WWSD?

Whattup DXCE Fam. We are very proud to present a brand new series; Pillars of the Culture. Each addition will profile a non-artist ambassador of hip-hop culture, from athletes and politicians to my mom and college professors. The series is an examination of what they do to preserve community, what they mean to the community, and how they help continue the blossoming of the rose that grew from concrete.

For the first installment, I am very excited to share with y’all an essay I penned about Serena Williams, and what she means to people like us on the DXCEGAME Team (read: black folk). 

Thanks for reading and supporting and be sure to look out for more installments in the series.

bobby


 

“I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.”

Zora Neale Hurston’s words still ring true from the highest of mountaintops. In the insular white world of tennis, two black women reign supreme. For close to two decades, Compton’s Williams sisters have injected a radical energy in the game that is quite unlike any other before them. Playing against her sister in a stadium filled with white faces, Serena Williams claimed her twenty-third major title, and with it, an undeniable claim for the-best-ever recognition. In tennis, Serena has dominated in singles and doubles, but each time she faces an individual across the net, she is playing handicapped. She matches up with white gazes and standards she cannot meet no matter how many foes she vanquishes.

I am not Serena Williams. I am not Venus Williams. I am certainly not Steffi Graf. But when I wake up each day on a sharp white background I am reminded of how much it takes to reach the mountaintop. I have a new understanding of the loneliness I feel amongst the white elite because I can appreciate the Williams sisters’ constant match against the other side. Serena refuses to let the other be lesser in a realm where the other was nearly nonexistent. As if that was not enough, she insists that her other must be greater.

Serena occupies her space with grace and precision. She plays her game with unmatched technique and power, with style and personality alien to her field prior to her and her sister’s arrival. She is astonishingly self-aware and recognizes the worlds she is both living in and making.

The most common pitfall of black success in white spaces is loss of grounding. Since bondage, the story of black emancipation and ascension in America is one of remembrance. The psalms and Mosaic stories of the bible that taught our ancestors how to be free remind the Israelites to never forget the pain of Egypt. Ensconced in academic circles withheld from his people, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois never forgot himself. And in her highest of highs, Serena never forgot what brought her there. “Playing Venus, it’s the stuff legends are made of. There’s no way I would be at twenty-three without her. There’s no way I would’ve won one without her. Tonight, it really didn’t matter who won.

 

“The name Williams is on the trophy.”[1]

 

Serena reminds me not only how to succeed as a sojourner in foreign lands, but also how to reconcile myself with my history and my future. There is something to be gained in this world I’ve been brought to. There are paths to forge and serves to return. To go forward, I have to know what I’ve come from.

Serena does not play reactionary tennis; she controls the game from the start. She is a baseline player. Her forehand is unmatched and her groundstroke play is fierce. Perhaps the most intimidating facet of her game is her legendary serve. She slashes the ball past her opponents at a staggering one hundred and nineteen kilometers per hour. No, nothing about Serena’s tennis is cautious or shy. Her game is weaponized.

But this is not to say Serena is not a calculated, composed player. So often do pundits, players and the public misunderstand her. They cast her as too violent, too strong, moreover too much for women’s tennis. This narrative is a story all too common for people that look and excel like Serena. In tennis and other insular white communities, blackness is policed in a common way. Her being is portrayed as animalistic, savage, and often uncouth. Serena’s game is policed, labeled as too brash for tennis. Her animation, attitude, and on court persona is viewed as a threat to the game. Serena’s body is policed. Players and pundits would regularly dismiss her (as well as Venus’) persona and being, challenging the legitimacy of traditional black hairstyles and fashion in tennis. They attack her build. She is called too strong, too big, even characterized as mannish.

Serena’s scrutinized femininity echoes a familiar history of imposed gender on black bodies. The baseline Serena dominates from runs to two separate paths, the split narratives of a unique gender imposed on her. On one end, she faces an imposition of stereotypical black masculinity. Her athletic prowess, strength, and power have all drawn criticisms, with some suggesting she play men’s tennis because they are more physiologically similar. She is often denied access to a femininity she claims. She is a proud feminist, proud of her own womanhood, yet she is often not seen as a woman when compared to her peers. On the other end, she faces the classic hypersexualized image of black womanhood. Her off court relationships have drawn high levels of intrigue and scrutiny. While this is certainly a result of her elevated fame as an icon in her field and in American culture, her sexuality and femininity is policed as a result of her blackness. Her public relationship with the musician Drake led to questions of her perceived role as woman in a relationship. Following this, engagement to a white man created more controversy concerning her loyalty and motives for the relationship, leaving her to face stereotypes that have long been forced onto black women in interracial relationships.

I have learned how to navigate a duality better from Serena. In academia, I have felt my masculinity under the scrutiny of the white gaze, and I too have felt my masculinity and person forced into a mold. My body is in the clutches of a white community eager to misunderstand me as they have misunderstood Serena. They run their fingers through my hair and on my skin, and with that, they erase me. To be labeled as exotic in a field that is all you have known is to be severed from self. At times, I feel as though I am not myself, just the body of a black man to be brought out, explored and shown off. During the time she was seeing Drake and then later her fiancé, she completed her second “Serena Slam”, winning all four major titles consecutively[2], and held the world number one WTP ranking for an entire calendar year, at one time having more than twice as many points as the second ranked player. Despite the constant attempts to manacle her being and reduce her to her body and imposed gender, she asserted her personhood. Serena is a reminder that one can transcend their image, that I am more than what this world thinks I am.

Throughout her career, Serena has had to confront the character she is as seen as in white society. Her voluptuous figure has been the subject of ridicule and mockery. Her fellow player, the thin, conventionally beautiful Dane Caroline Wozniacki, infamously stuffed her skirt and top with towels to imitate Serena’s curvy body at an exhibition match in Rio de Janeiro. Wozniacki’s performance was received with laughter and applause by the crowd. However, it was met with widespread criticism in the public eye, many likening it to minstrelsy, condemning the act as racist. Serena chose instead to defend her.  “I know Caro and I would call her my friend,” she wrote in an e-mail to USA Today. “And I don’t think she meant anything racist by it.”[3] Serena, perpetually made foreground to sharp white backgrounds, follows Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr on the high road. Even as the victim of undeserved persecution in a sport she has dedicated herself to, she has her eyes on the prize. She understands the tennis community and media, and more importantly, she understands how white society perceives racism. Serena faces racism every day, and is long weary of explaining this reality to a white media unwilling to listen. She finished the email with characteristic focus and confidence, writing “I must add, if people do feel this way, she should take reason and do something different next time”.

Of the many lessons I’ve learned from Serena, this is one I’m still wrapping my head around. I hope to one day exude this level confidence amid accusations of only being where I am because of affirmative action. Again, Serena provides guidance. In 2001, rival Martina Hingis attacked the Williams sisters’ legitimacy as tennis elites, saying “Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black.”[4] Serena responded to this by going to the highest highs of her career at that point, completing a career grand slam over the course of the next year. Serena proved her legitimacy in a meritocracy[5], in the same way I did by getting here.

Serena’s legitimacy as the best is representative of her improbable success in a biased meritocracy. Serena is the best because of her accomplishments, despite being unfairly scrutinized for her being. This scrutiny is an active attempt to delegitimize her tennis accomplishments by reducing her personhood to a constructed, negative image. This is accomplished not only through policing of her personality and body, but of her relationships and personal life as well. Over the course of her storied career, the tennis media has attempted to create narratives around the superstar’s relationships. It has, at times, tried to turn the famously competitive Williams sisters into rivals. While they share a competitive spirit and natural sibling rivalry, nothing could be further from the truth. Serena is Venus’ sister, doubles partner, and best friend. She refuses to watch her matches on television because she can’t bring herself to support her sister in that way without physically being there. “I just… I can’t watch her,” she said in an interview with The FADER. “I watch her in person at a tournament, but I get so nervous on TV. I feel like in person she can hear me say, ‘Come on!’ — cause I know when I hear her say ‘Come on,’ a familiar voice, it really helps me.”[6] The powers that be seek to divide black elites in white spaces on the rare occasions when there is enough of us to achieve a plurality[7].

I have found myself pitted against my black peers, often friends, in the elite, white academic communities I have existed in. We compete for spots and recognition, for the one place carved out for us in ivory walls. And not unlike Serena, I have found myself the wrong size, the wrong shape, the wrong color.

Serena is great because she is a square peg in a round hole. She is great because she has refused to soften, capitulate or bend to her confinement. Instead, she lives in a rounded square. She has made her space in this place and it has, reluctantly, formed to her edges.

Her eyes are on the prize, never forgetting where she came from, never losing focus on where she is going. This is to say she carries her past with her. It isn’t a burden and she isn’t ashamed of it at all. Compton holds the same place in her mind as West Palm, Florida, where she first began serious tennis training. Compton is fundamental to her game in the same way Chicago is fundamental to my speech, and from that my craft.

Serena and I have been the only black kids in the room for most of our lives. We both raise our hands; I’m trying to ask a question; she’s getting ready to serve. This is what I have left to learn. She doesn’t hesitate. Her game is highlighted by a trademark consistency. She doesn’t fault because she doesn’t hesitate. I have trouble staying on the right side of the baseline at the right time. I am learning when to swing that leg, how to put my body into the serve. Serena puts every ounce of her being, of her blackness, of her womanhood into every stroke. She put the work in to make it to the biggest stages with the brightest lights and the whitest gazes, and she is here to perform. I have much work to put in before I win my first major, or my twenty-third. But at least I got to watch Serena. When I read Frantz Fanon try to fit blackness into Marxism, I try to fit me into here. Watching Serena Crip walk at Wimbledon after winning a gold medal gives me hope. I no longer feel as alone, the only black kid in the class, making his space.

 

 

[1] Garber, Greg. “Serena Williams Bests Sister Venus for Australian Open Championship.”ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 28 Jan. 2017. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

[2] Serena is not the first to accomplish this feat, Maureen Connolly Brinker, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Steffi Graf all completed the slam before her. She is however, the only woman to do this twice, although it was dubbed the Serena Slam after she accomplished it the first time.

[3] Reporter, Daily Mail. “‘I Think She’d Do It Differently next Time’: Serena Williams Responds to Caroline Wozniacki’s ‘racist’ Impression of Her.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 23 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

[4] Broughton, Phillip Delves. “Being Black ‘helps Williams Sisters’.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 29 Aug. 2001. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

[5] It’s only fair to note that Serena began her slam by defeating Hingis in the 2002 French Open quarterfinals, the world #1 in the semis, and then her sister in the final.

[6]Bergeron, Elena. “How Serena Williams Became The G.O.A.T.” The FADER. The FADER, 09 Nov. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.

[7] This isn’t an exaggeration. I have been the only black person in my class twice in two semesters at Pomona College, we represent about 13% of the student body. Serena is not only the only black woman in the WTP top 10, but the only woman of color as well (as of 8 March 2017).

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