This marks the annual recognition of Black History Month, when special attention is paid to the achievements, individually and collectively, of African-Americans.
That said, while you do have a burst of references to the “first” person of that heritage to make some milestone — and, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of those — studying history isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about “trivia.” We do so also to learn lessons about where we were, how we get there — and, ultimately, how to move forward.
Two years ago I was a guest on an internet radio program talking about the subject, and the host and I talked about several figures: Jackie Robinson, Doug Williams and Miles Davis.
Robinson’s place as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era is secure, but that had to do with more than just his presence. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey did want to integrate the game and chose Robinson do to it not simply because he was a great player, which he was; rather, Rickey had two other things in mind.
One, he wanted to build a cohesive team with someone or something to rally around, with the intention that if someone called Robinson a name other players would stick up for him and, thus, build camaraderie. Two, because black baseball was more exciting in those days, Rickey wanted to reach out to the black public, and its money, by bring black players in.
In the case of Williams, the quarterback for the Washington Redskins in the late 1980s, opportunity was knocking. When the Redskins were about to face the Denver Broncos in the 1988 Super Bowl, gums were flapping about Williams’ race — you know, “can a black quarterback win the big one?”, a question I personally found insulting. Someone asked me for a prediction, and I called a Washington victory because “Doug Williams will have the game of his life.” Result: A 42-10 laugher, with Williams throwing four touchdown passes in the second quarter (still a record for not only a quarter but also a half).
Davis, the jazz trumpeter and composer who reinvented music a few times, moving from bebop to “cool” and later fusion, ignored critics and waited for them to catch up to him. (Which they did.) Rather than focus upon whatever might make him a star, he blazed his own path, where others eventually followed. That’s his legacy.
And these are the kind of things we should look for.