[11 April 2007]
David Axelrod may be a hotshot political campaign advisor (as opposed to the hotshot producer / arranger beloved by sample-happy DJ’s, also named David Axelrod), but not even he could have ordered up a better day to launch a crusade.
The sky was a perfect mid-February blue over the heart of Springfield, IL on a crisp, cloudless Saturday morning. Axelrod’s latest client took to the makeshift stage in the historic plaza, where Abraham Lincoln began his odyssey into American history to considerably less fanfare 150 or so years ago. The wife looked gorgeous, the children were neatly buffed, and Axelrod & company had the good taste to select a U2 song that wasn’t too shopworn.
The candidate spoke of hope and the future and asked America to join him in his quest. The throng applauded at all the right times, waved freshly minted campaign signs, and basked in a glow so radiant the only signs of winter were the gloves and scarves they were wearing. At the end of the speech he and his wife took their bows, Jackie Wilson’s proclamations about love lifting him higher and higher blazing through the loudspeakers.
And thus did Barack Obama, to the surprise of absolutely no one, kick off his presidential campaign.
It is months still before anyone will cast a vote, but already seemingly everything about Obama, from his mother’s high school friends to his pastor’s worldview to how he looks in swimwear, has been picked at by any number of pundits, bloggers, race men and women, and electoral politics junkies. More than any of the others aiming for the White House, Obama has engendered volumes of speculation, pontification, and even a little actual journalism here and there. I’m not the least bit inclined to add to any of it (having already contributed my two cents’ worth in late fall 2004, “Barack Obama, the Great Fill-in-the-Blank Hope”), except to note that if he is elected President, a long-held impulse in American life may finally reach its end.
That impulse is to mark with fanfare and salutations every time a person becomes the first black person to do something, no matter how lofty, obscure, or esoteric the achievement. Attain a specific high rank, complete a specific notable task, or walk through a certain door—if you’re the first black person to do it, other blacks will trumpet your accomplishment as yet more proof that black folks are just as competent as anyone else, and that the barriers to opportunity, entrenched in America since slavery, are now that much less rigid. It doesn’t matter if your particular achievement has nothing to do with the balance of power in politics or economics. It doesn’t even matter if your achievement isn’t something a lot of people might want to emulate. You’ll go to your grave eulogized as the “first black (fill-in-the-blank),” and every Black History Month someone will remember your name.
Those who haven’t spent the last several months under a rock know that an Obama victory in November 2008 would make him our First Black President. That achievement remains the Holy Grail of black firsts, the breakthrough of all breakthroughs for black people after almost 400 years on these shores. We’ve already had our first black big-city mayor (Carl Stokes in Cleveland, 1967), our first black governor (L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia, 1989), our first black US Senator post-Reconstruction (Edward W. Brooke in Massachusetts, 1966) and our first black US Supreme Court Justice (Thurgood Marshall, 1967). While the overall numbers of subsequent blacks in those positions aren’t uniformly impressive, at least those doors have been opened. Even if Obama isn’t elected President next year, it’s hard to think of another significant door that some black person hasn’t kicked down by now.
We’ve celebrated the first black astronaut (Major Robert Lawrence, Jr., 1966), the first black millionaire (William Alexander Leidesdorff, who owned property in California where gold was found in 1848), and the first black to paint an official presidential portrait (Simmie Knox, who did the honors for the Clintons). We’ve also made note of the first black Playboy centerfold (Jennifer Jackson, Miss March 1965) and the first black TV game show host (Adam Wade, Musical Chairs, 1976). First black to lead a labor union? A. Phillip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. First black CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Franklin Raines, Fannie Mae, 1999. First black to perform on the Grand Old Opry? DeFord Bailey, 1927.
In fact, there’s a book dedicated to the phenomenon, imaginatively titled Black Firsts (Visible Ink, 2003). Jessie Carney Smith compiled, as the subtitle indicates, “4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Firsts”, more than enough to keep trivia-of-color geeks occupied for a minute or two (I’ll take First Blacks in Medieval Lit for $400, Alex). Factoids you never much considered before abound on every page: the first black to set foot on Antarctica (George Gibbs, 1939); the first black Navy diver (Carl Brashear, 1965); the first black to graduate college in America (Alexander Lucius Twilight, Middlebury College, 1823); and on and on to the breaka dawn.
No doubt, it’s nice to have ready proof that blacks have, quite literally, been there and done that in just about every aspect of American life. And there probably will always be a racist knucklehead somewhere who needs to be shown that, indeed, blacks are perfectly capable of winning Nobel Prizes (Ralph Bunche, Nobel Peace Prize, 1950) and owning general-market newspapers (Robert Maynard, Oakland Tribune, 1983).
But is every time a black does something for the first time an event that merits elevation into the official annals of history? Are we still in such dire need of racial self-esteem bolstering that whenever someone becomes the first black person to do anything, we need to act like slavery just ended? The excitement over Halle Berry winning an Academy Award for best actress in 2002, the first black woman ever to receive that specific trophy, continues to baffle the mind; all those expecting that moment to change the balance of power for black women in Hollywood must surely be disappointed.
A more recent head-scratcher was all the self-congratulation going on a few weeks back, when Chicago’s Lovie Smith and Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy became the first black head coaches to lead teams to the Super Bowl (Indy’s victory thus making Dungy the first black head coach to win it). What exactly did their accomplishments prove? What new victory for the race did they win? Football fans well knew that both men were fine coaches, and had been successful in their previous positions. And black head coaches, while not a commonplace sight on football sidelines, are hardly a novelty anymore. There are and have been various other blacks to lead football teams since Oakland hired Art Shell in 1989 (the first black head coach was Fritz Pollard of the Akron Pros in 1921; the affinity group of black head and assistant coaches is named for Pollard). Rather than being an accomplishment requiring fortitude above and beyond the call, what Smith and Dungy did is better seen as an inevitability, a matter of time – sooner or later, as long as the commitment to develop and hire black coaching talent remained in place, some black person would have led the league’s best team.
But that didn’t stop the whole world from believing that history had actually been made. The game was nicknamed the “Soul Bowl”, and there were three commercials during the broadcast saluting the event and how it symbolized how far we’ve allegedly come as a nation – and did I mention that the game just so happened to fall during Black History Month? Yep, nothing says “We Shall Overcome” quite like one set of talented millionaires playing a ballgame better than another set, with the right to boast “I’m going to Disney World!” hanging in the balance.
That was the biggest race-oriented fuss over a Super Bowl since Washington’s Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to win one (Super Bowl XXII, 1988). His achievement cut a little more deeply, if only because black quarterbacks were even more of a novelty then than black head coaches are now. For generations, the thought was that blacks couldn’t handle the mental and physical demands of the most important football position, the one position requiring strength, intelligence, leadership and at least a little charisma. Blacks could run and jump and catch and tackle, the lie went, but they couldn’t master strategic complexities or inspire others to accomplish a goal.
Only a handful of blacks got to play quarterback in post-World War II pro football before Williams entered the league in 1978, and most of them didn’t last long. Many blacks who played quarterback in college were converted to other positions in the pros (including Dungy, as irony would have it). For black football fans, the hope for a star black quarterback took on mythic dimensions, thus the sense of collective joy when Williams turned in a magnificent performance on the sport’s biggest stage. Sportswriter William C. Rhoden’s oral history of black quarterbacks, Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumph of the Black Quarterback (ESPN Books), tells this story for the first time, remembering forgotten names like Willie Thrower and Marlin Briscoe along with the greats who would come in their wake, like Williams, Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon, the first modern-era black quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If the Dungy-Smith moment was a feel-good story and the Williams triumph a long-overdue smashing of a virulent myth, then Jackie Robinson belongs more to those aforementioned annals of history than to the sports pages. Ever since the tail end of the 1800s, big league baseball was a lily-white business per “gentlemen’s agreement”. The national pastime’s racism helped give rise to the Negro Leagues and a constellation of stars just as talented as those in the majors, but no one was under any illusion that separate was anything close to equal.
Everything – and I do mean everything – changed 60 years ago this month. On April 15, 1947, the 28-year-old Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, after one season with the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal. The impact of his slashing play on the Dodgers (he was named Rookie of the Year, and the team went on to win the pennant that season and in four of the following eight seasons) was exceeded only by his impact on all of sports, and all of America. Sticklers and trivia-of-color geeks will note that pro football was desegregated in 1946 by players with the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, but baseball was America’s game back then, and so entrenched was the gentlemen’s agreement that it took an almost unfathomable focus and drive for Robinson to merely survive in that intense a spotlight, let alone excel.
Jackie Robinson was everything we imagine a “first black” should be: supremely gifted, confident but not cocky, forged for battle, proud of his people, and always mindful of his special place in time, and the ensuing responsibility to the race. He bore his burden heroically, for all of us. It is impossible to imagine baseball, or sports, or America, without his being whom he was and doing what he did the way he did it. He proved that sometimes it’s not enough to merely be first; having the chance to be first is one thing, getting it right is a far grander case.
As befits a legend, there is a canon of literature and scholarship about the meaning of his life and career. In time for the 60th anniversary, that canon is growing by at least two. Jonathan Eig recounts the fateful 1947 odyssey in Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season (Simon & Schuster); although that story has been told numerous times, Eig usefully reminds us that ’47 was not only the year of modern baseball’s first black player, but also its 2nd (Larry Doby, Cleveland) 3rd and 4th players (Willard Brown and Hank Thompson, St. Louis Browns) and first black pitcher (Dan Bankhead, a teammate of Robinson’s with Brooklyn). Robinson’s courage made it possible for black players who would follow him to not have to suffer quite as much as he did, but it was hardly easy for them. Their travails are recounted in After Jackie: Pride, Prejudice and Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes: an Oral History (ESPN Books), Cal Fossman’s look at Don Newcombe, Monte Irvin, and the others who made sure the door Robinson blasted open would never be shut again.
But not all momentous black firsts took place while the whole world was looking. While Robinson and his peers were writing new chapters in baseball history, another intrepid group was writing a new script for American business. For years, Pepsi-Cola was a distant second to Coca-Cola in the soda pop wars. The only segment of the market where Pepsi had anything close to dominance was the black segment, for two reasons. One, Pepsi was priced a little cheaper than Coke, thus making it a little easier on shoppers with less disposable income. Second, Pepsi actively courted black customers. As far back as 1940, Pepsi hired black salespeople to service the black market.
In the late ‘40s they went one better, assembling a dozen of the race’s best and brightest to form corporate America’s first specialty marketing unit. They criss-crossed the country, promoting Pepsi everywhere black folks congregated, from the church to the tavern. They created print ads featuring inspiring black achievers, a trick savvy marketers have used to success ever since (e.g., Anheuser-Busch’s “Great Kings of Africa” series). They created point-of-purchase displays featuring smiling, wholesome black families, including that of future Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. And they threw business to black modeling and ad agencies. Pepsi was years ahead of Coke, and virtually every other major corporation, in not only taking the black consumer seriously, but also making that effort part and parcel of the overall business strategy.
Stephanie Capparell’s The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Line in American Business (Wall Street Journal Books) lurches at times, especially when she departs from the flow of the main story to fill in detail on the young men of the specialty sales force, and the era and conditions in which they operated. But that extra detail is every bit as illuminating as the basic story itself. Back then, blacks fought not only for access to corporate jobs, but also for fair and respectful treatment as customers with growing buying power. That Pepsi would provide both – and by its own devices, not as a result of boycotts or organized pressure – says a lot about its commitment to diversity, long before “diversity” was such a buzzword. Capparell performs a truly valuable function with this engaging business and social history – the Pepsi team’s story has been so unheralded for so long that blacks have been movin’ on up the corporate ladder for years without knowing who actually took the first steps.
In other words, just about everywhere you look, some black person was the first to do something. Smith’s exhaustive Black Firsts tome even lists the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. It happened in 1990, and the book lists the editor in question as none other than…“Obama Barack”. I kid you not. For all its detail and abundance of historical curiosities – a “gee-I-had-no-idea” moment on every page – it royally screwed up a name in the public record (he was an Illinois state senator at the time of publication). Somehow, though, I don’t think they were the first blacks to get Obama’s name wrong. But if he actually wins the White House next year, they may be among the last.