There are a few singular figures who tower boldly above all the others around us, skyscrapers in human form who seem—in the way they carry themselves and live their lives—to be constantly stretching their hands toward the heavens, people who loom so large they scarcely seem able to die.
But death, that inescapable and unyielding foe, inevitably comes—sometimes without any real warning. Such was the case with Chadwick Boseman, hero on the big screen and in everyday life to millions of Black Americans young and old, as well as countless others.
As important as Chadwick is as a cultural hero, he also offers the church an important lesson about what it means to be made in God’s image.
A hero of our own
It hardly seems believable that a man could live up to the iconic level of Black Panther, a character meaningful to an entire culture. I remember the days after the film’s initial release, seeing countless internet posts of Black people showing up to theaters in full African garb.
We were inspired, elevated, rejuvenated, breathing air into lungs struggling to breath under the boot of others, vibranium crowns gingerly placed on our own heads.
At the center of all that celebration stood Chadwick, as regal in jeans as T’Challa in his royal robes—unapologetically, joyously, defiantly Black. This man had carried with gravitas and grace the weight of hallowed names, such as Thurgood Marshall, James Brown and Jackie Robinson. This man seemed assured to play countless more roles and show the world the beauty in blackness for years to come.
And then he wasn’t.
This may all seem like lofty praise for an actor. It certainly feels like hyperbole to write it, and I am hesitant to heap all this praise on someone I never met.
Yet, there is no denying what I saw in and learned from Chadwick Boseman, things I didn’t even realize he was teaching me, until it clicked months later as I watched Miles Morales swing across the screen in “Into the Spider-Verse.”
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Black people, we are not side characters.
Every show I watched growing up, I always gravitated toward the Black guy. Cyborg in Teen Titans, Green Lantern in Justice League, Gerald in Hey Arnold, Piccolo in Dragon Ball Z—who technically is green, but any Black person who watched that show knows what’s really up.
But they never were the main character, they never were the hero. They always were sidekicks, accessories, role players in a grand epic centered around the same kind of people our universes revolved around in the real world. Even in fantasy, we couldn’t escape our secondary status.
Sure, we had a Black hero before in the form of Blade, but a hyper-violent vigilante who stalked nightclubs and alleyways was a bit of a jerk, honestly. He also was a literal monster with deeply sexual and predatory undertones that played into long-standing stereotypes of African American men in media.
But that changed with Black Panther.
Before, we were given the best of the demons, but even the best demons still are demons. Now, we had a saint proving we indeed could rise above. We had someone we could look up to with the promise we could be more.
God’s image in Black skin
I certainly don’t speak for all Black people, but I can say Chadwick made me feel more at home in my own skin.
I cannot imagine how powerful the image of him standing victoriously in full costume must have been for Black children across the country. If they’re anything like I was as a kid, it may have been the first time they didn’t wish their hair was straighter, like their white friends. It may have been the first time they didn’t feel the need to dress a certain way for the approval of their peers. It may have been the first time they loved being Black.
Chadwick brought to children in a few hours what it took me two and a half decades of confusion and tears to gain—a modicum of self-love as a Black person in a country that wants to break us down and remake us in its image, as though we aren’t already made in the image of the radiant One.
In my dark skin growing up, I certainly did not feel as though I reflected a perfect God. But the simple, unassailable, incontrovertible truth is every Black face bears the image of the invisible God and should be treated with the dignity that demands.
There are some who read that statement and would respond, “All faces bear the image of God.” True as that statement is, it tends to be applied in practice less often to Black people. The negative stereotypes and biases more often are about us than those who say, “All are created in God’s image.”
When God made us, he said we were very good. Chadwick, through his work in film, reminded us of that truth and, in many cases, taught us that truth for the first time.
I thank God for Chadwick. I pray for his family. And I hope he inspires more of us to be like him—boldly, unashamedly, radiantly Black and human in the truest, purest sense of the word.
Trent Richardson is a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.