On Being the First and Only Black
Nothing creates combined feelings of pride, frustration, and burden like being the first or only Black person in a position. All eyes are on you, from every vantage point, some rooting for you,some envious, others questioning whether you deserve to be there. W.E.B Dubois’ “doubleconsciousness” is suddenly experienced in another context. More than 100 years later, “One ever feels his twoness” of…Being the first Black. You are one of the remarkable ones to white people who are view us as otherwise unremarkable. Your community is proud of you but wants you to always remember where you came from. When you are the first Black person to do something the world thought we couldn’t (because we knew we could) or that institutionalized racism prevented us from doing, it is seen as an amazing feat to most. Still, there is indignation about there still having to be the first Black anything more than twenty years into the twenty first century. It is a reminder that every day, Black people are still fighting to be recognized as capable and valuable. Or perhaps our capability & value are well understood and just feared? Either way, one cannot be nor witness the first Black anyone without feeling both pride and resentment.
For some, being the single melanated person room is like being prepared for a fight, in full emotional armor. Any mistake will be equated with your inherent inferiority and affirmative action. You have to be prepared for microaggressions, deciding whether to use it as a teachable moment, to ignore, joke it off, or politely call them out. Whatever your decision, you know that you cannot act on the burning fire of exasperation that swells in your belly when you are referred to as, “Girlfriend” or someone asks if they can touch your hair. Our rage will seal our doom, economically, socially, and literally, if we dare act upon it, and so our surface communication must never reflect our true emotions. The amount of effort and the weight of it is tremendous.
Whether you are the first or the only, you will be under scrutiny by your tribe and those outside. Everything that comes out of your mouth, every action, and even your appearance becomes representation of all Black people. It is a burden placed on us by our own community and people who hate and misunderstand us, despite our repeated declaration that we are not monoliths. We are a people who have demonstrated originality, and diversity time and time again through innovation in education, film literature, fashion, music and just being. We don’t have to justify it for anyone, but what we must all do is always speak up (whether asked or not) denounce silencing our voices and experiences for the comfort of white people.