The Heroic Life of Chadwick Boseman

By Dr. Micah Johnson

Chadwick Aaron Boseman was originally a South Carolina boy. His ancestors were Krio people from Sierra Leone, Yoruba people from Nigeria, and Limba people from Sierra Leone who were brought to the U.S. in the belly of slave ships to be forced into chattel slavery for centuries. Growing up in the deep south, Black struggle was at his doorstep and lingered all around him. Black history for Boseman was more than pages and folklore, but rather the story of his family and friends. It was the legacy of his parents. It was his biography. 

Boseman attended Howard University, a renowned Historically Black College, where he plunged deep into his artistry. He rose to international acclaim with his compelling performance of the baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the biopic “42.” Boseman’s Robinson was gifted, tough, humble, romantic, and profound. He displayed a version of Black masculinity that was filled with dignity, grace, and nuance. We were doubly blessed with the gift of two brilliant Black heroes, Boseman and Robinson, at a time when the Black community was devastated by the death of Trayvon Martin. 

A year later, Boseman delivered to us another creative soul, starring as James Brown in the 2014 film, “Get on Up.” Two things became clear. One, a genius was playing a genius. Two, Boseman was acting like he was running out of time. Once again, he dazzled audiences with his mastery of the craft and conducted himself and the character he portrayed with such excellence that the masses of Black people could say it loud, “I’m Black and I’m proud.”

A few years later, he played the role of the civil rights giant Thurgood Marshall. Boseman’s integrity and understanding of his Blackness was reflected in his body of work. He did not compromise. All of his portrayals combated stereotypes and norm-deficit characterizations. These performances shattered the superficial and toxic understanding of Black masculinity. 

No role was more successful in displaying Black excellence and magic as his portrayal of the Marvel Universe superhero, King T’Challa, “The Black Panther.” The film, which achieved international acclaim, was an unprecedented display of Black excellence in a major Hollywood motion picture. Boseman led a cast of some of the greatest Black actors in the world. The film felt as grand, rich, and magnificent as the continent of Africa herself. It changed how Blackness was seen, interpreted, and felt around the world. Boseman’s portrayal of King T’Challa captured the dream of Black manhood that many of us aspire to be: romantic, tenacious, virtuous, wise, humble, and surrounded by powerful women who inspire, advise, and support us to be the very best versions of ourselves. 

Boseman’s legacy is defined by an incredible body of work that displayed and celebrated the beauty of Blackness on the world stage. His depth as an actor embodied the nuance and depth of the Black experience.

To end, I will say that I saw wisdom, beauty, and profoundness in his eyes that made him an ideal character to play some of the most dynamic Black figures in history. I felt like his heroism in real life towered over King T’Challa as he quietly battled with cancer yet continued to work through all of it. It was shocking! Yet inspiring. The world lost a brilliant actor, but, as a Black man, I felt like our community lost a brother. I personally find solace in knowing that Boseman continues to watch over me alongside the others on the ancestral plane. I am personally inspired.

Click here to watch Micah’s presentation, “The Black Experience: Untold Tragedy and Triumph,” from Shift’s “Transforming Racism” Facebook Live Series 



Dr. Micah E. Johnson is a professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida. He is also an award-winning performance artist (monologist, lyricist, and scriptwriter), fusing art and activism to empower the victims of injustice. He has been an activist for social justice for the past 14 years.

He trains, speaks, and teaches internationally on topics related to antiracism, racial justice, and sustainable peace. He has trained the Office of the Federal Public Defender, several police departments, and other law enforcement entities.

Dr. Johnson's forthcoming book, The Little Book of Police-Youth Dialogue: Bridging Divides of Historical Harms, will be released in the spring of 2021. The book discusses historical trauma, inequalities in the justice system, and other factors that contribute to the tensions between law enforcement and marginalized communities.

He is a board member of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding. He founded the Study of Teen Opioid Misuse and Prevention Laboratory, a traineeship for gifted future investigators from underrepresented minority and underserved backgrounds. 

Click here to visit his website.

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This article appears in: 2020 Catalyst, Issue 20: The Work Ahead