Chadwick Boseman: Mourning an HBCU Superhero

Most students and graduates of historically black colleges and universities hope that their lives and training cast them in the mold of a larger-than-life figure who represents the best of their race. Chadwick Boseman did that.

An elite few of those graduates hope that their work transcends society and industry, to create projects and moments where the far reaches of human hope seem a little more possible to touch. Chadwick Boseman did that.

He died yesterday at the age of 43, succumbing to colon cancer after a years-long, intensely private battle with the disease which he won while simultaneously appearing in some of the most prized work of his career. Boseman was at the top of the speed dial for casting some of the nation’s great black artists in sports, civil rights, and entertainment, but is best known as the king of a country that lives within every descendant of the African Diaspora.

Others who knew him and loved him best, who worked with him and who served with him in his philanthropy, outreach and role modeling will do a far better job of eulogizing the man. I have the humble obligation with reflecting on the symbolism of Boseman, who departs with a world of work to be imagined but also having played a role to sublime perfection in benefit of the HBCU community.

I waited for Howard University to release its official statement on the loss of its son. Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick, who always captures reflective moments like these with a glorious pitch of executive humanity, said this in part in his tribute to Boseman.

Although he was only 43, Boseman leaves to us a remarkable body of work portraying Black men of honor, purpose and dignity: Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall (Law ’33), and James Brown. This young man’s incredible talent will forever be immortalized in those performances and through his own personal journey from student to superhero!

Love is Life and he had an abundance of both. Boseman reminds us that the quality of life is not measured in time, but rather it is measured in how well we live it and what we prioritized. He prioritized his wife, his family, his friends, his craft, and loving others. The characters he portrayed will be celebrated but his greatest gift to us was himself.

His greatest gift to the HBCU community is equal parts talent and timing. Boseman was among the rush of more than 300,000 black students who in the late 1990’s through the early 2000’s matriculated into HBCUs as a beautiful mix of high-achievement and untapped potential.

Boseman and his classmates at Howard and HBCUs around the country were at the beginning of the last great decade for HBCUs, motivated by parents who encouraged them to consider black colleges as a primary higher education option. They were pushed by pop-cultural symbols like ‘A Different World,’ which gave Black students social cache for attending HBCUs, and rewarded them with unique and affirming student life experiences and professional networking which is just beginning to explode for graduates of that 10-year period.

But they were the beginning of the end. Following Boseman’s graduation, predominantly white institutions became more aggressive about recruiting Black students. Another Black superhero of ours presided over policy-making that bled HBCU enrollment from a historic high of more than 326,000 students in 2010 to just over 291,000 students in 2018.

Unbeknownst to him or anyone else, in the handful of years following his graduation from Howard, Black confidence in HBCUs would plummet. Institutions would close, leadership would be in turmoil, and political systems at federal and state levels would actively work to marginalize Black colleges.

So in truly realizing our loss in Boseman’s death, it is much more for the HBCU community than a tremendous actor who played several once-in-a-lifetime roles to glorify the Black experience; he is among the best examples of a cohort of HBCU students and graduates who knew the HBCU in its most glorious form; a premier destination for talent, sculptor of character, cultivator of dreams, and shaper of destinies for Black people around the world.

The sheer numbers suggest that there are fewer Chadwick Bosemans now enrolled at HBCUs. In the coming years, it will be statistically harder to find another Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Randall Woodfin, Michael Strahan, Anthony Anderson, and others who can show millions of others that there are no small dreams and that impossible heights are possible to find and climb when we start at our institutions within our communities.

Right now, only one out of every 10 Black college students in America is enrolled in an HBCU — that’s a 10% chance that any Black luminary who can corner any part of a global platform will promote HBCUs as a key strand in the DNA of their success.

Boseman was more than an example or someone who we could simply claim as ours. We, the HBCU community, belonged to him. He claimed us. He came home. He promoted all of us, and he shared how proud he was of his HBCU lineage and the role it played in him living the life of his dreams.

He loved us dearly. And in a year where we as a people feel more unloved than we have in a long time, we’ve lost another one — a real-life superhero — whom God dispatched as an agent to convince others of what they are missing in hating us.