“Black Firsts: 500 Years of Trailblazing Achievements and Ground-Breaking Events” by Jessie Carney Smith; Visible Ink Press (704 pages; $29.95)
It’s painful being a pioneer.
“Black Firsts: 500 Years of Trailblazing Achievements and Ground-Breaking Events” is a proud celebration of Black success. But its thousands of entries – groundbreakers in every field – often come with nagging questions and a kind of weary anger.
Why did so many others stand in their way? And why are we only hearing about some of these achievements now?
It’s not the fault of author Jessie Carney Smith. Her book, now in its fourth edition, was begun nearly 30 years ago. It remains dedicated to “the abounding success of our people who, despite the odds, continue to reach new heights.”
Smith organizes her achievements first by field, then chronologically. People in government take up the most room, with more than 150 pages of entries. Athletes come next, with nearly 90.
Some of the most interesting people, however, are the least famous.
Readers likely know about George Washington Carver and his work with peanuts. But how many know about the first Black American to receive a patent, Thomas L. Jennings? He devised a dry cleaning process back in 1821, between running his Manhattan tailor shop and promoting the abolition of slavery.
Other black inventors gave America everything from golf tees to ironing boards. And some inventions saved lives. That metal fire escape bolted to apartment buildings? Credit J.R. Winters, who devised it back in 1878. The pacemaker? Thank Otis F. Boykin, who started working on the device in 1959.
Dr. Charles Drew’s experiments with plasma inspired him to pioneer blood banks, opening the first one in Britain in 1940. Sadly, Drew’s brilliance was less welcome in his native America once he explained blood had nothing to do with race. He eventually resigned from the Red Cross after it insisted on segregating the blood of Black donors.
Drew died after an auto accident in 1950 in North Carolina. The tragic irony? The segregated hospital he was taken to “had no blood plasma that might have saved his life.”
Even when racist laws didn’t quash Black talent, so many Black achievements often went unknown.
Artist George Herriman’s immensely popular Krazy Kat debuted in 1910. The feline, and her violent admirer Ignatz Mouse, would star in comic strips and cartoons for decades. His fans didn’t know that Herriman was Black and had been passing as white ever since he fled the South for California. His friends thought he was Greek.
For other writers, being Black was essential to their identity. Since 1760, and the autobiographical “A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man,” Black writers have been integral to American literature. Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa and 20 years enslaved, published a book of poetry in 1773, the first by a Black American. The debut of the first Black novelist, William Wells Brown, with “Clotel, or The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States” was in 1853.
Since, Black writers have won many honors. In 1950, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first Black to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for “Annie Allen.” Three years later, Ralph Ellison was the first Black to win the National Book Award for “Invisible Man.” In 1983, Alice Walker became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “The Color Purple.” A decade later, Toni Morrison became the first Black American – and only the second American woman – to win the Nobel Prize in literature for her life’s work.
“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet,” Morrison advised aspiring authors, “you must be the one to write it.”
Perhaps even more widely known, celebrated and beloved, was Maya Angelou, who published poetry, plays, and seven memoirs, including the bestseller “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” A Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominee, she fought for civil rights and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” recited at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, was only the second time, after Robert Frost, a poet, had read their work at the ceremony.
Angelou, who died in 2014, insisted that writing and activism were synonymous to her and essential to life. “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith,” she said. “While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”
That perseverance was particularly crucial to Black performers, who faced racism the moment they stepped on stage. Still, they persisted.
One of the greatest Shakespeareans of the 19th century, Ira Frederick Aldridge, first appeared with New York’s African Theater Company. After his London debut in 1825, his European career continued for three decades. Aldridge was particularly praised for his performance in the title role of “Othello,” a part which would later bring breakthroughs for Paul Robeson, the first Black to play the role in an integrated cast in 1943, and for Laurence Fishburne, the first Black to play the role on film, 1995.
Black Americans moved into movie production with The Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, but progress was glacial. It wasn’t until 1969 that the multi-talented Gordon Parks produced and directed a major Hollywood film, “The Learning Tree.” Two years later, his “Shaft” became a crossover hit. And it wasn’t until 2008 that the first Black movie mogul emerged when Tyler Perry founded his own studio.
For years, Black actors were offered only small, stereotyped roles. Still, some, like Hattie McDaniel, brought artistry to the parts and found dignity in the work. “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid?” she asked once. “If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.” She would win the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” the first for a Black performer.
It was the breakthrough for Black actors and followed by Sidney Poitier, best actor, “Lilies of the Field” (1963); Louis Gossett Jr., best supporting actor, “An Officer and A Gentleman” (1982) and Halle Berry, the first, and so far last, to take best actress, in “Monster’s Ball,” (2000). Among the Academy’s most honored? Denzel Washington, who won best supporting actor for 1989u2032s “Glory,” and best actor for 2001’s “Training Day,” and Mahershala Ali, who won supporting prizes for 2016’s “Moonlight” and 2018’s “Green Book.”
While the Oscars may be the most famous awards won by Blacks in America, they illustrate a familiar and often frustrating story. Wins are often decades apart. Some years, no people of color are nominated at all. Like the story of Black achievement in every field, it’s a history of hard work and often incremental progress.
But the struggle goes on, and Smith vows to keep chronicling it.
“I am not yet done with writing about first black achievers and black hidden figures,” she writes. “In the words of one of Fisk University’s dean of women, Juliette Derricotte, who reflected on her travels in India, Japan, and China in the late 1920s, ‘There is so much more to know than I accustomed to knowing — and so much more to love than I accustomed to loving.’”
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