Days Black People Not Re-Enslaved By Trump

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Problem with "Firsts" Narrative

author update: I was going to shelve this entry. Why? Eh, I'm not sure. Anyway now that the Jackie Robinson movie is upon us I gave this entry another thought and decided to post it anyway. I actually think it's more relevant now than before not only given the movie but some of the conversations I've had since I first typed this up

So I was getting my fix of Stuff Black People Don't Like when I read their latest post on Walmart's "History Teaching History". Apparently Kersey is annoyed that Walmart is making a big deal about Jackie Robinson and other negro "firsts":

The video for this campaign features Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, and Thurgood Marshall… hardly black people who accomplished anything other than being the first black individual to accomplish something white people had been doing for many years (in fact, basically invented – save for the ability to induce white guilt, which is MLK’s specialty).
Now let me say outright that I enjoy Kersey's blog. Really. Unlike a lot of blogs that I read that are simply opinion pieces, this fellow, regardless of your position on his ideology, provides evidence for his position. Believe me when I say it, that such an act puts him far above many popular blogs out there. But this isn't a "love fest" post.

The thing that was so revealing about the post was the basic assumption leveled at the African-Americans mentioned in Walmart's campaign: They were doing something that white people had been doing for years.

First let me go back and discuss my attitude towards the election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency. I am a Garveyite. One of the things Marcus Garvey repeatedly told people was that anything that any other man (he said "man". I'm not going to change it for PC points) had done "the negro can do as well" (see, I didn't change "negro" either). Sad that such a thing even needed (needs) to be said, but it is a powerful statement in a situation where large swaths of the black population apparently believe(d) that they need other people to do things that they should be doing themselves.

Garvey also famously asked of the African: Where are your nations? Where are your men of big affairs? etc. Garvey's position being that the African would not be respected until he can face the rest of the world as an equal in accomplishment rather than as a beggar in constant want of "help". So what does this have to do with Obama?

My position was that I wasn't all that impressed or excited about Obama's election because I was already of the view that a black person was quite capabale of being president (as in was just as capable of doing (or not doing, like Bush) the job as any other "reasonable" candidate or previous office holder. That is, I was not in need of proving to white folks that "we can do that too". The only thing that Obama's election signified was the acceptance of a non-white person into the most powerful office in the land. However, since my family is from Jamaica, I'm already familiar with black head's of state. Therefore I was less concerned with what Obama looked like than I was with what his policies would be. As anyone in formerly formally colonized Africa could tell you, switching out white faces for black ones means extremely little if the actual policies pursued are bad for the population.

The point being was that simply because black activity in certain fields is largely invisible to white people, it does not mean these things are not being done or have been done by black persons. Which brings us back to Kersey's comment.

See in his knee jerk reaction to black folks doing things, he allowed himself to believe that black folks had simply showed up out of thin air to the Supreme Court and National League Baseball. Kersey conveniently ignores the fact of the Negro Leagues that had been operating in parallel to the NLB specifically because African-Americans were barred from the NLB. So his statement that Jackie Robinson's accomplishment was to do something that white people had been doing for years exposes his ignorance of the actual symbolism of Robinson. Robinson isn't noted for being a baseball player. It was for him dealing with white people some of whom wished to kill him for the simple act of playing on a "white field". So let's be clear: Jackie Robinson, in terms of actual baseball, had been doing what black folks had been doing since the game had been invented: Playing at a high level.

But there is another story under Jackie Robinson. Desegregation of baseball also meant the end of the Negro Leagues which ended the ability of African-Americans to make money off the sport by owning and controlling all aspects of the sport: stadiums, teams, etc. None of the official negro leagues were absorbed into the National League. Such a move would have placed African-Americans among the majority owners of long storied and rich teams. This is something I'm quite sure will be totally missed in the Jackie Robinson movie

Then we have Thurgood Marshal. Like Jackie Robinson Thurgood Marshall was doing exactly what black lawyers had been doing: Litigating. Thurgood Marshal's achievement isn't that he somehow figured out how to be a Supreme Court justice. It was that White folks finally felt comfortable to allow a non-white person hold the job.

This is the problem with the "Firsts" narrative: It makes the first seem to be some anomaly in the community. As if "finally" we got one bright enough to be a Supreme Court justice. We FINALY got one good enough to be in the NLB. Foolishness! As Garvey said: Anything anyone else has done you can do as well. It is not a matter of ability. It is a matter of opportunity.

I think it is past time we get off the "first black" narrative and move to accomplishment regardless of when. I think it does a disservice to those who are doing great things but who are not recognized by white folks for whatever reason. It also puts waaay to much power in the hands of white folks to determine who the "first black" is. Why would we do that?