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Black Panther is a profound reminder of the power of role models

opinion

Black Panther is a profound reminder of the power of role models

Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa in Black Panther.

The final scene in the film, in which a young black boy looks up in awe at King T'Challa, unleashed something that was building up inside me for a long time

Ivan Joseph is director of athletics at Ryerson University, six-time coach of the year and author of the book You Got This.

Just about everyone I know of African and Caribbean descent has had a Black Panther moment. My encounter with the superhero movie came during its record-breaking opening weekend. I had a reaction that caught me by surprise. Though, after some reflection, I realized I should have seen it coming.

I never expected to weep when the movie was over. I'm not talking about the tears that well up at a heartstrings Olympic commercial or when Old Yeller dies. I'm talking full-on, uncontrollable, body-shaking, hiccup-causing sobs.

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Something about this movie touched me to my core. And it took hours of conversation with my wife, Polly, and time alone, to figure out what happened.

Going in to see the movie, I knew I wanted to support my people. I wanted Black Panther to be excellent, because this wasn't an ordinary movie. Black Panther wasn't just about saving the world from impending doom or entertaining millions of moviegoers. It was about the pride of being black.

During the film, I had an occasional tear in my eye, and there were plenty of moments of pride mixed in with sheer enjoyment. Then, in the final scene, the heroes return to the projects with their fancy, high-tech spaceship and all the neighbourhood kids gather round. The camera locks in on a young black boy who looks at Chadwick Boseman as King T'Challa with a mix of awe and reverence.

That's when I lost it.

I didn't identify with the superhero. I was that little boy. I was the kid from Jane and Finch in Toronto who moved north to the town of Maple long before it was Vaughan and colour didn't go north of Steeles Avenue. We were a black family working on a farm in a white world. My sister and I were two of the three black kids at Joseph A. Gibson Public School: raisins in a sugar bowl.

I never had someone to look at like that boy looked at Black Panther. Not in the movies, not in mainstream comic books, not in the hundreds of novels I read.

As I sifted through my reaction, I realized it wasn't just about being a kid with no one to look up to. The movie released something that had been building up inside me for a long time.

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I had been one of the only black athletes at King City High. I had attended Graceland University in Iowa, an almost exclusively white school, and had been the first black student president. I had also been the first black professor at Graceland. And I was the first black athletic director at a Canadian university.

It had all happened without black role models in my life. Sitting there watching that scene, all those years of struggle poured out.

The power of role models is never lost on me. I wrote a graduate thesis about how minorities succeed on all-white campuses. Their success is in part determined by their ability to connect with a mentor who is most like them, who looks like them and who values what they value. This concept, called "the looking-glass self," was developed by psychologist Charles H. Cooley in 1902: Your sense of self is generated by your perception of what others think of you.

As a soccer coach and athletic director at Ryerson University in Toronto, I am today in the role-model business. At Ryerson, I spearheaded the Ryerson Rams Care program to give kids from underserved areas a vision of their future by connecting them with Ryerson student athletes. As a speaker and author, I have also seen the power of role models firsthand. Whenever I give a speech about the skill of self-confidence or high-achieving teams, the audience members who come up to me afterward with tears in their eyes are invariably black.

My heritage is never lost on me, but it's not something I wear on my sleeve. I value those who are politically active; they are integral to social progress. I'm just not a radical person in that way. I have always contributed by doing my part and breaking down barriers along the way.

Ryerson's athletics department is housed in what was once Maple Leaf Gardens. I pass photographs of Canadian icons – almost all white – every day. In the future, I want the walls in all of our landmark buildings to be covered by faces of every colour. I can do my part to make that happen by continuing to be an intentional role model.

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My experience with Black Panther reminded me that my success doesn't belong solely to me. It also belongs to those who follow in my footsteps. Whatever I do in my career, I must continue to move things forward. I have a responsibility to be someone that any black kid can look up to and think, "He is just like me."

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