“American” Firsts: UPDATED (Revised post)

Note to blog followers:  On 10/29/20, you inadvertently received a version of this blog. It was a work in progress, close, but not quite done. Apologies. This is the final version.

What does it mean to be an African American ‘first’ in 2020?

Pope Francis names first African-American Cardinal” was the headline across many newspapers in late October. That followed another announcement: Princeton University will name a residential college—the first—for a Black woman, businesswoman Mellody Hobson.

I was drawn to both stories, not only because as a Black person my eyes simply go to such announcements, but also because of a comment made by a white friend a few weeks earlier. He had pointed out another African American first: The Metropolitan Opera had announced that Grammy winner and Oscar nominee Terence Blanchard would open their 2021-2022 season with Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first work by a Black composer ever presented by the Met. My friend commented that for some white people, particularly older white people, he thought, seeing Black people in these ‘firsts’ and seeing their competence moves the ‘firsts’ from being seen as ‘excellence and inclusion’ to simply, and yet more profoundly just ‘excellence.’ As it should be. Not an act of racial equity, but an earned place where no Black person had been before.

His comment reminded me of something that happened a few years ago. I was listening to a racial justice advocate. She suggested Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first Black man “capable” of playing Major League Baseball, but the first ‘allowed’ to play (in modern times). Of course. I knew that, but the wording and mental recognition, that “aha’ moment, are important reminders and serve to illuminate and clarify. Many others had the talent but weren’t allowed in white ball clubs. Reflect on that.

  • 1970: The first Black contestant was allowed to enter the Miss America contest. Until then, according to rule #7, ‘contestants must be of good health and of the white race.’ It was in 1983 that the first African American, Vanessa Williams, was crowned Miss America.
  • 1975: Lee Elder became the first Black person to play golf in the PGA Masters Tournament. Until 1961, the PGA had a ‘Caucasians-only’ membership clause.
  • 1988: Doug Williams of the Washington DC football team was the first African American quarterback to start (and win) the Super Bowl. For decades, Blacks were not deemed smart enough to quarterback teams.

In some areas, law has prohibited African Americans’ enfranchisement through restrictions, covenants, and discriminatory practices, for example, in housing until 1968 — within your parents’ or grandparents’ lifetime, or perhaps even yours.

In other areas, educational limitations prevented African Americans from obtaining the necessary academic credentials, to become, for example, an astronaut (Guion Bluford was the first in 1983). And sometimes schooling combined with racially-limited personal and professional networks (the ‘good-ole-boy’ network is a real thing) inhibited the likelihood of African Americans rising to certain positions, such as CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Franklin Raines was the first in 1999, Fannie Mae).

And even when African Americans could get into a profession where they were a significant contributor, so much was masked or concealed, or just not celebrated. Consider mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Their work at NASA and role in early space exploration were unknown to many of us until the movie Hidden Figures.

Today, there are no African American governors. There have only been two elected in this country’s almost 250-year history: Doug Wilder (VA; 1990) and Deval Patrick (MA; 2006). Why is that? Remember the year of the hashtag, Oscars so white? Brandice Daniel, an African American fashion designer, established Harlem Fashion Row in 2006 when she realized the dearth of Black designers who received exposure. So many other examples could be offered, but you get the point.

When you look around, think about why African Americans aren’t a member —literally and figuratively—of your club. Why aren’t they more fully incorporated into American life’s cultural, business, and political fabric?

Many doors remain closed to African Americans.

Which are you fighting to open?

Which ‘first’ title will you hold?

What will you do to illuminate the past and light the future?

This will take just a few minutes—25 multiple-choice questions to be answered on your computer. No friends throwing out the answers. No public shaming or public celebration. Just a quiet few minutes to see how much you know about the African American experience and history. Please take the quiz before you read any further.


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Many are likely to know the answer to the first question, but what if it was re-worded: “Who was the first African American allowed to play major league baseball?” You’d still know the answer, but you might think about it a bit differently. Not that there weren’t African Americans with the talent, as the stated question might imply. And if you click on the “Learn more” button, you see that the argument from the team’s manager isn’t focused on racial justice or morality, it is focused on economics. The white owner of the team, the white manager, and the white players were all going to be financial beneficiaries of this change. Then, if you have time, go deeper into his story to learn about the life of this “first” and the mental anguish he, and his family, suffered.

Then look at the second question. “Learn more” will remind you that the black community isn’t monolithic. While being black in America offers a distinct vantage point from being white or Asian, Native or LatinX, and while there may be unanimity in the desire for justice and equity among black people, there is no shared sense of strategy. In that divergence, however, a center point may become clearer. Some suggest if there hadn’t been a Malcolm X, a perceived radical, Martin Luther King’s views might not have been deemed reasonable and viable. He would have been the radical. That point alone could generate a vibrant discussion if you move just a little beyond the presented fact.

Now to the third item in the quiz. “Learn more” reveals that in 1960, just two generations ago, black people were fighting for the right to sit down and have lunch in an integrated environment. Perhaps that would have been your parents’ or maybe your grandparents’ generation. Where did they stand/fall on the question of civil rights? Have you ever asked them, or if you are the parent or the grandparent, have you ever shared with the younger members of your family what you were doing or thinking in 1960 when people were actively advocating for the civil rights of African Americans?

These are conversations that we should all have. Maybe Black History Month offers an entrée to this topic for your family.

lamp-4436364_1920Understanding a people’s history isn’t just about knowing the dates or being able to rattle off trivia at a cocktail party. It’s about revealing and understanding the layers, the actions and reactions, that contribute not just to those people, but to the fabric of the bigger, “US” as a people, as a culture. Often those revelations and the discussions happen in school. I know that is where I learned, explored and discussed much about the history of the country. My parents and my community often talked about current events, but rarely do I recall family discussions about historical events. And once I left the segregated school system, never did black history enter my formal education.

Over the last 50 years, black history has increasingly been recognized as the essential part of American history… and world history, that it is. Some states now require its incorporation into the educational curriculum. Textbooks are being written. Students are asking for it. But the subject still doesn’t seem mainstreamed into the curriculum. Some suggest that history and social studies teachers aren’t trained to teach it. Even when they try to cover the topic, they aren’t comfortable enough to delve deeply. The conversation typically stops with the facts. Others suggest many of the textbooks introduce black history with slavery, reinforcing African Americans in a lower position in society. I’m not so sure I agree with that even though I can appreciate the viewpoint. Black Americans’ history did, in no small measure, start with being enslaved. There is just so much about that reality that can be explored. Teachers can take the lesson back to Africa.* In school, we often talked about what was happening in Europe that pre-dated white settlers coming to America. I still remember the weight of my European history textbook. Whole semesters focused on the subject, but never in the 16 years of my liberal arts education did I have one course on African history. What was happening in the countries and kingdoms there?

I don’t have the answers, but I know that when Carter G. Woodson helped found the Association for the Study of Negro Life (1915), later became the chief advocate for Negro History Week (1926) and promoted the study of African American culture and history throughout his life, he was not suggesting it as an add on. He was filling a void until the topic could be fully fused into any study of the history of America.

Taking a quiz or focusing on interesting factoids can start a conversation. It can begin the learning, but we must remember the facts are just where real discovery and understanding begins.

What will you do special during this Black History Month? What will you do throughout the year to better understand, appreciate, and value the contributions of African Americans?

“The past should not oppress, it should illuminate.”

—Kasi Lemmons, Director of “Harriet” during a panel discussion following the movie’s showing at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, 10/21/19

*If you are interested in learning about Africa’s civilizations, check out the PBS six-hour series called “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” narrated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.