Last Friday, August 28, the heartbreaking news that actor Chadwick Boseman had died, aged 43, flooded the global newsfeed. He had privately been battling colon cancer for four years.
In late January 2018, my wife was asked by photographer Norman Jean Roy if she’d style the Rolling Stone Magazine cover of Chadwick to coincide with the release of the ‘Black Panther’ movie the following month. Naturally she was thrilled as both she and I, and all our kids, had become fans of this man’s talent, given his performances as Jackie Robinson in ’42’ and James Brown in ‘Get on Up’. As unapologetic Marvel fans, we were also keenly anticipating the upcoming release.
On the day, I went to pick her up, arriving on a set where everyone was elated with the flush of what had been a great shoot. She also delighted in scolding me for forgetting to remove my rank old socks from my equally mucky old motorcycle boots that she had borrowed for the shoot, and that Chadwick had worn. This made me laugh and I decided was a perfect bridge for me to say hello to Chadwick, apologize and introduce myself.
The crew were striking the sets and my wife and her assistant hurriedly packing all the bags up. Chadwick was sat at one end of the studio finishing up the interview for the accompanying article. I walked on over and excusing myself, said hello and uttered something attempting humor, regarding my smelly socks. He immediately beamed, and stood up to shake my hand. I then told him in all sincerity how very impressed I had been with his immaculate performance as James Brown. I’d seen the actual Godfather of Soul perform live several times on several continents and told Chadwick what a remarkable job he’d done playing that legend, as portraying such an icon (as he had done at least three times by then) was such a momentous task, requiring massive talent, confidence and fortitude.
I’ll NEVER forget how present he was as he received my words. He looked at me, eyes and focus crystal clear, and in that moment he was the epitome of grace, humility and a sort of beautiful innocence — I think we both slightly bowed. It was an unforgettable, albeit brief, moment for me and a honest and elegant exchange.
Fast forward to today, Wednesday September 2. Like millions of others, I have been following the many tributes to this fine soul, and lamenting at his passing so achingly young. We have marveled at his stoicism in dealing with his illness. We have been deeply touched witnessing him lighting up the lives of many, especially the terminally ill children at St Jude’s, realizing now that he too was in the throes of a parallel war. We have heard from friends and colleagues about his absolute code of ethics, his immovable principals. He seems like that rare type of hero who silently worked to benefit others without ever needing his efforts lauded publicly. Superhero really does come to mind!
What has been most moving for me though has been listening to the recordings of his 2018 commencement speech to the graduates at his beloved Alma Mater, Howard University. Words have great consequences. Words carry so much energy. To lift, to console, to inspire and at times to destroy. Chadwick’s message is so clear. He sparkles in awe of an accidental meeting on campus with Muhammed Ali, a brief encounter, a spontaneous shadow box with the GOAT himself, that inspired and taught him so much. He speaks at length on the absolute value of purpose, of seeking it above the need for career success.
“Purpose crosses disciplines,” he says. “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you chose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
And on his own journey, he describes being fired from a TV show for asking questions around his characters specific history, and says: “When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.”
He also extolls on defeat, on struggle and on pain, and says: “Sometimes you need to feel the pain and the sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you.”
Chadwick Boseman’s Howard University Commencement Speech
He inspires like the greatest type of leader. A true king of courage, compassion and kindness. And a hero in real life, not just of a comic strip.
I would suggest to anyone looking for guidance to take the time to watch and listen to his address in full. I can’t help but think of how those who were in attendance that day are feeling right now. Absolutely blessed and yet deeply touched by grief.
As I write this, I am conscious of a need in myself to be more mindful in my own speech, in what I say. My mind tends to race ahead and form sentences and attempt answers without allowing the time to perhaps listen and consider a little more fully. I’d like to do better. When I complimented Chadwick, I had no motive other than to thank him for his enriching work. That was it. In and out. 100% integrity and gratitude. I believe he received it in the way it was intended because he recognized and felt my truth. We all know when this happens — the moment is exquisitely pure.
Legacy is what we leave behind. If Chadwick Boseman’s legacy is his body of film work, spoken words written by others creating the hero he was to so many, then we must also remember, celebrate and put to use the words that came from his own mind and heart. In that extraordinary speech, in the private words he exchanged one on one with those suffering, in the wisdoms he shared without fanfare away from the screen, and in the personal stories that so many, like me, have left of him, even if just fleeting moments.
Always with love,