Be a First

There is no doubt now that Black people face systematic obstacles to progress. We talk a whole lot about diversity, equity and inclusion but it is clear that we are a country built on the systematic exclusion and suppression of Black communities. Laws and public policies have been cleverly crafted to guide and accelerate the progress of some while preventing people of color from enjoying the same benefits. Even though the law forbids any form of overt exclusion and repression on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation, it has been difficult to deracinate the structural racism that continues to plague us even till today. Equality is an intellectual ideal but it's something that is far out of reach experientially for Black Americans.

But there is hope. We can look at history and see all the firsts - the first achievements by Black Americans in this country that has undoubtedly spurred extensive cultural change. We can read the stories of these great pioneers and know that we can make it if we try. If we can find the courage and determination to be outliers in the landscape of America today, we can still make a difference and be people of influence despite being Black. If you and I can be outliers, we encourage more of us to do the same until it becomes the norm. We may have to work ten times as hard but it's time to level up and face the challenge head on. We can continue to wait for success to be handed to us or we can allow success to prevail through us.

Condoleezza Rice said: "People who end up as 'first' don't actually set out to be first. They set out to do something they love." The firsts in the Black community pave the way for the rest of us to follow. They strive to accomplish things that have never been done before. They are what you would call trailblazers. They shows us all what is possible. I am sure that they had doubts and fears. Some may have been intimidated. And many must have said to them, it couldn't be done. Nevertheless, they forged ahead, determined to live lives of influence and significance. They chose to make history and to make their lives count.

Jupiter Hammon in 1761 became the first African-American published author with his poem, An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries. The first African-American to hold a patent, Thomas Jennings for his dry-cleaning process in 1821 probably encountered many naysayers. In 1890, Ida Rollins became the first African-American to earn a dental degree from the University of Michigan. The first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard University was W.E.B. Du Bois. Madam C.J. Walker became the first African-American to become a woman millionaire in 1910. 1952 became the first time NASCAR saw an African-American driver, Wendell Scott. In 1969, Gordon Parks was the first African-American director of a major Hollywood motion picture. 1983 brought us the first African-American astronaut, Guion Bluford on the Challenger mission, STS-8. In 2008, Barack Obama, an African-American became the President of the United States and in 2019, the British royal family welcomed a member of African-American descent by birth, Archie Mountbatten Windsor, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II. Archie is seventh in line to the throne.

To date, it is true that Black people continue to be treated unfairly across the justice, education, health, economic and employment systems and to many, diversity, equity and inclusion continues to remain a dream. However, we have made some social and economic progress and we will continue to make progress. Despite the systemic issues that we face, we have many success stories that we can look to; stories that encourage us and provide the motivation to keep striving for justice and equality. To continue to make headway, let's stop looking around but rather look within as to what we can contribute to elevate our community. Let's find the good around us and tap into it. The past must inform and strengthen us; not embitter us and keep us stuck. It's time to believe that we as Black people are no better than anyone else, neither is anyone better than us. Let's make voting in elections a priority to address and bring down the structures that continue to impede our progress. It's time to stop being bystanders in our futures and in the future of our children and grandchildren. It is particularly important to stop being neutral especially if you are an outlier who is experiencing some level of success. Elie Wiesel said it well with this quote: "Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim."

Using the words of Barack Obama: "Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." Can you be a first?

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