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Of Black Firsts

Misty Copeland

In black circles, it is a moment more inevitable than even death or taxes.

More inevitable than a sunrise.  More inevitable than the sad reality that young black people will continue to be killed by law enforcement officers.

And more inevitable than our society justifying those murders by pointing to the amount of “Black on Black” crime that exists in the world.

It’s the moment when our society decides to acknowledge a “black first.”  You know, when a black individual makes gains in a discipline or profession sparsely populated by other blacks.  A black first.

This world has seen its share of black firsts:  The first black medical doctor, the first black astronaut, the first black man to argue before the Supreme Court, the first black woman elected to Congress, the first black president and so on and so on.

When the world gets wind of a black first, the response to it and them is universal and uniform; the black first is called anything from groundbreaking, to game changing, to inspiring.  I have even seen the terms “pioneer” and “pilgrim” used to describe black firsts.

Black firsts, according to conventional wisdom, open up proverbial doors for blacks who want to excel in anything worthwhile, and generally make the world a better place for Blacks, as a general proposition.

But, that has hasn’t always been the case.  A black first, in many instances, calls attention to how little progress we’ve made as a country, and how much more work there is to do.

Let me explain.  When Halle Berry won an Oscar in 2002 for Best Actress, it was supposed to be a game changer for black actresses.

But it wasn’t. In 2015, Halle Berry is still the only black woman to win an Oscar for a leading role, and movie parts for black actresses are far and few between.

When Dorthea Towles made history as the first black runway model, it was supposed to be a game changer for black women.

But, it wasn’t. At the most recent New York Fashion Week, less than ten percent of the runway models were non-white.

And our present’s election as the first black president was supposed to change the game for blacks generally.

But, it hasn’t.  Gun sales, membership in hate groups, and hate crimes against blacks, have all skyrocketed during President Obama’s tenure.

Now, the American Ballet Theatre has recently promoted Misty Copeland to its top rank, making her the first black principal ballerina in that company’s 75-year history.

Under Armor photo
Under Armor photo

And the world is heralding this as a major breakthrough for black people. And while I applaud Copeland for her accomplishment, I don’t know if this is a breakthrough for blacks.

It occurs to me that Copeland’s promotion to principal underscores the tremendous disadvantages young Black women have always had in this country.

There are and have always been many young women of color, who have had ample talent and ability, that have been prevented from taking advantages of opportunities to excel in the arts.

What’s more, Copeland’s promotion does little to address the body image concerns that we should have about the world of dance. It is entirely possible to be a world class dancer and also a size six, or 10, or yes, even a 12.

So, Copeland’s promotion may indeed be groundbreaking.  But, for those of us who have seen what happens in a discipline after the black first, we know that it’s better to take a wait and see approach to this news before we buy the young women in our lives tutus.