Long and slow. That's how you'd describe every line you've ever stepped into. 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 Motor Speedway. And you know what happens if you switch again.
There are definite advantages to being first. In Jessie Carney Smith's new book “Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events (Third Edition)” (Visible Ink Press, $24.95, 833 pages with index), you'll find information on tens of thousands of folks who've gone before you — in a good way.
There have been many milestones in recent decades: 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 Obama wasn't the first African-American to make White House news. 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.
Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock broke comedy records in this century. America's first black insurance company opened 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 reportedly was 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 Smith challenges readers to find and notify her of other milestones in black history — but not just in North American black history. There are entries about things that happened to African-Americans, as well as black firsts in other countries around the world.
“Black Firsts” isn't dry and boring. There are lots of entries that will surprise and others that will stop an argument in a minute. Everything's well-indexed, informative, thorough 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.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer