"First" is Not the End All Be All of Black Achievement

Posted by Tota Garboua
Celebrating Black History Month

The following speech was written and read by Visual Arts senior Tota Garboua during the Multi-Cultural Club's 2023 Black History Month presentation.

“Crucified on the vast wheel of time, I flew round and round with the Zeitgeist, waving my pen and lifting faint voices to explain, expound and exhort; to see, foresee and prophesy, to the few who could or would listen.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

The Elmina Castle in Ghana was the main slave holding dungeon in West Africa. When slaves were boarded onto boats, they went, one by one, through a small, narrow door, known as “the door of no return.” Once you had passed through, you had gone from captive to enslaved. For the Black adolescent today, education can feel like a door of no return, from the captivity of the preconceptions of your future made by those who can’t see past your high melanation, to the enslavement of incarceration.

Nicholas Andre Johnson was Princeton University’s class of 2020 valediction, and Princeton’s first Black valedictorian in the school’s 274-year history. In his Valedictorian speech, he said, “…I wish to open doors for others in the same way that doors have been so graciously opened for me by Black leaders and other mentors throughout my life.” 

There’s something quite melancholic, I think, about celebrating the first Black person to climb the highest rungs of academic achievement so recently. The achievement of Nicholas Andre Johnson, and all other high achieving Black students, (hint: that’s you!) is always incredible on the level of individual achievement. But do you not think, even just for a moment, “Hey, why’d it take so long? How’d it take 274 years for a Black student to become valedictorian at Princeton?” 

High achieving Black students, such as Johnson and such as yourself, are produced in the mixture of raw talent, dedication, and resilience to the crushing gravity of oppression. And yet, does the exhaustion of fighting the confirmation biases that try and funnel you into a cell or a grave ever make you feel as if it will be pulled just out of your grasp? The windows of opportunity open and close much faster for the Black student. According to a Government Accountability Office analysis of the Department of Education, Black students are disproportionately more likely to be suspended or otherwise disciplined from schools, regardless of the rate of poverty at the school, or whether the school was public or private. Education is both a door out of incarceration and a funnel into it. 

Which brings us to you. In a system which works against you, your achievements, your “firsts” deserve to be celebrated. And yet, we must not content ourselves with being the only “first.” "First" is not the end all be all of achievement; it is an opportunity for a more meaningful, collective achievement for our whole people. It is an opportunity to hold the door for those to come after us, to usher in new generations of Black pen, Black innovation, Black creation, and Black achievement. 

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge those people who are making Black history happen as we speak. I would like to acknowledge Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who was one of the main developers of the Moderna Covid vaccinations. I’d like to acknowledge Karine Jean-Pierre, the first Black and openly LGBT+ White House press secretary. I’d also like to acknowledge the people in my life who lived and shaped Black history, whose contributions won’t be found on any program. I want to thank my grandmother, who worked in clinics across rural Sudan to end female genital mutilation. And finally, I want to thank my late Aunt Em, who lived through integration and inspired me with her story every day. And I want to remind you, future Black leaders of America, to hold doors open.