By Dr. William Small, Jr.
I must confess that I have great admiration for the Williams family and the contribution that they have made to professional sports and to professional tennis in particular. The family’s odyssey from Compton, California to “center stage” in the world of professional tennis is truly a great American story. The folksy sophistication and marketing prowess of the father, the enduring presence and support of the mother when coupled with the skill, poise and demeanor of Venus and Serena as talented young ladies in a somewhat foreign space is a remarkable example of the enduring exceptionalism and strength of the Black Family in America.
On the other hand that Odyssey, in major part, because of America’s pathological fixation over the need to define and or redefine and limit the success of Black superstars gets twisted into a tarnished and stark manifestation of how little has changed in the minds of so many over time. This Achilles heel is not limited to the world of sports. It is visible in the very essence of our national social and psychological fabric. It constantly appears and reappears in ways that insures and reminds us of the importance of white supremacy to the maintenance of the American psyche and to the political foundation of this nation.
I was in attendance at the US Open in 1999 when Serena won her first major championship. With a display of professionalism, skill and maturity, Serena defeated Martina Hingis. My strongest memory of the event is the reaction of the fans. There were those individuals who, independent of whether or not they were rooting for Serena, appreciated the match and displayed the manners and decorum associated with professional tennis. In fairness to all who were in attendance, this segment of fans represented the majority-by far. Nevertheless, there were those who, although fewer, were equally if not more visible because of their obvious discomfort with the idea that professional women’s tennis was no longer a venue where white women would dominate. Their anger as evidenced in their behavior unequivocally revealed the belief that their era of domination had ended.
As the title to this piece implies, in my view, Serena’s difficulty with the umpire at the “Open” had less to do with the fact that she was a woman than it did with the fact that she was a Black woman superstar; who was continuing to expand the parameters of women’s tennis with an incessant list of phenomenal accomplishments. Could it be that since the woman on the other side of the net was also a Black woman that the umpire could not resist the need to find a way to interject himself into the contest? It has been reported that he has a history.
Serena never alluded to it, but I see a clear connection between the cartoon insults, and criticisms that have been visited upon her for her criticism of “the call” and criticism visited upon Jackie Robinson in the later stages of his baseball career. After years of suffering abuse and racial insults at the hands of fans and officials, once that debt was paid, Jackie Robinson simply did not take it anymore. Why should any individual be obligated to perpetually endure racist insults of any kind, in order to avoid being accused of “flying off the handle”? Let us not forget that professional tennis was popularized by brash young and older men who were famous for tirades and displays of bad behavior directed at tennis umpires and officials. Let us not forget Bobby Knight, or Billy Martin, or the host of “bad dudes” in sports who were celebrated because they were breakers of the rules of decorum for the sport in which they participated.
In my opinion, what we saw at the US Open was not a display of simple gender bias by a troubled guy in the chair. What we saw, more probably, was the breakdown of an official, that was likely caused when he looked at the court and realized that women’s tennis, like the rest of the world is changing, and those thrilling days of yesteryear when “things were just great” are gone forever.
Sports fans in general and Americans in particular must really think deeply about this incident. The incident tells us how far we have not come and identifies the resistance on the part of “America” to go any further. This incident should remind us that the very idea or example of “Black success” is a threat to the psyche and emotional stability of many non-Black individuals. Similarly, the exercise of the right by a Black person to defend one’s self, by engaging in “any form of resistance” is too often defined as an assault by those who feel the need to remain in control of Black people and their lives.
Neither the experience nor the treatment that we are discussing here are novel or rare. It is a current and consistent theme in American history.
Serena Williams has earned her stripes and consequently now shares the space and experience, in the world of sport, with Jack Johnson, Jessie Owens, Althea Gibson, Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, Joe Louis, Curt Flood, Bill Russell, Hank Aaron, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, LeBron James and many other Black trailblazers. This is a space and a world of experience that is also shared by non-athletes like former President Barack Obama, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rev. Jessie Jackson and the millions of heralded and unheralded ancestors who walked the line so that subsequent generations would “not have to take it”. They could never be fairly evaluated on the basis of their skill, good will and love of nation. Their success and engagement, by definition, rendered them threats to the desired general order of things. Black success, be it individual or controlled must always be resisted or controlled.
Over the years, the design of the box has changed, but the intent inherent in the design remains very much the same.
Thanks to Serena Williams and all who stood and stand with a spirit which reminds us, that one’s integrity should never be compromised by a desire for fame.
Dr. William Small, Jr., is a retired educator and a former Trustee and Board chairman at South Carolina State University.