I am a fan of Chadwick Boseman’s. His choice of stories to tell. His immense ability to embody those stories. Like him, my life was formed in the arts, changed by the arts, empowered by the arts. And like so many of us, I have spent the last few days feeling shocked and sad about his passing. That we won’t see him take on his era defining, groundbreaking role of Black Panther again or the countless other stories he still had to tell. What I wasn’t shocked by, was the possibility that someone going through rigorous cancer treatment could do all the things he did while choosing to keep his private life, private. Though admittedly, I was a little surprised (and grateful) that those around him who did know what he was going through chose to respect those wishes—we so often see at CAC accidental disclosure, with the best of intentions, due to loved ones sharing.
I have watched as many people, with varying backgrounds and experiences (including people with cancer and people with disabilities) discussed his choice—and in some moments made assumptions about his choice (that he suffered in silence, that the world wouldn’t have let him play those parts if they knew, etc.). We can’t know if he kept his diagnosis private because he didn’t feel he could share it and live/work as he wished or if he kept it private because of any of a number of other reasons. What we do know is that people should be able to make disclosure decisions based on who they are, what they need and what they want. And so often that isn’t the case. People sometimes share because they think they are obligated to or don’t disclose because they fear there could be repercussions at work if they do. It’s okay if Mr. Boseman wanted his work to speak for itself. If he didn’t want his illness to be part of his public story. Just as it’s okay that some people feel drawn to share publicly, to use their experience to empower themselves and others. His is also a strong reminder you can be an advocate whether people know your personal story or not.
Every day, CAC is trying to empower people to understand their options and think through their preferences so they can control their own story and define their own path. He has given all of us a powerful new example, and the next time an employer doubts what someone who gets diagnosed with cancer can do, they’re getting my Chadwick Boseman speech. And, the next time someone doubts people's choice not to disclose and that they have every right to that choice and privacy, they’re getting my Chadwick Boseman speech.
There has rightly been a lot of discussion about how we can never truly know what someone else is going through. There’s also been a lot of comments being made about how he worked in such agony and going through such suffering. And while that may be true, we can’t know how Mr. Boseman would articulate his experience with cancer and we shouldn’t do it for him. There are many people who find work to be a place of joy, of contribution, of normalcy, of meaning, of identity and so we should be careful not to assume that his work wasn’t bringing those things to him as well. Perhaps work was part of healing not suffering, even if there was pain and discomfort to do it. We can’t know, though in his case—unlike for so many people where work is a necessity to have insurance and pay bills—we might be able to assume that he wanted to work, that he chose to work for some of the reasons I mentioned.
All weekend on social media, in comments from colleagues, on ABC’s special, people used war language to describe Mr. Boseman’s experience. Statements like “he was fighting a battle with cancer, while portraying these characters.” While that works for some, there are people who aren’t comfortable with the use of battle language to describe their cancer experience. There are also people who aren’t comfortable with the word survivor. Each person having this experience should be entitled to define it for themselves, to disclose it if they choose to and to work if they need/want.
I encourage us all to be careful not to define Mr. Boseman’s experience for him but to use his choices (allowing disclosure posthumously, listening to his words in the public comments he’s made, observing his actions like visiting St. Jude’s, etc.) to understand him. Mr. Boseman leaves all of us with an incredible body of work. Reminding us that public or private about their experience, no one’s choices about work and cancer should be made by other people’s misconception of what they’re capable of.