‘Black Panther’ star returns to alma mater to inspire Howard students at graduation

Free Press wire reports | 5/19/2018, 3:04 p.m.
Actor Chadwick Boseman, a Howard University alumnus who starred in the blockbuster film, “Black Panther,” lauded Howard University students for …

Actor Chadwick Boseman, a Howard University alumnus who starred in the blockbuster film, “Black Panther,” lauded Howard University students for their recent successful campus protests, saying their efforts to spark change will help them as they enter the workforce.

“Everything that you fought for was not for yourself. It was for those who came after you,” he told an audience of 8,000 Saturday during an outdoor commencement ceremony in the Upper Quad on the main campus in Washington.

The Class of 2018 is Howard University’s 150th graduating class. 

“Students, your protests are also promising because many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalization. The fact that you have struggled with this university that you love is a sign that you can use your education to improve the world you are entering,” he said.

“I was on a roll when I entered the system of entertainment, theater, television and film,” he continued. “I stand here today knowing my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa.”

Howard students staged a nine-day takeover of the university administration building in late March and early April, protesting the misuse of funds meant for low-income students. Ultimately, the university board agreed to several demands, including freezing undergraduate tuition, re-examining on-campus housing policies and setting up a task force to address sexual assault and harassment issues. Six employees were fired in connection with problems with university funds.

Mr. Boseman also applauded the administration’s willingness to make changes.

He also talked about being fired from a soap opera after questioning the way his character, a gang member, was written. He said he felt “conflicted” because the role, which he previously described as stereotypical, was “wrapped up in assumptions about us as black folk.”

While Mr. Boseman didn’t specify the soap opera, published reports indicate it was on “All My Children,” in which he briefly played gang member Reggie Porter Montgomery. The role later was played by Michael B. Jordan, who starred with Mr. Boseman in “Black Panther.”

“What do you do when the principles that were instilled at you at Howard close the door?” he asked in his commencement address. “Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you realize what you’re really fighting against.”

Mr. Boseman encouraged graduates to not only exceed in their next steps, but also strive to achieve their life’s purpose.

“When you have reached the Hilltop and you are deciding on next steps, you would rather find purpose than a career. Purpose is an essential element of you that crosses disciplines,” he said. 

He called Howard a “magical place, where the dynamics of positive and negative seem to exist in extremes. … Almost anything can happen here.”

“I remember walking across this yard when Muhammad Ali was walking toward me with his hands raised in a quintessential guard. I was game to play along with him,” Mr. Boseman said. “What an honor to be challenged by the G.O.A.T. I walked away floating like a butterfly…walked away light and ready to take on the world.”

A native of South Carolina, Mr. Boseman graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2000. He then attended the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford University. Thereafter, he began his career as an actor, director and writer, gaining rave reviews for his portrayal of the legendary Jackie Robinson in the Warner Bros.’ film “42,” and the title role in the film “Marshall,” about the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice who graduated as valedictorian from Howard University School of Law in 1933.

His most recent renown has come with his roles as T’Challa in “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” Several times during the ceremony, he crossed his arms over his chest, giving the “Wakanda Forever” salute from the movie to a cheering audience.

University President Wayne A.I. Frederick talked in his remarks how Mr. Boseman and his classmates advocated and participated in a three-day protest against the university to dismiss an initiative to change the College of Fine Arts into a Department of Fine Arts. The protest was unsuccessful in stopping the transition.

However, at the ceremony, Dr. Frederick, alongside Mr. Boseman, announced a campaign to re-establish the College of Fine Arts and launch an Endowed College of Fine Arts Award.

Howard University awarded 2,217 degrees, including 343 master’s degrees, and 90 Ph.Ds. More than 382 students received professional degrees in law, medicine, pharmacy and dentistry. Howard University has the only dental and pharmacy colleges in the District of Columbia. The 2018 graduates represent 39 states and 32 countries; 117 graduates are from the District of Columbia.

In addition to Mr. Boseman, other honorary degree recipients were Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, a former professor and pathology department chair at the Howard University College of Medicine who became the first full-time director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health; Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King, an HU alumnus; and his wife, Gwendolyn Stewart King, a former U.S. commissioner of Social Security who is now president of Podium Prose, a speaker’s bureau and speechwriting service in Washington, and a HU alumna.