Let’s talk about two superheroes.
One inspired millions of people with his supernatural acting talent. He channeled that talent into making a film that was Black and African and Feminist and Beautiful — and a fun superhero movie.
Another is a Supreme Court Justice from the Bronx.
First things first though.
Chadwick Boseman’s smile was magnetic. Seeing all the clips of him that were shared following his passing, the smile is what’s most consistent.
To the credit of the Black Panther team, they let him milk the Boseman smile in the movie. Boseman already had that smile of the beloved prince who no one expected would have to be saddled with the burdens of kingship. Maybe the smile is why he had to be T’Challa.
When I traveled to Atlanta after the film came out, everyone there on the radio, on TV, and in private conversations was talking about how much of the movie was shot in Georgia. It’s rare to have a film about a fictional place stoke that kind of pride.
And then you look at Black pride. You see the tributes coming in from children and their parents about what it means to have that Black hero. This wasn’t Anthony Mackie as Falcon or Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury or even Don Cheadle as War Machine. No, T’Challa is in his own league.
Boseman was so much more than T’Challa. Jackie Robinson. James Brown. Thurgood Marshall. Who else could he have portrayed? What other heroes? We won’t know, but we do know that his body of work alone will make it possible for others to tell those stories.
They’ll be Leslie Odom Jr. stories or Lupita Nyong’o stories or stories portrayed by kids who were busting their butts in virtual theater camp this summer because they want people to look up their names on IMDB someday. Boseman’s gifts have inspired and will inspire so many others.
The outpouring of love for Boseman brought to mind another experience.
I was on a tour of some immigrant-run businesses at a market in New York City years ago not long after Sonia Sotomayor became a Supreme Court Justice following President Obama nominating her. In the market in this largely Hispanic neighborhood, her face was everywhere. There were photos of her, books about her, placemats featuring her — it’s like she was the Pope.
It was so obvious how much this mattered to the community. Any Latinx kid could look at her and know that if they worked as hard as Sotomayor and strove to be anywhere near as smart as Sotomayor, they could make it to the top of their field. Anything was possible.
I had a small sense of that importance before that tour, but after the tour, I also got how much more meaning there was that I’d never fully appreciate. About 100 years earlier, families that looked a little more like mine felt that pride when Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish Justice on the Supreme Court. Today, it’s comical to think how big a deal it was for Joe Lieberman to have been one Supreme Court Justice’s vote away from becoming the first Jewish Vice President. Lieberman, really? Not everyone’s a superhero.
Jewish representation has come so far in this country that there was far more coverage this year about Bernie Sanders being too progressive and Mike Bloomberg being too centrist and too rich than either of them being too Jewish. Similarly, Pete and Chasten Buttigieg were such a loving couple that it seems more striking that they’re so happily married than that they’re so openly gay. How many other LGBTQ Americans will now be okay bringing their partners on the campaign trail thanks to the Buttigiegs braving that gauntlet?
Boseman took all this to extremes. This weekend, I seemed to have more difficulty taking a subway ride home with a headache than Boseman had shooting a physically grueling film while battling advanced stages of colon cancer. The pressure from his work and the expectations put on him — I have no clue what he went through or what that could have been like.
But I do see what his smile has done for others. And I see what Sotomayor’s smile on a placemat means for another Sonia in the South Bronx or San Antonio or San Juan. I see how my people needed our Brandeises and Liebermans to get to the point where it doesn’t matter as much that Sanders was twice the runner-up for a shot at the nation’s top job (though I’ll always love the 2008 Onion headline, “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job“).
Thanks to a roll of the dice, we needed Brandeis to pave the way for Marshall and Sotomayor. In another time and place, we might have needed Sotomayor or Marshall before we had a Brandeis. It was hardly likely that our first president who wasn’t a white male would be a mixed-race man whose Black family hailed from Kenya and whose last name rhymed with the first name of America’s then-most-wanted terrorist. Did 2008 and 2012 really happen?
Representation matters. Heroes matter. Some heroes, real and fictional, earn their right to be superheroes. As short as Boseman’s years were, thank goodness he did so much with them so his posters can hang on so many kids’ walls. And thank goodness there are so many Sotomayors among us gracing kids’ placemats so they know they have the right to sit at any damn table they want when they put in the work to get there.
Wakanda Forever. Bronx Forever.
PS: I will not try to put in a superheroic effort over the Labor Day holiday weekend. I’ll take off next week and see you 9/16. To all those celebrating, have a wonderful and restful holiday.
LEARN. TRY. SHARE.
STARVING THE OFFICE WORKER FOOD CHAIN
What happens when office workers don’t come back anytime soon? What does that mean for travel? Restaurants? Real estate? Office supplies? This is one of the better takes I’ve read that assesses the impact of working from home across sectors.
Speaking of sharing…
Thanks to Jaimee Kniffen, William Alvarez, Wendy Weatherford Marks, David Kohlberg, William Alvarez, Duc Luan Dam, Gina Waldhorn, Mike Marzano, Alexandra Frumberg, Michael Browne, Allie Smith, and Jeremy Woolf for spreading the word recently.