Black masculinity revisited: The enduring legacy of Chadwick Boseman

Actor Chadwick Boseman
(Courtesy of Black & Magazine)

I grew up in Gary, Indiana.

Back in the 1970s, it was a bustling city and the foundation of Black middle class life in northwest Indiana. When I think about Gary at that time, I think about the smells — the city was filled with a wide range of pungent, burning, chemical-like odors which blanketed my everyday existence.

We lived on 7th and Vermont streets then, which were closer to the US Steel plant. I could walk out from the front of our house and look north a few blocks to see the smoke spewing from the towers. Often the sky was hazy and gray. My mother used to tell me when she hung the freshly washed clothes on the clothesline to dry, she would have to hurry to bring the clothes in before too long or else our laundry would have silver specks embedded in them.

Gary — this hazy, smelly, industrial city of my youth in the 1970s — was a city inhabited by men who relocated there to carve out their share of the American Dream, to claim their stake of middle class life. So much of the dynamic between fathers and sons is about monument building, especially at that time in Gary. My father was laid off in 1979. By 1981, many fathers had lost their jobs in the steel mills and other factories throughout northwest Indiana. Men who otherwise were able to take care of their homes and their families were now under employed, if employed at all. In order to survive the economic calamity overtaking, these men were working at McDonald’s and taking on paper routes, the jobs we kids traditionally filled.

No longer foremen or machinists, steelworkers or other tradesmen, football and basketball were spaces for them to exercise their power, prowess, and bravado; playing contact sports gave them bragging rights at church on Sunday. Sons were the monuments for their fathers’ lives. In this old framework, so many men have lived an enduring conflict in trying to define themselves within the narrow lanes afford us by socio-normative structures.

I sucked at sports, not for lack of trying and not for lack of passion. Athletics just weren’t my best suit. My space was less celebrated – at least, in the eyes of my father and many of my contemporaries growing up. I was then, and I remain, an empathetic intellectual who delves into my own humanity to connect with others.

Humanity is what is key particularly in a society which fetishizes Black male bodies – in fact, all Black bodies. But in the space of Black masculinity, 21st century America viscerally responds to the image and existence of Black males. This year both Kobe Bryant and, now, Chadwick Boseman have joined our ancestors after living courageously for an all too abrupt period of time.

By all accounts, Chadwick lived fully, leaving behind a legacy of quiet courage in the face of a cancer diagnosis while steadfastly dedicated to portraying iconic roles as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and “Stormin” Norman Earl Holloway in Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods.”

While most people, rightfully, celebrate him as T’Challa in Black Panther, it was in “Da Five Bloods” that Chadwick’s unique blend of leadership, wisdom, strength, and courage that resonated with me. Stormin Norman didn’t hold a machine gun and kill an impossible amount of the enemy. He didn’t run the fastest or the longest. He didn’t get all the pretty girls. He lived the war experience through the lens of a Black serviceman fighting asymmetrically to maintain his humanity in the chaos of war and a racialized existence within the US military.

Read the rest of this commentary on the Black & Magazine website