When the United States elected its first black president in 2008, it felt like a turning point — a cultural milestone for our country, a moment of grace in its fraught history of race relations, the fulfillment of an equality long promised by our founding fathers.
Seven years later, a new turning point awaits: What next?
No one knows. By their very nature, such “firsts” thrust us into uncharted territory.
But ask other black pioneers about their experiences, and they agree on this: Being first is never easy, but life afterward can be just as hard — both for the person who broke the barrier and the country at large.
Like Obama, they endured the challenge and scrutiny of breaking barriers, and they emerged with victories of their own: the first black governor. The first black billionaire. The first black Ivy League president.
If becoming a first requires determination and sacrifice, they say, then life after that first takes an equal amount of patience and perspective.
The label, they say, is something you contend with for the rest of your life — questioning it, probing for what it means, striving to preserve an identity outside of it and, if you’re lucky, learning to harness its power in a way that helps others.
It is a life that, yes, comes with accolades and speech invitations. But it also comes saddled with the substantial expectations and lingering questions of others.
“The aftermath of it chewed me up; on the other hand, it made me a hell of a lot stronger,” said Ed Dwight, 82, the first African American to be trained as an astronaut.
In hours-long conversations with half a dozen black pioneers, many described life in the aftermath as a series of developmental stages.
And in the final stage, one of introspection, they find themselves asking the same questions this country faces as its first black president’s tenure approaches its end: What did it all amount to? Did it change anything?
First comes the huge sigh of relief.
Ruth Simmons, 70, described it as a phenomenal release of pressure. Life after the first means finally shedding the weight that has accumulated on your shoulders for years.
“You realize you’re free for the first time in a long time,” she said.
For more than a decade, Simmons served as the first black president of an Ivy League university. That tenure as head of Brown University capped a decades-long career in academia. With each step on that journey, she felt the mounting expectations of others.
She grew up dirt poor, born in a sharecropper’s shack on a cotton farm, the youngest of 12 children. Succeeding academically in Texas back then meant overturning racists’ notions about her intellectual capacity. But taking on her first administrative job — assistant dean at the University of New Orleans in 1975 — thrust her onto even more treacherous terrain.
“You understand early on that you’re not going to be given a pass just because you happen to be the first African American; in fact, you’re going to be judged against a higher standard,” she said.
Scrutiny from the minority community felt equally intense, with many watching to see whether she lived up to what they saw as her obligations. She had to do everything her predecessors did, but she was also inundated with requests from groups representing women, blacks and other minorities.
When she grappled with issues her predecessors had not, she drew scrutiny for that, as well.
Shortly after taking over Brown, she formed a committee to investigate the university’s historical ties to slave trade and ways to acknowledge and amend for it.
“If I had not been African American, it might have been fairly easy to launch,” she said. “The fact that it was a black president doing this, it drew criticism immediately.”
For Simmons, all that pressure boiled down to a single haunting thought: Don’t screw this up for the next person with a shot at the top.
You feel the pressure constantly, she said, as you decide how to behave in public, what clothes to wear out. You feel it as you engage with subtly racist folks — stakeholders you hate talking to but must for the good of the university. You feel the extra scrutiny when you call out people’s misdeeds.
She constantly thought back to her own black heroes and recalled how devastating it felt when they fell short.
“I wanted from them integrity, courage, for them to stand up for the right principles of fairness . . . and to do that even when it cost them dearly,” she said. “That was my litmus test.”
In 1995, at Smith College, she became the first black woman to lead a major private university. Then, from 2001 to 2012, she served as president of Brown, where she was widely praised by faculty and students.
At the end of it all, she was surprised to discover that the high standard and incredible pressure she had felt all those years had at some point become a much lower bar.
In retirement, she said, she was suddenly being hailed as a hero simply for not failing miserably as a first. “You either, as a consequence of that label, go down in history as an abysmal failure,” she said, “or if you do a reasonable job, there’s a big sigh and you become even more famous after you leave office.”
The counterpoint, however, to that sigh of relief is the realization that the expectations don’t end with your accomplishment.
There is often a feeling by others, these black pioneers said, that the success you’ve achieved doesn’t ultimately belong to you.
“Your fame, your wealth, your success become what I call an heirloom of the black community,” said Robert L. Johnson, 69, who in 1980 founded Black Entertainment Television, the biggest cable network aimed at African Americans.
The message you receive from the black community about your success, Johnson said, is this: “You may be the vessel that holds it, but we own it. Therefore, you have an obligation to act in the long-term best interest of the African American community even if it may threaten your own.”
For some, that sense of ownership applies to their fame or power. For Johnson, whose BET network became the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, it was his wealth.
In 2001, Johnson became the country’s first black billionaire with BET’s $3 billion sale to Viacom.
Almost overnight, the requests started flooding in, he said. “It became, ‘You need money? Call Bob Johnson. You need a donation or program funded? Call Bob Johnson.’ ”
One group desperate to help blacks in Liberia — then mired in civil war and authoritarian leadership — proposed that Johnson simply buy the entire country and fix its problems in return for mineral rights.
A friend asked him for $75,000 the day after BET went public. Asking you for $75,000, the friend told Johnson, is like someone asking me for a penny.
The expectations also applied to his business ventures. His detractors — and the loudest for years have come from the black community — criticized him for filling BET’s programming with music videos of scantily clad women and high-rolling rappers. They said the channel perpetuated negative stereotypes and should be more devoted to high-minded discourse and the African American cause.
Johnson sees it as part of the “curse of being first.”
“If there were five BETs, then you could say, ‘I don’t like that one. I’m going to watch the other one,’ ” he said.
He predicts Obama will face similar burdens and expectations.
“Some might say, ‘The man has done all he could. . . . His hair is gray. Leave him alone, give him a chance to be with his family,’ ” Johnson said. “But others will say, ‘Sorry, but we put him in office. We gave him power. We gave him visibility. I know he’s not the president anymore, but he can pick up the phone and call so and so. He can go to this company and ask them to invest in the black community.’ ”
Just imagine, Johnson said, another huge racial controversy — the next Ferguson or Charleston shooting or Trayvon Martin. If Obama doesn’t speak out afterward, doesn’t extend his leadership, the questions will inevitably start.
“People will ask, ‘Why is he remaining silent? . . . ‘Was his heart ever really there?’ ” Johnson said. “There is just no escape.”
Not all pioneers, however, see that lifelong expectation as a burden.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, I don’t want to do that. That’s it. It’s over,” said Ruby Bridges Hall.
For a period of her life, said Hall, 62, she tried to do exactly that, disappearing into a life of anonymity.
In 1960, at age 6, she became the first black child to attend an all-white school in Louisiana.
White parents immediately pulled out their children. Every teacher at the school except one refused to teach her. She spent her whole first year secluded in an empty classroom, kept away from white kids in the cafeteria and playground. Federal marshals had to escort her to class — a moment that Norman Rockwell depicted in a painting titled “The Problem We All Live With.”
For years afterward, she said, she didn’t understand the implications of that experience and even avoided it.
She married, raised four kids and quietly worked as a travel agent for American Express.
By chance decades later, she found herself back at William Frantz Elementary as a volunteer, the same school she had integrated as a child. After her brother was shot and killed, Hall started looking after his orphaned daughters, who happened to attend the school.
Amid that dark period in her family’s life, she said, she finally made peace with her past.
“You look back and take stock of your life and ask yourself, ‘What am I doing? Am I doing something meaningful, something that makes a difference in the world?’ ” she said. “Once I started asking that question, it brought me right back to that experience in 1960.”
She said she realized that “there is your job, and then there is your calling. And your calling is not something you can run away from.”
She wrote a book about her experiences as a child. She reunited with her former elementary school teacher on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” She created a foundation and began touring schools, talking to children about racism.
“I think probably President Obama is going to find himself in those same shoes. His work will not ever be done,” she said. “What you’ve accepted won’t allow you to quit.”
As time passes, older trailblazers say, you become preoccupied with the question of legacy.
Some of it has to do with vanity over how you’ll be remembered, they said. But you also find yourself searching for signs of change, proof that you moved the needle in some way.
It is an exercise, they say, that leads to frustration.
L. Douglas Wilder, 85, said that for almost two decades he wondered whether his accomplishments amounted to anything in a historical sense.
In a precursor of sorts to Obama’s election, he became in 1989 the country’s first African American to be elected governor.
His victory was so narrow it was decided by less than half a percent. But his inauguration was splashed across the front pages of the country and hailed as a watershed moment in politics.
Wilder, however, wondered privately for years whether it really was.
L. Douglas Wilder
“Being number one means nothing until there’s a number two,” he explained.
As he watched the campaigns of one black candidate after another founder, he said he felt deep disappointment and even fear that his election was simply an anomaly.
It took 17 years before another black man was finally elected governor — Deval Patrick, in Massachusetts in 2006. Wilder flew up to witness his inauguration.
“I took tremendous comfort in what I call the confirmation of my long-held belief,” he said, “that my election as governor was not some sort of aberration that could never happen again.”
These days, Wilder talks about race and politics operating like a door. He talks about how hard it was to push that door open, and the difficulty of keeping it ajar.
As a pioneer, he said, you often hope your “first” will lead to others. Since Obama’s election as president, the country also has seen its first black U.S. attorney general, NASA administrator, U.S. trade representative, federal director of prisons and homeland security secretary. Add to that list the first black female four-star admiral, U.N. ambassador and Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Wilder said he made a similar push during his administration to involve more minorities and women than his predecessors. And yet, he said, since his election, no African American in Virginia has won a statewide office.
The question of why continues to frustrate and befuddle him.
When up-and-coming minority candidates seek him out for advice, Wilder grills them on exactly why they’re running and what they hope to accomplish.
“It can’t just be about being first or second or third, because it could add up to zero,” he tells them. “The voter is not interested in history. The voter is interested in schools, crime, taxes, finances.”
The question that they have to answer, he tells them, is this: What real and lasting difference are you going to make if elected?
What drives those worries about legacy is actually a much deeper question about our country: Are our divisions and disparities over race getting better or worse?
It is a question about the future, about hope vs. despair, about optimism vs. pessimism.
And among some who have devoted their lives to pushing for progress, it elicits gloom.
Dwight, who was chosen by President John F. Kennedy’s administration to be the first black man to undergo astronaut training, said that among his darkest, innermost fears is the idea that Obama’s election could turn out to be the worst thing that ever happened for African Americans.
He talks about a backlash effect since Obama’s election, a feeling among white America that now “we don’t owe you nothing. You got a black president of the United States. So we don’t owe you a thing.”
He talks about his worry that years from now we will look back on this period as the pinnacle of black possibility.
Alexa Canady also struggles with despair.
Many hoped Obama’s election would heal the country’s racial rift, but instead, his presidency has exposed just how deep that rift runs, she said.
Canady, 65, became the country’s first black female neurosurgeon in 1981. And she likens America’s racial problem to a throbbing abscess on a patient’s body. Ignoring it only makes it worse, she said. “You have to lance the abscess to open it up. It’s the only way to heal it.”
But the prognosis remains unclear. Obama’s legacy, she said, depends in large part on what comes out of the anger and racial conflict seething across the country these days.
And yet, despite that uncertainty, Canady and other black pioneers said they still cling to hopes that the country will one day reach a point where all this talk of race, trailblazing and even “firsts” becomes irrelevant.
Former university president Simmons said she imagines students 25 years from now reading discussions like this one on race.
“Hopefully they’ll be very bored by it,” she said. “If we are lucky, they will not understand it at all.”
It may seem impossible now, she said, but she can already hear their reactions to the big deal we once made over the country’s first black president.
“They’ll say, ‘Isn’t it odd that there was a time when someone like me could not expect to be president? Was there really a time like that?’ ” she said.
And that, she and other black pioneers said, is when they will know they have achieved something truly profound.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.