As I watch "Black to the Future" on VH-1 and we wind down on Black History Month (set your DVRs for all black movies that will fritter away in days folks), let us make a promise for BHM 2010: press the pause button on "black firsts". Because that's not the measure of black history nor black progress. And yet some folks can't seem to get enough of it. And others think that we should be happy enough with it.
Just in the last few weeks, I saw the first black billionaire,Oprah, talk about her girl, the first black First Lady, Michelle, while reading about the return of the first black pro golfer to win the Masters, Tiger, just weeks after the 3rd black coach to go to the Super Bowl gave a press conference. Aha! 3rd? Wait, who cares about that? Exactly.
The calling and labeling and tracking of black firsts is practically a micro-industry. And its not a black thang either. Interestingly, Wikipedia has an entire section of African-American firsts, so much so that you could make up your own quiz game (and many have, for profit, especially this month). Their list runs from 1760 with First known African-American published author, Jupiter Hammon to 2009 with First African American Chairman of Republican National Committee, Michael Steele. Hey, a first black anything is a first black something. Don't forget that. Peep it out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_African-American_firsts
But Wikipedia, try as it might to be politically correct and comprehensive doesn't even scratch the surface of black firsts. There are now many websites with Black History notes 365 days a year. Now, the notion of black history everyday is a beautiful thing I think but why is the marker on nearly every other day of black history about black firsts?
Is this really the measure of black history and black progress? Again, no. A random flip through my 20 pound Africana encyclopedia from Henry Louis Gates shows the richness of black history. And all manner of books, narratives, memoirs, and the reliable HBO docudrama show it easily. But its not about firsts. Nor should it be contained to that. However, what I call "First Firsts" is different. In other words, George Washington Carver wasn't the first black man to create peanut butter. He was the first person, period.
We obviously make an exception to the latest and greatest Black First, President Obama. And of course I will tell my grandchildren and show them my fine collection of Obama bootleg t-shirts for proof that "I was there." And I'll admit some other Black Firsts are fascinating. Yes, I watched so much pro golf as Tiger piled on first black win after first black win, I can tell you more about Pebble Beach and Augusta than you want to know. But I should hope that is not the mark of black history, but perhaps black pride.
First is actually least you see. Its cracking the ceiling of the basement only to find there are 20 more floors to climb. Like, damn, we got a long way to go. In fact, at this point, anything that's just getting a Black First is embarrassing. And the categories of Black Firsts are getting more obscure. We need less categories of Black Firsts and more racking up of Black Fifths and Tenths and Umpteenths on measurements that matter.
Measuring ourselves against aspects of systemic racism or color barriers based on black firsts is just not the way to go. Its the legacy and depth of a firsts' impact, if anything, that is the measure. So, Jackie Robinson being the first black baseball player in the major leagues is actually major because the number of black players is now truly in the umpteenths. And if Obama is to politics what Jackie Robinson was to baseball well, then, that will indeed be something. And one for the history books.
So, no, I don't hope either of my nieces grows up to be the first black woman president. But 5th would be cool.
Wyatt Closs was the first black person to work for Congressman David Price's first campaign and proudly the second black Student Body President at West Millbrook Junior High in NC.