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‘We lost a piece of our culture’: Black Baltimoreans and Marylanders reflect on passing of actor Chadwick Boseman

The late Chadwick Boseman didn’t have any obvious personal connections to Baltimore. But that doesn’t mean that his presence wasn’t immensely felt by people and institutions in this city and state, as well as across the world.

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“From Baltimore to Wakanda with love. #RestInPower #RepresentationMatters,” read a tweet from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

The Lewis Museum’s tweet underscored a point that several cultural commentators also made to The Baltimore Sun: Boseman’s accomplishments were especially meaningful to Black communities. He was distinguished in his performances as major Black political and cultural figures, including baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson in “42,” funk music pioneer James Brown in “Get On Up” and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice (and Baltimore native) Thurgood Marshall as a younger attorney in “Marshall.”

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Boseman also notably starred as the title character, also known as the monarch T’Challa, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe hit “Black Panther.” The 2018 film grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide, broke various box office records, earned seven Academy Award nominations and disproved entertainment industry notions that films with Black casts and directors can’t be box office smashes.

“If not for the work that Chadwick Boseman did with T’Challa, there’s a lot of things that would not have changed,” said journalist and Bowie resident Jesse J. Holland, the author of “Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?” and professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. He also currently teaches in Goucher College’s MFA in Nonfiction program.

“We might still be talking about a glass ceiling for Black directors, writers, actors in Hollywood,” added Holland, a former Associated Press reporter who once interviewed Boseman. “We might still be wondering whether a billion dollar franchise can be led by an African American actor. We might still be wondering if there can be Black superheroes who would be popular outside of the African American community...we now know the answer to all those questions.”

For Baltimore-area resident April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite viral campaign to call attention to race issues in Hollywood, Boseman’s death represented the loss of a superhero in which Black children and adults could finally be reflected onscreen.

“We didn’t just lose an amazing human being, we lost a piece of our culture,” she said. “And that’s what’s really sitting with me...he changed the lives of young kids and adults who could now see themselves as royalty, as action heroes, as aspirational figures in ways that they may not have been able to before.”

Reign met Boseman on several occasions and remembered him fondly. “He was just such a humble and genuine and generous and kind person,” she said. The news of his passing brought her to tears.

Others, like activist and writer DeRay Mckesson, remembered Boseman as similarly warm and genuine. He commemorated Boseman’s passing by posting a photo of them together on his Instagram with a caption reading, “Chadwick, you are an inspiration and I will never forget your kindness, your brilliance, and your commitment to our people. Rest well King.”

“He was really kind, he was curious, he loved Black people,” McKesson said. “He understood his contribution to the fight around the importance of the Black community, and injustice. He was just a kind soul.”

The cultural impact of “Black Panther” was particularly felt in Baltimore, a predominantly Black city where the film inspired educators and philanthropists alike to show Black children the expansive boundaries of their imaginations.

Baltimorean performance artist and production consultant Alanah Nichole acknowledged the importance of what he gave as an artist, even while dealing with cancer without much of the world knowing.

“I don’t know him personally, but the spirit of it resonates with me, that he was going through so much but was still able to give his community and the world so much in his art,” she said.

According to Holland, Boseman gave back in other notable ways, paying forward generosity from which he benefited (for instance, receiving support from fellow actor Denzel Washington for a collegiate acting program).

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“Chadwick Boseman also gave back to young, struggling Black creatives, and was a huge advocate for historically Black colleges and universities,” Holland said. “He graduated from Howard, and he always, always talked about what Howard did for him and what HBCUs do for the African American community in that sense.

“His legacy will not only be playing iconic characters — like Jackie Robinson, like James Brown, like Thurgood Marshall, like the Black Panther — his legacy will also be of a person who gave back and helped other people rise just as he did.”

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