Soldier, lawyer, politician, government minister, lieutenant governor, community activist, husband, father and grandfather, all these accomplishments and contributions to Canada came to us in the life of Lincoln Alexander, who died last week at age 90, having lived a full life. The Canadian-born son of Caribbean immigrant parents led a life of outstanding achievement and is also being hailed as a pioneer for his legacy of firsts.
When we join in celebrating the many achievements of those who rise above the crowd through the tried and true combination of persistence and talent, it elevates us all.
Hearing repeatedly in the hours and days following his death that Alexander stood out for all those “firsts” that marked his life as a Black person in a White-dominant society, felt on one hand like due respect and appreciation for the barriers he broke through.
The world of race relations being what it is, I see all this as yet another testament of the will of a people who have fought against and overcome many systemic barriers held in place by irrational fear and hatred that have been concretized into systems of exclusion and oppression. So recognizing the kind of dynamic force that is required to push on through in order to become “the first Black” doctor, lawyer, politician, astronaut, discoverer of a live-saving drug, President of the United States, and so on, I pause with countless others to notice, weep or solemnize those “firsts”.
Yet, on the other hand, there runs parallel the undeclared narrative of why that already superb record of achievements merited one additional special mention.
I want to be able to see the lives of electric individuals for their tremendous achievements, but the title of “first” can paradoxically overshadow the particular achievement. For any person to be elected as a member of parliament is an achievement that the vast majority of Canadians will not experience, but then to add to the history books “the first Black person to…”, well it’s no wonder that those who experience these barrier-busting achievements often speak of feeling humbled.
So it seems fair to ask whether Alexander’s life achievements – as impressive as they are – would have been any less stellar if his biography didn’t also have to add “the first…” before each new accomplishment.
When the mainstream highlights these achievements, which it has a duty to, it is a wonder that it is not done more self-consciously. Alexander is not the first merely because he was an outstanding human being, he broke through to so many firsts because the culture in which he was born and in which he had to strive to overcome has never stopped finding ways to prevent a level playing field for people like him, people like us.
So there’s a peculiar combination of celebration of his achievements and a kind of self-congratulation by those who are part of the system of race-based barriers.
It’s so weird to observe the voices from that quarter trumpeting these firsts.
That aside, the example that Alexander set in pushing on through sends a message to those who would, that family support, a dynamic determination and commitment to continue until you reach your goal can make your ambitions a reality regardless of the barriers. And for those far beyond his personal reach, those who had never meet him in person, that can have a powerful and decisive effect. No doubt it will.
A note on the final Obama and contender face-off…
Yes, of course it was about the campaign that will lead to the decision in about two weeks to put Barack Obama once again into the top political post in the United States, but the publicity touting the series of three debates, the third of which wrapped up on Monday night, had all the language of a boxing match. It reminds me of school days when certain kids would make appointments to meet after school to duke it out in the park. Who won, who lost, who had the best jabs, was it a knockout? Boxing is as much a mental game as a physical one. For those who are in it, political campaigning is a mental marathon and one of artifice with the goal to convince as many people as possible to cast their vote to the advantage of one ultimate winner.
This time, despite everyone having their favourite, the prediction is that we will see a repeat of the Bush-Gore confusion of 2000. Hanging “chads” had a nation hanging in suspense over who was the actual winner. Here’s another prediction – Obama will prevail.