When I was in the 6th grade, my mom sent me to a local high school’s summer tennis camp (it happens to be the high school that made national news earlier this year when students held “white power” signs at a basketball game). I was the only brown girl at the entire camp and I also happened to be the only girl with a used racket from the 1980s. I felt instantly out-of-place.
I hated tennis camp for many reasons, but the primary reason was the Williams sisters. You see, I grew up in a suburb where being white and thin felt like the only way to be beautiful, and thinking back, I don’t think my 11-year-old perception was too off base. So when the Williams sisters came onto the scene, I resented them. I resented them in a way I suppose many people who are unwittingly racist resent them; they were not skinny and they were not demure — they were strong.
Venus and Serena had the attention and admiration of every black adult I knew, which was weird to me because they had never shown an interest in tennis before, my mom included. I accused her of sending me to tennis camp only because of the Williams sisters. She denied it, but to this day I don’t think I would have gone if not for their rise. Incidentally, I felt like I was of their ilk at that camp. I was the only girl of color and one of the only girls built with natural thickness and physical strength.
I was no Williams sister on the tennis court — I still blame it on the old, smaller racket. But really I wasn’t trying because I was so resentful of the much larger, complicated thoughts swirling around in my adolescent mind. All I knew was I wanted to be desirable. I wanted to be who suburban boys took home to their suburban moms, but I wasn’t.
What I have become, though, is something more than my 6th-grade-self knew to aspire to. I have grown into a woman who rejoices in physical strength as something not only biologically advantageous but practical as well. I’ve had movers ask jokingly if I’d like a job after I carried the fifth or sixth heavy box faster than their men. Ten years ago I would have bristled at a comment like that but now I revel in it.
When I look at Serena Williams in all of her dominance, strength and indisputable charisma, I see myself and the journey I’ve undergone to understand that I am allowed to love me whether or not there is external confirmation. Serena doesn’t ask permission to maintain her place at the top of the tennis world, she takes it. She doesn’t seek confirmation of her beauty relative to her strength, she knows her beauty comes from her strength.
The idea that women should not be strong is, frankly, a stupid one in the context of human evolution, and it is easily traced to backward patriarchal notions. Of course a man who is insecure about his strength is threatened by a woman who owns her own. Of course an insecure woman is threatened by another who gains validation from herself, rather than from outside sources.
Serena provokes visceral emotion from so many people because her presence directly conflicts with insecurities embedded deep in our own minds. I didn’t know what I was reacting to when I was 11. I didn’t know why I was so angry at my mom’s pride in the Williams sisters, or her tendency to give the knowing nod to other black strangers we came across in our community. But now I understand. I understand that I am part of a legacy of people who were instructed to hate themselves for as long as our ancestral lines have been on this land. Women who acquired the strength necessary to be mothers and lovers while enslaved, or living under the thumb of Jim Crow, were told by a patriarchal, racist nation (via official law) that their strength was not beautiful and their power was not real.
I see my country broken in two — those who understand and those who refuse to look. The damage from the refusal to acknowledge our past continues to wreak havoc on our society as a whole, but there is no way to quantify all the ways in which it wreaks havoc on individuals — on baby girls who grow up believing they are not beautiful or women who believe it is to their benefit to speak the language of docility.
I see my own transition in how I view Serena. My juvenile disdain has been replaced with such deep admiration that simply watching a video of young Serena state “I’d like others to be like me” brings me to tears. I am so, so proud of her. She has remained true to her beautiful spirit in the midst of all of the haters — including me. She is the definition of woman. I can only hope that one day, in my own way, people will feel that strength in me as well.
And to Serena, you’ve done it. There are so many people, beautiful little girls and fully grown women, who would very much like to be like you, too.