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Remembering Chadwick Boseman: Ibram X. Kendi on Legacy of “Black Panther” Actor, Cancer & Antiracism

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Image Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Tributes continue to pour in for beloved actor Chadwick Boseman after his death at age 43 following a private four-year battle with colon cancer. Boseman is best known for his iconic role as King T’Challa in the groundbreaking “Black Panther” — the first mainstream Black superhero movie and a smash hit that earned more than $1 billion at the box office. He is also widely acclaimed for his portrayal of major historical figures such as Thurgood Marshall, James Brown and Jackie Robinson. Boseman’s death has highlighted the higher rates of colon cancer among Black men and the links to systemic racism. “Cancer, like heart disease, there’s all sorts of racial disparities, just as there are with COVID-19 deaths,” says professor Ibram X. Kendi, cancer survivor and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. “What is happening in our society that is causing so much Black death? Why is Black death so normal?”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Chadwick Boseman, the world-renowned actor, known best for his groundbreaking role in the 2018 blockbuster hit Black Panther, died on Friday at the age of 43 after a private four-year battle with colon cancer. News of his passing shocked the public and sparked a wave of tributes to the man who played Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to play Major League Baseball; Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court; and, of course, superhero King T’Challa – all while being treated for cancer.

A statement shared on Chadwick Boseman’s Twitter said, quote, “A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much. From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy. It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther.” Twitter announced the post was the, quote, “Most liked Tweet ever. A tribute fit for a King. #WakandaForever.”

Black Panther is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, earning more than $1.3 billion around the world. It’s been called a defining moment for Black America as the first superhero movie with a majority Black cast and an African lead character. This is a clip from the trailer of Black Panther.

ULYSSES KLAUE: [played by Andy Serkis] Tell me something. What do you know about Wakanda?

EVERETT K. ROSS: [played by Martin Freeman] It’s a Third World country — textiles, shepherds, cool outfits.

ULYSSES KLAUE: All a front. Explorers have searched for it, called it El Dorado. They looked for it in South America. But it was in Africa the whole time. I’m the only one who’s seen it and made it out alive. Dude, I can see you!

W’KABI: [played by Daniel Kaluuya] The world is changing. Soon, there will only be the conquered and the conquerors. You are a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of the trailer for Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman. In 2018, Boseman returned to his alma mater, the historically Black college Howard University, to give the 2018 commencement address.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa. But what do you do when the principles and standards that were instilled in you here at Howard close the doors in front of you? Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it.

AMY GOODMAN: Boseman spoke as he was fighting for his life. Very few people knew this at the time. According to the American Cancer Society, rates of colon cancer are higher among Black people, who are 40% more likely to die from the disease due to later diagnosis and systemic racism.

For more, we go to Boston, Massachusetts, where we’re joined by the antiracist scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who himself has battled colon cancer and on Friday celebrated two years of being cancer-free. He tweeted Friday, the anniversary of his operation for cancer, quote, “I see August 28th as my second birthday.” Ibram X. Kendi is founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research, contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of many books, including Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, How to Be an Antiracist and, most recently, the children’s book Antiracist Baby.

Dr. Kendi, welcome back to Democracy Now! On Friday, I was so thrilled to see your tweet. I mean, this was the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, which, by the way, that date was chosen because, back in 1955, it was the day Emmett Till was killed. But I was so thrilled to see you talking about this amazing moment for yourself, two years ago. Talk about what happened, and then, the end of that night, learning the news about Chadwick Boseman.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah. I mean, August 28th is always going to be a second birthday for me. Two years ago, I went under the knife, literally, all day long, not knowing, like many people who have stage IV colon cancer or other forms of cancer, whether that surgery would begin the beginning of my survival or whether they would find something that they didn’t expect. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But fortunately, the surgery was successful. Fortunately, the surgeons did not actually see any more cancer. Fortunately, the pathologist, when they took out — I should say, when they studied what the surgeons took out, they didn’t see any cancer cells. And so it was really the beginning of my survival.

And so, I went to bed early, as I normally do. And I woke up in the middle of the night to the news that Chadwick had passed. And at first I thought it was a nightmare. I mean, you know, like many people, I was shocked. And then, of course, I came to see that it was real. And then I saw that he died of colon cancer. And my first thought was “Why him? You know, why not me?” And it was really — I mean, it was crushing. It was crushing because of how much he had given the world, how much I adored him. It was crushing because I know how beloved he was and still is. And it still is crushing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibram, can you talk about the racial disparities in healthcare, well known by many for so long in this country, but particularly focused on now as a result of the pandemic, the number of African Americans, followed by Latinx people, the percentages so disproportionate to population in the United States who die of COVID, not to mention cancer? You write in How to Be an Antiracist, “In the United States, African Americans are 25 percent more likely to die of cancer than Whites. My father survived prostate cancer, which kills twice as many Black men as it does White men. Breast cancer disproportionately kills Black women.” If you can talk further about this?

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, yeah, I’ve had stage IV colon cancer. My wife has had breast cancer. My mother has had cancer. My father has had cancer. My grandfather died of cancer. I have an uncle who died of cancer. And cancer, like heart disease, there’s all sorts of racial disparities, just as there are with COVID-19 deaths. And we literally have, and have had for quite some time, people dying quietly, really an epidemic of death, as a result of racial health disparities.

And then we have an epidemic of people blaming those people, blaming those Black people, blaming those Brown people, for dying at higher rates, as opposed to thinking about our system, as opposed to thinking about what policies can we change, as opposed to thinking about why is it that Black people, Black men in particular, die at higher rates from colon cancer because we’re more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage. What is happening in our society that is causing so much Black death? Why is Black death so normal? How can people allow Black people to continue to die of police violence, die of cancer, day in and day out, year in and year out, and not be outraged?

And that’s why so many people are outraged and demonstrating on the streets and have been demonstrating for months. And they’ll be demonstrating for years, until this country takes Black life seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go, before we talk about what’s happening in Kenosha, the police shooting of Jacob Blake, what’s happening in Portland, what’s happening throughout this country, the issue of white supremacy and President Trump — I want to go to the significance of Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther and what Black Panther meant for so many, not only in this country, but around the world.

IBRAM X. KENDI: I don’t even know if I can even — as you know, Amy, I don’t even know if it can even be described in words what Black Panther meant, what T’Challa meant, what many of those incredible characters meant, what Wakanda meant, what Wakanda still means to Black people, and particularly those of us who are really striving to be antiracist, those of us who are knowledgeable about precolonial West African empires, those of us who know that the reason why there’s so much poverty, for instance, in Africa is not because there’s something wrong with African people, that if not for colonialism, if not for the slave trade, there may be a Wakanda.

And I think that Black people, I think, in the United States and all over the world, for them to see themselves in greatness and in excellence, for them to see themselves affirmed, you know, I think was just incredible. And I remember seeing Black Panther when I was going through chemotherapy. I had been diagnosed weeks before the film came out. And like other Black people who went to see the film and just as non-Black people, it gave me the ability to really step outside of myself, step outside of my world and imagine what’s possible. And there’s nothing more radical and critical to transforming the world than a radical imagination, of thinking about what is possible. And I think Black Panther gave that to so many people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another clip from Black Panther. Princess Shuri is the little sister of King T’Challa, the king of Wakanda. She’s also the chief technology officer responsible for creating much of Wakanda’s tech innovations. In this scene, she’s driving a car remotely from Wakanda that Black Panther is riding in South Korea as he’s being chased.

T’CHALLA: [played by Chadwick Boseman] Shuri!

SHURI: [played by Letitia Wright] Yes! Yes! Yes!

COMPUTER: Remote driving system activated.

SHURI: Wait. Which side of the road is it?

T’CHALLA: For Bast’s sake, just drive!

SHURI: OK, calm down. Woo! Let’s go! Hey, look at your suit. You’ve been taking bullets, charging it up with kinetic energy.

T’CHALLA: Pull around the truck.

DRIVER: Where’d he go?

SHURI: Show-off.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Princess Shuri. And if you can talk also about the role of women in Black Panther — she’s the chief technology officer — and also the idea of not using any resources, natural resources, in, of course, the great film director Ryan Coogler’s film, for war, like their vibranium, the idea of what a country would look like if they did not pour their money into weapons?

IBRAM X. KENDI: So, yeah. I mean, as a father, as a girl dad, the portrayal of women in Black Panther is almost certainly what I admired the most, from the chief technology officer to even the baddest person on the film, who to me was the general, and so — who was my favorite character and certainly my wife’s favorite character.

But then, also, I just want to again emphasize that this is possible. We currently have a tech industry where women, and particularly women of color, are far and away underrepresented or imagine that it’s not their place or imagine that they don’t have the intellectual capacity. And these are all sexist and racist lies. And women, and particularly women of color, can be the chief technology officer of the baddest place, I should say, the most technologically advanced sort of companies or places on Earth. That’s possible, if we can create that type of sort of society.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it is astounding that Chadwick Boseman did not only Black Panther, and Ryan Coogler wrote about this in his post this weekend, saying he himself, the director of Black Panther, did not know about Chad’s personal battle with colon cancer. He wrote a moving tribute to Chadwick Boseman after his passing. In it, he writes, “Chad was an anomaly. He was calm. Assured. Constantly studying. But also kind, comforting, had the warmest laugh in the world, and eyes that seen much beyond his years, but could still sparkle like a child seeing something for the first time. It is with a heavy heart and a sense of deep gratitude to have ever been in his presence, that I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.” The words of Ryan Coogler. Now, in the film Black Panther, they actually speak Xhosa, the South African language. And your middle name, Professor Ibram X. Kendi, is Xhosa. Is that right?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes, Xolani. Yes. And I’m actually — I’m at the same time shocked that Chadwick was able to still continue his craft, particularly because it’s so physically demanding on the body. But at the same time, you know, I’m not shocked. And I know that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of writing How to Be an Antiracist, and all I can think of was I wanted to do this before I died. I wanted to leave this legacy. I wanted to leave this critically important book for people. And so I was really thinking about ensuring that I finish this before I passed away.

And I wonder if that’s what he was thinking, too, that he wanted to give as much as he could to the world because he knew his time was short. And it did not matter how uncomfortable it was. It didn’t matter how hard it was. It didn’t matter how painful it was to get out of bed. You know, he was thinking about what he wanted to provide for the world. And it really just shows me his level of courage. It shows me his level of commitment. And it really shows me how much he loved humanity that he gave so much to us during his last few years.

AMY GOODMAN: L.A. Lakers star LeBron James paid tribute to Chadwick Boseman before the Lakers’ playoff game against the Portland Trailblazers by taking a knee during the national anthem and crossing his arms across his chest to give the “Wakanda forever” salute. This is LeBron James speaking Sunday about Chadwick Boseman.

LEBRON JAMES: We’re already limited in the sense that, you know, given that type of power, that type of stage that he had, and especially in that industry, you don’t see many Black male and female actors being able to put on that stage, and for him to be as transcendent as he was. … But then you add on the fact that growing up as a Black kid, you had superheroes that you looked up to, but they weren’t Black. You know, you had Batman, you had Superman, you had Spider-Man, and so on and so on. And for Ryan Coogler and for that cast, and for him himself to be able to make Black Panther, that even though we knew it was like a fictional story, it actually felt real. It actually felt like we finally had our Black superhero, and nobody can touch us.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s LeBron James. I also went to add, of course — if you could talk about Wakanda being a country, what an African country looks like that’s not colonized?

IBRAM X. KENDI: And it’s fascinating, because that is possible. And certainly, before colonization, some of the greatest and most powerful and wealthiest and most technologically and intellectually advanced empires in the world were in Africa, you know, from Ghana, Mali and Songhai. I remember over the weekend when, I think it was, Forbes magazine stated that Jeff Bezos was the richest men that ever lived, and a lot of people corrected them and said, “No, actually, Mansa Musa, who was the king of Mali, was reportedly even wealthier than Jeff Bezos.” But indeed, Mansa Musa gave away a lot of his wealth. He actually traveled on this massive pilgrimage to Egypt, and he gave away so much gold in Egypt, he literally destroyed the economy.

But people don’t know these stories. Right? We’re not taught about precolonial West Africa. We’re not even taught about Africa today. You know, I remember going to Africa for the first time and people asking me the weirdest questions about Africa. And it just goes to show me how little we’re taught about Africa and how much we’re taught about Europe. And either we’re a multicultural nation with people who come from Africa and Latin America and Asia and Europe, and we’re going to really teach our children and teach our adults about all these different places, just as we’re teaching them about Native American history and culture, or we’re are going to focus on Europe. And I don’t think we should focus on Europe, because that’s a demonstration, to me, of racism.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about Jackie Robinson and the film 42. Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day Friday, August 28th. It was on that day in 1945, before the March on Washington, on August 28th, 1963, before Emmett Till was murdered August 28th, 1955, that the baseball executive Branch Rickey met with Jackie Robinson and signed him to a contract with the minor leagues. Two years later, he would become the first Black player in Major League Baseball, where he wore jersey number 42. That’s why in the midst of the protests this week for Jacob Blake, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins stood for 42 seconds on the field Thursday, then left without playing the game, leaving behind one Black Lives Matter T-shirt on home plate. Well, Chadwick Boseman passed away on August 28th, the day Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson, the legend that Boseman played in his breakout role in the 2013 film 42. This is a clip.

JACKIE ROBINSON: [played by Chadwick Boseman] Give me a uniform, give me a number on my back, and I’ll give you the guts.

I’m just a ball player.

MR. BROCK: [played by James Pickens Jr.] You’re a hero.

BEN CHAPMAN: [played by Alan Tudyk] Why don’t you look in the mirror? This is a white man’s game.

JACKIE ROBINSON: I’m not going anywhere! I’m right here!

PEE WEE REESE: [played by Lucas Black] Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42.

AMY GOODMAN: And everyone should watch Chadwick Boseman in 42. Before we take on James Brown, and then we’re going to talk about what’s happening in this country — of course, it’s all related. The history is integral to what’s happening now. The role of major league athletes, from the WNBA, the women’s basketball league, to the NBA, to football players to, what, the baseball league, MLB, which is now down to 10% African American, still, across the board, recognizing that they have to speak up. Their significance this week and beyond, Professor Kendi?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I mean, to compare this to Chadwick and even Jackie Robinson and even T’Challa, for many people, particularly many young people, they see professional athletes, men and women, as superheroes, as heroes, as their heroes. And so, to see those heroes, to see those superheroes demonstrate against racism, speak out against police brutality, decide that, “No, we’re human, too; we’re in pain, too; we’re suffering, too; we’re outraged, too; and we want justice, too. So we can’t play tonight. We can’t play today,” I think, was just galvanizing for so many people and affirming for so many people.

AMY GOODMAN: Now I wanted to go to the 2014 film Get On Up in which Chadwick Boseman plays James Brown, known as the Godfather of Soul.

JAMES BROWN: [played by Chadwick Boseman] I got you! When I hit that stage, you people better be ready, especially the white folk. Hit it!

BOBBY BYRD: [played by Nelsan Ellis] Every man in this band walk taller because they’re with James Brown.

JAMES BROWN: Are we done, Mr. Byrd?

BOBBY BYRD: I’m afraid not, Mr. Brown.

JAMES BROWN: I said, “Are we done?”

BOBBY BYRD: I think we got more funk in the trunk.

Open up your ears. The man’s a genius.

AMY GOODMAN: James Brown. Ibram Kendi?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I mean, I, of course, came to know Chadwick’s work through his portrayal of Jackie Robinson, but I actually really loved his portrayal of James Brown. And I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a student of the Black Power movement, or I don’t know whether it’s because James Brown was such a fascinating, complex sort of historical character, or whether that James Brown and particularly his song “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” was in many ways as galvanizing for Black people and as beloved by Black people who loved themselves as Black Panther. But there was something about that film.

And I just think it’s critically important for people to not sort of make it seem as if Chadwick only did Black Panther, because he was incredible in several other films. And more importantly, he played these incredible sort of characters and these complex characters and these Black men, in particular, who triumphed over so much adversity during extremely difficult times. And so, I can then see how he personally could triumph over his cancer to be able to play those final roles.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to what’s happening today. Of course, Chadwick Boseman also played Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice. We’re speaking with Ibram X. Kendi, the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities at Boston University, BU, the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. This is Democracy Now! President Trump promises to go to Kenosha, Wisconsin, tomorrow. The governor, the lieutenant governor are pleading with him not to come. Stay with us.

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White Supremacist in the White House: Ibram X. Kendi on Trump’s Calls for “Law & Order” in Kenosha

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