by Dr. Boyce Watkins
A high school student in Queens, New York now has the distinction of being her school’s first African American valedictorian. The story is making national news, even though there are many trailblazers of a similar sort around the nation. But without regard to the context within which the story is being released, her achievement is nothing short of remarkable.
According to reporter Mona Rivera, Shanelle Davis is a senior at Benjamin Cardozo High School in the Bayside area.
“It’s an incredible honor. It’s still surreal to me,” she said.
Davis says that she found out from school administrators that she was the first African American to receive the award, which seemed to stun her.
“Out of 845 students and mine said number one. And then afterward I was speaking to administration in the school and they’re like ‘you know we’ve never had an African-American (valedictorian) before.’ Then that’s how I found out,” she said.
Davis sees her achievement as an example to other black students that if they give a diligent effort, they too can be standing on the stage as their school’s valedictorian. The young lady is the first in her family to attend a four-year university, and plans on going to Harvard next fall.
“School is like, it’s very diverse, but it’s predominantly Asian. So most African-Americans in the school think that OK so since there’s been like always an Asian or a white valedictorian that they can’t do it. But then I can be an example for them to show that they can also do it. So maybe next year they’ll have another African-American one,” Davis said.
Davis’ accomplishment is certainly noteworthy, no question about that. But when I read the story, I was a little surprised that it made national news. There are black valedictorians all over the country and many of them are the first to do so in their high school. So, I still can’t quite figure out why this story was told over the countless others that should be shared as well.
But with that being said, Davis’ achievement is extraordinary and must be put into context. I say this because I also remember hearing that I was “the first black” this and that during my years of studying for my PhD in Finance: I was the first black PhD student to be admitted to my doctoral program, and I was the first black Finance Professor to ever be hired at Syracuse University. I even found out that I was the only African American in the world to earn a PhD in Finance during the year 2002.
After reflecting on what all of this meant, I learned to avoid letting others convince me that I was some kind of unique racial oddity, like a puppy who could drive a car. I realized that the truth is that, I wasn’t the first intelligent black person to apply for a PhD program or the first smart black man to apply for a job at Syracuse University. Instead, I was the only black man to apply for the job who wasn’t held back by a clear and undeniable legacy of racial discrimination, which kept black people from obtaining specific opportunities.
As we interpret the meaning behind the wonderful achievement of Ms. Davis, we must be careful about somehow concluding that no black person has ever been smart or diligent enough to match her achievement. We also must be careful about congratulating an institution for finally recognizing black intelligence. We certainly can’t buy into the belief that black people just don’t work hard enough, for this just feeds into white supremacy (as we wonder why countless numbers of whites have received an award that has only been given to one black person). Actually, the idea that anyone is the “first black anything” in the year 2014 is as much of an indictment of an institution’s historical racism as anything else. I’m not just referring to Ms. Davis’ school, but to every other school, corporation or institution in America that is proudly boasting about their “first black whatever” 50 years after the March on Washington.
We cannot live in a society that allows black people to think that the reason whites have never recognized our intellect is because we’ve never had any. Actually, it is the ignorance of the systems within which we operate and the incompetence of racially-biased gatekeepers that has kept us from getting the recognition we deserve. As I told my former dean at Syracuse University: “The fact that I am the first black person you’ve hired in my department in over 100 years of existence most definitely implies that this institution’s leadership is incapable of evaluating the work of African American scholars. I refuse to carry the burden of your intellectual short-comings.”
Ms. Davis is not alone and she is not a first. She stands on the shoulders of millions of other brilliant, hard-working black people who suffered, died and cleared the path for her to have this opportunity. So, as she heads off to Harvard University this fall, I encourage her to reject the burden of believing that she is the chosen negro pioneer. Instead, I hope she will remember that she is part of a long-tradition of greatness that has been muted by racial oppression. In other words, she is not the puppy who learned to drive a car.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the author of the book, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College.” To have Dr Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.