The original version of this article was published by Jon Corbin on August 30, 2020. With the permission of the author, we share this piece as a guest column here on Faith Strong Today. To hear more from Jon Corbin, check out his episode of Between the Grooves discussing Grief and Anti-Racism.
The day after Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest passed away, I stepped into my classroom and did what I usually do to commemorate the loss of a prominent figure. I wrote on the whiteboard, in small but discernible handwriting, “Thank you Phife Dawg.” This tiny first step in my grieving process is a reflection of my approach to death and life.
The Portland-based emcee Braille has a song about grief called “Broken Heart.” Braille skillfully conveys a deep love for his deceased father in a very moving manner. After being joined by the group Strange Fruit Project, Braille concludes the song with a spoken line that has been extremely formative for me:
“We say it so many times, rest in peace. With the time we got left, we’re going to live in peace. (We will) Honour those who went before us, and honour The God Who blesses us with life and love. Because when it’s all said and done, it’s all we have.”
This was a paradigm-shifting statement. While we mourn the loss of someone we love, cherish or admire, shifting our focus to the life we have ahead of us can strengthen our resolve to live it well.
In this regard, a question I often ask myself is: How, then, shall we live?
This is a season where North America is in mourning. Many on this continent are mourning the deaths of too many Black men and women for unjustifiable reasons. Many are lamenting about law enforcement and justice systems that are far from equitable. I acknowledge this deep pain, and then I ask myself, how, then, shall I live?
I ask myself the same question when a cultural hero dies. I think about Braille’s song as I watch people spill words and shed tears over public figures that mean so much to us. In the aftermath of these deep losses I quietly ask myself, “Is there a way for me to live in peace?” My answer does not circumvent the grieving process but instead drives me forward in hope.
In my reflections on these prominent figures, I think about their work and what it means to me. I spend time naming important memories and pondering what I’ve learned from them. Then, I ask myself, how can I infuse the best of their work into my life? How can I ingest the lessons I’ve learned and allowed them to shape my life going forward?
Maybe this connects me to the Black Panther drinking of the heart-shaped flower to find his powers. This thought sends me into my own ancestral plane, where I spend time in gratitude for the gifts these heroes have given us. It is there that I also re-consider the lessons from my ancestry — those whose lives I had previously celebrated. I sit still and reabsorb what I have learned from friends, family, and role models.
I leave this plane with the gratitude that I’m still alive, clutching onto sheer hope that I can use this strength to propel myself towards the work I’ve been put on earth to do.
I am immensely sad for the friends, fans, family, and community who mourn the loss of Chadwick Boseman. As a movie fan, I reflect on the excellent work that he’s done with gratitude, I eagerly await the work he completed that we have yet to enjoy, and I take a moment of sober pause to consider the work that is left undone.
I think many will remember the symbolic meaning of Chadwick’s role as Black Panther. Chadwick was a face that revealed too many Black boys and girls their dignity and self-worth. What I loved about Black Panther was that it was so clearly a celebration of culture and community — as opposed to the mere elevation of one solitary hero. T’Challa was acutely aware of his need for his father, his mother, his sister, and other strong women in his life.
The week of Chadwick’s death was marked by another high profile police shooting, prompting a historic protest from prominent athletes. Personally, my grief was accelerated by spending too much time “in the comments,” observing fierce and hurtful public debates. The division was too much for me to take. As North America laments the visible racial divisions in its society, T’Challa reminds us that “wise people build bridges, while foolish people build barriers.” This is a season where our need for connection is clear.
It was a friend who brought me the news of Chadwick’s death late Friday night. He reached out because he joined me on the opening weekend of Black Panther. He reminded me that I had organized a large gathering of friends (and their kids) to see the movie. I returned to the plane of gratitude, thankful for being able to help create a valuable memory for my community in seeing this excellent piece of art.
As we grieve it’s hard to fully embrace Braille’s exhortation to ‘live in peace.’ However, I believe his words can be the bright light of the ancestral plane, illuminating the path of our grieving. As we pursue healing, let us celebrate Chadwick’s work, let us tell stories, let us share the lessons we learned from his life. And let us do it together, in connection.
So, while it is still the summer season and my feet have yet to hit a classroom, please allow this space to be my virtual whiteboard.
For 42, Get On Up, and Draft Day. For the Denzel Washington story. For visiting kids in hospitals. For living a purpose-filled life in the face of cancer. For the public displays of grace and humility. For T’Challa on Saturday Night Live. For Black Panther.
Thank you Chadwick Boseman.