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Monthly Archives: September 2015

Many Firsts

Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play baseball in the major leagues.  Dr. Bernadette Gray-Little is the 17th chancellor of the University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS) and the first African-American female to be at the helm in the university’s nearly 150 years of existence. Yours truly was the first African-American to lead the Francis Schaeffer Institute (FSI) at Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO). Yours truly was the first African-American engineer in the printed circuit boards department at then Bendix Aerospace (Kansas City, MO).  Hank Aaron was the first to break Babe Ruth’s homework record (and allegedly he received death threats to discourage him from hitting that historic homerun). President Barack Obama is the first African-American president.  General Colin Powell was the first U.S. Secretary of State and Condoleezza Rice was the first African-American female Secretary of State.  Arthur Ashe became the first African-American male champion who won the 1968 U.S. Open, the 1970 Australian Open, and the 1975 Wimbledon championship. (See others at http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmfirsts.html.)

Why is it difficult?

It is difficult for these reasons: 1) many blacks who are first struggle because of hearing repeated messages like the following “you are not good enough” or “you got here because of a favor and not because of your own merit.” Some internal statements worry the “firsts” too like, “can I really be myself”? or “should I ask what something means that seems obvious to the majority culture”? Statements like these – from without and from within – play heavily on the psychic of the first African-American or any person. 2) it is difficult because many African-Americans who are first are forerunners for more African-Americans.  That is, white employers will make decisions to hire other African-Americans based on the performance of the first. So, for many “firsts” the margin of error is fairly small. 3) many “firsts” find it difficult because they do not want to let down all the people that helped get them there. And 4) it is difficult because many of these first African-Americans are ‘in circles’ with protocols, mores, customs, language, written rules and most importantly, unwritten rules that must be learned and translated.

Implications

There are several implications in light of the second paragraph: 1) show the “firsts” some grace and patience; 2) be an interpreter of the not so obvious for the firsts; and 3) don’t be quick to rush to the conclusion that they are not a good fit…they might be a bit nervous and anxious…I certainly was.

[I believe this blog applies not only to the “firsts” in the African-American community but the “firsts” in any culture.  For example, I am certain Sonia Maria Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice of SCOTUS undoubtedly experiences what African-Americans experience.]