Among the loss of life due to the pandemic and the death of George Floyd which galvanized the country and sparked the Black Lives Matter protests, 2020 has also been a year of the loss of icons. Chadwick Boseman recently passed away, joining the ranks of other influential celebrities such as Naya Rivera, Kobe Bryant, Irrfan Khan, Sushant Singh Rajput, Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin — along with major political figures such as John Lewis and, this past week, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
To most, figures like Boseman are just celebrities, people who pop up on social media feeds and the silver screen. For many, however, they also represent entire communities who have never seen themselves on screen before. Those like Gen-Z, who have grown up with social media and become accustomed to seeing their faces, can be heavily impacted by their passing.
For Laila Pearson ’22, a Black woman, the passing of Chadwick Boseman was especially difficult to deal with because of what he represented.
“I was impacted by him because he seemed like a very genuine person, beyond his fame. I’ve only seen ‘42’ and “Black Panther”, but I really respected the roles that he played, and the personality that I assumed him to have,” Pearson said. “He was also pretty young, and he passed from an illness that I’ve lost a family member to, and so that made it a stronger connection. It’s just something on top of everything else… it’s another layer.”
After Boseman’s passing was announced in a statement from his family on Aug. 28, fans of the actor around the world flooded social media with posts mourning his passing. “Black Panther” was a historic film that broke box office records and paved the way for more representation of Black people in cinema.
Simnikiwe Tembe ’24, who is from Swaziland, was unexpectedly impacted by Boseman’s passing, in a time where the Black community was already experiencing loss.
“As a Black person, it felt like another loss to the Black community,” Tembe said. “All these people we love so much and have come to hold very dear are just being essentially ripped away from us because they were just sudden.”
In early winter of that year, the Black community had been mourning another loss, that of basketball giant Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, “Gigi,” Bryant on Jan. 26. Tembe, a sports fan, did not have the start of the year she was hoping for.
“The atmosphere at the beginning of the year was hopeful and optimistic and everyone was so excited for 2020,” Tembe explained. “Then someone as influential and as important to sports culture as Kobe Bryant just died so suddenly, especially because he died along with his daughter, his 13 year old daughter, made that situation even more painful.”
With Bryant, it was easier to deal with the loss because she had the company of her friends and roommates in her boarding school. Pearson also found mourning less difficult because she had people around her and on social media to talk to and mourn with.
“It was definitely a day of mourning in my school that day,” Tembe said.
Later that year, on July 8, Naya Rivera was reported missing after her son was found alone in a boat they had rented at Lake Piru in Southern California. In the week afterwards, a search ensued and online, fans and fellow celebrities sent out messages of support and hope of finding her. On July 13, her body was found. Isabel Flessas ’24 was heavily impacted by her loss, and found it difficult to move on because of the isolation in lockdown.
I have been glad that there’s been so much sadness and outrage at the many other losses of life, beyond the celebrities… I know it’s not the same, or a loss of life in the same way, but it is still a life.
Rivera was best known for her role of Santana Lopez on Glee, a lesbian woman of color and a groundbreaking character in mainstream television at the time. Flessas looked up to Rivera as a role model, in part because of her character was one of the first openly queer women in television.
“I’m LGBT and seeing an LGBT character when I was younger was really a comforting thing to me. Her character meant a lot to me, [as] she had other personality traits besides her sexuality,” Flessas said. “She portrayed a character that really resonated with me when a lot of characters didn’t.“
Pallavi Sethi ’22, already dealing with the news of the pandemic and social unrest in the U.S., had to also deal with the sudden losses of two Bollywood actors, Irrfan Khan and Sushant Singh Rajput. Irrfan Khan passed away of a colon infection on April 29, and was known internationally for his roles in Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, and domestically for his many Bollywood films. Sushant Singh Rajput reportedly committed suicide.
“Both of those were really, really difficult in themselves, just [because of] the fact that they are gone and it was very unexpected and unanticipated,” Sethi said. ”I think another thing that was even more difficult than coming to terms with the fact that such an influential person or somebody who we’ve looked up to, or grown up watching movies of, was seeing how people are speaking about their death in the popular narrative and in the media.”
Sushant Singh Rajput was 34 years old when he passed. His death sparked a conversation about mental health in India, but it also sparked a different kind of conversation. Sethi believes that posting tributes on social media, and allowing for that period of mourning, is a good thing, but that in India it has been drawn out too far by the media. Both Flessas and Sethi do believe that sharing resources about the Black Lives Matter movement is effective, but the constant negative news cycle has taken a toll.
“I had to just take a couple breaks at certain times from it, because it was just too much for me. I’ve kind of always been that way, where too much bad news really gets me down,” Flessas said.
As difficult as the losses of these icons were, Pearson was relieved that the news of their loss did not overshadow the loss of Black lives due to police brutality.
“I have been glad that there’s been so much sadness and outrage at the many other losses of life, beyond the celebrities, otherwise it would kind of offend me because I know those are happening all the time,” Pearson said. “I know it’s not the same, or a loss of life in the same way, but it is still a life.”