Sounding every bit the king of the fictional Wakanda, “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman gave a rousing commencement speech Saturday at his alma mater, Howard University, telling graduating students that they have been trained to be strong people in the world and their HBCU experience will boost them.
In a rousing and wide-ranging address, Boseman reminded assembled crowd that Howard University has released a parade of black talent, from siblings Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen to the late Al Freeman Jr., and from Donnie Hathaway to Roberta Flack.
He drew laughs when he talked about the school’s campus. Every day was “leg day” when he was at Howard, living at the bottom of the infamous hill and having to walk to the top for classes, Boseman said. “You’ve been climbing this academic slope for three or four years, some of you,” he said.
Boseman, who received an honorary doctorate in humane letters during the ceremony, also told a poignant story in which he described quick success after graduation. In his first audition for a role in a New York City play, he won the lead, and from that came an agent, he said.
He told of being offered a role on a soap opera shortly after. The role bothered him, he said. It portrayed a young Black man with an absent father and heroin-addicted mother. Gang life lured the young man.
“I found myself conflicted,” Boseman said. “The role seemed to be wrapped up in assumptions about us as Black folk – hardly any positivity.”
After Boseman’s second appearance on the show, the executives sat down with him and told him they were pleased and that they hoped he’d appear for a long stint. They asked if they could do anything for Boseman and he seized the opportunity – he questioned some of the features of the character.
“That was my opening,” he said.
As Boseman posed his questions, one of the executives quietly pulled out Boseman’s resume and studied it, noting that Boseman graduated from Howard, one of the most prominent of all historically black colleges and universities.
“We’ll be watching you,” the executive said.
The following day, the executives let Boseman go. He was hurt, he said, but also has grown to understand that these sorts of experiences help make life better for the people who come afterward, even if it is a “bitter pill.”
“Remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose,” Boseman told the crowd. “God said in Jeremiah: I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and not to harm you.”
The actor also announced he will lead a campaign to create a separate college of fine arts. Right now, Howard has a Division of Fine Arts.