So I’d like to make a suggestion to jettison the Firsts, Festivals, and Foods trio of Black History Month for a different style of learning about Black and American history. Kids learn who the First Black astronaut was, the First Black senator, and so forth. But what happens after the First? I suggest we do away with how we teach about ‘Firsts,’ and I’ll leave the Festivals and Foods to other, more creative minds.

When we focus on the Firsts, and not What Followed, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the silence in between milestones of Black History. If we do not look into the gaps between the Firsts, then we fail to see the ways that other individuals, institutions, and social practices worked—often quite deliberately—to crush the spirit of those Firsts, and to make it plain that Black people who wanted to follow in their footsteps would be met with massive resistance.

So I ask that we pair the question ‘What Followed and Why?’ with each First, to ensure that our students can understand the reasons why we still celebrate Firsts, why they remain rarities decades after slavery and Jim Crow.

What happened after Benjamin Banneker made plans for our nation’s capitol, the First Black engineer to be recognized as such by white folks? Why the gap in Black urban planners between Banneker and… well, I must admit I cannot bring to mind a famous Black urban planner. What stymied efforts to bring up generations of Bannekers to design welcoming, sustainable urban spaces to be shared by people of all colors? Why are so many urban areas still segregated, decades after the First Black mayors were elected?

Until we look closely at What Followed, and try to learn lessons from that part of our American history, our celebrations of Firsts will feel less festive and more frustrating as time goes by.

For many, the Superbowl is a time of admirable athleticism, commercials rivaling cinema megaproductions, and elaborate snack food arrangements. In some special cases, it’s even a time of adorable puppies. Just look at those mugs!

But the Superbowl is also an opportunity to recognize the NFL’s important contributions to the civil rights movement, as the integration of African American players into the League only cemented the foundation for the widespread social change that was to follow. Charles K. Ross explores these developments and the histories of the NFL’s early African American players in Outside the Lines, published by (yours truly!) NYU Press. With both the Superbowl and Black History Month on the horizon, there couldn’t be a better time to check out this fascinating book!


(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to curl up in an armchair, turn on the Puppy Bowl, and do some reading.)