in memoriam

A Superhero Who Looks Like Us

Photo: Marvel/Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

This past weekend, my 5-year-old daughter and I rewatched Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. I wanted to revisit that world, and I wanted to bring her along.

I’d planned to use Saturday to detangle and style her hair, a task that would stretch on for hours. Hair days always mean TV marathon days, a time we both cherish. I parked her on a stool, situated myself behind her, spread her hair supplies on the coffee table behind me. Began the movie, got to work. We watched the opening shots of young boys playing basketball in an Oakland lot, the imposing figures of the Dora Milaje flanking King T’Chaka as he stood in a cramped apartment, moments from doling out his swift and somber punishment.

I didn’t tell her the star of Black Panther was dead, not yet. I wasn’t ready to. The thrill of seeing a larger-than-life story of adventure, bravery, love, and pride, rendered so masterfully with characters who looked and felt like me — that’s what I wanted to share with her on Saturday.

As the movie played, she asked a lot of questions and made a lot of observations; she always does. It turned out she thought the Black Panther, the character, was someone to be feared. “Look at his costume!” she said. “He’s scary!” Somehow, she’d internalized this since the first time she’d seen the film.

“No, he’s a hero,” I enthused as he suited up, descending on a crew of terrorists to find Nakia and free the villagers who had been kidnapped. “Look at him, he and Nakia are saving all of those people. He’s only scary to bad guys.” By that point, she was too enraptured to respond.

There’s no other way to describe the sheer giddiness I felt when my friend and I walked into the movie theater on that Friday night in February of 2018 — it was downright intoxicating to feel such an undeniable sense of belonging, buoyed by the shared exhilaration that enveloped the theater as we sat there, dressed to the nines, exchanging loud jokes and laughter, waiting for Black Panther to begin. I couldn’t have conceived of a moment like that until it arrived, heart pounding as the Marvel montage played, heralding the beginning of the film I’d been anticipating for over a year, for my entire life. It was sheer, unfettered joy on a scale I’ve never experienced, though the opening nights of Dreamgirls and Get Out maybe came close. This time was so much richer. Deeper. I just kept thinking of my daughter.

She was 3 years old when the movie was released, too young to understand or appreciate loud, lengthy films with complex backstory, rapid gunfire, and advanced technology — but in a way, this made its existence all the more meaningful. Boseman’s portrayal of this iconic character was now a part of the superhero canon; it was an indelible component of the cultural backdrop of her time, and its influence and imagery found her immediately, through no effort on my part. Her preschool, an Afrocentric institution, adopted “Wakanda Forever” in a major way; it became the dominant theme across their programming for the rest of the year, from the panther’s profile adorning her yearbook to the purple carpet that led families into that year’s Kiddie Prom. The children would cross their arms across their chests and shout the iconic phrase at their recitals, on the playground, and just whenever they felt like it; tiny voices raised as one. I doubt that many of them even fully understood the origin of the phrase, but for their tender ages, I also don’t think that was the point.

These days, my daughter becomes obsessed with a new question or existential conundrum every few weeks. How is it possible for numbers to have always existed? Where are babies before they start growing in their mommy’s tummy? Recently, her confusion has become heartbreakingly relevant: Why does God allow illness and disease to hurt and kill so many people?

She’s referring to COVID, of course. But as much as it has already ravaged so many lives this year, and contributed to the civil unrest and economic hardship that she hears the adults in her life constantly discussing, I can’t help but think broader than the pandemic. Why does God allow illness and disease to hurt and kill so many people? I thought again of her depressingly cogent assessment when I learned that Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at 43 years old.

The movie ended, and still, I did not bring up death, specifically or obliquely — I just let her bop along to Kendrick Lamar and Sza’s “All the Stars,” her favorite song from the soundtrack. But the rest of the films we took in while I methodically spritzed and parted her hair, oiled her scalp and combed out the tangles from tips to root, explored the themes of death and rebirth, history and legacy, so thoroughly you’d think that I’d planned it. We finished the back half of Hamilton, having begun it the previous day. She expressed confusion about John Laurens’s death — how could he be gone, if he was still singing “Tomorrow, there’ll be more of us” on stage, bathed in blue light? An act later, she told me how sad she felt that Philip, Hamilton’s son, had died too. She wondered what Hamilton was writing all the time; why he produced so many pages, what they were all for.

We sailed through a fifth (sixth?) rewatch of Black Is King, employing liberal use of fast forward, eager to get to our favorite songs (“Already” is mine; “My Power” is hers). Every time we watch the latter video, she points out the red- and blue-powdered dance battle, commenting on its symbolic rendering of the fight between Scar and Simba, then rejoicing at Simba’s eventual victory. We ended on the recent live-action Lion King remake. She nodded off as I finished the final twists and Beyoncé’s Nala called the lions to her side to stand up to Scar, clearing the way for Simba to reclaim his rightful place as king.

For all of my daughter’s questioning, sometimes I prefer not to spell things out so completely. Sometimes, I just give her a simple answer, or tell her honestly that I don’t know, and then subtly watch her, the light dancing her eyes as she takes in these indelible stories, securing them away inside of her. I smiled the next time she saw Chadwick Boseman’s face, grinning out from my phone, and recognized him as a superhero. I’ll share more with her soon. He gave us so much to share.

A Superhero Who Looks Like Us