By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
Chadwick Boseman strolled onto Howard University’s campus as a bankable box-office star and walked away with another title on graduation day – doctor.
The Howard alumnus and star of Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther” returned to his alma mater May 12 to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters and deliver the keynote address at the 150th commencement. Thousands of people clung to his every word.
Howard awarded 2,217 degrees to the class of 2018, including 343 master’s degrees and 90 Ph.Ds. It also paid tribute to the class of 1968, allowing them to march on the red carpet along with the other graduates.
Boseman, 40, called Howard a “magical place” and congratulated the class of 2018 for overcoming academic, financial, and other obstacles to reach graduation day. He pushed graduates of “Wakanda University” to savor their triumphs in life, to chase their purpose instead of money, and to rise above adversity.
“I don’t know what your future is, but if you’re willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory, then you will not regret it,” Boseman told graduates.
He credits his Howard education with preparing him for his groundbreaking Hollywood career, roles that have included Jackie Robinson in “42”, James Brown in “Get On Up”, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, another Howard alumnus, in “Marshall”, and T’Challa in “Black Panther”, a role he reprised in “Avengers: Infinity War”. To date, the latter two movies have grossed nearly $3 billion around the world.
Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick wanted Boseman to deliver the keynote address because the actor has portrayed African-American men in three biopics that “embody not just our history but our legacy.”
Boseman told the class of 2018 about the time he called on the cultural pride Howard instilled in him to question a soap opera role early in his career. He felt it was wrapped up in assumptions about Blacks and needed more depth. In Boseman’s telling, he was fired three episodes in after raising objections with producers, but said the setback didn’t keep him down for long.
“When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes and talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny,” Boseman said. “When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it.”
The graduation capped a tumultuous year at the university. This included the nine-day student occupation of the school’s administration building over affordable housing, tuition hikes, and student safety, including mental health and the prevention of sexual assault.
Students had a list of nine demands and after negotiations, university officials agreed to seven. A financial aid scandal ignited the protests and left students calling for Frederick’s dismissal and urging the school board’s leadership to step aside. Boseman acknowledged the demonstrators at the graduation, asking the seniors among them to rise so the audience could applaud them.
The actor praised the students for their sit-ins and the administrators for listening to students’ demands, saying the protests were accomplishments for both sides. “I didn’t come here to take sides,” said Boseman, who was part of a protest while at Howard. “My interest is what’s best for the school.”
During his years at Howard, Boseman, a 2000 alumnus, took part in an unsuccessful three-day protest with his classmates to stop the school from demoting the College of Fine Arts into the Department of Fine Arts.
Almost two decades later and Frederick and Boseman are now rectifying that controversial change. They announced a campaign the actor will lead to reestablish the College of Fine Arts and to launch an Endowed College of Fine Arts Award.
“And so, fine arts forever.” Frederick said.