The devastating news of Chadwick Boseman’s death has been sitting heavily with me. He died of colon cancer at his home last week, surrounded by his wife and family. He was 43. The same age as my husband.
Although I loved his on-screen portrayals of the Black Panther and Jackie Robinson, my favorite performance of his remains the turn he did on Saturday Night Live in character as King T’Challa playing Black Jeopardy. His commitment to his character and comedic timing were brilliant.
The announcement posted to his personal Twitter account indicated that he had been diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer about four years ago. In the intervening time, without announcing his illness, he made 10 movies. Those films included Marshall, 42, Da 5 Bloodz, Black Panther, and three other MCU pictures in his role as the Black Panther. The realization that he had not only made these movies, but also done all of the attendant publicity and personal appearances, while continuing his philanthropic work while undergoing cancer treatment astonished people.
Many fans took to Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to celebrate his life and reflect on the tremendous work he did both in the entertainment industry and as a humanitarian. Some of the responses emphasized the extent to which he overcame the hardship of his chronic, and ultimately fatal, condition to do so many things. Aside from the physical and mental toll of living with and through a cancer diagnosis, he also had numerous surgeries and chemotherapy treatments over the course of his illness. He continued working through them. There is no question that it took tremendous effort for him to live his life as he did during that time.
Unfortunately, another narrative emerged among the tributes. Essentially, there were some people saying, “He did all of this with cancer. What’s your excuse?” This perspective marginalizes people with disabilities and chronic conditions. Similar to the suggestion that all people living with disabilities and chronic conditions are heroes (we aren’t), it promotes the idea that our experience should be someone else’s motivation.
There were also responses from people who felt that he had an obligation to disclose his condition so he could be an inspiration for others and also raise awareness of the disease. He didn’t have any obligation to do that. No one living with a long-term disease owes anything about their diagnosis or their experience to anyone. Moreover, regardless of what they say they will do, people treat you differently after you reveal a disabling condition.
As someone who lives with a chronic condition, Major Depressive Disorder, I choose to be open about it knowing that there is a stigma and that my transparency will fundamentally alter the way certain people think of and interact with me. I’m not strong because of my condition. I have accomplished many things while living with depression but that does not make me a barometer for anyone else’s success nor am I inspiration porn. I am a person doing the best I can based on my circumstances. I admire Chadwick Boseman for making the decisions that best served him in his life and death.
May he rest in power. Wakanda Forever.