Hiram R. Revels became the first African-American senator in America in 1870. Also that year, Jonathan Wright, in South Carolina, became the first African American to serve on a state’s Supreme Court. In 1950, Earl Lloyd became the first African American to play in a regular-season NBA game. Franklin D. Raines is the first African-American CEO of a major Fortune 500 company.
During Black History Month we encounter many similar facts, frequently mentioning “black firsts”: “So and so was the first black person to do this…” and “So and so was the first black person to do that…”
Needless to say, we should and must pay homage to the pioneers in our race that forced the mainstream to, at least, tolerate us. Trailblazers like Revels, Wright, Lloyd and others put up with more ignorance, mistreatment and straight up evil than most of us can now imagine, so that other Africans in America could enjoy better accommodations, services, facilities, and opportunities for wealth than forced poverty and racial terrorism had allowed them previously.
But although the identities and stories of brave, dogged African Americans that penetrated vanilla enclaves still aren’t discussed enough, I am still ambivalent about “first black” facts. Some part of me is reluctant to laud our folks for accomplishments that white people have or had already achieved. My racial paranoia whispers to me that when people hear “first black” facts, they appreciate them not because they understand the achievements in the context of staggering racial oppression, but instead assign the achievements distinction because their darker-skinned counterparts were able to achieve standards set by whites, which, presumably, the masses of us were not expected to be able to reach.
The general public seems to admire the achievers of “firsts” the same way that they admire dogs that can walk on their hind legs—incredulously and in amazement that the individual is able to defy “nature.” They (and a lot of us) do not think instead: “Wow! Brown Brown accomplished so much despite the rest of the world insisting his people were animals, maniacs trying to hang him from trees and cut his balls off, some asshole raping his sister, and the government stealing his property!”
My reservations about “first black” facts grow deeper considering I see and hear them more than any other kind of information concerning our history during this particular month of celebration. Obviously, achieving things whites could already claim is more important than celebrating the things we did eons before they did. Obviously, our forced entrance into white society is more noteworthy than the African societies we created ourselves. Obviously, integration is our magnum opus. The evidence lies in the fact no one mentions things like we were the first mathematicians (tens of millennia before “white” people even existed), that we were the first Americans in an epoch before even Ivan Van Sertima suspected, that we ruled Spain for 700 years, or that we created a robust justice system well before the Western world. I get our desire to revel in achievement; there are so many more achievements that don’t get their due.
The absence of similarly worthwhile information during Black History Month isn’t some secret conspiracy, either; we ourselves are eager purveyors of “first black” facts. If you pay attention, each year throughout Black History Month, when we’re supposed to focus on our triumphs we will continually talk about when we were actually second to our oppressors.
It forces me to wonder and, ultimately, to ask: At what point will our zeal to be included and be “equal” surrender to our determination to build a healthy, independent identity that no longer frames Whiteness as its summit?
That’s the “first black” fact I look forward to hearing about during Black History Month.