After Chadwick Boseman unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer — which he had been privately battling for years, all through his tenure as Marvel’s Black Panther, since 2016 — the world mourned the loss of a star who was on the precipice of his peak and who, for many young Black kids across the world, represented a superhero who looked like them. One of those children was Kian Westbrook, a seven-year-old from St. Louis, Missouri, who was distraught by Boseman’s passing. His mom, Leslie, asked him if he could do anything that might make him feel a little bit better. And Kian had an idea.
The idea was to set up a memorial to Black Panther. Kian built it out of action figures in their driveway, made to resemble the funeral that the other Avengers have for Ironman in Avengers: Endgame. Leslie sent the photo of the makeshift memorial to Kian’s dad, King, who then posted it on Twitter. They didn’t expect anything out of it. But then, the photo went viral, and hundreds of thousands of responses to Kian’s tribute poured in. The response amazed them.
Here, Fatherly talks to Kian, King, and Leslie about the tribute, what Black Panther meant to them all, and the overwhelmingly positive experience of being able to mourn a great hero publicly.
The memorial touched so many on social media. How did the idea come about?
King: It was Kian’s idea to do the memorial. Once the world had found out about Chadwick Boseman passing away on Friday, Leslie and I decided we were going to say something to Kian on Saturday morning.
Kian’s older brother has a cell phone, and Kian was looking at his cellphone late Friday, and when he started getting the messages and seeing the posts about Chadwick, he went and asked his mom if it was true. That’s when she was like, Oh, crap. Yes, it is true. He had just found out in a different way than what we wanted to tell him.
I imagine he was pretty upset.
Yes, Kian was pretty distraught. He was crying, and he basically kept asking why. Why his hero, why someone he had admired so much had passed away so young?
We had spoken with Kian and all of our other children, basically about how death is part of being human and it’s a part of human life. The way that Chadwick Boseman passed away, with cancer, it’s hard for a seven year old to understand that. So his mom had asked him, Well, now that you know, and you’re sad, is there anything you would like to do, or is there anything you can do that will help you feel better?
Kian had said he wanted to do a tribute to Black Panther, similar to the one that Iron Man had received in the last Avengers movie, when he had passed away, with all the other heroes there to help see him off. So, that was how it came about.
Well, it was a wonderful tribute.
It was all Kian’s idea. With all the Avengers being placed in the back, and Kian was standing back, with them.
Whenever he plays with his toys, he identifies himself as an Avenger. That was how he ended up standing in the back and crossing his arms with the “Wakanda forever” symbol. That’s how it ended up coming about.
I’m a fan of all of the movies, and I didn’t even think about the fact that it mirrored the funeral for Iron Man in Endgame.
King: In multiple ways. If you’ll notice in the picture, his mom had helped him grab the materials he needed for it, and she placed the Black Panther action figure on top of a box. In front of the box, there’s an Iron Man glove that’s on the ground, which symbolized Kian saying goodbye to Iron Man, as well. For all intents and purposes, he knew exactly what he wanted to do to honor Chadwick Boseman and Black Panther.
For a seven year old to have such a vision of what he wanted is amazing.
King: Right. It was something.
Leslie: Your imagination runs wild when you’re a child. Prior to me being a recruiter for the company that I work for now, I was a daycare director for five years. I’ve gotten to see the first hand, when it comes to how children relate to certain things, good, bad, or indifferent. I’ve gotten to see firsthand how they relate to these things and to watch my son. I taught [the kids] how to be themselves, and to let their imagination run wild, because they’re children.
What was it like when the memorial really started to blow up and got a lot of attention?
Leslie: We didn’t know!
King: I’m being honest, I have never posted anything on Twitter. I’ve been on Twitter since January. I mostly use Facebook if I ever want to communicate on social media. So, outside of me going on Twitter to make comments on other people’s things, this is the first thing that I’ve ever posted myself from my Twitter feed. So, when I posted it, I was only posting it to say, Hey, I know the entire world is mourning the loss of Chadwick so early and so suddenly, and this was just something nice that my son had done. That was why I posted it. My baby boy and the Avengers are honoring him.
Within a few hours, my phone just kept pinging with likes and likes and likes. When I say that I don’t have much experience with Twitter — I didn’t know that things could trend the way this has, because it never does that on Facebook. Leslie gave me a call and said that somebody called her and said that the post I had put on there went viral, and was being featured on different news outlets. And so I went on and took a look at it and I was like, oh my god. The excitement of it, it wasn’t so much, Hey, we’re famous.
What was it about?
King: The thing that hit us was that Kian did this as a tribute to a person he considered his hero. And then, when it got posted, it allowed other people to join my son in honoring Chadwick Boseman, and Black Panther, and mourning with him. That’s what the surprise was.
Leslie: That is the humbling experience for us. We’re grateful for it. We’ve talked to countless networks and media sources at this point, but the great part of it is the comments. The comments of encouragement, of other people mourning, and Kian knows that… I mean, he has us. But he knows he’s really not alone in this.
The internet can be such an ugly place, so to have this overwhelmingly positive response to this beautiful thing.
King: Right. So, that was what blew me away. Because when you have a child that is saying that they want to honor their hero, as a parent, to see other people that are saying that Chadwick Boseman was not only their hero but they appreciate what my son did to honor him, that was just — Kian has received such a beautiful outcry of messages for something that he did that was genuine.
Chadwick Boseman wasn’t just Black Panther. He played all these iconic figures in history. James Brown.. Jackie Robinson..
King: Thurgood Marshall.
Right, exactly. He had a relatively brief career but he dedicated himself to these figures and roles. On that note, for you guys as a family, and for you, Kian, what does Wakanda, and the world of Black Panther, mean to you all?
Kian: It means family and friends.
Leslie: I feel like Kian was able to really identify well [with the world]. We come from a strong family. For him to see that, first hand, on the big screen, was huge. To see a predominantly African American cast, and to see like, even for our daughter, to see a woman general with an all woman army? Come on.
Leslie: It was really just empowering altogether. And it’s just a great example to show our children and you know, we love that so much.
Kian: And Black Panther also means that we can be big strong heroes.
King: To go off of what Leslie said about the Black cast — I think that it as a parent, when you hear your child say when someone is their hero, or they respect them, the first thing that you want to make sure is that it’s not something that you, as an adult, would consider nonsense. Kian really knew Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, but to know, as an adult, all of the other historical, strong, Black figures he had portrayed in movies — when my son calls him a hero, that’s a great thing. We believe Chadwick Boseman was a great human being.
Leslie: Following him altogether as an actor, he picked the roles that he picked to play for himself on purpose. Like, there are so many roles he passed up on because he didn’t want to be a stereotype or a demographic.
Kian: And he means that he looks like me, too.
King: That’s cool, man.
Overall, it sounds like this has been a pretty positive experience for your family, being able to grieve with the world. Do you think it’s been good for you all?
King: I think so. When I ask Kian, what are the things he would like people to learn from his tribute, or what he would like people to remember in general about Black Panther or Chadwick Boseman, Kian just says he would like the world to know that Chadwick was a nice man and that Black Panther was a hero to young black boys like himself.
As a parent, you think about it bringing awareness to the horrible form of cancer that took Chadwick’s life. If that can bring awareness to something like that, and the overall picture of allowing people to mourn with my son, then this will be a success in just getting it out that there were people that love Chadwick Boseman, like my son did, and people that loved Black Panther, like my son did.