First Published: February 2022 by Nextions LLC
Blazing a trail literally refers to the deliberate march into difficult and untraversed terrain, notching “blazing” trees as you progress so that others can follow in your footsteps without encountering the difficulties you experienced. Trailblazing is difficult and dangerous. It scars the trailblazers no matter how courageous and willing they are to blaze the trails.
In 1945, Branch Rickey, the President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, started recruiting Jackie Robinson to be the first black baseball player in major league baseball. It was a given that Robinson was one of the best baseball players at the time, but Rickey knew that he was recruiting Robinson to be a trailblazer, not just a ballplayer:
Jackie, we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman. (Giants of Baseball Bill Gutman)
Rickey added that “fine gentleman” part to make sure that Robinson knew that no matter how harsh the white players, umpires, or fans got, Robinson had to have the “guts to not fight back” because the color line that they just erased would get redrawn in a hurry if Robinson was anything but a “fine gentleman.”
Multiple movies and books have tried to capture what Jackie Robinson experienced as a trailblazer, but I’m not sure that the unimaginable pressure of maintaining your emotional equilibrium while riding the adrenaline of competing in professional baseball can be depicted adequately to those who have never had to simultaneously be a fighter and have the “guts to not fight back.”
Trailblazing is not for the faint of heart. It is also not for the mediocre, the weak, or the cowardly. To be a trailblazer, you have to be better, stronger, and braver than everyone who succeeded without being a trailblazer, and you have to be willing to endure scarring challenges with a smile. You have to be willing to be more exhausted than everyone else while still achieving more than everyone else.
In 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, there were over 150 other rookie players. Jackie Robinson excelled over all of them to become Rookie of the Year and he excelled over all the other rookies in spite of the fact that he was the only rookie who received death threats from baseball fans, was forced to stay in different hotels than his teammates, and who couldn’t fight back when he was taunted, threatened, and terrorized. That’s the more complex story of a trailblazer.
We are quick to celebrate the achievements of trailblazers, but we are negligent in honoring their exhaustion and their scars.
In the last Impact, I wrote about honoring the humanity of black people in addition to their achievements as a way of truly honoring Black History Month. This is a month when black trailblazers are celebrated, but a true celebration of black trailblazers shouldn’t just involve the celebration of their achievements. A true celebration should include a more complete conversation of what they endured to achieve what they achieved.
Who are the trailblazers you are celebrating — in history, your workplace, or your communities — who have had to march into untraversed terrain and blaze their trails with grace so that the trails stayed open to others?
Take the time to learn and honor the fullness of their experiences as trailblazers. If you are following the discussions on President Biden’s commitment to nominating the first black woman to the United States Supreme Court, think about the full context of trailblazing as you are crafting or communicating your perspectives.Take the time to thank the trailblazers who have made your path easier. Start with people in your family — we often look right past the trailblazers closest to us.
And, if you are a trailblazer that felt your own exhaustion and scars as you read this, please know that the people who walk in the paths you’ve blazed do feel you even if they don’t always know to thank you.