MEMPHIS, Tenn. — School has already started in this city, where I am teaching virtually until further notice. Before I even introduced myself to my students online, one asked me if I knew that the Black Panther had died. There is grief that King T’Challa is gone and never coming back.
My students would likely give the Wakanda salute a hundred times if they saw the actor Chadwick Boseman in person. He touched many Black children’s lives with what it means to be young, gifted and Black. He was their hero and role model. They will miss him and so will I.
Though Boseman performed many roles, from Jackie Robinson to Thurgood Marshall, I know my fourth-grade students will remember him best as the King of Wakanda. When “Black Panther” was first released in theaters, it felt like a movie shouting back at them that their lives and narratives mattered, too. “Black Panther” was a unique movie for my students because it demonstrated that Black people are more than just their pain and struggle.
As a result of Boseman’s untimely death, my morning meetings with students are centered around discussing current events and providing culturally affirming spaces to discuss what is on their minds.
I want them to know that the spirit of T’Challa can still exist. I expect to show them through virtual lessons, when appropriate, how mathematics can be used as a tool to understand, critique and challenge villainous social injustices in our world, like police brutality.
My students saw Black excellence on the screen that will impact how they view themselves for years to come.
The goal will be to develop self-worth and cultural competence. In addition, if I am able to teach in person safely, I plan to scale a middle school lesson down to fourth grade by crafting Black Panther holograms out of plexiglass as an end-of-year project.
My students could envision themselves in Wakanda as scientists, constructing and crafting innovative technology, just like Shuri, T’Challa’s sister. It’s not typical for my students to see a Black man on a big screen as a superhero. Only about 20 percent of the actors in the Marvel Universe are Black.
Already, my students and I have discussed characters that showcase their natural hair, language and culture without trying to imitate a Eurocentric norm. They saw Black characters saving the world from the antagonist, an act once reserved just for Captain America or Spiderman. They saw Black characters beyond being forcibly enslaved or enduring racial injustice.
They saw Black characters who were liberated to be themselves without pretense because of potential racist backlash. They saw Black characters in major starring roles, not as minor characters.
They saw themselves on the screen being young, gifted and Black, as Boseman expressed in his speech at the 2019 Screen Actors Guild Awards, when he proclaimed, “We know what it’s like to be told … there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on.”
To see Boseman and his castmates be fully human in “Black Panther” depicted a world that my students wanted to see — and did see. Boseman’s portrayal as King T’Challa gave them a sense of Black dignity. When my students see an overrepresentation of negative depictions of themselves in the media or little representation as the protagonist, those feelings of self-respect may waver.
King T’Challa revealed why “Black is beautiful” for my students. Research suggests that children notice how whiteness is normalized in society, whether in movies, in children’s books or on television.
Adults do not have to actively teach their children about race for them to understand this normalization. Children begin to pick up societal differences as they mature. They tend to associate purity and goodness with whiteness, while seeing malevolent and sinful things as Black.
Boseman’s performance in “Black Panther” gave them a view of a strong Black character as normal and not groundbreaking or historic. My students saw Black excellence on the screen that will impact how they view themselves for years to come.
Boseman encouraged Black people to be proud of who we are. Because he served us with his talents as he furtively battled colon cancer, my students and I can honor him by living out what he modeled for us.
Because of his work as an actor and genuineness as a person, my students will be able to “Yibambe,” or stand firm; they will learn over time that legends never die.
Neven Holland is a fourth-grade mathematics teacher in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, as well as a mathematics content reviewer and research assistant for two education nonprofits.
This story about Black male role models was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.