“The Ambivalence of Being the First”


The other day while watching a morning news show I saw a segment on Admiral Michelle Howell, the first woman to become a 4-star admiral in the US Navy. Howard also happens to be an African American. Admiral Howard is probably best known for her pivotal role in commanding the rescue effort that helped a merchant marine captain whose ship was hijacked by Somali pirates. Our knowledge of this incident came as a result of the Hollywood film, “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks. Listening to Admiral Howard talk about her climb up the ranks of the U.S. Navy made me both proud and a little sad. It made me proud because it is an honor for a Black woman to be the first woman to rise to such heights. It made me a little sad because we are in the 21st century still talking about firsts.
I had a similar feeling when Little League superstar Monae Davis became the first African American girl to pitch in the Little League World Series. Monae was representing my hometown, Philadelphia and her pitching speed and accuracy helped us give new meaning to the phrase, “throw like a girl.” She became this year’s Sports Illustrated’s “Sportswoman of the Year.” Again, my feelings were ambivalent. I was so proud of Monae but a little sad that it has taken this long for young girls to participate in Little League at this level.
As African Americans who have sojourned in this country almost 400 years it is a little depressing to know we are still counting our “firsts.” It took 43 White presidents before the nation voted for its first Black one. The 20th century saw some of the first Black presidents of White colleges and university’s—Ruth Simmons of Brown University and Shirley Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic. By the 21st century we saw our first Black president of a BigTen University, Michael Drake of Ohio State University. Each of these university presidents represents a moment of pride but again we ask, “Why did this take so long, especially when we can point to so many well qualified, capable administrators and academics?”
In some ways the worlds of sports and entertainment have been much further ahead of the rest of the society in their promotion of Black people in leadership and other prominent positions. We have seen Black film leads, Black sports champions, and Black coaches and sports administrators while we still look for more Black corporate executives (in addition to Ann Fudge, Ursula Burns, and Clifton Wharton. I am deliberately leaving off the companies they lead because if you don’t know then you have some homework to do!).
In my own life I have the dubious distinction of being the first African American woman to earn tenure in my school’s history. Although our School of Education is one of the oldest units on a campus that was founded in 1848, it was not until 1995 that a Black woman earned tenure there. Rather than regard it as a moment of pride, I felt embarrassed that it had taken almost 150 years for the School to do this. I thought about the many Black women who tried to earn tenure there and failed. I felt that we should have been long past a time of firsts. My graduate alma mater fairs no better. Although there were Black women with tenure there, almost none had first earned tenure there. Instead, the school’s strategy was to seek out senior, already tenured Black people. I believe the first Black woman that earned her first tenure there earned it after 2004!
The problem with being first is that it underscores the glacier-like pace at which African Americans are able to accomplish things they are well prepared to do. There is no area of human endeavor at which we cannot achieve. We have brilliant scholars, attorneys, clergy, physicians, scientists, statesmen, entrepreneurs, innovators, and executives as well as athletes, singers, dancers, musicians, and artists.
Of course we should take pride in the accomplishments of any Black person who achieves a first in any laudable endeavor. But, we also need to demand swifter and more deliberate action to make these first come much quicker and more often. We need some firsts in Silicon Valley, which remains one of the last bastions of White maleness. We need some more firsts in corporate boardrooms, state houses, and multinational manufacturing and production.

Stay Black & Smart!

One thought on ““The Ambivalence of Being the First”

  1. Pingback: “The Ambivalence of Being the First” | Black&Smart

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