2008 was a year of firsts. Among the many "firsts" was the election of a Black President.
President-elect Barack Obama has blazed a path that has never been walked by a person of color.
As Africans in America, those of us who understand the struggle know that it is important to highlight the most courageous of us. It is important to magnify those of us who step into an arena where none of us have walked before.
When one of us blazes a path, we talk about how that person has "opened a door" for others who will come later.
However, I think that in some ways, it does us a disservice when we say that one person opened the door for another person or persons who came much later.
In the case of, say, Sidney Poitier opening the door for Denzel Washington, I believe that even without Sidney, Denzel or someone like him would have existed. To say the reverse is to say that as a people, we are not that strong and that we needed a singular hero.
Now, because Poitier was so beautifully dignified and masterfully talented, it made sense to give him credit for being a trailblazer. But it is a dangerous thing to say he opened the door, because such credit can also be given in negative cases.
For example, the Wayans family of Coons and other House Niggers, including Ving Rhames, credit Stepinfetchit for opening doors for them, even calling him a "hero." Stepinfetchit was such a horrible caricature of Black people that his existence placed a Black eye on our image during his time and for a long time after.
The danger in crediting such negative icons as Stepinfetchit is that the door he opened was not a door we should have gone into. Yet, many of us are going through that door still. What Stepinfetchit taught us was that if you play a buffoon and denigrate the Black image in entertainment, you could get paid.
That lesson was learned well, because even after Sidney Poitier "opened a door" to prove that you could also get money, but more importantly, respect, by being unflinchingly dignified, House Niggers were still going through Steinfetchit's door, getting paid for being ignorant clowns and damaging the Black image.
And, I maintain that Stepinfetchit didn't really open any door. Even if he hadn't been the ignorant prideless bastard he was, some other self-effacing bag of garbage with low self-esteem and no racial pride would have stepped up to make the race look bad on the silver screen including the eye-popping House Nigger, Mantan Moreland.
Perhaps if that door hadn't been opened, we would have protected our image and followed the program of Jews in Hollywood–own as much as possible and smash everything that has the potential to make you look bad.
Sadly, even when we are in positions of power, we still celebrate the destruction of our good standing on the world stage. We cheer when a Black comedian tells jokes about how horrible we are as a people. We cheer and pretend that they are jokes to us, but to the world, they reveal our collective low self-esteem and diminished value of self and community.
I believe that instead of celebrating a hero for opening a door or paving the way, we should celebrate them for having the individual courage to do what they did when no one else had stepped up.
A pioneer blazes trails, but not really as an individual.
And, being the first to do anything, especially the first Black, requires certain strength of character that quite frankly, not everyone possesses.
Take a look at the past couple of decades and the "firsts" who came in and mishandled their moments of truth:
Vanessa Williams became the first Black Miss America and Guion S. Bluford became the first Black person in space. Instead of either of them celebrating the trail they were blazing, they both gave similar lines, speaking of how they weren't to be recognized for their Blackness, but for their individual achievements. They both curiously spoke of how they just "happened" to be Black.
Imagine that–in the good old racist U.S. of A.–someone just "happens" to be Black.
And, how many of us watched Tiger Woods dance all around the race issue when he became the first Black person to top the golf game?
The strength of character required to tread where none have tread before and to carry the burden well is just not always in the person who is becoming the first. Poitier was of the substance required to carry it with dignity, but so were a throng of men and women in entertainment, politics, sports, business and every other arena in America where we have stepped in and moved to the top.
If we embrace the open door theory, we have to also embrace the closing of those same doors unless we become uninhibited by recognizing more than one door at a time, or even by building our own house by focusing on control and ownership.
Our problems can be traced back to a problem of our mindset. Unless we begin to understand that and to expand our thinking, we will continue to believe that we have a limited number of doors and, subsequently, too many of us will continue to move through the wrong doors.
Darryl James is an award-winning author of the powerful new anthology "Notes From The Edge." He released his first mini-movie, "Crack," and will soon release his first full-length documentary. View previous installments of this column at www.bridgecolumn.proboards36.com. Reach James at firstname.lastname@example.org.