Essay: Why Deaths of Our ‘Supermen’ Hit the Black Community Harder
There is something otherworldly about Black superheroes — because it means that the state of the world didn’t diminish their divinity but rather enhanced it. Most Black children and adults have a superhero, Black or not, and they often show resilience. To be Black in this world is to demand resilience for mere survival. Our superheroes, especially those who cannot fly or read minds, don’t just survive; they thrive and give us hope. But 2020 seems committed to taking our superheroes — most recently Chadwick Boseman — away from us.
This year it seems like all forms of divinity have abandoned us. As Black folks die at disproportionate rates from COVID-19, our names become hashtags from police brutality and homes become the ruins of natural disasters, we are collectively grieving. And then we lose our superheroes, like Boseman, John Lewis and Kobe Bryant. Each of these Black men has profoundly impacted the Black experience, giving us liberties and dreams to sustain Black life. But how do we recover from losing our Black Mamba and Black Panther merely months apart?
Boseman’s passing was the first death this year where I actually cried. Bryant’s death was heart-wrenching, Lewis’ death left me stunned, but it was Boseman’s death that was my breaking point. From his roles as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, James Brown to our beloved Black Panther, Boseman consistently depicted Black joy and success in a world that tries to squander it. Many of us left the theater in 2018, in our kente cloth or traditional African garments, with a newfound longing for community and a hand gesture that communicated that. I remember feeling so empowered after this film because rather than honing in on the Black struggle, it showed Black triumph.
There is something to be said about the way that Black folks grieve our own. Our proximity to violence often forces us into community, leaving us to search for another Black person in a room full of white folks or give the cultural head nod to communicate that we see one another. Our shared experiences of navigating an anti-Black world also enhance the amount of love we give one another, particularly our superheroes who our grandmas hang portraits of in their homes or the ones our children portray on Halloween. They are our pride and glory, and when we lose them, it feels incredibly personal. Most of our Black idols do not have superpowers, but they remain magical in the collective Black conscious. It speaks volumes that the tweet announcing Boseman’s death is the most-liked tweet of all time.
The collective grief of 2020 is so debilitating, and surviving becomes harder when our pockets of magic leave us. While this hurt is collective, I do not feel comforted in the fact that others are hurting, because I can envision a future where community is not built through a shared trauma. I believe in a Black experience that sparks the joy that watching Black Panther gave us, inspiring us as Lewis did, and one where hard work pays off like Bryant showed us. And now, I’m trying to envision this same Black experience without the heroes that ignited the feelings that formulated this idea.
I will admit that alongside my sadness there is a feeling of abandonment — I miss Bryant, Lewis and Boseman. As this year collects more lives, I can’t help but pray for more magical interventions because I have more faith in power unbeknown to me than those with tangible power in elected positions. But for now, I will allow myself the time to grieve those I never knew but was incredibly touched by. While I hope that the beautiful souls we lost this year will reincarnate so that we can experience them all over, I also hope that Black folks one day will no longer need magic. I hope that one day we can exist and that will be enough.