The Price of Black Ambition

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Roxane Gay in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

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 civil-rights heroes and the black innovators and writers and artists who have made so much possible for this generation. We say, look at what the best of us have achieved. We conjure W. E. B. Du Bois, who once wrote, “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” We ask much of our exceptional men and women. We must be exceptional if we are to be anything at all.

Black History Month is important and a corrective to so much of America’s fraught racial history. But in the twenty-first century, this relegating of black ambition to one month of recognition feels constraining and limiting rather than inspirational.

In the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay about President Barack Obama and the tradition of black politics that reached me in a vulnerable place. Coates writes of the president’s ascension: “He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities.” In that same essay, Coates also writes about how the narrative of personal responsibility is a false one that is, unfortunately, often parroted by our president, our brightest shining star, Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States. At the end of his essay, Coates writes, “But I think history will also remember his [Obama’s] unquestioning embrace of ‘twice as good’ in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.”

More here.