By Bryon L. Garner | Guest Commentator
I grew up in Gary, Indiana. Back in the 1970s, it was a bustling city and the foundation of Black middle-class life in northwest Indiana. When I think about Gary at that time, I think about the smells – the city was filled with a wide range of pungent, burning, chemical-like odors that blanketed my everyday existence. We lived on 7th and Vermont streets then which were closer to the US Steel plant. I could walk out from the front of our house and look north a few blocks to see the smoke spewing from the towers. Often the sky was hazy and gray. My mother used to tell me when she hung the freshly washed clothes on the clothesline to dry, she would have to hurry to bring the clothes in before too long, or else our laundry would have silver specks embedded in them. Gary — this hazy, smelly, industrial city of my youth in the 1970s — was a city inhabited by men who relocated there to carve out their share of the American Dream, to claim their stake of middle-class life. So much of the dynamic between fathers and sons is about monument building, especially at that time in Gary. My father was laid off in 1979. By 1981, many fathers had lost their jobs in the steel mills and other factories throughout northwest Indiana. Men who otherwise were able to take care of their homes and their families were now underemployed if employed at all. In order to survive the economic calamity overtaking, these men were working at McDonald’s and taking on paper routes, the jobs we kids traditionally filled. No longer foremen or machinists, steelworkers, or other tradesmen, or other tradesmen, football and basketball were spaces for them to exercise their power, prowess, and bravado; playing contact sports gave them bragging rights at church on Sunday or the following Monday morning at work in this. Sons were the monuments for their fathers’ lives. In this old framework, so many men have lived an enduring conflict in trying to define themselves within the narrow lanes afford us by socio-normative structures.
I sucked at sports, not for lack of trying and not for lack of passion. Athletics just weren’t my best suit. My space was less celebrated – at least, in the eyes of my father and many of my contemporaries growing up. I was then, and I remain, an empathetic intellectual who delves into my own humanity to connect with others. Humanity is what is key particularly in a society which fetishizes Black male bodies – in fact, all Black bodies. But in the space of Black masculinity, 21st century America viscerally responds to the image and existence of Black males. This year both Kobe Bryant and, now, Chadwick Boseman have joined our ancestors after living courageously for an all too abrupt period of time. By all accounts, Chadwick lived fully leaving behind a legacy of quiet courage in the face of a cancer diagnosis while steadfastly dedicated to portraying iconic roles as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and “Stormin” Norman Earl Holloway in Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods. While most people, rightfully, celebrate him as T’Challa in Black Panther, it was in Da Five Bloods that Chadwick’s unique blend of leadership, wisdom, strength, and courage that resonated with me. Stormin Norman didn’t hold a machine gun and kill an impossible amount of the enemy. He didn’t run the fastest or the longest. He didn’t get all the pretty girls. He lived the war experience through the lens of a Black serviceman fighting asymmetrically to maintain his humanity in the chaos of war and a racialized existence within the US military. So much of Black masculinity is measured within the context of what I call a Soldier-Athlete archetype – a white frame of reference for American masculine identity; Chadwick succeeded in breaking down this archetype to bring forth an alternate perspective.
In Black Feminist Epistemology, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins argues paradigms “encompass interpretive frameworks such as intersectionality that are used to explain social phenomena.” Dr. Collins asserts the experiential nature of existence – which, for African American women, includes a “convergence of factors” which define a unique perspective on knowledge and wisdom. Methods and manner of discourse interacting with a canon of beliefs defined by connectedness challenges objective knowledge validating methods within traditional epistemic systems. Dr. Collins asserts as a result of the unique experiences of African American women within society and the strategies used to develop and reinforce the distinction between knowledge and wisdom, they can now be seen as agents of knowledge. So, the perspective of applied wisdom through lived experiences is how I analyze Chadwick Boseman and his treatment of roles as well as his personal perspective of life. I am careful, however, to not mythologize him – which would carelessly unhinge fact from the truth of his humanity – but to celebrate him for his enduring impact and to embrace the legacy of what he leaves behind. Black masculinity is not to remain this fetishized space which caricaturizes us. The understructure of this thinking is at the foundation of law enforcement contact with Black males. We are not seen as human; we are seen as threats, angry, undisciplined, ignorant, and unwanted occupants of American society. That is, until we are celebrated in sports and then it is a precarious citizenship.
This kid from Gary, Indiana — a city long that time has forgotten — who sucked at sports but has lived his life bravely in the face of everyday battles with major depression celebrates Chadwick Boseman’s humanity. I celebrate the unique qualities he infused in his characters. I especially celebrate his courage in the face of the most existential battle we all face because I have faced it as well. Face with death, he lived, but he lived boldly and with quiet humanity and courage. I consider his life and legacy among the platinum standard of Black masculinity.