The Last of Firsts – Kemp Powers, someone we need to know

“My mother would look at me, and she’d say, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”” ~ Madame Vice President Kamala Harris

There have been quite a few history-making moments in my lifetime. I was born during the “Summer of Sam” and a couple of months before the NYC blackout, for starters. I have been around long enough, and yet, as a nation, we are still experiencing African American* firsts.

Initially, when I hear the introduction of “The first African American…”, I cheer. I am, as Issa Rae coined the phrase, “Rooting for everybody Black.” However, the cheering is bittersweet when one of my first loves, Disney, is still experiencing first. How, like seriously, how after all of these years?

With the premiere of Soul, not only did the movie exceed expectations, but it was so accurate to many aspects of the culture, I had to learn more about the team behind it. I envisioned “A Different World” like crew of creatives (yes, even someone with the Dwayne Wayne glasses on). I could almost hear the laughter when someone had the idea of using the cookie tin as Joe’s mother’s sewing kit. I imagined the long days spent making sure the barbershop scenes were just right. The Oscar acceptance speech is about to be epic, a stage full of Black Excellence. Man, they nailed it! I must see the team behind this.

The first name I saw was Co-Director, Kemp Powers. Maybe he rocked the Dwayne Wayne glasses? Where’s the rest of the team? Ok, the Disney Plus documentary series Inside Pixar features Kemp in the first episode; I’m sure they will interview the crew. Kemp Powers, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken middle-aged Brooklynite, was The Team. Yes, Kemp, in Greg Jennings’s meme style, “Put the team on his back.” He spoke about how essentially when Pixar reached out to him, Joe Gardner was an empty shell of a character. Once the disbelief wore off that someone actually attempted to tell a Black-led story without Black representation, I mean, why is this still a thing? I would discover the “Why” was due to the story initially being based on a white lead. Something tells me the person who thought they could just race swap also claims they “Don’t see color.” Yep, very Doc McStuffins like, but I digress.

I wanted to dig in more, but sadly, much like what the movie would’ve been without Kemp, the documentary fell short. There had to be “so much more than this provincial life” when it came to Kemp Powers, and I needed to learn more.

I went into full-blown Big Poppa mode, you know, “Tell me what your interests are, who you be with?” The more I read up on Kemp’s work, his interviews, his challenges, and accomplishments, the less him being the First of anything mattered. In Kemp’s own words, “It’s an embarrassing mantle. Why did it take so damned long?”

You see, long before becoming a playwright, “One Night in Miami,” which was adapted to film and directed by Regina King, a screenwriter, Start Trek: the discovery season, Kemp Powers understood the importance of amplifying voices. As highlighted in his 2004 memoir, “The Shooting,” Kemp Powers had a life-defining moment at the young age of 14. While showing off his mother’s gun, Kemp shot and killed his best friend. His friend’s parents refused to press charges. The community forgave Kemp, and in the State of New York, where we’ve seen boys imprisoned for allegedly taking backpacks, Kemp was sentenced to a year of counseling. Kemp was given the gift of a second chance but carried the burden of survivor’s guilt.

Kemp Powers, long before he wrote Joe Gardner’s, had a story to tell.

How did I not know about this fantastic human? When the premier for One Night in Maimi came out, I was all in, but how didn’t I know about the play? How could I grow weary of still seeing “Firsts” when often these “Firsts” are also the first time I learn about someone?

Kemp Powers should’ve had my support and my coins long before Pixar did via Soul.

Maybe Kemp was directing the question to all of us when he said, “Why did it take so damned long?”

I can’t say that Kemp Powers will be the last of firsts for me or this nation. I can say it will be the last time that I just focus on the firsts. It took longer than it should have, Mr. Powers, but I see you, I thank you, I celebrate you, and I know that you will not be the last.

*You will see the use of African American and Black used throughout. I identify as Black but am mindful that some are uncomfortable with the title.

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