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Chadwick Boseman's Legacy: A Discussion on Ableism


CNN described Chadwick Boseman as someone with "charismatic intensity." NPR reported that he was a man praised for "bringing dignity and humanity to icons." The New York Times said he was "fueled by a commitment to leave nothing on the table." On Aug. 28, a statement released on all social media platforms left millions of people in shock by the death of the "Black Panther" actor, Chadwick Boseman, 43.

Boseman had been silently battling colon cancer since 2016 and died in his home with loved ones by his side. Boseman's diagnosis was left out of his public life and a discussion of how this transcended into a symbol of "strength," "inspiration," and "dignity" started floating around on Twitter from celebrities and other stars who personally knew him. 

However, one must take a step back and ask, "Is it right to call working while battling a disease, like cancer, inspirational?" Such a thought sheds light on an even larger conversation on "inspiration porn" and how ableist it is to link bravery and strength as an outlet for inspiration without accounting for the work disabled people have to process while continuing their lives. 

On Twitter, Oprah Winfrey said that Boseman showed, "Greatness in between surgeries and chemo," adding, "the courage, the strength, the power it takes to do that. This is what Dignity looks like." This idea of strength being tied to "dignity" is damaging to disabled people, especially as a celebrity, one may feel that they must continue to work to serve their community at the expense of their mental and physical health. Continuously feeling pushed to do more and work harder is what makes processing a diagnosis like cancer difficult, raising a potential reason why Chadwick Boseman may have kept it private. 

When Boseman posted a video on April 15 to share concerns about the novel coronavirus, his clip drew attention to his physical appearance and sudden weight loss. Posts began to spread that Chadwick was on drugs when in reality, he was battling stage four cancer. Such remarks highlight that being silent about his diagnosis may have also been a method of his to control the narrative of his persona and therefore, touches on the concept of the Black male identity being characterized by the strength that is ultimately determined by physicality. Dr. Anderson J. Franklin, a professor of psychology at Boston College describes this act of preservation as "invisibility syndrome," where Black men struggle with the feeling that one's talents, abilities, and worth are not valued or recognized because of their race. 

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I've been trying to find the words, but nothing comes close to how I feel. I've been reflecting on every moment, every conversation, every laugh, every disagreement, every hug…everything. I wish we had more time. One of the last times we spoke, you said we were forever linked , and now the truth of that means more to me than ever. Since nearly the beginning of my career, starting with All My Children when I was 16 years old you paved the way for me. You showed me how to be better, honor purpose, and create legacy. And whether you've known it or not…I've been watching, learning and constantly motivated by your greatness. I wish we had more time. Everything you've given the world … the legends and heroes that you've shown us we are … will live on forever. But the thing that hurts the most is that I now understand how much of a legend and hero YOU are. Through it all, you never lost sight of what you loved most. You cared about your family , your friends, your craft, your spirit. You cared about the kids, the community, our culture and humanity. You cared about me. You are my big brother, but I never fully got a chance to tell you, or to truly give you your flowers while you were here. I wish we had more time. I'm more aware now than ever that time is short with people we love and admire. I'm gonna miss your honesty, your generosity, your sense of humor, and incredible gifts. I'll miss the gift of sharing space with you in scenes. I'm dedicating the rest of my days to live the way you did. With grace, courage, and no regrets. "Is this your king!?" Yes . he . is! Rest In Power Brother.

A post shared by Michael B. Jordan (@michaelbjordan) on Aug 31, 2020 at 4:47pm PDT

After the release of "Black Panther," Chadwick Boseman became an international icon and symbol for Black power, especially among Black youth. On Instagram, Black Panther cast member Michael B. Jordan wrote, "I'm dedicating the rest of my days to live the way you did." Chadwick Boseman, even in the years after his diagnosis, would visit young Black children in cancer hospitals. Although the term "hero" has been loosely used since his death, he reminded Black youth they were one. 

In this reflecting period of Chadwick's legacy, we should not use his cancer journey to perpetuate the idea that disabled folk going through their experience in silence is "strength" because it is a painful experience, to Boseman, his family, and other loved ones. It is not right for able-bodied people to use Chadwick's experience as a platform and guidance for inspiration because we should normalize the idea of self-care as a liberating act. 

As the world mourns Boseman's passing, we must uplift his art and understand that he left a mark doing what he loved. However, we cannot romanticize his working through cancer by calling it "heroism" as Robert Downey Jr. did. By doing so, able-bodied people are using his experience as inspiration porn, rather than empowering his wife, family, and the lives he impacted. A discussion on Chadwick's iconic roles as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and James Brown all get erased when we romanticize over his long and painful journey with cancer.

For the future, our society needs to create a conducive environment where it encourages all Black people – disabled and body-abled – to rest, reenergize, and take care of themselves without the guilt of consistently having to work to prove themselves or feel like they "owe" their community by working. Especially in a time where the country is seeing its largest civil rights movement in 50 years, we must regularly practice self-care to empower ourselves and those around us as we continue to honor Chadwick Boseman's fight for racial justice. 

Rest in Power, King. You will be missed. 

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