“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?