Chadwick Boseman did not yield. But he deserved a world that would’ve let him yield. He deserved a world that would’ve loved him if he did.
“I never yielded! And as you can see: I am not dead.“
Chadwick Boseman died on the evening of August 28th but never yielded. It crushed so many that he inspired to learn of his death. Still, those words—uttered with such defiance in 2018’s Black Panther—will likely ring in the ears of his millions of fans, especially as they try to reckon with the fact that Boseman was battling Stage 3 colon cancer for four years prior to his passing, even as he inspired legions with his turn as T’Challa, King of Wakanda.
But how do we understand that battle? How do we discuss his resilience and his willingness to work on multiple blockbusters despite simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy treatments and surgeries to keep his cancer in check? While many heartfelt tributes to the actor have inspired me and others to celebrate his monumental legacy, a great deal of the discussion surrounding Boseman’s illness has invoked a frustrating legacy of ableist tropes about what it means to be “strong” in the face of bodily struggle.
Part of this stems from the lack of mainstream discussion about disability involving actual disabled people. In too many cases there’s a discrepancy between disability and what we consider “sickness.” The former is something that one is inescapably born with that makes you inherently less while the latter is an affliction that perverts and lessens someone who was born with some inherent potential. While both are seen as tragic, the tragedies are differentiated by what someone is expected to be able to do at birth.
Simultaneously, while disability may be seen as inescapable, the disabled person bears the onus of extricating themselves from the label of “disabled” by performing above and beyond the perceived strictures of their condition. That this language has so gleefully been applied to Chadwick Boseman’s illness—that he was so brave and so strong because he, in the eyes of fans, privileged his craft over the pain of his illness—ultimately unveils the false differentiation between illness and disability, and the bullshit reactionary responses to disabled people calling out the harmful narratives that have swarmed like flies in the wake of his passing.
But people aren’t even comfortable with naming disability in the first place. Disability is a Bad Thing, meant to be shameful, something to be hidden and undiscussed. When I graduated college a year ago, I had to wait in my respective major line for an hour or so before the commencement ceremony. Because I was bored and frustrated with the waiting, I turned around and started talking to an older lady waiting near me. Politely, in the middle of the conversation, she asked me if I had cerebral palsy. Stunned, I told her yes; and asked her how she’d been able to pinpoint it so astutely. She explained that she had family members and friends who also had the disability. I proceeded to tell her, a little cautiously, how anxious I was about finding work now that I was out, how nervous I was about my job prospects as a disabled Black woman. Whatever comfort she had offered previously immediately evaporated. “Oh, honey,” she said, “you’re not disabled. You may need to work harder than other people, but you’re not disabled.” That she had named my specific disability and then stripped me of my disabled identity in almost the same breath was disheartening, but that was only amplified by the thought that stuck in my head was: Work harder. Just work harder.
Now compare that to what one individual decided to tweet: “Chadwick was diagnosed with colon cancer 4 years ago and in that time he delivered 7 movies with impeccable acting…… what excuse do you have for being an underachiever? This should get you to make a change!”
While these are perhaps the most extreme examples of this ableist rhetoric, they provide a sort of Rosetta Stone for the language that has permeated an army of tweets mourning Boseman.
Disabled people shouldn’t be made to suffer in silence, we shouldn’t have to worry about if we’re too disabled or sick to work, but as it stands, most non-disabled people don’t care about disabled people. Disabled and chronically ill people are constantly told we need to try harder, even if it’s putting us in physical pain or damaging to our psyches. On top of that, we are told we must suffer in silence, and when we die that silence is deemed noble: we’ve done great things for our able-bodied compatriots without alerting them to our suffering, which—in life—they would see as bothersome.
We are valid not because of what we accomplish, but because of how hard we work to accomplish whatever we do in spite of our disabilities. We are told to work harder and harder, because that is what it takes, in the eyes of the abled; and if we fail to meet the standard of the “heroic disabled person” we are lazy, deemed unwilling to do what needs to be done. It is only by going above and beyond and above that beyond, that we can escape uselessness in the eyes of those who couldn’t even pretend to know. We must not only be superheroes but also achieve superheroics in order to reach an escape velocity that finally lets others see as us bare-minimum people.
After countless tributes to Chadwick Boseman, it’s clear how much his own superheroics both on and off the screen—meant to so many. Whether rewatching videos that show classrooms of Black children dancing upon hearing that they’ll all be going to see Black Panther, or heartfelt comments from Boseman himself about meeting with fans and supporters, the man who would be seen as T’Challa, James Brown, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, and so many more embodied an inescapable strength and joy and compassion all his own.
That so many of his appearances and quotes are recontextualized in light of our new knowledge about his battle with colon cancer is inevitable, but we must not let that fact turn him into an avatar solely of his illness. His presence, talent, and warmth were valuable and beautiful all on their own. His legacy shouldn’t be that of an artist and a loving participant in the world, worthy of praise solely because he was sick. What made him remarkable was a remarkability all his own, that existed and thrived far beyond the disabling effects of the cancer that ultimately took his life. The disability was a part of him, but it was far from the only part. It’s an element of the loss we feel when we think about how Chadwick Boseman moved us, but it’s not the only thing we should talk about when we talk about his incredible work.
Mourning provides us with choices—both personal and cultural. In our grief, which so often makes us feel impotent, we are given the opportunity to decide how and why we lament the loss of someone who meant so much. How we mourn, however, also dictates how many will discuss the deceased for years—even decades—to come; and, so, our choice also denotes a responsibility.
That responsibility is especially sharp for someone like Chadwick Boseman: a Black man whose death has been ensconced in narratives about chronic illness and thus disability. As with any eulogy we would deliver, we must contemplate and shoulder our responsibility and perspective carefully.
I have no desire to make Chadwick Boseman’s passing about me, nor do I think that any of the other many Black disabled and chronically ill people calling out ableist language in tributes to him and his work wish to recenter the mourning around them as individuals. However, as we try to find a way to discuss and honor an incredible actor who suffered in silence—who was made to suffer in silence—as he strove to empower so many, we have a responsibility to be cautious and cognizant with regards to the language we use.
As we celebrate Chadwick Boseman’s legacy and impact—the way that his work let so many feel as though the world saw them and cared about them—it would do a great disservice to erase the nature of his pain and his passing. Too often it feels like the disabled and the chronically ill—especially Black disabled and Black chronically ill people—are only valuable when they suffer for the benefit of others, when they bear Sisyphean struggle and come out smiling. Every one of us is forced to be Phidippides: running and running to tell stories of war and victory until we ultimately collapse under the weight of our task, celebrated only for our undertakings, apart from who we were.
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Chadwick Boseman suffered a great deal. He also created incredible art that will stand the test of time, that has empowered so many to travel through that time and through their own tests to make a mark that will do the same for a million others, years from now. But his legacy cannot be hallowed or celebrated simply because of the romanticization of his illness or his refusal to give in to it.
Yes, he did not yield. But he deserved a world that would’ve let him yield. He deserved a world that would’ve loved him if he did.
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