Why Doesn’t Serena Williams Get Her Due? She’s a Black Woman
Francis: Why our greatest athlete isn't recognized as such.
After winning the French Open finals on Saturday — despite a terrible case of the flu that caused her to vomit in the middle of a semi-finals match — Serena Williams gave us another reason not to count her out. She is now the holder of 20 Grand Slam titles, closing in on Steffi Graff’s Open Era record of 22. She is the most dominating player in tennis (male or female) and greatest American athlete of this generation. Period. Full Stop.
Most people don’t know that about her. Some would argue that’s because tennis is a niche sport. They are wrong.
Serena Williams doesn’t get her due because she’s black and female.
At age 33, Williams is still ascending in her career at an age that many of her peers — irrespective of sport —would be slowing down. She’s still winning, handily, but she is hardly celebrated. That fact is telling about the oversights that occur at the intersection of race and gender for black women.
In appearance, Serena Williams is undeniably black, which brands sometimes shy away from in their marketing campaigns. (I know, I work in advertising.) She, like me, is the descendant-of-slaves type of black that people like to distance themselves from. She is not a café au lait-colored woman like say, Misty Copeland, the powerhouse professional ballerina who became the first African American female soloist for the American Ballet Theater. (It should be noted here that Copeland has been open and masterful in discussing her experiences with racism in the world of ballet, which like tennis, has been a world for the white and wealthy.) Nor is Williams’ hair pin-straight or curly in a way that may render her more “exotic,” and therefore more beautiful, and therefore, as a woman, more valuable.
No: Williams is the black at a distance, comin’ straight outta Compton, C-walkin’, my greats were sharecroppers, I used to sit between my mother’s legs to get my scalp greased type of black that intimidates “general audiences,” the folks that brands and advertisers pander to with carefully curated images about what black women should look like and how they should behave.
Seemingly at every stroke of success, someone seeks to discredit her. Consider what Martina Hingis offered years ago when Williams’ hot streak was just getting warmed up:, “Being black only helps [the Williams sisters]. Many times they get sponsors because they are black. And they have had a lot of advantages because they can always say, ‘It’s racism.’ They can always come back and say, ‘Because we are this color, things happen.”
Few applaud her work ethic. Fewer still point to her training. It is peculiar the way racism makes people forget those kind of details.
Consider further still the critique that made the rounds on Twitter this weekend about Williams’ supposed “natural advantage” against other female players — the age-old belief about the supposed natural abilities of black folks when it comes to sports, an evolution of the slave-era belief about how our so-called exceptional musculature made us natural candidates for exploitive forced labor. It’s a belief that has been a lofty landing pad for racial prejudice, an ambiguous racial dog whistle about the superhuman capabilities of African Americans, and its belief is not limited to the world of sports. This dubious belief lies in wait within the criminal justice system; its effects are far-reaching and sinister. It enabled investigators to dogmatically believe that high school athlete Kendrick Johnson caused his own death; it led to the killing of Mike Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, who perceived the teen to be a demon-like Hulk Hogan figure; and allowed Louisiana State police to argue that that Victor White was able to shoot himself to death while handcuffed in the back of a state police car. The racially prejudiced mind does mental gymnastics to prove that blacks cannot ever be victims.
Listen closely to the coded ways people talk about her family, her body, her demeanor. Her grace amid that fray alone is enough to title her a champion. Williams’ path in tennis is the embodiment of the way older Black folks tell us to work twice as hard to be counted as a contender. She is an American athlete in the tradition of Joe Louis and of Muhammad Ali, who carried the pride of a race on their back as they carried home national titles for a country that often despised them.
When you look at Williams’ legacy, do not forget the way that the mediocrity of Anna Kournikova was celebrated for years — she once ranked eighth in the world without ever winning a major. Do not forget the ubiquity of Jennifer Capriati’s branding as America’s Sweetheart, despite her personal issues that would have long besieged the brand of a less privileged woman. Do not forget the deplorable display at Indian Wells years ago. And before you mention her demeanor, do not forget that a similarly unapologetic disposition is what made John McEnroe a tennis legend.
Since childhood, the confidence of Williams’ and her sister, Venus, has been a target. Williams’ detractors want her to apologize for being great because they know that the tradition would have it so that she is not part of the conversation at all, much less to be a player who dominates so handily. Once a sport for the advantaged white middle class, it must now crown the braided and beaded brown girl from Compton its queen.
Watching Serena win, watching her blast a tennis ball cross-court at 118 mph and send her detractors scrambling, well, it’s is like watching a match against racism. If I could hit a ball for every time someone told me I only got admitted to a program because of a quota, affirmative action or white guilt, if I could drag someone across a court every time I heard someone say something about my black woman’s hair or body, I would. And so I delight in watching Serena annihilate her so-called opponents, who choke on their words every time they are forced to say something nice about her in the post-match interview.
Serena Williams is the greatest American athlete of our generation. And folks can stay mad about it.
Follow Maya K. Francis on Twitter.