Chadwick Boseman and the Semiotics of Liberation

Chadwick Boseman (Budiey/Flickr).

The actor’s gift is to see themselves through the eyes of their audience, while maintaining an internal sense of sincerity that suspends our disbelief. It is a diligent craft, requiring a grace that evolves through every moment of a performance. Chadwick Boseman was a master of this authenticity. His voice and bearing gave us a sense of truth, despite the artifice of dramatic performance. As an intellect, he embodied his roles in ways that simultaneously honored his subjects, his collaborators, and his viewers, lifting us all to new heights of our humanity.

As Jackie Robinson, he emphasized the value of courage, not only in sports, but in life. As James Brown, he grounded a spirit of Black audacity, revealing the power of music to give voice to human dignity. As a young Thurgood Marshall, Boseman explored the unyielding commitment to justice, opening a cinematic window on the NAACP’s inexorable legal march towards equal justice. Courage, audacity, and justice became the hallmarks of his initial cinematic persona. Boseman’s intention was to elevate Black people through this singular purpose. Where Sydney Poitier established Black humanity for white audiences at the end of Jim Crow, Boseman asserted the standards of human excellence in the hearts of the people of the African diaspora. He showed the world who we are.

In classes taught about the semiotics of race and American media, students often play a game called “semiosis.” Taken from the concept of semiotics, the study of symbols, they chose sixteen objects and analyze their social power over the last century. The resulting discussions reveal telling patterns about the unconscious drives and impulses that shape American dreams and nightmares. Across the Anglophone world, scholars have fixated on three core semiotic systems over the last thousand years — Catholicism, Victorianism, and Arthurian legend. The Pope’s global, and enduring, influence still shapes perceptions of time, birth, growth, death, and afterlife. Queen Victoria represents the pinnacle of British civilization, the concept of an immutable empire based on industrial republicanism. Both of these traditions inform the legend of King Arthur, an origin of a humble society marked by mystic power to create peace and prosperity. These semiotic systems are the lynchpins of the white supremacy that evolved over the last five centuries. They were the symbols Chadwick Boseman challenged in his performances.

He built on a foundation that most Americans ignored or overlooked for two hundred years. The confluence of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism from Colonel Tye and Jarena Lee through Henry McNeal Turner, T. Thomas Fortune, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper provided the source material for Boseman’s lexicon. Tye and Lee represented the determination to dismantle systems of oppression wherever they occurred. Turner, Fortune, Terrell, and Cooper symbolized the transformation of imperial forces and institutions to the ends of global Black liberation.

What did this century of abolition and reconstruction yield? In the first decades of the twentieth century, the movement produced jazz – an improvisational musical form that reinvented both written and live performance. Its power transformed literature and religion through institutions dedicated to Negritude, Candomble, and Islam. The spirit of Black excellence manifested in two generations of the Harlem Hellfighters and the Tuskegee Airmen. Boseman’s time at Howard University immersed him in these traditions. These legacies shaped his purpose and intention as an artist.

His life’s work conjures images of the “Black Brain Belt.” It was a region in New Jersey, covering a dozen towns surrounding Fort Monmouth, where a thousand Black engineers, scientists, and technicians gathered to advance radio, television, and satellite communications technologies between 1945 and 1995. It was Wakanda – before the writers at Marvel Comics imagined such a place.

After Boseman’s performance as Jackie Robinson, the writers and producers at Marvel Studios recognized his unique ability to portray a character that combined the traditions of religious, regal, and military authority. Christopher Priest revolutionized the concept of T’Challa, the Black Panther, by arguing that he was not a ‘superhero’, but a head of state, carrying both religious and political responsibilities for his nation. Boseman read the transformation of this character and employed his commitment to the dignity of the African diaspora in his performance. Unlike the unbridled masculinity of Wolverine, Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Thor, or Captain America, the Black Panther’s identity was defined by his restraint. His power is limitless, but his wisdom prevails. Boseman showcased this principle in the film, leaving vast areas of creativity for Danai Gurira and the Dora Milaje, Letitia Wright and the Wakanda Design Group, and  Lupita N’Yongo and the Hatut Zeraze. His lexicon, as developed with Ryan Coogler, Joe Cole, and Nate Moore, generated a semiotics of liberation. In the second battle at Warrior Falls, where N’Jadaka shouts at the observers, “Is this your king?”, Boseman’s performance of T’Challa’s hesitation and inner conflict captures the character’s thoughtful restaint (and its vulnerabilities).

Later, in the final fight of the film, it is this same patient calculation that sets up the final blow, ending the Wakandan civil rebellion. These nuances and contradictions are hallmarks of the Black Speculative Arts Movement, led by John Jennings, Stacy Robinson, Ytasha Womack, and Reynaldo Anderson.

Across every imaginable digital platform, even into more traditional fields like economics and architecture, the commitments to the semiotics of liberation have placed Black excellence as the standard for future achievement.

In this way, Boseman’s line at the start of the final battle in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther holds true, “I never yielded, and as you can see, I am not dead.” Boseman’s purpose and intention were the elevation of Black excellence through his art. His eternal success made him the first Orisha of the Black Speculative Arts Movement. Invoking Eshu, Yemaya, and Shango, he showed us that we are never lost. Our return from our continuous travels, through death, birth, and life again, will never end.

— Selected Works —
  • Shawn Leigh Alexander, T. Thomas Fortune, The Afro-American Agitator
  • Reynaldo Anderson, Afrofuturism 2.0
  • Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason, eds., Cities Imagined
  • P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al, eds., Colored Conventions Project
  • David E. Goldberg and Walter Greason, eds., Industrial Segregation
  • Sheena Howard, The Encyclopedia of Black Comics
  • A. Kirsten Mullen and William Darity, From Here to Equality
  • Nell Irvin Painter, Creating Black Americans
  • Anthony Pratcher, II, and Walter Greason, eds., Planning Future Cities
  • William Sturkey, Hattiesburg
  • Keeanga Yahmatta Taylor, Race before Profit
  • Qiana Whitted, Race, Shock, and Social Protest
  • Bianca Wylie, et al, Some Thoughts
  • Ytasha Womack, Afrofuturism
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Walter Greason

Walter D. Greason is the Dean of the Honors School and an historian in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. He is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey (Rowman and Littlefield), which won the 2014 prize for Best Non-Fiction about New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @WorldProfessor.

Comments on “Chadwick Boseman and the Semiotics of Liberation

  • Dr. Walter Greason’s moving and thought-provoking tribute to Chadwick Boseman accurately enlightens us on why the late actor’s methodology to his craft embodied the spirit of Black excellence. Whether it was in his roles of Jackie, James, Thurgood, or T’Challa, Boseman carried a strong sense of dignity, a respect for the culture, and a responsibility to fight for freedom. In Panther, rather than portraying the status quo superhero, Boseman sincerely showed the world that a king, although he had ‘superpowers,’ could successfully lead with a thoughtful restraint, as Dr. Greason reminds us. Boseman’s influence will hopefully cause future actors, along with writers and directors, to continue to raise the bar in films. By consistently depicting Blacks in inspiring and dignifying roles, the lasting positive effects on society’s viewpoints will ultimately transcend to real life off the screen.

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