- The Price of Black Ambition
You never know when or if you’ll get a big break as a writer. You write and write and write and hope that someone out there will discern what you believe is in that writing, and then you write and hope and wait some more. I think I am having my big break right now. This year I published two books—a novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist. Both books have received positive critical attention. The latter book has been on the New York Times bestseller list twice. Articles about me keep telling me that I am having a moment, my big break. My friends and loved ones tell me that I am having a moment. Part of me recognizes that I am having a moment, while the more relentless part of me, a part that cannot be quieted, is only hungrier, wanting more.
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I began to understand the shape and ferocity of my ambition when I was in kindergarten. Each student had been given a piece of paper in class, bearing an illustration of two water [End Page 54] glasses. We were instructed to color in one-half of the illustration. I suspect we were learning about fractions. I diligently shaded in one half of one of the glasses and smugly turned my work in to the teacher. If it had been the par-lance of the day, I would have thought, Nailed it. I had not, of course, “nailed it.” I was supposed to color in an entire glass. Instead of the praise I anticipated, I received an F, which, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh for kindergarten. I couldn’t bring such a grade home to my parents. I had already begun demanding excellence of myself and couldn’t face falling short.
On the bus ride home, I stuffed my shame between the dry, cracked leather of the seat and assumed the matter had been dealt with. The driver, a zealous sort, found my crumpled failure and handed it to my mother when he dropped me off the next day. She was not pleased. I was not pleased with her displeasure. I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I vowed to be better. I vowed to be the best. As a black girl in these United States—I was the daughter of Haitian immigrants—I had no choice but to work toward being the best.
Many people of color living in this country can likely relate to the onset of outsized ambition at too young an age, an ambition fueled by the sense, often confirmed by ignorance, of being a second-class citizen and needing to claw your way toward equal consideration and some semblance of respect. Many people of color, like me, remember the moment that first began to shape their ambition and what that moment felt like.
The concept of a big break often implies that once you’ve achieved a certain milestone, everything falls into place. Life orders itself according to your whims. There is no more struggle, there is nothing left to want. There is no more rejection. This is a lovely, lovely fantasy bearing no resemblance to reality. And yet. I have noticed that my e-mails to certain key people in my professional life are answered with astonishing [End Page 55] speed where they once were answered at a sedate and leisurely pace. I enjoy that.
I am thinking about success, ambition, and blackness and how breaking through while black is tempered by so much burden. Nothing exemplifies black success and ambition like Black History Month, a celebratory month I’ve come to dread as a time when people take an uncanny interest in sharing black-history facts with me to show how they are not racist. It’s the month where we segregate some of history’s most significant contributors into black history instead of fully integrating them into American history. Each February, we hold up...