Art of Life/Donna Parker


Are Black “Firsts” Still Important?

I was excitedly telling my sister (she lives out of state) about my visit to an Underground Railroad house, in Milton, WI. It made me wonder why do we still continue to tally these "firsts?"  Wikipedia may keep a running tab on "African American firsts" but apart from maintaining a historical record, why should they really matter at all, in this so-called post-Civil Rights, post-race era?

Certainly, there are legitimate criticisms of our tendency to break out the champagne each time someone breaches the color barrier. Some may rightfully complain, for instance, that this emphasis on racial "firsts" risks reinforcing the notion of history as a series of "great men," individuals who just appear on the scene, their noteworthiness sometimes unintentionally erasing the names and contributions of all those before who made their "first" possible.

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Others might claim that "firsts" do not matter at all: they are purely token, or worse, serve to pacify those agitating for broader institutional or systemic change. In fact, some argue that firsts are no proof that social progress is inexorable: after all, Hiram Revels, the first black senator, stayed the “first” for a very, very long time. The political climate following the end of Reconstruction became increasingly repressive: the turn of the century into the early 20th is often considered the worst, in Black life, in the U.S., with the rise in lynchings, the political mainstreaming of the Ku Klux Klan, the federal institutionalization of repressive legislation ensuring separate and unequal treatment of Black people.

The answers I came up with for why there is a need for “first Black this and first Black that,” are pretty simple:

1) “Firsts” inspire. Those who think something might be impossible for them based on race, gender, disability or economic status — whatever factor — seeing someone who looks like them or with a similar background doing that very thing helps dissolve both real and perceived barriers to that achievement. People derive hope from hearing about “firsts.” I would even suggest that you share them whenever you can, because perhaps some young Black girl who has fantasized about traveling into and spending time in space now sees a path to make that dream a reality.

2) “Firsts” highlight inequities. If someone sees a “first” and reacts by saying “What took so long? It’s 2023!” — that’s a good reason to share it, too. Sharing “firsts” can provoke much-needed and deeper questionings into why it has taken so much time to make these strides and inroads. Think about what possible historic or systemic reasons could there be within organizations or institutions — educational, governmental, etc.

By the way, I am not picking on NASA here — NASA has done active recruiting to diversify its astronaut training programs — I am saying if you react to a “first” by wondering what has taken so long, follow that wonder and most likely within the answer you will learn of other inequities that are causing problems for Black people in many positions and/or fields.

3) Celebrating “firsts” is human nature. No matter when or where firsts happen, human beings love to exalt “firsts,” as “firsts” at their essence signify when the impossible has become possible for us. It is why we are all still taught Magellan was the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe, Neil Armstrong was the first human being to walk on the moon or Kamala Harris is the first Black East Indian Woman Vice President of the United States of America (she packed in A LOT of firsts there!).

I hope my answer helps. Now I have a question for you — have you ever bothered to ask why anybody cares about any of the “firsts” we all know about (e.g. man on moon, female Supreme Court justice, airplane flight) or why you were taught them? What is the intent behind that? Maybe it could be to give people a sense of their abilities, possibilities, and worthiness? Maybe? And if so, why is it bothersome to you when Black people engage in this type of celebration?

If you choose to answer me, trust me, you will be the first.