Guernica has an essay by novelist Ayana Mathis about how she came to own and follow through on her writing ambitions, despite never really having felt entitled to them. An excerpt from Double Bind: Women on Ambition — an anthology edited by Robin Romm due out next week — Mathis’s essay opens with an experience that had been beyond her wildest dreams: the October, 2012 phone call she received from Oprah Winfrey saying her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was going to be a pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. From there she delves into the things that had held her back from reaching for great achievement, and sometimes still do — how her mother and grandparents stressed the importance of being reserved and not ever seeming hungry and the messages she received from the culture as a young black girl growing up about not being deserving — the opposite of what was always promised to the much more privileged “lean-in crowd.”
Now we have arrived at the heart of the matter: the legitimization of desires. In order to write the novel, I’d had to first acknowledge that I wanted to write it, that I could and would write it. Why had it taken nearly forty years for me to understand that I had the right to my ambitions? This is not a question for the lean-in crowd. That conception, of leaning in, useful though it may be to some, is the province of the entitled classes. Women who come to the big boy’s table with education and privilege; perhaps just not quite enough to make more money, to have more power, to be more successful. This is an inadequate model that implies that the old hierarchies, the old systems of inclusion and exclusion, the old distribution of power and wealth are perfectly acceptable, it’s just that the ladies should be sitting at the big table too. I and mine are not lean-in women. Mine is a long and illustrious heritage of elegant survivalists and creative realists. We made our way without a road map, or even a road, as is the case for those of us who were, by virtue of race and class and gender, barred from the paths to success. We have dreams aplenty, some realized and some not, but the manifestation of our ambitions is not a given. It isn’t even a given that we will recognize our right to have them.