Politics can be strange! Sometimes the analysis of a political campaign can raise as many questions as it answers. From discussion around the current Biden campaign we have learned that, depending upon one’s perspective, the word “ambitious” holds both positive and negative connotations. Some seem to think of ambition as synonymous with arrogance.
As a former teacher, I’m almost tempted to offer a short presentation on the denotative and connotative qualities of words. Instead, I’ll ask a few simple questions: What’s wrong with ambition? When did it become a negative? And, since the word was cast upon a Black woman who is a potential vice presidential candidate as a negative aspersion, what is the problem with an ambitious Black woman?
Given the examples of ambitious Black women in the history of this nation, we can ask whether a woman like Harriett Tubman was arrogant or ambitious, or whether her goals, over objections of the slave-holder class, served a higher purpose. She was a no-nonsense freedom-seeker who tolerated nothing less than total commitment from others as well as herself.
Who would dare question the motives of women like Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer or Dorothy Height? Did Rosa Parks keep her seat out of arrogance or did her ambitions for “her people” supersede her concerns for personal safety? Were the efforts of Mary McLeod Bethune undertaken for anything other than providing an opportunity for Black youth to educate themselves? Can we evaluate the actions of Baker, Nash, Boynton or Hamer as anything more than altruistic ambitions for the benefit of our race? At great risk, they placed their convictions and bodies between those who would attempt to hold on to the social and cultural restrictions that established the boundaries of Jim Crow-ism. Did Dr. Height, who conjoined the interests and goals of civil rights and women’s rights do so for the purpose of self-aggrandizement? The ambitions of all these women were selfless and based upon service for a greater good.
The tradition of Black women in service to our communities is highlighted with women of great ambition. Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Black woman candidates for a major political party to run for the office of president of the U.S. Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman was elected to the Texas legislature, and later the first Black woman elected to Congress from the Deep South. Chisholm and Jordan ambitiously laid the foundation for the current lineup of Black women politicians.
It’s doubtful that in 2013, when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi founded Black Lives Matter, they realized it would evolve into a human rights movement with the ambitious goal of eliminating violence and systemic racism towards Black people.
Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells and Black women by the thousands number among those in history who overcame, instilled, motivated and supported their own and the ambitions of their families.
We wouldn’t see the brilliant Black women being considered for Joe Biden’s running mate were it not for their ambition to play a large part in leading this country to “a more perfect union.” Ambition is the fuel that propels us to the goal of being our better selves.
Ambition is not a dirty word. Instead of viewing the concept or quality of ambition through the lens of negativity, race or misogyny, thank God for ambitious Black women. If we think critically and answer honestly, where would our communities, our nation or our world be now without the ambitions of strong, thoughtful women of color? Without argument, women shape the world and there’s nothing wrong with the desire to shape it in its best form.
Williams is national president of the National Congress of Black Women.