’d died from stage IV colon cancer. He was only 43. He wasn’t coming back.

There’d be no sequel.

My wife and I both struggled to breathe in our shared shock, as we scrolled through the collective grief that was our Twitter feed.

Issa Rae, comedian and creator of HBO’s Insecure, tweeted “this broke me.”

While Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out, posted “this is a crushing blow.”

It wasn’t just celebrities who shared their hurt, it was everyday people sharing the ways in which Chadwick had touched their lives, the lives of their children, how he’d given them hope. Clips of Chadwick’s 2018 Howard University commencement speech auto played. People shared his quotes from interviews, while others shared tears, hurt, and the unbearable burden of grief for which we were never prepared.

All this from people who’ve never actually spent time with Chadwick. Who weren’t with him as he wrote plays in college, or braved the uncertainty that is Hollywood.

So, why do our hearts ache? It’s easy to get caught up on the specifics. We might ask ourselves, “Can I really grieve someone I’ve never met?”

And, the answer would be a resounding yes.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, HuffPost interviewed David Kaplan, a former professor of psychology. Kaplan remarked that “we grow up with these people… so when they die, it’s like an extended member of our family dies. It’s somebody we feel like we know.”

Social media has brought us more access than any typical fan has had with celebrities. From cooking alongside Chrissy Teigen while clothes and books line the kitchen floor, to singing along with Lin-Manuel Miranda in his home office, it’s no wonder we feel suffocated and at a loss for words when someone we’ve followed for so long is no longer with us.

Now doesn’t have to be the time to solve anything, to put the pieces together, nor to prepare ourselves for the next inevitable blow. Perhaps it’s an opportunity for us to just feel our feelings and celebrate the life of someone we loved.

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There’s Absolutely Nothing to Smile About Right Now & Other Lies

Photo of a young Black girl smiling and standing in front of a gate. She's wearing a blue dress.
Photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash

“I smile, even though I hurt see I smile / I know God is working so I smile / Even though I’ve been here for a while / I smile, smile”  Smile x Kirk Franklin


 

“I really hope I didn’t mess that whole thing up!”  This is me straight trippin’ last week. I had a final round interview for a full-time master’s level salaried position. I haven’t worked 40+ hours a week since I left my previous higher ed position in 2018 due to mental realness.

Since then, my quasi professional life has been working retail on weekends, and being a stay-at-home dad during the week (pre-corona).

Would I ever get my groove back? 

Our dining room table was covered in an assortment of neon colored flash cards, a notepad, and my $10 tripod which was atop the thickest books we own so I could have the best angle for Zoom. I felt exhausted with so much on the line. My nerves were a wreck.

Job searches, am I right?

What’s worse was doubt that attempted to interrupt my rehearsed sentences. The sinking feeling that had (and still has) me believing I’m not worth being hired.

They can’t hire someone like me. The kid whose life was completely upended by a hijacked mind, who still has students and colleagues and professors he didn’t get to say goodbye to, who’s worn pajamas more than he’s worn suits, who damaged credit and lost all credibility, who’s sifting through relationships to see which ones still stick, who doesn’t smile because he’s used to (and far more comfortable) wearing a frown.

Sometimes grief feels like the forever home you never meant to purchase. The rooms are low lit and small. It’s a place you don’t want to leave because it’s all you know now. 

Thank God for the prayer warriors in my life and for the love of my life.

Where would I be? Fortunately it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve had many reasons to smile, to rejoice, to take my mind off the ashes, and I’m working on being humble enough to know that my joy doesn’t come from things of this world – there’s another, everlasting source.

Joy isn’t a comet. At times it’s a sun faintly shimmering in a gray sky.  

Let’s be real.

You’ve had your own doubts. Doubts about: where your next meal will come from, when your check will arrive or clear, if your kids will act right/come back, if your new relationship (borne on a dating website and continued via Facetime) will even make it out of this quarantine alive, if you can cover those medical fees, if people actually care as much as they say they do with their “hope your family is well during all of this” messages, if God even exists (and if He is real, does He even care?). 

And when you’ve felt a smile creeping up, you too, at times, have withstood joy. 

Let me tell you, sometimes it seems better to wallow in pity, regret, frustration, and disappointment, than let light flow through you. Because what if, right?

What if I let this positive feeling wash over me, does that mean all my suffering was in vain? What if I smile for no reason except for respite from sadness? Then what? It’s not like everything will suddenly be okay. 

A friend once told me: “Sometimes I feel like if I smile during heartache, God will think I’m trivializing the trial He’s allowing. But I need to think more highly of God.”

Whew. 

I used to constantly make cases for optimism. Part of that was to be contrarian in what felt like a world of trolls and haters, people out to make lives worse just because.

But now I know it’s essential. It’s essential to not only go searching for hope, but to nourish the joy that – at times – sweeps over us in our darkest moments. Our genuine joy – the kind that’s not easily killed or diminished – is essential.

In short, it’s necessary to let yourself smile.

Take it like a pill. Follow the doctor’s orders this time and do a new thing for your body, for your family, for your sanity, for your soul. 

You know me. You know I’ll invite you to cry until your eyes burn if that’s what you need. But as with most things, life is very much both/and. We have the capacity to carry hope and still be drowning in high water. 

Can you do it?

Can you stand before a mirror and practice a smile for no one to see? Your heart needs to witness this. 

It’s time to be a walking contradiction. Go against the tide of your indignant nature. Relish in some gratitude.

Take apart a good memory: 

where were you

who were you with

what can you hear and see and smell

what did the space look like

how good did you feel 

deep breath

let it all sink in

are you smiling 

 

I dare you to. 

God is still working for your good and the good of those you love. Let Him shine through you this week. It’s not a fake or forced thing. It’s what you’ve been needing. Medicine. But not a panacea. Courage. But not a cure. Do the brave thing, beloved. 

I’ll be smiling back…this time.

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