Before we returned to school in the midst of all this COVID madness, my partner & I planned a weekend trip to the seaside. Because our foreign holiday was cancelled due to the current crisis, this getaway was the only chance we would see some sun (maybe), sand & just have time to relax.
When I woke up that Saturday morning, looking at my beaten-up iPhone, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I checked my Whatsapp notifications & saw the first part of a message which said "This ain't right... 2020 is too much."
Curious, I opened up the message & saw the soulful face of Chadwick Boseman staring at me with a heartbreak emoji next to it.
King T'Challa was dead.
Our superhero was gone.
My chest felt like an invisible hand was pressing firmly against it, like a bouncer denying me entry into a club. That bouncer's hand didn't leave until later in the day. I felt like I lost a friend.
In the midst of getting my child ready, while she was determined to paint her face with her jam-on-toast & my partner forcefully cajoling me with the energy of Jurgen Klopp out the door, the news feeds drip-fed me more information about his passing.
As we know now, the 43-year-old actor was diagnosed with stage 3 colon-cancer BEFORE he took up his legendary role as King T'Challa and silently battled this scourge of a disease for 4 YEARS while filming numerous pictures - how on Earth did he manage that?
As we drove down to the seaside, I just couldn't shake my sadness... I lightly admonished myself that I didn't know him personally & I shouldn't his death so much to heart, but that familiar but unwelcome character called Sadness wouldn't allow me to drop it. Sadness stood patiently at the door of my heart, waiting for me to talk to him.
It's time to break bread.
His Roles Gave Black People A Sense of Pride & Hope
If you have been knocking around my blog for a while, you will realise that:
a) I am a Black man
b) I am a fierce believer in Equality, Diversity & Inclusion for ALL people.
While this year has been an incredibly difficult year for all of us, ethnic minorities have taken extra blows to the face in this brawl. Where do we even start?
We could look at COVID19 and how it is 3 times more likely to kill ethnic minorities compared to our European counterparts. We could look at the murder of George Floyd & the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that spread around the world in the wake of the baked-in institutional racism that blights the whole of modern society.
Images of black people being brutalised & harrassed are never far off our television screens and it doesn't seem to stop.
We could look at the recent A-Level results fiasco that saw a 'mutant algorithm' downgrade BAME & working-class students & until very recently, threatened to destroy the lives of our young people based on their gender, race and UK postcode. We can look at the rise of the Far-Right who in light of 'Brexit' have taken it on themselves to hunt the 'foreigners' & tell them to 'leave Engerland alone because we are ful' up.'
It's knackering. It's traumatic. And doesn't stop.
The images of the Black community that are portrayed in the media are incredibly negative on the whole. We are commonly depicted as downtrodden, poor, aggressive, unintelligent and hypersexualised. Not the people that you want to be around.
Chadwick Boseman's roles, especially that of King T'Challa was different.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Boseman's T'Challa leads the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a nation untouched by the claws of slavery & colonisation & the most technologically advanced country on the planet.
In King T'Challa, they had a leader who was soulful, noble, shrewd, brave & when ready, a fierce warrior who would be willing to do whatever it took to protect his people. T'Challa was also open to admitting his wrongs & actually at the end of Black Panther managed to reconcile the radical views of Erik Killmonger with his own, to create a progressive pathway to uplift all the black communities on the planet.
T'Challa, unlike Killmonger, did not hate other races. He was open to others & willing to learn. Wakanda was a progressive society as the second most powerful character in Wakanda, General Okoye was a woman who could fight with the best of the Avengers. Women were not depicted as mere damsels in distress but smart, intelligent and having agency.
T'Challa was not subservient to the Avengers, making it clear to Iron Man & Captain America that he was not a man to be trifled with & was determined to walk his own path.
In an era saturated with black masculine images of gangsters, pimps and hustlers, Boseman presented a black image that, especially our children, had never seen before.
The Black Panther film, no matter how fantastic, was an image of what Africa could be - it was a picture of the potential that we, the Black community, could become. It was a groundbreaking film in so many ways. It gave ethnic minority kids a superhero that looked & sounded like them, proudly and confidently.
Black Panther made being an African cool. I grew up at the height of Live Aid and Comic Relief, and their condescending images of Africa filled with poverty, malnourished children with flies feasting on their heads and crazy despots in military uniform.
I remember other kids I grew up with saying "shut-up you African" as an insult. But Chadwick & those that worked on Black Panther changed the zeitgeist bringing African colour, music & culture to billions on the planet.
And fittingly, Chadwick seemed as heroic as the fictional King himself, spearheading & fighting for the film's integrity and pushing back the biggest film studio on the planet to make sure that Wakanda was represented authentically & respectfully.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler recently confirmed that Boseman was a powerful force driving the film & even when the director had doubts about whether the film would work, Boseman's positivity and confidence encouraged them to keep going, calling the film the Black community's Star Wars. And that's how it felt.
Despite being diagnosed with a debilitating and fatal illness, Boseman regularly contacted cancer-stricken kids and visited them in hospital, making them smile & was visibly shaken when they faltered. He knew how much this role inspired ALL children & saw it as a duty to use his image to uplift others. Having seen my own loved ones succumb to the grip of cancer, my mind boggles on how he kept going in the face of such unimaginable pain. That's honestly superhuman & we can only applaud his strength.
'We Reminisce Over You'
As I write this, I realise that I am not alone in my feelings. From the Twitter tribe, all the way up to former Presidents, sports giants and movers and shakers of society, Chadwick's death has sparked mourning and introspection.
Reflecting on his impact on the world, Chadwick represented a possibility that the Black community never had. He helped to bring to life a world where people of colour are not limited by their skin and made us believe that somehow we had that same power within us too.
The drawing above was given to me by one of my year 12's, a very talented young man called Yusef before he left to chase his dreams to become a comic book illustrator. He gave this to me as he knew from my lessons how passionate I was about how T'Challa should be depicted on-screen. This is now one of my most valued possessions.
We grieve for what he could of went on to achieve & how far he could have gone. Many saw him as our generation's Denzel Washington or Sidney Poitier. We grieve because we wanted to see what more he could have done & what his artistry could have reflected about us. We all wanted to visit Wakanda with him one more time...
But it wasn't to be.
Now, I look on that illustration with fondness, knowing that Chadwick Boseman, made this black-and-white image come alive on the big screen, giving joy to millions and still retaining his humility, grace and dignity until the very end.
Boseman is not a god - he was very much human with flaws and character quirks. But with his talent and belief, he made the world a slightly better place - and we need that energy now more than ever.
For all the teachers out there, children cannot be what they cannot see. They have to see heroes that live the virtues that we are trying to teach them. We may not be superheroes ourselves, but in our own little ways, we can shine a light of possibility into their worldviews. That's a sacred trust that we must use wisely.
Representation matters. And Chadwick represented us to the fullest.
May GOD bless you & keep you Chadwick.
Rest in Power, King and thank you for your service.*
By the way, if you believe in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, check out this fantastic project called 'Less Than 10' by the wondrous teacher & photographer Zara Singh. BAME teachers make up less than 10% of the Education workforce and more shockingly, less than 1% of Black people become Headteachers. This can't be right in 2020.
Zara has travelled up & down the country capturing the images of BAME teachers to tell their story. Click here to read my blogpost about the docu-gallery.
Thank you for reading.
Karl from actionheroteacher.com
*This blogpost was selected as part of Jon Hutchinson's "Blog of the Week" for School's Week in the 3rd week of September.
As always, thank you all for reading!