Fifty Shades of Black

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Posted January 17, 2013 in Arts & Culture

The achievements of African Americans are chronicled in Black Firsts

Long and slow. That’s how you’d describe every line you’ve ever stepped into.

Don’t you hate that? You’re waiting in line and you see a chance to go to a shorter queue so you change lanes. Suddenly, the line you just left looks like the Indianapolis speedway. And you know what happens if you switch again . . .

There are definite advantages to being first. In the new book Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events by Jessie Carney Smith, you’ll find information on tens of thousands of folks who’ve gone before you—in a good way.

In your lifetime, you’ve seen a lot of big milestones: the first Olympic gold-winning African American gymnast; the first black head of National Security and, of course, Barack Obama as the first black U.S. President.

But Mr. Obama wasn’t the first African American to make White House news.

Read this book and you’ll see that pianist Thomas Greene Bethune was the first black artist to perform there in 1858. A baby named Thomas was the first black child born at the White House in 1806. Booker T. Washington was the first black American to be entertained at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Sammy Davis, Jr. was the first known black entertainer to sleep there.

Speaking of entertainment, Ray Charles was the first person of any race to perform at the Georgia Assembly. This book will also tell you who was the first black singer to appear on TV and when the first recording of black music happened.

You’ll learn that your grandma’s favorite cartoon was drawn by America’s first black cartoonist. Both Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock broke comedy records in this century. America’s first black insurance company opened its doors in 1810 and the first black-owned car dealership opened 160 years later. The first known black bookseller started his business in 1834. The world’s first black professional model walked the catwalk in the 1950s and the first black Playboy bunny hopped on the scene in 1965. A black chef was reportedly the creator of potato chips. America’s first black Mormon elder gained the priesthood in 1836.

And America’s first black millionaire lived in New Orleans in 1890.

It’s hard to imagine anything missing from Black Firsts. It’s so hard, in fact, that author Jessie Carney Smith challenges readers to find and notify her of other milestones in black history—but not just in North American black history. You’ll find entries here of things that happened to African Americans, as well as black firsts in other countries around the world, too.

But don’t think for a minute that Black Firsts is dry and boring. There are lots of entries that will surprise you and others that will stop an argument in a hot minute. Everything’s well-indexed, informative, thorough enough and as addictive as buttered popcorn.

This is the kind of book you can happily browse. It’s also one you’d want on your shelf, one you’d reach for during those know-it-all emergencies that happen—and when they do, Black Firsts should be the first book in line.

Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (Third Edition) by Jessie Carney Smith, Visible Ink Press, 833 pages. List price: $24.95.


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