By: Roy Douglas Malonson
“The first Black…” This is a phrase many of us are used to as our never-ending fight for equity ensues. From the first Black woman in space to the first Black President of the United States, being the first is a coveted position and highly praised within our communities. But it’s time to start thinking, are ‘firsts’ a symbol of racial progress in America, or a form of tokenism?
While breaking the hypothetical glass ceiling is something to be proud of, we often confuse the act of having the “first Black person” in a position with tokenism. The truth is, being the first Black person in any company in 2021, is a slap in the face and an embarrassment. These ‘firsts’ are one of many qualified and overqualified Black people who were overlooked, underestimated, and cheated from positions they’ve rightfully deserved but were not able to have because of their skin color.
For a company to boast about having their first Black person in a certain position in 2021 is the equivalent to them saying “Hey, we’re not racist, we provide equal opportunity, we believe in progress, take a look at this negro, he proves it all.” Corporations should be scrutinized for their lack of inclusivity and discrimination while parading around their few token negroes in the name of ‘diversity.’
What we often fail to realize is the immense pressure and responsibility of being the first Black person in a hostile all-white environment. Constantly advocating and representing for the whole Black race, always having to be three times as good as mediocre white coworkers to prove you belong, being looked over, the racist microaggressions, having to eliminate foundations of racist practices and ideologies within a company day in and day out, it’s enough to break anyone.
As Black consciousness takes on a new stride in learning about our own histories and inventions, contributions, etc, we start learning that many of our ‘firsts’ were not the first.
Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat made her a pioneer during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, but the actual first person to stand her ground against a white person on a segregated bus was Claudette Colvin, a pregnant 15-year-old Black girl arrested for her protest in 1955.
Bubba Wallace became the second Black driver in NASCAR history to win a Cup Series race this month after a victory at the Talladega Speedway. The first being Wendell Scott, the true victor of the NASCAR 1963 Cup Series, who was wrongfully denied his position after a white driver was declared the winner. Two hours after the race, officials found that Scott was the true winner and he received prize money without the trophy or press knowing the truth.
The Black Panther, widely considered as Black America’s first Black superhero dating back to 1966, comes almost two decades after Orrin C. Evans, a pioneering Black journalist and comic book publisher, created the All-Negro Comics, the first comic book with all Black characters.
And just this week, white folks “proudly announced” that civil rights pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune will be the first African American to have a state-commissioned statue in US Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The 11-foot-tall marble statue of Bethune will replace Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, a request made by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019.
Many of our trailblazing pioneers – who didn’t receive their flowers while they were alive – are just starting to get recognition. Most of the movement we see is due, in large part, to the racial reckoning from the globally publicized death of former Houston resident George Floyd, who was brutally murdered in broad daylight by a white, racist police officer.
We’ve been through so much, we’ve fought too long and hard, we’ve paved many ways and we’ve sacrificed too many innocent lives. It is time for our beautiful, Black people to continue kicking butt and taking names and UNDERSTAND that even though they “tell” you that someone is the “first,” there may have been someone else who either actually was and was never given the recognition – or laid the foundation for others to soar in the greatness that Blacks have been commanding for years.