Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman delivered a powerful commencement speech at Howard University on Saturday, applauding students for their victory in on-campus protests and discussing his early struggles as a black actor.
The graduation ceremony marked the end of a turbulent year at Howard, a historic private university in Northwest Washington that is known as “the Mecca” of black education. Boseman is an alum who graduated in 2000.
“Everything that you fought for was not for yourself, it was for those who came after you,” said the star of the groundbreaking blockbuster Black Panther, referring to a nine-day student takeover of the administration building last month. He also applauded the administration’s willingness to make changes.
The protests were sparked in part by an embezzlement scandal — which led to six employees being fired — involving the misuse of funds meant for low-income students. Ultimately, the university agreed to a series of demands, including a re-examination of on-campus housing policies, the board agreeing to consider freezing undergrad tuition rates and the formation of a task force to address issues of sexual assault and harassment.
“Many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalization,” Boseman said in his speech. “The fact that you have struggled with this university that you loved is a sign that you can use your education to improve the world that you are entering.”
Boseman went on to speak about the challenges he faced as a black actor finding work in Hollywood. He felt conflicted early on in his acting career when a soap opera cast him as a gang member in a role he said was “wrapped up in assumptions about us as black folk.”
Although he was praised for the quality of his performance in that role, he said, executives ultimately fired him after he questioned the way the character was written.
The role was later taken over by Michael B. Jordan—who later starred alongside Boseman in Black Panther. Jordan had referred to the role as a gang member on the daytime soap opera “Days of Our Lives” during a 2015 GQ interview as a “fucking stereotypical black role.”
“As conflicted as I was before I lost the job, as adamant as I was about the need to speak truth to power, I found myself even more conflicted afterward,” he said.
“What do you do when the principles that were instilled at you at Howard close the door?” Boseman continued in his speech on Saturday. “Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you realize what you’re really fighting against.”
Boseman went on to disclose that his Howard education prepared him for roles that have included Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa, the superhero’s real name in Black Panther.
He ended the speech by urging grads to find their own purpose in the world, which he said was more important than simply a job or career.
“Purpose is an essential element of you,” he said. “It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”