I used to teach a writing workshop for teenagers who had just been released from detention—a few who had recently left Rikers. My workshop was not loved. It was, in fact, hated. Only one student showed up regularly to the Lower East Side youth center for sessions. One time, I made him read the William Carlos Williams poem “This Is Just to Say.” Then we had to write our own versions. Mine was addressed to a child stealing plums. “You’d yell at a hungry kid?” was his input during constructive criticism time. “This class is worse than Rikers.”
Despite myself, I laughed. I laughed at almost everything this kid said or wrote, even when it was off-color. Especially then. One day, I brought in a recording of nature sounds—rain falling, wind blowing, waves crashing. I played the “rainforest” track and asked the class what it reminded them of. My student looked at me and said, “A bear gettin’ it in.”
I think of him whenever I see some profile of a comic declaring the subject in question the funniest person alive. I know our current media ecosystem is nurtured by hyperbole, but I always think, when someone is labeled the best or the funniest, especially when they are labeled the first: Who is being forgotten? And who never got the chance to try?
When someone manages to rise up through our hobbled alleged meritocracy and is crowned the first to hold a position, I know that does not mean that they were the only one who possibly could. I’d assumed everyone understood this, but it has become clear to me in the last few years, as these news of firsts in media and publishing and film and sports came rolling in, as people wrote and agonized over what felt like a shift in culture, that that was naive. People in power, the ones doing the crowning, generally believe that there is no one else qualified until they happen to decide to bestow the crown. It’s easier that way, isn’t it? To think that the first happened just because the right person finally managed to emerge and break through, and not because there was a whole system put in place to make sure no one who looks a certain way or comes from a particular background ever has a chance to do so in the first place. I am reminded of a Chris Rock quote, one he gave during Barack Obama’s second term as president. “To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first Black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not Black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been Black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”
My erstwhile student is part of this terrible calculus. He could probably do a brilliant, dazzling job at any number of brilliant, dazzling things. But the likelihood of him getting the opportunity to demonstrate that is very low, vanishing more quickly each day. The unlikelihood of that and the likelihood that someone will be named a first are two sides of the same coin. For a first to exist, it requires that people like my student be denied, frustrated, locked away from opportunity. It is why being named a first sits uneasy with a lot of people who have been: because you know that there are so many others who should be in that room with you, who should have been in that room before you, who probably deserve to be in that room more than you but don’t make the right people in power comfortable or have the right connections the way that you do. It’s a heavy burden to bear.
“I tell my students,” Toni Morrison said in a 2003 interview, “ ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’ ” I think this is the only way you can approach the bind of being a first: by working as hard as possible to make sure that you are not an only in whatever room you have been admitted to—by ensuring that others join you.
I wish I knew what became of my student. In a good and just world, he’d be writing for Desus & Mero or honing his craft as a stand-up in one of the comedy clubs he walked past every day to get to my workshop. Hopefully, in this broken world we currently inhabit, he is writing down his one-liners, keeping track, building a room for himself and his friends where it doesn’t matter if he’s the first through the door because he’s the one who imagined it in the first place.
This article originally appears in the November 2020 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands November 3.
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