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The importance of Chadwick Boseman to African culture

In many ways, ‘Black Panther’ helped normalize African heritage and style in popular culture by truly celebrating it

When Black Panther debuted in 2018, it meant the world to me as a Black woman of Nigerian descent. The film was a huge first, not just in my life, but in the span of cultural moments. It was a reminder of Africa’s heritage, and its Black kings and queens, and gave the African diaspora a global point of pride. As a Marvel movie, it was also required viewing for millions across the world; as such, I saw a shift almost immediately in how the world saw my people.

Chadwick Boseman was a superhero on screen in Black Panther and, as it turns out, a superhuman off screen as well; he battled cancer privately while filming one of the most iconic African characters in movie history. His death on Friday hit us hard, especially the Black community. Sports superstars such as Lewis Hamilton and LeBron James, among others, honored him with a “Wakanda Forever” salute over the weekend in a tribute to his legacy.

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It’s hard to put Boseman’s impact into words. During 2018, when I played for the Connecticut Sun, I’d do the “Wakanda Forever” salute each time they announced my name in the starting lineup because in that moment, I was getting ready to be that superhero for my team; I had to unleash my inner beast. I was so proud of what the film stood for, and how well it represented people like me.

Too often have we seen the stereotypes of African culture, where people don’t care to pronounce our names correctly, kids calling kids “African booty-scratchers” or asking if their parents rode tigers to school or had an elephant as a pet. In contrast, Boseman went the extra mile to make sure African heritage was treated with respect in the film, not as a joking matter, fighting for the proper accent for his character, T’Challa. He would not allow for stereotypes of African culture on screen, but rather pushed to highlight the diversity of Black culture, and the film became a touchstone as a result.

In many ways, Black Panther helped normalize African heritage and style in popular culture by truly celebrating it. As an example, after the film’s release, I now regularly see people rocking Ankara outfits or saying that they’ve tried jollof, an African rice dish. (We all know Nigerian jollof is the best.) As if to further cement the idea of going mainstream, just this summer, Beyoncé even used her platform to share with African artists with the release of her latest visual album, Black Is King. I never would have thought that would be possible just a few years ago, without a shift in our cultural experience of the continent I love and the people who hail from it.

When you think of Africa, what do you see? Do you see corruption and poverty? I don’t. When I think of Africa, I think of its beauty and its people. I have spent ample time in Africa. I studied abroad in Nigeria while at Stanford, and anchored SportsCenter Africa in 2017 and 2018, the year Black Panther came out. When you are flying in, you don’t see commerce and smog like you might in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. You are seeing natural resources, untouched land, but also modernity. It is a place of power and so much potential, which many of us are trying not to see wasted. We, as a developed nation, don’t educate ourselves enough on what Africa is and can be. It is a place full of opportunity.

My parents came from Nigeria before we were born, making my three sisters and me second-generation immigrants. My sister and I both graduated from Stanford. My mom just got her doctorate in education and my dad is the CEO of an international tech company. My little sisters are in medical and business school. I oftentimes say my family has the best of both worlds: the Nigerian spirit of resilience and determination, coupled with all the opportunity that America presents.

Among people in the diaspora, and particularly Nigerians, I see Black excellence in many forms. Take Giannis Antetokounmpo, of Greek-Nigerian background, who is set to become a two-time NBA MVP. There’s Anthony Joshua, who is a prominent heavyweight boxer. There is Emmy-nominated actor Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly Carter on the HBO hit Insecure. There’s author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, modernizing feminism through her written work, and Burna Boy, who has brought Afrobeats to new, global audiences. And then there’s my sister, Nneka, and I, who have tried to carry that torch for women’s basketball.

Accurate, nuanced representation is so important. Role models are critical. Until you go to Africa, you don’t know how such a small thing — like providing shoes or internet service — can change someone’s perception of what is possible. As an anchor for ESPN, reaching 19 sub-Saharan countries, I took the responsibility seriously. I knew as a Black woman and basketball player, presenting sports news there, I would change perceptions for all the young African girls who are not encouraged to pursue athletics.

The first day I anchored, I watched the tape back and felt like I changed my voice and temperament to mimic the “typical broadcaster.” I couldn’t sleep that night. It kept me up in the exact same way a bad loss would, where I knew I could have performed better on a couple key plays. From that point on, I promised myself that I was going to be me, flaws and all. And that’s when I discovered that your best work comes from owning who you are. Being authentic. People resonate with that.

Just one person leading the way can break the limiting stereotypes and traditions of a culture, moving the needle in a positive way. Boseman has taught us that superheroes aren’t made when the lights are on. They do their real work for those in the dark, who could always use a dose of our most authentic light.

Chiney Ogwumike is a member of the Los Angeles Sparks and co-hosts 'Chiney and Golic Jr.' on ESPN Radio.