By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Theirs is a diverse group of astronauts and athletes, of politicians and performers, but membership requirements are universal and rigid. If you're persistent enough to overturn 200 years of history and courageous enough to surmount stereotypes, you might have what it takes to become the first African American to achieve a position.
If you manage it, here is some of what might await: threats, media scrutiny, jealousy and the pressure of representing an entire race. As first, you experience much of this alone.
There's L. Douglas Wilder, the first black elected governor, who in 1990 confessed to his Virginia staff: "Good God. If I blow this, there might never be a second." There's Carole Gist, the first black Miss USA, who was guarded by 24-hour security after she received a barrage of hate mail. There's Arthur Mitchell, the first black dancer in the New York City Ballet, who said his 1955 debut "sent the crowd into a frenzy, like a thunderbolt hit the theater." There's Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white Southern elementary school, who walked past a wall of protesters each morning en route to her first-grade classroom.
Nine trailblazers recalled their stories for The Washington Post, their firsts spanning from the 1950s through the new millennium. They agreed that, as the country becomes more integrated and more tolerant, each successive first faces a more subtle form of resistance. But their responses also indicated that some things haven't changed -- all grappled with internal pressure and external scrutiny. Their collective experiences offer a window into what Barack Obama faces over the next several weeks.
Never has an African American come so close to the nation's ultimate symbol of power and achievement -- to a first that would stand as a testament to all the others. If Obama becomes president, other trailblazers will celebrate it as proof that their efforts made a lasting impact on race relations in America, they said.
"A black guy in the White House? That's the ultimate one," said Earl Lloyd, 80, who in 1950 became the first black man to play professional basketball in the NBA. "All of us who broke down barriers faced a lot of resistance, but now he's trying to break down the biggest barrier of all. I've got to tell you: When you're in the middle of that, it's a very scary feeling."
Obama has experienced the rewards and challenges of trailblazing before, when he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. He ran for the position in his second year of law school in part because he felt compelled, he said then, by "a door that needs to be kicked down." Once he was in office, the significance of his achievement took him by surprise.
Newspaper reporters traveled from New York and Los Angeles to interview him. A publisher offered him a book deal. Professors said the 28-year-old had an opportunity to redefine minority roles at Harvard.
Some whites on the law review complained that he favored black issues; some blacks complained that, like his predecessors, he overlooked them. Amid their criticisms, Obama worked 60 hours a week to run the review capably, calling the experience "one of the most challenging" in his young life.
"It sends out a strong signal," Obama said then. "It says that, when given the chance, African Americans can excel in even the most competitive of circumstances."
Eighteen years later, Obama finds himself first once again. And once again, he must confront a burden that other pioneers described as twofold.
First, there is the external resistance. Bridges spent a year in a classroom by herself in 1960 because the parents of other pupils at William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans refused to let their children learn with a black girl. Eight years later, to become the first black quarterback in professional football, Marlin Briscoe overcame coaches who refused to play him, teammates who hesitated to block for him and fans who insisted that he should remain a defensive back. "A quarterback needs to think," Briscoe said, "and everybody told me that a black player couldn't do that."
Gist won the 1990 Miss USA pageant, then returned to her Michigan home to find a stack of letters waiting. She had hoped to minimize controversy by playing down her historic role -- "I just wanted to be little old Carole, anonymous," she said -- but those hopes evaporated when she started reading her mail.
"All of these people, strangers, were calling me nappy, ugly, dark skin, big nose, big lips -- like, 'This is crazy. You're black. How could we let you be Miss USA?' " Gist said. "I wanted to write back, like, 'Who drilled it in your head that beauty only comes one way?' I had to have security around me all the time, and I couldn't really respond to it. I had to deal with so much hate, and the only thing to do was to try and dismiss it."
Much harder to ignore, several people said, is the internal turmoil requisite in trailblazing. Guion Bluford, named an astronaut on a 1983 Challenger flight, made it his goal to make the entire black race look competent in space, he said, "so others would have the chance." Donnie Cochran, the first black pilot to fly with the Navy's Blue Angels, tortured himself by striving for perfection until his co-pilots convinced him to forgive the occasional mistake.
Mitchell, the ballet dancer, was repeatedly turned down for parts in New York, so he spent a few years performing in Europe and scrounged for bit roles in Broadway shows. He blamed some of his hardships on the utter lack of black dancer role models, and he wanted badly to fill that role for generations to come. "I was the eldest of five kids, and I'd raised my family since I was 12 years old," Mitchell said. "So I figured I could take on that kind of responsibility."
Feeling sick after a particularly stressful show, Mitchell went to see a doctor.
"He said, 'Arthur, your hair is falling out, you're too thin, and your body is breaking down. It looks to me like you are having a nervous breakdown, and you're too dumb to even know it.' I was 23 or maybe 24 years old, and the pressures are much greater than you feel at the particular time. I felt so much older from being under the microscope all the time. My body couldn't take all of that weight."
The only way to carry on under such a burden, Mitchell eventually decided, was to put aside his role as a trailblazer -- to pretend he was merely a dancer like any other, judged by ability and not by skin color.
This is a lesson everyone eventually learns, the firsts said, and Obama has implemented it quickly. He rarely speaks about racism, even when he's the victim of it. He talks not about being black, but about being the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya.
In March, during his most direct speech about race, he reminded his audience that he is not the representative of one race but of many: "I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue scattered across three continents," he said.
Wilder used similar tactics to play down talk of becoming a first in 1990, during his campaign for governor. When asked about race, he told reporters that he was running as "a qualified politician, not a black politician." A handful of prominent black leaders offered to travel to Virginia to help him campaign -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown -- and Wilder insisted they stay home. "I told them, 'Send money instead,' " he said. "I didn't need them to introduce me."
"One of the cautions I've asked of Barack Obama, and he's adhered to," Wilder said, "is that you can't make this about being African American or making history. He doesn't talk about being first, because who cares in terms of how it affects taxes? He's never accused anybody of racism or of there being a double standard, even when there is, because that's just going to bring up the issue and rile people up.
"You can't be the archivist of your own time. History will record what it records. Your job is just to do what you can, to your highest potential. Are you going to get a raw deal sometimes? Yeah, but there's no choice except to keep quiet and to swallow it."
In those lonely moments, the trailblazers said, it's essential to have somewhere to turn for strength and inspiration. Ruth Simmons became the first president of an Ivy League school when Brown University hired her in 2001. Before that, she served as president of Smith College, where a group of African American women hosted a ceremony for her shortly after she arrived.
Each woman at the event wrote a note of thanks to Simmons, and the party's host collected them in a special bowl. Almost a decade later, that bowl sits on a shelf in Simmons's Brown University office.
"I still take it out from time to time and read through those messages," Simmons said. "It's uplifting to know that there are people out there who care about me and what I'm doing. That provides a reservoir of strength during the tough moments. Sometimes, you want to be reminded of the community that supports you, because there are going to be some lonely days."