On Serena Williams And The Policing Of Imagined Arrogance
June 08, 2015 at 8:33 am
By almost any measurement, I am a wholly mediocre basketball player. Good enough to never be picked last, but never good enough to win a game on my own. My greatest on-court skill is not turning the ball over, a skill that I imagine I picked up after playing with two older brothers for over a decade and being afraid to let them down. Mostly, every athletic skill I have is rooted in fear. Which doesn’t exactly make me a desirable NBA prospect. None of these facts stopped me last summer in Oakland, after making two jump shots in a pickup game with some fellow writers, from holding my follow through, glaring at my defender, and saying:
“I’ll be at this all day. You better get a hand up.”
I missed every shot I took for the rest of the afternoon, but I say that with the knowledge that it doesn’t matter. For those who are well-versed in the language, we know the secret. Trash talking isn’t about an individual’s ability to be consistently great. If you are from any place in this America where you have seen all breeds of struggle grow until they cloak an entire community, and you are fortunate enough to survive, few things become more urgent and necessary than reminding the world when you’re at your best. Because you know how fleeting those moments can be. You’ve seen how quickly they can vanish.
When I talk about Compton here, I need people to understand it as it once was, and not as the re-imagined area it is slowly becoming as crime rates drop to the lowest they’ve been in decades, and the wealthy residents who started to flee in the early 90’s begin to inch back into the edges of the city. The Compton I need to bring to life here is the one that N.W.A. blew the dust off of. An area that we saw in blockbuster movies which often shared a common theme: the Black person who died at the end, usually by the gun, was promising. Or turning their life around. Or had done “all of the right things” to get out of what we were to understand as an urban killing field.
The Compton that needs to be understood when discussing Serena Williams is the one that America has used so often for entertainment and irony, while simultaneously turning its back on the infrastructural failures that plague so many of the neighborhoods that kids from the suburbs have the luxury to wear on their tongues, and on their bodies, but never in their hearts or minds. This is the Compton that briefly held the young Williams sisters, and the Compton that came back to claim one, Yetunde Price being shot and killed in Compton after a confrontation in 2003. Though Serena Williams only resided in this Compton for six years, it is perhaps essential in understanding the father who pulled his two daughters from the national junior tennis circuit before they were teenagers, due to White parents talking down to them. It is perhaps essential in understanding the competitive nature of the Williams sisters, though especially Serena. It is ABSOLUTELY essential in understanding how Serena revels in her dominance.
When I talk about crack cocaine in the 80’s here, I need people to understand it for what it did to the individual home. Or the individual block of homes. Or the individual Black child. And not so much as the epidemic that is often discussed now in broad-brushed terms, with no eye toward its very real impact. In places like Compton, and places like many I know and have lived, neighborhoods were already swelling with gang violence by the time the ’80s hit, even before the introduction of crack cocaine. Once-flourishing industries had long left these areas, leaving whole families without one steady income. Many of the people who were pushing crack were just everyday people, trying to silence a child’s cries. Though this didn’t stop wars from being fought over territory, over prices, over who got to feed their family and who did not. These things are what our entire American history is littered with. Who will not make it home alive so that someone else can be fed. Still, when it happens in the Black community, it takes on a different idea; a different tone altogether. Everyday people killing everyday people in the hopes of being able to provide for the everyday people who became addicts, not above robbing and killing in order to rest in the comfort of their addiction. It is almost impossible to ignore the governmental root of this cycle, but, while it certainly bears mentioning here, that is a much larger thing to unpack. It is one thing to sit in a movie theater and watch the fragility of Black life play out on a screen in front of you. It is an entirely different thing to sit in a movie theater, watch the fragility of Black life play out on a screen in front of you, and have no escape from it once you leave. It is an entirely different thing to have its presence hang thick over your home, over your young and talented daughters.
I remember the fear I felt when I realized that I had buried enough friends to think of death almost casually. Something that I expect, and know will come for people I grew up with and care about. When I see a childhood friend’s number flash across my caller ID, I exhale and prepare myself for an all-too-familiar routine. There’s a sadness in that, but there’s also an urgency. Witnessing the taking of sacred things is how we learn to covet. It is enough to make a father take his children to a place where he is the only one who can fail them.
As someone who observes culture in all of its forms, if the past three years have taught me anything, it’s that people have found so many new ways to say “silence.” It is what is meant when we look at a peaceful protest and hear people say: “Well, why can’t they just do it more peacefully?”
It is perhaps what I mean when I look at a text that I am not too keen on returning and text back: “I’ll get back to you in the next hour.” And it is definitely what is meant when Serena Williams is looked at, careless and immersed in joy, and told: Be more “humble.”
There really is no measurement for how America wants its Black athletes to be. Oftentimes, they are asked to both know their greatness and know their place at the same time, a landscape that becomes increasingly difficult to navigate depending on the sport they’re in. When Deion Sanders starts high stepping at the 40-yard line, he’s still dancing. America has always been fine with its Black athletes doing the dance on the field of their choosing, as long as they do the dance off of it. When Marshawn Lynch doesn’t speak to the press, that’s when people begin to feel cheated. To be Black and a woman, and a Black woman who is great, and a Black woman who is great at tennis is perhaps the trickiest of all of these landscapes. For many people, the intersection of race and gender is an uncomfortable place, and Serena Williams’ greatness sits firmly in the center of it. So much so that any time she wins, there is no way to have a discussion that does not reduce her to her most Black, or her most woman. It isn’t always explicit, of course. But one could argue that these things rarely are.
Serena Williams is, almost without argument, one of the greatest athletes of our time. If she was not before, she has cemented herself in that place after this weekend’s French Open victory, her 20th major. She did it in traditional manner, battling back and rallying, using her elite athleticism and strength to overpower and outhustle her opponent, Lucie Safarova. And she did it with all of the volume and intensity that we’ve become accustomed to. Serena yelled, both in joy and agony. She pumped her fists, talking confidently to herself when she was most on. Tennis is like few other sports. In most cases, there is only you and a single opponent on an island, sometimes for hours. The mark of greatness in those times is how you sustain, even if you have to celebrate the smallest victories in an attempt to will yourself to the larger one. When we insist that Serena Williams be more reserved, or less “scary”, or when we insist that she fit into the mold of decorum that we believe tennis should be, we’re really telling her to silence the very things that drive her. We’re asking her to not be great so that we can be comfortable. We’re telling one of the most dominant athletes many of us will ever see to maybe keep it down a bit, as if any kind of dominance is stumbled upon silently.
When I talk about Serena Williams here, I need people to understand her for where she came from, and not where she is now. Rather, I need people to understand her for what she was born into. I need people to understand both the whole and the sum of her parts. I need people to understand the Compton, the crack cocaine and the champion. The woman who buried a sister with the same hands she uses to bury opponents. If you do not know what she knows, then you know nothing of the ultimate reward of greatness. The way it feels when everything clicks. It is almost unfathomable to tell someone to act like they’ve been somewhere before when they are intensely aware of the fact that they were never supposed to be there in the first place, isn’t it?
And so Serena throws her racket and falls to her knees. And so a little Black girl finds a tennis court on the outskirts of her ‘hood. And so another father finds hope. And so I hit two jump shots in a row in the middle of summer in Oakland. And so I extend my follow through, hold it, and let the breeze blow sweat off of my arm. A reminder of how easily things can be taken from us.